Camping the Grampians and Little Desert National Park
January 1, 1970
by Nicholas The Gnome
An Affordable Escape from the City
The Grampians National Park, just 3 hours from Melbourne, is a great escape from the city and a very affordable trip. We spent 3 days here, followed by a day at the Little Desert National Park. The cost of our rental car, fuel, campground fees, and grocery store bills was approximately $500 for 2 people for 5 days of travel.
The Grampians National Park
The Grampians are a beautiful national park, comprised of a series of mountain ranges and their valleys. These are by no means gigantic towering mountains – the highest peak, Mount William, only reaches 1167 m above sea level, but it is still a magnificent park for camping and hiking, and has plenty of sites worth stopping for.
There are 13 maintained campgrounds within the Grampians, the majority of which you must book online prior to your arrival. These cost about $26/night and can accommodate up to 6 people. Some of the campgrounds operate on a first come, first serve basis, and do not have any fees. We visited in January, which is a busy time to travel in Victoria because of school holidays – so we decided to play it safe, and book our sites in advance. All campgrounds have picnic tables and fire pits (some campground will require you to share), toilets, some have bucket showers. None have drinking water, but I believe most have faucets that you can use for dishes.
Our first stop was the town of Dunkeld – a tiny town at the southern tip of the park with an information center. I’d recommend stopping to grab a map, park guide, and either look at or purchase some of the hiking trail maps. It’s also worth chatting with the staff about which trails or campgrounds may be closed (due to fires, etc.), and which roads you should avoid if you are visiting with a 2-wheel drive rental car.
Mt. Sturgeon Summit Trail
We wanted to do a hike on our first day, and opted to summit Mt. Sturgeon. With an approximate elevation of 450 m and a 7 km return trail, it was estimated to take approximately 3 hours. We chose to hike Mt. Sturgeon instead of the taller Mt. Abrupt after reading that the trail for Mt. Abrupt can sometimes be confusing and takes approximately 1 hour more to complete. It was 3 pm and we wanted to make sure we got to our campground in daylight.
The trail head is at a gravel parking lot on Victoria Valley Road (C217), right where the Grampians Road (C216) branches off. When you first head out, the trail will be relatively flat and surprisingly sandy. Evidence of bushfires may be visible, with recovering gumtrees with black bark.
The landscape then starts to change, and becomes quite rocky as you start the climb upwards. It’s a fairly moderate ascent, which offers a rewarding view of Mt. Abrupt after only 30 mins of hiking. The trail continues upwards to a false summit, with a view of the flat agricultural land to the south, as well as Mt. Abrupt and the real summit of Mt. Sturgeon across a little valley. It may look a little daunting, but you really are very close, and it is really quite easy to reach the real summit. So keep going!
On the walk back down from the summit, take the time to observe your surroundings. If you go in the spring, there are apparently plenty of springflowers. But when we went in January, there weren’t any – only grasstrees. However, we saw multiple wallaby and a group of emu! So keep your eyes peeled.
A quick 30 minute walk along an easy trail will take you to Silverband Falls. It’s a pretty little waterfall that you can walk right up to and touch. During our visit in January, it was barely trickling with water.
This town is the main accommodation base for those who are visiting the Grampians and not camping. However, it is quite small – so don’t expect to find a big Coles or Woolworths. The main stretch has a little supermarket, adventure activity office, ice cream shops, and some restaurants and cafes.
The Pinnacle is a rocky lookout, jutting out from the cliff’s edge. From here you get a great view of the Grampians, including Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield.
To get to The Pinnacle, there essentially 3 options that range in difficulty, depending on your starting point:
- Sundial Car Park – easiest route, approximately 1.5-2hrs return trip
- Wonderland Car Park – approximately 3hrs return trip
- Halls Gap Caravan Park – hardest route, approximately 5 hours return trip
We opted for the second option and began our ascent from the Wonderland Car Park, which was overflowing with cars. From here you have the option of taking a route through the “Grand Canyon”. It is not all the grande, but it makes the hike interesting as you walk between two rock walls and then climb up some metal stairs to a view of the canyon from above. It is definitely worth doing on either your way up or way down. The walk took us the estimated 3 hours to complete, and was well marked and quite busy with other tourists.
The Boroka Lookout is adjacent to its car park, making it extremely accessible. From here, you will have a nice view of the Mt. Difficult and Mt. William Ranges, cradling Lake Bellfield. The views are quite similar to those from The Pinnacle, so we were slightly disappointed. However, if you didn’t have the opportunity to hike to the Pinnacle, you should make a quick stop here.
Reeds Lookout & the Balconies
Reeds Lookout is also adjacent to its car park. It offers a view of a different area of the Grampians, looking out towards the Victoria Valley.
From the same car park, you can follow a trail to the Balconies lookout. The return walk was estimated to take 1 hour, but it only took us half of that. And, there was only one lookout! The plural “Balconies” is misleading! It provided us with more views of the Victoria Valley, with numerous peaks in the distance. I wouldn’t say it was all that spectacular, but considering it only took us 30 minutes, it was still good to see. So if you are like me, and have a serious FOMO, just make the quick walk.
From the car park at the top of MacKenzie Falls, you can take a short trail to your left to Broken Falls. Overshadowed by the more popular MacKenzie Falls, they don’t get mentioned much, but I thought they were pretty neat! And it’s only a 2 minute stroll from the car park, along a well maintained trail to see them.
MacKenzie Falls is one of the most popular sites in the Grampians, and there are a couple ways to see it. From the car park above, you can follow a short trail to some lookout points which look down at the falls from above. The more fit can continue down some steps to lower platforms, and even follow the stairs all the way down to the base.
Alternatively, you can hike to the base of the MacKenzie Falls from the Zumsteins Picnic Area. The trail follows the river at the bottom of the valley, and takes approximately 3 hrs (return trip). The trail itself is not that scenic, but on the way to MacKenzie Falls, you will pass Fish Falls – another waterfall which I think is underrated. It’s multi-tiered, and you can walk right onto the middle level of the falls, up close to the flowing water.
We knew we wanted to do a hike in the northern part of the park, and had originally planned to do Mt. Zero. But, a ranger at one of the Information Centers recommended we do Hollow Mountain instead. We took her advice, and were extremely glad that we did. This hike is a lot of fun and very rewarding – I highly recommend it. Plus it only takes 1-1.5hrs!
The trail starts off very sandy with some gentle steps, but as you approach the base of the mountain it becomes a rocky scramble. The route is well marked with yellow arrows, and will sometimes require you to crawl on all fours. Don’t forget to turn around and check out the view!
After about 30 minutes of hiking, you will encounter what looks like a little cave. You should follow that childhood sense of adventure and crawl through it. Alternatively, you could walk up to the red rock face and turn left…you’ll end up at the same place. Then if you hoist yourself up onto the rock on your left, you can get inside another cave, and continue exploring up onto the different levels. I’m not entirely sure how safe this is? But it’s wicked.
The trail then hooks left and as you continue to ascend, you find yourself with an amazing view facing south towards the park. From here, it’s just a bit more rock scrambling to reach the top where you will have a wonderful panoramic view.
This hike was probably my favorite part of the Grampians. If you feel a bit intimidated by the “rocky scramble” part, take comfort in knowing that we encountered a young family with 3 children on the trail, the youngest being carried on the back of his father.
Gulgurn Manja (Aboriginal Art Site)
The Grampians are known to contain approximately 80% of the indigenous rock art within Victoria. There are multiple sites within the park that are open to the public for viewing. The Bunjil’s Shelter is considered to be one of the most significant and sacred sites, but we decided to do the 40 minute walk from the Hollow Mountain car park to the Gulgurn Manja shelter, simply due to locational convenience.
The site was not what we expected to see. It was quite a small rock overhang – and only visible through an ugly metal fence. The red hand prints and animal tracks were easily visible and well preserved, but there wasn’t that much of it! Perhaps it was our high expectations for the site, or perhaps it was just due to our ignorance with respect to the significance and meaning of this art – but we were underwhelmed. Additionally, there was no signage or information for us to be able to interpret or understand what we were looking at.
North of the Grampians
The northern part of the Grampians are home to many olive farms! MMM! But call to check if they are going to be open when you hope to visit. In January, many were close… even on a Saturday.
A surprisingly large city! If you plan to continue your trip, this is a good place to fuel up your car and grab more food and water. There is also a tourist information center that can provide you with information on the national parks and other surrounding sites. We grabbed a map of the Little Desert National Park because we were unable to find one online.
Mount Arapiles and Mitre Rock
This rock, jutting out of the ground in the middle of agricultural land, is approximately 30 mins from Horsham. It is apparently a world renowned rock climbing site, but since we weren’t climbing, we didn’t find it all that special. You can do a quick drive up to a car park and picnic area, and then continue up a short trail to a viewpoint. But it is pret-ty flat out there.
Mitre Rock, just north of Mount Arapiles has its own car park and some questionably named trails that we chose not to explore.
Little Desert National Park
An hour drive from the Grampians, Little Desert National Park offers up a much different landscape. It sees much fewer tourists, so don’t expect to see a great deal of infrastructure other than the trails and campgrounds. A drive through the middle of the park, along Nhill-Harrow Road, will give you a great peak inside the park. The other roads in the interior of the park will require 4 wheel drive, as they are sandy and unpaved.
When to visit
The best time to visit the park is the spring or early summer, when the park is a comfortable temperature and there are colourful wildflowers and birds. We thought that January would still be considered early summer – FALSE. It was extremely dry, hot, and there were no wildflowers or visible wildlife. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone visit in the summer.
If you are visiting for an extended period of time, there is an 84 km Desert Discovery Walk that you can do various lengths of. There are 2 campgrounds in the interior that you would stay at, which are only accessible to those walking.
If you are visiting for a shorter period of time and don’t want to commit to the Desert Discovery Walk, there are multiple self-guided nature walks that you can do.
- Stringybark Walk (30min to 1hr depending on how many of the 3 loops you chose to walk)
- Keith Hateley Nature Walk (30min)
- Pomponderoo Hill Nature Walk (30min)
- Wail Nature Trail ( 30min)
- Yanipy Walk
We did the Pomponderoo Hill walk, located near to Horseshoe Bend and Ackle Bend Campgrounds, as well as the Stringybark Walk, located along Nhill-Harrow Road. Both had brochures at the trail head, which you can use in conjunction with the numbered post to learn a bit about your surroundings. The highlight of these trails for us, was speculating what animal tracks we were seeing.
We intended on doing the Keith Hateley Nature Walk as well, but after seeing very little other than gum trees and dry desert vegetation on the other 2 walks, we decided against it.
If you are completing the Desert Discovery Walk, the two walk-in campgrounds are the Mallee Walkers and the Yellow Gums Walkers Campgrounds. These are free to stay in and cannot be booked in advance. They are first come, first serve campgrounds.
The other four campgrounds can be accessed by vehicle. However, accessing Broughtons Waterhole Campground requires 4-wheel drive. Broughtons and the Kiata Campgrounds are also free to stay in and operate on a first come, first serve basis only. The Horseshoe and Ackle Bend Campgrounds must be booked and paid for in advance ($26.60/night for the site).
Little Desert Nature Lodge
The Little Desert Nature Lodge is located on the northern edge of the National Park and is operated by Conservation Volunteers Australia. The lodge offers a range of accommodation including camping, as well as affordable tours and activities. The lodge is also home to a large amount of wildlife, visible from the car park or even your room window.
When we visited in January they required a minimum 2 night stay at their campground, so we did not have the opportunity to camp there. However, after a picnic dinner in the small town of Nhill, in Japex Park which contains a neat swamp boardwalk (dry in January), we did do the Nocturnal Wildlife Encounter. This 45-minute flashlight led tour took us to an enclosed part of the sanctuary, where we fed and pet Bettongs. We also watched our guide feed some caged sugar gliders and curlews. He told us a bit about the animals that we saw and about the environmental work that the lodge participates in.