WORDS Ali Millar
The rugged mountains of the Grampians National Park offer plenty of options for exploring, both by car and on foot.
As you drive towards Grampians National Park, the mountains can be seen rising starkly out of Victoria’s western plains. You can’t miss them. They are breathtakingly beautiful, jagged sandstone outcrops, covered in rugged bushland and home to a rich Indigenous heritage.
My first introduction to the Grampians, however, was slightly less picturesque as we arrived in the fading light of a crisp, autumn evening – making slow progress down the narrow country roads towards the national park, keeping a keen eye out for wildlife.
After leaving Melbourne, we had paused in the sleepy town of Ararat for a bite to eat, then turned south on the Pyrenees Highway, headed for Wannon Crossing campground at the southern end of the Grampians National Park.
Wannon Crossing is one of the many campgrounds in the Grampians run by Parks Victoria. It’s adjacent to the Wannon River and is one of the smaller ones, with only seven sites and only one of those suitable for parking a big rig. We were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves and, as this was only a short weekend away, we had packed light, so setting up our campsite was just a matter of throwing up our tent and piling in the blankets. Thankfully, we had packed plenty as when we awoke early the next morning to the sound of the laughing kookaburras, there was a thin layer of ice frozen over the tent.
As the sun rose and the frost began to thaw on the grass, we warmed ourselves by the fire and got our first good look at the mountains, towering above the treetops – as ancient and rugged as we had been told.
The Grampians National Park (known as Gariwerd in the language of the local Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung People) is one of Victoria’s most significant national parks. While it’s now characterised by jagged mountains, millions of years ago it is believed to have been part of the eastern shoreline of Australia. The park contains numerous Indigenous rock art sites with Aboriginal occupation going back many thousands of years.
It’s around 260km or three hours’ drive west of Melbourne and has a range of activities on offer, including bushwalking, 4WDing, rock climbing, kayaking, fishing and bird watching. The park is renowned for its rock formations, spectacular waterfalls and rich vegetation, with spring being a particularly nice time to visit, when the wildflowers burst into bloom. There’s also an abundance of wildlife, and we spent plenty of time watching the grey kangaroos grazing around camp, as well as listening to the laughing kookaburras, squawking gang-gang cockatoos, and the hoot of owls calling to each other from the trees at night.
From Wannon Crossing it’s around a 30-minute drive north to the town of Halls Gap, the main hub for exploring the national park, which has a variety of accommodation, shops and facilities. Brambuk, the National Park and Cultural Centre, is just south of the town and is the place to stop off before you begin sightseeing. The centre has information on the various walks and activities, and interesting displays on the local Indigenous culture and the history of the area.
If you are planning on staying in one of the national park campgrounds, many of which accommodate caravans, you can book your campsite here (alternatively, this can be done through the Parks Vic website). Recent changes to the fees structure mean that ‘basic’ category campgrounds (including Wannon Crossing) are now free and can no longer be booked, operating on a first-come, first-served basis.
The northern end of the park, north of Halls Gap, was affected by bushfires in early 2014 and while some roads, walking tracks and sites have since reopened, others are still closed to allow for regeneration. Check the Parks Vic website or Brambuk for up-to-date information on closures before heading that way.
For those looking for a few more facilities during their stay, Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park offers a peaceful place to set up camp, just to the south of Halls Gap, on the edge of Lake Bellfield. Park owners Rohan and Josephina McDonald took over the lease on the park in 2012 and purchased the freehold in 2013. The 2014 bushfires came very close to Halls Gap, and while the town and the van park were evacuated, they were, luckily, untouched.
Since taking ownership, the McDonalds have added an outdoor wood fire-heated pool, modern cabins and updated amenities, including renovating their budget cabins into ‘retro glampers’, with a quirky, 70s feel and Scandinavian-style furniture and fittings.
Their focus is on creating a ‘family feel’ and Josephina said they want guests to have the opportunity to explore nature, connect with friends and family, and recharge during their stay. And what better way to do that than around a campfire – something the park offers year-round by way of fire drums that can be rented (fire restrictions permitting, of course). There’s also an open log fire in the common area, which the McDonalds light each night for campers to enjoy.
The park offers a range of spacious and sheltered powered and unpowered sites, suitable for motorhomes and larger rigs, as well as a range of cabin accommodation. A new 14-sleeper cabin, dubbed ‘the House’ is soon to open, offering fully self-contained accommodation with an indoor fireplace, full laundry facilities and alfresco dining.
Other facilities include a dump point, a gift shop stocking mainly locally-made goods, including local wine (the shiraz is particularly delicious, I’m told), two amenity blocks with individual bathroom facilities, spring-free trampolines for the kids, a camp kitchen with common area, flatscreen TV and free barbecues.
We decided to make the most of the beautiful autumn day and after discussing our options with one of the rangers at Brambuk, chose to climb to the popular Pinnacle via the Wonderland Loop – a five hour circuit starting from the Halls Gap Caravan Park. The walk follows the well-formed track to Venus Baths before ascending the slope, past waterfalls and over creeks, through the rocky Grand Canyon and up Silent Street to the Pinnacle Lookout, which offers spectacular views over Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield, with farmland stretching off across the plains into the distance. There are plenty of great spots to perch and enjoy the view over a picnic lunch, before you descend the many steps back to Halls Gap. While the panorama from the Pinnacle is definitely worth the climb, the walk itself was also fantastic, with the scenery changing constantly along the way.
If you are keen to check out the vista but want something a little shorter and less challenging (particularly on the way down the steps can be a bit hard on the knees), the Pinnacle can also be reached from either the Sundial or Wonderland carparks. The easiest route is from Sundial, which is signposted as 1.5 to two hours return. This route still requires some level of fitness and sturdy shoes, as there is a bit of rock-hopping involved. If you want something less strenuous, there are plenty of alternatives on offer throughout the park.
If you’re a keen bushwalker, the recently opened Grampians Peaks Trail offers breathtaking scenery and the opportunity to camp in some ‘hiker only’ campsites. The first section of the trail is now open and takes in some of the park’s most popular sites, including the Pinnacle.
While there are 4WD tracks for those wanting to explore off the bitumen, the main road network through the park is in good condition and suitable for 2WD vehicles and caravans. If you are planning to hit the dirt, check conditions at Brambuk first as road closures are not uncommon.
While the national park offers stunning scenery, the rest of the region has plenty to offer as well. Depending on where you’re off to next, you could either head north to Horsham, which also makes a good base for exploring the region and has plenty of facilities including a couple of caravan parks, or south to Dunkeld, where a meal at the Royal Mail Hotel is a must. If you are going to Melbourne, stop off at Ararat and head up to One Tree Hill Lookout, which offers a nice view of the eastern edge of the Grampians, Mount Langi Ghiran and the town itself.
If you have a few days to spare and are looking for somewhere to relax and unwind, the Grampians might be just the place. The national park is a lovely spot to roam around and the majesty of the mountains make a spectacular backdrop to your camping experience.
The Grampians Peaks Trail is a new, multi-day walk, developed as part of the ‘Walk Victoria’s Icons’ long distance trails. The first section officially opened in May and covers 33km, offering a three day/two night circuit departing from Halls Gap.
This section takes in some of the park’s more popular sights, including the Grand Canyon, the Pinnacle Lookout and the sweeping panorama from Mt Rosea, to the Borough Huts campground and then returning to Halls Gap.
Further development of the track over the next five years will link this section of the walk from Borough Huts to the south of the park, with hiker camps to be developed along the route. Around 65km of existing trails will be upgraded, with around 80km of new trails to be added.
While you can pick and choose which stages you wish to walk, tackling these tracks requires a decent level of fitness and good preparation as conditions on the mountains can change quickly.
Once complete, the Grampians Peaks Trail will be a 144km, 13 day/12 night (one-way) walk, from Mt Zero in the north to Mt Abrupt in the south, encompassing some of the Grampians’ most dramatic peaks and offering panoramic views that are well-worth the climb.
The Grampians National Park is around 260km or three hours’ drive west of Melbourne.
There are numerous walks on offer, from short, easy strolls to full-day and overnight hikes. If you’re after a multiple-day walk, check out the Grampians Peaks Trail (see breakout).
Pack a picnic and head to Lake Bellfield where you can take an easy stroll across the reservoir wall starting from the observation tower, throw in a line or even launch a kayak.
For accommodation options in and around the Grampians, click here.
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