When it comes to scenic drives, there are few places more spectacular than the Victorian high country. Covered in autumn foliage one minute, snow then wildflowers the next, the always-changing alpine landscape will have your eyes bulging and your shutter in overdrive no matter what season you visit. So what’s the best way to see it? We reckon you could do a lot worse than a camping trip along the Great Alpine Road.
The drive at a glance
Covering roughly 339 kilometres, the Great Alpine Road winds between Wangaratta in Victoria’s north-east and Metung, a coastal hamlet hugged by the shores of the Gippsland Lakes. If you’re up to speed on your Victorian geography, you’ll know there’s a big old mountain range in the way, which will have you climbing to a dizzying 1840m before dropping back down to sea level.
The route only became official 20 years ago when the leg between Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain was sealed. By stitching various existing roads together, Victoria could lay claim to the highest sealed road in Australia that could be driven all year round (albeit while carrying chains in winter), and it’s been on the radar of keen road-trippers ever since.
Image via Porepunkah Bridge Holiday Park
If you start in Wangaratta, the drive is characterised by three stages and takes around four and a half hours without stops. But not only should you stop, and stop often – if for no other reason than to give your gearbox and brakes a rest – we’d urge you to throw at least a few side trips into the mix.
With so much variety enroute – think lush farming valleys, historic townships, lofty mountains (said by many to be the best views in Australia), picturesque rivers, gold rush settlements, and the tranquil lake-speckled coast – it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say hours could roll into a week exploring the Great Alpine Road from tip to tail.
Alpine vibes at Hotham Heights
On the food trail
The cellar doors, cheeseries and mustard makers of Milawa, restaurants, cafes and breweries of detour-worthy Beechworth, and countless orchards and farm gates of the Ovens Valley make it quite possible to eat yourself into a coma before you’ve even got as far as Bright.
On the Gippsland side, regional Victoria proves time and time again why this is the gourmand’s state. Think just-picked berries, preserves, nuts, olive oil, baked goods, wine and mead, and over on the coast, succulent local seafood. It’s the stuff full tums and warm fuzzies are made of – which you’ll be grateful for in a place where the onset of winter is so strongly felt.
Vineyards and farm gates are highlights of the Ovens Valley
But first, Bright
Whether or not you time it with the annual autumn festival, Bright is the ideal base for exploration of Mount Buffalo National Park, and the nearby heritage towns that when looped together will gobble up at least an extra day or two of detouring.
Time spent within an hour’s drive of the town may involve any combination of hiking, foraging, antiquing, gallery hopping, fishing, bird watching, cycling and rekindling primary school learnings of Ned Kelly. But all this comes second to the backdrop of gold and crimson foliage that makes Bright not only the best place in Australia for autumn colour, but a place worthy of idle observation and aimless wandering; of doing a whole lot of nothing. Bliss.
Autumn foliage paints the highland towns red
Easy does it
Now, you may want to pop a Travacalm to settle your belly for the ascent up and over the alps, which begins after passing through Harrietville. The relentless assault of hair-pin bends flanked by steep unfenced drops and sections barely wide enough for two sensible sized cars to pass make for a white-knuckle drive to the 1800 metre crest. Some may call it hair-raising, we call it adventure, though it’s more enjoyable if you time it so the sun isn’t piercing your eyes.
And besides, a more civilised road would simply be out of place in the unmarred, snow-dusted panorama of Victorian Alps. As well as eye-widening views of Mount Feathertop, Mount Buffalo, Mount Bogong and the endless yawning valleys, you’ll steer right through the upside-down ski resort of Mount Hotham. Yep, there aren’t too many places where you’ll see a village built at the top of the ski lifts, but here we are.
The Great Alpine Road in winter is a skier's paradise with views to match
What goes up
The twisting descent is slightly less nerve-wracking than the road up, so you can relax and enjoy the scenic sub-alpine sprint that meanders the foothills through gold mining towns and past cattlemen’s huts down into the vibrant pastures at sea level. With greater Gippsland now within sight, you may think that the Great Alpine Road is coming to an end, gorge yourself on the coastal delicacies, and call it a success. Or you could remind yourself that you’re in the state that’s famous not just for great food, forests, hills, rivers, bush rangers, waterfalls, villages, valleys and visible seasonal changes, but for great drives. Torquay, the gatekeeper of big sister route the Great Ocean Road, is about four hours from Metung, that’s all we’re saying.
Picturesque streams between Dinner Plain and Omeo
Best time to drive
That the Great Alpine Road can be driven year-round, while true, does come with a caveat or two. The probability of ice and snow on the roads makes chains mandatory through the cold months, and the harshest weather conditions may see the road close off entirely – sometimes to all vehicles, sometimes just to caravanners. Winter conditions can linger into spring and bushfires can also impact your plans. Long story short – spring, summer and autumn are your best bets but stay on top of alerts issued by Vic Roads and Mount Hotham regardless.
Dinner Plain wearing its winter coat
The question of caravans
While plenty of folks towing caravans have managed the steepest sections of the Great Alpine Road without trouble – slowly, in low gear and pulling over often to let quicker travellers pass – taking a cumbersome tow-vehicle along one of the country’s steepest and twistiest roads isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not sure, check forums to get an idea of other travellers’ experiences, and don’t forget there are a number of easier routes through and around the Victorian high country that are also quite stunning.
Mount Buffalo NP is worth exploring
Camping along the Great Alpine Road
Shaped by the dramatic natural landscape, the Great Alpine Road is camper heaven. Campgrounds and caravan parks abound, both in the national parks as well as within towns. If you’re planning to take a few days to explore, booking a campsite in Bright as well as at the eastern terminus of Lakes Entrance will leave a little over three hours of driving in between. If you want to go at a more leisurely pace, use a free camping app like CamperMate to find campsites on the go, and if you're feeling adventurous, make a break for the backcountry on foot to reach one of the many walk-in campsites high up in Alpine National Park.
Get out there
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