Hiking the Cathedral Range – Ridgeline Circuit. One of the more challenging and most rewarding day hikes in Victoria – Australia
About the Cathedral Range State Park
The Cathedral Range is found about 100km north-east of Melbourne. Known for its rugged ridgeline, stunning peaks and forested hills, the park is popular with hikers, trail-runners, climbers and campers. As well as this, it’s home to some beautiful flora and fauna which can be easily seen. Located around two hours drive from Melbourne’s CBD, the Cathedral Range is an easy and exciting escape from the city.
There are numerous hikes to choose from in the Cathedral Range including the popular Southern Circuit (11km) and the Northern Circuit (13km). But the ultimate Cathedral Range hike is the Ridgeline Circuit (also referred to as the Cathedral Circuit), which combines the two. And it was this hike that drew me to the area.
Cathedral Range – Ridgeline Circuit Information
The Ridgeline Circuit takes you through the entirety of the Cathedral Range State Park. Combining numerous track sections, you’ll get it all – Sugarloaf Peak, the Farmyard, South Jawbone Peak, Cathedral Summit, Little Cathedral Peak and Little River.
Distance: 18-22km Circuit depending on which peaks you detour to
Trail Type: Circuit (start and finish in the same location)
Start Point: Sugarloaf Saddle Car Park or Cooks Mill Campground
Finish Point: Sugarloaf Saddle Car Park or Cooks Mill Campground
Duration: 7-11 hours depending on your fitness levels, number of peaks you detour to and of course photo stops
Getting to Sugarloaf Saddle car park
With perfect Cathedral Range State Park hiking weather, I had planned my hike for a quieter weekday in mid-summer. On a clear day with highs of only 24°C and minimal wind forecast, the conditions were ideal for my solo Cathedral Range Ridgeline hike.
Leaving Melbourne CBD early, the two hour drive was lovely, particularly the section along the scenic Black Spur Drive. Nearing the Cathedral Range State Park, I was initially concerned by the low cloud surrounding its peaks. However the closer I got, the more it seemed to clear. Choosing to start (and finish) my hike at the Sugarloaf Saddle car park, by the time I started the steep drive up the dusty Cerberus Road track, the low hanging cloud had all but dispersed. Passing a couple of Swamp Wallabies en-route I arrived at around 9am.
The Sugarloaf Saddle car park has day parking, toilets and picnic tables. But note, there is no camping allowed here. There are some camping options back down on Cerebrus Road at the Keppel Creek Camping Ground if required.
The Canyon Walk starts here and the trailhead is easy find with informative signage explaining the potential dangers and difficulties involved with this first section of the hike. Before I had even reached the start point, my camera was out, as a Swamp Wallaby hopped out just down from the trailhead.
Sugarloaf Peak via the Wells Cave Track – 650m (Grade 5)
Starting from the Sugarloaf Saddle car park I started down the Canyon Track. After a very short time you come to the turn off for the Wells Cave Track. You can’t miss the turn as there’s a big sign (pictured below). With only my camera bag, I had planned to take the Sugarloaf Peak via the Wells Cave Track, so turned right onto this trail. Important: make sure to read all the information here about the two different track options, as these are both Grade 5 and not suitable for everyone.
Following the orange triangle markers (arrows) I set off in haste for my day of hiking. There were some nice views after just a few minutes. At some point, I somehow inadvertently managed to leave the trail and started to follow what was likely some sort of wildlife track which skirted around the Sugarloaf. Consulting Google Maps which suggested I was still on the trail, I pushed on. Somewhat confused, and presuming the track was just far less trafficked than I had imagined I was thinking how overgrown and poorly signed it was.
After several minutes the ‘trail’ came to a dead end and I knew I had gone astray. Realising my Google Maps had been lagging I could now see I had in fact been hiking parallel to the trail and had missed the turn off to begin scrambling upwards. The obvious and intelligent solution was to retrace my steps. But seeing a section of rock with no sheer drops I could easily and safely climb up, I decided to freestyle, climbing up and cutting across to rejoin the official track to save time.
So after a little climb up, I bush-bashed my way back diagonally up along the rock face back in the direction of the track. Needless to say after this unintended detour, I was relieved to see the orange markers again. With a few scratches to show for going a little off track, I vowed to pay a little more attention to the markers for the rest of the day! The next section of the trail came to what was the only real bit of ‘basic climbing/scrambling’ that was required. It was clearly marked and good fun. But I can imagine if you’re not confident with this or have height issues, it would be pretty daunting.
After negotiating this, I was at the Peak. It then dawned on me that I must have somehow managed to completely bypass ‘Wells Cave’ with my earlier diversion. Still, with a fairly hefty camera bag and tripod, the squeeze through would likely have been tight anyway. And a good reason to comeback and hike it again in the future! From atop Sugarloaf Peak, the views were awesome. The white fluffy clouds were thinning and the initial views were back south and west over the park.
Starting out relatively early on a weekday I had the whole summit to myself! Eager to explore, I spent a bit of time wondering around up here. At 920m, Sugarloaf Peak is the highest spot in the range. Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be more amazing vistas. The Sugarloaf Peak really is a stunning place to take in the surrounds and the perfect spot for my first drink break with a view!
Razorback Track – 2.4km (Grade 5)
Atop Sugarloaf Peak there’s signage clearly pointing out the track options. As you can’t descend via the Wells Cave Track for safety reasons, you can go back along the Sugarloaf Saddle via the Canyon Track, if you are wanting to return to the car park. But if like me you are continuing on, follow the signage for the ‘The Farmyard via Razorback Track’.
Having learnt from my earlier mistake, I made sure to keep an eye-out for the markers on the way along the Razorback Track. Heading slightly to the left of the main ridgeline, the track is very easy to follow, once you find the first few markers.
The views along the first part of the Razorback Track are impressive looking north/north-westerly towards Cathedral Peak and beyond following the ridgeline. It’s quite exposed up there, so I was pleased to be hiking on a day with little to no wind and very mild summer temperatures.
There is plenty of rock-hopping along the Razorback Track, along with the upcoming Ridge track, so you’ll want to be light on your feet. It was whilst hopping from rock to rock en-route to ‘The Farmyard’ that I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye. Stopping sharply, I realised it was a snake only a few metres ahead. Being summer, I was not surprised find one on the hike, as I had read they are seen frequently. To be honest I hadn’t seen one of these snakes before. I think it is a Copperhead (Highland Copperhead)? But please do comment to confirm this or correct me, as I would love to know for sure.
After my snake excitement, I carried on until I came to a deserted clearing. I was at ‘The Farmyard’ campsite and it was empty – my sort of campsite. As soon I reached this area I was aware of rustling all around me. It didn’t take long to workout what it was. There were Superb Lyrebirds foraging all around me.
South Jawbone Peak – 300m one-way (Grade 3)
From The Farmyard, I decided to take the short 300m detour up to the South Jawbone Peak. It’s a short, steep, 10 minute walk up to the peak and well worth the extra little bit of effort. It was another great spot for a quick drink and snack break.
On the route down, I found Black Rock Skink. When it first popped its head out, I thought it was another snake. These skinks can get pretty big and they are fairly solid looking compared to a lot of the other little skinks we’ve come across on our hikes around Victoria.
The Ridge Track – 3.8km (Grade 5)
Once back at The Farmyard, I was unable to resist the urge to try for a few more Superb Lyrebird photos. They were literally everywhere, I had never seen so many in one area. I probably spent longer than I should have following a flamboyant male around. With their elaborate tail feathers, these birds really are impressive, but never want to stay still for the camera!
Once I’d got my Lyrebird fix, I cracked on with the next section of the trail. In a sort of second cleared area in The Farmyard campsite ,there is another obvious sign pointing you in the direction you want to go. For me it was ‘Little Cathedral via Ridge Track’.
Starting with short uphill bushy section you pass another track to your right which detours to North Jawbone Peak, should you want to. Having done the South Jawbone and conscious of time, I elected against this detour and continued on towards The Cathedral. Once out onto the ridgeline, the early section of the Ridge Track offered spectacular views, particularly to the west.
This section of trail is good fun, hopping from rock to rock. It’s not just flat hiking, and this where decent footwear is important. You do need to look were you put your feet, rather than just staring out over the surrounding bushland and the patchwork of fields. But there were certainly no shortage of ledges to choose from for a well earned sit down and a sandwich or two for lunch.
It wasn’t long before I’d stopped again for another reptile, this time a Jacky Dragon. Apparently also known as a Blood-suckers or Stonewalkers, these names make them sound like some scary mythical beasts. They are in fact far from it. This one was really relaxed and certainly not camera shy.
Shortly before Cathedral Peak there is the option to turn right onto the Cathedral Peak Track. This actually cuts out Cathedral Peak and Little Cathedral and takes you straight across to Ned’s Saddle. A popular option to save time and kilometres, especially if it has taken you longer than expected. However I was keen to complete the full Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit so stayed on the Ridge Track and headed up Cathedral Peak. From up here, the views facing back the way I came were impressive. The spikey Sugarloaf Peak seemed so far away.
About 1km further along the Ridge Track from The Cathedral you reach the the below left sign. This is where the Little Cathedral Track joins the Ridge Track. To save time you can take the sharp right turn and join it straight away. Or as I did, take the 500m one way track to Little Cathedral with more great views along the way.
This was a easy trail to follow with plenty of viewpoints along the way. It was worth the extra 1km return hike in my opinion. Once you get to Little Cathedral, you walk back the way you’ve come. From this direction you’ll see the back of the sign you saw earlier (above right). Take the ‘Neds Saddle via Little Cathedral Track.
Little Cathedral Track – 900m (Grade 4)
The Little Cathedral Track to Neds Saddle is one of the shorter sections of the Cathedral Range Ridgeline Track. It’s also the start of some quite different terrain. Away from the Ridge, this is where the rock-hopping starts to end and the track becomes more sheltered by vegetation. There was plenty of birdlife around and it was a nice quick part of the circuit.
Neds Gully – 2.2km (Grade 4)
Reaching Neds Saddle, the signage for the next section was slightly confusing. There is the option for a short 250m one way track to Neds Peak, but having had plenty of peaks already I was keen to get straight onto the Neds Gully Track. As mentioned, the green sign arrows are a little confusing. But there are marked orange arrows pointing you down various tracks. For Neds Gully Track follow the arrow marked ‘NS’ (below right).
This section was a sheltered and downhill, a nice change from the previous tracks. Not particularly photogenic, so a good track for making up some time I’d lost earlier with all my photo stops. Saying that, I could hear and see Lyrebirds around and even a few Kookaburra’s, which I can never resist taking a quick photo of!
Little River Track – 2.7km (Grade 3)
In contrast to the Neds Gully sign, the Little River Track signage was obvious. A short 100m walk to the left takes you to the Neds Gully Campground, or right to continue on the Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit on the Little River Track.
With the mighty Cathedral Range Ridge running alongside your right over in the distance, the Little River Track was really scenic. Sandwiched between its namesake, the Little River and a dusty vehicle track this track takes you all the way to Cooks Mill Campground. Starting in a sheltered section of forest, there were lots more Lyrebirds around and even a few Swamp Wallabies. Apparently Koalas can also be seen in the Manna Gums if you get lucky and have the time to look for them.
Approaching Cooks Mill Campground there were Kangaroos hopping around the perimeter and plenty of Eastern and Crimson Rosella flying around. This campsite looked beautiful and again, being a weekday, very quiet. Another one Imbi and I would have to come back to and explore some of the surrounding trails and search for Koalas.
Sugarloaf Saddle via Messmate Track – 4.4km (Grade 3)
Walking through the lovely Cooks Mill Campground, there is plenty of signage pointing you in the direction of the Sugarloaf Saddle via Messmate Track. Coming out of the campsite and veering onto the Tweed Spur Road Track, I saw numerous Swamp Wallaby and plenty more Rosella.
Following the 4WD Tweed Spur Road on a gentle incline for just over 2km. you eventually reach a clearly signed turn off on the right hand-side for the Sugarloaf Saddle via Messmate Track. This is the final section of the Cathedral Range Ridgline Circuit.
To be honest by this stage, I was beginning to feel it and had run out of fluids. With the promise of a massive bottle of water in the car, this last 2km seemed to go on forever. The Messmate Track is a moderately steep trail and not a gentle finish to this epic day hike. An easy trail to follow, it runs through a nice section of Messmate forest and ferns with lots of birdlife around. But it is a gradual ascent the whole way. Getting back to the car shortly before 7pm, water never tasted so good!
The Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit was a really enjoyable hike. Certainly one of the more challenging and most rewarding day hikes I have done in Victoria, making it well worth the effort! The views were stunning, there was a nice variety of trails and terrain, along with plenty of native wildlife. A really fun day hike not too far from Melbourne. And doing it on a weekday I only passed 6 other people on various trails that make up the Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit (not including in the campsites I passed through).
Useful information and packing essentials for hiking the Cathedral Range – Ridgeline Circuit
- The Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit is not just a gentle walk in the park! There are several sections of Grade 5 tracks which involves some basic climbing/scrambling and a lot of rock-hopping. This is not a track for beginners. Those with a fear of heights or balance issues should avoid it. It is a trail for the light-footed who are happy to bounce from rock to rock with a little scrambling here and there.
- If a 7+ hour, 18-22km hike sounds a bit much for you, the trail can be broken into two shorter sections. Base yourself at Cooks Mill Campground and hike one or both the Southern Circuit (11km) and/or the Northern Circuit (13.5km) over a couple of days.
- Although I inadvertently bypassed the Wells Cave section, there is clear signage explaining this is a very tight squeeze, so not suitable for those with big packs. In which case you can take the Canyon Track up to Sugarloaf Peak.
- Likewise the Wells Cave does involves some basic climbing, so it can be awkward for those with big bags and unsafe for small children or those who are not confident in these situations. Again take the Canyon Track instead.
- Learn from my mistake. The Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit is well-signed. If you don’t see an orange triangle marker for a while, you’ve likely gone a little off track. So retrace your steps to rejoin the correct path.
- If hiking the full Cathedral Range Ridgeline Circuit start early, so you don’t get stuck out in the dark. This is particularly important on the shorter daylight days. A decent torch is recommended just in case.
- Another useful app/map can be found at AllTrails.com. Click here for ‘Ridgeline/Cathedral Circuit ‘ interactive map.
- Take plenty of good ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen with you. Regular sunscreens contain ingredients that contribute to coral bleaching. We love Sunbutter Skincare, which comes in a tin and is good for our oceans.
- A good hat/cap is important. There are a lot of open, unshaded sections on this walk.
- Decent footwear is very important for this hike. Solid ‘broken-in’ hiking boots are recommended. Decent socks will make hiking more comfortable.
- Check the weather before you go and plan accordingly. This hike would not be fun or safe in very wet, windy or very hot weather. Obviously clearer days will allow you to really enjoy the awesome views.
- If hiking alone, always make sure people know your plans and intended route and timeframes. To be honest I would recommend hiking this one with at least one other person incase you become lost or injured.
- As always leave no trace and take all your rubbish out with you!
- Take plenty of drinking water, as there is none available en-route. I had 2.5 litres and wished I had hiked with more.
- For the majority of the hike I had reception with Telstra. But at the lower campsites, reception wasn’t great.
- Finally don’t be deterred by snakes, just watch out for them, particularly in spring and summer when they are more active. For some really useful information on Victoria’s most common snakes and snake safety click HERE for a handy PDF.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask or comment. We love helping people get a little off track, especially out in the wild and enjoying Australia’s amazing native wildlife!
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