How great is Victoria's Great Alpine Road?
Victoria's Great Alpine Road is a touring route which crosses the mountains at the Mt Hotham ski resort, and claims to have Australia's most spectacular mountain scenery. Is the road truly great? And is the whole route scenic, other than the dramatic high bits in the middle? I did a road test to check it out.
The Great Alpine Road describes the 308km route from Wangaratta, which is on on the Hume Freeway, across to Bairnsdale near the coast. The name came into use in 1998 when the final section between Hotham and Dinner Plain was sealed. Before then the roads had long existed under other names, but were united as a "Great" touring road to better promote the route. Like the Great Ocean Road, except with mountains not ocean.
Circumstances led me to start the journey from the inland end. Other than a little less driving into the sun from that direction, I couldn't see any great advantage over doing it the other way.
The drive from Wangaratta towards Bright is flat or gently undulating, passing through farm land and vineyards. Many side trips could be made here, including the Milawa wine district, Mt Buffalo, or the historic towns of Beechworth and Yackandandah. I did a bit of exploring in these areas, and ended up staying in Myrtleford, one of the towns on the alpine road.
Next morning I continued up the Ovens River valley, with great views of the Mount Buffalo plateau on the right. Approaching the town of Bright, views of snowcapped peaks came into view. The most prominent being Mt Feathertop, Victoria's second highest peak and possibly its most impressive.
Mountains close in beyond Bright, but it isn't until passing the small town of Harrietville that the road begins climbing. And once it starts, the climb is relentless. One tight bend after another, with steep drops on one side - occasionally both sides - and some grand views across the ever-deepening valleys.
The ascent from Harrietville to Mt Hotham is not steep, but it’s a serious drive which demands careful attention from the driver (and possibly a cup of coffee in Bright). The road is wide enough for oncoming vehicles to pass, but in some places only just. Many steep drops begin almost at the edge of the road surface, and there aren't always crash barriers.
Even without ice or snow it is a drive to be treated with respect. I wanted to capture some video of the drive, but to do it safely I attached the camera with a mini tripod and velcro to a big stick wedged into place. That way I could keep both hands on the wheel.
Above a certain height you enter the zone of mountain ash. These trees are majestic enough on their own, but when soaring out of dramatically steep mountain sides they take on a special magnificence. Unfortunately many of them had been burnt, showing that even cool damp areas are not safe from bushfires.
Eventually the road reaches the top and straddles the ridge for a few kilometres. One moment you've got an extensive panorama to the left, down the Ovens Valley past Mt Feathertop on to Mt Buffalo, and beyond. The next moment the view is to the right, across range after range in the Alpine National Park.
At times, the road is directly on the ridge line and the view extends on both sides at once. I had trouble keeping my eyes on the road with such great panoramas to look at! The best solution is to pull over occasionally and get out to soak in the scenery. On the highest section, where the views are the most stunning, there are a few suitable spots for stopping, provided there isn't snow piled up on the roadside.
Once the highest point of road is passed, the ski village of Mt Hotham comes into view. Personally, I found this to be a blemish on the grand landscape, with buildings, car parks and skiing infrastructure scattered haphazardly over several kilometres. But having been a keen skier, I can appreciate why a ski area would be built here. And a ski village spread atop a ridge can never be as neat and compact as one down in a valley.
Outside the snow season some hiking can be done here: Mt Hotham can be a starting point for walks to nearby peaks and the Bogong High Plains. The ski season was still going when I was there, so I just passed through. To stop would have required a permit, which I didn't have, and a parking spot, which appeared hard to find.
Whatever your opinion on Mt Hotham, it soon passes behind you as the descent begins. Unlike the dramatic climb up the inland side, descending the coastal side of the range is a more gentle affair. The first gradual descent is the undulating 10km to Dinner Plain, a unique alpine village worth a look.
Dinner Plain promotes itself as the only freehold land above the snow-line, and has a distinct architectural style that gives it far more character than the ski resort up the road. Low-rise discretely coloured wood and corrugated iron blend into the snowgum plains as well as any 1900 bed village possibly could.
I stopped for lunch, then wandered along some walking tracks through patches of snow left over from winter. It was a pleasant break from driving, and a good opportunity to experience a sub-alpine landscape up close ... rather than just through a car window.
Upon leaving Dinner Plain, a downhill section provides one of several "steps" back down to sea level. Then more undulating, through trees and occasional farms, and a couple more descents before reaching Omeo.
Just before Omeo is a lookout worth stopping at. It provides a distant view of Mt Kosciuszko and Mt Townsend, Australia's two highest peaks, about 100 km away in the NSW Snowy Mountains. In winter or spring, or any other time after snow, the treeless white peaks can be a striking sight. It is only from their steep western sides that these peaks look striking, and there aren't many viewpoints to see this view from. Even if visibility doesn't extend that far, the Kosciuszko lookout provides a good view over Omeo and the surrounding high country.
Omeo is a historic gold mining town with much in the area to justify staying there, which is what I did. The area has a much more low-key, less touristy feel to it than towns on the other side of the mountains. And even though you've descended far below Mt Hotham, Omeo and the surrounding plains are around 700 meters above sea level - still high country, and subject to occasional winter snow.
Another step down through mostly farming country brings you to Swifts Creek, another small town originating in the gold rush. A little further on the road enters a narrower forested valley where it snakes alongside the Tambo River. The hills aren't as big here, but the river is quickly flowing in a rocky stream bed, and rather attractive. At least I thought so; I found this part of the drive very enjoyable.
More forest, another descent, and you're in the lush farmland of the coastal lowlands near Bruthen. The Great Alpine Road could well end here - the scenery changes are just about done - but the route officially concludes with the main highway to Bairnsdale.
You may have noticed the scenery I described is not all alpine. Alpine normally describes high mountains; in particular the parts of mountains which are above the tree line. While the Great Alpine Road does pass through genuinely alpine areas, or have views of them, there are long sections of the road that are not at high altitude and don't have alpine views.
The route is called an alpine road because the high mountainous parts, and the views, are the outstanding features that define it. In reality it is more than that: a scenic journey of great diversity. From the inland plains to the coastal plains, it encompasses the full range of Victoria's mountain scenery in between. Peaks, foothills, deep valleys, steep and gentle slopes, high plains ... and the variety of trees and plants that grow in such a range of altitudes and landforms.
If you are only interested in the most dramatic scenery, then the section from Bright to Mt Hotham will be of most interest. This can done as an out-and-back excursion while exploring the Ovens and Kiewa valleys. But if you are after a journey with diverse scenery showing all aspects of Victoria's mountains, then the full route has much to offer. I drove the Bright to Hotham section years ago and enjoyed it, but found the complete drive more satisfying. Crossing the mountains completely, from one side to the other, is like reading the whole book, rather than just the most dramatic chapter.
The Great Alpine Road is sealed for it's whole length, and is kept open all year. Well, mostly ... the high sections can be temporarily closed during snowfalls. It is a legal requirement that snow chains be carried between Harrietville and Omeo during the official ski season (early June to early October), even if there is no chance of snow. My main suggestion, whatever the time of year, is to avoid the drive in rainy weather or low cloud if possible. You want to be able to see the views!
So is the Great Alpine Road actually great? I think it is, especially if you view it as a diverse journey rather than just an alpine drive. Doing it in the winter is especially scenic if you can avoid the bad-weather days. Being Australia, even our ski seasons have mild sunny snowless days, as it was when I shot the video below.
Covering the full route in a day is certainly possible, but there is so much else to see along the way that you'll probably want to spend much more time in the region. And be warned: if you enjoy scenic drives like I do, one journey on the Great Alpine Road might not be enough.
This footage shows a driver's eye view of Victoria's Great Alpine Road, travelling in the coastwards direction. It covers samples of the journey between Myrtleford and Bruthen, with some still shots to better capture the surroundings, especially in the high areas near Mt Hotham. Drizzle and a week of mild sunny weather had eaten into the snow cover in the Alpine sections, but this made driving safer. Most driving scenes are about four times normal speed. Music: The Time To Run (Finale) by Dexter Britain
Video can also be viewed at https://vimeo.com/118983691