Start - Dog Rocks, Joseph Young Drive
Length - 10.7km (Figure 8)
Grade - Orange
Terrain - Single Track
Vertical Climb - 371m
Time - 3-5 hours
Signed - Partial Signage on Goldfields Track
Date Hiked - 26th December 2019
Best Time - Autumn to Early Summer
Traditional Custodians - Djadjawurung People
Directions - From the centre of Castlemaine take the Pyrenees Hwy east until you reach Golden Point Rd. Follow this all the way to Harmony Hwy, turn left and then right onto Faraday-Sutton Grange Rd. Follow this until you reach Joseph Young Dr. Turn left and go past the campsite to the small car park near the Goldfields track sign.
The Hike - With the family-in-law Christmas in Daylesford this year, it was an opportunity to once again head out in Central Victoria and find a hike to do on my own. Having previously done the Tipperary Track and Werribee Gorge, I set my sights on the area around Daylesford for an enjoyable summer hike of a semi-decent length. My original thoughts were somewhere around Wombat State Forest and a number of interesting hikes came up in my search. In the end I was perusing Uncle Hal's library and found a few guide books on day walks in Victoria. Flicking through there were a few that peaked my interest but after it was announced that the rest of family were headed to Castlemaine for morning tea on the day of my hike, I decided on the Leanganook Loops hike as it's located right outside of Castlemaine.
Getting out to the hike was an experience in itself as Uncle Hal had kindly lent me his new (to him) Jaguar XK for the drive as our hire car was more practical for transporting multiple people in comfort. With a 4.2L V8 and a pretty coupe body, this was the most stylish way I've ever rocked up to a hike but given the early departure time it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience. Dodging kangaroos and rabbits on the highway as I drove the 45 minutes it took to get to the start, I was very cautious not to wreck Hal's new toy. The bark of the engine was a smile inducing sensation every time I had to accelerate away and was a lovely way to start the experience. As I got closer to Mount Alexander, there was a spot on the side of the road where the profile of the hill could be seen so I stopped for an early morning photo. Finally reaching the park, there is a winding road leading past the Leanganook Campsite and over the top of Mount Alexander. The start point for the walk in the guide was a small gravel area just off the road where the sign for the Goldfields Track is. Comprised of two separate loops, I had a bit of a guess as to which way to tackle it and decided in the end to do it as a figure 8, doing the smaller loop to the south first in an anti-clockwise direction and then the longer northern loop in a clockwise direction.
One of the reasons for this was a place called Dog Rocks was right near the car park and in the direction of the southern loop. The morning light was looking good in that direction and I was keen to start exploring the rocks. A jumble of massive boulders set among the smooth barked eucalyptus trees, it's a very cool spot to walk through and admire. Joining the Goldfields Track, a 211km walking track running between Ballarat and Bendigo, this will be home for a while as you head towards the Leanganook Campsite. Walking up the hill, you enter the maze of boulders that form Dog Rocks and the trail becomes a little haphazard. With this part of the track being dual use between hiking and mountain biking plus the easy access for car visitors, there are multiple lines weaving their way through the area. It's not really an issue, you just find a path that works for you and head in the direction of what you want to explore. Some of the bigger boulders are really imposing from the base but head up the hill a little more and you can climb on top of them for some cool views looking north towards the summit of Mount Alexander. After having a bit of fun scaling the boulders, I located the path again and headed off towards where the loop leaves the Goldfields Track and heads to the Leanganook Campsite.
While hiking around Central Victoria in summer is never going to yield lush, green terrain, I was surprised to still see a good amount of life hanging about. Instead of endless fields of dry grass under the woodlands, it was great to see a carpet of yellow wildflowers that admittedly were on their last legs. In the golden light of the morning illuminating the edges of the trail, the walk up the hill was made a lot easier. The first of the expansive views is not far up the path with a rocky platform providing a great opportunity to take in the landscape to the west. What will be a theme for the hike, it was unsurprising to see a sea of yellow, full of farmland and lacking a substantial area of forest (much like most of the southern half of the country unfortunately). A bit further on I reached the sign for the Leanganook Campsite and knew that it was time to leave the official Goldfields Track as this marked the rounding of the bottom loop back towards the start. The downhill trek to the campsite was a pleasant one with a kangaroo sighting, a few boulders strewn about the place and more carpets of wildflowers.
Spotting a bus, dirt bike (not a wanted sight) and a few cars meant I had arrived at the campsite. A pretty large area, it is dog friendly and has some good facilities for campers like a water tank, BBQs and toilets. I felt like an intruder as I wandered through the campsite with the campers that were awake eyeing me off as if walkers were an alien concept. Not wanting to stick around and with a tight schedule to keep I moved through and found my way out of the campsite. I've never found car camping areas to be particularly nice places to walk through anyway so was happy to be out on the road and making my way towards the next section of walking trail. As I passed a body of water and walked along the edge of the road trying to find the path heading north, I had a cool wildlife experience. A Black Wallaby popped out of the undergrowth and once it realised I was there, quickly headed back. It stopped long enough for one photo and it was nice to see a different kind of wallaby to the ones we get in Western Australia.
After saying hello to the locals I found the track leading north and an old sign giving directions to various points. Where I was headed is called the West Ridge Walking Track and funnily enough traverses the western side of the Mount Alexander Ridge. This meant finishing the lower loop by heading along the lowest part of the whole hike. Walking through the Manna Woodlands was enjoyable with a couple of rocky platforms providing a good viewpoint to see the prominence of Mount Alexander that I would be hike to in the not too distant future. Reaching the Jag once again, I had completed the first loop in good time and for what I expected to be the lesser of the two loops, it was a pleasant experience. Heading back towards Dog Rock, I veered right instead of left and figured taking the west side of the second loop to be the best option. Aside from being the shadier of the two options, it just felt natural to do this walk as a figure 8 (plus the track notes suggested the last bit going this way was off track). With the sun now climbing a little higher in the sky, the first part of the loop was bathed in some beautiful light, illuminating the wildflower meadows lining the trail.
Eventually the trail is shadowed over by the rising slopes of Mount Alexander and one of the more spectacular parts of the double loop begins. Among the Manna Woodlands, the trail snakes its way along the edge of the hill with a good covering of trees towering over both sides. The undergrowth is mainly grasses and wildflowers so you can appreciate the smooth trunks of the eucalyptus trees and see exactly what the slope of the hill looks like. A number of fallen trees dot the landscape and provide habitat for the creatures that call this small reserve home. One creature I was on the lookout for was one we don't get in the wild in Western Australia, the koala. It's an interesting experience to hike while also looking for a koala (although I've been told by a friend that you can smell them before you see them) as you are constantly looking upwards and not on where you are stepping. This is a bit dangerous along this spot as the undulating terrain is full of rocky steps as the boulder fields approach. Another distraction are the views to the west when you get a clearing in the tree line. Being a couple of hundred metres above the surrounding landscape, the views extend for quite a way.
After heading on a downhill section for a little while, the track once again heads up towards the summit of Mount Alexander (although weirdly never gets there). This is a really cool spot as the hill is at its steepest here and looking up at the boulders near the top of the slope makes them seem so much bigger. In a couple of spots there are some very large boulders that look really cool to explore if you have the time and make for a very dramatic landscape. While I did have the time in the back of my mind, I really slowed up along here, just meandering away and enjoying the scenery. Stopping to take quite a few photos, every time I rounded a corner it felt like a new view I needed to capture. The views weren't just limited to the boulder fields above you, more breaks in the tree line provided something different to look at and even looking down at the tree debris on the lowers slopes was something in itself. After a gradual up and down section tending in the general upward direction, you come out into a more open feeling area away from the steeper section of the ridge. While for the most part you get to admire the impressive rocky features from a distance, the track takes you right along a small rock wall for a small section and it's a nice break that was appreciated.
In the open woodlands on this stretch I was not alone with a couple of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos deciding they would trail me for a while. Noisy cockatoos are not uncommon in WA with the Black Cockatoos making themselves known when you are near with a screech of their own but the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos I found to be more curious and protective. They kept flying from tree to tree as I walked along, making a racket every time they moved. It was a game of trying to leave their territory but also wanting to get a clear photo of them, something I got in the end. Eventually they left me alone and I continued on towards the eastward turn in the track. Some of the best views looking to the west were found here and with the track now on the northern edges of the hill, the sun was more prominent. This was fantastic news as the muted lighting of the western side was replaced with bright colours of the green leaves, yellow grass and blue sky. I reached the side trip up to Shepherds Flat and given I was only going to be here once, I took the 200m detour for more great views. The path wasn't so obvious here but you'll eventually find the way or reach the 4x4 track that looks to serve as an unofficial campsite for some people given the fire rings I saw there.
After admiring the excellent views for a while, I eventually moved on and headed back down to the official track. This was one of the prettiest sections of the whole track with the wildflowers looking fantastic under the Manna Woodland. A relatively flat section lies ahead and as I walked through the forest I noticed a lot of butterflies around here. Having being described as a flying pest, the Monarch Butterfly has thrived in Australia but I've never seen them in such numbers like this. Unfortunately they were a bit skittish so I was never close enough to one for a decent photo. It was a cool experience none the less with every footstep seemingly setting off another wave of flapping butterflies. Arriving at Joseph Young Drive again (yes, it goes all the way over the hill), I crossed over and made a beeline for what looked like some more epic views. I wasn't wrong and a cool rocky platform is in the perfect position for you to gaze out over to the north and east. They say on a clear day you can see all the way to Bendigo but it wasn't perfectly clear on the day I visited plus my eyesight is terrible. What I did enjoy was looking down at the forest and boulders on the lower slopes. Lit up in the sunshine they looked spectacular and it was a fun place to stand and admire what was here.
While the Goldfields Track doesn't visit the official summit, you are basically at the top of Mount Alexander as you make your way up the hill a bit further and past the two structures that dominate the area. The reason for Joseph Young Drive going up and over Mount Alexander is the radio and television towers that are found at the top. These large and very obvious additions to the landscape kind of spoil what is a nice nature reserve, effectively ruining any notion that this is a wild area. As such I didn't pay much attention to them apart from a couple of photos. As I made my way past them on the bitumen road, I completely missed the point where the Goldfields Track leaves the road and heads downhill. After reaching the intersection of this road and Joseph Young Drive, I soon realised the error of my ways and doubled back. While I had been looking for the turnoff, the track was covered in fallen branches so it wasn't very obvious where you were meant to leave the road. Back on track, this was the beginning of a very lovely section as you head down what is a pretty steep side of the hill. Walking east in the morning is one of my favourite things in life and although it was more mid-morning by the time I reached here, the effect was still the same. Bathed in golden sunlight, this side of the hill was also covered in the same yellow wildflowers and rocky boulders.