A new trail across the peaks of the Grampians opens the wilderness like never before.
I’m huffing like a steam train when I crest Redman Bluff to see long fins of rock rise from the distant greenery in parallel bands, the mountains fading to misty blue folds on the horizon. It’s a face full of wilderness and I’m utterly alone.
This is the Grampians but not as I know it. Like every other Melburnian, I’ve visited this rocky Victorian playground, three hours northwest of the city, many times, often in convoy with dozens of other tourists, bumping into each other at the Balconies, Boroka Lookout, Mackenzie Falls, and the Pinnacle in the aptly named Wonderland Range.
More than 800,000 people visit Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park each year and it’s popular for good reason, but the opening of the 164km Grampians Peaks Trail in November has created a new way to explore, opening up aspects never before seen and without the crowds.
The walk traverses the entire range, running from Mount Zero at the northern end to the tiny town of Dunkeld in the south, trailing over long tilted sandstone ranges that look like frozen crested waves lapping eastwards.
I’m in the middle of the walk’s longest day (8.5 hours for a measly 13km) but nothing is going to stop me sitting down for half an hour to stuff handfuls of M&Ms in my mouth and gaze in awe at the 360-degree panorama. From this mid-route vantage point, I can see the mountains from where I’ve come fading into the distance, as well as those ahead of me. It’s both satisfying and a smidge demoralizing.
I just about bust a lung to get here, but at least the trail’s constant stream of eye candy goes a long way to keep the mind off the effort. I’m talking dramatic escarpments with sheer cliffs, vast valleys, knife-edge ridge lines, rock slabs crinkled like elephant hide and streaked in emerald moss, waterfalls, and wildflowers in rainbow colors.
The trail undulates like a rollercoaster between exposed subalpine rocky peaks and low sandy paths lined with bracken fern and orchids. It’s filled with wow moments but serious sweat is involved in completing the full 13-day route (I’ll have nearly climbed the height of Everest by the time I’m done) so for anyone lacking an inner mountain goat, thankfully there are options.
Regular entry and exit points allow walkers to pick and choose sections to suit, anywhere from one day upwards to the whole shebang, and while I’m slogging away with all my worldly possessions on my back (from tent to food and clothes), an alternative is to go with a guided tour and let someone else shoulder the load.
If you really want to take it easy, luxe options involve guided day walks that finish with slinking off to an eco-lodge each night.
The section from Mt Zero to Halls Gap is particularly well set up for guided groups, with two camps offering private huts. They’re simple – each with four bunk beds – yet super cool and spectacularly situated; Gar’s quarters are within meters of a cliff edge and Werdug’s overlook sprawling Lake Wartook.
Those in tents are well looked after, too, with every campsite a relative haven of hiker luxury, providing tidy tent pads, toilets, water tanks and solar-powered USB charging points. Most have an enclosed communal shelter, too, usually with a spectacular outlook, and when I text a photo of Gar’s charred timber-clad retreat with soaring glass frontage to a friend at home, he asks if I’m staying at Brad Pitt’s house. Not quite.
But while reclining on a timber sun lounge bolted onto the cliff rim to watch the sunset, it sure feels like the high life.
If you’re wondering which section of this epic route to spend your energy on, it’s a tough choice. The north has the edge on dramatic mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and sheer sandstone cliffs.
Beyond the well-trodden Wonderland, the central section is more remote and gnarly, yet offers some truly epic views, while the south makes for slightly easier walking through open forests and grassland, with a few obligatory summits thrown in.
Any way you cut it, hiking the GPT is an immersive experience. You’re not just peering at views from a lookout, you’re right among it, watching the rising sun cast sheer rock faces in a burnt butter glow, feeling the roughened curves of the mountains as you scramble through their serrations, and seeing views no one but a hiker in the middle of nowhere can see.
And when the sun sets, you’re still out there, stirring a pot on a one-burner stove while wallabies and echidnas emerge to graze alongside. It creates a connection with Gariwerd possible no other way.
The writer was a guest of Visit Victoria. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com