At Its Peak

At Its Peak

We Are Explorers’ Amy Fairall takes on an ancient volcano in western New South Wales during an overnight hike.

The traverse of the Grand High Tops in Warrumbungle National Park has long been one of the best day hikes in New South Wales. The craggy remnants of this 17-million-year-old shield volcano command respect, awe and a lot of leg work.

The climb to overlook the jagged edges of Breadknife will leave you hungry for Vegemite toast, and begin to gnaw at your appetite for adventure, but will it satisfy? Perhaps not. The Warrumbungles warrant more than a mere day trip. It’s likely you’ve driven hours to be here – surely you don’t want to rush beneath the granite tors and whiz past every vista as you sneak a peek at your watch. This is one of the most scenic tracks in the state. Best to pack a tent.

With multiple bush-camp options along the way, plus the chance to catch sunrise from the summit of Bluff Mountain, an overnight hike is the only way to trek the Grand High Tops trail. Geology’s been at work for millions of years here – you can spare an extra day.

Eyes on the Trail

The first few kilometres are a tease. Wandering through the shade of the surrounding forest, with only fleeting views of the erupting tors overhead and streams trickling and twisting below the elevated path, this is by far the easiest section of the hike. Savour it while it lasts.

As you begin to ascend, the dirt trail turns to pavers and the canopy overhead starts to dissipate. With eyes to the ground and one foot in front of the other, climbing the pavers is a toil, especially when carrying all your gear.
As you gain altitude, Belougery Spire begins to rear its head above the trees. Soon, staircases replace pavers and you realise you’re ascending straight up the guts of the grandest of high tops. Breadknife is on your right, Belougery Spire to the left. With each step up, another inch of them is revealed.

You’ll land right by the base of the Breadknife, so scramble up to its perfectly etched teeth to peer through to the vistas on the other side.

Round the corner and clamber up onto a rocky outcrop positioned between the Breadknife and Belougery Spire for a lunchtime view you’ll never forget. Find yourself a flat spot between the sloping rock to carefully balance your pack and aching body a while.

There’s one last ascent to the ridgeline, with a side of bouldering thrown in, and you’re delivered a panorama of the entire park – and the first sighting of Crater Bluff, a gobsmacking monolith with a plummeting sheer wall.

Take a breather, sit back and soak in the surroundings. This is what you came here for, after all. Crunch on an apple, but don’t let the sun punch you too hard – there’s no shade to hide in up here.

Forge Your Own Path

Although the Grand High Tops walk is a loop, few people follow the path the entire way around, choosing instead to retrace their steps back to the finish line. As the day trippers turn back to descend the stairs they just climbed, you’ll head down the opposite side of the ridge along fresh terrain.

Don’t miss catching the opposing face of Breadknife before you slip back under the forest canopy and out of the sun. The crowds who pour in to see the Grand High Tops vistas are gone and you’re left with the twittering of superb fairy wrens and the satisfying thud of your own footsteps.

After a few kilometres of forest wandering, you’ll arrive at your home for the night, Dows campgrounds. This small clearing at the base of Bluff Mountain teems with native birdlife. Although small, it’s a serene spot with firepits and a narrow creek.

The last stragglers pass the campground well before dark, and the distinct lack of human noise cements your immersion into the wilderness. This remote campground has only three pitches, so if you’re sharing the space it’s going to be tight. As you find a flat patch of green to raise your tent, gaze up through the twisting gums at Bluff Mountain. That’s your morning mission.

If you can will yourself to stay up late enough, wander back onto the path where the trees are more sparse and drink in the Milky Way. Warrumbungle National Park is Australia’s only Dark Sky Park, where starry night skies are exceptionally bright and there’s a concerted effort to protect it. Nightly stargazing is mandatory here.

Carpe Diem up Bluff Mountain

Today, you need to be up before the birds. While it’s still dark, tighten your laces and grab your drink bottle. Even better, grab some brekkie and kit to brew yourself a cuppa. The hike to the peak of Bluff Mountain is only 1.3 kilometres, but as you’re already at the base of this beauty, it’s all uphill from here.

The freedom from your pack will make it feel like you’re flying. Hike up giant sandstone steps and count the colours of the native orchids sprouting around your feet. Zig-zag your way up the mountain as the darkness begins to lift.

As you emerge onto the rocky ridgeline, the trees will fall away and the sun will send its first beams across the path you forged the day before. Bluff Mountain gives you a whole new perspective of the surrounding farmlands that hide in shadow, waiting for the sun to thaw them out.

Sit a while. You’re in no hurry. Make yourself a coffee and watch for wedge-tailed eagles circling the skies. When you’re ready, saunter back down to camp.

From Dows campgrounds, there’s six kilometres of the loop to complete with no elevation left to gain. Admire wax-lip orchids and paper daisies before turning back to see Bluff Mountain in its entirety, knowing that, not long ago, you sat atop its epic crown. The downhill track here is a bit rocky and unstable, which can be tricky to navigate when you’re carrying an almost full pack.

Once back on flat ground, breeze your way through the tall grasses that line the final stretch of trail and rock hop across the streams. It won’t be long before you’re back in familiar territory, with the last kilometre of the hike the same as the first. Proudly stride into the car park, as the day hikers begin their journey up the Grand High Tops trail, knowing you’ve just completed an epic 17-kilometre hike.

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Get there

The Grand High Tops walk is located in Warrumbungle National Park, a 30-minute drive from Coonabarabran or a six-hour drive from Sydney. When you arrive at Warrumbungle National Park, head to the visitor centre to pay the AU$8 daily entry fee and get any current information on the park’s hikes.

Stay there

There are multiple campgrounds in Warrumbungle National Park. Camp Blackman and Camp Wambelong host tents, campervans, camper trailers and caravans and should be booked well in advance. Prices start at AU$16.40 for an unpowered site.

Dows campgrounds, the remote site along the Grand High Tops trail, needs to be booked in advance. It costs AU$6.

Tour There

From Pincham car park to Dows campgrounds should take about 4.5 hours. Give yourself two hours to do the return trek to Bluff Mountain summit – that’ll even give you some time to relax at the top. The hike from Dows back to the car park should only take two hours. This is an intermediate to difficult hike with a heavy pack, steep climbs and remote campgrounds. If you’re attempting it you should have previous overnight hiking experience.

Photos Amy Fairall

Tags: australia, hiking NSW, Warrumbungle National Park

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