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Text: Iain Treloar | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: Phil Golston
There’s a place where mountains topped with ghostly forests tumble down to impossibly green fields, where red dirt tracks weave through pine plantations, where crystal lakes reflect the stony peaks looming above them. An Australian cycling paradise? Pretty close.
Draped over this landscape is a network of roads that feel made for riding on. Dotted along those roads, towns that offer good coffee, great local beer and wine, and outstanding food. It’s a place that quickly makes you feel at home, or wish that home was more like it.
Last year, when we visited Victoria’s High Country for a few days’ riding, it was its usual stunning self. We tackled four out of the 7 Peaks, thoroughly cooked ourselves on Mount Hotham, got unceremoniously dropped by Marianne Vos on the climb to Falls Creek (OK, that was just me) and returned to Melbourne happily worn out.
Having experienced the unique pleasure and pain of those big climbs, we wanted to broaden our knowledge of the region. When the High Country reeled us back for a return visit, we arrived with a simple goal: stitch together new roads, see new places, kick up some dust and knock back some beers.
In the bottom right corner of mainland Australia, in Victoria’s north-east, the High Country region covers a lot of ground: from south of Mansfield up to the Murray River, from Benalla over into the wilds east of Bogong. The central pocket, comprising the mountains and towns scattered through the Kiewa and Ovens Valleys, has many of the region’s most iconic sights, but far from its only attractions.
Wangaratta, a cathedral city at the junction of the Ovens and King Rivers, is best known in some circles (…mine) as the childhood home of Nick Cave, Australian rock music’s Prince of Darkness. It also houses a pretty good brewery or two, a decent bike-themed cafe and was where our journey into lesser-known parts of the High Country would kick off.
The destination: Beechworth. The route? Made it up as we went.
Eldorado had an intriguing town name and was at the end of an alluringly wiggly white line called Woolshed Road that wormed its way up toward Beechworth. Just out of town, the road turned to gravel and dove into Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park. Over river crossings and between rocky outcrops, it slowly revealed itself as 25km of the kind of riding that justifies a three hour drive from the big smoke.
We popped out at Woolshed Falls, which cascades 35m down a rock-face into a narrow gorge at its base. Appropriately awestruck and reeled in by a date with pizza and beer at Bridge Road Brewers, we powered through the final climb up to Beechworth, as the setting sun bathed us in dusty light.
Beechworth is a town that’s been part of some history over the years.
You’re reminded of it when you glimpse the asylum eerily perched on the hill overlooking the town; you’re reminded of it as you roll past the old courthouse and down Camp Street, flanked by buildings that have been there since the world was still sepia.
Beechworth hasn’t rested on its past glories, though. It’s home to an entrepreneurial younger generation who’ve started breweries, founded cafes and even opened tiny bike shops in the walls of the old Beechworth Jail. It makes for an appealing place for a visit, and with the right amount of Bling IPA downed and the right view off the plateau at the end of a long day, you may find yourself daydreaming about how to turn that visit into a more permanent stay. Or so I’ve heard.
Breaking from Beechworth’s spell with an early-morning coffee at Peddlar, we rolled out to Stanley, ever so gently uphill – all the better to enjoy the 10km long descent of Myrtleford-Stanley Road. The middle section in particular – which for 3km of its length drops at about 10% or so through pristine forest with jawdropping views of Mount Buffalo – is a giddy, life-affirming joy.
As the road flattened and we set a course for Mount Beauty, a pair of wedgetails performed lazy pirouettes over the plantations. It was that kind of a perfect day: good company and good weather, and filled with immaculate snapshots, like Carrolls Road – widescreen beauty on a grand scale – and Happy Valley Road, and Rosewhite Gap.
We took what is ordinarily a lesser-used back route to the Kiewa Valley, bypassing Bright and Tawonga Gap, but for a generation of Australian road cyclists it’s most familiar from Tour of Bright’s second stage. It dips and rolls under enormous skies until you begin the steady climb of Rosewhite Gap and speed down the silky, fast descent on the other side.
Mount Beauty, nestled at the end of the valley under Mount Bogong and Falls Creek, is tiny but punches above its weight on a number of important metrics. They are as follows: excellent bakery, outstanding MTB scene (complete with schoolkids commuting on trick duallies), friendly brewery, and lucrative meat raffle at the local pub.
That makes for a pretty compelling Friday evening for a gaggle of weary cyclists, no matter which way you dice it.
Tawonga Gap is something of a gateway drug to the joy of climbing. As a regular fixture of the Great Vic Bike Ride, countless schoolkids have pitted themselves against its slopes. I should know: half a lifetime ago, I was one of them.
It’s not a 30km bruiser like Falls Creek behind it or Hotham over it, but it’s consistent and picturesque and all the things that make for a nice climb. Tackled first thing, as the sun peeks its head over Bogong on the other side of the valley and casts your shadow as a giant on the road, Tawonga Gap is glorious.
And Bright, at the base of Tawonga’s ripping descent, is just as magnificent, and then a little bit more. Excellent coffee, food, beer and wine is just the beginning of this beautiful town’s allure; the fact that it’s such a gracious and welcoming host to the cycling community underlines it. There are many highlights, but for some recommendations to kick you off: Tomahawks offers killer burgers, Ginger Baker is the Bright’s best summer al-fresco experience overlooking the family waterpark on the banks of the Ovens River, and Bright Brewery is a key supporter of local cycling and a social hub of the town.
This time, however, we couldn’t tarry long, and after a coffee (and, OK, another one) at Sixpence, we made tracks for Myrtleford and beyond. You see, we’d spotted Lake Buffalo on a map, and from the topography and the surrounds figured it’d be worth a visit.
We were right. On a still day, with barely a ripple on the water, the lake is a mirror set amongst mountains.
Not done for the day, we took a moment to zoom in on Google Maps to try to find a way through the mysterious web of logging roads linking through to the King Valley. It was the perfect decision – as we bounced along, trying to pick the smoothest line through the rough gravel, we found the dusty moment of nirvana we’d come to the region craving.
Road bike appropriate? Nah, not always. Enough to make you fall in love with your bike all over again? Absolutely.
The King Valley’s a bit of a sleeper. Beneficiary of a wave of Italian migration after WW2, it was a major growing area first for tobacco, and then vineyards. With producers like Sam Miranda and Brown Brothers to the valley’s north and Dal Zotto and Pizzini to its south, the region has finally landed on the map for wine buffs.
On our last visit, we’d stopped by the King Valley for a brief spell, but had a hunch that there was plenty more to see. This time we were determined to broaden our view. After a beer or three at King River Brewing, a meal worth travelling for at Whitfield’s Mountain View Hotel and a dreamless sleep in Cheshunt, we rose early for the ride out to Lake William Hovell.
As dawn slowly poured over the ridge and washed the King Valley in gold, with the lake’s clear water gently lapping at our tyres, we paused for a moment and considered the journey we’d taken.
We’d punched out more than enough kilometres to be content, but we’d come away with more than just a few days of quality riding: our trip had reinforced the quality of the riding in the High Country.
For cyclists, it’s a region that’s inextricably linked to its most famous climbs, and while that alone makes it spectacular, it also does the region a massive disservice. In the King Valley, we found amazing hospitality and stunning car-free roads. In the Kiewa, enormous skies and tranquility. Just out of Beechworth, a dipping and dusty gravel road to a waterfall.
There’s plenty to love in the High Country. But after countless visits over the years, on this trip there was a more striking realisation: we’d barely scratched the surface.
There are countless amazing rides that you can stitch together in the High Country, whether you’re on the hunt for alpine ascents or shorter blasts through tranquil farmland. For a comprehensive guide of some of our favourites, see here.
Part of the fun of exploring the High Country is choosing your own adventure, but some of our favourite stretches of road and gravel from this trip include:
Where to begin?! Besides the incredible riding to be found in the region, it’s the food and drink that is the High Country’s other shining light.
If you’re into beer, take advantage of the High Country Brewery Trail. A collective of eight breweries scattered about the region, each are supportive of cyclists and more often than not, keen riders themselves – and happy to point you in the direction of the best roads and trails in the area. On this trip, we visited Bridge Road in Beechworth, Sweetwater Brewing in Mount Beauty and King River Brewing out of Whitfield. I can confirm they all hit the spot.
If you’re into wine, no visit to the High Country would be complete without a visit to the King Valley. Sam Miranda (near Oxley), Brown Brothers (Milawa) and Dal Zotto and Pizzini (near Whitfield) are all superb.
Food-wise, Coffee Chakra (Myrtleford) and the Mountain View Hotel (Whitfield) were especially memorable.
And for excellent coffee, we can recommend Ginger Baker and Sixpence (both Bright), Peddlar (Beechworth) and Mansfield Coffee Merchant.
For a full rundown of cyclist-friendly food and drink suppliers, see these recommendations here.
From boutique hotels to warmly welcoming bed and breakfasts, there’s something to suit every budget and style in the High Country.
For our visit, we stayed at a mix of AirBnBs and pub accommodation. In peak times, especially in busier towns like Bright and Beechworth, we’d suggest booking ahead – major events can make finding lodging difficult.
For a full rundown of cyclist-friendly accommodation options, see these recommendations here.
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