The Dandenong Ranges National Park is one of the best day hikes near Melbourne because it’s easy to get to, not too crowded, and gives one a sense of perspective when you walk beneath the canopies of giant eucalyptus trees. There, you’re alone in the wilderness just outside the boundaries of a bustling city — a soul’s escape from the doldrums of that societal carousel. So quiet you can hear the thump of your heart beat harder with every hill, the great mountain ash speak to one another, the wind whisper to the leaves, and the ever-mocking lyre bird somewhere in the bush laughing as you pass by.
The national park consists of 87,000 acres of woodland, mountain crests, and rolling hills with pieces of the national park scattered about in destination points like Sherbrooke Forest and Ferntree Gully (chya, something out of a movie huh?) and more which I have yet to explore. My personal favorite, though mainly because it’s accessible by train from Melbourne, is the Dandenong National Park treks just outside of Belgrave.
Belgrave is at the end of one train line from Flinders Street Station and a town encased in about two blocks of small op shops, nifty little cafes, and one or two local bars. It ain’t really a place one would visit otherwise, but it is a key stop to start a day hike in the Dandenong Ranges and stock up on small snacks or have a coffee. And a key stop for any of you like myself who want an escape from the city to fill your lungs with fresh air and nature.
If you’re visiting Melbourne, or even living in the city, and you are looking for good day hikes near Melbourne, check out the photos below and directions that follow.
Hope you enjoy, and one day enjoy it in person!
The Dandenong Ranges National Park
A day in the Dandenong National Park begins at Flinders Street Station, one of the oldest continually running train stations in the world. Here I pass through the modern turnstiles beneath the aged iron structure and board the hour long train ride to Belgrave.
As the train approaches Belgrave, the scenery transforms from rooftops to treetops, and Mount Dandenong looms in the distance. Once off the train, I typically follow one of two roads that lead out of town and into the forest. Down each, the hills plunge and rise, with quaint ivy-covered houses perched precariously on the hillsides as if being consumes by the overgrowth.
The ghostly howl of Puffing Billy echoes in the distance, the old toy steam trains that run through the Dandenong Ranges. As the roads trail off more into the forest, asphalt turns to gravel and steepens to a muscle-burning height. A look back to see the last few houses disappear into the green, and the old street signs disappear. Finally, into the wild.
Just as you enter the forest, something incredible happens. Silence. There is a silence that these giant trees provide — besides the phantom whistle of the train, no other noises of the outside world can be heard. As your ears adjust to the shock of such silence, then they perk up to hear the sounds of the forest breathing, the breeze against the canopy, the groaning creaks of the old trees, the call of the lyre bird.
Within minutes of entering the forest, cell service drops. But you don’t need digital maps, because the path will take you where you want to go, and the only maps you need are on the trees.
Deeper into the forest and I find myself standing open-jawed beneath the giant Mountain Ash trees that Dandenong Ranges is famed for. All around, these old mountain sentries keep an eye on the forest, towering over everything. It makes you feel small, itty-bitty small. It’s even hard to look all the way up without getting a cramp in your neck. These are, after all, the tallest flowering trees in the world. Though most of the trees in the Dandenong Ranges are less than a century old, due to a forest fire in the 1930’s that nearly wiped it all out, some old stubborn once still live on, reaching heights of up to 100 meters.
The trails I find myself each time I go to Dandenong are always the same in the sense that they dip down into the creeks, and then rise high above a valley. One moment I’ll be panting and sweating and trudging up a hill, and the next I’ll find myself with goosebumps as the chill air from a low creek cools me off. It’s fascinating just how diverse everything in the forest here is, passing through some areas that are dry and the trees leafless, and next I’m in a jungle seen with dark green ferns and bright green moss consuming everything.
Another dip proceeds another hill, and back up the mountain. As I wander these trails, I always have a sense of awe and wonder, with my imagination going wild as I find old dead trees like this one hollowed out with doorways into the forest. I don’t know why, but many of these older trees naturally decay in the same way, and I find these doorways all over the Dandenong Ranges from Mount Dandenong to Fern Tree Gully.
The forest opened and now I was in a field of ferns and wild flowers, the hot Australian sun beating down on me. The trail cut straight through the patch and split, which way to go? Since I had the entire day to explore, I didn’t really mind either way, but the last thing I wanted was to end up out of the forest. So I chose left, deeper into the wood, and up another hill of course.
The woods provide some relief from the heavy summer heat, but the dense flora shadows dance across the paths as you wander. Here I began to hear a weird bird call. Something almost mocking, a laughing and then a tooting and then a whistle. It was the Lyre Bird, the supposedly elusive creature of the forest that can mimc other bird calls, and sometimes even other noises. I felt as though that were all laughing at my red hot searing brow and my exhausted breathing.
And suddenly, there one was! I heard a rustling in the forest beside me, only to look and spot one running away. I followed it, tip-toeing into the brush and over a dead log, trying to be ninja-silent, trying to spot one. All I had seen thus far was a flash of brown as it scurried away, but now, through the tall grass, passed spider webs and anthills, I saw the flared blue feathers of one as it danced and sang.
Then, to my right, another rustling. I slowly turned, trying to stand as still as an old mountain ash, and on my right a lyre bird was hunting for one grub. My stomach grumbled, and it took off. I was hungry too.
After my lyre bird encounters, I hiked on, and at the crest of a hill I spotted a golden clearing of honey-colored grass swaying and sizzling in the sun. Yellow jackets floated from one flower to another, and a single profound tree in the distance stood out to me. I had to wander through.
It was hot. Hotter than I ever felt before. I felt the true sensation an egg feels when it sizzles in the pan, but even with that, I couldn’t help the desire to walk through the tall grass to this tree.
When I arrived at this tree, I noticed a memorial below it. Someone special to some stranger had passed, and a stone with an incredible poem on it left for her memory to forever glow golden in this field in the sun.
If you are walking through the forest, hear singing through the trees, see the wind form footprints among the fallen leaves, stand and listen carefully, hear her contented sigh, you might hear her call you name in breezes passing by.”
When I return to the earth, I want it to be in a place like this.
The sun began to dip lower and so did the mountain, as I descended into another deep fern-strewn green away from the sun-baked dead trees stuck in an eternal embrace, and the cracked limbs scattered across burnt grass.
Once again, I ran into the lyre bird, or it ran into me. Just as I was recording a birthday video for a friend of my, I heard rustling in the trees. I stopped, even held my breath, and there was another. This one was casually hunting for food like the other, and after a few clicks from the camera, it bolted off. I stood smiling, with the feeling that I was having some incredible experiences most don’t when wandering through.
Deeper and deeper into the gully, down at such a degree my shoes clopped hard and I struggled not to sleep. The air became crisp and cool, it felt amazing after being in the scorching sun all day. The deep brown and green more lush by the dampness of this area at the bottom of the valley. I was standing beneath massive ferns, thicker than my body, pluming overheard to create an impenetrable canopy. These ferns are a prehistoric plant, one that has been found in fossils of dinosaurs. I was walking among ancient giants.
Out of the ancient ferns and into the sunlight, squawks of cockatoos shatter the silence. I was leaving the forest, and I already missed it. That happens every time. In a parking lot leading to the trail, people feed handfuls of seeds and pose for photos with the birds chomping on their shoulders. The birds are big and beautiful, but plain boring. Take a selfie or a snapchat if you must, but I didn’t.
They fly around this area feeding on the picnic trash and posing for selfies with others who drive there to take a picture and pretend they went for a walk in the woods. Screeching at each other as they fight for leftovers. But I went for a walk, a hike deep into the woods. I didn’t get a selfie with the elusive lyre bird, I stood with it in the silence of the forest, my heart beat heard and my spirit whispering with the breeze. Maybe whispering with Elizabeth as well — telling stories of the mountain.
DANDENONG RANGES IS SPECIAL //
It’s not just about day hikes here or just my secret escape from the city. Dandenong Ranges National Park always surprises every time I wander beneath those old tall sentinels feeding my need for nature. Every time I go, I wander a new winding path, and I never find myself in the same place. But I always find myself at peace.
It was also my weekly secret escape from the skyscrapers and asphalt of Melbourne city. As I’ve been increasingly vocal about, the routine of hospitality work has been taking its toll on my attitude and spirit, and doing the standard work-sleep-repeat cycle threatened to taint Melbourne and Australia as a whole. Hospitality work, especially waiting tables, can do that to you. Why the hell am I doing it then? To fund my awesome travel plans for 2016.
Working to save money for future travels is a noble cause, and is the way I’ve been able to travel since 2011. It takes a toll though, a deep one, and after five years of this stressful and demoralizing and overall soul crushing type of work, I’m done with it.
Since I’ve already revealed that exploring more of Australia just isn’t in the cards this time around because it’s so damn expensive, I still need to leave with my mind, body, and spirit intact even with the need to work long hours and save.
How do I do this? Day hikes in the Dandenong Ranges and the Dandenong National Park saved me.
1) Turn right and then a left across the bridge toward the Puffing Billy down Old Monbulk Road. This takes you past the trains, across the railroad, and up a road that leads past houses and to the forest.
2) Continue straight along Monbulk Road out of town until you reach the sign for the Dandenong National Forest. Part of this is along a busy road, so be careful. Just before the forest entry you’ll see a roadhouse diner, the path is on your right.