He plan was simple; ride every trail that Craigieburn has to offer - in one day. Mission like these require loads of energy and a positive attitude.
Just over an hours’ drive from Christchurch, the Craigieburn Forest Park is one of the best days out available on a bike, in New Zealand. This unique basin is nestled against the foothills of the Main Divide and, traditionally known for a culture of club ski fields and bouldering, it’s now also a mecca for mountain biking. Native trails, surrounding tall peaks and clear streams are about as good as ingredients get for a day spent outside. Through all the bustle of life, training, work and everything in between, Craigieburn represents the ultimate reminder of why we started riding bikes in the first place. Stripping it back, it’s an inherent need to be surrounded by mountains and native bush. There is something indescribably wonderful about being able to combine being in the foothills of the Southern Alps, taking on a decent physical challenge, and being able to get immersed in the joy of being on my bike. Taking the enduro bikes meant that, while we weren’t planning on breaking any records up the hills, we were ready to add the maximum fun factor on the descents.
The plan was simple; ride every trail that Craigieburn has to offer – in one day. An ambitious goal and a big day but rewarding, nonetheless. Missions like these require loads of energy and a positive attitude. Max Hides was just the person we needed to keep the drive going and, after a last hour call up, he was more than ready to join us.
In classic Canterbury style, leaving Christchurch it was grey, misty and almost drizzly. We were on for a good thing, escaping the eastern plains inversion layer in exchange for some sunny mountain riding. Armed with coffee and the essentials from Sheffield Pie Shop, the clouds parted right on cue heading up Porters Pass. We spared a moment’s thought for the 9-5 hustle back in the city, but only briefly. We were on for a great day!
Starting from Mistletoe Flat, we headed up and moved our way east across the trails feeding into the basin, to finish in Castle Hill Village. Anticipating a full day out, we packed our bags with all the essentials for happiness, warmth and ‘hangry’ management. The great thing about riding Craigieburn is that the hills are big, and the climbs require a bit of effort. It’s not a cash crop, especially not when the first climb of the day is from the basin floor up to Craigieburn Valley Ski Field.
The pedal is initially pleasant through the beech, but kicks up about halfway through, and the conversation was naturally replaced by an increased focus on turning our pedals. The Craigieburn Hut was a welcome appearance, complete with a perfect set of smoko steps. We looked, but there seemed no one available to open the bar for us at 10am on a summer’s weekday... maybe we should return at the appropriate hour. For now, though, it was time to turn our sights downhill.
The Edge track starts at Craigieburn Ski Field, and traverses the side of the hill. Starting with a couple of scree crossings, it’s mostly a lovely gradient through the beech forest, punctuated by the regular rocky outcrop and tight corner to keep us on our toes! One of those tracks where paying attention is necessary but it’s all too easy to get distracted by the views. Not that it upset us, we were all too happy to take some regular breaks and soak in the view before dropping through the tight singletrack.
The climb up AntiLuge to Lyndon Saddle is 15 minutes of real Type 2 fun. Pinchy and technical, it’s guaranteed to get everyone’s heartrate up, but at least it’s short. At the same time, it’s impossible to hate it because it leads to the star child of Craigieburn Forest: the Luge track.
Graded as an intermediate track, this is the definition of fun for the whole family. No other track does roots and flow in the same sentence quite like the Luge does. The gradient and turns are mellow enough for a broad audience while, for the more advanced among us, it’s littered with natural doubles and high lines. Following Max gave me the chance to try a few more myself! Dirt conditions were all time, with just enough moisture among the beech leaves to hook into the side knobs of the tyres and feel like world cup riders, even if only for a split second. Best of all, it finishes right at a creek, perfect to refresh in preparation for the next climb.
As the day passed, we moved our way east through the basin and network of trails. Most creeks were a compulsory stop and kept the body temperatures cool in what was an almost perfectly still, sunny alpine day. By the time we reached mid-afternoon we’d covered some good ground. Arguably not so much in distance and metres climbed, but in scenery, good chat and high spirits.
Reaching the other side of the Dracophyllum flat track, we turned upwards for the second half of our ride, to get a lap in each of Cuckoo Creek and Cockayne Alley. With rogue weather in July 2021 causing a major slip on the access road, access has been limited to pedal only from Forest Lodge onwards. Controversial opinion, but I can’t say I mind it. There’s a feeling of being self-sufficient in these sorts of environments that’s quite nice to keep hold of. For the most part it’s an inoffensive climb in the trees, then kicks up above the tree line to remind us that hills are hard work!
Heck, it’s not a bad view from the top though. Max went in to get some ski turns on the scree and we traversed along the ridge to admire the view once more. The light was starting to soften as the afternoon hours got on, and not for the first time that day we commented on how good bikes and places really are.
Cockayne Alley is about as good as backcountry riding gets. Originally a walking trail, MTBers discovered its steep rooty steps and have since called it their own. To find good flow takes a bit of finesse and concentration, but once it’s found, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. The sort of place where the most important thing in the moment is where your front wheel is going. With just one more climb left to finish off the day, we were Castle Hill Village bound via the Hogs Back. Picnic Rock at the top provided a stunning 360-degree view around the basin, making it a good spot to take a look and realise there’s many more untold adventures and peaks within sight, for mountain bikers or otherwise. From there, we took easy going flow trails winding through the beech, then across the last creek stop and up the terrace to catch our breath by the world-famous lightning tree. The blast from there down into castle village guaranteed a great day, and completed the ride.
There's a simplicity in just putting a backpack on and traveling for a day, that is hard to replicate.
Days like this in Craigieburn don’t get much better. There’s often a value put on metres climbed or kilometres travelled and, although the end-of-ride beer doesn’t taste the same without it, smiles per mile is a metric I’m much fonder of. There’s a simplicity in just putting a backpack on and traveling for a day, that is hard to replicate in any other way. We saw next to no one, and those we did see were like minds, on the same page. It was a brilliant opportunity to switch off, turn some pedals and enjoy a special part of NZ.
Words: Robin Pieper
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie