The Warrumbungle Range bridges the divide between the Central West and North West Slopes regions of New South Wales, an area caught between the moist coast and the drier inland plains. The easiest access is through the town of Coonabarabran, some 450 kilometres from Sydney. It’s on the Newell highway, and sits about halfway between Brisbane and Melbourne, so it’s a fantastic place for a stop if you’re heading that way. It’s a town with some two hundred years of history of its own, and is the gateway to both the Warrumbungle National Park, and the expansive Pilliga Forest to the north.
It’s also affectionately known as the astronomy capital of Australia. Siding Springs Observatory can be found perched atop the range just above the descent into the national park, and is one of the largest and most important observatories in Australia. It’s open to visitors from Monday to Saturday and, along with the adjacent national park, is part of Australia’s first Dark Sky Park. Essentially, it’s an area of exceptionally starry night skies and nocturnal environments, due to the minimal light pollution, low humidity and high altitude.
It’s a place with an overwhelming pull for me, and has managed to drag me back every few years. This visit, I had my sights set on Mount Exmouth, the highest point in the range. I pulled into Whitegum Lookout on the way in, which gives you a pretty fantastic view of the peaks, ridges, domes and rocky spires that dominate the volcanic expanse. The base origins of the range lie some 180 million years in the past, while the majority has been carved from the eroded remnants of a 15 million year old shield volcano.
There’s a handful of great options for camping, with Camp Blackman being the biggest and most conveniently located, as well as the most scenic. Unobstructed views of rugged mountains ring the grassy campgrounds, and despite being significantly drier this visit, it’s no less spectacular for it. Be warned, though, it can get absolutely packed during busy periods.
From here, I planned out my walk. This place is a hiker’s paradise, there’s no two ways about it. From easy strolls to exhausting treks, there’s no shortage of options. Most visitors will turn their attention to the park’s well known highlights, like Belougery Split Rock, Burbie Canyon or Fans Horizon. The tough climb to the Breadknife and Grand High Tops, perhaps the park’s most iconic sight, is often considered one of the best walks in the state, and for good reason.
Having done all these on previous visits, I was after the big ones this time, Mount Exmouth and Bluff Mountain. Both are 17km walks if you tackle them on their own, but they can be combined into a single 25km trek that includes the Breadknife and Grand High Tops, making for one of the best day treks in the country. Really, damn near unbeatable. It’s by no means an easy walk, but there are plenty of campsites up on the range to split the walk up. Which isn’t a bad idea, because dusk and dawn up there can be pretty incredible.
I set out for Mount Exmouth first, starting at Burbie Canyon, although the walk can be done in either direction. It begins with a long and gentle climb along a fire trail through open eucalypt woodland. After reaching a saddle atop the range, with Exmouth towering above, a smaller track loops around the rear, before climbing to the peak. At 1206 metres, it’s a jagged mesa of basalt rock formations, with a rocky zenith carpeted in grass trees and wildflowers. There’s sweeping views of the incredible landscape in every direction, including an exhausting look at just how far there is left go.
Heading back down, the trail proceeds to climb and fall as it follows the range, along jagged scree slopes and around gnarled rocky outcrops. There’s detours off to the Cathedral and Arch, a couple of great rock formations worth checking out if you’ve got the energy. If not, the views from the main track refuse to let up even for a moment. Bluff Mountain rises ahead, an imposing wall of orange and grey stone, and an unavoidable reminder of the next challenge in the walk.
The trail climbs and clambers its way up into the field of narrow spires, sharp pinnacles and jagged rock faces that dominate the higher ridges. Outcrops of wind-bent native cypress and low shrubs highlight the ancient landscape as the trail reaches the Bluff Mountain detour. The round trip adds about 3km to the walk, but it’s worth every step. The 360 views from the top are just phenomenal, of undulating ridge-lines, vast plains and rugged mountains, from a rocky summit crowned with windswept heath.
From here, the descent begins, with only a small climb back up to the spectacular Grand High Tops, where you can look down upon the incredible rock formations that make this one of NSW’s most iconic views. The Breadknife, Tonduron Spire, Bluff Pyramid, Crater Bluff and Spirey Creek far below.
It’s still a long way down from here, along a mix of rough track, metal stairs and sealed path twisting and winding their way between the magnificent rock formations and into the open forest below. There’s some pleasant flat walking for the last couple of kilometres, crossing dry creeks before reaching the car park. From here, it’s only a short drive back to Camp Blackman, to a much needed shower, and a cold beer as the sun sets over Belougery Split Rock.