The Stirling Range Ridge walk offers a great escape from the typical dry and arid landscape that is more typical for Western Australia. The walk is more of a route than a track as is not marked apart from some rock cairns, but is fairly easy to follow as in most parts there is a reasonably worn path through the vegetation. We have done the ridge walk as a one day, three day and four day hike, these notes are for the three day option.
The walk is probably one of the most strenuous that I have ever done, as there is a lot of steep climbing and scrambling combined with the requirement to carry heavy packs due to the lack of a reliable source of water on the ridge. We carried 7 litres each which was barely enough for the three days. My calf muscles burned for 3 or 4 days after the hike, I guess due to the steepness of the climbs. Its a great walk in its own right and while the peaks are around 1000m only, it really felt like an alpine environment, similar to Tasmania, such thoughts are given away only by the flat and featureless plains that surrounded the range.
Anyone contemplating the walk will probably hear stories of people getting lost and losing the trail, but with a bit of planning and by making sure that you carefully study, and bring, AT Morphet's essential "Mountain Walks in the Stirling Ranges" trail notes with you, should ensure that you stay on the right path. However, it is a pretty tough route not to be underestimated. We had fairly good weather when we did the walk in October, but it was very cold - at times I was walking with three layers of thermals, weather proof jacket, thermal gloves and thermal beanie. We experienced white outs in the morning, cyclonic winds (The windiest conditions I have ever experienced anywhere), however luckily not much rain. On the last day we went from wearing all our cold weather gear in the morning to shorts and T-shirt by the time we reached the Bluff Knoll parking lot. Living in Western Australia can lead you to think that these types of conditions don't exist here, so you need to be prepared for anything.
We did the walk from Ellen Peak to Bluff Knoll. I would recommend this direction as Bluff Knoll is a prominent objective (If you can see it through the cloud) and it offers the possibility of getting a lift from the parking lot to wherever your car is. We stayed at the Stirling Range Caravan Park on the night before the hike, they offer a shuttle bus to drop you off at the starting point for $40. We managed to get a lift at the end of the hike back to our car which we had left at the Caravan Park. The other option would be to drive into the drop off point and walk back to it from Bluff Knoll along the North East track. Probably do-able, but would be a bit of a slog on the last day.
In terms of gear to take, I took exactly what I had taken to the Overland track in Tasmania, and used (and needed) everything. In addition we took 10m of pack hauling rope which we used through the Arrows to get through a few hairy descents which were only made difficult due to the load we were carrying. Also carry plenty of water. I would recommend taking a tent, although once you are familiar with the landscape you could probably get by without, and make use of the camping caves which offer deluxe accommodation if you can find them unoccupied. We ended up staying in a cave the first night and tenting the next. Personally, I found the She oak cols beautiful spots to set up tents for camping and this would be my preference.
These track notes reference AT Morphet's book and I have noted any discrepancies from the book to the route we followed. These track notes were written in November 2005. You can get AT Morphet's book from any of the outdoor stores around Perth.
Another useful reference for this trip is Wild magazine, Issue 68 (01 April 1998). This has some good trip notes and advice that is worth reading. You can order a back copy.
View Stirling Ranges Ridge Walk in a larger map
Suggested Itinerary - Day 1
Access to the Stirling Range Ridge walk has changed since AT Morphet's book was written. On page 117 he shows access through Glenelg Estate (Purple line in map below), this is not available, so access is gained from the North East track, where it meets Sandlewood Road. This adds approx a 5km walk along a fairly flat sandy track to the point where you enter the national park. There is an area to park your car on the North East track, but the track is blocked to car access after about 100m.
We started out from the drop off point at around 8:00 am after being treated to a 30 minute "rally drive" from the Stirling Range Caravan Park.
Once at the boundary to the National park, the non discript track heads through sparse vegetation towards Ellen Peak. There are many possible paths but little chance to really getting lost. As soon as you hit the climb up to the first small peak preceding the main climb up to Ellen Peak, it gets pretty steep and hard going. Once we reached the top of this first climb, we were greeted with gale force winds which were literally knocking us off our feet. This was not a good start and we were left to wonder what the wind conditions were going to be up on the ridge. In hindsight, we realised that we had been dealt fairly unusual weather conditions, the wind was from the NW (Typically you would expect bad weather from the South), and as it turned out where we were situated we were getting the full force of the NWesterly even though we were not yet up on the ridge.
The saddle just over the top of the first climb offers some reasonable camping sites. This area is heavily covered in low lying vegetation and small trees but has some clearings for tents and is nicely protected. If you have the time, I would consider camping here on the first night for a bit more of a leisurely hike. We did this on a subsequent 4 day hike. What follows is a steep climb up to the base of Ellen Peak. We checked out the small camping cave, as shown on P. 120 of Morphet's guide, and it is definitely a good option if there is 1 or 2 people.
We had planned to climb Ellen Peak, but due to the savage wind that was ripping across the saddle between Ellen Peak and Pyungoorup Peak, we didn't even consider it. Save that to next time.. Our original plan was to make for the col leading up to Bakers knob to camp, but given the conditions we decided to go for the camping cave on the Southern Side of Pyungoorup Peak. This cave is shown on P. 109 of Morphet's guide and although he indicates it is not an 'ideal' shelter, under the current conditions it was perfect (protected from the Northerly weather). Finding the track down to the cave was not that simple, basically you follow the track up towards Pyungoorup peak until you find a rock cairn to turn off towards the south. On this occasion we turned off too soon but still managed to find our way through the thick tussock.
The southern side of Pyungoorup Peak has developed its own unique environment, probably hidden from any direct sun the cliffs were dripping a constant stream of water and the base of the rocky walls were covered in lush grasses and moss. It is a beautiful place, doubly so on this walk as we were finally protected from the wind. The camping cave was a welcome relief when we finally came across it at around 3:00 in the afternoon. As with all the caves we found, it was fairly shallow with very level, 'clean' floors. The only concern were the rather large slabs of rock which had obviously fallen off the roof of shelter directly onto the area where we would be sleeping.
We settled in for an early dinner and some hot drinks after a fairly long and tiring day. Pretty soon after we had arrived another party came through - they had been aiming to stay at the cave as well but they moved on to the col before Bakers Knob to camp.
Suggested Itinerary - Day 2
The first night was interesting, mostly we were well protected from the wind, but every now and then a gust of wind, sounding more like a screaming jet engine would be unleashed upon us. We were thankful not to be facing the full force of the weather on the col at the base of Bakers Knob. A couple of ominous thuds from rock falls were also heard.
At first light we woke to a completely clear dawn and sweeping views accross to Bluff Knoll and out to the plains stretching towards Albany. We decided to have a leisurely breakfast and make plans for the day. Not too long into the first morning cuppa the party that came through the night before re-emerged, heading back the way they had come. Looking a bit weary, they explained that the night had been dreadful for them and they were thankful that the wind hadn't blown their tents and themselves away in the process. A bit worrying for us, they explained that they reguarly hiked up on the ridge and these conditions were the worst they had seen. In their opinion the ridge walk was too dangerous to continue.
We decided that in the worst case we would wait out the day where we were and continue on the ridge walk the next day, if the wind allowed. We lingered over breakfast a while longer and then headed back up to Pyungoorup peak without our packs to assess the conditions before making a final decision.
By the time we reached Pyungoorup peak the weather had closed in and in addition to the wind, we were also facing a dense layer of cloud accompanied by rain. The options started to look not too promising. Unable to see anything we started heading back to the cave. On the way down, in the space of a couple of minutes, a change in the weather had arrived. The cloud parted and we started to see glimpses of Ellen Peak. The wind dropped off and the rain stopped. A couple of minutes later and it was blue sky and relatively calm conditions. We decieded to get underway and make the best of the conditions in case they deteriorated again and head straight for the three arrows.
We quickly packed and headed off. Passing through the col at the base of Bakers Knob we did a quick survey of the campsite. There was space for 3 or 4 tents in clearings in the She oaks and it was definitely a good option to remember for later trips. Worth noting though, the site is not great when there is a northerly blowing and possibly it could offer little in the way of protection from the south as well.
From the top of Bakers Knob we got our first view of the route over the Third Arrow. It looked very imposing and from a distance didnt look like much of a route at all. But as we discovered, once you start making your way, all the routes are relatively straight forward. Following AT Morphets track notes we made for the gully on the East pinnacle. Although we had previously planned to climb to the summit we deceided to press on while the conditions were favourable. From the East pinnacle you have two options, one is to downclimb around the base of the North buttress, and the other is to climb through the Central gully (See Page 93 of his track notes). At this point we chose the lower route. Next time I would go the Central gully. The climb down around the North buttress was extremely tough going, AT Morphet's trail maps are fantastic but do not represent the true scale of the climbs, or the severity of the steepness of some of the tracks. The route around the North buttress was very steep and required us to use our ropes to lower gear over the steepest sections. Definitely all do-able, but exhausting work, as we found out on later trips, the Central gully is an easier option. If you were to do the ridge walk in two days, the camping cave on the North buttress is the ideal spot to stay. It is a bit of a climb to get up to, but an impressive spot to camp. This cave is large, comfortable and has sweeping views to the north. In poor conditions (Southerly weather), this would be an excellent option.
From the Third arrow it is a bit of an amble up to the peak of the second arrow. From here the route to the First Arrow was not too obvious, but after a scout around there was a slight trail heading off the northern side of the peak. A fairly steep and rocky descent leads you to the base of the climb up to the first Arrow. Following AT Morphet's track notes on pages 82 -83 is fairly clear, however the degree of difficulty due to the steepness of the route is not that evident when looking at the maps. This section through the First Arrow was another very difficult section, be ready for some very steep and rocky downclimbing and then scrambling back up to the ridge. There is another route that sticks to the ridge which may not look that appealing , however apart from a small section where there is a bit of exposure, its is an interesting path and one that we now always take.
By the time we emerged from the First Arrow to the She oak col at the base of Isongerup peak we were pretty stuffed. Luckily the col was our intended camping spot for night two and as indicated in AT Morphet's trail notes it turned out to be a great camping spot. There was just enough room for three level camping sites protected by a fairly thick grove of She oaks. We arrived around 3:00 in the afternoon. Although the distance travelled through the arrows was not far, it had been extremely slow going.
Suggested Itinerary - Day 3
The second night was peaceful without any wind or poor weather. On the third day we woke to the now familiar dense cloud cover blanketing the ridge. We deceided to pack up and head off with the expectation that the cloud cover would burn off as soon as the day warmed up. The day promised a change in scenery as apart from the final climb up Bluff Knoll, the route appeared relatively easy going with clear routes along the wide open spaces of the ridge.
The track out of the campsite started off clear enough but before too long we had promptly lost the trail as we headed upwards in the general direction of Isongerup peak. Navigation along this part of the ridge is fairly simple so long as you can see where you are going, but in the cloud it is not so easy. As expected, the dramatic peaks behind us quickly started appearing through the cloud as it lifted and we were able to correct our direction and get back on the track.
Hiking on this part of the route is less spectacular than Ellen peak and the arrows, but it has a great feeling of wide open spaces and a sub alpine environment. The cooling wind persisted that kept us in multiple layers of thermals for the day.
Also worth noting is the discovery of some protected clearings that would make excellent camp sites at the base of Moongoongoonderup Hill (approaching from Isongerup peak).
The climb up to Bluff Knoll is very deceptive. It appears that the summit is at the top of the first steep climb, however this leads to the East Bluff. Another gully seperates East Bluff from the summit proper, and even after the second climb which is quite steep as well there is a smaller gully to cross before finally reaching the summit. Definitely worth pacing yourself through this section as it takes longer than you would expect, and we were in a bit of a hurry to get back to campsite and open those beers.
The last section is down the well worn route down to the Bluff Knoll car park and the downhill path combined with multiple steps proved to be extremely hard on our legs that had just about seized up from the steep climbs and descents of the last two days. Fortune had it that we met a family on the way down that were happy to give us a lift back to the campground to collect our car (and beer). Travelling in the direction towards Bluff Knoll is definitely the best option if you want to be able to avoid a slog along the flat sandy tracks back to your car.
So, after hearing many stories of hikers getting lost on the route, I'd say with careful planning and a little bit of luck with the weather, the Stirling Ridge hike is an awesome hike in its own right, and if you cant get to Tasmania or New Zealand, then it is a great alternative to consider. It is tough going due to the steepness of some of the routes, but so long as you are ready for that it will be an enjoyable hike. We will definitely be going back for more...