Competitive mountain biker James Kirkham unsurprisingly spends a lot of his free weekends exploring New Zealand’s trails. Here, he takes us through a recent trip to one of the best: the Old Ghost Road…
Not far from the sleepy town of Murchison lies some of the best multiday mountain biking adventures on offer in New Zealand. With the Heaphy, the Old Ghost Road and the new Paparoa trail, there is enough riding to keep anyone busy for months. The Old Ghost Road is an 85km backcountry trail through the remote Kahurangi National Park with just enough comforts to keep both hardcore adventurers and city dwellers happy. The trail runs from the historic ruins of the Lyell mining settlement to the coastal town of Seddonville. The original road was cut in from the Lyell end to gain access to the Mokihinui Valley to explore mining options. However, when the builders crested the Lyell Saddle and found the valley on the other side, they were quick to turn around and look for another way out to the coal fields on the West Coast – and it is easy to see why. Rugged peaks, thick forests and gigantic boulder fields litter the trail, making us wonder at points, “How did they even get a trail here?”
We split the journey up into three days and two nights, staying in the Ghost Lake and Specimen Point huts. Both offer stunning views and just enough comforts of home. Pots, pans, cutlery and cookers are all provided, as are drinking water and composting toilets. This meant that all we really needed to carry was ourselves, our clothes, our food and a sleeping bag.
Day 1 – Lyell to Ghost Lake
On paper, day one seems a bit daunting but we didn’t let that discourage us. Being the remains of an old road, the steady 4% gradient of the first section wasn’t as tough as the profile made out. We set off at a reasonable pace and took the time to stop, snack and read a few of the historic signs along the way, and before we knew it we were at the Lyell Saddle Hut (we even had a few chances to check our phones before disappearing off the grid for a couple of days).
From Lyell, there was a bit more climbing to be done but once we broke through the tree line and found ourselves at the Rocky Tor, we had long forgotten about the hill, only pausing to look down and say, ‘Hey, we did that!’
Through the rocky alpine tops, the trail wound along an impressive bench-cut with exposed sections, which in some conditions were best walked (they were spectacular nonetheless). We finally reached a break in the Rocky Tor hillside at a spot aptly named Heaven’s Door which, with our lucky weather, let us look back down the valley all the way towards Murchison. Ghost Lake hut was now only a short climb away.
Situated on top of a rocky outcrop, it treated us to some of the best views we’d experienced at any hut in New Zealand. After taking some time to enjoy the scenery, we decided to tuck ourselves up in bed for an early night in preparation for a spectacular sunrise.
Day 2 – Ghost Lake to Specimen Point
After day one we felt we deserved some downhill biking and this is exactly what day two delivered. There is a 1000m vertical drop between Ghost Lake Hut and Specimen Point Hut (not accounting for the day’s undulations). We started by winding down a narrow ridge and were treated to some of the best scenery in the Kahurangi National Park. Some seriously steep steps marked the only un-rideable section of the entire trail. They spat us out just above the valley floor, but still left enough of a descent to make us forget any remaining grievances from the previous day’s uphill. Once past Stern Creek Hut, there was another short climb up the boneyard before another dive back down to river level.
From here, the trail really opened up into some fast, flowy grade 2-3 terrain which follows the river all the way until Specimen Point Hut (beware of the sand-flies here!).
Day 3 – Specimen Point to Seddonville
Everyone in our group was glad we were able to properly soak in all that the Old Ghost Road had to offer by taking a few nights to stay in the huts along the way. This let us take our time on the trail and also make the most of the $150 hut fee per person (this gives you four nights access). With shuttles running to the start and finish of the trail from many locations, it is really easy to organise a 4-5 day return trip, but believe me, we really didn’t want to leave. It was the perfect long weekend getaway!Only 17km long and following the steep gorge carved out by the Mokihinui River, the final day was by far the most mellow of the three. In some sections where there is simply no room for a trail to be carved into the rocks of the valley, a series of swing bridges have been strung across gaps. In Seddonville, we stopped in at the Rough and Tumble Lodge right at the end of the trail for a well-deserved feed and even a cheeky brew. From here, Westport was only a 40-minute drive.
A few tips for your next trip
The Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust is currently upgrading some of the more difficult sections of the trail to make it safe for everybody to ride. Most of the trail is grade 3-4 with sections of grade 5 and, as mentioned, even a few un-rideable steps. In saying that, there is never any harm in stopping to walk a section. Sometimes the chance to get off the bike is a welcome break and even lets you appreciate the view more. The trail is remaining open while they upgrade it but be patient if there are any disruptions – what it really means is more awesome trail to ride in the future!
Be prepared for the weather. We were lucky enough to get good weather but the west coast is notorious for poor conditions. The Ghost is still scenic and moody in the rain but some sun was the icing on the cake. Do it in summer. We gave ourselves the best chance of fine weather by booking our trip in the summer months. It also meant we didn’t have to deal with the snow that the trail sometimes gets in winter.
Up for a challenge? We were lucky enough that one of our group was interested in making a loop out of the whole trip. They started in Westport and extended day one and three, which meant we didn’t need to rely on shuttles and could use our own car. This being said, the shuttle service can be very convenient if no one is up for an extended loop. Adding in the Denniston Shortcut makes the trail a full loop just under 200km long.
We made sure to carry insect repellent and we’re forever grateful for it! There are tonnes of sand-flies at various spots along the trail (especially around some rivers and huts). But don’t let the bugs put you off. This is an awesome trail and I can think of very few better ways to spend a long weekend!
Article by: James Kirkham