Hiking Lerderderg State Park (With a Dog)

This is a guest post by Fam Charko.

If you want to get out of the city for a day or a week, Lerderderg State Park has it all. It’s only 1 – 1.5 hours to the west of Melbourne and provides outdoor experiences for all types of visitors. It has free car camping spots right on the river, 4WD and motorbike tracks, challenging hikes up and down steep razorback ridges, mountaintop vistas, wheelchair-accessible day picnic areas and hard-to-get-to hiking trails that leave you breathless with effort. This park has been a spiritual refuge for me for years, and I want to share with you a challenging two-day pack-hiking route that includes some beautiful riverside camping.

The reason I personally like this park is that despite its proximity to the city, it is very easy to get away from the motorbikes and really feel like you are miles away from civilisation. It feels much more remote than you would expect from a State Park. Every year there is at least one news article about an unprepared day hiker with no map who gets lost and is forced to spend an uncomfortably cold night in the park, before being airlifted out by helicopter the next day. How embarrassing. Don’t be that person. Bring a paper map, a compass (and learn how to use it), spare rations and water in addition to your GPS and phone maps. Mobile coverage is okay in most of the park, but certainly not available everywhere. 

The Lerderderg River snakes right through the park and when it runs, its waters run cold and tan-coloured, forming many great swimming holes along its length. The park’s more remote areas very much resemble a national park, with the gorge sporting gigantic pile-ups of logs and organic debris from countless flash-floods, lined with stunning wildflowers like native heath, orchids and bush peas. There are birds, wombats and swamp wallabies galore. Some threatened species can be found here too, like brush-tailed phascogales, common gliders and common bent-winged bats. Unfortunately, there are also goats. Lots of goats.

A side note on hiking with dogs in Lerderderg State Park

A big plus for me is that in this park there are areas where you can bring your dog for company. Hiking with my Aussie Shepherd is one of my favourite things in the world. The first time I took Loki hiking was in this park. You should have seen his face when it dawned on him that the place was full of sticks - priceless.

Your pooch is allowed on the lead in the sections of the park that are not marked conservation or reference zone. They are not allowed in the Mackenzie’s Flat day visitor area, but you can pass through to get to the trails. 

If you are hiking the razorbacks, it is advisable to have your dog wear an outdoor harness so you can help him climb any steep sections. Another heads-up is on snakes: I once had the great fortune of seeing a beautiful eastern brown sunning itself on a log right next to the trail. I also had the great fortune that my dog didn’t notice it before I did. Always stick to the trail, and consider restricting hiking with dogs to the colder months of the year, when our slithery friends are hibernating. 

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

This route starts down the south side of the park, at Mackenzie’s Flat picnic ground, where you can park your car overnight. 

My canine sidekick and I were there in May and the river was dry as a bone. This happens a lot, so always make sure you carry enough water with you. I bring a few litres plus a very good water filter and iodine pills, so I’m able to take water from rock pools. Loki carries his own water in his backpack, together with his food, bed, snacks, poo bags and of course my hip flask of rum. 

The first few kilometres to Graham’s Dam follow the river in a north-westerly direction, passing many riverside campsites and wombat holes. In summer and early autumn the river is dry, making it easy to cross, but in other seasons be prepared for multiple river crossings and getting wet feet. As this part of the walk is flat and close to the car park, I spot bits of rubbish left behind by campers and day hikers. This is often the unfortunate reality of easily accessible areas, but don’t let that deter you if you want to bush camp without hiking a long way: the campsites themselves are all quite stunning. They are flat and grassy, with amazing views of the gorge and some even have their own private swimming holes.

Our hike starts out great with Loki sticking his nose in an old wombat hole occupied by a wasp nest and promptly getting stung on the forehead. As I mutter curses under my breath and pull out the stinger, he looks up at me with a stupid grin on his face and his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Dogs… it’s a good thing they’re cute. 

At Graham’s Dam we cross the river and hike half a kilometre to the start of one of the park’s more challenging trails. The aptly named Spur Track quickly rises a steep 400 metres and follows a razorback ridge. The map says it will take me 1.5 hours to hike all of the 2.5km. I don’t believe I will take that long, but I’m wrong. Within a few minutes I’m sweating and panting as I haul myself and my big pack up the shale slope, using my hands more than once for the steep sections. Loki has no problem getting up there. He engages his 4PD (four-paw drive) and climbs up like a mountain goat, hopping from one rock to the next. 

When I finally make it up the steep section and the slope becomes more gentle, I can hear a faint bleating. I climb onto a big boulder next to the track and am treated to a breathtaking view of the river. The gorge walls on the other side rise a near-vertical 200 metres from the water.  I can see some struggling little saplings trying to get a foothold, imagining larger trees eventually getting too heavy and falling into the river below. Those pile-ups of logs in the gorge all of a sudden make a lot more sense. 

I am using my binoculars to look at some small, inaccessible caves when I see them: a herd of goats happily chewing away on tough shrubs. They balance effortlessly on the steep rock face, never disturbing the treacherously loose shards of shale as they navigate the ravine on tiny hooves. As always when I see feral animals, the trained ecologist in me wrestles with the compassionate animal lover. I watch cute piebald kids chase each other up and down the rocks, fearing for their safety every second. Of course they never fall. Eons of natural selection have perfected their mountaineering skills in this inhospitable landscape. Inhospitable to their predators, that is. For them it is a comfortable home and they are thriving at the expense of Victoria’s native species. With a sigh, I move on and give silent thanks that I’m not the one who has to do the very necessary annual cull.

Continuing up the slope, the vistas only get better. I frequently stop to catch my breath and take advantage of large boulders sticking out over the valley to enjoy a raptor’s view of the gorge. One time, I spot a small peregrine falcon gliding on the updrafts below. My shirt and the back of my pack are drenched with sweat by then. I’m glad I brought enough water. 

The author and her dog.

The author and her dog.

About halfway up the spur, Loki alerts me to human traffic coming up the back of us. I’ve barely cleared off the narrow path when a trail runner passes me with a cheerful ‘hello!’ He continues speeding up the hill, shirt off and gleaming with sweat, a cloud of aftershave trailing behind him. I feel like I’ve just seen a ghost. Was that really a guy running up the hill that I just took an hour to climb? He wasn’t even out of breath! I resolve to become fitter this year as I soldier on to the end of the track. 

When we make it to the top, Loki and I celebrate with lunch and a dried pig’s ear. The Lerderderg Tunnel Access Track is an uneventful service road lined by young eucalypts obscuring any views of the gorge. But at least it goes downhill. A short way to the north, the track veers right and on the left there is a locked gate that allows access for hikers and management vehicles. We squeeze through and follow the service road down to the river. At the bottom, we marvel at the large structure that is the weir. This concrete giant diverts the river to the Merrimu Reservoir, which supplies Bacchus Marsh with water. We hike a ways up the river and make camp near the only waterhole that is not green with algae. The water filter is doing a good job here and soon we are enjoying our dinner.

Night falls and Loki and I bask in the warmth of a small fire. Every now and then sparks land on his thick fur, but he doesn’t care. He’s curled up next to me, alert, staring into the dark, always on guard duty. I watch the microbats fly their feeding patterns along the tree line, their tiny silhouettes projected on a background of a million stars. The gorge is silent and beautiful.

It’s a rough awakening to the screeching of sulphur-crested cockatoos the next morning. I moan and pull my sleeping bag over my head. I love being woken by a dawn chorus, but these guys are more like the avian version of the Sex Pistols; good fun, just not first thing in the morning. Grumpily reminding myself that nature is beautiful, I get up to make our breakfast. 

Our first challenge ensues as soon as we start our hike. I check my map for the Long Point Track trailhead, but it’s not detailed enough to show the exact location. We walk upriver for a while, but the path quickly disappears into a thicket of inaccessible underbrush. I switch on my phone and check my GPS map. Still no love. We walk the same stretch of river a few times, right in between the razorback and the steep cliffs on the south side. When I pull out the map once again and follow the altitude contours with my finger, I realise I need to go up somewhere. I scan the area around the weir for the faintest sign of a trail and my heart sinks as I realise I’ve been looking at it the whole time: it is a 30-metre vertical climb up the razorback. 

“Okay mate,” I say to Loki, “We wanted adventure. We got it.” He looks up at me happily. I briefly consider tying him to me by his lead in case he slips, but quickly decide that would be super stupid. He weighs 26kg and I’m already carrying a 16kg pack on my back that makes climbing a vertical wall challenging enough. If he falls while attached to me, we both go. After examining our options, there’s nothing else for us to do but climb. 

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

Loki goes first. Turns out he’s actually quite capable of climbing. It does help that he is a young, healthy working breed with plenty of energy. If your dog is large and less spirited, I do not recommend taking this route. On the steepest sections I have to help Loki by lifting him by the handle on the back of his harness. I won’t lie: lifting a dog with one hand while holding on to a vertical rock face with the other is tricky. By the time we reach the top, we are both panting and the adrenaline is making my hands shaky. But hey, what is an adventure without ever getting out of your comfort zone? Another boring day in the office, that’s what.

The view from the razorback, however, makes up for it in spades. The windy 360° views are absolutely breathtaking. It’s a really narrow trail with ravines on either side, so I can recommend keeping your dog on a short leash as you make your way over the loose shale. The trail keeps rising steadily until we reach marker 510 and Blackwood Ranges Track. This well-maintained management track is part of the 280km-long Victorian Great Dividing Trail, also known as the Goldfields Track. To give you an idea about the effort it takes to hike Long Point Track, it has taken us about 1.5 hours to hike a little over 2km. 

Turning south on the Blackwood Ranges Track, it’s an easy hour downhill until we reach Link Track No. 1, which descends steeply back into the gorge to connect with Graham’s Dam. I love this part of the hike. It’s a bit challenging going downhill over the loose shards of shale, but there are many places to veer off the track for a rest and a spectacular view of the river. On one of those breaks I look down on the backs of not one, but four wedge-tailed eagles flying in the ravine below me. Two parents and their chicks are surging upward on a thermal, swooping straight past me and out of the ravine, as if they are being shot up into the sky by invisible slings. I whoop at them as they ascend and shade my eyes until I see nothing but small specks drawing circles against the cloudless sky. There sure is magic in this place, and it has feathers and mottled wings.

The last few kilometres back to Mackenzie’s Flat are blessedly horizontal and allow a cool-down for tired legs. I feel tired yet satisfied and am a little reluctant to leave this amazing place. In an hour I am back home, enjoying the memories of the wild and my sore calf muscles for a long time after. Loki sleeps for two days straight.

Tips

  • You and your dog both need a reasonable level of fitness.
  • If you bring your dog, make sure it’s wearing a sturdy outdoor harness so you can help it through steep sections.
  • Good hiking boots, water and navigation tools are essential.
  • Binoculars are a great addition for wildlife watching.
  • Check the weather predictions and the state of the river before you go; unexpected flash flooding in the park happens regularly. Use common sense when choosing your campsite.

Fam Charko is a marine biologist, environmental educator and science communicator. She helps people reconnect with nature using science, storytelling and immersive experiences in the local environment.


All images courtesy of Fam Charko.