Back when suspension was just a wishlist commodity and Queenstown was still a sparkle in a trailbuilder’s eye, Fred Christensen and Red McHale were pioneering New Zealand’s original mountain bike mecca—the Whakarewarewa forest. Their vision, combined with the forest’s incredible pumice-based soil, helped establish Rotorua as one of the world’s top destinations to ride bikes. Over the next 15 years people flocked to Rotorua in droves to experience that famous dirt.
However, while things have continued to develop steadily in the Whakarewarewa, the rapid growth of new bike destinations around the country might have caused Rotorua to slip off some of our radars. With that in mind, we thought it was about time we headed back to the Bay of Plenty to discover what was new and resample some of the “best dirt on earth”.
It was late autumn, and the plan for the trip was to utilise our eMTBs to explore as much of the forest and the surrounding areas as we could over three days. Our intel had hinted that autumn could be the prime time to ride in Rotorua: cooler temps and slightly more moisture content would only enhance trail conditions, and being outside of peak season, we would have the place to ourselves.
“Our intel had hinted that autumn could be the prime time to ride in Rotorua…”
So as the turbo-prop circled around over Lake Rotorua on its final descent into the airport, our excitement levels ramped up another level as the tree-lined hills of the Whaka came in to view, blanketed by an eerie shroud of mist.
We taxied to our downtown motel and dropped by Cyclezone to pick up our bikes. We’d decided that the Specialized Levo SLs would be the ideal rig for this trip. Our theory was that if we used the range-extender batteries, the smaller sized SLs would have ample range for the forest’s big climbs, while the bike’s, lightweight, nimble handling would help us deal with Roto’s long, physical descents.
We’d also gone all-in and decided to use our pedal-assisted steeds as our only mode of transport for the trip. We’d picked a Fenton St motel that was both walking distance from town and close to the lakeside thermal tracks that we could use to easily access the forest from the Longmile Road side. Another bonus of this was that the new Eastwood Café opposite the Dodzy Skills Park makes a great coffee.
One thing that always amazes me when I head out into the Whaka is the sheer scale and size of the place; nowhere else in New Zealand feels quite so imposing. The usual wave of trail anxiety hits me—where do I want to ride and how do I get there?
The excellent public shuttle service does alleviate some of the stress, but with limited drop-off spots, I usually find myself riding the same trails a lot. However, the arrival of electric mountain bikes has transformed the forest from this perspective, and opened the gateway to the huge 200km trail network that the redwoods boasts.
Now I can relax, trust my instincts, and head off up a fire road with the reckless abandon that only an eMTB can provide—if I happened to go in the wrong direction, it’s attributed to “nothing ventured nothing gained”, rather than angst and frustration.
For years, a dedicated crew of local enthusiasts devoted their time and energy to continuing Fred and Red’s trail work, sculpting their own piece of pumice in the forest. However, as biking boomed and things needed to become more official, the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club (RMTBC) began to take control of maintenance and building.
Soon more commercial trail projects became a reality, culminating with the formation of the Rotorua Trails Trust in 2015. Now the official body, the Trails Trust coordinates all of the trail work and strategic planning for all users of the entire forest.
Since our last visit things had changed a lot, and the amazing work of the Trails Trust and RMTBC was evident in the continued evolution of the forest’s network and facilities. The north-eastern side of forest boasts the biggest developments, with the new Tawa Forest Hub carpark (Te Pūtake O Tawa) opening on Tarawera Road, giving easy access to that side of the forest.
As a result, this area has seen a lot of new trail work. The effortless climbing trail, Apumoana, provides easy access to the likes of Tu Meke, Tūteata, Hot X Buns, Minerals, Te Ruru and the brand new Te Poaka—a Grade 3 flow trail. On top of this, Mountain Bike Rotorua has recently launched a new shuttle service from the Tawa Hub that runs Fridays through Sundays.
“The old bulldozer track has been re-worked into a fast, flowing, smile-generating trail through beautiful native bush.”
The other big development is the completion of the new Forest Trail—a 35km Grade 2 loop that circumnavigates the forest. The beauty of the loop is that it has views of all three lakes, show- cases the forest’s stunning vegetation, and can be ridden in sections. While a Grade 2 trail might not sound that exciting to some of you, I was really impressed with the way the Forest Loop connected the different zones of the Red-woods together, especially on the ebike.
But there’s more to Roto riding than just the mighty Whaka. The Skyline bike park offers up an array of sculpted trails, all accessed by their gondola. Then, about 20km along SH5 towards Taupo, is Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve. Here you’ll find the Grade 4 Te Ranga trail. Its steep climb up the active volcano is perfect for eMTBs, and the descent through the geothermal terrain is mind-blowing. With a full battery you can tick off two or three laps before a dip in the nearby Kerosene Creek hot spring.
As good as all these trails were, the find of our trip was the Western Ōkataina Walkway trail. We’d been tipped off by our local contact that it had been recently revamped, and was the perfect ebike trail. Our flight wasn’t leaving until mid-afternoon, so we decided to give the trail a nudge and scored a lift out to Lake Ōkāreka with a friend.
The Walkway is classed as a Grade 3 bike track and is best ridden as an out-and-back trail, starting from Millar Road at the Lake Ōkāreka end. The old bulldozer track has been re-worked into a fast, flowing, smile-generating trail through beautiful native bush.
The trail undulates for the first 7km, all of which flowed effortlessly on the eMTB, before gaining 300m in elevation up to the Whakapoungakau Trig. From here, the fun really starts as you descend rapidly back down to the shores of Lake Ōkataina on what can only be described as a wilderness rollercoaster, and one of the best descents of our trip. The track does continue on further, but with a plane to catch, we turned around here and powered back up the climb to the high point. Again, the return ride to Millar Road was a laugh-inducing blast, as the extra speed we carried on our eMTBs turned the pedal-heavy trail into a high-speed flow track. By the time we returned to the car we’d ticked off 30km of wilderness riding and used up about three-quarters of our batteries on the ultimate e-trail.
A couple of hours’ later we were sipping a beer at the airport and waiting to board our flight home. As we reflected on a hectic three days, we couldn’t help but laugh at how much fun we’d had and how using the power of eMTBs had transformed our approach to riding in Rotorua. On top of that, we’d been reminded of just how good Aotearoa’s original trail-riding destination really is, and how much better it had become since our last visit. As for the time of year, well, I know where I’ll be heading this autumn when the South Island weather turns sour.
Rotorua — Extra Info
Local knowledge: The Whakarewarewa is a huge maze, and with more than 200km of trails, it’s easy to get lost. To maximise your time and enjoyment we recommend hiring a local guide. Mountain Bike Rotorua offers a great service and private shuttle options, as do Jamie and his team at New Zealand Mountain Biking. If you’re more of a DIY type, then it’s worth downloading the Trailmapps Rotorua app, which has detailed maps and trail info.
Bike-friendly accommodation: it’s not always that easy to find somewhere that caters for bikes (storage, cleaning and charging etc) so it’s worth checking first. Downtown motels like Jetpark offer facilities for bikers, or if self-catering is more your jam, there’s a good selection of MTB-specific rentals on Air BnB, such as the Southstar Evergreen house.
Wining and dining: Rotorua has a cosmopolitan range of bars and restaurants, from sophisticated fine-dining to great kebab shops.
The Good Eastern is a staple for an apres ride beer, or, if you’re on the Waipa side, be sure to check out Secret Spot for a beer and a ‘shinny-dip’ or hot tub. The Eastwood Café in the new Scion Research building is a great lunch option when out riding.
In town, it’s hard to go past a pint of Croucher’s Enduro pale ale at Eat Street’s Brew Pub, or for the quintessential kiwi pub experience, the Pig & Whistle has you covered. Eat Street also has a vast selection of food options, a highlight being Atticus Finch’s amazing tapas. Other standouts are the Terrace Kitchen, Abracadabra, El Mexicano Zapata Express and the mixed kebab from Ali Baba.