Riding the Great Victorian Rail Trail

Riding the Great Victorian Rail Trail

Here’s the beauty about rail trails: they are flat, picturesque and safe. They traverse Australia’s countryside, taking the rider on a magical journey through our natural landscape. They pandemic-proof our towns and cities, providing tourist-dollars to small businesses and helping secure jobs for locals.

And there’s one coming to the Canberra region! Snowy Monaro Regional Council and Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council have funded development plans for the first stage of the Monaro Rail Trail on the disused rail corridor from Queanbeyan to Bombala. The first stage comprises sections from Hume to Michelago, Bombala to Jincumbilly and at Nimmitabel.  

In March this year, consultants inspected these sections of the rail corridor and are now preparing detailed rail trail plans.

That will enable the project to move to the next stage of its development – securing funding and NSW Government support for the project in readiness for construction.

But let’s take a step back and talk about what it is about rail trails that make them so appealing.

Great Victorian Rail Trail

Pedal Power CEO Ian Ross has recently returned to the office with a spring in his step after a week cycling the rail trails of regional Victoria.

“This is the second year that I have built my holidays around riding rail trails,” he says. “This year I rode the Great Victorian Rail Trail with my partner, Karen. The Great Victorian Rail Trail is the longest rail trail in Victoria, and runs between Tallarook in central Victoria to the town of  Mansfield on Lake Eidon,” he explains.

“For those (like Karen and I) who are looking for a longer challenge with a few more hills, there is an additional leg up to the town of Alexandra.  the trail is 134km of track (148 if you ride both ways up to Alexandra). 

“The trail is delightful.  It connects the towns of Mansfield, Yark, Alexandra, Yea, and Tallarook.  Each town is well-provisioned for all the needs of a touring cyclist, with accommodation, pubs, bakeries, coffee shops, etc everywhere”.  

Why rail trails? “Well, rail trails are perfect for riders of all ability because they are consistently flat,” Ian says.

Rail trails are built on abandoned railway lines.  The rails and sleepers have all been removed, and are then covered in graded gravel (or in some cases, coated in bitumen). Trains need to run on level ground or very shallow gradients, which means trails are rarely if ever on gradients of more than one to two per cent. This means instead of you having to grind up climbs, the trails just cut through hills, tunnel under roads, over embankments and across gullies and creeks.  

“It is so delightful, and of course, it also means there are no cars. You can ride with your family from town to town without having to worry about trucks, crossings or intersections,” he says.

Trails are open to people walking, scooting, riding horses, but seem mostly used by people riding bikes. 

While the trains and rails are gone, much of the rest of the infrastructure is still in place, including station embankments, water towers etc. Many of the trails have information signs along the track to discover more about the history of the area, plus there is interesting art and artifacts and abundant bird and wildlife for you to see along the way. 

Ian’s Victorian experience speaks to the tourism benefits the trails offer. “The locals are just delighted at the burst of tourism dollars that rail trails have given them, and go out of their way to make riders welcome. You are guaranteed to see cycle themed public art in every town,” he says.

“On the last leg of our ride, Karen and I bumped into Simon, who was a third generation farmer with a beautiful property on the Goulburn river.  He told us that he had initially  been quite upset the rail tracks had been ripped up and replaced with a cycle trail.   He had fond memories of riding into Melbourne on the train as a child, and wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a bunch of Melbourne cyclists using the trail. But now he was a complete convert.  He described the trail as ‘pandemic-proofing’ the region. While other towns nearby had struggled,  all the towns along the rail trail had continued to boom during the pandemic, and after the lockdowns cyclists have steadily flowed into the region. Simon is now planning to sell produce along the trail.”

Great Victorian Rail Trail in focus

Ian says it’s impossible to choose a single highlight. “Every day revealed a new highlight: from the picturesque cycle bridge across Lake Eildon near Bonnie Doon, to the views across the valley at Alexandra, the Cheviot Tunnel near Yea (the longest rail trail tunnel in Australia) and the ride along the beautiful Goulburn river and Trawool Valley”.   

The trail has been in operation for 10 years. It was opened in 2012, and was funded jointly between the Victorian and Federal governments as part of the recovery effort in the wake of devastating 2009 Victorian bushfires.

The trail is primarily constructed of densely-packed granitic sand and gravel. It is well maintained. Ian rode a gravel bike, and Karen took her electric city hybrid bike, and both were suitable for the trip.

“Karen and I left our car in Tallarook, and packed our bikes onto the Tallarook General Store shuttle.  This delightful service only charged us $50 a head to drive the 120km between Tallarook and Mansfield (with bikes and baggage), and our driver then gave us his card and offered to come collect us if we ‘got stuck or in trouble’.

“This shuttle service meant that Karen and I could ride from town to town at our leisure with just a couple of changes of clothes and the odd muesli bar in our saddle bags. We completed the trail in three days,  but you could easily take longer and take more time to explore all the little towns along the way”.  

Some recommendations

  • If you have the option, travel the GVRT between Thursday and Sunday.   there are more accommodation and dining options than earlier in the week
  • While there are good tour companies who will sort out your accommodation, it is very easy to book accommodation yourself.  Everyone is very comfortable with people lobbing up on bikes.  We stayed in Bonnie Doon, Alexandra and Yea.
  • Leave your car in Tallarook and take the shuttle to Mansfield.   It is a delightful thing to just ride between towns.
  • If you travel in late March/early April, look out for the fruit trees planted along the trail. There his honestly nothing so delicious as a crunchy apple at the top of a long gentle climb.
  • Remember that some of the wildlife also enjoy the facilities of a wide warm quiet sunny trail. You will see birds, kangaroos, lizards, and even the odd snake along the way.     

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