Lake Dunstan Trail – why not go by boat?

There is no doubt that the Lake Dunstan Trail has rapidly become the “must-do” Great Ride in Aotearoa. Rider numbers have been off the charts compared to budgets, for good reasons. It is spectacular, challenging and well serviced by rental and transport operators.

About the trail

The Lake Dunstan Trail runs between Cromwell and Clyde in Central Otago. It continues a bit East to Smiths Way, ultimately to connect to Wanaka. Beyond Clyde there are two options to continue on to Alexandra – then connect to the Roxburgh Gorge trail (and ultimately towards Dunedin), or to the Otago Central Rail Trail – the one that started it all. Soon there will also be a connection via Bannockburn and Gibbston to the Queenstown trail network.

In the meantime though we have a spectacular trail that clings (sometimes literally) to the western side of Lake Dunstan. It is an ambitious build featuring many cantilevered platforms, a spectacular suspension bridge and stunning cuttings into the Otago schist. A lasting memory will be the sweeping views and the smell of thyme. There are some challenging sections – in terms of uphills and downhills – and some tight corners and drops down to the lake. Promoters have been careful not to pitch this as a beginners’ trail. It is around 25km between road accesses, there is limited cell phone coverage, loose gravel and riders of all abilities going in either direction.

Most riders are choosing do ride the trail in one direction. From Cromwell to Clyde (most common direction) is around 42km depending on start and finish location. Along the way, depending on your timing, you could try a flight of wine at Carrick or a coffee and venison burger from a floating kitchen. These experiences elevate the trail from a nice ride to a great day out.


Most readers will be coming from somewhere else, so most likely you’ll want to both hire bikes and arrange transport. There are a range of great operators in the region who can sort it all for you – including accommodation (see links below – I haven’t listed them all so go via the CentralOtagoNZ site). Lake Dunstan is a one-day trail, so consider adding on a bit of Otago Central Rail Trail or Roxburgh Gorge – my favourite in the region.

Most Clyde-based operators will fit you out on bikes, pop you in a shuttle and drop you in Cromwell. It’s not any better this way but easier to arrange as nobody is left waiting or rushing for a scheduled pick-up. Whether you are renting or have your own bikes, going by boat would be my strong recommendation. Instead of a shuttle ride, Skipper Andrew will meet you above the Clyde dam wall and show you around from the water. It’s totally unique perspective, and will only make you more excited for your ride. Soaring bluffs, seeing Hugo Bridge from below, some Old Cromwell history including a sonar view of the old bridge – it’s so much fun. If you prefer the “one-stop-shop” he can arrange bikes too. We took that option and the bikes were great (Cube e-bikes).

Doing it

You can ride the trail in either direction, both or as an out-and-back. If you are coming from elsewhere to do this, it deserves being treated as a special event, best enjoyed with company. Depending on start and finish points, around 4+ hours is a reasonable time budget. The trail is well graded and maintained, but please be aware there are some narrow parts and some drops that can catch out the unwary or those going too fast.

If you choose the boat option the Lake Dunstan Explorer, you’ll either leave from Clyde if you are picking up bikes, or just above the dam wall which is where you pick up the boat. The boat is well equipped, dry and comfortable and your bikes will be well separated to avoid damage. You will be dropped off at McNulty inlet on the northern side of Cromwell, but by request you could ask to be dropped off at the Burger boat for a shorter ride (check with Skipper Andrew when you book). Since you are paying for a day out, you may as well do the whole thing.

After the Burger boat you start your first big climb up the Cairnmuir ladder. It’s not really that hard but does climb a long way up. The views from the top are spectacular, including the massive works done to avoid landslides into Lake Dunstan and a resulting tsunami. At the trig beacon, take some time to explore around and take in the views and the smell of walking on thyme.

There are a couple of hills to go — nothing too challenging — and an easy ride back into Clyde. Here is an opportunity to enjoy a drink at Olivers or the Post Office and wander around looking at some of the great shops.

It is a great ride to do so enjoy in your own time and don’t rush. I’ve left some links below to explore the ride and region further. Enjoy!

Links – most operators are linked from here – Dunstan by boat – Coffee and Burgers along the way – Restaurant and wine testing – pizzas too in season

If you are based near Wanaka –

Other Rides to Consider

Otago Central Rail Trail – an easy multi-day ride

Roxburgh and Clutha Gold – can be multi-day or ridden in sections from Alexandra to Lawrence (and soon through to Lake Waihola)

Clyde-Alexandra River Track

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