When many people think mountain-biking in Auckland, Woodhill is the first place that comes to mind. But in the opposite corner of the region - the southeast, not the northwest - Hunua Ranges Regional Park offers something different.
There are three main mountain-biking trails in the park, plus some downhill trails for thrillseekers. There's also a newly developed skills area, where young or less experienced riders can get some practice before going bush.
And it's the bush that makes the Hunua trails special. Instead of riding through plantation forest as at Woodhill, where trails can change or be closed due to logging operations, permanent trails at Hunua have been created through native forest in the regional park.
For Edd Ballinger, the incoming president of the Auckland Mountainbike Club and a regular visitor to the park, the native bush setting is the big attraction.
"There's not really anywhere else in Auckland with that bush to ride in - it's a really special place," he says. "You see some amazing things - the last time we were out there we were watching a gang of tui doing their thing.
"At somewhere like Woodhill there's lots of space to build tracks and they can take out trees, but at Hunua there's been a real effort to preserve the environment, with the trails routed around trees, which can make them quite twisty and challenging."
One of the other attractions, says Ballinger, is the sense of remoteness, even though the park is only about 45 minutes from central Auckland.
"There's no phone reception, and you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere - it's an easy way to get away from it all."
All three trails at Hunua start from the Upper Mangatawhiri Campground, by the Mangatawhiri Reservoir. The trails showcase not only the park's natural features - regenerating native forest, including kauri, rimu and matai; streams and swimming holes - but also its history and man-made features: the remnants of farmland cleared by returned servicemen and of course the water-catchment dams.
Auckland Council ranger Scott Kusabs says the Valley Loop track is suitable for beginners and families, and is on closed metalled roads (although riders should stay left on internal roads, as they are often used by service vehicles). It's 14km of easy grade which passes several picnic grounds and swimming holes, for a chance to cool off.
The 15km Moumoukai Farm Track, which branches off the Valley Loop Track, is for more experienced, intermediate-level riders, and winds through regenerating kanuka on land which was once cleared for farming.
"It's a good single track that follows the Moumoukai Valley in and out of the bush, along paddocks that used to be farmed," Kusabs says.
Kusabs says the 15km Mangatawhiri Challenge track is just that - a challenge - and is for experienced riders only.
"There are quite a few places you have to get off your bike where it's a bit too steep, as it follows a ridgeline" he says. It takes about two hours to complete the track.
A reasonably new addition to the park is the "skills track" near the campground and car park. "There's a pump track and obstacles around a single track, which is pretty good for the kids," Kusabs says. "The whole track is visible from the picnic area, so parents can sit up there and observe with a cup of tea and let the kids loose."
There are also three downhill-style mountain bike tracks: the Challenge Downhill, the Experts Downhill, and the events-only National Downhill track.
Kusabs says the council has worked with local mountain bike clubs to develop tracks with technical and "flowy" sections.
"It's got a good mix that should satisfy most mountain bikers," he says. "It's also a good training ground for getting ready for places like Rotorua, with more extensive networks."
Need to know
• Hunua Ranges Regional Park is about 50km from downtown Auckland. The mountain bike tracks are accessed via Moumoukai Rd, off Hunua Rd. For more information, go to regionalparks.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/hunuaranges
• Auckland Council works with the Auckland Mountainbike Club (aucklandmtb.co.nz) and Hunua Downhill Mountain Bike Club to maintain and develop the tracks. Regular working bees are held at the park, the next two scheduled for Sunday February 21 and Sunday April 24 - contact the club for more information on how to help.
• Hunua Ranges Regional Park will be part of the Auckland Council's Big Camp Out on March 5-6, with events at Piggot's Campground and the Upper Mangatawhiri Campground. For more information and to book a site, go to regionalparks.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz
• Rangers will be at Upper Mangatawhiri Campground on Saturday afternoon, March 5, offering free mountain biking skills sessions as part of the Big Camp Out celebrations. Campers will be able to try out their newfound skills on one of the many biking trails in the park.
• Campers at Piggott's Campground can wake up with the birds on March 6 and enjoy a relaxing Sunday morning walk with a park ranger.
Pitch your tent
• Hunua Ranges Regional Park is the largest native forest in the Auckland region; it is perfect for a family day trip but even better if you stay a while.
• Campervans are permitted to stay if the ground is hard enough.
• There are 10 campgrounds in the park, some accessible by road, some alongside mountain biking tracks and in more remote spots for experienced trampers only.
• To protect native fauna, animals (except aid dogs) are prohibited in the Hunua Ranges Regional Park at all times.
• Booking hours for the park operate from 8am-7pm, Monday to Sunday, for campgrounds, parking areas, baches and bookable sites. Rates are $8 a night for adults and $4 for children 5-17; under 5s stay free. Campers can no longer pay in cash on arrival.
• Call 09 366 2000.
• Remote note: People using remote campgrounds need to carry gear and food.