Saturday, 23 March 2019

Werribee Gorge Circuit Walk (Werribee Gorge State Park)

A great day hike in Werribee Gorge State Park, this circuit walk explores the rugged terrain of the park's eponymous gorge. Initially heading up to the high point of the trail through Eucalypt forest, the trail descending into the deep gorge as it follows the Werribee River. Featuring a mix of easy walking and fun scrambling, this a highly enjoyable and adventurous trail on a short distance from Melbourne

Distance: 10 km (loop)
Gradient: A mix of gentle, undulating terrain with some steep sections, particularly near the start and end of the walk
Quality of Path: Relatively clear and straightforward, with a lot of natural surfaces through the gorge. Includes shuffling along ledges and holding onto a rope/chain through a heavily slanted section
Quality of Signage: Good quality trailhead and signage along the walk
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Required
Time: 2-3 Hours
Steps: Several formal and informal steps
Best Time to Visit: All year round, but would be uncomfortably hot in the middle of Summer
Entry Fee: No
Getting There: From Melbourne, take the Western Freeway north to exit right onto Mortons Rd. After passing under the freeway, turn left onto Pentland Hills Rd and then left onto Myers Rd. Follow Myers Rd into the park. The trail can start from any of the three car parks along the road

With a two week work stint in Melbourne, I decided to make the most of the cooling weather to get in a couple of Victorian hikes from my every growing list. With bushfires in the High Country making me think twice about my initial plan to tackle Mt Bogong, I decided to keep it simple with some day walks near Melbourne, with the first being the Werribee Gorge Circuit Walk.

My initial plan had been to tackle the slightly more challenging Werribee Gorge Circuit detailed in Glenn Tempest's Daywalks Around Victoria, however being by myself and it being my first time in the park, I decided to tackle the more well marked and familiar 10 kilometre circuit promoted by Parks Victoria. Although very well marked, the walk has some flexibility as to where you want to start the walk. While the walk usually starts at either the Quarry or Meikles Picnic Areas, I decided to split the difference and begin at the lower Quarry car park along the way. This way I could break up the less exciting return walk section and share it between the start and end of the walk.

Heading anti-clockwise, it was only a short walk to the upper car park, and after a very short bit of road walking I was getting a good first glimpse at the kind of gorge walking scenery I would be enjoying along this trail.

From the first side gorge views, the trail rises up towards the trail's high point. The walking is of a moderate steepness but nothing overly challenging, however a hot Summer with few long walks made the ascent seem physically harder than it really was.

Once at the top, the ascent plateaus out as the trail becomes a wide management track. While this is far from my favourite kind if track, I was enjoying the pleasant forest walking at this early stage of the circuit.

The first major landmark of the trail is the Eastern Lookout. Looking down towards a Eucalypt forest and farmland, the scene really reminded me a lot of the laterite breakaways common to the South West Land Division of Western Australia, specifically recalling similar scenes in the Wheatbelt on the Mt Matilda Trail and the spectacular Boyagin Rock Walk GPS Route - just a little bit less orangey-red in appearance.

From the lookout, the trail continues towards the main attraction of Werribee Gorge itself.

Looking down into the river gorge, the view reminded me of the landscapes I'd seen in Oxley Wild River National Park in New South Wales - a stark contrast to the sheer iron band formation gorges of Karijini or the red sandstone of Kalbarri National Park.

Continuing along the trail, the circuit provides more excellent views down to the valley below at the Western Lookout. The flat top mesas in the distance again made me think a lot of hiking in Western Australia.

The steep terrain becomes a narrow ridge as it continues to a bend in the river, providing views down to the valley below.

Before descending down to the river itself, the views from this narrow point is quite spectacular and I stopped for a moment here to take in the beauty of this amazing landscape.

From the narrow section of the ridge, the trail descends down into the gorge itself as it walks along the Werribee River. The scenery down in the gorge is just as excellent as the walk up along the rim had been, and in fact becomes even more incredible I continued along. Knowing how much Alissa enjoys gorge walks made me really miss her as this would have been a walk right up her alley.

Up until this point, most of the views of the Werribee River were pretty thin and faraway, but their were a number of wide pools throughout the gorge that were a really lovely feature. Used to the Mediterranean 'feast and famine' nature of rain in Western Australia, it was a treat to have a river that wasn't bone dry in autumn.

Continuing through the gorge, the trail passes through a section of scree or talus that reminded me a lot of the the Organ Pipes Circuit in Tassie.

Werribee Gorge is well known for being one of the more adventurous marked trails in Victoria, with a section of narrow ledge walking being one of its most iconic moments.

The trail basically continues along a sheer section of rocky gorge wall with only the narrowest ledge to walk along. Walking with trekking poles and a camera hanging around my neck, this was a bit of a balancing act.

Some hand holds are carved into the rock to make it easier, and it certainly gave me the impression that this would be a great option for some stretches of the Kalbarri Gorge in Western Australia if Parks and Wildlife ever wanted to make the Four Ways to Z Bend Loop an official trail.

Not long after the ledge, the trail passes by Needle Beach. While the fact this river probably has run off from agriculture means I wouldn't necessarily want to swim here, the beach is an idyllic spot, with the rocky walls making it one of the more charismatic sections of the trail.

Continuing along, the circuit reaches one of its most spectacular features - the Lions Head.

Lions Head is a prominent feature of the gorge, with the rock feature towering over Lions Beach below. The curved, layered rock on display here is really beautiful and was one of my favourite parts of the gorge. Lions Head itself may not have looked much like a lion's head per se, but it did resemble the Lions Head that is a close neighbour of Frenchmans Cap in Tasmania.

Beyond Lions Head, the circuit reaches its next most adventurous part as it skirts a section of rope along a narrow and slanted section of rock.

As someone who enjoys adventurous trails, this definitely fit the bill, and I found this section to be a really treat - even with my cumbersome hiking poles and camera!

Rounding the corner, a small cave along the rock wall provides a brief respite from the rope walking at the halfway point. From there, the rope continues along this narrow, rock stretch as the trail widens once again as it runs along a wider section of river.

The trail begins a slight ascent along the river as it follows some kind an irrigation channel/drain alongside the gorge wall.

While unnatural, the channel adds an interesting historical element to the walk and not take away from the walk's enjoyment.

One of the information signs along this stretch talked about how the trees nearby are home to koalas. Coming from Western Australia where koalas are not native, I was really keen to finally photograph one of these iconic animals in the wild, and I spent a good chunk of the walk from this point on looking upwards. Alas, a koala sighting was not to be, and I instead had to put all my hopes for sighting this weekend on my Sunday visit to Great Otways National Park.

One final interesting feature of the gorge is a side trip to a small weir along the river. Below the weir is a broad pool that makes for a lovely scene. This would be the point where I was most tempted to go for a swim as it was starting to get pretty warm and the pool seemed very inviting. At the weir, a faint trail heads across the river. This appears to be where Glenn Tempest's longer walk joins the main loop.

Back on the state sanctioned Werribee Gorge Circuit, the trail continues along the river as it makes its way to Meikles Point Picnic Area - a name that made me think of Miek from Thor: Ragnarok.

Just before entering the picnic area, the trail crosses a bridge over a side stream that was dry at the time of my visit. 

Beyond the bridge, the track becomes a wide, sandy boulevard beneath tall eucalypts. The picnic area was okay, but hardly the most exciting part of the park - I'd rather pack a lunch and eat somewhere else like along the walk if I were to be honest. 

Crossing the road and ascending a set of stairs, the track leads to a moderately steep ascent back to the car park. The overall appearance reminded me a lot of the Wandoo woodlands that can be found growing along the slopes of walks near Perth due to the fairly open understory. 

After descending briefly and crossing over a side gorge, the track leads to the bend in the road just before the final car park. From there it is a very short stretch of road walking back to the car and the end of the circuit. 

Having had a bit of cabin fever from the hot Summer in Perth, Werribee Gorge was a welcome return to serious hiking after all the short coastal walks we'd done so far this year. This had been really high on my list of walks to check out in Victoria after seeing it in Tempest's book, and I have to say it did not disappoint. While the gorges of Kalbarri and Karijini back home in Western Australia are superior, the rugged terrain and adventurous walking on offer was just as enjoyable, and its close proximity to Melbourne makes it a great option for a day walk micro-adventure for a weekend. This was the first great walk of 2019 for me, and made me excited for the year to come. 


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