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Trail Updates
  • Section 5
  • 67km
  • 7–8 hours
  • Grade 3 (intermediate)
Highlights
  • elevated river views 
  • tangible Maori culture
  • notable heritage sites
  • easy riding on a country road
  • character-filled accommodation

Whanganui River Road

Following the Whanganui River as it flows towards the sea, this peaceful road blends sublime scenery with a series of delightful heritage sites, both Māori and European.

Starting at Pīpīriki – gateway to Whanganui National Park – this long but leisurely ride undulates through small settlements perched high above the mighty river.

A beautiful marae, notable church and convent, charming old flour mill, and other special sights tell their stories.

Riding the Trail

Although the Whanganui River Road can be ridden in either direction it is most commonly started at Pīpīriki by cyclists riding the entire Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail. It can also be ridden as a day trip using local shuttles. This section of the Mountains to Sea ends at Ūpokongaro village on SH4.

Reasonably fit cyclists can ride the whole road in one day. Accommodation along the way, however, allows the journey to be broken into a more leisurely two days.

While not a technical ride, the fully sealed road is gently undulating and therefore involves a fair bit of climbing – approximately 600 metres over 67km, including a couple of particularly gnarly ascents near the start and finish.

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.

 

Pīpīriki—Rānana 

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).

 

Rānana—Ātene

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.

 

Ātene—Ūpokongaro

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.

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Need to Know
  • This Grade 3 (intermediate) trail will suit riders of most ability, although a decent level of fitness is required to complete the ride in one day.
  • The trail follows the fully sealed (tarmac) Whanganui River Road for its entire 64km length, plus a 3km section on State Highway (SH4) between the southern end of the River Road and Ūpokongaro.

  • Despite following the Whanganui River as it gently meanders downstream, the road is undulating with over 600m of climbing in total. The two ‘best’ climbs are in the first and last 10km of the ride.

  • Traffic on the River Road is generally light but it can get busy during the summer months; good road sense is required.

  • Heavy trucks and cars barrel along the short state highway section so riders should take extra care here. Hi-vis clothing is recommended.

  • Mountain bikes, hybrids, tourers and even road bikes are suitable (although the road is a bit lump in places). E-bikes are also an option provided they have the capacity to last for the whole day in this hilly environment.

  • Unless you somehow accidentally head west along Raetihi Rd at the start, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. Just keep the river on your right-hand side! A map and a copy of the Whanganui River Road Guide, will help you time your ride and appreciate the fascinating stories of this special place.

  • The road can be ridden all year round, although the best weather is generally between November and April. Heavy rain can occur at any time of year, and if a southerly is blowing it can be a very long day in the saddle. Check in with the locals for the latest weather forecast and road conditions.

  • The Pīpīriki campground has a tiny shop that sells basic supplies, soft drinks and ice cream, although riders should bring plenty of food. If it open when you pass, the Matahiwi Gallery Cafe is definitely worth a stop even if you consider yourself well stocked. (Who can resist home baking?)

  • Tap water is available at reasonably regular intervals along the road. The cafe and hotel in Ūpokongaro or one of the many restaurants, cafes and bars in Whanganui are great places to wind down and reflect on this fascinating journey.

  • Cellphone reception along the Whanganui River Road is patchy at best, and cannot be replied upon.

  • Shuttle transport is readily available but must be booked in advance. Many of the operators also offer packages combined with the jet boat ride down the Whanganui from the end of the Mangapurua Track to Pīpīriki. There are operators based in National Park, Ohakune, Raetihi and Whanganui, and a couple of outfits with bases in Pīpīriki.

  • Shuttle drivers and other local operators will gladly update you on current road conditions or hazards.

  • There are toilets in Pīpīriki, the convent at Jerusalem, Rānana, Kawana Mill, Matahiwi Gallery and the Otumaire campsite.

  • This is Section 5 of the Mountains to Sea Trail, which connects with the Mangapurua Track (Section 4), and Ūpokongaro to Tasman Sea (Section 6).

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