Stirling Ridge Walk | A Dalliance
Start - Bluff Knoll Car Park
Length - 24km (One Way Full Length)
Grade - Black
Terrain - Single Track, Steep Rocky Path
Vertical Climb - 842m (First Section)
Time - 2-3 Days (Full Length)
Signed - No
Date Hiked - 2nd October 2017
Best Time - In Good Weather
Directions - As a one-way walk you will need to organise pick-up or drop off at the Ellen Peak end (it's private property so no parking is allowed) but you can park at the Bluff Knoll car park (please notify the ranger). For more info check out the Stirling Ridge FB Group.
The Hike - This is a re-telling of the hike some two and a half years after it happened so forgive me if the details are a little foggy. The reason I am only just getting around to writing this is because I thought it wouldn't be long until I returned to complete the whole thing. Unfortunately two series of bushfires have wreaked havoc on the Stirling Range National Park and the series of peaks that makes up the Stirling Ridge Walk have been severely burnt. The most recent ones in 2019/2020 were the worst and it will be a year or two before the area will look remotely recovered. That won't stop people doing this off-track hike but given the sensitive nature of the alpine vegetation up there, I recommend showing respect to the area and visiting a different area like Fitzgerald River, the Bibbulmun Track or one of the other day hikes in the Stirling Range.
With that in mind let me cast my mind back a couple of years and recall what was a shortened adventure but an enjoyable one none the less. The idea for the trip came from my podcast partner Donovan (you can read his post here) as he had wanted to do it for a while and I was happy to join in as part of a longer road trip I had planned. Our friend Lou who we had met through hiking was also keen to come so the three of us made plans for a future date and hoped that the weather would be okay when that time came around. Donovan was very organised with laminated copies of the important pages from AT Morphet's Mountain Walks in the Stirling Range Part 2: The Peaks to the East of Chester Pass along with purchasing a topographical map of the area. The plan was to start at the Bluff Knoll end with Lou's husband Paul picking us up at the access road to the north of the ridge in three days time. The decision to do it in three days rather than two was a cautious one to allow for periods of bad weather and the occasional case of taking the wrong path (which is common on this hike).
The only marked section of the trail is on the path up to the Bluff Knoll summit and after that it is all off-track following the ridge line of the peaks in the area. There were visible pads in places but a lot of the time you are battling the undergrowth and trying to stay on course. There are no official campsites but there are places along the route where you will find enough space to pitch a tent or sleep in a cave. There is no permanent water with the only source an old barrel placed high above near one of the peaks so it is advisable that you carry everything that you need (along with carrying everything out). The weather for our trip wasn't looking fantastic with one clear day followed by a few days of light rain (forecast was 1-2mm). Deciding to risk it and start on what was a perfect day for hiking, we figured that 1-2mm wouldn't be too bad given we had our wet weather gear. I had stayed at Donovan's in-laws place the night before after a warm-up hike at Mount Magog and the following morning we drove out to Bluff Knoll in my failing Audi to meet Lou and her husband.
Although we each had 8L of water for the three days, Donovan and I had one last drink from the car supplies just in case. All of us had climbed Bluff Knoll before but with roughly 20kg on our backs, this would be a different experience. A fairly sizeable climb with about 650m of vertical distance to cover over the 3km trail, it would be a matter of taking it slow and enjoying the views every now and then. Paul took a group photo of us and then we set off on the downhill path from the car park. Being a sunny spring day, there were plenty of people out enjoying the climb and we got plenty of comments and questions about the size of our packs as we were overtaken. One great thing about having to stop frequently was that there was always something to look at thanks to the abundant displays of wildflowers. Having visited Bluff Knoll a few times before, this I believe was the first time I'd been here when it was sunny and definitely the first time reaching the summit with clear skies. Soon enough we were at the waterfall that I remembered waiting at with my mum and sister while dad continued on to the summit on a family holiday when I was much younger.
Providing another opportunity to get some water in us, Donovan and I drank some of our supplies and refilled the bottles using the waterfall water. Continuing on, we climbed higher and higher towards the more exposed sections of the trail where you start to get some of the amazing views looking towards the other peaks of the Stirling Range. I love these views and it gave me the opportunity to photograph the clear skies so I could update my Bluff Knoll post with much better photos. The trail somewhat flattens out towards the summit and the views over towards Mount Manypeaks and the coastline appear. We took another break at one of the bigger rocky outcrops and watched the stream of day hikers walking up the trail, envious of the ones without packs on. Reaching the summit we found it very crowded with a scouts or school group and after putting on our gaiters, decided it was best to continue on. Leaving the manicured trail behind we headed downhill from the summit towards the Chasm. I say leaving the trail behind but this bit had a well worn path down towards a sign telling you that beyond here is wilderness and to proceed with caution. Now away from the main track we were on our own here and navigation became a little trickier.
Ascending up East Peak, we lost the trail a little bit as the book naming and the John Chapman guide we were using had different terms for each section. We could see the pad that had been worn in the valley below and soon located the rocky outcrop that signalled the steep descent into the valley. Glad to be over our first navigational hiccup, we could relax again and enjoy the amazing scenery around us. One thing I did notice was a large cloud in the shape of a prancing horse and took several photos of it before it changed into something else. Reaching the bottom and ascending once again we reached East Bluff and could see the rest of the ridge walk ahead of us including Isongerup Peak, the Arrows and Ellen Peak. We crossed paths with a father and son who were coming from the other direction and had enjoyed what was two perfect days of weather to complete their hike. There is a rare trail marker here that we missed and continued on towards the edge of the cliff. We could see the trail way down below but how to get there was a mystery and we wasted a good half an hour scrambling in some pretty dangerous places before deciding to backtrack.
Here we found the trail marker the pointed you west for a short while on a more obvious path. Noticing some tape that looked to be marking the trail from that point on, we followed what looked like the correct trail down into the valley of a stream carved into the side of the mountain. Figuring that we were on the right track given it was easy to follow and was clear that others had been here before, we continued on. It was difficult in places and Lou ended up bending one of her walking sticks as we clambered down rocky gullies and on pretty loose scree. While the scenery was pretty here containing views of the rugged cliffs of the mountain, it soon became clear that the path was disappearing and we had made a wrong turn (the tape was there to warn you not to go that way). Knowing that the track was to the east I started heading in that direction (aided by checking Google Maps satellite view against my current location) and eventually we stumbled across the correct path. While a pad had been worn, the closed in nature of the undergrowth meant we were still battling to get ourselves and our packs through the thickets. Still heading downhill we were relieved to come out of the undergrowth and onto an increasingly flatter part of the ridge.
With a clear pad leading across the ridge and up the next hill, we could relax again and enjoy what was my favourite part of the whole day. The clouds had started to roll in and it was pretty awe-inspiring to look back at East Bluff and Bluff Knoll standing proudly out from the surrounding landscape. In every direction there was stunning scenery and I was stopping a lot to take a million photos. As we pressed on, the clouds started misting over Bluff Knoll and although everywhere else was relatively clear, it was evidence that this area has its own weather that will be completely different to what the forecast will say. The clouds to the west provided some really cool lighting as the afternoon wore on and the classic god rays over the western peaks of the Stirling Range were starting to appear. We continued to take breaks along the way, taking advantage of the occasional rocky outcrop to have a sit and just admire the wonderful scenery around us. Looking back it was fairly obvious where the path went from the top of East Bluff and we had a good laugh at it now we were back on track.
The flatter section of the ridge gave way to the final climb of the day up towards our planned camping spot at the base of Moongoongoonderup Hill. As we reached the thicker undergrowth again we were passed by a solo female hiker who was a little spooked at our sudden appearance. We had a bit of a chat and she had passed the campsite about 30 minutes prior so we didn't have long to go in the afternoon. I felt a bit rude as I was captivated by an eagle that was circling above the valley looking for a feed and I was more interested in getting a good photo. Given it was getting late in the day and there was fair climb ahead, we figured she was camping somewhere along the trail (or doing a lot of night hiking). Continuing on we battled the undergrowth some more and stopped frequently to take photos or check we were going the right way. The issue with an unmarked trail through this type of terrain is the number of different goat tracks that can appear over time. The funny thing is that the more obvious trails are most likely to be wrong as people go down them and have to double back when they reach a dead end. Thankfully we navigated through this area without incident and continued to the top of the hill above the campsite.
With the glow of the afternoon light now casting a beautiful glow over the canvas of the remaining peaks, this was a really special time to be hiking. Moongoongoonderup Hill could be seen in the distance with the rising hill of Isongerup Peak looming in the background. I was taken with the views looking down into the valley to the east with the shadows creating what looked like a sleeping monster at the base of the hills. We reached the campsite and were happy to find more space than we were expecting so set about setting up our tents for the night. I would be sharing with Donovan in his two man tent while Lou had a smaller tunnel style tent that looked to be quite handy for solo hiking. I took a look around the campsite while Donovan did his thing and there were some stunning views looking up towards Isongerup Peak. As we were boiling water for dinner it started to sprinkle with rain and so any plans to stay up and talk for an hour or two were ruined. As the night wore on the rain got heavier and the winds really picked up. I think they were recorded as 40kmph on the flats near Mt Trio Bush Camp so up here it would have been stronger and gustier. Donovan's tent survived and I ended up getting a fairly decent sleep, only waking every now and then when the conditions outside got very fierce all of a sudden.
When it started to get light it was apparent that it wasn't going to blow over anytime soon. We waited it out by listening to a Bill Simmons podcast with Jake Gyllenhaal as a guest and it was good fun prentending to be a cosy burrito while the rain continued to beat down on the tent. Eventually it settled down to medium winds and a drizzle so we exited the tent and made a decision to pack up and continue. A couple of guys popped out of the undergrowth from the Isongerup Peak direction and said they decided to risk it so they could finish today. The plan for us was to continue on towards First Arrow given the relatively non-technical terrain and then assess from there. We could always use the North Mirlpunda Track as an escape if the weather became too much but time would tell. With the wind and the drizzle picking up again, we headed off and were soon hiking along the edge of the cliff. I was on a rocky part when a sudden gust pushed me right towards the edge and I turned around to express my concern with continuing on. We found a little cave to have a team chat about our options and eventually it was decided that we would double back to Bluff Knoll given it was familiar terrain and we had a car at the car park.
As we had started later than expected, we would have to make good time to finish by the time it got dark and pressed on through the scrub. It was cold, wet and windy for a long time but as we reached the climb back up to East Bluff the rain cleared (it was still really windy and cold). We stopped for a while at a little dragon's nest where it was wisely decided we didn't need the bulk of our remaining water. I laid down on the rocky platform to get away from the wind but it was a temporary comfort. We pressed on up the hill and noticed the spot where we should have turned down on the previous day. Unsurprisingly the summit of Bluff Knoll was deserted and with the rain looking to have stopped I pulled out my camera to shoot the really moody conditions. Looking over at the other peaks it was disappointing to see them somewhat clear but given the strong wind we still had, I didn't feel bad about the decision we made. The descent down Bluff Knoll was interesting as it was a mixture of being really cold, wanting to get to the end but also making time to enjoy the great views and cool afternoon light to the west.
Parts of the trail had turned into small water courses and it was good fun jumping from rock to rock to avoid getting the socks even wetter. We came across the waterfall again, at least what we thought was the waterfall we saw on day one but it turned out to be one that had popped up overnight. This shouldn't have been a surprise given how much rain fell and how many other pop-up waterfalls we saw flowing on the cliffs near East Bluff. By this time we had all split up and were going at our own pace back to the car. I was going somewhat slowly thanks to taking a lot of photos. By the time we reached the bottom it was really sunny and I couldn't help but laugh at the conditions. We made a decision and stuck with it in the interests of safety (and also because we planned to put the walk up our websites and white-out conditions do not make for a good post). Bluff Knoll was looking epic in the late afternoon sunshine and it was a bit of a bittersweet finish to what promised to be a really fun adventure. At the time we pledged to return, not knowing what devastation was to come. Dropping Lou back at Mt Trio Bush Camp where Paul was camping, my car ran decided not to play ball with a blocked catalytic converter meaning acceleration was really slow and top speed was limited. Eventually Donovan and I made it back to Denmark in need of a hot shower and a warm meal (thanks to Alissa's parents for hosting me for another night).
Final Thoughts - Not all plans go exactly as you want, that is life, so I can't be too disappointed with how this one turned out.
It is such a shame though that the area has now been burnt a couple of times including what I'm guessing is the most severe fire that the area has experienced in quite some time.
Looking back gives me fond memories of the trip and it was worth it for that first day of perfect hiking. We may not have covered a lot of distance (I'd do it over two days next time) but it was fun to slow down and just appreciate the scenery like we did.
While the area recovers I think I'll stay away for at least a couple of years and let it be. There are plenty of other trails in WA to do and I don't want to be that selfish that my hiking needs cause damage to an already fragile environment.
I understand the people who want to keep this trail wild but I'm under the umbrella of thinking that wonders if putting in a proper trail (a small pad to follow) would be more beneficial to the area. Don't have it marked to Bibbulmun Track standard but enough that people aren't trampling the vegetation everywhere trying to find a way through. Food for thought.
I'll leave it here by saying I hope this isn't the last time I visit here. I love the Stirling Range and this is a really fun and challenging way to explore a wild area.