Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit (which also includes the very popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing), circles Mount Ngauruhoe through a largely bleak and moon-like landscape. The volcanic landscape is occasionally broken by lush forest and tussock grass.

Despite the (relative) proximity of New Zealand, it has been a long time since I’ve done an overnight hike, or tramp, here. Twenty one years, almost to the day, since I completed a six-day walk at Nelson Lakes with friends during the long University summer break. So I’m excited to be heading over for a weekend to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

I’ve managed to book a camping spot a month or so ago (all the huts were totally booked, although I much prefer a tent then a full hut!) and a basic room at the Skotel Alpine Resort in Whakapapa for the night before my hike. Having flown from Sydney on the Friday before the hike, it’s a slightly inauspicious start when the Quarantine Service “loses” my tent on arrival at Auckland airport. Or to be more precise, after I hand it over for inspection they return it to someone else and have no idea when it might be brought back! So I’m happy when I finally get to Whakapapa village around 11pm, ready for an early start the next day. Even though I’ve booked a camping spot and I’m about to set-off without a tent…

Jump to:  Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut  →  Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere HutOturere Hut to Waihohonu HutWaihohonu Hut to WhakapapaTongariro Tips

I’m up at 6am the following day, with the start of the track only a few minutes walk from the hotel. Directly ahead is Mount Ngauruhoe. I’ll be seeing a lot more of this conical, volcanic peak over the next day and a half!

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Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (Day 1)

The gravelled track rises gently from the trackhead: the signage here is not very clear, and I soon have a suspicion that I’m not on the track I should be! (I’m actually on the Round the Mountain Track and not the Mangatepopo Track that I should be on! I’ve planned on doing the track clockwise so I have a long first day.)

It’s easy walking, through a few patches of beech forest, but mostly grassland.

After about half an hour there’s a sign showing the extent of the lava flow from the Te Maari Crater. I guess it’s helpful to have an idea how far I need to run, if the Mount Ngauruhoe, which is still active, erupts in the next day or so! (One of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand, Ngauruhoe first erupted 2,500 years ago, with the most recent one being in 1977.)

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As the track crosses Wairere Stream, there’s a great view of the snow-covered Mount Ruapehu to the south. Another active volcano – the largest in New Zealand – Ruapehu is also the highest point on the North Island with three major peaks. It too will be a fairly constant sight for much of this trip!

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Just after crossing Wairere Stream is a junction with the track to Taranaki Falls (the track I’m on continues to Waihohonu Hut – which is not where I want to go!) I take the turn-off down a set of steep steps down to the base of the impressive Taranaki Falls. The Wairere Stream falls 20 metres over the edge of a large lava flow, with a large volume of water coming from what seems to be a small crack in the rocks.

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The Taranaki Falls Track follows the Wairere Stream downstream: it’s pleasant walking with the trail following the river fairly closely.

When the track is not close by the river, it goes through patches of semi-rainforest, well shaded from the morning sun.

I’m finally on the Mangatepopo Track, which soon leaves the forest and travels through tussock grass and low heath. It has been a bit of a detour going via the Falls, taking me almost 2.5km and at least haf  and an hour to get to what should have been a 2.5km walk if I’d started on the Mangatepopo Track. But it meant I got some nice photos of Taranaki Falls without any people around.

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Although my guide book says the previously very muddy track has been upgraded and improved and is fairly easy walking, the owner of the Skotel where I stayed last night suggested I skip this section and take a shuttle to Mangatepopo Road. It’s the most boring section, he warns me. I’m tempted, but I like the idea of completing the entire circuit. As I walk along this section, seeing only a handful of other people, I’m glad I chose to do this part of the circuit. The only downside is that it is quite exposed – and I’m walking into the morning sun.

Directly ahead is Pukeonake (1,225m) – the smallest volcanic crater on the plateau, and inactive unlike its bigger brothers (or sisters)!

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This section is generally flat, although it frequently drops into small valleys formed by small streams. Sometimes there’s a sturdy bridge across the bigger creeks, and other times a bit of a steep scramble down and back up the other side. Despite a few muddy sections, most of the streams are completely dry. I can imagine it would be a far less pleasant and more time-consuming journey after a few days of heavy rain.

After about three hours (12.2km) my nice quiet track merges with the main Tongariro Crossing Track, and I’m joined by a few people. Actually, a huge amount of people. If my car wasn’t three hours walk away, I think I would have given up. It really was unpleasant: more of a Ghastly Walk than a Great Walk. I make a brief stop at the Mangatepopo Hut, where I fill up my water bottle, before reluctantly re-joining the queue of hikers.

Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (Day 1)

Did I mention it was busy… The Tongariro Crossing has been referred to as “one of the best day hikes in the world”, attracting over 100,000 visitors per year. Overcrowding has been recognised as an issue at Tongariro in recent years: “visitor numbers have reached breaking point. Tourists bring about $20 million a year to the region, but crowding has started to devalue the experience.” So on a fairly nice day, on a weekend, in the January school holidays I didn’t expect to have the track to myself – I just wasn’t prepared for the volume of people. I plod on, trying to stay clear of a (fortunately) small number of dickheads who felt the scenery would be enhanced by broadcasting music from their backpacks.

From Mangatepopo Hut, the track starts to climb – very gently at first – over a series of old lava flows. Next to the track is the Mangatepopo Stream, which originates nor far away on the slopes of Mt Tongariro.

It’s only about 45min to the side-track to Soda Springs, which is also a popular spot for having a break after the initial ascent. The springs are on the western slope of Mt Tongariro, and are only a 300m (10 minute) walk from the main track.

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The stream supports a wide swath of grasses and yellow buttercups, in stark contrast to the bare volcanic landscape that’s devoid af any green-ness.

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From Soda Springs the path ascends quite steeply, after some warning signs advising of the general dangers of proceeding past the signs. Since most people would have arrived on a shuttle bus (parking is limited to four hours), I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to if you suddenly decide you don’t want to go any further. Like many other walks, it follows the general trend of warning everyone that they’ll probably die a horrible death if they proceed past the sign. Looking back down the Mangatepopo Valley, it’s a very barren landscape, with the smaller volcanic peak of Pukeonake at the other end.

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Just before the track reaches South Crater, there’s an obvious but unmarked trail up to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe. A fictional volcano in the Lord of the Rings movie, Ngauruhoe – or Mt Doom – represented the endpoint of Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the Ring. Both Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu were used in the movie, but no filming was permitted on the summit of Ngauruhoe as the Māori believe all mountain peaks be sacred. I learn this later when writing this blog post, and it explains why there is no signage and very few people hiking up the sleep slope. The signs showing the summit route were removed in the summer 2017, and for reasons I can’t understand there were no new signs erected explaining that the mountain peak is sacred. You’ll find most maps and brochures still show the route to the summit. Since I haven’t heard of any other mountain peaks where access has been removed, it’s all a bit confusing!

(You’ll have to make up your own mind: the main track was so busy that even with the knowledge that the Māori prefer you don’t climb, I think I would have taken this detour just to get away from the crowds!)

The climb is hard work and progress is slow – while there’s a rough track at the beginning, as you gain altitude you more or less need to find your own route up the scree slope. Consisting of very loose tephra (“fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption”), it’s a slippery slope and I seem to be sliding backwards more than I am making forward progress. I really can’t imagine how you could have hundreds of people all trying to make their way up here, and I suspect that the real reason the signage was removed and people discouraged from making the ascent was more for safety reasons. The smaller the tephra the harder it is to climb, so I find the easiest route is a low ridge of larger rocks.

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As I gain altitude, I can see the Tongariro Crossing track crossing the South Crater and climbing up the steep spur to Blue Lake; Mount Tongariro is obscured by a band of thick cloud which is heading towards me!

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I finally reach a ridge just below the summit, which I almost claim as victory. But from here I can’t see into the crater, so I persevere…

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The crater itself is a little underwhelming: I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a cauldron of boiling lava, or at least some steam hissing from the bottom… it looks quite benign for an active volcano.

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What is interesting is the many different colours of the volcanic rock, from almost black to bright red (the red colour being from oxidised iron in the rock).

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It’s much quicker and easier going down, although I still find it strenuous as the terrain is very inconsistent. Sometimes the tephra is quite deep and you can almost glide down the slope (although I suspect if you saw me, the word “glide” would not be in the first hundred words you’d think of) and other times a thin layer of fine scoria on top of larger rocks makes it quite treacherous. Nevertheless, with thick cloud descending on the mountain I make the descent back to the main track in about an hour.

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As I re-shoulder my overnight pack and continue along the Tongariro Crossing track, I notice it’s much quieter. Where previously I was in the middle of the huge day-tripping queue, almost everyone is now ahead of me. The hike has become a lot more enjoyable, as I complete the last few hundred metres up to the South Crater.

The South Crater is technically not a crater, but a basin that is thought to be have been created by a glacier and later filled with sediment. While my map showed a small lake near the track, the entire “crater” was dry. The track across the South Crater is completely flat, until the climb at the far end up the ridge to Red Crater.

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The track up the ridge to Red Crater is fairly steep and a bit slippery in parts… but a piece of cake after the scree slope on Mount Ngauruhoe!

Looking back from the half-way up the ridge up to Red Crater, the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe is still shrouded in thick cloud, and you can get a sense of the the huge size of the South Crater.

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Looking east over the Kaimanawa Forest Park and Desert Road it’s a bleak landscape, with not a tree in sight. The only vegetation that seems to survive is the white mountain daisy (Celmisia incana) which grows in dense patches of shade between some of the rocks.

The final stretch of the Te Arawhata ridge goes to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing (and Circuit) – other than the Ngauruhoe peak – at 1886m above sea level.

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From this point there’s sweeping views to the east and Mount Ngauruhoe to the south, as well as into the Red Crater. There’s a path from here to the summit Tongariro, which is obvious but unmarked (as with the Mount Ngauruhoe, signage was removed in 2017).

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Within the Red Crater is a formation known as a “dike” (or “dyke”), formed by molten magma moving to the surface through a vertical channel in the crater wall and then solidifying. As the magma drains out, it leaves the dike partially hollow. The red colour is from high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock.

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From the top of Red Crater the track heads steeply downhill over loose scree, and caution is needed… this is arguably the most spectacular part of the walk. Below are the Emerald Lakes (Ngā Rotopounamu) and in the distance Blue Lake (Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa or “Rangihiroa’s mirror”). The Tongariro Alpine Crossing track is clearly visible crossing the Central Crater and ascending to the Blue Lake.

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I’ll be leaving the Tongariro Crossing near the Emerald Lakes and heading east down the Oturere Valley.

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The Emerald Lakes, the result of previous volcanic explosions, are an incredible colour as  a result of minerals washing down from the Red Crater.

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Once I reach the largest of the Emerald Lakes, I take a slight divergence from the main track and head around the southern side of the second-largest of the lakes. This takes me past some of the fumaroles that are venting steam, with temperatures up to 138°C.

The hot and sulphuric steam has completely covered some of the rocks with a thick white coat.

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Up close to one of the Emerald Lakes you can see that despite (or perhaps because of) the dissolved minerals, they support a dense layer of marsh-like grasses around the perimeter.

The rough track continues to descend into the Oturere valley: in the distance is the Kaimanawa Ranges and Rangipo Desert.

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I’ve seen a waterfull in the distance, which is the Oturere Stream that flows down from the Emerald Lake and cascades into the Oturere Valley. Although the track roughly follows the Oturere Stream and looks tantalizingly close on the topo map, it’s never close enough to fill the water bottle. And if the water originates from the Emerald Lakes, it might not taste too good! This entire section from Soda Springs is completely dry, and while I’ve got enough water I could have used more than the 1.5L I’m carrying.

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The stark, moon-like (and water-less!) desert landscape was caused by two million years of volcanic eruptions, especially the Taupo eruption a mere 2000 years ago, which coated the landscape with a thick layer of pumice. As a reminder of the volcanic forces that sculpted the terrain, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu are visible above the valley.

I’m glad to finally reach the Oturere Hut around 4pm, where I can fill up my water bottle from the tank and have a break. Behind the cozy hut is a small camping ground, and at the end of the camping ground there’s a view of the Oturere Stream tumbling down the valley.

Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (Day 1)

From the Oturere Hut the track skirts the eastern flank of Ngauruhoe, and heads straight towards Mount Ruapehu. It’s still a fairly “volcanic” landscape, but there’s more tussock grass and signs of life.

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The track is generally flat, but crosses multiple valleys. The first one looks pretty dry from a distance, but there’s a trickle of water in the stream.

The next few valleys are dry, and between them the track crosses some large, open gravel fields.

After about four kilometres the track swings to the east and follows the top of a long ridge. Directly behind me is Mount Ngauruhoe.

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The track eventually drops from the ridge into the valley, bringing the welcome sight of trees and lush green vegetation. Although I know that each step I take descending to the Waihohonu Stream means a step uphill on the other side of the valley, it’s nice to be walking under a canopy of trees.

At the bottom I take the backpack off and have a short break by the fast flowing river, refilling my water bottle, rinding my feet and enjoying the peaceful surroundings. I haven’t seen a soul since the Emerald Lakes (except for the people staying at Oturere Hut), and it feels like days since the hoards of people along the Tongariro Crossing!

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The track follows the Waihohonu Stream for a short distance, before crossing it over a timber bridge. There would have been an idyllic camping spot by the stream just after crossing, although one is only supposed to camp at designated sites… and in any case, my tent is still at Auckland airport…

Although the track climbs fairly steeply back up to the top of the ridge through ferns and beech forest, it’s easy walking and doesn’t take long to reach the top.

I’m getting close to Waihohonu Hut, my destination for today… as the track descends I can see the hut in the broad valley, at the edge of another patch of forest.

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There’s another nice section of thick forest and a sturdy metal bridge over a branch of the Waihohonu Stream, and I’ve reached the hut!

It’s almost 8pm, and I’m just in time to catch the Hut Warden, Dani Patterson, talking about the history of the hut and local area. Waihohonu Hut is the “Taj Mahal” of the Tongariro Circuit huts; the biggest and best of them with a large communal area and kitchen as well as an outdoor area with picnic benches. The hut is full, but I explain my predicament of being unintentionally tentless (no pun intended) and Dani is extremely helpful. While there is no spare tent I can borrow, she suggests a few areas of the hut where I can bunker down for the night, and even upgrades my ultralight sleeping mat for a deluxe air mattress!

Ohinepango Springs

There’s still a few hours of daylight left, so before cooking dinner I make the short trip to Ohinepango Springs. The well marked track heads south to the natural spring, crossing a tributary of the Ohinepango Stream not far from the hut.

After following the Ohinepango Stream (or one of its upper branches) for a while, the track ends up at the spring. The water emerges from under an old lava flow, although it’s not exactly obvious that it’s a spring. There’s a huge volume of water, which is cold and tastes great.

There’s a bit of colour in the sky and the moon is rising as I get back to Waihohonu Hut, ready for dinner and good night’s sleep.

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Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa village (Day 2)

The wind is howling with gusts of up to 80 km/h and rain is forecast all night, so I’m not in a hurry to leave the hut in the morning… Fortunately and almost exactly as forecast, the rain stops and the sky starts to clear at 8am as I set off for the last leg of the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Less than a kilometre from Waihohonu Hut, I make the very short detour to the historic Waihohonu Hut. Built in 1904 to accommodate park visitors and tourists travelling by coach from Waiouru or Tokaanu, it was replaced by a new Waihohonu hut in 1968. It was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park and the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. Overnight use has been discouraged since 1979, and it has been preserved as example of the typical early two-room mountain huts.

From the historic Waihohonu Hut the track heads west, following an upper branch of the Waihohonu Stream.

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Mount Ruapehu is to the south…

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…and to the north is Mount Ngauruhoe, wearing a skirt of thick cloud that refuses to leave the mountain.

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The track gradually ascends towards the Tama saddle, undulating a little as it negotiates a few valleys created by streams.

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There are some sections of boardwalk and occasionally a few wet sections where water flows through the tussock grass and over the gravel, but it’s fairly easy walking through the open country.

Tama Lakes side-trip

Just after the climb up to the Tama saddle, there’s a sign-posted side trip to the Tama Lakes, two crater lakes formed by a series of volcanic explosions. I leave my overnight backpack at the junction and head down the boardwalk.

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The Lower Tama Lake is reached very quickly, with mimimal ascent. There’s interpretative signage about how the lakes were created, and even a bench made of tussock grass on which to sit and admire the view of the lake, and Mount Ruepehu behind it to the south. However, the views of Lower Tama Lake get better as you head up the steep and rocky ridge.

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At the top of the steep ridge is a view of Upper Tama Lake, below Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s extremely windy, otherwise it would be tempting to slide down the other side of the ridge for a swim in the lake (although, in the same way that summits are considered sacred to the Māori, I think swimming in the alpine lakes is also discouraged).

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It has taken just over an hour to see the two lakes, and I think it’s well worth doing the detour. I continue west along the main track, which crosses six streams before reaching Taranaki Falls.

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The track undulates gently through endless tussock grass, and is mostly boardwalk or compacted gravel. There’s a few more people around including some families with young children, with Tama Lakes a day-walk destination from Whakapapa village.

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I’m soon back at the top of Taranaki Falls, which compared to the previous morning is a lot busier. It’s another very popular destination and picnic spot.

I complete the circuit via the Taranaki Falls track along the Wairere Stream, which has another nice cascade just below the main falls.

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As the track descends, the Wairere Stream becomes muich tamer and – if it was a few degrees warmer – I would have found a quiet spot for a swim. There are a few older kids carrying towels who seem to know where the best swimming spots are.

The end is now in sight, with Chateau Tongariro (built in 1929) visible in the distance… there’s one last section of beech forest and a stream to cross before I’m back at the car, finishing around 2pm on the second day.

It’s been a spectacular hike despite the somewhat soul-destroying crowds of the Tongariro Crossing. I’m keen to come back and do a few more of the NZ Great Walks – but I’ll plan to tackle these in the off-season months!

Tongariro Tips

  • Beat the crowds. The Tongariro Crossing gets super-busy in December/January – unless you enjoy crowds start very early – there are are some shuttles as early as 6am so you beat the crowds. Or if you’re doing the Tongariro Circuit, considering leaving much later – by early afternoon you’ll have the track almost to yourself.
  • Cook without gas. I brought my lightweight camping stove, which I did use – but discovered that all the huts have gas cooking rings, which helps if you’re trying to travel light.
  • Don’t get burnt! Bring and apply plenty of sunscreen. The track is mostly exposed. I made the mistake of not applying sunscreen until about 10am, but even the early-morning sun will give you a sunburn.
  • Bring lots of water. There are parts of the walk where you’re walking next to a stream for hours… but for about 15km along the Tongariro Crossing and down into the Oturere valley there is no water. I’d recommend carrying at least 2L for this section. (I never treated the tank water at the huts or water from streams, although it’s recommended you purify/boil the tank water).
  • Wear decent shoes. You don’t need serious hiking footwear or gaiters (unless you’re doing the Circuit after heavy rain) – but I wouldn’t wear sandals as some people were wearing. There are steep sections with loose and sharp rocks, and you want something with grip that will also protect your feet.
DAY ONE
 0.0km Whakapapa trackhead (Round the Mountain Track)
 2.9km Junction with Taranaki Falls Track 
 4.6km Taranaki Falls Track meets Mangatepopo Track
12.2km Mangatepopo Hut
15.0km Side-track to Soda Springs
15.3km Soda Springs (optional side trip - 600m return)
17.3km Unmarked track to Mount Ngauruhoe summit (side-trip)
19.0km Mount Ngauruhoe summit (2,287m)
21.0km South Crater (flat section). Toilets located here.
22.8km Red Crater (1,886m)
28.2km Oturere Hut
33.9km Track crosses Waihohonu Stream
36.3km Waihohonu Hut
37.5km Ohinepango Springs
38.7km Waihohonu Hut
DAY TWO
39.4km Historic Waihohonu Hut
47.9km Junction with track to Tama Lakes
48.6km Lower Tama Lake
49.9km Upper Tama Lake
52.0km Back at main track
55.7km Junction with Taranaki Falls Trac
59.2km Whakapapa trackhead (via Taranaki Falls track)
Location There are multiple start/end points for the circuit (around 4-5 hours drive from Auckland):

  • Whakapapa Village – this is the only trailhead with accommodation within walking distance and where you can leave your car. Shuttles from here will take you to the Mangatepopo trailhead or you can start/end here.
  • Mangatepopo car park – starting point for Tongariro Crossing and serviced by shuttles. Max 4 hours parking in summer.
  • Ketetahi Road – end point for Tongariro Crossing with overmight car parking available.
Distance Approx 59km with side-trips. 44.9km is the “official” length.
Grade Moderate (Hard if you include Ngauruhoe summit as the route is mostly on loose scree.)
Season/s October to May. Can be done in winter if experienced in snow trekking, or as a guided tour.
Map/s Tongariro Circuit & Round the Mountain Track 1:40K
For more detailed (1:25,000) maps you need:
BH34 Raurima
BJ34 Mount Ruapeha
BJ35 Waiouru
BH35 Turangi
GPS Route Google Maps GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
Map-TongariroCircuit
Map showing Tongairo Northern Circuit. Source: DOC Track Guide.

Cape Tourville, Freycinet

A boardwalk along the rugged Freycinet coastline and around the Cape Tourville Lighthouse offers spectacular coastal views.

It’s the last walk of my Tasmanian holiday… or stroll… I’ve headed to Cape Tourville with the kids in the hope of finding a great sunset vantage spot. The boardwalk around the headland makes it fairly effortless walking – but it’s hard to imagine we were swimming at Wineglass Bay earlier in the day. It feels like it’s freezing, which is not helped by the strong wind.

The boardwalk winds along the rocky coastline and around the unmanned and automatic lighthouse that was built in 1971. Replacing the inaccessible Cape Forestier Lighthouse, the Cape Tourville Lighthouse was built at the same time as a new lighthouse at Point Home, to provide guidance for bulk carriers carrying wood chips from the Triabunna wood chip mill.

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The attraction of the Cape Tourville walk and its inclusion on Tasmania’s “60 Great Short Walks” is due to the fabulous coastal scenery. Near the start of the walk (if you’re doing it in a counter-clockwise direction) are views to the south-west of Freycinet Peninsula.

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Near the end of the walk is a view of The Nuggets, a close group of four granite islets which are home to thousands of migratory birds.

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There’s some interpretative signage along the boardwalk – although it’s too bloody cold to stand still and read the information boards!  We don’t linger long as we’re keen to get out of the cold. We’re a bit too early for the sunset and it’s too cold to hang arouns, so we head back to our accommodation. We stop at Richardsons Beach, close to Freycinet Lodge (we’re not staying here, though!) to catch the sun as it sets over the bay.

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The sky is even more spectacular after the sun has set, once we’re back at our rented house just north of Coles Bay. A very fitting end to my two weeks in Tassie!

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Location Turn left onto the Cape Tourville Road off Freycinet Drive (the main road through the park)
Distance 600m circuit (15min)
Grade Super-easy.
Season/s All year.
Map TasMap Freycinet National Park 1:50,000
6033 Coles Bay (1:25,000)
Resources Tas Parks 60 Great Short Walks – Cape Tourville

Wineglass Bay, Freycinet

One of the most popular walks on the Freycinet Peninsula, the track goes to the Wineglass Bay Lookout before descending to the picturesque Wineglass Bay.

After my early-morning walk to Mt Amos, I head back to the Wineglass Bay carpark for the walk to Wineglass Bay. In stark contrast to my previous walk, which I started at 6:30am, the carpark is now overflowing and it takes me a few circuits to find a parking spot. (Every year Tassie seems to get a bit busier in January, to the point where it’s now becoming less appealing to visit in the peak summer months!) The wide “one-way” gravel track initially rises as it heads towards The Hazards, a series of five granite peaks.

We make steady progress despite having regular breaks, as the track gradually ascends towards the Wineglass Bay Lookout. Coming into view behind us as we climb is Coles Bay.

After a kilometre is the Coles Bay Lookout, which provides a view to the north over Coles Bay.

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The lookout is also the point where the “one-way” track up meets the alternate one-way track down (it gets so busy at peak times that there’s a path for each direction of travel!). Another 500m further there’s a junction to the track to the Wineglass Bay Lookout.

Situated on a saddle between Mt Amos and Mount Mayson, two of the granite peaks that make up The Hazards, the Wineglass Bay Lookout is one of the most popular destinations in the Freycinet National Park. The lookout is the highest point of the walk (201m above sea level) and offers spectacular views of Wineglass Bay and the Freycinet Peninsular. (Although, if you want to avoid the crowds I’d suggest you do the slightly harder walk to Mt Amos for an even better view!)

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From the lookout it’s all downhill to Wineglass Bay. There’s a warning sign that the track can be “steep and slippery” which is absolutely ludicrous, as you could (almost) make it down in a wheelchair. There was a $500,000 track upgrade in 2017, so perhaps they forgot to remove the sign? (As I’ve noted on previous posts, there is an increasing prevalance of warning signs that overstate the dangers, which means people are going to start ignoring these when there are genuine risks or track closures.)

Unperturbed, we continue down the dangerous path: tea trees, eucalypts and she-oaks provide some welcome shade. As we near the bottom, there’s a clear view of Mt Amos, the destination of my last walk.

Although Wineglass Bay is perhaps one of the most photographed and Instagrammed beaches in Australia, the majority of people don’t venture past the lookout. So while there’s a few people at the northern end of the beach, if you walk to the far end you’ll have the beach almost to yourself! (The campground where I stayed with my son a couple of years ago when we did the Freycinet Circuit is also at the other end of Wineglass Bay.)

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From the lookout the water looked calm, and the bay is fairly enclosed – so I was surprised to find large waves and a strong undertow at the beach. We went for a swim anyway – the water was pretty chilly – but there were more people on the beach than in the water! We dried off at the very northern end of the beach, where there’s a rocky platform. Behind the opposite (southern) end of the beach is Mt Graham and Mt Freycinet.

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We head back after our swim – I go back to Wineglass Bay Lookout as the skies have cleared, making the view even more spectacular. Looking at the tranquil bay below, it’s hard to imagine that it owes its name to the blood-red water that resulted from the slaughtering of whales in the early 1800s.

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From the turn-off to the lookout we’ve done the hard (uphill) work – it’s now all downhill back to the carpark and a well-earnt lunch!

0.0km Start at Wineglass Bay carpark
1.0km Coles Bay Lookout
1.6km Wineglass Bay Lookout
3.2km Wineglass Bay
6.4km Return to Wineglass Bay carpark
Location Starts at the Wineglass Bay carpark, near Coles Bay. About 2.5-hours from Hobart or Launceston airports.
Distance 6.4km return (2 hours) – including the track to Wineglass Bay Lookout
Grade Easy. (355m total ascent)
Season/s All year.
Map TasMap Freycinet National Park 1:50,000
6033 Coles Bay (1:25,000)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
Map-Wineglass-Bay
Map showing route to Wineglass Bay. Source: TasTrails

Mount Amos, Freycinet

 

A short and steep walk to the summit of Mount Amos, one of the five peaks that make up The Hazards on the Freycinet Peninsula. A popular sunrise walk, it offers the best views of Wineglass Bay.

Having finished a long but rewarding hike around Maria Island, I’ve got a few days with the family at Freycinet before heading back to Sydney. It was exactly two years ago that I hiked the Freycinet Peninsula over three days with my son. One of the few tracks we didn’t manage to do was the relatively short walk up to the summit of Mt Amos. Starting at the Wineglass Bay carpark, the track soon veers off to the left, with a warning sign for good measure.

It’s a nice and gentle rise intially, through banksia, she-oaks and eucalypts and along a few short sections of boardwalk.

After about 800m, there’s another warning sign – just in case you missed the first one! (It would be a bit slippery after rain, but there’s no sections with any serious exposure and my 12-year old daughter had no issues with the climb.)

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Soon after the second warning sign, the track heads up large granite boulders. Frequent yellow markers show the route, with Mt Amos directly ahead. While none of the granite slabs are particularly steep, there’s a few spots that would be tricky if the rocks were wet.

As we gain altitude, there’s a nice view of the multiple granite tiers below the Mt Amos peak. The pink colouration is from iron oxide impurities in the feldspar (a component of granite) and the black from micas (a black mineral).

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Looking back to the north, there’s a great view over Coles Bay – both the bay and the township on the opposite side.

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Just after the views of the granite tiers, there are some rough sandstone steps, before we reach one of the steepest sections of the track.

The route goes directly up one of the granite tiers we saw earlier: while it’s pretty steep  and looks a little daunting, there are crevices and a few trees that provide handholds.

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The path then flattens and goes through low scrub. To the right there’s a rock outcrop that looks like our destination, but it’s a false summit. A final rocky slope leads to the summit of Mt Amos (454m above sea level).

From here there are sweeping views to the south over Wineglass Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula.

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We reach the summit shortly after 8am – a couple of hours after sunrise, but still early enough to enjoy the nice morning light. (Our timing works perfectly, as we’ve encountered a number of people on their way down, who started early to be on the peak for sunrise. The last person leaves just as we arrive, and we have the summit to ourselves for half an hour.)

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The view from the summit makes the ascent worthwhile, with fantastic views over Wineglass Bay – one of the most beautiful and most photographed beaches in Australia. The best view over the bay is from the right of the true summit, and 20m below the peak there’s another flat area that’s popular for photos.

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To the north are some of the other peaks that make up The Hazards, with the Coles Bay Conservation Area beyond.

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We return to our car at the Wineglass Bay carpark via the same route, having spent half an hour at the top admiring the view and taking photos. The skies have cleared since we reached the peak, so I take a few more photos on the way down of Coles Bay.

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There’s many interesting rock formations that we were less inclined to admire as we scrambled up the mountain. The “chaise lounge” rock provides a nice spot for a rest!

By the time we reach the carpark it’s exactly 9am. It’s taken us 2.5 hours, including the 30min on the summit, so if you’re aiming to reach the top for sunrise you could get to the top in about an hour if you’re fairly fit  (or allow 90min to be safe). On the way back to our accommodation, there’s a nice view of The Hazards from the other side of Coles Bay – Mount Amos is the one in the middle (second from the right).

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Location Starts at the Wineglass Bay carpark, near Coles Bay. About 2.5-hours from Hobart or Launceston airports.
Distance 4.3km return (2-3 hours)
Grade Moderate.  400m total ascent. Some steep sections that require scrambling (no exposure)
Season/s All year. Avoid after rain or when wet.
Map TasMap Frecyinet National Park 1:50,000
6033 Coles Bay (1:25,000)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
Map_MountAmos
Map of Mount Amos route (Source: “Top Walks in Tasmania”, Melanie Ball)

 

Wombats and Devils on Maria Island

Maria Island offers a unique combination of abundant wildlife, Australian convict and early industrial history and multi-day bushwalking opportunities. A four-day hike takes us to the far southern end of Maria Island as well to the summits of Mt Maria (711m) and Bishop and Clerk (620m), and to the Fossil Cliffs by bike.

This is the only pre-planned walk we have in Tasmania: four nights camping on Maria Island. The whole family heads over from Triabunna on the mid-morning ferry, but only Luke and I are staying on the island. I’ve reserved our spots on the ferry a week in advance (a new and much larger ferry since 2017 means it sometime, but rarely gets booked out). The Maria Island Penitentiary accommodation was totally booked out, although in hindsight I’m happy not to have booked here as it’s way too busy in January for my liking!

A few tips from our four-day adventure:

  • What’s the best time to visit Maria Island? December and January are the busiest months; one of the rangers suggested March/April as being the best time if you want to avoid the crowds. The ferry runs less frequently in winter, but if you want seclusion consider a winter visit!
  • Where to stay? In addition to the campground at Darlington (near the ferry) there’s the Penitentiary – basic bunkhouse-style accommodation, offering 9 rooms with 6 beds and 1 room with 14 beds. You can also camp at Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove, both about 11-14km from Darlington depending on the route you take. I suspect you could camp anywhere on the mote remote parts of the island – but it’s highly discouraged and other than Robeys Farm there’s very few places with drinkable water.
  • How to get around? Other than walking (or jogging, if you are that way inclined!) you can rent a bike – bookings are highly recommended in Dec/Jan. If you have an overnight pack you’ll probably struggle riding with a heavy pack – and they won’t rent you a bike anyway. (So if you are determined to get to Frenchs Farm or Encampment Cove to camp, hide your backpack when you go and hire your bike!)
  • How available is water? There was plenty of water at Frenchs Farm, Encampment Cove and Robeys Farm in January – but best to check. I was surprised that almost every creek was dry – except Counsel Creek and Four Mile Creek near the top of Mt Maria.

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Getting to Maria Island and walk overview

The ferry trip across from Triabunna to Darlington on Maria Island is fairly quick and uneventful (it takes about 45min), and there’s a pretty good range of snacks and drinks on the boat for a last pre-camping meal. (Judging by a couple of badly cracked windows, some crossings must be a lot rougher than ours!)

The ferry docks at Darlington and the luggage is efficiently lifted via a small crane onto the wharf for collection. Near the jerry are some historic structures, such as the cement silos, and the Commissariat Store (which is also the national park visitor centre).

We set off (without our overnight packs) to climb Bishop and Clerk, the second-highest peak on the island. Amy, my daughter, is going to join Luke and I for this walk before catching the last ferry back to the mainland with Mum.

Our itinerary was designed to see as much of the island as we could – and where possible avoid carrying our heavy overnight bags…

In total, we cover about 80km over three days – which is most the marked tracks on the island. On the fourth day we hire a bike to cover the area around Darlington.

Bishop and Clerk (Day 1)

The summit of Bishop and Clerk (620m asl) is a popular day walk: as well as being one of Tasmania’s “Top 60 Great Short Walks”, it’s regarded as one of Tassie’s best day walks. We set-off from opposite the Parks and Wildlife Office, where we leave our big packs, taking the unsealed road that passes behind the old penitentiary.

We also pass the site of the “Twelve Apostles”, named after a row of workers’ cottages built during the first industrial era (1888–96). Soon after we pass the junction with the Reservoir Circuit, as we continue up the Fossil Cliff  Track.

Once the track reaches the grassy plain at the top of the Fossil Cliffs, the scenery gets more interesting. The rocky summit of Bishop and Clerk is clearly visible in the distance as the track follows Skipping Ridge, along the edge of the cliff-top. The dolerite columns that form the top of Bishop and Clerk were named because of the supposed resemblance to a bishop, wearing a mitre, followed by a clergyman. Although even when I squint or turn my head at funny angles, I can’t really see this resemblance!

Looking back down the coast, you can see the mainland in the distance above the towering cliffs. Even better is the fact we’re already gained about 150m in altitude without really trying…

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It gets a bit tougher from here, as we leave the open grassy plain, and the track enters the (mostly) eucalypt forest and starts to steadily climb. At the start of the forested section there’s a stand of sheoaks or casuarinas, which were prized as firewood by the early settlers. These are gradually replaced by stringybarks, blue gums and manna or white gum eucalypts.

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This part of the walk is pretty boring… we don’t see any wildlife, there are no wildflowers and no view. Just the narrow track heading relentlessly up the ridge…

It gets more interesting when we reach the scree field, formed by dolerite rock debris. There is a rough track that zig-zags up the slope and make it fairly easy to negotiate the sometimes loose stones (the kids decide to ignore the track and walk directly up the hill). Without the tree cover, there are now views over Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.

As the trail ascends, the boulders get gradually bigger – and the view keeps improving!

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Near the summit, the rocks become boulders, and in a few places we need to use our hands and feet as we scramble up. There’s a false summit where we think we’ve made it, followed by a steep right-hand turn and another 50m before we’re really on top of Bishop and Clerk.

The panoramic view from the top is incredible – and we have the summit to ourselves. Having started the walk relatively late in the day, everyone’s been and gone by the time we get there (we met a few people on their way down).

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To the west is Cape Boullanger and the Fossil Cliffs, and the east coast of the mainland on the other side of Mercury Passage.

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To the north, beyond the jagged dolerite columns, I can just make out Isle des Phoques, and in the far distance Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula.

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After I take a few photos and kids have finished leaping across the rocks at the top, we start our descent, clambering carefully down the large boulders at the top.

We make good progress on the way back, taking exactly 3.5 hours for the return trip – and I see my first wombat on the outskirt of Darlington. Which was quite exciting… by the same time tomorrow, I’m far less excited having seen more wombats in 24 hours than in the previous 24 years!

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Darlington to Frenchs Farm (Day 1)

While we’ve finished the Bishop and Clerk walk, Luke and I still need to reach Frenchs Farm, our destination for today. After a short break and refilling of water bottles, we strap on the overnight packs and head down the Coast Road. On the outskirts of the Darlington settlement we pass Mrs Hunt’s Cottage; Mrs Hunt was the one of the last island inhabitants prior to the island being proclaimed a National Park. Grazing in the foreground are two Cape Barren Geese, introduced to Maria Island in 1968.

Our progress is hampered by another wombat sighting, grazing on the inland side of the Coast Road. Not just any wombat, but an adult and child munching together on grass, oblivious to us taking photos. Maria Island is home to about 4,000 wombats and the population has been steadily increasing, to the point where there is a concern it may be unsustainable (“The current status of wombat populations on Maria Island National Park” by Janeane Ingram). The wombats on Maria Island are a subspecies of the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) which were once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but are now restricted to Flinders Island, and Maria Island where they were introduced in the 1970s.

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It doesn’t take us long to reach Hopground Beach, a beautiful bay that’s better known for the Painted Cliffs at the far end.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which crosses Counsel Creek – you can also turn off here and continue along the beach.

We spot some more birdlife here: another Cape Barren Goose, and after we take the short path down to the Painted Cliffs, there’s a pair of pied oystercatchers feeding on the rocky shoreline.

The Painted Cliffs is one of the attractions on Maria Island (and the walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs is another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”). Easily accessed at low tide, the long sandstone outcrop has been weathered over millions of years by groundwater percolating down through the sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which gives the rock formation its unusual pattern.

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More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried and in the process formed salt crystals of salt, which have caused the rock to weather in a honeycomb pattern.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which follows the coast fairly closely. It’s relatively easy walking and there are nice views of the coastline and remote bays and beaches.

There’s also increasing sightings of wildlife as we get into the late afternoon: wombats, Forester (Eastern grey) kangaroos and wallabies (the Tasmanian pademelon and Bennetts wallaby).

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With our legs starting to tire, we have a brief stop at the beautiful Four Mile Beach. There’s a small group who are leaving as we arrive; they’ve come from a boat moored a small distance offshore and have brought a dog with them. I’m happy when they rather hastily put their furry friend in their dinghy and motor back to their yacht, leaving just us to admire the beach and turquoise-coloured water.

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After Four Mile Beach the Coast Road heads inland, crossing Four Mile Creek. (While the creek looks nice from a distance, it had a lot of algae and didn’t look too tempting as a water source. Had it been clear, flowing water we might have camped here, close to the beach! I discover later that the “Maria Island Walk” has a camp near here, so I wonder if they use water from Four Mile Creek – or water tanks?)

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We trudge on, looking forward to reaching our campground. Fortunately the Coast Road is fairly flat, although it’s now a few hundred metres inland from the coast and there’s not much to see. We’re very happy when reach Frenchs Farm just after 7pm. At the top of the campground is a a simple weatherboard house, built during the 1950s when farming was introduced to the island, and later restored. The house is is no longer used – other than collecting rainwater which fills a large water tank (which is fairly full).

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Nearby is an old shearing shed and stockyard, which doesn’t hasn’t been restored, but seems in reasonable condition. I don’t notice any smell… but one of the Maria Island ranger suggested you could still detect a faint odour of sheep from the 1940s and 50s.

We find a campsite near the bottom of the main campground, which has the luxury of a picnic table nearby. Wombats are grazing everywhere, and later in the evening one ambles right past our tent. There’s one other tent already set-up, and a couple of hikers that arrive just after us. It’s a huge campground, and behind the (dry) creek there’s another area you could camp if you want total privacy and seclusion.

After eating dinner, we’re treated to a blood-red sky as the sun sets behind the farmhouse and shed – a nice end to a long but rewarding day!

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Haunted Bay (Day 2)

We’re up early the next day, as we leave our tent and overnight backpacks at Frenchs Farm, and continue south to the far end of Maria Island on the Isthmus Track.

Not far from Frenchs Farm we cross a wide creek, which isn’t named on any of my maps. It’s the same creek that would flow through the campground just behind my tent, but is totally dry – so I suspect it may be brackish rather than fresh water.

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The very sandy track follows the edge of Shoal Bay as it curves towards the narrow McRaes Isthmus, a narrow neck of sand with beaches on either side.

The isthmus is very narrow, and when you see photos of it from above it appears to be only a few metres wide. But the track goes right down the middle, and while we can hear the ocean there no sight of any water. Near the middle there’s an unmarked track that takes us to Riedle Bay to the east (bottom left) and Shoal Bay to the west (bottom right).

Riedle Bay is stunning – a long, crescent-shaped beach with turquoise water and gentle waves – and not a single other person in sight.

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Just after this track to the two beaches, the Isthmus Track splits into two: Haunted Bay to the left, and Robeys Farm to the right. We go left towards Haunted Bay, with the track gradually climbing from the end of Riedle Bay up to its highest point of 197m.

There’s a short (1.5km) but steep descent at the end on a narrow bush track, with occcasional glimpses of the bay through the trees.

Located at southern extremity of Maria Island, Haunted Bay is a fascinating spot. It was a whaling site in the 1800s and is home to fairy penguins that live in between the granite rocks (although I don’t see any). The remote bay is surrounded by tall granite cliffs, many of which are covered in bright orange and yellow lichen.

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If feels remote and secluded, as we find a spot in the shade for our lunch. Although we’re not quite alone – a tiny fishing boat is bobbing around, at the foot of the cliffs.

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We head back the way we came, back to the junction with the Robeys Farm track…

Robeys Farm (Day 2)

We hadn’t really planned on visiting Robeys Farm, but it’s only 11:30am and Luke is keen to try and complete all the walks on Maria Island. So we take turn left towards the old farm. Less than a kilometre from the junction is Stinking Creek. I’m thinking when I see this on the map that it may not be a great spot to refill water bottles. And it doesn’t disappoint. While the surrounding grass looks soft and a lovely deep green colour, the creek is also an almost flourescent green colour, and smells putrid.

It’s about 5km (one-way) from the junction with the Isthmus Track, on what seems to be an old vehicular track. It’s sandy in places, but generally shaded and fairly level.

After we cross Robeys Creek (which is completely dry) and what seems to be now over-grown farmland, we reach the Robeys Farm farmhouse. It looks in pretty good condition from the outside, and considerable restoration work has been done by the Hobart Walking Club and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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The inside is like stepping back in time. John Vivian (Viv) and Hilda Robey emigrated from South Africa in the 1920s, moving originally to Hobart and then to Maria Island. By 1953 they had secured a total leasehold of 5,570 acres on Maria Island that they called “South End”, which supported 600-700 sheep and up to 40 head of cattle. After Hilda died in Hobart at age 82, Viv also became ill a few years later in August 1965 and was brought off the island in pain (he was found to be suffering from malnutition). He returned to his native South Africa in November after being discharged from hospital, never returning to Maria Island. The hasty and unplanned departure was evident from the table still being set for dinner, and a rice pudding still in the oven.

As I sit on the verandah of Robeys Farm and look out over the harsh landscape, I have to admire the tenacity and spirit of our early settlers. On a practical note, there’s a water tank here which is full, so I refill our water bottles and have a drink before we return.

We get back to the Frenchs Farm around 2:30pm, and have a quiet afternoon resting – and watching some of the wildlife around the campground. With another couple arriving, I’m finding the “main campground” far too busy (there are now four tents). So we move our tent across the dry creekbed to another huge area, which we have to ourselves. Much better.

Encampment Cove (Day 2)

After an early dinner, we wander across to Encampment Cove, the alternate campground that we could have stayed at. It’s a nice evening to be walking, and with sunset not until 8:45pm, it’s still light until almost 10pm.

After a short section through forest, the vehicular trail follows a wide creek  to Chinamans Bay and then goes along the coastline to Encampment Cove. On the other side of the tranquil cove is Shoal Bay with its long sandy beach, and behind it stands Mt Maria.

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There’s a number of camping areas along the track, and a large camping area near the water as well as further inland toward the shed (which has a water tank). The disadvantage of this camping areas is that it’s accessible by boat, and one group seemed to have brought a replica of the Taj Mahal. It’s nice be near the water, but Frenchs Farm feels more secluded and I’m happy with out choice to camp here for two nights.

We share the road with a few more wombats and wallabies as we head back to our tent!

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It’s been a long day – 35km in total – but we’re glad we managed to visit Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm. If I had to pick one destination, Haunted Bay would be my choice – and having some time here at in the late afternoon or evening would be amazing,

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Mt Maria (Day 3)

We’re up early again today – it’s another fairly long day as we head back via the Inland Track and climb Mt Maria (711m), before a last night at Darlington. A last quick check of the map on my phone and we’re off!

It’s only about 1.5km from Frenchs Farm via the Coast Road, before we turn right onto the Inland Track. Although this route is more “undulating” than the Coast Road and gradually ascends by about 150m, it’s still fairly easy walking. It would be (compared to the Coast Road) a lot harder on a bike, due both to it’s hillier nature and the sometimes soft sand.

It only takes us a couple of hours to reach the start of the well sign-posted track up to Mt Maria, where we stash our overnight packs behind a tree. The track up can be loosely divided into three sections… Initially the track ascends through open eucalypt forest, which was burnt regularly in the early farming days resulting in minimal undergrowth (and low plant diversity).

After a few kilometres there is a change from dolerite to siltstone in the underlying rock, caused by a major fault millions of years ago that lifted the eastern side of the island. There are now white peppermint (which grows only on dolerite soils) and more shrubby undergrowth plants, including pink mountain berry, silver banksia and pink heath. A small creek flows down the mountain, which is the start of Four Mile Creek. It’s not always flowing, despite every other creek being bone dry, but this one had a trickle of water and we could refill our water bottles.

Finally there are the scree and boulder fields… It was a result of water freezing, expanding and shattering one of the upright dolemite columns 20,000 years ago, leaving a trail of rock debris down the mountain. Marked by yellow arrows and orange poles, it’s fairly easy walking up the scree – at least on a dry day!

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After the first scree slope, there’s an unexpected oasis of green – a short section of forest
consisting of Oyster Bay pine, richea, and banksia,

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Then it’s back to more boulders, which are now larger and at times require hands and feet to climb.

We’re not far from the summit (711m asl), marked by a large trig point and offering sweeping views in most directions… it’s also surprisingly windy at the top, which we’ve been protected from on the way up (and perhaps because of the wind, the often cloud-covered peak is clear).

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You can clearly see the narrow isthmus separating the north and south parts of Maria Island to the south, where we walked the previous day. Beyond Maria Island is the Tasman Peninsula, with some of its high cliffs just visible.

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To the west is Darlingon (you can just see the jetty) and the Wielangta Forest Reserve on the mainland.

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And to the north is Mount Pedder, with its radio tower on the summit, and in the far distance is Schouten Island and Freycinet Peninsula (which are not really recognisable).

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We admire the view for a while – it would have been a great lunch spot just below the summit (where it’s protected from the wind), but we left all our food in the overnight backpacks!

Once we re-join the Inland Track it’s only another four kilometres or so back to Darlington, and it’s pretty much all downhill… The track meets Counsel Creek on the way to the coast, which is also flowing and looks pretty clear. I was tempted to camp somewhere along the creek to avoid the inevitable crowds at Darlington, but both sides of the valley along the creek are too steep and scrubby.

Oast House Track

Just as we reach sight of the coast there’s a junction with the Oast House Track, so we take this alternate and slightly hillier route back to Darlington (this route is a lot less busy, which is nice – we only see two other people on the trail).

“An oast or oast house is a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process” – I learnt something new writing this blog post 🙂 The Maria Island Oast House is one of the oldest in Tasmania, and by 1847 was producing three tonnes of hops per year in its two large brick drying towers.

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The Oast House is also near the top of a small hill, so from here it’s all downhill again to Darlington.

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As we complete the very last part of our walk along the Coast Track, we encounter an adult wombat with its baby grazing by the grassy bank of Darlington Bay. It’s a nice end to our 3-day walk!

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We’re back in Darlington by 4pm, in time to pick up the bicycles we booked a few days ago. I’m ready for a wee nap, but Luke seems to have unlimited energy and insists we ride down to the jetty. And then back to Painted Cliffs. I finally managed to convince him to stop, so we can put up our tent at the Darlington campground! It’s fairly large camping ground with a lot of trees around the river that runs through the middle of it. We find a sheltered spot fairly close to the road, but away from most of the other tents. There are a LOT of tents her in mid-January, and I regret that we couldn’t find a secluded spot by Counsel Creek, just outside Darlington. On the plus side there are basic cooking facilities and running water here. Outside of December/January, it would most likely be a great campground!

Probably attracted by food scraps (although we don’t see anyone feeding the animals), there’s a lot of wildlife in and around the campsites. Two wombats chase each other past our tent, there’s loads of wallabies and a friendly kookaburra keeps an eye on our tent.

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A little later, a Tasmanian Devil lopes along the river through the camping ground. We’re warned by the rangers not to leave food (especially meat) or even clothes in areas that the devils can reach. Special bins are available, athough I figure I should be OK hanging our backpacks on a high branch. The only thing I leave out is a pair of my hiking socks, which I remove as I climb into the tent and tucked under the canvas at the front. In the morning, they’re gone. I’m still unsure what concerns me most… that a devil took my socks from a few centimetres away from my face as I slept – or that my pungent socks are lining the den of a poor Tasmanian Devil!

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Having erected our tent and eaten dinner, we make one last final excursion by bike down to the jetty, in the hope of catching a nice sunset. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of wildlife out and about.

The sunset doesn’t disappoint, with a long blaze of red along the top of the hills on the mainland. It’s been another fantastic day on Maria Island!

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Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Circuit (Day 4)

We’re up early (again!) to catch the morning light, with a bike ride to Fossil Cliffs, which are not far from Darlington. We ride down past the jetty and cement silos, and the Convict Barn, built in 1846 on a wide gravel road.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit road ascends very gently, as it crosses Cape Boullanger and passes the Maria Island airstrip. Once we reach the low cliffs on the opposite side of the cape, the summit of Bishop and Clerk comes into view, partly shrouded by clouds.

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We dismount and walk down a short track that leads to the top of the cliffs, where there is some interpretative signage. This large rock shelf is where the limestone was quarried, and the remains of the tramline that connected the quarry to the cement works. From here there’s a rough and steep path down to the base of the cliffs.

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As it’s low tide (we’ve been fortunate with tides here and at the Painted Cliffs… or maybe it’s good planning…) we can safely explore the thousands of shellfish fossils embedded in limestone. The Fossil Cliffs are considered one of the best examples of life 250 million years ago, with the sheer volume attributed to the cold conditions associated with the polar sea at the time.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit continues along the top of the cliff-line…

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…which is not a lot of fun. It’s uphill – and steep – up to the top of the Fossil Cliffs. I push my bike most of the way. I’m not feeling very fit!

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Then it’s downhill again, to the junction of the track to Reservoir Dam. Just after the start of the Reservoir Circuit road are the ruins of the cement works, which were built around 1889.

The relatively flat road ends at Reservoir Dam, which was constructed by convicts during the first convict period (1825-1832) to supply the settlement of Darlington, and has been enlarged a few times since. It’s a tranquil spot, and would be an ideal destination for a picnic lunch or bird-watching at dusk or dawn.

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The other half of the Reservoir Circuit is a narrow track (but suitable for bikes), which heads gently downhill back to Darlington.

Historic Darlington (Day 4)

We pack up our tent, hand back our bikes and spend the last few hours on the island looking around Darlington. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much evidence or signage of Aboriginal history on Maria Island, which was frequented by the people of the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe.

In comparison, there’s been considerable work done to preserve and present the fascinating history of European colonisation, which occurred in four periods:

The first convict era (1825–1832)

Lt Peter Murdoch arrived as Commandant in March 1825 with 50 convicts and military escorts. Darlington was a depot for prisoners returned to authorities after having worked for settlers, or convicts guilty of light offences. The settlement ceased on 1 October 1832, due to the success of Port Arthur and ease of escape from Maria Island.

The Commisseriat Store (1825) is the oldest building on the island: it had an office,  provision store and the spirit room downstairs and stores belonging to the Ordinance
Department upstairs.

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The second convict era (1842–1850)

While some sheep grazing  and whaling continued on Maria Island over the previous decade, in August 1842 it was Convict Probation Station. Convict tradesmen were sent to the island to prepare the settlement for 400 men. It was proposed in 1850 it was proposed to break up the station and convict numbers declined to virtually zero by the end of the year.

The Visiting Magistrate’s Office was constructed in 1842 as the administrative centre for the Probation Station. Convicts were tried here for minor offences.

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The first industrial era (1884–1896)

Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi leased Maria Island for 10 cents per year, with a vision of setting up a wine-making and silk industry. The Maria Island Company commenced in 1887 adding agriculture, cement, timber and fishery to the island’s activities. While the population peaked at around 250 people in the late 1880s, the company went into liquidation in February 1892. A second company formed by Bernacchi also failed, and most of the assets were seized in November 1896.

The Coffee Palace – a name commonly used to describe a type of restaurant – was built by the Maria Island Company in 1888. It had two dining rooms and a lounge at the front of the building, and living quarters at the rear of the house. It’s been restored with period furniture, and in the dining room you can sit at one of the tables and hear recordings that recount life on Maria Island during the industrial eras.

The second industrial era (1920–1930)

Bernacchi had another attempt to develop Maria Island based on a plan to produce cement. Darlington’s population increased to over 150 men, with the National Portland Cement Ltd being formed in 1924. However, the cement was fairly poor quality and the production volumes were too low. In 1930, with the Great Depression underway, the Australian Cement Company took over and operations ceased.

Built in 1920, the massive concrete silos used to store cement are among the first things you see when arriving at Maria Island.

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Since the 1930s, properties were acquired and the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 June 1971, and proclaimed a National Park on 14 June 1972.

Somewhat reluctantly, we board the 11:15am ferry back to the mainland. It’s been an incredible four days. Despite the crowds around Darlington, for the majority of our walk we’ve seen very few people and experienced a sense of isolation that’s not easy to find in the January school holidays! And we’ve seen more wildlife than just about any other walk I’ve done.

DAY ONE
 0.0km Maria Island ferry wharf (Darlington)
 0.6km Ranger Station / PWS office at Darlington
 1.7km Junction with Reservoir Circuit Track
 2.6km Track reaches Fossil Cliffs (Skipping Ridge)
 6.9km Bishop and Clerk summit
12.6km Return to Ranger Station at Darlington
15.2km Painted Cliffs
19.2km Four Mile Beach
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY TWO
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
29.3km Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
35.6km Haunted Bay
41.6km Back at Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
46.3km Robeys Farm
55.4km Frenchs Farm (campground)
57.6km Encampment Cove (campground)
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY THREE
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
67.8km Junction with Inland Track
72.6km Mt Maria summit
77.4km Junction with Inland Track 
80.7km Junction with Oast House Track
82.7km Darlington (Ranger Station / PWS office)
DAY FOUR (by bike)
0.0km Darlington campground
2.6km Fossil Cliffs
4.1km Start of Reservoir Circuit
5.4km Reservoir Dam
7.8km Darlington campground
Distance as measured by GPS, and not the official track lengths.
Location Access via Encounter Maria ferry from Triabunna
Distance 83km circuit (including Bishop & Clerke and Mt Maria)
8km cycle to Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Dam
Grade Moderate.
All tracks well sign-posted and well-maintained.
Season/s All year. Gets pretty busy in January. Mar/Apr a good time.
Map TASMAP Maria Island National Park 1:50K
5828 Darlingon 1:25,000 (covers top of Maria Island)
5827 Riedle 1:25,000 (covers bottom of Maria Island)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.

Resources

Mt Rufus and Little Hugel

 

A spectacular circuit that combines Shadow Lake and Forgotten Lake with an ascent of Mt Rufus (1,416m asl) and a side-trip to Little Hugel (1,274m asl). Two mountain peaks, alpine lakes, rainforest and incredible displays of flowering heath.  

My second walk during our stay at Lake St Clair Lodge: this time just Amy is joining me, as we tackle the Mt Rufus Circuit (another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”)! It’s overcast as we set out, taking the most direct route up to Mt Rufus.

The track climbs fairly consistently but never steeply, with the vegetation changing from eucalypt forest with towering trees to cool temperate rainforest in the gullies.

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It takes us about an hour to reach the junction with the Shadow Lake Track, which means we’re a bit of over half the distance and almost half the elevation gain. Unfortunately, while it’s not raining, it looks like there is low cloud over Mt Rufus.

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From the junction the track heads more or less directly ahead to the mountain ridge, through sub-alpine snowgum forest.

The good news is that it looks like the clouds are clearing, with the long summit ridge of Mt Rufus visible ahead of us.

As we reach the valley below the ridge, there’s an incredible display of flowering heath – Richea Scoparia – a species of flowering plant that’s endemic to Tasmania. I later learn that the flowers are sought out by wallabies to eat, although the plants themselves are fairly prickly.

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After the “field of flowers” the track climbs steeply up to the base of the summit ridge – we’re feeling a bit unprepared as we encounter a few other hikers in serious wet weather gear. Below us is Lake St Clair, with the view sometimes improving as we gain altitude – and sometimes vanishing altogether in the clouds.

Finally we reach the exposed ridge that leads up to the Mt Rufus peak – it’s cold and windy as we follow the path up to a summit that we can’t actually see anymore!

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I’d like to say the view from the Mt Rufus summit (at 1,416m elevation) was amazing… but visibility was limited to about 20m, with the cloud having closed in. We didn’t stay long. But on a clear you should be rewarded with “outstanding views of Lake St Clair, Mt Olympus, Frenchmans Cap and the headwaters of the Franklin River”.

We soldier on, keen to get out out of the driving wind. The track is still fairly exposed, although at least we’re now descending the ridge line that tracks north towards Mt Hugel. The terrain consists of a layer of sandstone (almost 300 million years old) through which magma intruded up (165 million years ago) to form dolerite, which covered the sandstone layer.

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Despite – or perhaps because of? – the low cloud and mist, this part of the walk is incredibly scenic. There’s another field of flowers stretching into the distance as the track reaches the saddle between Mt Rufus and Mt Hugel.

Behind us, still in cloud, is the Mt Rufus summit.

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Ahead of us the Mt Rufus Track crosses the saddle: with its top in the clouds is Mount Hugel (1,357m asl) and to the left is the Cheyne Range. (There’s no marked trail to the Mount Hugel summit but there are informal tracks – a peak for a future Tassie trip!) We’re only a few kilometres from the source of the Franklin River, which begins its 120km journey from just below Mount Hugel.

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As the track continues to gradually descend, there are some interesting sandstone rock formations, sculpted by many years of wind and rain.

It’s quite an impressive vista looking out to the north towards Mount Hugel.

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The duckboard track swings to the east around the base of Mount Hugel (the rocky summit is now largely clear of the clouds and doesn’t seem too formidable to climb)!

The valley below the saddle between Mt Rufus and Mt Hugel is known as Richea Valley, named after the scoparia plants…

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…and pandani that grow here in profusion.

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This is my favourite part of the walk so far, with a combination of eucalypt forest in the background and alternating sections of pandani and flowering heath. The pandani (Richea pandanifolia) is found only in Tasmania and is the largest heath plant in the world (it has no relation to the pandanus palms of tropical Australia and South-east Asia).

As the track descends through the valley, the vegetation gradually changes with a section of cool temperate rainforest and a multitude of Myrtle Beech. There’s some huge trees both upright and fallen!

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There’s a final rainforesty-section as the track reaches the edge of the forested area.

The track then crosses a broad plain, covered with low but dense heath: fortunately there’s grassy path. It would be very slow-going to get through this vegetation without a track. Behind us (bottom left) is the still cloud-covered summit of Mount Hugel.

Having reached the other side of the wide valley, the track ascends gently past a couple of tarns before it reaches the junction with the Shadow Lake Track.

We soon reach the edge of Shadow Lake, and then the track that heads to Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel. It’s a tough choice: continue back to Lake St Clair – or attempt our second summit for the day and hopefully this time have a clear view!

Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel

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We decide to take the detour and head towards Forgotten Lake. The track follows the edge of Shadow Lake, with Little Hugel in the background.

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Up to Forgotten Lake it’s easy walking (although I read later it can get muddy after rain) – the only challenge we have is making sure we don’t step on the many lizards who are basking on the boardwalk.

Once we reach Forgotten Lake, the “track” becomes a “walking route”. We start climbing, quite gently at first, through a forest of pandani, myrtle, deciduous beech and snow
gums.

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There’s frequent orange triangles marking the route, although it’s fairly easy to follow.

It gets progressively steeper through denser rainforest, until we reach the start of the boulders and scree. The summit is directly ahead. (My mum tells me that “hügel” means hill in German – although it looks and feels like more than a hill!)

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There’s a nice view of Forgotten Lake and Shadow Lake through the trees.

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Amy is getting a bit tired – but the benefit of climbing a mountain is she has 4G reception on her phone. She’s quite content with my suggestion of making sure she’s up-to-date with her social media feed, while I complete the last few hundred metres to the summit… It’s steep but fairly quick, with the route now a consisting of scramble up the boulder field toward the summit.

There’s a nice view of the heart-shaped Forgotten Lake, almost directly below.

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From the summit** of Little Hugel (1,274m asl), there’s a great view of Forgotten Lake and Shadow Lake, as well as the southern end of Lake St Clair in the distance. (**In the interest of blogging accuracy – it’s almost the summit! The true summit was about 50m higher; as I didn’t want to leave Amy too long, I went to the outcrop of rock on the right and not the true summit to the west.)

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It’s a much quicker descent down the steep track!

The first few kilometres from Shadow Lake back to Lake St Clair are pretty dreary – the track passes through eucalpyt forest and the landscape is fairly monotonous.

As the track descends further and gets closer to the Hugel River, there’s a few nice sections again of temperate rainforest and towering trees.

It’s not too much further until we reach the turn-off to the Platypus Bay Track and cross the Hugel River. From here there’s just over a kilometre until we’re back at Lake St Clair Lodge. It’s been an exhausting but fantastic walk – and we’re glad to get back to the lodge for an early dinner!

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 0.0km Start at Lake St Clair Visitors Centre (Cynthia Bay)
 0.3km Junction with Mount Rufus Track
 4.8km Junction with Shadow Lake Track
 6.5km Start of Mt Rufus summit ridge (exposed track)
 8.3km Mt Rufus summit
13.8km Junction with Shadow Lake Track (alternate return route)
14.3km Junction with Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel
17.1km Little Hugel Summit
19.6km Return to Mt Rufus Track
24.2km Junction with Platypus Bay Track
25.1km Junction with Mt Rufus Track
25.5km Lake St Clair Visitors Centre
Location Starts/finishes at Lake St Clair Lodge (Cynthia Bay)
Distance 25.5km circuit (8-9 hours)
Grade Moderate.  Total 1,015m ascent.
Track to Little Hugel rough and steep in some sections
Season/s All year. Might be icy in winter and ferry operates less frequently
Map 4233 Rufus 1:25K (south end of lake)
TASMAP Lake St Clair Day Walk Map (print & digital options)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
lakestclair
Map of day walks from Lake St Clair. Source: Tas Parks “Lake St Clair Lakeside Walk”

Sunrise from Mount Pilot

A short walk to the Mt Pilot Lookout, which provides sweeping views over the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park and surrounding area from the 545m summit. 

It hardly qualifies as a “hike”… but having stopped in Beechworth on the way to Melbourne (and then across Bass Strait to Tasmania), it seems a good idea to fit in a short walk. The 545m Mt Pilot summit seems as a good a choice as any, although it’s only a 300m trek from the carpark!

It’s an easy stroll up the well-made path, with a rocky platform providing views on the way up to the summit.

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The summit is reached in less than 15min: it’s not a bad spot to watch the sun rising over the low ranges of the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park.

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To the north and north-west is a view over agricultural land toward Chiltern and Rutherglen.

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After watching the sun rise, it’s a quick walk back down to the car, with the morning light making for nice photos of the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park.

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The Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park was only created in October 2002 to “conserve and enhance what remains of Victoria’s Box-Ironbark forests and woodlands”. There are a number of longer walks including the Whitebox Walking Track (8.5km) and you can also reach the Mt Pilot summit via a more challenging and partly off-track circuit (track notes on Trail Hiking Australia). The centre of one of the richest goldfield’s in Australia in the 1850s, there’s also remnants of the alluvial gold workings and some historic buildings like the Powder Magazine (built in 1860 to store the gunpowder used in gold mining).

On the way back from Mt Pilot to our motel at Beechworth (about a 20min drive) we make a brief stop at Woolshed Falls. The top of the falls is only a few minutes walk from the carpark. Ironically, while some of the roads are closed due to flooding a few months ago, today there’s not much water flowing down Reedy Creek.

A few hundred metres further is another viewing platform, which provides a better view of the falls and the pool beneath them.

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After a quick look and a few photos – we’re the only people here at around 7:30am – we’re back at our motel in about 10min.

Location 275km north east of Melbourne & 34km north of Wangaratta. From Beechworth take the Beechworth-Chiltern Rd (C377) toward Chiltern, and turn right onto Old Coach Road.
Distance 600m return.
Grade Easy
Season/s All year.
Map 8225-3-N Beechworth North (not required)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources

Three Short Hikes in Death Valley

 

A drive through Death Valley, with three short hikes that explore the highs and lows (altitude-wise) of the area.

After hiking to Telescope Peak the previous day – the highest point at 11,049 ft (3,368m) above sea level – today’s a relatively easy day before I drive back to Las Vegas. I’ve picked three short hikes that take in some of the varied landscapes of the park:

  • Zabriskie Point where the Badlands Loop goes through gulches and along ridges, and provides a close view of some of the rock formations of Death Valley
  • Dante’s View, one of the highest points you can get to by car where two short walks provide sweeping views from the lowest to the highest points in Death Valley
  • Badwater, the lowest point of the US for a hike across the salt flats.

Starting at Beatty, outside the park, I start fairly early as the morning light is best for photography of the salt pans. There’s nice morning light and no traffic as the dead-straight road (Highway 374) heads for the Grapevine Mountains.

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Visibility is still a bit obscured by smoke from fires burning in California.

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It’s a surprisingly hilly place – there are multiple mountain ranges between the vast plains; Death Valley itself is bounded by the Panamint Mountains on one side and Amargosa Range on the other.

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Directly ahead of Highway 190 is the Amargosa Range runs which along most of the eastern side of California’s Death Valley, separating it from Nevada’s Amargosa Desert. Its highest peak at 8,738 feet (2,663 m) is Grapevine Peak.

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Zabriskie Point

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My first stop is Zabriskie Point, which is at the foothills of the Amargosa Range. There’s a very short walk to a popular lookout here, which provides a vantage point over the desolate landscape.

Looking west, across Death Valley, is the Panamint Range in the background. The jagged peak in the middle is Manly Peak, located half inside Death Valley National Park, and half inside the Manly Peak Wilderness area.

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To really experience the desert landscape, there’s two short, circular hikes that start here: the Golden Canyon Loop and the Badlands Loop.

I’m taking the shorter (2.7 miles / 4.3km) Badlands Loop, which gives you a great feeling for the dramatic landscape.

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The hike, sign-posted by frequent arrows and easy to follow, heads down a narrow gully carved by infrequent (but heavy) rain to Zabriskie Point Junction.

From Zabriskie Point Junction the trail follows a much broader gully, which is a major artery of Gower Gulch, in a south-westerly direction.

After about 1.3 miles there’s a junction, which is also the lowest point of the Badlands Loop. Continue straight ahead down Gower Gulch (and back via Golden Canyon) to form a longer circuit. Or head back up a narrower gully to complete the shorter Badlands Loop, which is what I do (I’m doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction).

From the junction the track ascends from Gower Gulch, following the ridges of the hills. Looking much like sand dunes, you can almost visualise the ancient lake bed being  folded and faulted into the irregular white hills that exist today.

This is the most spectacular part of the short loop: as the trail ascends along the ridges of the hills, you can see the rugged terrain, and the Panamint mountain range in the distance.

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You can also see the distinct difference between the lighter hills formed from alluvial material from the lake bed, which is rich in borax, and the darker peaks formed by lava from eruptions that occurred 3-5 million years ago. (Borax, also known as white gold, was mined in the region in the 1880s and some many mines shafts remain, including several abandoned Borax mines along the Badlands Loop.)

Towards the end of the Loop, I can see Zabriskie Point in the distance (top right of the photo below) and the gully that leads back to the starting point.

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Rather than following the marked track back, I head straight up one of the ridges that leads towards the lookout. It eventually becomes a rough track obviously used by others to reach the lookout point.

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From Zabriskie Point, I take – which is now starting to get a bit  busier – I take a last photo of the panoramic views.

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Dante’s View

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My next stop, a bit further along Highway 190, is Dante’s View. While not as high as Telescope Peak, it provides one of the best views over the white salts flats and most of the 110-mile long Death Valley. Getting there is half the fun, with Dante’s View Road rising steeply up from Highway 190 to the viewpoint.

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The views from the parking are pretty impressive, even without walking anywhere… but a couple of short trails provide even better vantage points. To the south-west of the car park, a trail leads down the ridge.

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The views from the trail take in the salt flats of Badwater at 282 feet (86m) below sea level and directly behind it (at the very top left of the photo) Telescope Peak at 11,049 ft (3,368m) above sea level.

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As you descend further down the ridge on the rough track, you can see further down the length of Death Valley to the north.

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It feels like you could continue down the ridge all the way to the salt flats… but we’re still 5,275 feet (1610m) above sea level.

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At the northern of the car park, another trail heads up the ridge – it goes for four miles up to Mt Perry (I only went about 0.3 miles).

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The outlook is pretty much the same as from the southern end of the carpark, although it’s more of a rocky and rugged environment. And there are no other people around. There are unimpeded views of the Badwater salt flats and the Panamint Ranges.

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The main benefit of hiking in this direction is that you also get the slightly less impressive view to the east, of the Greenwater Range.

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From here I need to back-track a little, heading back up past Zabriskie Point toward Furnace Creek, and then down Badwater Road. One of the main roads through Death Valley, Badwater Road follows the foothills of the Margarosa Mountains. The first section is almost dead straight and seems to go forever… many of Death Valley’s attractions are along this road, including Badwater.

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Badwater

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Probably the most popular attraction in Death Valley, Badwater is the lowest place in the USA, at 282 feet (86m) below sea level. A sign high up on the cliffs marks sea level, and reminds you how far down you are! (The highest point in the contiguous 48 states lies only 84.6 miles (136 km) to the northwest, and can be seen on a clear day from Telescope Peak and Dantes View – but not today due to the haze.)

Near the carpark and at the edge of the salts flats is a spring-fed pool – the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make the water undrinkable. The name is thought to have come from an early explorer’s horse who refused to drink, thus giving rise to the name “bad water”.

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A long, white salty “finger” stretches out from the end of the boardwalk, providing access onto the salt flat. I later read that one should stay on the boardwalk to avoid crushinng the tiny Badwater snail – but there’s no signage requesting visitors to stay off the salt, and most people are venturing onto the salt flat. Looming high above Badwater are the Black Mountains, part of the Amargosa Range – Dante’s View where I’ve just come from is almost 6,000 feet above me.

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Continuous freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles have created the hexagonal honeycomb patterns of the salt pan, which stretch all the way into the distance to Panamint Mountains on the other side.

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I walk as far as I can. It’s about two miles to the far end of the salt pan, below the towering Panamint Range, where the smooth salty surface ends. A bit further on is Shorty’s Well on the opposite side of the salt pan, and the starting point for a very arduous hike from -282 feet up to the Telescope Peak summit at 11,049 feet!

From the salt pan I continue down Badwater Road, which winds around the edge of the salt flats and the foothills of the Black Mountains for a while, before becoming dead straight again. Towards the end of the Black Mountain range, the road bears east and crosses the mountains at Jubilee Pass, before leaving Death Valley National Park.

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I think I’ll be back – there are many more walks I’d like to do, and while I’ve always associated Death Valley with the salt pans, there’s a huge diversity of landscapes.

Location Anywhere in / around Death Valley – I found relatively inexpensive accommodation at Beatty, just outside the park.
Distance
  • Badlands Loop – 2.7m / 4.3km (a longer 4.3m loop can be also be done from here)
  • Dante’s View – 1.6m / 2.5km (can be extended up to 4 miles by going to Mt Perry)
  • Badwater salt flats – up to 4m / 6.4km if you go to the other side of the salt pan
Grade Easy. Minimal elevation gain for these hikes/=.
Season/s Avoid summer, when it’s too hot to hike
Maps National Geographic “Death Valley” 1:165,000
Resources
  • Hiking Death Valley National Park (Falcon Guide) book
  • Free Death Valley National Park brochure from ranger stations

Telescope Peak, Death Valley

Telescope Peak (11,049 ft / 3,368m) is the highest peak in Death Valley, with a well-established route to the summit from Mahogany Flat campground.

Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is half the fun… I’ve stayed the previous evening at Panamint Springs after flying in from Australia. It’s about a three hour trip by car from Las Vegas (McCarran) airport and I’ve arrived in the late afternoon, so the drive was all in darkness. My first view of the Death Valley area was the 50min drive from Panamint Springs (the closest accommodation, unless you are camping) to Mahogany Flat, via Panamint Valley Road and Trona Wildrose Road.

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There’s almost no other traffic at 8am, and the scenery is pretty spectacular in the morning light. It’s also pretty desoldate. While I’m glad I’ve brought a jumper as it’s around 47 degrees F (8C) according to the car, you can imagine how hot the vast plains get in summer.

Most of the roads are in good condition, although they get increasingly more pot-holed and narrow as I near Wildrose Campground. From Wildrose Campground to Charcoal Kilns the sealed road is great quality for the first five miles or so, before it quickly deteriorates to gravel and features large potholes and washed out sections. I’m glad I selected an AWD car with a bit of clearance – I would have struggled in the Dodge Challenger I orginally booked! (The road up Charcoal Kilns is generally suitable for any vehicle, but I’d seen warnings that storms had damaged the road.)

Charcoal Kilns is a tourist attraction – ‘though it’s a long way to drive if you’re just coming to see these. Built in 1877 and used to create charcoal for local mining operations, the odd-looking domes are well-preserved. They are considered to be the best known surviving example of such kilns to be found in the western states. The reason for their preservation may be that they were only used for about two years.

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There’s a warning sign at Charcoal Kilns that the last section of road to Mahogany Flat is suitable for high clearance vehicles only. It looks OK so I continue by car, rather than walking the 1.6 miles. There’s a few rough bits, but I make it past Thorndike Campground and almost to the end of the road. A particularly badly rutted section spooks me a bit (despite my general philosophy that rental cars can go anywhere!) and I walk the last 0.5 miles on foot. The roads ends at Mahogany Flat Campground at 8,133 feet (2,479m) above sea level, where the start of the Telescope Peak walk is clearly marked.

The trail starts climbing immediately but very gently (the trail has an average 8% grade), and there’s soon views down into the North Fork Hanaupah Canyon and the salt flats far below. Although there’s not a lot of shade, there are a variety of trees, including the single-leaf pinyon and limber pine along the track.

After about 1.5 miles, there’s the first view of Telescope Peak in the distance, and the long ridge that leads up to it.

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After 2.6 miles i reach the broad plateau of Arcane Meadows (9,620 feet / 2932m); above to the north-west is the communications facility on Rogers Peak. This is the only non-wilderness high point in the park, and has been used as communications and instrumentation site by various government agencies since the late 1950s. For the first time there’s a view to the west – and it looks like a lot of smoke from wild fires in California will impact the views from the top 😦

The next few miles is pretty much flat – in fact, my GPS shows a slight descent, as the trail follows the western side of the long ridge, crossing a few sections of talus rock. Directly ahead is Telescope Peak.

It’s easy walking along the well-defined track as it follows the broad ridge, with views mostly to the west, and occassional views (below right) to the east and down what I think is Middle Fork Hanaupah Canyon.

Towards the of this section, as the trail starts to gain some altitude, there are some impressive examples of the bristlecone pine. These huge, gnarled trees on the higher slopes are up to 3,000 years old. Even after death, these pines often stand on their roots, for many centuries due to the wood’s extreme durability.

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There’s a final steep section – although, with many switch-backs, it’s never particularly steep. There’s three “mounds” that are ascended, before the final one that leads to the 11,049 ft (3,368m) summit.

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The views are amazing, my guide book says. You can see as Mount Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contigiuous states), it says…  But not today. The haze and smoke from the distant fires have significantly reduced visibility. Looking to the south and south-west is Sentinel Peak directly ahead, part of the Panamint mountains that stretch to the south. Below is the Panamint Valley, and barely visible on the far side of the valley is the Argus Mountains.

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Looking back to the north, Death Valley is below and barely visible on the other side of Death Valley is the Margosa Range. Despite the poor visibility, it’s an impressive view down 11,300 feet (3,400m) to the Badwater in Death Valley far below – only three other mountains in the US exceed this elevation difference!

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It’s not too windy at the top, but after taking a few photos I head back down the mountain – I’m not exactly disappointed with the walk, but it would have been amazing on a clear day!

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With the hard bit over, I’ve got more energy to admire the flora that survives in a pretty brutal environment. Another massive bristlecone pine stands at the edge of the trail, looking like leaves might sprout in the next rain – but it may also have been dead for over a 100 years.

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Where there are no trees, an abundance of low-lying grasses and ground plants survive in the rocky landscape.

The most impressive views are on the last part of the descent, looking down into Death Valley and across to the Margosa Range. Ironically, due to the haze, as I descend I can see further.

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I make it back to the car around 3:30pm – it’s taken me just under 7 hours to cover the 13.7 miles (22.1km) return trip. A bit less than the signage, as I started below the trail. And a bit slower than I expected, but after a long flight the previous day I didn’t feel in top form! With daylight endng pretty early in November, I enjoy my first (and only) Death Valley sunset on the way back to my accommodation at Beatty.

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I’m glad I did this walk – but I’ll have to come back! Maybe next time I’ll do the nearby Wildrose Peak, on a hopefully clear day!

Location Start from Mahogany Flat Campground if possible, or park at Charcoal Kilns. Road from Charcoal Kiln may be closed in winter or impassable in 2WD/low clearance vehicles. There are some places yo can park along the access road or at Thorndike Campground about half-way up the 4WD road.
Distance 13.7 miles (22.1km) return – including part of the 4WD road.
Signage states 7 miles one-way, from trailhead, but is slightly less.
Grade Moderate. Total elevation gain of 3,690 feet / 1,125m
Season/s All year, but may have snow on trail Dec-Feb
Maps National Geographic “Death Valley” 1:165,000
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
  • She Dreams of Alpine blog post
  • Hiking Death Valley National Park (Falcon Guide) book

Gibraltar Peak, Tidbinbilla

Gibraltar Peak (1,038m), a rocky outcrop with extensive views, is a circular walk in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve that’s only 45min from the Canberra city centre.

One of the longer walks in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, not far from the centre of Canberra, Gibraltar Peak is the perfect early morning walk before a day of meetings. The start is well sign-posted about 5min drive from the Tidbinbilla Visitor Centre, starting from the Dalsetta carpark. The trail crosses a grassy plain on the opposite side of the road to the carpark, with regular track markers.

Given the acres of green grass, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see a mob of kangaroos, including one that bounded down the track in front of me. I haven’t seen this many ‘roos in one place for a long time!

The trail rises very gently at first, on a broad, sandy path through low heath. There’s some intepretative signage, explaining that the track is traversing the land of the Ngunnawal Aboriginal people. While the women and children stayed on the plain teaching, dancing and holding ceremonies, the men and older boys went higher into the mountains for initiation rituals into manhood.

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The trail gradually gets steeper with a few switchbacks, before reaching Eliza Saddle, Eucalypt trees including the Broad-leaved Peppermint at the lower levels are replaced by grass trees and granite boulders as the path gains altitude.

After 3.5km there’s a very solid viewing platform, with a broad vista out to the east towards Canberra.

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Soon after the viewing platform is reached, the narrow bush track reaches the Gibraltar Fire Trail, which provides an alternate route back.

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Gibraltar Peak is only about 300m further, on a rocky trail that rises steeply up the last of the peak. There are soon views to the east across as the trail follows the edge of the mountains…

…and crosses some huge granite slabs, with the top of Gibraltar Peak more like a giant boulder field than a mountain summit!

The views are impressive, combining sweeping views to the east with odd-shaped boulders in the foreground. The Telstra Tower on Black Mountain is visible in the distance

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The trail ends at the base of large boulders forming the summit of Gibraltar Peak. There’s a narrow cleft between two of the largest boulders, with some smaller boulders wedged in the gap that allow you to clamber to the very top. Which I don’t manage to do… I get half-way up, but don’t feel confident scrambling up the second boulder that requires some gymnastic-like moves. I suspect the view from the very top would be even more impressive.

The return part of the loop is easy – and rather boring. After a short uphill section, the Gibraltar Fire Trail gently descends back towards the starting point.

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Near the bottom of the fire trail is the Xanthorrhoea Loop, which passes a stand of grass overlooking the valley. Don’t bother! There were just as many grass trees along the Gilbraltar Peak track.

Just after the Xanthorrhoea Loop, the trail leaves the fire trail and crosses the grassy plain, with the Tidbinbilla Range in the background.

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Looking back, you can see the rocky Gibraltar Peak, which really doesn’t really look like a peak from here!

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From here it’s a pleasant stroll across the grassy meadow, eventually re-joining the same track that I took to go up the mountain. And the kangaroos are still out in force, farewelling me as a return to the car park.

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Location Start at Dalsetta carpark, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Distance 7.7km return
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 350m
Season/s All year.
Maps Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve free guide (from visitor centre or download here)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to KML format.
Map-GibraltarPeak
Tidbinbilla map showing walking tracks; Gibraltar Peak track is highlighted in yellow