This three day bikepacking expedition along the Rainbow Trail in New Zealand’s South Island is just as magical as it sounds.
- Ride through the scenic Upper Wairau Valley
- Sleep in backcountry huts
- Experience remote gravel roads with minimal traffic
- Climb alpine passes and get low in Hell’s Gate Gorge
- Take a dip in the thermal hot pools of Hanmer Springs
Riding the Rainbow Trail
There’s no Yellow Brick Road on this Rainbow Trail. In fact, there’s no brick or pavement of any colour. An unofficial artery connecting Hanmer Springs to St Arnaud at the top of the South Island, the Rainbow Trail is 112km of isolated, mainly-gravel tracks meandering through the Upper Wairau Valley.
This bike route is not for the unprepared, considering cell-service and civilisation are basically non-existent. However, if you’re looking for a real Aotearoa adventure, the quaint backcountry huts, raging river crossings and expansive mountain ranges will have you singing like Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City.
Day 1 – We’re Not in Kansas Any More
Hanmer Springs to Fowler’s Camp
A trifecta of severe weather warnings was hovering nearby but we couldn’t postpone the trip any longer. After one last stop at the grocery store, we reluctantly departed the hot pool haven of Hanmer Springs and pedalled off towards Jack’s Pass – a five km gravel climb that marks the beginning of The Rainbow Trail.
With legs burning and panniers bursting, we eventually reached the summit. It had taken over two hours, which wasn’t bad considering we were carrying (nearly) everything we’d need to survive three days in the backcountry.
As the elevation eased off, invasive burnt-yellow Scotch broom lit up the hills and we got the first glimpse of the rugged ranges we’d be riding through. Cows became our only companions as we followed the service road north, and the power lines overhead became the trail of breadcrumbs tethering us back to the modern world.
We stopped for lunch in a well-worn shelter officially known as ‘Fowler’s Camp’. A few horses grazed freely outside and it looked like a scene out of Little House on the Prairie. Inside, we debated continuing on to Lake Tennyson Campground.
It was only another 14km further up the road, but we were enjoying the novelty of a backcountry hut and the volatile weather forecast made the thought of camping less than desirable. We decided to stay put and got comfortable by the fire.
Day 2 – There’s No Place Like Home
Fowler’s Camp to Lake Tennyson Turnoff
Another wild front had passed through the night, leaving the sky cloudless and calm. It felt almost too good to be true – and it was.
By mid-morning, the wicked winds of the west were back and dark clouds had crept up on us causing the temperature to drop significantly. These weren’t ideal conditions to begin with, and then things got worse.
My chain broke.
We tried putting it back together with sheer force, bent pieces of metal, screws and zip ties, but they were all frivolous attempts in what we knew was a hopeless situation. The nearest town was a day’s ride away, the weather was getting progressively worse and my sister had already been hiding in the outhouse for two hours trying to keep warm.
Just as I was about to go into panic mode, our heroes pulled up. Duncan, the gaiter and short-short wearing Department of Conservation Officer, and his dog, Ed.
Within minutes of talking to us, Duncan offered us the best-case scenario. He’d take us back to Hanmer Springs so I could get my chain fixed, we could stay at his house for the night and then he’d drive us back here in the morning. To say we were relieved would be an understatement; it was like someone had just handed us the ruby slippers, we were able to tap our heels and go home.
Day 3 – Go For Gold
Island Saddle to St. Arnaud
It was hailing as we unloaded our bikes from the back of Duncan’s pickup and secured our gear. We were standing on top of New Zealand’s highest accessible road, a 1347m alpine pass known as ‘Island Saddle’.
Yesterday, the harsh conditions might’ve been a problem, but after spending the night indoors, we were well-rested and ready to handle the challenges that lay ahead.
As we rode the first 11km to Sedgemere Sleepout, the Rainbow Trail began to show its true colours. After stopping for oats and coffee, we continued following the Wairau River up and down loose shale tracks and through Hell’s Gate Gorge, a narrow section of trail that mimics the bends of the river.
At times we had to cross fords so deep that we were forced to unload everything off of our bikes and ferry smaller loads of items across, simultaneously linking arms so that we weren’t claimed by the currents.
It was an eternity that went by too fast. The relief of finally hitting pavement after 86 bumpy kilometres was welcomed, but the steep grades did not let up. When we finally reached St Arnaud, we’d been cycling for over 12 hours.
We rolled into the quiet, lakeside town with the breeze, adrenaline pumping from what we’d accomplished. Despite the vicious storms, weather warnings and broken chain, we’d made it to the end of the Rainbow.
- Sturdy off-road bicycle (preferably a mountain bike with fat tires but we managed on Kona Touring Bikes)
- Chain break tool and other crucial bike repair equipment (spare tube/pump/duct tape/zip ties/multi tool, etc.)
- Four days worth of food, stove, cooking equipment, lighter, utensils, water purification tablets
- First aid kit, emergency blanket, head torch
- Warm, waterproof/weatherproof clothing (including gloves and a beanie)
- Sleeping bag and mat- If you plan on staying in the huts you don’t need a tent but it’s always good for a back up plan.
- Satellite Phone/Map/GPS
- Cash to pay the Rainbow Station toll road fee
- Standard hut ticket if planning to stay in the DOC huts (book online before you go!)
From Christchurch, Hanmer Springs is 134km drive away, but if you’re on a bike and want to avoid the main highways this will be a bit longer. Opting for quieter routes, it took us three days (at a relaxed pace) to get to Hanmer Springs.
You can also start in St. Arnaud which is 85km from Nelson.
From Hanmer Springs, you follow ‘Jack’s Pass Road’ until you see a sign for Clarence Valley Road. Take a right up there and you’re on your way!
The DOC Government Website also has a lot of information on the Rainbow Trail.
Although I don’t consider myself an Expert, you should probably be one before you attempt the Rainbow Trail.
Distance Covered / Duration
118km / 3 days