Australia’s Greatest Mountain Hikes

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May 26, 2017

Australia might be a land of sweeping plains but it’s also a country of inviting peaks. Avid hiker Andrew Bain picks the walks that intrepid travellers should conquer. 

Snowy Mountains, NSW

Mount Kosciuszko

Of all the highest mountains on all the world’s continents, it’s Mount Kosciuszko that yields the most easily. Australia’s tallest peak presents little difficulty – until the 1970s it was possible to drive to the summit – but it provides a wonderful glimpse into the country’s alpine heights.

The Kosciuszko Express Chairlift up from Thredbo takes most of the sting out of the walk and from the chairlift station, the bulk of the route is along a paved path and a mesh walkway. In summer there’s likely to be a carpet of alpine wildflowers and you’ll cross the headwaters of the poetic Snowy River. Nearing Kosciuszko, you’ll pass above Lake Cootapatamba, Australia’s highest lake and one of just a handful created by glaciers.

The mesh walkway ends at Rawson Pass, where the track makes a circuitous climb to the summit of 2228-metre-high Kosciuszko – the rooftop of the Australian Alps.

Allow: One day
Best time: Summer
Degree of difficulty: As mountains go, Kosciuszko is a stroll but you’ll need a day.
You won’t forget: The thrill of standing on the continent’s highest point, looking out over the country that inspired the bush poem The Man from Snowy River.
Now treat yourself: Settle in before your gas log fire, or in your room spa, at Thredbo Village’s luxury Snowgoose Apartments.
More: nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

Central Highlands, Tasmania

Cradle Mountain

It’s arguably as famous as the state in which it stands: Cradle Mountain, rising from the shores of Dove Lake, its long summit bowed as if by the weight of time.

To climb Tasmania’s emblematic peak requires a long day of walking but it has the added thrill of taking you along the first few hours of Australia’s most renowned multi-day bushwalk, the Overland Track, which ends 65 kilometres away at Lake St Clair. 

At Kitchen Hut, a hikers’ shelter about three hours into the walk, the climb to Cradle’s 1545-metre peak (above) veers away from the Overland, making for a testing ascent through the Cradle Mountain escarpment. 

There’s a reward at the top: a view across one of the country’s most impressive mountain skylines, from the bulbous Barn Bluff to Mount Ossa, Tassie’s highest peak (1617 metres).

Allow: One day
Best time: Summer
Degree of difficulty: Physical flexibility is an asset on this long, challenging hike.
You won’t forget: The heady sense of adventure as you scramble up Cradle Mountain’s boulder-strewn slopes.
Now treat yourself: Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge has luxurious cabins tucked into the alpine bush at the edge of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.
More: parks.tas.gov.au 

SEE ALSO: Find Adventure on a Cradle Mountain Canyoning Trip in Tasmania

Alpine National Park, Victoria  

Mount Feathertop

You don’t earn a name like “Queen of the Alps” without being something special. Victoria’s second-highest mountain (1922 metres) is possibly the most striking and most alpine of the state’s High Country peaks, standing almost aloof from those around it and connecting to Mount Hotham – famous for its ski runs – by a thread-thin ridge known as the Razorback.

It’s a shy peak. For 10 kilometres, you walk without seeing the crown, climbing relentlessly through the strata of ferns, alpine ash, snow gums and, finally, nothing as you step above the tree line into the alpine heights. The approach to the top is a run of false summits – a teasing end to 1400 metres of climbing – until you at last come to its true apex, a lofty island in an endless sea of blue mountains.

Allow: One day
Best time: Summer and autumn
Degree of difficulty: From the Ovens Valley in Harrietville, it’s pretty much uphill for 12 kilometres – and your legs will feel it.
You won’t forget: The feeling of elevation at Feathertop’s highest point.
Now treat yourself: Extend the sense of isolation with a gloriously peaceful night at The Buckland, a stylish retreat set in the countryside outside the nearby town of Bright.
More: parkweb.vic.gov.au

East Coast, Tasmania

Mount Amos 

Every summer day, hundreds of people funnel through a pass on the Freycinet Peninsula to stand on a lookout platform and ogle the curvaceous Wineglass Bay. Few of them know that their panorama virtually pales into insignificance compared to the one from just above them, atop Mount Amos.

This low-lying mountain (454 metres) in The Hazards range, in Freycinet National Park, offers arguably Tasmania’s finest coastal view but it comes with effort – as much mental as physical. On the slopes above Coles Bay, it’s a clamber over bald granite slabs, along rock ledges and around boulders that seem to balance in defiance of gravity. 

You might hear the cursing below you of walkers struggling up the slopes but at the top there are only exclamations, with Wineglass Bay unfurled below like a white ribbon, backed by another line of mountains and the distant Maria Island. Who needs a lookout platform?

Allow: Half a day
Best time: Year-round
Degree of difficulty: A short but demanding climb that’s less about fitness and more about fearlessness. Avoid climbing in the wet, when the granite can be treacherous.
You won’t forget: The aircraft-worthy view of Wineglass Bay.
Now treat yourself: Tasmania’s plushest lodge, Saffire Freycinet, makes a truly stylish way to savour the end of a magnificent climb.
More: parks.tas.gov.au

West Macdonnell Ranges, NT

Mount Sonder 

Aim to spend sunrise atop Mount Sonder, known to local Aboriginal people as the “sleeping woman” for its shape. The most westerly peak in the West MacDonnell Ranges marks the western end of the long-distance Larapinta Trail. You’ll walk through darkness and in those hours before dawn, the only thing that seems to be moving in the desert is the light from climbers’ torches, rising slowly up Sonder’s slopes.

At 6am we reach the summit, a place of shattered rock and a smattering of desert bush, as faint light leaks over the horizon. An hour behind us the sun arrives, bronzing the outback plains and mountains and revealing a host of Red Centre features: distant Gosses Bluff, the shadowed entrance of Glen Helen Gorge and the Northern Territory’s highest peak, Mount Zeil (1531 metres), just to the north-west. And it’s still barely breakfast-time.

Allow: One day
Best time: Winter
Degree of difficulty: One of our less demanding climbs but over rocky and often loose terrain.
You won’t forget: The desert landscape as the view stretches interminably across red sand and rock.
Now treat yourself: Just a few kilometres from the mountain, Glen Helen Homestead Lodge offers a classic outback stay.
More: larapintatrail.com.au

Lord Howe Island, NSW

Mount Gower 

Peer between your feet when you’re on the slopes of Mount Gower and the ocean churns hundreds of metres below. There might be a helmet on your head and you’ll be connected to the mountain by a rope, in an unusual and exhilarating moment of island life.

By rights, this challenging monolith, rising 875 metres straight out of the sea, has no place on a thin piece of tropical-coloured paradise like Lord Howe Island but that incongruity is part of what makes it so special. 

The climb, which can only be done with a local guide, goes from a palm-lined beach to a summit covered in stunted and gnarled cloud forest. In between are sections of rock and slopes so steep, there are assisting ropes fixed to the rock. 

Flightless woodhens bustle about, petrels might squabble around your feet and the world will seem to fall away as you ascend to the top for a view over reef-fringed Lord Howe, looking so placid and perfect that you’ll wonder if you’re still on the same island.

Allow: One day
Best time: Year-round
Degree of difficulty: It’s been called one of the hardest day walks in Australia. Enough said.
You won’t forget: The startling contrast between beach-lined coast and cloud-forest-covered summit.
Now treat yourself: A drink on the waterfront deck at Pinetrees Lodge will bring you back to sea level before you settle into one of the garden cottages.
More: lordhoweisland.info

SEE ALSO: A Weekend Getaway to Lord Howe Island, NSW

Great southern region, WA

Bluff Knoll

Big mountains might not be a Western Australian specialty – the highest point in the state is just 1249 metres above sea level – but it doesn’t feel like it on Bluff Knoll. Rising like a wave from the surrounding paddocks, the imposing Stirling Range peak towers above you while, at the right time of year, a bursting field guide of wildflowers grows at your feet.

From spring through early summer, this 1095-metre mountain in the Great Southern region becomes one of the country’s finest floral canvases. About 1500 plant species grow in the ranges, including more than 120 types of orchid.

It can almost blind you to the mountain and the effort. By the time I’m standing on the summit, the wraparound views seem a mere bonus.

Allow: Half a day
Best time: Spring
Degree of difficulty: It’s up all the way, with a 600-metre-plus climb from base to tip, but it’s a straightforward ascent.
You won’t forget: The floral extravaganza – and the inescapable sense of being in high mountains, even though you’re little more than a kilometre above sea level.
Now treat yourself: The nearby Porongurup wine region will quench any thirst you’ve built up. Maleeya’s Spa Studio Accommodation, with its spa, sauna and excellent Thai café, should finish the pampering job.
More: parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au

The Grampians, Victoria

Mount Stapylton

Mention Mount Stapylton to rock climbers and watch their eyes light up. This Grampians mountain shields one of Australia’s finest – and perhaps most beautiful – climbing cliffs, Taipan Wall. For a hiker, it’s just part of the view, towering overhead in orange and black sandstone stripes.

It isn’t the only rock oddity here. Below the wall you’ll pass the suitably named Bird Rock – just part of the collection of surreal sandstone shapes and features throughout the Grampians – and most of the way, the walk traverses sloping sheets of bare sandstone textured like elephant skin.

Things get most exciting as you near the summit of the Grampians’ northernmost peak (498 metres), where the trail turns into a scramble, but here it’s more a stepladder than another Taipan Wall.

Allow: Half a day
Best time: Autumn to spring
Degree of difficulty: It’s a manageable half-day climb on solid rock, though it has some basic scrambling near the top.
You won’t forget: The looming presence of Taipan Wall – see if you can spot any rock climbers.
Now treat yourself: Nestled into bush at the edge of Halls Gap, the stylish and secluded cabins at DULC are as therapeutic as their spa baths.
More: parkweb.vic.gov.au

West Coast, Tasmania

Frenchmans Cap

Grand mountains are Tasmania’s stock-in-trade but there’s something extra special about Frenchmans Cap (1446 metres). Rising among myriad peaks in the south-west wilderness, it’s one of the state’s most distinctive and imposing mountains, with its fin-like summit wrapped in 300-metre cliffs of white quartzite, making it look perpetually snow-capped.

Once infamous for its mud, the trail was rerouted to drier ground a few years ago but it still takes three days before we’re standing beneath its cliffs, where a track leads through the seemingly impenetrable terrain. The ascent is exhilarating, challenging and at times vertiginous as you reach for footholds and handholds, eventually emerging atop this most uncompromising of mountains – a place windswept, wild and wonderful. 

Allow: Four to five days
Best time: Summer
Degree of difficulty: For experienced walkers only, with challenging sections of scrambling to reach the summit.
You won’t forget: The exhilaration of reaching the top of the cliffs to step onto the summit.
Now treat yourself: Sleep in post-industrial luxury on Australia’s deepest lake – St Clair – at Pumphouse Point.
More: parks.tas.gov.au

SEE ALSO: Bucket List Mountain Tracks in Australia