Stokes Heritage Trail
Start - End of Stokes Inlet Road
Length - 5.3km (Return)
Grade - Orange
Terrain - Single Path, Vehicle Track
Vertical Climb - 82m
Time - 1-2 hours
Signed - Yes
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Date Hiked - 3rd October 2020
Best Time - All Year Round
Traditional Owners - Wudjari People
Directions - Stokes National Park is located 88km west of Esperance just off South Coast Highway. Follow the highway out of town until you see the signs for the national park. Turn left onto Stokes Inlet Road and follow this all the way to the end where you'll find a car park (entry fees payable just after you enter the park). The trail head is located on the western side of the car park as the trail heads uphill.
The Hike - Concluding the Albany leg of my 2020 Spring Road Trip, the next destination was the national parks around Esperance after a quick overnight stopover in Fitzgerald River. A moody hike to the top of East Mount Barren was my only activity the previous day but I was optimistic that things might be better today when I awoke to sunnier skies. It was still bitterly cold but that's easily fixed with a brisk walk. The end point for today's travels was the campsite at Lucky Bay but I wanted to stop in at Stokes Inlet to check out the heritage trail that is the only marked walk in the park.
Before leaving the excellent Four Mile Campsite on the eastern side of Fitzgerald River I headed down to Barrens Beach for a quick walk around and to saviour a spot I have fond memories of from previous trips. A quick stop in at Hopetoun was needed for a warm coffee and something delicious to eat from the bakery before I set off on the hour and a half drive to Stokes Inlet. The scenery along the highway isn't terribly stunning with low scrub mixed in with farmland and worryingly, an increase in the area being mined so close to the highway (they close the highway at times because of the blasting). Arriving at Stokes Inlet, I was keen to see what was what after hearing from a friend who recently visited that it was a trail I would enjoy for the details. As is the case with these remote locations, I wasn't surprised to find the car park empty when I arrived. Exiting the car and getting my gear ready, the air still had a chill to it and this would be the case for the rest of my time around Esperance. There are a couple of shelters by the water, mainly used by people who come to fish in the inlet but they also serve as a nice spot for lunch if you brought a picnic.
Searching for the trail head, I thought there would be some information boards on the shelters but it just contained a lot of info about the fishing in the area. I spotted a path leading down to the water so investigated that area to see if the trail started there. While being very pretty thanks to the Melaleuca lined water, the trail did not officially start here but I decided to anyway thanks to the lovely scenery. The paperbarks that grow on the edge of the inlet are a nice sight to see and even more so when they have their golden flowers in bloom, as I was lucky enough to see. Taking many photos, it was eventually time to leave this lovely area and go find a trail to walk. Scouring the car park I spotted a single trail leading into the bush with what looked like an information board. It was the trail head I was looking for and showed me the course I would be taking to the turnaround point at the Benwenerup Campsite. Keen to get going, I set off along the single trail as it heads up the small hill via a wooden staircase. Spotting a few wildflowers as I climbed up, the real treat was the views from the top as you stare out over the inlet that is one of the biggest on the south coast.
Leaving the views, the trail heads inland a little before following an old vehicle track as it runs along the ridge of the hill. With my visit being in the height of wildflower season, I was expecting a lot more colour to the edge of the trail but was a little bit underwhelmed by the scenery. While there was the occasional flowering scrub, it took a bit of an effort to find them compared with the trails I had been used to over the past couple of weeks. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and sought out what I could along the trail. Making this section more enjoyable were the two extra lookouts that are short side quests off the main path, providing much the same view as at the top of the stairs but with the added twist of having different information boards telling you about the area. This is a real strength of the trail with the information boards explaining all different aspects of the area from the wildlife to the geology to the plant life, it makes for a good story as you walk along and connects you to the place you are in. The vehicle track walking got a little better as I went along with it starting to narrow somewhat and the emergence of some well established Banksias made for a colourful delight. I was happy to see a few of the Showy Banksias in flower as they have a vivid yellowy white colouring that looks spectacular in the sunshine.
Starting to descend down the hill, I was treated to some fleeting views of the surrounding landscape before reaching the gravel road that you come in on. Crossing the road, you continue along the trail is it becomes single track and this is where the fun really started for me. I had been told about the giant Zamias from a friend and it didn't take long before I crossed paths with a magnificent example. These ancient plants are descended from cycads that were still around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This particular variety (Macrozamia dyeri) only grows near Esperance and in sandy soil free of Jarrah trees. Compared to the Zamia you see in the Jarrah forests of the South West, these things are giant and I'm really surprised that the place is not called Bazup (place of the Big Ass Zamias). It's hard not to marvel at their size and wonder how old they are given their slow growth rate. Being in a national park, one would hope they are protected for a long time and can continue to impress generations to come. The single track winds it's way parallel to the inlet but not close enough for a walk along the water. The payoff for this is dry feet but also at times you get an elevated position overlooking the water with some great views looking back towards the mouth of the inlet (but never quite seeing it).
Crossing over a bridge, the scenery from here until the turnaround point at Benwenerup Campsite is really enjoyable. Rising in and out of vegetated areas full of wildflowers, Banksias and Zamias, this was the experience I was after. Taking the time to scan the undergrowth for different wildflowers and orchids, I spotted what looked like the tail end of a flowering Greenhood Orchid or Curled Tongue Shell Orchid but I'm not well versed enough to be able to tell. Along my travels I also spotted a Purple Flag, some Cowslip Orchids and a funky looking Banksia cone that was coming to the end of its lifecycle. Mixed in with the wildflowers and great views were the sounds of birds everywhere and I imagine this place is heaven for them given the close water source and ample supply of cover in the vegetation. Some weren't shy about being photographed before flying away and I managed to add a bit of variety to the galleries that is sometimes missing due to the effort/luck involved in getting a bird to stay still long enough for a photo. Reaching the fringes of the Benwenerup Campsite, it appeared deserted as I walked by but I could hear some noise in the distance to suggest that thankfully, someone else was enjoying the national park. Popular with those that like to fish, this is the 2WD accessible campsite for the area and has a couple of small boat ramps at either end of where the walk trail goes. I wandered down to the water to have a look as it seemed like a nice place to have the turnaround point and was loving the return of the Melaleucas.
The photos don't really do the place justice but it's just a cool place to soak in thanks to pleasant views and the soothing sounds of the water lapping the shore. I explored the edge of the water a bit, finding plenty of shells and a very dark piece of granite that hints at a different geology buried underneath the sand. With plans to do more hiking in Cape Le Grand, I wrapped up my little side visit and decided it was time to head back. This was a good decision as once I was on the raised section of the trail I could see some incoming showers that looked quite unpleasant. Given this is an out and back trail, I walked at a faster pace on the return leg but still kept up my spidey sense for any wildflowers I may have missed. As with my hike at Mount Lindesay, it was the reverse way that netted me an elusive sighting of a Spider Orchid. I think this is an Esperance King Spider Orchid but could also have just been a normal King Spider Orchid, if you can enlighten me in the comments if you know then that would be great. Rushing through the vehicle track section, when it started to sprinkle I started to run and made it back to the car just as the heavens opened up and showers got heavier. It didn't last long and the aftermath produced some nice scenes with a bright foreground contrasting against the dark background as it moved east. I got changed out of my wet clothes and started my journey to Esperance where I would figure out my plans for the afternoon based on the gloomy weather expected.
Final Thoughts - If you've ever organised a holiday along this stunning and expansive part of Western Australia, you know there is a lot of driving between places.
Between Hopetoun/Ravensthorpe and Esperance this is a great place to stop in and stretch the legs. Along with seeing something different, the walk won't take too much out of your day and is very enjoyable when the flowers are out between winter and late spring.
If recreational fishing is your thing then you probably already know of Stokes Inlet but it's nice to know that walkers have been catered for too.
The real highlight of this area is the Zamias with several ancient examples providing something to remember. It will forever be etched in my mind the first time I saw one of these giants and Stokes Inlet is one of the best places to see them up close.
Get out there and experience it!
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