The Whanganui River Road is described here from north to south, with distances included in brackets, e.g. (19km), denoting the distance from Pīpīriki.
The Whanganui River Road Guide provides fascinating insight into the road’s past and present, and describes the landmarks you’ll encounter along the way.
19km, 2–2.5 hours
At the small riverside settlement of Pīpīriki, Mountains to Sea riders get back in the saddle after their jet boat ride.
Pīpīriki is the gateway to the upper Whanganui River and Whanganui National Park, and the major landing point for canoe and jet boat trips. There’s a DOC shelter here with toilets, water and a camping area, and an assortment of accommodation including a small commercial campground with a tiny shop that sells basic supplies, soft drinks and ice cream.
Before setting off on the River Road, take time to stop at the large information panel to learn about the history and spiritual and cultural significance of the Whanganui River to tangata whenua (local people). It will help bring the area’s rich Māori and European history to life.
It’s 5km of easy riding to the road’s first highlight, Ōmorēhu Waterfall lookout, a fine example of the many that cascade into the Whanganui River. Up next is the second-toughest climb of the day – an ascent of around 120m – rewarded by panoramic views of the river and forested Whanganui National Park.
From the top it’s a swift downhill down to Jerusalem (9.5km from Pīpīriki). Known in Māori as Hiruhārama, this settlement is home to the century-old St Joseph’s Convent & Church – a must-see for many reasons including its art, architecture, heritage displays and grounds.
Check out the church’s beautifully carved alter of Māori design, kowhaiwhai wall panels, and bliss out in the serene rosary garden. Once the home of an orphanage, the convent now hosts retreats and offers accommodation.
The mission’s founder, Mother Suzanne Aubert (1835–1926) is likely to become New Zealand’s first Saint, with Pope Francis declaring her ‘Venerable’ (an important milestone on the pathway to canonisation) in 2016. Her influence in the Whanganui region is still felt strongly today.
More stories surround another former Hiruhārama resident, the poet James K. Baxter whose alternative community closed soon after his death in 1972.
Another 7.5km along, the small river island of Moutoa can be seen from the road. This was the scene of a short and fierce battle in 1864 between Whanganui Māori and an invading force from outside the region, which helped establish a close bond between local iwi and European settlers.
From here it’s a short, gentle climb to Rānana, aka London (19km). One of the larger settlements along the River Road, it is home to an historic catholic church, a school, and a beautiful marae – one of many that can be seen from the road.
Please respect all marae and urupā (cemeteries) – permission is required to visit these treasured places. Nestled beside the river past the marae is a pleasant campsite (with toilets).
24km, 2.5–3 hours
After around 3.5km of gently undulating riding is another Whanganui River Road highlight – the Kawana Flour Mill.
Constructed in 1854, it is now a living museum with a rebuilt water-powered mill featuring the original waterwheel and grinding stones, and a restored miller’s colonial-style cottage. There’s drinking water and a toilet here.
At the 24km mark is Matahiwi, the hub of a small farming community. The schoolhouse was transported here by riverboat from Parinui (46km upriver) in 1923, and is now the Matahiwi Gallery Café (open 9am–3pm from October to May) – an excellent place to stop for coffee and home-baked goodies.
From Matahiwi, the route undulates for 7km to Koroniti, a stunning example of a small local marae featuring two traditional wharenui (Poutama and Te Waiherehere) as well as a small museum. This is a popular stop for cultural tours and overnight stays, which must be booked in advance. A further 500m downstream is the some truly unique accommodation reached via a flying fox across the river.
After Koroniti is a welcome downhill to near river level then another 9km of reasonably flat riding to the settlement of Ātene (43km). Along the way is the basic Otumaire campsite, with toilets and water (40.5km), and Downes Hut (42.1km) – a small historic structure built on the opposite side of the river by Thomas D. Downes, the original River Foreman in the early 1920s. It was bequeathed to the Whanganui River Trust Board and is now cared for by the Department of Conservation and used by canoeists other recreational groups. The hut is built on a former kāinga (settlement) site known as Pukupuku, and a magnificent puriri tree planted by Downes still flourishes.
Just shy of Ātene, is the entrance to the Ātene Skyline Walk (42.5km) that lies within a non-contiguous part of the Whanganui National Park. The track rises to a height of 572m and offers outstanding views over the region and a cut-off section of the Whanganui River known as a meander. It does, however, take 6–8 hours and requires a good level of fitness, so isn’t really on the cards except for riders who are staying along the road with a day up their sleeves. A shorter option (2 hours return) is the Ātene Viewpoint Walk that takes in the first section of the Skyline Walk.
24km, 2.5–3 hours
The settlement of Ātene was named after the Greek capital by the missionary Reverend Richard Taylor and, prior to a flood in 1904, was located closer to the river than present day. Look out for the small meeting house, constructed in 1886. Just south of Ātene settlement is the boundary marker of Whanganui National Park.
After a couple of undulations and a short-but-sharp climb are the Shellrock Cliffs (50.5km). The layers of fossilised oyster shells in the cliff face are an incongruous site, but incontrovertible evidence of the Whanganui region’s past when it used be submerged under the ocean.
From here the road passes two old pā (fortified village) sites – Parikino (55.5km) and Pungarehu (57.7km) – before the final and longest and most arduous climb of the day!
The original Parikino site was located on the other side of the river, but, as with many of the pā and marae, the opening of the river road saw a gradual shift to the river’s true left. Prior to the 1930s almost all access to these remote settlements was from boats operating along the Whanganui River.
Aramoana Hill, also named ‘Gentle Annie’ by some joker, is the toughest climb on the road. It’s steep and long, especially for tired legs after a tough day’s riding, but does reward with a fantastic vista taking in the river valley, Pungarehu and Mt Ruapehu from the Aramoana Lookout (61km).
What goes up must come down, with the final 3km to the end of the River Road and SH4 (64km) including an awesome descent down the other side of Aramoana Hill.
Riders not being picked up at the Whanganui River Road/SH4 junction should turn right on to the highway and ride along the road for 3km to the village of Ūpokongaro (67km), which marks the end of this section of the Mountains to Sea.
Ūpokongaro is located 12km upstream of Whanganui and used to be an important ferry crossing and riverboat stop. Today, riders can rest and reflect on their River Road adventure with refreshments at the bike-friendly hotel or cafe.
The next and final section of the Mountains to Sea section takes riders to the historic, arty city of Whanganui, and then on to the Tasman Sea.