Cycling the Otago Rail trail

a photo of two families on the Otago rail trail

If you want to experience a fun and exciting time with the family in Central Otago, why don’t you consider cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail.

Pre-kids, we had always talked about this cycling holiday, and luckily we had three energetic kids eager for adventure. So, we joined forces with another family and headed to Otago to cycle the route of the Gold Miners Rail Trail. It was like riding through the middle of someone’s farm; staying in classic old pubs, eating serious amounts of comfort food and introducing our children to a truly beautiful part of New Zealand. Of course, all that exercise, idle chit chat and fresh air is a real bonus.

Make a cycling plan

With kids, you need to plan your trail with little people in mind. Don’t make the days too long, and consider doing it over five or six days rather than four. Minimise the distance on uphill days, or at least have an easier day before and after (see our cycling journey details). Make sure you have plenty of food and water stops along the way, and factor in plenty of rest time.

There are several Trail companies that can plan it all for you, free of charge. You could try:

Trail Journeys (0800 724 587)

Shebikeshebikes (03 337 3271)

Cyclesurgery (0800 292 534)

We decided to start the track in Clyde and make our way south east to Middlemarch. We were told this option had a little less headwind was slightly less uphill. We chose family-friendly accommodation along the way. Having fun at night, with the six kids bunking together, while we adults were able to stay up and enjoy an Otago Pinot (or two) was an important part of the plan. At Middlemarch, we jumped aboard the Taieri Gorge Train and followed the route of the gold miners back to Dunedin where our journey ended.

Our Cycling Otago Rail Trail Journey


cycling trail: 33km, including an 8km river track diversion, giving you chance to do a bit of mountain biking. Take your fishing line on this track as it follows the Clyde River, and the kids loved to stop and play alongside the water.

stay: Chatto Creek Tavern was an absolute favourite for us all. This little pub, home to the smallest post office in New Zealand is very simply earth-warming comfort. Our host, Lesley Middlemass, won our award for ‘the most welcoming’. With nine grandchildren of her own, this Grandma took one look at our daughter, declared her too sick to travel the next day, and offered to look after her before delivering her to our next destination. That’s what I call good service!

Book well in advance here as there are only two double rooms and a bunk room.

eat: Dinner was hearty and flavoursome, and scoffed by all. Lesley put together a mighty lunch for us to take on the road the next day and she cleverly had the kids in the kitchen one after the other to choose their sandwich fillings. This lady knows what she’s doing!

Chatto Creek to Lauder

cycling trail: This was an easy 21km day including the 2km diversion to Ophir. We started the day with the infamous Tiger Hill, which we actually didn’t find that bad because we were rested and well-fed.

stay: Most of us stayed at Lauder Schoolhouse, in their three bedroom cottage. There is a spa pool here, which the kids loved, as did the adult’s weary bones.

eat: Stop enroute in Ophir and have a coffee at Pictures Door Cafe. We ate dinner in the Lauder Pub, which you should pre-book, as this is the only dinner option in town. The Stationside Cafe in town had great coffee and lunch options if you want supplies for the next day.

Lauder to Wedderburn

cycling trail: This 34.5km day had a 28km uphill climb in the middle. This was the hardest

day for the kids, with some towing required, but a great sense of achievement when they reached the highest point of the trail.

stay: We all stayed in the original Wedderburn Lodge farmhouse. Warm, spacious and very kid-friendly.

eat: We had a delicious lunch at the Ida Valley Cafe. Dinner at the Wedderburn
Pub was old-fashioned and hearty. Booking is advisable, especially in the busy holiday periods.

do: We organised a taxi to take us to Naseby to give Curling a try. This is good sedate fun and the kids had an authentic experience. Have a look around Naseby too, it feels like a town from the Wild West. We also spent an hour looking through the Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead in Ida Valley.

Wedderburn to Hyde

cycling trail: This was our favourite part of the trail as it was just so beautiful. Although it was 46km long, it was mostly downhill and a large chunk ran alongside Taieri Gorge, where there are a lot of exciting tunnels and bridges for the kids.

stay: We couldn’t get accommodation at the Hyde Hotel (right on the trail) which would have been our first choice, so we stayed in Stanley’s Hotel in Macraes Flat (30-minute drive from Hyde). This little old pub, just minutes from Macraes Goldmine, is part of a sleepy and charming little stone township. There is a warm and toasty TV room for the kids to the side of the restaurant, and an outdoor area if you’re there in the summer months.

eat: No need to book at the restaurant if you’re staying there. We picked up a coffee and snacks for the next day’s ride back at the Hyde Hotel.

Hyde to Middlemarch

cycling trail: 27.5km and relatively flat. With an early start, we were easily in Middlemarch by lunchtime, so we had time to eat, return our bikes, shower and change in the Trail Journey’s depot before getting to the train by 1pm. We jumped off the train at Wingatui, as this is the closest stop to Dunedin airport and so a cheaper taxi ride.

eat: There are plenty of cafe choices in Middlemarch and you may want to pick up a little extra for the train ride as you can only get snack food on board.

trailblazing ideas

  • Make a tow rope if you have very young ones. This is an alternative to the tagalong bike option and great if you have a confident and keen rider who just doesn’t quite have the stamina for the whole trail. Be careful when you use it though, as sudden stopping can mean a tumble off the bike.
  • Buy a Rail Trail Passport for each of the children at $10 each. This is a great memento, and a lot of fun, as each train station (16 in total) has a stamping depot where the kids can stamp their passport.
  • Get the kids to send themselves a postcard from Chatto Creek, the smallest operating post office in the country. Apart from the joy of receiving mail when they get home (ours took about a week to arrive), they can add this to their travel journal.
  • Pack a specially prepared scroggin mix for each child – a mix of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, liquorice and whatever they love.
  • Prepare to stop regularly for kids. Our philosophy – we have plenty of time, let’s enjoy each opportunity to stop, rest and refuel!
  • Teach the kids how to layer up, so that they can dress themselves in the morning and take layers off during the day.

allergies, grizzles and sick kids

  • Everywhere we went we found gluten- and dairy-free options for all meals. Still, I recommend you let them know ahead of time, in case they need to order in special ingredients.
  • Gel seats and tow ropes help out the younger or less tolerant kids.
  • Encourage tired or fed-up children with little ‘carrots’. This is probably a good time to bring out the lollies – 5km to the next chocolate treat.
  • Plan for an Awards night and have them all working towards
    a medal or certificate.
  • Going with another family is a lot of fun and certainly helped keep the grizzles to a minimum.
  • There were no pharmacies in the places we stayed, and only a few towns with shops – although closed for most of the weekend. We took a full medical kit including antiseptic, plasters, Pamol, Nurofen, natural remedies and antibiotics. Unfortunately, we had to use a fair amount of it!

kids’ favourites

Place to stay: Chatto Creek

Rule: Chatto Creek’s rule stating: “No adults allowed to do R&D on kids’ fries and desserts.”

Foraging: Munching on wild apples at the top of Tiger Hill (before Omakau).

Stretch of the trail: Daisybank to Hyde. This follows the Taieri Gorge and has plenty of bridges, tunnels and passport-stamping depots.

Photo opportunity: Standing on the chimneys of the old Gold Miners’ huts in the Poolburn Gorge.

Off-trail adventure: Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow

fitness and bikes

  • Make sure you’re fit for the trail, but you won’t need to do 50km training rides for weeks beforehand! We had a mixed bag of riders, however, toughened hides won’t go unappreciated!
  • If you’re hiring, note that the kids’ bikes don’t have the comfort seats, so you can buy a gel seat for $30 if you think it’s going to be a problem. We only had one child out of six who needed one. If you live nearby, you can take your own bikes, but remember, the terrain is mostly gravel, so you will need a bike with fairly robust tyres.

wise packing

  • Ideally get the right gear that’s fit for purpose, as you’re only allowed one 10kg bag per person. We did a big shop at Kathmandu, knowing that we are planning on more adventure holidays in the future so it was worth the investment.
  • Bike shorts are a must, for parents and kids. Merino is a great addition to your luggage. It’s light to carry, warm, breathes well and not too smelly to keep wearing if washing facilities aren’t available. Waterproof and windproof jackets are a real lifesaver for the start and end of each day. Puffer jackets and/or vests are also very worthwhile as they are light to wear and very warm, but also small to carry when stuffed into their little carry bags.
  • You need gloves for warmth and for protection in case you fall off your bike.
  • Skiing neck warmers are very handy when it’s cooler, particularly for little people with cold ears or sore throats.
  • Every day running shoes are fine for the bikes and trail.
  • You’ll need an LED headlamp for the tunnels and toilet paper for the loos.
  • Cameras are a must of course, but we managed some great photos on our i-phones which are ideal if you are saving on weight. The coverage is really quite good for Vodafone and 2 degrees, but can be a little patchy for Telecom.

how much and how far

  • We travelled 162km on the bikes over five days.
  • We had an average speed of around 15km/hr.
  • We had six kids on the trail and their ages ranged from 6- to 12-years.
  • We spent $485 per person for the whole trail, and that covered accommodation, bag transfers, bikes, curling and the Taieri Gorge Train.

More family on holiday from tots to teens:

7 Family Activities To Do In Cromwell

32 Things To Do With Kids On The West Coast

Family Adventures In Queenstown

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