In the 1980s, Queenstown was a small lakeside community with just a couple thousand residents. Perched on the foreshores of the majestic Lake Wakatipu; its unique mix of snowy-topped mountains, roaring rivers and stunning vistas made it the perfect summer holiday destination for nature-loving Kiwis. However, the mid-90s brought adrenaline junkies and stoke seekers to Queenstown’s shores and soon enough, the town got an ‘Xtreme’ makeover!
Skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, bungee jumping, paragliding and whitewater rafting took the town by storm. Extreme sports were hitting the mainstream with Shaun White, Tony Hawk and Kelly Slater on everyone’s TVs as the vanguards of this brave new world. So it’s no surprise that when mountain biking hit the scene, it was an instant hit with the local thrillseekers, who quickly realised that their winter ski-lifts made for perfect summer access to the mountains that flanked the town. Soon enough, a myriad of world-class downhill trails were built and Queenstown cemented its place as the mountain bikers’ Mecca in the southern hemisphere.
Fast forward to today and Queenstown’s riding scene is as diverse as its residents. From dedicated jump & XC trails for the big senders, to cruisey riverside tracks via world-class wineries for the boujee boomers, QT really has it all. So when the Queenstown Trail Trust announced the opening of a brand new ‘loop’ trail the weekend I happened to be in Queenstown, of course- I had to ride it!
Freshly opened in March 2022, The Coronet Loop is Queenstown’s newest backcountry mountain bike trail. Boasting fifty-six kilometers of virgin singletrack, riders weave through the rich history & scenery of the Wakatipu Basin. From historic mining huts and rumbling river gorges to brake-melting flow trails through previously unreachable sections of the backcountry, The Coronet Loop is a welcome addition to the Queenstown offering.
My companion for today’s ride is Sophie. Say hey! She’s a new friend (who’s new to bikepacking) so this trail seemed like the perfect playground for our first mission together.
We arrive at the trailhead in Arrowtown, unload the bikes and before my second coffee’s even kicked in, we’re right in the thick of it – climbing the 500m ascent up the newly refurbished Bush Creek. Beneath a blanket of native beech forest, the trail snakes up a series of tight ‘n’ dirty switchbacks before spitting us out onto the southern face of Coronet Peak. From here we hug the mountain tightly, following the old water race as it meanders through the golden grasslands, its burnt orange pine trees gesturing at the first signs of Autumn beginning to turn.
In the distance, Lake Wakatipu sits proudly; its unique lightning bolt shape shimmering in the high-noon sun. But with just 150m left to the top of the climb at Skippers Saddle (949m), we must push on.
From the top we look out over the sprawling valley. The tight and dusty trail elegantly tumbles down the mountainside, flanked by wild pine trees and postcard-worthy mountains. The only grade 4 section of the loop, the ‘Pack, Track & Sack’ is a ridiculously fun and flowy piece of singletrack, punctuated with a couple of pretty technical rock drop-offs. So depending on your skill level (and bike choice), you’ll get to choose your own adventure here. Either push down and keep things chill, or pump your adrenals to the max and fly — the choice is yours!
From the bottom of Long Gully, a quick right turn and we’re climbing once again toward Greengates Hut. Steep, rough switchbacks lead us through a juxtaposing landscape of life and death. As blonde mountain grasses and billowing tussocks erupt from the mountainside, non-indigenous pine trees brought to NZ in the 1800s (but now considered pests and sprayed with a toxic herbicide) stand lifeless like grey tree-skeletons that haunt the landscape. “Eventually, they’ll be felled and native trees replanted in their place,” Sophie assures me as we continue working up the switchbacks, giving our granny gears a real workout.
Perfectly placed at the 25km mark of the trail, Greengates Hut is a welcome sight as we pause for lunch. Legend has it that this hut spent its final years being run as a piggery, serving bacon sandwiches to weary miners heading to make their fortune. All that remains now though is an old hut with three bunk beds, a few worn pots and an old fireplace. Still, it’s a perfect spot to sit and enjoy our bagels, stuffed to the brim with falafel and an obscene amount of hummus.
Bagel consumption completed, we continue upstream and over Picnic Rock before a long and steady descent down towards the valley floor. Water flows freely down here and between the fresh creek crossings and a couple of spectacular waterfalls, we get more than a little wet. Sophie opts for the deluxe waterfall experience and immerses herself under the glacial water. “It’s beautiful, but it’s fu*king cold!” she yells out between intermittent bouts of teeth chatter, rushed breathing and the Om mantra.
With our (or at least Sophie’s) Wim Hoff quota well and truly exceeded, we head off for the final climb of the day. Set into the natural contours of the mountain’s face, a thin strip of newly laid dirt track rests. Etched into the landscape. “I’ve been exploring this part of Queenstown for twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen this side of the mountain,” Sophie muses as we look out onto the high plateau ahead of us. The sun is starting to cool off now, casting its warm glow into the valley’s deep grooves and filling them with golden light as we enjoy another gentle downhill to Eight Mile Hut.
On a beaten-up old truck seat that’s more dust than fabric, we rest. Soph up her smartphone to check in on our progress. With just 10km left to ride, we take some time to explore, stumbling across a blackberry bush that’s teeming with perfectly ripe berries. As cunning hands creep into thorny bushes, plump berries are picked and devoured without remorse. Their sweet juice brings us back to life and serves as a much-needed flavour enhancer to our boring H2O. But, we can’t just eat berries for the rest of the day, so we saddle up and head for the home stretch.
As the Coronet Loop trail comes to an end, we merge with the Macetown Rd. A sandy, double track, 4×4 road that’s full of creek crossings and waterlogged potholes. It’s the final boss, and we ready ourselves for the fight. We battle the first set, carefully avoiding the deep water in a bid to keep our feet dry. But after a while, the deceivingly deep ‘puddles’ win out and we embrace our soggy feet and gritty drivetrains. The track follows the Arrow River and a bizarre water pipe for another 7km before turning off via the Norman Spencer bridge.
A steep set of stairs and a narrow section of trail later, and we’re back in Arrowtown where we started just six hours prior. Sun-kissed, hungry and full of smiles, we trace our way back to town to celebrate our success at the infamous Ferg Burger. A kiwi institution that is as much a part of Queenstown as The Remarkables.