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Rainbow Road, South Island,NZ

By Liz Wilton

Map Rainbow RoadWhilst staying in Nelson we were told of a great route to take called the Rainbow Road, a 106km track starting near Tophouse, St Arnaud, through the Rainbow Ski Area and Molesworth Station, ending at Hanmer Springs. The road is a 4x4 gravel track, through a beautiful wilderness area, surrounded by mountains, with dramatic scenery as a backdrop.

From Nelson (85km) via Tophouse, join SH 63 briefly before turning right into Wairau - Hanmer Springs Hydro Rd. It is signposted RAINBOW SKI AREA. Cycle along the sealed road passing through through several cold water fords (number depends on when you go), after 12km you will see the turn off for the ski area. Continue passed the turning and you will come to a large ford which you need to cross. On the other side, round the corner is a gate and the path continues uphill, with trees either side. You are now on the main track. For a more detailed map see the DOC notes.

We allowed 3 days to cycle the route, allowing for the terrain, hills, ford crossings and the fact that I had never cycled on gravel before.

However people do cycle it in one day and every March the Rainbow Rage bike race is held with some completing it under 6hrs!

That said, we would highly recommend taking your time to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of this amazing place; it will be a highlight of any cycle tour. In fact the Rainbow Valley is still in our top 3 experiences, 9 months into our cycle tour.

Read about our Rainbow ride


Rainbow Road

The route is gravel track, with larger loose gravel in some places. It follows the River Wairau, however the route is not flat. There are many hills and the route curves around up and down. I found the first day quite challenging and quickly had to learn some mountain biking techniques for going downhill and keeping my weight balanced over the bumps. Slipping and sliding over the gravel, made uphills more difficult and once you stop it is much harder to get started again. However if you are prepared for the terrain and ready for a bit of a challenge then it won't be a problem. Chris found the entire experience very enjoyable and nowhere near as tough as I did. So the difficulty level will really depend on your experience and fitness.


Connors Creek HutWe stayed at Connors Creek Hut, about 23km after the first gate. You'll pass the Old Rainbow Homestead, continue along until you come to a signpost and some old cartwheels in the ground. The hut is not visible from the road, you'll need to turn right and follow the 4x4 grooves in the grass for about 600m and then you come to a small clearing with the hut. There are deer around this area and cows grazing, and also lots of possums! It's a great little DOC (Department of Conversation) hut with 6 bunks, a fireplace and a loo (outside). It was well stocked with firewood when we were there. See the DOC website for more information about buying hut tickets.


Lake tennyson DOC CampsiteIn addition to this you have the following accommodation options further along the route:

Coldwater Creek campsite 46km, Wairau Gorge

Lake Sedgemere DOC campsite

Sedgemere Sleepout (6 bunk) 57km, pass the wetland, across the bridge over the Wairau River

Lake Tennyson DOC campsite 73km, 5km after Island Saddle. We camped here on our second night in the moonlight, wrapped up warm - it was very beautiful and very cold (1st Nov).

Hanmer Springs - campsites, motels galore!

The route

After leaving Connors Creek Hut, you cycle through a flat plain, with cattle grazing, before entering the narrow Wairau Gorge. With snow capped mountains all around, the views were magnificent at the time we did it.

Wairau Gorge

Leaving the Gorge, the terrain gets more rocky and you may need to push for some of the way, depending on how heavy your bikes are.

Pushing through Rainbow Road

Then you come into the heart of the valley, which is simply stunning, remote and beautiful.

Heart of Rainbow Valley

Then next major milestone is Island saddle, which at 1347 metres above sea level is the highest point on the Rainbow Road. We arrived at the bottom of several hills, each time wondering if this might be the saddle. Let's just say, you'll know it when you see it!

Island Saddle

From there it is a thrilling speed down the otherside, and 5km to Lake Tennyson.

Lake Tennyson

From there it is a 20km roll towards Hanmer, downhill and flat, until you reach Jack's Pass - the final hill. This is nothing compared to everything you will have cycled so far. The view over Hanmer is impressive and all that remains is steep, twisty ride down into Hanmer Springs.


The Rainbow Road connects St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs via Rainbow and Molesworth Stations. Rainbow Station is leasehold land and access is with the consent of the station owner.

Road closedThe road is open from end December to early April. Outside the open period there are locked gates just beyond Rainbow Ski Area turn-off and just before Coldwater Creek campsite (heading south).

The road is a 4x4 road and is used for 'wilderness driving experiences and a toll is collected at the Old Rainbow Homestead. A 4x4 return trip costs approx $50. The track is also used by motorbikes, walkers, cyclists and horse-riders. Please see DOC notes for more information on the toll rates for other users.

We cycled this route at the end of Oct/start Nov and found the gates closed, however it was easy enough to push the bikes around one gate, and unload and lift them on the second. We only saw one 4x4 vehicle and met two motorcyclists, but other than that we only had to share the road with the cows! In summer it is likely to be much busier.

We would recommend that you call Star Holdings Ltd (03) 545 7600 to arrange access through the station to 4WD, tramp (walk), hunt, fish or mountain bike outside the open period.

Food & Clothing

We would recommend taking merino wool or synthetic base layers to wear, as well as windproof/waterproof jackets, a buff and gloves. When we were there in Oct/Nov it was cold at night and we were thankful for our down sleeping bags.

Puncture!You will need to be entirely self-sufficient in terms of food, however the stoves in the huts do provide you with wood and a fire to cook on should you need to (can be a bit slow though!). The ride can be energy sapping and we were glad of our mars bars and bananas to snack on.

There was plenty of icy cold water from the fords and we filled up water bottles and bladders. We carry chlorine tablets and a ceramic water filter pump, to ensure we have clean water to drink.

We would advise that you carry a puncture repair kit and spare inner tubes as the risk of puncture is fairly high along this route.

If you fancy an alternative route from Nelson to Hanmer Springs, or just want to get well and truly off the beaten track, then try it. Come prepared and you'll get to visit a beautiful place, that most kiwis haven't even seen.

Read our blog post to see what happened on our Rainbow Valley Adventure.

Happy cycling!

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