Hiking Australia is healing. There’s just no two ways about it. Lacing up the boots and hitting the hiking trails is the kind of slow activity that’s wholeheartedly Life Unhurried-approved.
Out in nature, standing under towering prehistoric palms or clambering past a thundering waterfall, it’s hard not to zoom out on the minutiae of your daily life, letting go of the squibbles and squabbles.
Laura Waters, travel writer, author and passionate hiker, knows this well. After five months traversing the length of New Zealand – and countless world hiking adventures – she continues to chase the joy of hiking, expounding the benefits for slowing down and connecting with nature.
In an extract from her book, Ultimate Walks and Hikes: Australia, we’ve matched some of the best hikes from our vast and varied shores with the best Slow Stays to rest at before or after you make tracks.
Royal Coast Track
Palm forests, waterfalls, remote beaches and epic cliff-top hiking in the world’s second-oldest national park. This walk is on Dharawal Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
It might be a mere 1hr south of Sydney/Warrang by public transport but this coastal route in Royal National Park is a tour through some stunning and diverse terrain, making it a locals’ favourite. We’re talking sheer cliff-tops overlooking a pounding ocean, lush palm jungles, sandstone outcrops with swirling colours like neopolitan ice-cream, and a waterfall flowing directly into the ocean (reputedly one of only three in Australia), to name just a few highlights. Sprinkle in some wildflowers, lyrebirds and the possibility of spotting a whale or two and it’s a real treat. Pack your swimming gear because there are beaches, creeks and waterfalls to swim at along the way. Australia’s first national park certainly earned its place.
This is a one-way hike between Otford and Bundeena (either way is good but hiking north means you’ll avoid finishing with a big climb up to the escarpment), so if you’re not up for a car shuffle, public transport from Sydney offers an easy alternative. From Otford train station it’s a 15min walk to the southern trailhead, and from the northern trailhead catch a ferry between Bundeena and Cronulla and an onward train. Hiking north to south means finishing with a decent climb up to Otford, plus the trains back to Sydney can be infrequent. There’s car access to several points en route so dropping in for an out-and-back walk at places like Garie Beach or Wattamolla Falls allows for a shorter walk, or use the Park Connections bus (weekends only, parkconnections.com.au) to hop-on, hop-off at various points en route.
If you want to take your time, hike it over two days and camp at North Era Beach. It’s only 8km from the southern trailhead however, which means you’ll have one short day and one long one. If you’ve got the fitness, travelling light and fast and hiking the whole thing in a day might be preferable (if you skip the loop around Jibbon Head at the northern end, you can make it a 6–9 hour hike over 27km).
In the 1920s and Depression years of the ’30s, things were tough. On private farms (later incorporated into Royal National Park), out-of-work men lived off the land, catching rabbits and fish and growing vegetables to feed their families. They built little cabins from local materials and 140 of these now heritage-listed shacks still scatter the coast around Little Garie, Era and Burning Palms beaches. The only access is on foot and there’s no power or water, but families have passed these huts down through the generations and still use them as retreats today. A number of them are passed on this walk.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Bundeena, NSW, Australia
At the very northern side of Royal National Park (and just 29 minutes from the northern trailhead), the historic Simpsons Cottage is waiting to welcome excited hikers and weary walkers alike. Views over the bay and wines around the fire are top notch ways to recover from a big walk.
Prince Henry Cliff Walk (Federal Pass return option)
Skirt the rim of the Jamison Valley, between Katoomba Falls and the Three Sisters, for a string of epic views. This walk is on Dharug and Gundungurra Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
It’s the blue-ish haze, caused by airbound eucalyptus oil, that gave rise to the name Blue Mountains. This vast UNESCO World Heritage Area of forest, sandstone escarpments and gorges is a playground for hikers but to get an understanding of what the Blue Mountains are all about you first need to stand somewhere high and gaze out over them. This cliff-top trail on the edge of the Jamison Valley is perfect. Ample lookouts show off expansive views of a vast treed valley rimmed by sheer orange cliffs, plus you get to take in the impressive Katoomba Falls, Katoomba Cascades and iconic Three Sisters.
Follow the cliff-top out and back from Katoomba Falls or, if you’re feeling energetic, descend into a thick rainforested valley and return via the base of the cliffs for a whole new viewpoint.
The route described here spans Katoomba Falls and Echo Point (Three Sisters lookout) along the cliff-top. That part is easy but if you don’t feel like retracing your steps, descend the rather more energetic yet hugely impressive Giant Stairway to the Federal Pass track (rated hard) and return along the bottom of the cliff. To get back up to Katoomba Falls Reserve carpark you’ll need to scale the Furber Steps or, alternatively, catch the world’s steepest passenger railway (52°) operated by Scenic World (note, the last ride up is at 4.50pm, scenicworld.com.au).
Parking is expensive at Echo Point so it’s preferable to leave the car at the Katoomba Falls end.
The Blue Mountains have their origins in layers of sediment dumped by rivers, tidal lakes and lagoons as far back as 400 million years ago. It formed a plateau, later cut by streams and rivers to create the deep and sprawling valleys of today. As water infiltrated vertical fault lines, it eroded into layers of sandstone, claystone, shale and coal. The fact that soft claystone erodes fastest allowed unsupported rock above it to collapse, and has resulted in the vertical cliffs so characteristic of the Blue Mountains.
Since different soils support different plants – and therefore different animals and birds – the resulting cross-section of habitats that walkers experience as they descend into these valleys offers a tonne of variety, from the Dwarf Mountain Pine trees and Smooth Bush-pea flowers of the upper regions to the lush and cool temperate rainforest lower down.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Berowra Waters, NSW
Use Calabash Bay Lodge on the Hawkesbury River as your luxe base from which to explore the beauty of the Blue Mountains and make a day of it (the drive is two hours one way).
Grampians Peaks Trail
An epic traverse of Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park, featuring spectacular mountains, sheer escarpments, wildflowers and waterfalls. This walk is on Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
The opening of this long-distance trail across one of Victoria’s most popular outdoor playgrounds in 2021 created quite a buzz. Stretching from Mount Zero in the north to Dunkeld in the south, the route links up many of Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park’s most famous highlights – The Pinnacle, Mount Difficult, and the Major Mitchell Plateau, to name a few – as well as 100km of previously untracked terrain.
The Grampians/Gariwerd mountains look like crested waves washing eastwards across the Wimmera Plains. Essentially they’re a long system of tilted sandstone ranges with near vertical escarpments on one side and gently sloping down to the plains on the other. Geologists call them cuestas. Hikers simply call them stunningly beautiful. Trailing up, over and through this string of rocky ridges and peaks doesn’t make for the easiest walk but it does deliver plenty of ‘wow’ moments.
Don’t underestimate the challenge. While daily distances are short, the terrain is tough and slow going (2kph is about the average), and if you hike the whole thing you’ll nearly climb the height of Everest! It’s full on so if you’re anything less than hardcore, try tackling it in sections rather than locking in for the entire epic. Regular entry and exit points mean you can pick anything from a day hike to two days and upwards to the whole shebang; for example, just a few days in the northern section will give you an impressive taster.
The trail is walked from north to south. It’s a 90min drive between Mount Zero and Dunkeld and while you could organise your own car shuffle and food drops along the way (using car access points en route), an easier option is to enlist the services of Grampians Peaks Walking Company (see Resources), who arrange transfers at numerous points along the trail, and also food drops so you don’t need to carry more than a few days’ worth at a time.
Gariwerd has long held great cultural and spiritual significance for the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali Traditional Owners. Its mountains offer abundant food, water and shelter in the caves worn into sandstone overhangs, and over 80 per cent of all rock-art sites discovered in Victoria have been found here, dating occupation as far back as 20,000 years at least.
Over 120 sites have been discovered so far, with new ones being found all the time. Only five are open to the public, including the hand-stencils at Manja Shelter and a painting of Bunjil, the Great Ancestor Spirit who created Gariwerd, at Bunjil Shelter. For the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali People, the mountains’ pointed profiles looked nose-like (translating to Gariwerd), but when explorer Major Thomas Mitchell visited in 1836 they reminded him of the Grampians Mountains in his native Scotland.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Halls Gap, VIC
In the imposing shadow of Gariwerd’s formations, Nook on the Hill is an excellent pre-hike treat to prep both physically and mentally from the comfort of a completely handbuilt tiny home. Or, circle back (by car) post-hike to rest your weary bones and soak under the stars, feeling satisfied with yourself.
Great Ocean Walk
Walk cliff-tops, remote beaches and koala-filled forests on Victoria’s most famous stretch of coastline. This walk is on Gadubanud and Girai wurrung Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
With its string of stunning beaches and striking cliff formations, the Great Ocean Road is one of Victoria’s most treasured attractions and this walk offers a backstage pass. On foot you get a far deeper understanding and appreciation of the coastline than you do with quick peeks from designated lookout points (as most car-based visitors experience it), plus you’ll do it without the crowds.
Between Apollo Bay and the Twelve Apostles, walkers get to enjoy a steady buffet of remote beaches, winding cliff-top paths, shipwreck remains, eucalypt forests filled with koalas and Australia’s oldest working lighthouse at Cape Otway. The grand finale is the giant sea-bound limestone stacks of the Twelve Apostles. Migrating whales between June and Oct are a bonus.
Campsites are well done on this walk with three-sided shelters, picnic tables, long drop-toilets and water tanks, but if you want cushy options you can have them too. There are plenty of entry points where someone with wheels can collect you at day’s end and whisk you off to somewhere with wine and a hot tub. Another option is to just explore a section of the trail, for anything from one day to two days or upwards to the whole experience.
The walk is done one way, heading west from Apollo Bay to finish at the Twelve Apostles. It’s a pretty wild coastline with rips and strong currents, and swimming is not recommended on unpatrolled beaches (see beachsafe.org.au or download the Beachsafe app). You’ll also want to consult the tide times before locking in your dates to ensure low tide beach walks coincide with a convenient time of day (some parts of the track are inaccessible at high tide).
West of Cape Otway stretches a gnarly coastline that has claimed hundreds of lives in shipwrecks since people started sailing here in the 1600s. Figures vary but it’s estimated around 600–700 shipwrecks came to grief on its reefs and rocks, though only about a third have been discovered and documented. From wooden sailing ships navigating by stars and incomplete charts, to cargo and passenger ships blown off course in storms, their remains – a few of which are seen on this walk – now scatter what is referred to as the Shipwreck Coast.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
This journey of 100km begins with a stay in the heart of Birregurra, at quaint and cute Bootmakers Cottage, where you’ll find enough room for up to six hikers to rest up for the long walk.
Start your nature immersion with a stay at Otways Loft – a treehouse-style cabin in Forrest – where the sound of nothingness (and without TV or WiFi) will help you make the switch into hiking mode.
Hop aboard the historic train carriage turned Golden Age luxe Slow Stay, Steam Carriage, complete with relaxing touches like an outdoor bath, in Forrest. Book next door neighbour Otways Loft for large groups hitting the trails together.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail
Breathe in fresh air blown up from Antarctica, while surrounded by wildlife on Australia’s third largest island. This walk is on Kaurna Miyurna, Ngarrindjeri, Ramindjeri and Barngarla Country.
Image via tourkangarooisland.com.au
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
When this trail opened in 2016, it was a revelation. Though South Australia already boasted one of the country’s premier long-distance walks in the 1200km Heysen Trail, it was in need of a more attainable multiday hike and the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail (KIWT) delivered.
Situated at Kangaroo Island’s rugged western end, it’s an eminently approachable walk that rewards hikers by immersing them in the wild beauty of this iconic destination. Over five days, the largely flat path follows tannin-stained creeks and sheer limestone cliffs, traversing open grassland and dense forest, with plenty of time to view Kangaroo Island’s famous geological marvels, look out for koalas and echidnas and swim at secluded beaches.
In the summer of 2019–20, bushfires ripped through the island and burned 96 per cent of Flinders Chase National Park, destroying all trail infrastructure and altering the landscape irrevocably. Since then, regrowth has been remarkably swift and in some places it’s so thick that visibility off the trail is just a few metres. Accessible as a series of day walks until autumn 2023 (when the campsites will reopen), the KIWT currently presents a unique snapshot of the Australian bush in recovery.
Much of the infrastructure for the trail and campsites was purpose-built when it opened in 2016 and this is built into the price tag that includes park entry fees, as well as an excellent booklet with details about the walk. For a small additional fee, hikers can add a transfer from the hike’s endpoint back to the trailhead at Flinders Chase National Park Visitor Centre.
The walk follows a broad semi-circle and is tackled in a counter-clockwise direction. With only 24 camping permits issued per day you may only encounter other walkers at the start and end of each day and the itinerary allows for plenty of time to take in the scenery. Despite the feeling of isolation, every campsite can be reached by road if necessary and the track intersects with two of Kangaroo Island’s most popular sights; you can expect to find plenty of tourists at Admiral’s Arch and Remarkable Rocks.
The walk itself is flat and well-marked; the most challenging section is probably the 2km section of soft white sand at Maupertuis Bay, but the chance to place the first set of footprints in a wild and remote beach more than makes up for it. In the cooler months, there’s a chance you’ll see southern right whales cavorting offshore (Rangers advise hikers not to join them as there can be strong rips and currents, but there are other chances to swim throughout the hike). Note that with a population of just under 2000, Kingscote is the island’s largest town.
Many first-time visitors are surprised by Kangaroo Island’s size – it’s 145km long from end to end – and almost one-third of the island is given over to national and conservation parks. The majority of those protected areas are clustered at the island’s western end, which is ripe for exploration. Just 13km from the mainland at its closest point, Kangaroo Island, known as Karta Pintingga by its Traditional Owners, only became an island some 10,000 years ago, at which point it was home to a thriving First Nations community. Some First Nations in southern Australia still call it the ‘Island of the dead’. A Creation story tells of an ancestor, Ngurunderi, who crossed to the island and then ascended to become the Milky Way, allowing the spirits of the dead to follow his tracks to the afterlife.
When Europeans arrived in the early 19th century, they found the island uninhabited. French explorer Nicolas Baudin was the first to circumnavigate it, and his legacy lives on in the many French place names that locals pronounce with a distinct Aussie twang. Matthew Flinders gave the island its current name when he landed there in 1802. Whalers and sealers soon descended on the island, decimating local populations, while the farmers that came in their wake cleared much of the island’s eastern half. The whalers and sealers kidnapped many Aboriginal women and took them to Kangaroo Island as slaves. The island was colonised by the British in 1836. The government declared Flinders Chase a protected area in 1919, and the ensuing decades saw it turned into a ‘Noah’s ark’ with the introduction of koalas, ringtail possums and platypus.
Those species are still thriving today, along with plenty of other mammals that exist in such numbers it’s best to avoid driving after sundown. First Nations communities are also working to share their long history on the island.
(Contribution by Alexis Buxton-Collins)
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Kangaroo Island, SA
Rest your tired body surrounded by Ecopia Retreat’s epic wilderness, where the wildlife are as much a part of the experience as the sustainably built cabins, less than 40 minutes to the start of the hike.
Middle River, SA
Best book in to stay at Wander at Kangaroo Island after tackling this hike – dragging yourself away from the views, baths and relaxation of your WanderPod will be an almost insurmountable task.
Cape to Cape Track
Expansive cliff-tops, perfect beaches and a chance of whales and wildflowers make this a delightful coastal hike.This walk is on Wardandi Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
Bookended by two lighthouses – Cape Naturaliste in the north and Cape Leeuwin in the south – this glorious coastal route trails along beaches and cliff-tops, with just a dash of forest thrown in. It follows the ancient Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge whose layers of granite and limestone have weathered into some pretty impressive rock formations.
Nowhere does beaches better than Western Australia and this walk involves hours of either gazing at its famously baby blue water and white sand or setting foot on it, so definitely factor in swimming time. The fact that you can plan your hike to include a few comfy nights in hotels and indulge in the odd cafe meal is a decadent bonus. It all makes for a spectacular hike in the Margaret River region.
With dozens of access points, this track really lends itself to section hiking or day hikes. Unfortunately the section between Boranup Beach and Redgate Beach was hit by bushfires in December 2021 but regrowth is slowly regenerating. While there are free national park campsites and paid camping en route, you can also nab yourself a hotel bed or cabin along the way. You can pretty much walk to accommodation at Yallingup, Prevelly, Gracetown and Hamelin Bay, but there are dozens more places to stay in the Margaret River region that will collect you from the trail and whisk you somewhere nice for the night. All these options mean that, unlike most multi-day hikes, there is not one standard itinerary, so study the map and choose your own adventure.
Southbound or northbound? You can hike either direction but note that the sun will be in your face when travelling north. If wind is your nemesis, you’ll be more likely to have it at your back heading northbound in summer or southbound in winter. Most people seem to head ‘SOBO’ (southbound) but this itinerary describes the walk heading north (as I did it), from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste.
The Margaret River region has got a lot going for it. Surfers discovered it back in the 1960s (there are around 75 surf breaks) and now, every May, the world’s best come here for a bout of the World Surf League Championship Tour. Equally renowned is its reputation as a hotbed of gastronomy and there are more than 200 wineries and cellar doors in the region, dozens of craft breweries and award-winning eateries, plus it’s the heartland of Australia’s truffle industry. If you visit the Margaret River Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday, you’ll get a pure foodie extravaganza bursting with fresh local produce and artisan goods, such as fresh bread, pasta, homemade nougat, olive oil and cheese.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Set yourself up for Cape to Cape success by taking in both the glittering Indian Ocean and the absolute relaxation on offer at Injidup Spa Retreat’s 10 luxurious villas – around 20 minutes from Cape Naturaliste. This is where you’ll stay if you hike with Walk Into Luxury.
Find your way to the peaceful and private Petit Eco Cabin, tucked among the vines of certified organic winery Windows Wine. Powered by the very same landscape responsible for the award-winning drop, the architectural, sustainable cabin is just the place to recoup after making your way from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste, just 20 minutes away.
Only steps from the waters of Geographe Bay, Whalebone Quindalup channels the romance of seafaring into a luxurious and comfortable cottage that’s the perfect base for exploration.
An outdoor bath, a light-bathed cabin and the peaceful sounds of native WA bushland of Bina Maya Yallingup Escape (20 minutes from Cape Naturaliste) are waiting to restore or inspire – all you have to do is choose your walking direction.
Toolona Creek Circuit
Get lost in the land of the giants with towering rainforest, Antarctic beech and lots of waterfalls. This is on Bundjalung Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
Toolona Gorge in Lamington National Park feels like another time and place. The rainforest is supersized, bursting with waterfalls, and home to rare plants and animals, such as gnarled Antarctic beech trees, giant king ferns, Alberts lyrebirds, and bright blue crayfish that hiss. If it all sounds a bit like Jurassic Park, it’s not surprising – considering this is a remnant pocket of Gondwanan rainforest, with some of the plants here descendants of those from 200 million years ago when Australia was still part of the ancient supercontinent.
The walk climbs the flanks of a 20-million-year-old volcano, following Toolona Creek to the edge of the Tweed Caldera, where views extend into New South Wales, before skirting the rim and returning to base.
Getting to Toolona Gorge is an adventure in itself. Whether you come from Brisbane or the Gold Coast, the last 36km on Lamington National Park Road is winding and narrow – sometimes only one lane. It makes for a super pretty drive though, particularly near the top where tall trees grow right to the road edge. Park at Green Mountains day-use area, adjacent to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, where picnic tables and electric barbecues are provided.
With a starting altitude of 935m, it can be a good 10°C cooler here than on the coast, so pack something warm to wear. Walking clockwise is best, allowing you to get the more challenging sections done first.
On a stormy afternoon in 1937, a Stinson airliner with seven on board was caught in a sudden down current, crashing into the dense forest of the McPherson Range. Rescuers were searching well south of the crash site but local Bernard O’Reilly had other ideas. A conspicuously brown and dead treetop in the canopy led him to find the virtual needle in
a haystack, and though four died he was able to save two men. Every year, O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat runs a guided hike to the wreckage and graves. At 37km long, through dense jungle and with no formed trail, it’s no easy walk. You can do the bush-bash independently, if you’ve got the navigation skills, but guides from O’Reilly’s give meaning to the journey, recounting the history of the rescue mission along the way.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Lamington National Park, Qld
A hard day’s exploration deserves a decent place to sleep and Nightfall more than delivers. Make your way to this much-loved rainforest glamping experience tucked into Scenic Rim’s prehistoric landscape.
Mountains, glacial tarns and epic views of the Southwest Wilderness Area. This walk is on Mellukerdee Country.
WHY IT’S SPECIAL
Step onto the Hartz Peak Track and you could imagine you’ve been dropped into Tasmania’s wild interior, yet it’s only a 90min drive from Hobart. Three to four hours on the trail gives a bite-size snapshot of everything that is great about hiking in Tassie: rugged mountain vistas, scattered glacial tarns, a craggy summit climb and uninterrupted views over the Southwest Wilderness Area. It’s a reasonably strenuous climb to the park’s 1254m peak, but even just a dip of the toes on this route – as far as Lake Esperance – yields massive rewards.
Hartz Peak is the highest point of the Devils Backbone which stretches almost the entire length of Hartz Mountains National Park. It began as molten lava deep below the surface, later morphing into a hardy band of dolerite that pushed its way into existence around 165 million years ago. A little molding of the land, courtesy of a couple of ice ages, has resulted in the dramatic cirques, troughs and horn peaks so spectacular today.
Choose your own adventure: 1.5hr return will get you as far as Lake Esperance, 2hr will earn you views into the Southwest Wilderness Area from Hartz Pass (including gnarly Federation Peak), or go the full distance to Hartz Peak for an epic 360-degree panorama across mountains and ocean.
There’s 11km of unsealed road to reach the carpark at the end of Hartz Road – easily done in a 2WD vehicle in good conditions, but in rain, ice or snow a 4WD would be recommended.
Inclement weather can hit alpine regions at any time of year, so hikers heading out in anything less than perfect conditions should go prepared with suitable clothing and supplies. There’s an impressive fully enclosed shelter at the trailhead if you need to retreat.
The Hartz Mountains was one of Tasmania’s first regions to become popular with bushwalkers, thanks largely to the cutting of an access track from nearby Geeveston in the mid 1800s by the Geeves family. Back then, new trails meant access for getting timber and minerals, but in 1897 a prospecting expedition by Osborne Geeves, his three sons and nephew, near Federation Peak, went tragically wrong. A blizzard thrashed them as they crossed the Hartz Range and son Arthur and nephew Sydney died from hypothermia. There’s a memorial to the two men close to where they perished, just 5min into the Hartz Peak walk. It’s a reminder as to how changeable and dangerous alpine weather can be. Declared a scenic reserve in 1939, the size of Hartz Mountains’ protected area has fluctuated over the years in a tug of war with logging interests, before Hartz Mountains National Park was finally ushered into the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 1989. Logging still continues on its periphery.
SLOW STAYS TO SLEEP AT
Blueberry Bay Cottage
On a peaceful slice of Huon River frontage, Blueberry Bay Cottage gives just the right balance of humble simplicity and luxurious modernity to complement the task of taking the challenge to Hartz’s infamous peak.
Verona Sands, TAS
Verona Sands has a secret weapon in the form of Chambls Shack, only 1 hour 29 minutes from the Hartz Mountain Day Visitor Centre. Step back in time at the 70s shack, and relax surrounded by the sleepy seaside rhythms of this quiet haven.
This is an edited extract from Ultimate Walks and Hikes: Australia by Laura Waters published by Hardie Grant Explore. Buy your copy here.
Feature image: Cape to Cape Track by Walk Into Luxury
NSW images: National Parks. KI Wilderness Trail: @heidiwhophotos. Cape to Cape Track: Walk Into Luxury. Hartz Peak, Tasmania: Stu Gibson.