Saturday, 20 July 2019

Cathedral Range Northern Circuit (Cathedral Range State Park)

A spectacular loop walk in Cathedral Range State Park, the Cathedral Range Northern Circuit combines a number of the the park's tracks to form a classic circuit over the range. Starting near the Little River, the trail rises up to follow the high Ridge Track as it traverses the rugged spine of the Cathedral Range over its namesake mountain. Featuring incredible views and engaging walking, this is a fantastic circuit relatively close to Melbourne

Distance: 12.5 km (loop)
Gradient: A mix of a continuous ascent, undulations and a steep descent back down to the car park
Quality of Path: Generally clear and well maintained trail, with uneven natural surfaces across the ridge. Some sections are eroded
Quality of Signage: Clear signhead at the start of the walk and arrows and signs at trail junctions
Experience Required: Bushwalking Experience Required
Time: 5-7 Hours, including lunch
Steps: Many steps in places, both formal and informal
Best Time to Visit: Autumn-Spring, except on very hot, windy or stormy days
Entry Fee: No 
Getting There: The trail usually starts at Neds Gully car park. From Melbourne, take the Maroondah Hwy to Buxton and continue for a further 9.5 kilometres. Turn right onto Cathedral Lane and then follow signs to turn right onto Little River Rd. Follow the road to Neds Gully and start walk from here if open. If not, follow signs to Cooks Mill Campground. Trailheads are located at each start point

Having finished up a fantastic week in Sydney, Alissa and I spent the next week in Melbourne as I went back to work. Rather than flying back on Friday night as is my usual transcontinental schedule, Alissa and I decided to stay for the weekend and go and do a day walk near Melbourne. While our original plan had been to head down to Phillip Island and/or Mornington Peninsula, inclement weather along the coast sent us north and inland as we made our way to the epic-looking Cathedral Range Northern Circuit.

The Northern Circuit traditionally starts at Neds Gully, however we were dismayed to find that the bridge over the creek had been wired shut at the time of our visit. Our concern had been that it looked like the whole track might be closed, but to our relief we discovered that it was possible to start the walk from the Cooks Mill Campground area instead. Signage here again made it look like we may not be able to do the full circuit either, however close reading of the sign made us realise that it was just the spur across the river at Neds Gully that was closed and that we would be fine to undertake the northern circuit.

In some ways it was good to start the walk from Cooks Mill instead of Neds Gully as the stretch linking the two locations features what is without doubt the ugliest section of the track. An unfortunate aspect of Cathedral Range State Park is that there is a small parcel of privately owned land in the middle of the park that is an unsightly plantation. At the time of our visit the area was even more hideous as it had clearly been recently logged, resulting in the kind of barren hellscape that would incite Ents to march on Isengard.

Thankfully this stretch of boring road walking through logged areas did not last long, and we were happy to be walking on single file walk track as the trail more closely followed the Little River. The lush, wet schlerophyll forest looked a lot like the Karri forest back home in WA, and as such we were really enjoying this stretch of the walk.

Given the sogginess of the ground through the area and the obviously variable nature of the Little River's depth, the circuit doesn't always stick right by the river, however there are a number of good vantage points along the way. Considering the ugly logged area is only a short distance nearby, it is amazing how wild the river feels in this part of the park.

After crossing two bridges, Alissa and I reached the dead end blocked off by the winter closure of Neds Gully. Being a junction, Alissa and I were glad to have visual confirmation that the trail was only closed to Neds Gully and that we would be able to complete the circuit.

From the junction, the trail begins its climb to the Cathedral along the Neds Gully Track. Initially the ascent is relatively gentle as the forest transitions away from the wet lushness of the river to dry schlerophyll.

As the track continues to rise, the walking becomes increasingly steep as it enters a section of vegetated scree to Neds Peak. This steep climb continues for a fair while, with some sections featuring switchbacks to even out the ascent.

The track levels out just as the summit of Neds Peak comes into view. At this point we were really beginning to see how severely burnt the park had been by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. While a decade of regrowth has meant the park is not a continually charred and blackened landscape, the scars of dead trees still remain. While this makes the area less pretty that it would have been if it were in pristine condition, the mountain views made up for the more unsightly sections of burnt forest.

Shortly after the terrain levels out, the walk reaches a junction at Neds Saddle. At this point, a side trip goes up Neds Peak while a shortcut trail cuts across to the Ridge Track. Given that the circuit itself is a six hour walk and that we had a fair amount of driving to do to and from Melbourne, we decided to stay strictly to the circuit and ignore the side trips this time. Although it is not overly clear from the signage, the correct route for the Northern Circuit is to continue on the Little Cathedral Track, so Alissa and I dutifully continued on the the circuit as it made its way around the mountain.

The track here is on significantly sloping ground, and as a result the track is more clearly eroded and not in as good condition as other sections of the walk.

Additionally, there are a few points where some easy scrambling is required as the track makes its way up and over rocks.

Being our first stretch of track with open views, Alissa and I appreciated being able to take in the landscape of the Cathedral Range from this section of the track. Looking back across the ridge of Neds Peak, it was cool to see the rocky spine of the mountain jutting out from the forest.

The views of Neds Peak disappeared as we rounded the corner towards Little Cathedral Peak. At this point, the dense vegetation provided only glimpses of the surrounding peaks.

At the northernmost point of the circuit, another junction is reached. At this point, walkers with more time can continue to Little Cathedral Peak, however being time poor Alissa and I instead turned left to begin the thrilling stretch of the walk along the Ridge Track.

Having enjoyed relatively gentle terrain from Neds Saddle, the Ridge Track rises steeply at this point as it reaches the circuit's high point at the Cathedral.

Before reaching the Cathedral, the track reaches North Cathedral Peak. This was the first truly outstanding view of the track, with a natural lookout point providing a full view of Little Cathedral Peak's summit. Although conscious of time, Alissa and I stopped here for a moment take it all in as it was truly spectacular.

From North Cathedral Peak, more steep climbing ensues on the way to the Cathedral. Walking ahead of Alissa, I stopped just before reaching the crest of the summit, and you can see Alissa's delight when I told her were almost at the track's high point.

From the main track, a very short side trail leads to the summit of the Cathedral. Being only a short walk and the highest point of the walk, we followed this side trail so we could officially bag the peak.

Overlooking the surrounding landscape, the summit is marked by a large trig point.

The views were again exquisite as they showed off the tilted layers of rock that are signature of the Cathedral Range's ridge. Given the inclement weather closer to the coast are our exposed position at the high point of the northern Cathedral Range, the winds were extremely strong, however we found a sheltered spot behind some rocks to stop for a lunch break near the summit.

From the summit, the track descends slightly. At this point, the shortcut track we had encountered earlier at Neds Saddle joins onto the Ridge Track before it rises up again along the ridge.

At the first short ascent after the summit, Alissa stopped for this casual snap of her with the Cathedral behind her. Don't let the pose fool you; the Ridge Track is a rough and rugged stretch of walking that is rated as Class 5 due to traversing exposed rocky outcrops for almost its entire stretch.

While slower going due to the rugged terrain, the views were entirely worth it. For us Western Australians, seeing the ridge stretch onwards for as far as the eye can see was like the ridge of Mt Cooke on steroids - and without the ugly scenes of bauxite mining that scar the Darling Scarp back home.

Walking the ridge, Alissa and I settled into the routine of the terrain. We would descend a section of the ridge, slowly pick our way through narrow sections, head across relatively flat stretches and then ascend again before repeating the pattern all over again.

Being a fan of rugged walking (and ridge walks in particular), I was definitely in my element. I could see why this this is a popular day walk with Victoria bushwalkers as the scenery is fantastic and the walking is adventurous while still being accessible. Being afraid of heights, Alissa enjoyment was understandably less than mine - even if she did enjoy the views.

Given how much of the walk is along the ridge, we were up on the Ridge Track for a long time - almost 3 hours from the Little Cathedral Peak junction to the descent from the Farm Yard. It was thus a relief then to see the vegetated hill ahead of us. Looking at the map, it became clear to us that the hill was home to the Farm Yard, which meant our ridge walking time was almost over.

Sure enough; entering the forest, we reached another trail junction with a sign pointing us towards the Farm Yard.

This section of the track again showed obvious signs of how bad the fire had been and was some of the least impressive-looking walking since leaving the logged forest near the start It was certainly a step down from the stunning views we had experienced along the exposed ridge, however we did appreciate being able to walk at a reasonable speed without having to clamber over rocks.

For reasons I cannot recall, Alissa was very happy at this point, perhaps because we were very close to the Farm Yard.

Perched at the intersection of the Ridge, the Razorback and the Jawbone Creek Tracks, the Farm Yard, is a walkers-only campground on the range. One of my workmates, who had camped here in his youth told me the Farm Yard was so named because of the lyrebirds that live in the area. Having learned the calls of cows and other farm animals from the valley below, the lyrebirds have incorporated these sounds into their repertoire and perform their best impressions for surprised campers on the ridge.

From the Farm Yard, Alissa and I followed the Razorback Track back down the ridge for the home stretch.

Along the way, Alissa and I noted the transition to a wetter forest type. This was clearly signposted by the plethora of fungi growing along the track.

The descent from the Razorback was steeper than the ascent up Neds Gully Track, and you can clearly see Alissa was done with the walk by this stage, even joking that she was giving up here and not going to continue any further.

Along the descent, the track passes what would generously be described as a waterfall that then flows across the track. 

It is interesting looking up at the rocks here as there are sections where it is steep rock that seems to go all the way up to the summit of North Jawbone Peak. 

As the terrain levels out, the walking becomes relatively easy, with the only challenge at the time of our visit being walking around a fallen tree that will undoubtedly be cleared at some stage in the future. The next major landmark is a bridge over McLennans Gully just before the track reaches the Jawbone Car Park. 

With the two of us ready to be done with the walk by this stage, the car park may have meant the end of the steep terrain, but it didn't mean we had reached the end. From the car park, the Saint Bernards Track continues to Cook Mill Campground which was listed at a disheartening 45 minutes away! 

Thankfully this was a gross exaggeration, and we were back at Cook Mill within 20 minutes. The campgrounds were abuzz with campers enjoying the weekend away from Melbourne, and while a night out in the country would have been preferable, Alissa and I had an early morning flight so got into our hire car and began the drive back to Melbourne. 

After our Sydney trip, it was nice to continue the east coast adventure with one final walk, and the Cathedral Range Northern Circuit was the perfect kind of spectacular walk to end our trip on a high note. The fact a lot of the walk is on a high rugged ridge made it slow going at times, but the challenge was rewarded by some incredible views. Victoria has delivered us some really great adventurous circuit day walks on our various visits, and the Cathedral Range Northern Circuit definitely ranks right up there with Werribee Gorge, the Wonderland Loop and Stapylton Amphitheatre as one of my favourite loops in Victoria so far. 

Now to come back and do that Southern Circuit some time...


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