Eighty-four kilometres of primo single track through dense bushland, over sparse alpine ridgelines & down a series of ass-clinching, insanely exposed descents. Buy some new brake pads and buckle up as we explore The Old Ghost Road…
Nestled in the west of New Zealand’s South Island, The Old Ghost Road (OGR) is the country’s most beloved mountain biking trail. Officially opened in 2015, OGR is a grade 4 (advanced) mountain biking track with many sections painstakingly blasted into the hard granite faces of the mountains. In some places, the trail is an ultra-skinny 40 centimetres wide and riddled with loose baby-head rocks and sheer drop-offs, making poor line choices a potentially costly and painful affair. But, near-death aside, the overall quality of the trail is incredible. The grades are mellow, the surface maintained immaculately, and perhaps best of all, there’s an impressive network of luxurious backcountry huts. The huts come complete with fully equipped kitchens, campsites, and even helipads, making OGR one of the most rideable backcountry trails around.
Our ride starts in Lyell, a once-thriving gold-rush town with a population of around 2,000 people in the 1800s. All that remains now, though, is a campsite, a cemetery, and seemingly all of the sandflies in New Zealand. Between regular DEET sessions, profanities, and lots of swatting, we finish our loadout and prep the bikes for the trail ahead. Our group of three consists of me, Bec, and our friend Tom Powell (@tacos_and_tailwinds).
It’s 8:30 a.m., and with 1,300 metres of ascent ahead of us, we eagerly get started. From Lyell, the track climbs gently past the abandoned settlements of Gibbstown and Zalatown, which have now been claimed back by the thick, native bush. A few rusty iron tools, moss-covered boots, and wagon wheels serve as poignant reminders of a time long-forgotten.
Between photo stops, I notice I’m being followed. Not just by Bec and Tom, but by a new friend: a Toutouwai (New Zealand Robin). Attracted to the promise of food kicked up by our tyres, this curious little bird poses proudly atop a branded pest trap before flying back into the lush forest—a real influencer in the making. Robin fun over, we continue to haul our loaded bikes 18 kilometres up to the newly built Lyell Hut. With views of the forest and mountains, it’s the perfect place for lunch. On the menu is delicious chorizo and tomato pasta made with orzo for weight and time savings.
Lunch over, we continue to snake our way up a series of forest switchbacks on a beautiful section of trail with multiple opportunities to stop and admire the boundless ocean of trees that covers the hillsides and deep valleys in the distance. After about 10 kilometres, the trail opens up to its main ridge and highest point. At 1,456 metres above sea level, the aptly named “Rocky Tor” looms with huge rock bluffs and uninterrupted views across Thousand Acres Plateau and the Glasgow Ranges.
By the time we arrive, the path from Rocky Tor to Heaven’s Door is engulfed by a thick blanket of fog. Dense, cool clouds smother the trail and coat the mountains, making an already exposed section all the more lethal. One slip, one misjudged line, and we’d be falling through the fog into the abyss below… It’s quiet, and we focus on getting through the fog unscathed. We traverse Heaven’s Door and drop down from the ridgeline. As quickly as it came in, the fog rolls over us, passing on toward the next range and leaving us with bright skies as we continue toward Ghost Lake Hut.
Ghost Lake Hut is a welcome sight. With almost 30 kilometres of climbing and the high point of the ride in the bag, we flop our bodies into the hut, soothed by warm tea and even warmer smiles. “You made it!” A man with a smiley face yells out. It was James, one of the guys we met briefly that morning whilst taking refuge from the sandflies. “We’re playing Monopoly deal. Wanna join us?” — and just like that, we sat down with complete strangers and shared travel stories until we felt as though we’d known them for years. Soon enough, our bellies started rumbling, and the conversation turned once more to food. I set up my camp kitchen outside, and as the cool air rolled in and the mountains glistened around us, I cooked up my backcountry Thai red curry and feasted with new friends.
Link to recipe here
“You’ll want to do a brake check before you head out today guys!” Phil, the hut warden advises. “The trail descends 800 metres over the next 13kms, and with all your gear, you’ll definitely want your brakes working well — especially for the Skyline sections.”
Turns out, Phil was dead right. The next few kilometres are the most technical of the entire trail (grade 5 in places), featuring a series of tight, off-camber switchbacks that are beautifully treacherous. Our loaded bikes take some seriously careful handling to stay upright and on target, and a few slip ‘n’ slides later, the landscape changes in an instant. Gnarled beech forest drowns the trail once more, long branches bowing under the strength of the wind. Bright autumnal colours surround us. Burnt oranges, rusty yellows, and every conceivable shade of green pop from the forest canopy as I watch Tom and Bec snake their way down the trail toward the almighty Skyline ridge.
Riding the Skyline ridge feels like standing on the shoulders of the mountains. Through breaks in the clouds, both the Lyell and Glasgow ranges are visible below, and a real sense of remoteness washes over us. We negotiate the skinny ridgeline trail, weaving past giant boulders and back down another series of beautiful switchbacks before hitting the infamous Skyline Steps. Unrideable for us, the narrow and winding steps descend 60 metres down through the forest canopy. Sketchy as all hell with loaded bikes, I carry the bikes down, alternating my method between a straight-up carry through the tighter sections and a good old rear-wheel bounce when things get clearer.
But boy, oh boy, is the hard work worth it as we bomb our way through the forest on the well-manicured, smooth, and forgiving trail. A slight descent most of the way meant pedalling was a thing of the past, replaced instead with laser-focused fun and yelps and screams as we flow down some of the dreamiest trails I’ve ever ridden. Sadly, I was having so much fun that I forgot to take any photos of this section, but just imagine us with huge smiles, and you’re more than halfway there.
We arrive at Stern Valley Hut around 2 p.m. to find a group of marathon runners limping around the hut, ravenously eating anything in sight. It turns out they were training for the Old Ghost Ultra and wanted to get a sense of the land before the big day. By now, the sun is high and the temperatures were up in the 28°C (84°F) range, so we decide to push on, eagerly anticipating more downhill fun. Before going, going down, though, we enter the “Bone Yard” and start to climb up its earthquake-scarred landscape. Boulders the size of buildings litter the ground as we progress through its lunar landscape, up another 400 metres to eventually crest the Solemn Saddle, our final climb before another ripping, flowy descent down to Specimen Point Hut, where we’d be spending the night.
From Specimen Point Hut, the track heads down through the towering podocarp forest, crossing multiple streams and waterfalls, which are perfect for a refreshing shower—if icy cold. Similar to the old miner’s road at the start of the trail, this section merges with the original gold miner’s road, following the majestic Mokihinui River right out to the sea. With just 17 kilometres of cliff-hugging singletrack to the end of the trail, we savour every last minute together. Tom and I rush ahead, determined to drain every last drop of energy we have left in our legs, buoying one another on every punchy climb and every twisty turn. The group dynamic is at an all-time high as we pull into Rough & Tumble Lodge and celebrate our victory with a massive pizza and refreshing outdoor shower.
Our time riding OGR was absolutely perfect. We had stunning weather conditions, full visibility 90% of the time and (due to COVID-19 largely) the huts were majoritively empty. From speaking to locals, I’m told that most trips include a fair bit of rain and some seriously changeable weather – so if you’re planning an OGR trip, I’d definitely factor that in.
We chose to ride the trail ‘fully loaded with all our own camping gear, full kitchen, camera, laptop and 2 days of food. For us, OGR wasn’t a self-contained trip, but part of a longer tour of New Zealand. We had a lot of fun riding loaded on the OGR, but were definitely in the minority! I think 95% of people ride a full squish or hardtail and with as little gear as possible… For sure the trail is set up to support that type of ride, with the kitchens etc, but it’s equally as fun loaded – so you pick your own adventure!
All in all, I’d recommend OGR to anyone wanting a premium backcountry adventure, but with some ‘close to home’ luxuries. All the information to support your own ride can be found at Old Ghost Road website, which is very worth a read.