Melburnians are an intrepid bunch. Head into the Dandenongs on any given Sunday and you’ll find them trekking leafy trails in body-fit gear with the super-human energy that only a smashed avocado and double-shot latte can provide.
When it comes to hikes within easy driving distance of the suburbs, we’re pretty spoiled for choice. You can set off in any direction (south east to the Morning Peninsula, north along the Hume or south west to the Surf Coast – just watch those speed cameras). Within an hour or two you’ll find some of the best short walks in the state.
1. The Thousand Steps
One of Melbourne’s classic weekend hikes. If you ever have a friend training for anything, anything at all, chances are you’ll find them here on a Sunday morning, huffing and puffing their way through the ferns and manna gums of the Dandenong Ranges.
The ‘Thousand Steps’ is actually a memorial walk dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Kokoda, and if you’re not in a rush it’s worth stopping by some of the plaques along the route to brush up on your WWII history. After you’re done, stop for a recovery muffin in the conveniently located 1000 Steps Café, just near the carpark.
2. The Great Prom Walk
You don’t need to convince Melbourne locals of the beauty of ‘The Prom’ – mainland Australia’s southern-most tip – but the rest of the country doesn’t pay it much attention. The Great Prom Walk does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a circuit that takes in the best of Wilsons’s Promontory, and it’s pretty great.
There are two routes to choose from, but I recommend the path that winds up to Windy Saddle and then descends through the ferns to Sealers Cove. It’s a big walk – over 35km – so consider camping down at the campgrounds or renting a cabin at Tidal River. You’ll need a good soak in the tub after this one.
3. Flinders Peak Track
The You Yangs are Melbourne’s forgotten mountains. Even dyed-in-the-wool locals, when told you just conquered Flinders Peak, will probably say, “…huh?” Drive west from the CBD, over the West Gate on the road to Geelong, and about halfway there you’ll notice twin peaks on your right – these are the You Yangs.
The Flinders Peak track takes you to the range’s highest point. It’s a one-hour round trip from the Turntable Carpark, a pretty steep climb through dry scrub and weirdly alien bushland. These aren’t the shady glens of the Dandenongs, the trees here are more like something out of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Good views from the top though – you can see all the way to the bay.
4. Two Bays Trail
The Mornington Peninsula is usually associated with mansions and Toorak Tractors (huge unstoppable 4WDs) more than walking. It’s generally assumed that the people who holiday here have others to do the walking for them. But the Two Bays Trail is one of the region’s hidden gems.
It’s the longest continuous track on the Peninsula – 26km from Dromana all the way to Cape Shank – and passes through the genuinely beautiful Mornington Peninsula National Park. It’s not too strenuous (this area isn’t know for its snow-capped peaks) and the scenery is pure Mornington: natural bushland, tranquil river gum valleys and untamed coastline looking out over Bass Strait.
5. Werribee Gorge State Park Circuit
When Melburnians think of unspoiled wilderness, it’s fair to say Werribee (the suburb with the city’s biggest sewerage catchment) doesn’t leap to mind. Which is why the Werribee Gorge comes as such a surprise.
It’s a little slice of rugged beauty among the flat fields and suburban blandness of Melbourne’s far west, and the State Park Circuit track is probably the best way to see it. It’s a 10km trail with some steep climbs and great river views. Start at the Quarry and head anti-clockwise around the Gorge rim, it’ll take about 4.5 hours.
6. Hanging Rock
The legend of the picnic at Hanging Rock has done the National Park no harm when it comes to visitors. I remember as a kid feeling a bit apprehensive when Mum announced we’d be eating lunch there, but it’s still a popular day trip for Melburnians looking for a little fresh air and a chance to stretch their legs.
The walk only takes about 30-minutes up and down, you get to scrabble over some truly epic granite boulders and there’s always the Macedon Ranges right next door when you’re ready for a pie and salad or a cup of tea. If you’re interested in some of the rock’s history, check out the weirdly huge visitors centre just near the car park.