Riding the trails


Just in time for some easy day-touring in the glorious conditions of autumn, Karen Graham suggests some of her favourite rail trails.

We were lazing at a train station on a brisk autumn morning when a bike rider approached us. He slowed momentarily to say, “I have it on good authority that the train won’t be running today.” He winked, and we laughed, waving to him as he continued his ride on the Lilydale to Warburton Rail Trail.

Rail trails are shared-use paths that have been created along abandoned railway corridors across Australia and overseas. Gently graded, to avoid steep hills, they are suitable for all levels of cyclist. They link charming towns; meander through valleys, forests and farmlands or alongside rivers and lakes; and some of them have stunning scenic views of the mountains and oceans.

My exploration and subsequent love of rail trails began when a friend suggested we ride from Lilydale to Warburton. It was so easy to arrange. We packed our tent and sleeping gear in panniers, caught a suburban train to Lilydale station, and set off on our 40km ride to Warburton. This trail cuts a path between the Dandenong Ranges and the Great Dividing Ranges, travelling through rich grazing fields and native wetlands, and alongside the meandering Yarra River and its tributaries.

At the time, I didn’t ride with any great regularity and I’d never been loaded down with panniers. Cycling 40km wasn’t easy for me, but it was a great introduction to cycle touring and I was hooked on rail trails. We spent a wonderful afternoon and evening in beautiful Warburton, before riding back to Lilydale the following morning.

Since then, I’ve cycled about 20 rail trails. Most were in my home state of Victoria, which currently has the most extensive network of trails. But I’ve also ventured interstate and new trails are cropping up all the time right across Australia. The best of them are in regions where locals embrace the idea that rail trails will attract visitors to an area. Services and infrastructure follow, making it easier for those wanting to explore by bike.  

The Great Victorian Rail Trail is the perfect example. It came to fruition quickly, thanks largely to a $13 million grant from the Federal Government; it was identified as a significant regional project to revitalise communities affected by the 2009 bushfires. It’s a wonderful 134km ride from Mansfield to Tallarook, with a 13km spur line to Alexandra.

I explored this trail with a group of friends and a couple of dogs, believe it or not! We stayed at pet-friendly accommodation in Alexandra and, when we went for rides, the puppies joined us in their cosy bike trailer. It was a very relaxing long weekend; a combination of fun rides, great company, and plenty of food and drink at the end of each day.     

At the Mansfield end of the trail, we cycled alongside Lake Eildon; while at the Tallarook end, we rode through the heritage-listed Trawool Valley with views across the Goulburn River. The section from Molesworth to Yea was particularly memorable because of our ride through the historic 201 metre Cheviot Tunnel. Built in 1889, the tunnel was constructed from an estimated 675,000 handmade clay bricks. It is fun to cycle through, but make sure you bring a light because it’s eerily dark.

Cheviot-Tunnel-Karen-GrahamWe also enjoyed visiting the quirky town of Yarck, where we ate at the Giddy Goat Café and then checked out a tiny farmer’s market. A sign on the wall of the pub made us laugh, as it proclaimed, “Here the Farck is Yarck”, and I don’t think we’re ever likely to forget.

The opportunity to explore unique country towns is one of my favourite things about riding rail trails. The towns are also great for travel companions who may not want to ride but still want to enjoy a day out. When I rode the 49km Great Southern Rail Trail from Leongatha to Foster, it was a family affair. Four of us rode bikes, while the other two drove the route and spent extra time in the towns of Koonwarra, Meeniyan and Fish Creek. At the end of the ride they were there to meet us, so we didn’t have to worry about transport back to our cars.

Koonwarra is renowned for its fine food and wine, and for its promotion of sustainable living, so it’s not surprising to also find organic fruit and vegetables, plants and goat’s milk products at the South Gippsland Farmers’ Market (held on the first Saturday of each month). It’s only eight kilometres into the ride but it’s hard to keep cycling with the scent of freshly-baked bread and brewed coffee wafting across the trail. The Koonwarra Store and Cafe is also a great place to stop for a bite to eat or to grab a snack for the ride.

Meeniyan has art galleries, antiques and craft shops, while Fish Creek is full to the brim with fishy memorabilia. We stopped here for lunch and a quick stroll around town to check out the creative street signs, fish-themed shops and mosaic park benches. There’s a giant mullet atop the Fishy Pub, as well as the off-theme Flying Cow Café.  

One of the other features of this trail is the view from Hoddle Summit, just before the final approach to Foster. On a clear day, you can see Wilsons Promontory and the ocean.

Rail trails often take in some of Australia’s finest scenery and attractions—such as the Warrnambool to Port Fairy Rail Trail, which starts and ends at towns on the Great Ocean Road. In South Australia, several rail trails traverse through wine districts such as those in the Clare Valley, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

The 54km Riesling and Rattler Trail through the Clare Valley was one of the first rail trails to be developed in South Australia. It travels past cellar doors and other attractions, making it perfect for those who want a leisurely and scenic ride. Similarly, the 34km Coast to Vines Rail Trail traverses the McLaren Vale wine region.

Friends and I rode this trail from Willunga (near the vineyards) to Marino, where we ate lunch at a café overlooking the Southern Ocean. We were visiting the Adelaide Hills to watch the Tour Down Under, but we also wanted to get in some rides of our own—the rail trail was perfect for us. Unlike the professionals, cycling through the hills that week, ours was a relatively easy journey. Here, the vineyards stretch endlessly across rolling hills and some of the wineries are accessible directly from the trail. In McLaren Vale, the Almond Train is an old railway carriage that has been converted into a café. It’s a great place to stop, as is Oscars, a pizza and pasta restaurant where we had dinner and a refreshing ale after our ride.

I’ve also cycled the Railway Reserves Heritage Trail in the Perth Hills. At the time I was living with relatives in Glen Forrest and the trail backed onto their property, so it was very convenient. The 59km route follows the Old Eastern Railway line on both sides of the Great Eastern Highway. At Mount Helena, the two lines reconnect to form a 41km loop before extending to Wooroloo Reserve.

The ride takes in the natural landscapes of the Darling Range and John Forrest National Park, as well as the historic towns of Darlington, Parkerville and Mundaring, settlements that evolved due to the railway. Highlights include the wooden trestle bridges and the 340 metre long Swan View Tunnel in John Forrest National Park. There is also artwork along the way, including the Mundaring Sculpture Park. Here the trail intersects with two other trails, the Kep Track and Munda Biddi Trail.  

The 75km Kep Track connects the Perth Hills with the picturesque Avon Valley, taking in Mundaring Weir, Chidlow Wells, the Avon River and the Kalgoorlie-Perth water pipeline. Read more about this rail trail in a previous Ride On article.

Some of Australia’s longer rail trails pass through incredibly diverse scenery such as the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, which, when fully complete, will be 160km. The north end of the trail is located on top of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, neighbouring the spectacular Bunya Mountains National Park. The trail crosses the rugged Blackbutt Range, meanders through picturesque farmland of the Brisbane River Valley, and features giant grass trees and pockets of remnant hoop pine rainforest.

There are spectacular views of the river, and there are also a number of historic towns to visit including Fernvale, Lowood, Coominya and Yarraman. Fernvale (which was originally two towns called Stinking Gully and Harrisborough) is now known for its Sunday markets and historic sites. Yarraman is home to Heritage House, which includes the original Yarraman train station and many historic relics from the Brisbane Valley railway line.  
Back in Victoria, the East Gippsland Rail Trail travels from Bairnsdale to Orbost through farmland and a great variety of forests. Here, there’s a chance to spot wildlife and birds, as well as to see some of Victoria’s biggest timber trestle bridges. Most impressive is the Stony Creek trestle bridge, which was built in 1916 and is the longest and highest remaining timber trestle bridge in Victoria (347 metres long and 20 metres high).

There are some great little towns along this trail as well, including Bruthen (which has a great bakery) and Nowa Nowa (which has a mountain-bike park), but it’s really the remote sections of the ride that I found the most appealing. Just beyond the highest point of the trail, in Colquhoun State Forest, there is the option to detour onto the Gippsland Lakes Discovery Trail. Here, the trail follows an old tramline through the forest and into the valley of the Mississippi Creek (towards Lakes Entrance). It’s a short, exhilarating and memorable ride.  

As autumn rolls in, I’m starting to think about my next ride. I’ve heard through the grapevine that May is a fabulous time to visit Bright, Myrtleford, Beechworth and Wangaratta—when the autumn colours are at their best—so I’m very tempted to tackle the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail. One thing is certain, with rail trails constantly popping up across the country, I’m never going to run out of options.

Discover Central Australia

While not a rail trail, the 17km Simpsons Gap Bike Path is an easy ride on a gently graded trail to one of Australia’s most spectacular places. Located in the West MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs, Simpsons Gap features the towering cliffs of the Simpsons Range and a permanent waterhole. To the Arrernte Aboriginal people, this is a spiritual place, known as Rungutjirpa. It is the mythological home of a group of giant goanna ancestors and several dreaming trails cross here. If you do the ride at dawn or dusk, there’s an increased chance to spot wildlife including black-footed rock-wallabies.


Exciting prospects     

Rail trails continue to pop up across Australia, including the North East Rail Trail in Tasmania. This project was started five years ago by the Scottsdale Rotary Club, with the backing of the Dorset Council, and, when complete, the trail will stretch for 100km—starting near Launceston and travelling through Lilydale, Wyena, Scottsdale, Tonganah, Legerwood and a number of state forests. For now, 28km of the trail is open from the old Scottsdale railway station to Billycock Hill and early reports of the ride have been very positive.  

In New South Wales, the development of the Riverina Highlands Rail Trail looks hopeful after a few years of opposition. It will consist of two separate trails in the Riverina region of southern NSW; one running 130km from Wagga Wagga to Tumbarumba and the other for 30km from Tumut to Batlow. The section from Tumbarumba to Rosewood was awarded $5 million by the NSW Government in June to be the pilot rail trail project in NSW, and it seems as though all the right steps are now being taken to bring these trails to fruition.

Photography Karen Graham

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