Start - Dales Gorge Car Park
Length - 5.5km (Loop)
Grade - Orange to Red
Terrain - Single Path, Rocky Path
Vertical Climb - 174m
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Time - 2-4 hours
Signed - Yes, Markers and Boards
Date Hiked - 12th July 2018
Best Time - April to September
Directions - Dales Gorge can be found by taking Banjima Dr north from Karijini Dr (the eastern access point) and driving north until you reach the signs for Dales Rd. Follow Dales Rd and there are a few access points for the gorge you can take.
The Hike - With a full day checking out Weano Gorge and Kalamina Gorge the previous day we were back at it to continue on with the Karijini exploration. Given our experiences in the last couple of days we made a point to be up early and out to Dales Gorge to avoid the crowds and also get some shots when the sun was a bit lower in the sky. Arriving at the car park closest to Fortescue Falls we mapped out a loop trail that would allow us to see everything within Dales Gorge and allow for a relaxing swim at the end. The Dales Gorge area is actually a network of trails and side trips so there is no one named trail for what we did but rather a combination of the Gorge Rim, Dales Gorge, Circular Pool, Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool walks from the brochure.
As expected we were the only ones at the car park when we arrived just before 8am and the peacefulness was something of a welcome delight. The loop we had mapped out involved taking in the Gorge Rim walk first to take advantage of the lack of crowds and mainly because it wasn't terribly warm yet and having a swim at Fortescue Falls would have been an icy affair. The first of many viewpoints is a short walk from the car park and shows off the views down towards Fortescue Falls and along the main Dales Gorge walk trail. With Fortescue Falls being devoid of people it was a lovely sight and I couldn't wait to have a closer look a bit later on. Taking the path leading to the east I noticed a few wildflowers that we hadn't seen in the previous couple of days.
This was a nice surprise as I had been expecting some Desert Pea and Mulla Mulla but to find different varieties was fun and naturally I had to photograph them. The trail snakes its way along the edge of the gorge walls and you are treated to some spectacular views across the landscape to the distant hills. This is one aspect of Karijini I will never tire of, the vast horizons filled with Snappy Gums, Spinifex and rolling hills of red dirt. With the gorge starting to see its first rays of light streaming in over the cliff walls, the cluster of trees lining the stream running through Dales Gorge was an impressive sight. We would eventually get to walk amongst those trees but for now I was quite content to soak up the red dirt paths and photograph the distinct Snappy Gums with their bright white trunks rising from the earth in a mangled manner.
The second lookout we would come across was not an official one but with a slight deviation off the main trail you got to get quite close to the edge of the cliff. From here you can truly experience the depth of these gorges and just how sharp the drop-off is. With most of the gorge still in the shadows we moved on to the next lookout aptly named the Dales Gorge Lookout and this provided a much better look down into a well lit portion of the gorge as it turns north. Looking down into the widest part of the gorge and back up to the other side provides a great photo opportunity and I made sure to get a few panoramas so I could attempt to get the scale in one continuous shot (almost got it). This lookout is also the only access point in the area down into the gorge (as we found out later) but we wanted to check out the Circular Pool Lookout too so kept walking on the Rim Walk to the north.
The Circular Pool Lookout is also the first entry point for those accessing the trail from the Dales Gorge Day Use Area and Dales Campground. The lookout towers above the idyllic pool below and given the extreme angle, you are directly over the trees and it looks like a little railway miniature. It was at this point I should have remembered what the map looked like as I thought there was another access point into the gorge near the Circular Pool Lookout but after walking further north it became obvious there wasn't and I had to call Ben back so we could double back towards where we were actually meant to go. Another couple were kind of following us and we had to inform them we'd made a mistake and the gorge access was in the opposite direction. We finally arrived at the access point and began the steep descent into the juicy bit of the loop.
At the bottom of the gorge is a wide expanse where you can either turn left and visit Circular Pool or skip that (why you would is beyond me) and continue through Dales Gorge to Fortescue Falls. Given we were here to experience it all we headed left towards Circular Pool and immediately came across the lushness that defines this little side trail. Beyond the large boulders is a series of smooth platforms jutting out into the greenery created by the stream running from Circular Pool. Raised slightly, these are great fun to jump across as you bound towards a few reflective pools and Angkor Wat style trees clinging to the cliffs. The staining of the walls is also very interesting as the water seeps through and creates these amazing vertical patterns of white, grey and black. Being in the shade again means the temperature drops significantly, something helped out by the abundance of water along here and the narrowing of the gorge.
Crossing a series of rapids and up a little platform you are greeted with another fantastic little scene with a rocky path containing a green and gold pool on one side and a fern lined rock face on the other. This is the final stretch and as you climb along the rocks and through the trees you are hit with the enclosed delight of Circular Pool. The pool is not very large compared with some of the other swimming spots in the park but the area itself evokes some very calm and soothing feelings. Being so narrow and with high walls, the effect is very comforting (at least to me) and with the intense green of the ferns and trickling water, I enjoyed this spot quite a lot. With the birds chirping and fighting amongst the tall trees we explored the boulders and took many photos whilst chatting to the two couples that were also there. We all agreed this was a magical little spot and best enjoyed by just sitting around and taking it all in. With lots of photos in the bag we moved on, keen to explore the rest of the gorge and also have a swim at Fortescue Falls before the sun cloaked it in shadow.
We backtracked to the path leading down into the gorge and were once again greeted by intense sunshine. We passed a couple of groups heading to Circular Pool and were glad we got to experience it in relative quietness. A notable feature you will pass heading towards the start of the forested section of Dales Gorge is the large boulder grouping that people have decided needs to have a million rock cairns. As we discussed in our Karijini Podcast on Real Trail Talk, this kind of behaviour while fun can sometimes be a little environmentally irresponsible and should be avoided. Given the amount of loose rock in the area though it isn't the worst place to do it but please don't go crazy and start going off trail to find rocks as these could be habitat for a little skink or insect. At this stage Ben raced ahead so I was left to meander along the tall forests that line the open gorge leading towards Fortescue Falls. This area is quite pleasant with a few nice spots where the trail crosses the stream at sets of small rapids and borders wide pools reflecting the greenery and cliff faces like a polished mirror.
The trail widens, contracts, skirts and snakes its way through the gorge with plenty to see and photograph along the way. I took great delight in exploring a bend in the gorge that was filled with platforms, rapids, radioactive coloured pools and towering cliff faces. This is definitely a trail you want to make time for and not be a speed obsessed hiker as there is so much to take in, even in the "dull" sections. Another feature of the walk to Fortescue Falls is the leaning tree that reaches out over one of the many pools. Donovan got a picture of himself standing on it when he visited and I didn't think to put the timer on to recreate the shot. This spot isn't too far from Fortescue Falls and I could hear the sound of rushing water so rounded the corner and there was Ben waiting for me at the edge of the large pool created by the falls. It was starting to get busy but we had reached the falls with the sun still basking it in magnificent rays of warmth. Given we had expensive field equipment with us we decided it was best to visit Fern Pool, finish the hike, drop the equipment back at the car and then come back for a refreshing swim.
Crossing the stepping stones to reach the other side of the pool we hugged the damp cliff wall and made our way up the precarious rock wall to where the trail forks off to either Fern Pool or up the stairs to the car park. We made our way along the tree and boulder lined path towards Fern Pool and were greeted by a large crowd. The area looks spectacular even with a lot of tourists about and no guesses needed as to how they came up with the name. There is an iconic location for shooting Fern Pool but trying to get everything in the one shot is really hard so I tried my hand again at a panoramic. The results aren't fantastic due to the extreme difference in lighting but later in the day or earlier in the morning might be the best time. A recently built jetty provides safer access to the swimming hole but please do not attempt to climb up onto the rocks above the waterfall. This is sacred land in Banyjima country so please respect the place and be happy with just a swim in this piece of paradise.
With the crowds making a lot of commotion and us keen for a swim we headed back towards Fortescue Falls and up the metal staircase towards the car park. A recent installation, this has made it a lot safer getting up and down the trail from the car park and I would have been interested to see what it was like before the metal stairs and walkways went in. A nice surprise at the top of the stairs was the emergence of a native variety of pine tree that had us wondering if they were native (yes they are). We found one of the rangers at the lookout and we chatted a little bit about peak season, what we were doing here and life as a ranger in this remote part of the state. With the trail finished we dropped our equipment back at the car, grabbed a towel and headed back down to Fortescue Falls for a swim. After a pretty decent hike and the temperature now a lot warmer it was nice to have a refreshing swim in the literally breathtaking water. We started at the lower end of the pool on the other side of the rapids and swam all the way over to the base of the falls. Being in a large natural amphitheatre there is plenty of space to sit above the falls and enjoy this lovely area. As one of the only permanent sources of water in the park thanks to an underground supply, there should always be at least a trickle for you to enjoy. Hike over and another fantastic day in paradise!!!
Final Thoughts - As the longest gorge hike in Karijini, Dales Gorge is a true delight to explore thanks to the many different side trails and perspectives you get along the route. Home to a few great swimming spots and being so close to the main campsite makes this a popular spot but even in the height of July school holidays it wasn't too bad.
As always I recommend getting up early to experience the place in relative quiet (or visit outside of school holidays) and make sure you spend a lot of time just soaking it all in. There is so much to explore and appreciate here and the full loop experience provides an excellent coverage taking in both the gorge rim and valley floor.
There are not enough superlatives to describe this place and it is no wonder that people keep flocking here in droves and the reviews are always as glorious as the everlasting sunshine.
Lookouts, Snappy Gums, Red Earth, Circular Pool, Forests Within Gorges, Towering Cliffs, Fortescue Falls & Fern Pool. There is so much to love about this place.
Get out there and experience it!
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