Bringing the Whaka to the masses | Rotorua’s Forest Loop

Rotorua has always been a paradise for mountain bikers, and the Whakarewarewa Forest is a bit like the promised land. Riders from around the world have made the pilgrimage to the North Island of New Zealand to ride the forest, which now has north of 200km of singletrack.

But in among all of that riding, there wasn’t a tonne on offer for beginners. Yes, according to Trailforks, there are 50 Grade 1 and 2 (green, beginner) trails scattered throughout the forest, but the vast majority are climbing trails or short links, and the rest are loops clustered around the parking lot.

“It was kind of that Tahi, Dipper, into Creek loop clustered around the Waipa Car Park, and then there are other little tiny pockets,” says Kris O’Driscoll, Operations Manager of the Rotorua Trails Trust.

The beauty of The Forest Loop is that it’s something that riders and non-riders can enjoy together. Honey, we’re booking tickets to Rotorua!

This isn’t an issue for those travelling with a group of riding mates because they probably didn’t fly across the Tasman to ride mellow green trails. But, for families, or couples where one partner rides and the other doesn’t, Rotorua really didn’t have a whole lot to offer.

That’s all changed with the Forest Loop, a 35km beginner-friendly trail that circumnavigates the entire Whaka forest.


Ride the Forest

The newest addition to New Zealand’s Great Ride network, is the Whakarewarewa Forest Loop. This list of rides ranges from the Alps 2 Ocean route, which runs from the Southern Alps, 315km to the Pacific Ocean, to the 21km Roxburgh Gorge Trail. The goal of each of these rides is to take folks on a two-wheeled off-road adventure. But the Forest Loop is unique among its peers.

“It is a mountain bike trail. This is not a cycleway and is more like the basic trails you’ll find in a typical mountain bike park. This means both my 6-year-old daughter and I can both have fun on here,” says Tak Mutu from Mountain Bike Rotorua.

Starting and finishing at the Waipa Car Park, the one-way trail runs clockwise around the Whaka Forest, rolling through dense native bush and towering Redwoods. There’s views of Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake), Lake Rotokākahi (Green Lake), geothermal features and Māori Art, including a statue carved from a 10-tonne rock, that was sent careening into the forest during the 1886 Tarawera eruption.

The Forest Loop has strategically placed refuelling stops, so you don’t have to eat pocket PB&J sandwiches for lunch.

There’s also coffee stops, food, toilets, and places to fill water bottles along the way.

The idea for The Forest Loop had been banging around for years, but thanks to the latest Whakarewarewa Forest development project and funding from the Rotorua Lakes Council and the Provincial Growth Fund, CNI Iwi Holdings and The Rotorua Trails Trust brought the Forest Loop to life.

The Trails Trust worked to establish the route, and constructed two of the four sections of the trail.

“One of our big things was to use the features of the land and then incorporate some of the amazing views,” says O’Driscoll. “From some of the lookouts, there are wicked views over the city and the lake.”

How’s that for a view? Just one of a number of spectacular photo spots along The Forest Loop

The entire trail is machine-built singletrack, mostly rated Grade 1 and 2 — or somewhere between green and blue.

“I think it’s a great entry-level way of getting into the Forest. There has always been this perception of the Whaka Forest being Grade 5, gnarly, throw yourself down a hill kind of riding. But I think this really shows people you can also enjoy the trails, and the beauty of the forest. It’s kind of the gateway drug to mountain biking in Rotorua,” says O’Driscoll.

Mutu tells Flow there is oodles of classic “Rotorua Flow”, but it’s also not pretending to be something it’s not. The Forest Loop is about exploring the Whakarewarewa Forest and experiencing what Rotorua is built upon.

“This combines great riding, stunning views and something unique to Rotorua, Māori history and culture. The artworks and storyboards that are both being developed and have been installed are stunning, and elevate this particular Great Ride to the next level. It is even better when you have a local host to tell the stories in detail,” he says.

Māori culture is an important part of Rotorua, and The Forest Loop incorporates some of the stories and art into the ride.

With that, the Rotorua Lakes Council is also working on an app that will help folks navigate the loop, and incorporate storytelling of Maori landmarks and lore. The app is still in development but is scheduled for release this spring.

Purpose-built for e-MTBs

Being 35km of relatively smooth singletrack, the Forest Loop is purpose-built for e-MTBs in more ways than one.

“One of the trails that comes up from Wapia has a few of those uphill berms. I didn’t get it until I rode it on an e-Bike, and I went, ‘ah, ok, I see why this is here,” says O’Driscoll.

With plenty of trail features like uphill berms, The Forest Loop will be a blast on an eMTB.

Over 30km with 850m of climbing its a decent day out on a naturally aspirated bike, and there are plenty of riders who take a break shredding Grade 5 and 6 trails to spin through the forest and wrack up the kilometres. But it is also exceedingly popular with e-MTBers, young and old.

“We’ve got a group that refer to themselves as the ‘wrinkly riders’ that are always out there on their e-MTBs. They will ride laps around me, and they are well over twice my age,” says O’Driscoll.

It’s also been popular with adaptive riders, and O’Driscoll tells Flow they have had groups on handcycles riding the entire 35km. The Forest Loop wasn’t specifically designed to be an adaptive trail, but with folks cutting laps on handcycles, it has inspired the Rotorua Trails Trust to increase the offering for adaptive riders.

“There is an area off Nursery Road that has just been logged — kind of around Soakhole and Turkish Delight. So we want to re-build the Tokorangi (trail), which starts at the top of the hill and goes down, as a Grade 3 adaptive trail,” she continues.

Accessing the rest of the forest

There are over 200km of trails in the 5,600ha forest, and even when you’re in the network, it’s difficult to comprehend the actual size of the Whaka. With that, it’s easy to end up in one corner and miss out on great trails you never knew were there.

Rotorua locals use The Forest Loop as a connector to get to their favourite trails.

The Forest Loop isn’t an unbroken piece of singletrack, and it has bailouts and access points all along the route. It’s also not insulated from the rest of the Whakarewarewa Forest and connects into the network.

And the beauty of having a trail like this that circumnavigates the entire forest, is that you can use it to shortcut into other areas without having to climb up and over multiple 500-700m hills, and it keeps you away from roads and traffic.

“The Forest Loop is an absolute asset to Whaka Forest. It ticks so many boxes. A gateway for new riders to see the diversity in our forest. A training ground for seasoned riders wanting to get some solid kilometres ticked off in a short amount of time. For us locals, we break it into pieces, incorporating sections into our favourite routes. We just need a coffee cart at the end of the Lake Rotokākahi section, and it’ll be perfect,” says Rotorua Mountain Bike Club President Clair Scott.

The Forest Loop is quite a bit different to most of the trails in Rotorua, but it’s an important addition to the trail network and opens up mountain biking to a whole new contingent of riders.

The local beta

Because The Forest Loop is as much about the experience as the riding itself, and can be done in sections or incorporated into other riding loops, we asked our local guides about their favourite bits.

Photos: Graeme Murray / Destination Rotorua, Destination Rotorua

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