Escaping the summertime heat is not just about heading to the beach. Instead, dare yourself to the edge of a heart-stopping, airy abyss, climb towards the clouds for endless summit views, and cool your heels at some of Australia’s most rejuvenating mountain retreats
Skywalk Lookout, Dorrigo, NSW
It might be the wettest place in New South Wales, but once you climb through the clouds onto the Ebor Volcano’s 18 million-year-old slopes, you’ll find magical scenes at every turn in lofty Dorrigo National Park.
World heritage-listed and part of Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, Dorrigo’s shimmering waterfalls and ancient canopies are best explored on foot, but you don’t have to wander far to hang over the abyss on the park’s favourite thrill — the Skywalk.
Suspended 700m above plunging escarpment cliffs, the Skywalk Lookout showcases endless vistas that stretch from the treetops far beneath your feet to distant forested ridgelines and the faraway sea.
You won’t pay a cent to enjoy these dramatic scenes and, if the day turns chilly, you can warm up on the top trail to Crystal Shower Falls (1-hour return) or retreat to Dorrigo Rainforest Centre to sip coffee while you watch the red-necked pademelons grazing outside on The Glade.
The national park provides a cafe, picnic areas and lots of informative, artistic displays. And if your trip coincides with World Heritage Day celebrations in April, you can join free walks and talks too.
Where: Dorrigo National Park is located 60km west of Coffs Harbour via Bellingen. Stay: Family-friendly Dorrigo Mountain Holiday Park has powered caravan sites from $30/night. Pack: Hiking shoes and rain gear. Don’t miss: Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival (October).
Stirling Range, Southwest WA
A half-day’s drive southeast of Perth, the Stirling Range rises abruptly from a patchwork of pastoral plains. A rarity in a state not graced with lofty peaks, this rugged chain of rock spires stretches 65km across WA’s southwest region, luring walkers onto incredible summit trails. If you love a good day hike, you’ll love this destination.
Climb Mount Trio (moderate, 1.5-2 hours, 3km return), Toolbrunup Peak (hard, 3-4 hours, 4km return), or Talyuberlup Peak (moderate, 2-3 hours, 3km return). Sunrise from the summit of Mt Hassell is worth the hour-long slog for views of its exceptional neighbour, Toolbrunup Peak (2 hours, 4km return), and Bluff Knoll rates as the highest peak in Australia’s southwest (moderate, 3-4 hours, 6km return).
It’s not just for hiking that you’ll want to visit though. The Stirling Range is something of an ecological island, nurturing a record 1500 flowering plant species — 87 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Visit when the Queen of Sheba orchid blooms at the start of spring and dryandras and rare mountain bells (Darwinias) begin to carpet the national park, lingering until December.
Where: Stirling Range National Park is located 400km south of Perth. Stay: The national park’s Moingup Springs Camping Area provides unpowered sites, toilets, gas barbecues and picnic tables ($15/adult, $9/concession and $3/child). Pack: hiking shoes, binoculars and a warm jacket. Don’t miss: Cellar door tastings at excellent wineries close by.
Broken River, Eungella National Park, QLD
High above Mackay where clouds cling to volcanic peaks, telltale bubble streams cause a ripple of excitement. Soon afterwards, tiny platypuses emerge to float and feed, delighting the campers gathered by chilly mountain pools in Central Queensland’s Eungella National Park.
This misty, high-altitude haven protects pristine rainforests and a stretch of wild river that’s renowned as the best place in Queensland to spot platypus. Right by the national park camp on Broken River, these tiny, shy monotremes surface at dusk and dawn, ducking and diving in deep, murky pools with a flap of their beaver-like tails.
With plenty of platypus viewing platforms and more than 20km of walking trails, Eungella National Park is a deservedly popular spot. When you go, take a stroll along the easy Rainforest Discovery Trail to spend time with the platypuses, then continue on to Wishing Pool (1.7km, 50 minutes return).
En route to the national park at the base of the Clarke Connors Range, take the signposted detour to Finch Hatton Gorge to bathe in the chilly, beautiful pool beneath Araluen Falls (2.8km return).
Where: Drive 70km west of Mackay on the Mackay-Eungella Road to Finch Hatton Gorge, and climb 30km up the steep range to Eungella National Park. Stay: Unpowered sites on Broken River cost $6.65/person or $26.60/family (free for kids under five). There are toilets, firepits, a kiosk and an information centre. Pack: Hiking shoes and firewood. Don’t miss: $15/family campsites ($8/couple) on the shores of Eungella Dam.
Pildappa Rock, Minnipa, SA
It’s like Hyden’s more famous Wave Rock in miniature, but far more interesting: a giant pink granite inselberg fringed with weathered walls that flare like cresting waves. Glowing tangerine and gold at sunset, Pildappa Rock takes many travellers by surprise, carpeted with lichen and pitted with tiny waterholes that Indigenous Aussies call gnammas.
Bagging this ‘summit’ is the easiest of climbs, following the gentle rock spurs to stand three or four storeys above a patchwork of distinctly rural plots and the far distant sea. Perhaps because it’s not wildly known, few campers overnight at the base of Pildappa Rock and in my 20 years of visiting, this spot remains unchanged and enchanting.
The local Wudinna District Council permits camping in two areas at the base of the rock and encourages happy campers to make a small donation when they stay. Weird fact? Pildappa Rock was once buried 7km beneath the earth’s surface, and only emerged after a whopping 1500 million years of erosion.
Where: To reach Pildappa Rock, turn north off the Eyre Highway at Minnipa, 270km west of Port Augusta, and follow the signs. Stay: Camping at the base of the rock is free (donations accepted). Toilets, a picnic shelter and gas barbecues are provided (pets OK, phone coverage). Pack: A camera. Don’t miss: Rising early to catch sunrise on the rock.
Legges Tor, Ben Lomond National Park, TAS
You won’t need to lace up your hiking boots to reach the top of Tasmania’s second highest cluster of peaks, but the daring, white-knuckled drive up Jacob’s Ladder is sure to test your nerves. This skinny road etched precariously into the mountainside switchbacks to the top of Legges Tor where a lookout offers you grand views of the fluted black dolerite cliffs and forests of Ben Lomond National Park.
After your heart-stopping climb, reaching Ben Lomond’s ski village is a huge relief, nestled beneath Legges Tor (1572m). The ski fields surrender to walkers over Tassie’s fleeting summer, and as you wander to the top, you’ll find just enough old snow to shape a few snowballs and start a fight.
Halfway back down the mountain, a national park campground is suitable for compact caravans and is a top spot to stoke a roaring campfire and toast some marshmallows.
Where: Ben Lomond National Park is located 50km east of Launceston. Park your caravan in the campground before tackling Jacobs Ladder. Stay: Six free bush campsites provide firepits, toilets and a picnic shelter (small to medium-sized rigs only). Camping is free (wood provided, BYO water, no pets). In May 2020, national park entry will jump from $24/vehicle to $40 and a four-week holiday pass will go from $60 to $80/vehicle. Pack: Marshmallows. Don’t miss: Filming your own YouTube clip as you climb Jacobs Ladder.
Cape Bridgewater, Portland, VIC
Salty sea views and a 650-strong colony of Australian fur seals lure walkers onto this easy, breezy trail that teeters atop Victoria’s highest sea cliff. It’s a hugely scenic ramble that’s easy and thrilling, and the colony that gathers at the base of Cape Bridgewater is one of the mainland’s largest.
At trail’s end you can sit and wildlife watch from an airy viewing platform built out over the sea caves where big, brown fur seals feed and laze, hauled out on rock ledges far below. You’ll spot seabirds riding the thermals and looping down to snatch fish from the sea, and it’s hard to find a prettier spot than this to escape your worries and let your mind and feet wander.
The trail begins at a carpark above the surf club on Bridgewater Bay, and it takes 45 minutes to reach the seals. About 10 minutes into the walk, the clifftop trail descends to an old jetty where, at the turn of the 19th Century, Portland’s fishing boats were winched out of the sea at the end of each season and stored in sheds and a nearby sea cave.
After a 20-minute climb you’ll reach Stony Hill lookout on the very top of Victoria’s highest sea cliff at 130m. Stroll downhill to watch the whales and then retrace your steps, or continue along the Great South West Walk to the blowholes at Cape Duquesne (1.5 to 2 hours).
Where: Portland is 357km west of Melbourne and 108km from Mount Gambier. Stay: Henty Bay Beachfront Caravan Park has beachfront sites and there’s free camping at Sawpit Campground in nearby Mt Clay State Forest. Pack: SUPS, surfboards and fishing rods. Don’t miss: Portland’s ‘Petrified’ Forest.
Shrouded Gods Mountain, Morton National Park, NSW
Its name inspires many a trekker across the flowering heathlands of Little Forest Plateau, leapfrogging muddy bogs and wombat burrows to teeter — spellbound — on the edge of Clyde River gorge. Across the airy abyss lies the dramatic, peak-studded skyline of the Budawang Wilderness.
The Castle and Pigeon House Mountain rise above this crowded sandstone vista, distinguished and named by Captain James Cook back in 1770 and continuing to impressive the weary walkers who discover them. The walk takes around 2.5 hours (7km return), and is a top way to fill a morning.
For endless views without the walking, George Boyd Lookout captures a vast vista from Lake Conjola to the coast, and is signposted off the very scenic Twelve Mile Road.
Where: Access the national park west of the Princes Highway between Ulladulla and Nowra. Stay: Holiday Haven Ulladulla has powered campsites from $40/night (holidayhaven.com.au) Pack: Hiking shoes and binoculars. Don’t miss: The drive-to views from Mogood Lookout and the ghost town of Old Brooman.
Kojonup, Fitzgerald River National Park
East Mount Barren’s Indigenous name ‘Kojonup’ means ‘place of the stone of the axe’: a twisted ridge of great quartzite shards that rises above mallee-heath plains and tannin-hued inlets in southwest WA.
Tackle the hour-long climb to the summit for clear-sky views of rugged sea cliffs and the Recherché Archipelago offshore (2.6km return). In Fitzgerald River National Park — one of southern Australia’s largest and most botanically significant national parks — East Mount Barren is a favourite hike that’s short and strenuous and incredibly scenic.
The landscape is anything but barren, despite the tag that explorer Matthew Flinders lumbered the park with when he sailed past in 1802. The name stuck but just so you know, more than 1880 flora species flourish in the park and that’s more than exist in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Where: Sealed caravan access to Fitzgerald River National Park is via Hopetoun at the eastern end of the park, 330km east of Albany. Stay: Hamersley Inlet provides caravan-friendly campsites ($15/night) with toilets, gas barbecues and a boat launch. Pack: Kayaks, SUPS and hiking shoes. Don’t miss: 48-hour free stays in nearby Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.
Mount Rufus, Lake St Clair
From the shores of Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, impossibly scenic trails elevate walkers for peak-studded vistas that are magically reflected in Lake St Clair far below. You can climb all the way to the top of Mount Rufus for views of Frenchmans Cap and Mounts Olympus and Ossa (3 hours to the summit) or follow wombat tracks and blue fairy wrens to Shadow Lake, an easier, two-hour walk away.
Anywhere on the flanks of Mount Rufus you might encounter echidnas, Bennetts wallabies and Tasmanian pademelons, especially around Watersmeet where the Hugel and Cuvier Rivers merge.
With camping gear in your pack you can spend a night spotting quolls on the eastern shore of Shadow Lake, or retreat after a good day’s walking to relax around Lake St Clair and sip a well-deserved hot chocolate in the cafe. Down on the lake, a boat ramp and jetty provide access for paddlers and anglers, and trout fishing with lures or flies is permitted from August to April.
Where: The drive from Hobart to Lake St Clair takes about 2.5 hours via the Lyell Highway. Stay: The 9m-long powered campsites at Lake St Clair Lodge suit small to medium-sized rigs only ($39/couple/night, coin-operated hot showers). There is free camping close by Lake King William (2km west of Derwent Bridge). Pack: Hiking shoes, raingear and a fishing rod. Don’t miss: Catching a feed of trout at Lake St Clair.