Big scenery, a scary mountain road and a downhill ride equal one great (and easy) New Zealand ride!
by Dana Farnsworth, Outdoor Travels
A few miles of choice single track, nestled high above Queenstown, bisects a basin of rolling green hills surrounded by jagged rocky peaks. From the 1860's until the early 1900's the path into and out of the canyon was used by gold miners seeking their fortune, the trail now serves mountain bikers seeking an exciting and scenic ride. As an added interest, a scene or two from the Lord of the Rings trilogy was actually filmed here.
This trail is but one of at least 14 or more trail options in the Queenstown area - many of which can be strung together for endless ride options of length and difficulty. Skippers Canyon offers a fairly easy and relatively short, mild to moderate, mostly downhill ride from Skippers Saddle at the top to Bell’s Hill roughly 7 km away.
Starting from a base in Queenstown, you’ll be faced with a couple of options: Riding up George Road (a rather long and steep mountain) to Coronet Peak and then onto Skipper’s Saddle where the single track begins, ride the trail down and then retrace your pedaling back to the saddle (climbing) and then barrel down the mountain back into Queenstown. If you prefer a motorized approach you’ll have at least two options: Drive to the saddle and ride down the trail and return back to the saddle, or do as we did and take a guided tour with vehicle support. The latter option allows a rider to enjoy the downhill sections with little if any climbing.
Like the Road to Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings, the road to Skippers Canyon can seem daunting. I was rather apprehensive about driving our rather large and ponderous campervan through what was described as a 4x4 mountain road. With several ride options available and the semi-difficult logistics of this ride (it’s several kilometers up a mountain from town) a rare guided trip might be the best way to see and ride the canyon. As we would see later, we made a good choice.
The trail can be divided into at least five distinct sections that are easily recognized by landmarks. Descending from Skippers Saddle to the first wire fence and gate is the first section and also the steepest, which isn’t to say it’s actually very steep at all. Riders not completely comfortable with moderate descending along semi-tight track will take a little cajoling and a little time to warm up. The good thing is, the trail only gets easier. Skippers Canyon can be ridden as fast or as slow as one wish, which adds excitement and/or makes the riding much easier. It’s really up to the individual’s preference and ability.
After regrouping at the fence a mild descent flows to the next landmark - the first creek crossing this is followed by just enough declination to easily speed through a fun rolling section to the next landmark, an old stone chimney; a remnant of a gold miner's pub; hard work and no play makes Jack a dull (and thirsty) miner.
A small creek crossing, short climb and a moderate descent lead to the next rendezvous point. Off to the left of the trail is a historic little cabin. Used by miners from 1890 until 1970, this little cabin is a very interesting place to stop and look around. The cabin sports an outhouse that has perhaps one of the best views of any toilet I’ve seen - no need for the National Geographic. From the hut, it’s a fast run down a slightly steep but clear track into a giant splash down crossing the widest creek on the trail. From here, a rider without a return ride waiting for them could turn around and ride back to the trailhead at Skippers Saddle, creating an out and back ride that really offers two distinctly different experiences.
We however had the luxury and support of a waiting vehicle, which drove us a kilometer or two to Bell’s Hill where we remounted our bikes and rode 7 more kilometers down the gravel two track past Pincher’s Bluff and onto Deep Creek. Although the riding here is along a road, you’ll not want for scenery or thrills as the single lane drops sharply off a cliff with no guard rail, hundreds of feet down into the Shotover. At Deep Creek our driver was conveniently waiting for us again. In summer, Deep Creek is buzzing with activity. In summer, rafters on the Shotover River, helicopters and more converge at Deep Creek, providing an entertaining spectacle. In fall, you could count the people on one hand - our guides Lucu and Mark, my Kelli and me were the only ones sharing the view. I kind of liked it that way.
The Road to Perceived Certain Death
After loading our bikes back onto the trailer, we began the drive back to Skippers Saddle. The road out is a two-way, one lane road that weaves and winds its bumpy way along a very precarious and high ridge. At any moment, glancing out of the left window provided a view consisting of sheer cliff face and the trail far below – no road, no berm, no guard rail, no shoulder, nothing except air and sky. The ride out was way more hair-raising than the bike ride. I wouldn't’ recommend anyone but locals attempt the drive in or out of the canyon. I was especially frightened when we met a vehicle coming the other direction. A slow motion dance of vehicles ensued that had our tires on the very edge of the precipice, while the other vehicle was in a ditch, almost against the side of a cliff face. Not something I would even want to think about attempting in in any car, much less our giant-sized campervan.
When we returned back to the saddle trailhead (not a moment too soon for my blood pressure) Mark gave us the option of doing a little road riding to end our trip. We could fly down the mountain road if we wished. With beautiful views of the surrounding valley far below we coasted down the long steep road once again to Luca and our awaiting vehicle, for the final drive back into Queenstown.
Trail: 7 km of single track surrounded by as much gravel or paved road that you care to ride.
Difficulty: Single track is 30% easy, 60% moderate and 10% or less advanced.
Outdoor Travels Rating:
3 bikes out of 5.
Scenery is some of the best anywhere. The trail is short and doesn’t offer a long ride unless some road riding is tacked on.
- Scenery, Scenery, Scenery!
- Our Gravity Action guides, Mark and Luca were very friendly and nice
- Going the tour route was a good idea for a first visit
- At this time, Gravity Action’s bikes were inexcusably terrible. It’s a good thing the trail is predominately downhill as all of our bikes were missing some sort of part relative to shifting gears. I also had to ride a 17” frame bike (I’m 6’ 3”) because the larger bike that was loaded on the trailer for me proved to be in a state of total disrepair when we reached the trailhead. Coasting downhill was about all these bikes could handle.
Nuts & Bolts
Location: Just north of Queenstown, New Zealand
Admission: Free if you go on your own. Tours obviously have a cost associated with them.
Lodging, Rentals & Stuff
Bike Rentals and Guides: Gravity Action has incredibly capable and nice guides with crappy hagged out bikes. I would suggest using Gravity Action and making absolutely sure that you get a good bike.
Lodging: Creeksyde Top Ten Holiday Park, Queenstown. With rooms, cabins, bunks and flats to rent as well as tent sites and campervan sites, Creeksyde offers a lot of affordable options, within an easy walk to the town center.
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