Feature: Hanmer Springs - The Gold in them there Hills
Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Hanmer has the beauty and charm of an Idyllic Mountain Town - perhaps a little like what Queenstown may have felt like 50 years ago.
This has been a tough year for many, arguably those living in the Auckland region – and those stranded overseas trying to get home via the MIQ lottery – most of all. In the era of COVID-19 and lockdowns, exactly where you live has a dramatic effect on every part of your life. Those in Auckland have endured 100+ days of lockdown now, while those in the south have enjoyed relative freedom. Regardless, lots of us are looking forward to a summer break where we can truly recuperate. But where should you go to do that?
After spending a few days there recently, I would argue that Hanmer Springs, 130 km north-west of Christchurch and 65 km south-west of Kaikoura, might be worthy of serious consideration. In fact, recuperation is pretty much in Hanmer’s DNA.
The hot springs for which Hanmer is famous for, have long been used for the purposes of rest and restoration.
Leaving Hanmer, the trail up is tight singletrack, cut into the slope and, being in the mountains, you are climbing on a rocky shale surface the whole way. This surface means that trails stay in great condition for most of the year.
Since the early 1900’s, facilities were built around the hot pools and, over the years, these have variously been hospitals caring for sick and wounded soldiers, facilities for caring for women, as well as caring for those with alcohol or drug disorders. The theme has been the same throughout; hot pools, fresh air and sunlight, away from the hustle and bustle of larger centres, Hanmer was a place where you could come to rest and be restored. What’s more, the population is only 1120! Hey Auckland! Sound appealing yet?
Of course, rest and relaxation isn’t just about sitting round the pool – it’s about getting out and hitting some trails. When you drive into Hanmer, the first thing you notice is the lines of trees down the main street. It’s got the beauty and charm of an idyllic mountain town – perhaps a little like what Queenstown may have felt like 50 years ago. From town, you can look up and see Conical Hill and, as you look around, you see the broader outlines of the Hanmer range and Mount Isobel (1324m). It’s this combination of a small mountain town, with trails on your doorstep that makes Hanmer Springs so appealing.
We stayed at the iconic Hanmer Hotel, built in a Spanish Mission style and completed in 1932. It’s the perfect place to base yourself during a stay in Hanmer, and is an architectural icon in its own right, as well as being surrounded by beautiful grounds – perfect should some in your party want to leave you to ride while they enjoy the grounds, the pool, or a drink in the courtyard.
Once we were settled in, it was time to hit the trails. We were fortunate to have a guided tour of local trails by none other than Hanmer Springs’ local mountain biking ambassador, Anton Cooper. Anton is pretty much a household name now but, if you’re unfamiliar, he’s a New Zealand Olympic Team rider, regular on the World Cup XC circuit, and ended up with a stellar 8th overall at the end of the 2021 season. If that wasn’t enough, we were also joined by local legend Steve Halligan. Steve may be less of a household name if you haven’t delved into the ultra-endurance bikepacking scene yet, but Steve is one of these guys who will ride for 24hrs straight, sleep for an hour or two then crank out another 300km. To give you an example; despite mechanical setbacks, in 2019, he rode to 4th in the 4,418km Tour Divide (Banff to Mexico border) in 16 days and three hours! He’s a freak. But he’s also a hell of a nice guy. Between Anton and Steve, I was already feeling like this might be a weekend I wished I was on an e-bike to help level the playing field.
Once we had all checked in, there was still time for an afternoon ride. Heading out from our hotel, we were onto some gravel within five minutes and started ascending up the Clarence Valley Road; a good warm up and the fastest way to get to Tank Track, that gave us a decent reprieve from the climbing and conveniently led us on to Yankee Zephyr, and our real trail target, Tombstone.
Together, these form a great loop that is a real workout and gives intermediate to advanced riders some solid climbing. Leaving town, you are at about 340m above sea level, and at the high point on Tombstone you will have reached 680m. The trail up is tight singletrack, cut into the slope and, being in the mountains, you are climbing on a rocky shale surface the whole way. This surface means the trails stay in great condition for most of the year.
At the top of this I had a healthy sweat on and had felt like I’d done some decent work, but I’m pretty sure neither Anton or Steve’s heart rate got above 60.
From the top of Tombstone, it’s a tight and twisty downhill – hand-built single track at its finest, and you have to be on your game to make sure your handlebars don’t clip any trees and your wheels don’t veer off the edge. Within moments of dropping in off the Tombstone summit, and despite my best attempts to stay with him, Anton was gone – completely out of sight – and this was a pattern that would be repeated, over and over and over the next few days, making it abundantly clear why he is a professional rider and I.... am not.
The trails around Hanmer have an interesting way of quickly showing you exactly where your skill level is actually at and how confident you really are. There aren’t really jumps or drops that feature, instead what separates the pros from the noobs (as my Minecraft-gaming sons would refer to me as) were the long, tight, twisty downhills, shards of rock pointing out at the most awkward angles and the plenty of switchbacks that test your ability to judge entry speed, braking and overall technique.
As much as I was observing the trails and loving the terrain, I was also in awe of Anton’s ability to simply get round these tight corners that often felt like they had a loose covering of pea-metal sized rock sitting on the surface. He could truly hold uncanny speed through these, and time after time it was a case of one corner, two corners, out of sight. After Tombstone, we linked a few extra, fun flowing trails; Big Foot, Detox, and Red Rock to get back to town. Detox was a crowd favorite – a little wider than we had been riding with plenty of speed and flow to keep the smiles pinned.
On our second day, it was time for an expedition of sorts. Anton and Steve had been talking about a trail called Addiction – saying that it was one of their favorite trails of all time, and definitely worth the effort. Effort? If it’s an effort to these guys, would I even survive?
Addiction is a double black trail that’s a challenge not just to ride, but even to get to. One of the interesting things about Hanmer Springs is the 4WD roads that surround it. Jollies Pass Rd, and the Clarence Valley Road, are joined by Top House Road to form a bit of a classic backcountry 4WD loop that can be a fun addition to a trip. You could also use these to connect the St James cycle way back and ride all the way back into Hanmer.
We didn’t have time for that on this trip, but I would definitely like to do that another day. For today, it was riding from our hotel, up Jollies Pass Road till we got to around 850m elevation – that’s about 500m vertical with no reprieve and, as much as we loved the perfect blue sky weather we had for this trip, I would definitely recommend getting started earlier than we did because it was hot, hot, hot, grinding up Jollies Pass Rd with the sun beating down on us.
Eventually, we reached the turn off to Addiction and, after a gentle traverse, the trail seemed to literally tip downward. This is the point where you are either glad you’ve got a new set of brake pads in, or will be kicking yourself for not having them, because the next few kilometres are steep technical descending with no let up. With plenty of elevation to play with, the trail builders clearly saw no reason to eek it out, instead they decided a direct approach was the best way to get down. The start of the downhill is a solid 500m where the average gradient is consistently 35-40% down before you get a let up. Where you are used to trails having a natural ebb and flow of tech, steep, and then periodically flatter sections, Addiction just keeps on giving. There are one or two sections where the trail just stretches out almost beneath you, where it is just a straight line down – no corners, just narrow steep singletrack, with plenty of that awkward angled rock to rip a hole in your sidewall or elbow should you get off-line.
Anton, typically, was nowhere in sight. I imagined him back in the hot springs wondering what was keeping us all. OK, that’s not entirely true, Anton did stay with our group and we had a blast riding together but, despite my best efforts, I still had no chance of keeping anywhere near him. By the time we reached the bottom, I could see why this trail is called Addiction; the first hit is a rush, but I think every hit after that would be even more satisfying. Conveniently, Addiction leads straight on to Detox which extends the fun even further.
Stopping and taking a few photos along the way meant that, by the time we were down, we were all ready to hit the famous Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools. These are a major tourist drawcard for the region, and for good reason – they are pretty special. These aren’t your average council hot pools; they are more aquatic theme park than just hot pools. I lost count of how many pools there are – there are cascading pools, aqua therapy pools, sulphur pools, rock pools, private pools, as well as a big play pools for kids and two pretty fun waterslides that yes, for the sake of research, we spent quite a while testing. (FYI: current COVID-19 restrictions mean you need to book ahead of time, so make sure you phone ahead to avoid disappointment.)
Back to the riding, our final day was spent getting the photographic requirements we needed for the trip, so it was hitting a few spots we thought best described the feel of what it’s like to ride here. Everyone was keen for another lap up Tombstone and now that we were all getting in the flow, getting used to the trails and riding them for a second time just escalated the fun. While we chose some of the more techy trails, it’s not just all gnarly; there are plenty of family friendly tracks that are easily accessible, only a few minutes from town, that even the littlest of legs can access without having to load up all the bikes onto the car each time you want to ride.
It’s the easy proximity to the hills that make it so appealing and, if things keep going the way they are going, I am sure Hanmer will no doubt turn into a real destination mountain bike town. On this trip, we rode the Old Ghost Road the day before coming to Hanmer and it’s this relative nearness to lots of things that makes it worth adding in to your summer road trip plans.
Having never spent time in Hanmer Springs, I was blown away by what it had to offer. Trails are the new ‘gold rush’ when it comes to small South Island communities – and when it comes to Hanmer Springs, ‘there’s gold in them there hills’.
Words: Lance Pilbrow
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie