Helena Pipehead Walk
Start - End of Helena Valley Rd
Length - 5.3km (Loop)
Grade - Orange
Terrain - 4x4 Track
Vertical Climb - 152m
Time - 1-2 hours
Signed - Yes, Follow the Red Markers
Date Hiked - 12th April 2020
Best Time - Autumn to Late Spring
Directions - Located at the end of Helena Valley Rd, navigate your way to Helena Primary School and then continue along the narrow winding Helena Valley Rd until you reach the end where you will find a small gravel car park in front of the white gates.
Parking - Helena Valley Road is very narrow and the car park is only suitable for a handful of cars. Please be mindful of local residents and don't block the road by parking on the side of it or block access points to property. If possible car pool with friends or meet up at Helena Primary School and all travel down in one car.
The Hike - With a subdued Easter on the cards in 2020 thanks to the regional travel bans, my goal was to try and get in a few more of the Shire of Kalamunda walks that I had yet to experience. A cloudy adventure on the Channel 10 Tower Walk before this was a good warm-up but the Helena Pipehead Walk was what I was really looking forward to given the positive reviews I'd heard about it. Saving this for the second walk of the day, I wanted to experience it in the afternoon light although this wasn't looking too promising given the cloud cover still lingering around when I arrived at the small car park at the end of Helena Valley Road.
I managed to get the last parking spot in this car park (there are a couple more spots further back along the road) and decided to wait as two cars had just arrived. Knowing I would be walking slower due to taking many photos, I checked the socials while the other hikers headed off down the path. Although this area would be much better in spring, the lack of hiking options in the Perth/Peel region that wouldn't have been super crowded on an Easter Sunday meant I was happy to switch this hike to earlier in the year. The Helena River Valley is a really cool place that I think is underdeveloped but thanks to the archaic rules around trails in water catchment areas, it most likely won't ever be developed apart from the access tracks that litter the area. I had great fun on the Golden Helena Valley Loop last year and so was looking forward to seeing what this section a bit further downstream looked like.
Initially the track isn't very thrilling as you walk past the white gates and onto the open 4x4 track that will be the basis for your path for the entire loop. Off to the right of the 4x4 track I noticed that there was a point leading down to the Helena River or what is left of it after Mundaring Weir and the Lower Helena Dam have done their bit to stem the flow. While still early in the autumn and a dry summer, I wasn't expecting to see any water so was surprised to find some near what was an old gauging station, similar to the one I'd seen at Wungong Gorge. Down here there were some Paperbarks that provided a different texture to photograph and looking upstream it was a bit moody, something I really enjoy. Heading back to rejoin the official trail, you cross over a bridge and start rising above the river. This is where the hike starts to get interesting as the views into the valley start to get better and you are looking down at the thick vegetation lining the valley floor.
Looking across to the other side of the valley you can see granite outcrops and what looks like a really cool area to explore (might head there later in the year for some off-track exploration). Being a bit dry I noticed some of the flora on the side of the hill to your right looking a little parched and this created a cool looking effect on the spikier species clinging to the mossy rocks. It was starting to clear up a little in the west and that meant that the sun was starting to break loose. This created a stark contrast between the track being illuminated in bright sunshine and the dark clouds still heading off in the distance. This happened as I reached the point where you cross over a little hump and the really nice views of the Lower Helena Pipehead Dam and hills stretching out into the distance appear. This really is the money shot of the hike and really set off my imagination wondering what this area would have looked like before the two dams were built. I imagine it would have been a bit of a paradise with a nice flowing river, granite boulders and ancient forest as far as the eye could see (although these tracks wouldn't exist and walking through the area would have been harder).
I really slowed up here to enjoy things as it wasn't only the rolling hills and valley that were pleasing to the eye. The forest and granite leading up the hill to your right was looking fantastic with the sun streaming through the limited canopy. The buildings of the Pipehead Dam come and go before you reach an area looking down at the dam wall itself. I'm not actually sure what purpose it serves as it doesn't look to hold a lot of water and Perth doesn't rely on water catchment into the dams for most of it's water needs (although the dams are used as storage for desalination). As I moved on and the views of the water became clearer, I noticed that it was full of bird life including a few Black Swans. That was a little surprising given how isolated this area is from other parts of the Swan River where they are usually found. I switched out my camera lens and tried to get a good shot of them but even with the 200mm lens they were still very far away. After a bit of an average hike on the Channel 10 Tower Walk, I was feeling much happier here and revelling in the good lighting and moody skies.
Unfortunately the finish of this section close to the river comes to an end not far from the nicer views of the water and the track starts to double back to the start. There is a small area just off track where you can get closer to the water (but not right up close because of the Water Corp restrictions) and I thought it would be a better vantage point to photograph the ducks hanging about in the water. Alas they were out of view so I turned back and started the walk up the hill and away from the water. Despite leaving the river, you still keep the nice views of the rolling hills to the east and as you get higher they open up a lot more. Rather than being a one trick pony where the hike is all about the section next to the river, the enjoyable experience was continuing up the hill. The introduction of the golden trunks of the Wandoo tree added to the joy and this was similar to the rise up the hill on the Golden Helena Valley Loop (unsurprising given it is close by). A plethora of grass trees dot either side of the track and provide a nice focal point for the foreground of your photos looking east, something I couldn't stop photographing.
Reaching the top of this small hill I found a trail marker that I had not seen before and the result of some locals that thought it was funny. Nailed to a lovely Wandoo tree was the rolled out form of an old beer can sprouting the iconic Bush Chook branding (aka Emu Export). I had mixed feelings about this but given it was only one I didn't mind it and actually smiled when I saw it. We nail trail markers to trees all the time so as a piece of one-off "art" isn't too bad. New views starting appearing to the south with the Wandoo extending into another valley although a feature here is the ugly powerlines that unfortunately spoil the views for the rest of the hike. They aren't overbearing but enough to take the feeling of being away from civilisation, even if that was a think illusion to begin with. Rounding a corner and heading downhill, the Grass Trees continue to line the hill in impressive numbers and there are some really bold orange trees that look spectacular in the afternoon light. At the bottom of the hill you reach an intersection where the trail marker is hidden a little bit but you need to turn right and start the journey north towards the finish.
Starting another incline, I was hopeful that the lovely forest would continue and for the most part it did. At the intersection of another 4x4 track (keep heading straight here) I found a feature of most of the Shire of Kalamunda walks, a burnt out car body. I'm not sure if this is a design choice that was done on purpose to provide a point of interest but I find it hilarious that a good percentage feature this item. The top of the hill isn't too far away and it's the highest point of the hike at a dizzying 128m ASL. Here you get views looking down towards the start and where this little valley joins the Helena River. I noticed some larger granite boulders to the left and was hoping that the track went near them but soon realised this wasn't going to be the case. This is the catch 22 of the Shire of Kalamunda walks, it's great they exist but given they had a limited budget, there was no consideration for taking them off the 4x4 tracks and onto single tracks where they could visit more interesting places. There is a single trail here that I assume is an illegally cut MTB trail (named Orange Connector on the RWGPS option of the map at the start of the post) and I followed this for a short while just to see what it was like. It does take you close to the granite and was really nice to walk on but this wasn't the hike I was here to do so doubled back and set about finishing the Helena Pipehead Walk.
Heading down the hill you can see the granite boulders continuing on your left and happily you get a good view of most of them from the 4x4 track. It's a gentle finish to the hike and with nice quality regrowth forest to your right and the granite to your left, there is plenty to look at. The afternoon lighting was a treat thanks to more streaming sunshine and as I reached the last of the granite, there was a powerful glow shining through. Reaching flatter ground the gravel track switches to whatever light coloured crushed stone they have laid to repair the road and it looks quite nice against the greenery of the forest. Unfortunately the little stream that runs parallel with the track to the right looks to be full of non-native species as it looked horribly overgrown and dry that you'd never find with the native flora in Australia. Reaching the point where this track joins Helena Valley Road, it was just a case of navigating back to the car and finishing what had been a lovely hike that had put me in much better mood. The difference in lighting from when I started was a big difference and what had been fairly mundane scenery now lit up with a golden glow, making the character in the old trees here come alive. Not a bad way to end.
Final Thoughts - Given it is rated as one of the best of the Shire of Kalamunda walks and not necessarily dependant on water or wildflowers as much as the others, it was perfect for an autumn escape within the limits of the Perth region.
I really enjoy the Helena River Valley and would love to see more walks along it given the beautiful forest, granite boulders and nice hills. While a touch spoiled by the hand of man, it is pleasant enough if you're looking for something different and potentially less crowded (maybe not right after this gets shared on the socials).
I'm sure this will be an even better experience in spring with the wildflowers in full bloom and the forest floor looking a lot lusher than when I visited.
Get out there and experience it!
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