KNOCKOUT SUNDAY DRIVES
THE DRIVE: Albury-Wodonga to Harrietville
'The GAR' - a must-do drive
Gapsted Wines, Gapsted
Gold panner, Harrietville
Ovens River, Bright
Rail Trail Cafe, Porepunkah
The Wandi pub, Wandiligong
These road trips, covering ground from Mansfield to Wagga, and Euroa to Gundagai, let you explore North East Victoria and the Southern Riverina region of New South Wales at your own pace.
For travel advice, more detailed maps, and suggestions on what to see and do along the route, we suggest you visit a local Visitor Information Centre where the friendly staff will offer recommendations and directions.
* Note: We have not included distance or duration as we believe you will want to deviate along the way
FOR the greater part of its 186 kilometres from Wangaratta to Omeo, the Great Alpine Road snakes across the top of Australia through the picturesque Alpine National Park and in parts rises to 1840 metres above sea level.
That particular stretch of national road B500 is Australia’s highest year-round accessible sealed road, just as Mount Hotham Alpine Village - which it passes through - is the second highest village in the country after Cabramurra in the Snowy Mountains.
One of this country’s great drives, B500 climbs out of Harrietville before dropping from Omeo to Bairnsdale, one of Gippsland’s prettiest places and gateway to The Lakes National Park.
An extraordinary drive at any time of the year, the Great Alpine Road packs a powerful punch as far as scenery goes, as not only does it pass through Victoria’s largest national park - which boasts 10 of the 11 highest mountains in the state - it also traverses through valleys, through forests, past fast-flowing rivers and crystal clear streams and through historic villages which many Australians may never have heard of.
The drive from Albury-Wodonga to Omeo can be easily covered in three hours but take your time and soak in everything this beautiful corner of the world has to offer.
The Great Alpine Road, which has existed in some form or another since colonial times, was completed with the sealing of the section between Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain in 1998.
The mountain equivalent to the famous Great Ocean Road, you can get on to B500 - referred to by locals as the GAR - at any number of locations.
If you want to travel the road from its south westerly source then you start at Wangaratta, travelling through Tarrawingee, Everton and Gapsted to Myrtleford.
From Myrtleford the road passes along the floor of the stunning Ovens Valley through Ovens, Eurobin, Porepunkah, the tourist destination of Bright, Freeburgh, Smoko and Harrietville before you start the steep and windy climb to the alpine resort of Mount Hotham, 32 kilometres further up the Great Dividing Range.
The landscape changes dramatically from alpine ash to snow gum forest and lush valleys quickly turn to huge ravines with sheer drops and steep mountain passes.
The 55 kilometres of road from Mount Hotham through Dinner Plain and Cobungra to Omeo is relatively flat given the very nature of the mountainous terrain.
Through the “off” seasons, services at Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain — and Falls Creek — are limited, but in winter these villages turn into mini cities full of skiers and other snow bunnies.
The mountains also take on a completely different hue, changing from browns and greens to nothing but white.
The road is Australia’s highest year round accessible sealed road.
Caravanners do use the road but be aware that between Harrietville and Hotham Heights it is steep, narrow and windy, with many hairpin bends.
Chains must be carried in winter and must be fitted where directed.
Be aware that the road is subject to closure during winter.
The Great Alpine Road (GAR to the locals) runs along the entire length of the picturesque Ovens Valley, the part we drove from Wangaratta to the township of Harrietville.
There are many towns and villages scattered along the valley floor from where you access the snowfields of Mount Buffalo, Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain, and from Bright to Wangaratta there is the popular, fully-sealed Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail.
The valley gets its name from the Ovens River which rises in the Victorian Alps high above the township of Harrietville and which is sourced by runoff from snow melt and streams within the Alpine National Park and the Mount Buffalo National Park.
These sources include the Buckland River, the Buffalo River, and Morses Creek.
The river, which was named by explorers Hume and Hovell in 1824, flows along the entire length of the valley to its confluence with the Murray River at Bundalong.
The towns and villages dotted along the valley include Tarrawingee, Everton, Whorouly, Myrtleford (the largest), Ovens, Eurobin, Porepunkah, the popular tourist town of Bright, Wandiligong, Smoko and Harrietville.
At its northern end, the valley takes in part of the Milawa Gourmet Region.
There are several wineries in the valley, and they are a popular stop-over for cyclists on the rail trail, as are the cafes, bakeries and restaurants in Myrtleford, and coffee shops in Porepunkah.
The jewel of the valley is the tourist town of Bright, which is flooded with tourists all year round, but more so in autumn when they come to see the spectacular display of autumn leaves.
The kaleidoscope of colour is mother nature at her best.
The town has many finery eateries, shops, a micro-brewery, and supermarkets, and Bright is also close to Wandiligong and its popular hedge maze.
Air sports such as gliding, and paragliding are popular in the area.
The valley ends at the township of Harrietville, but the Great Alpine Road continues over the mountains through Mount Hotham, Dinner Plain, Cobungra and Omeo before dropping down to Bairnsdale in Gippsland.
The most popular towns in the valley are Bright and Myrtleford, with the smaller towns of Porepunkah and Wandiligong becoming more popular with tourists.
Wandiligong is just a few minutes’ drive from Bright, or you can cycle to it on a purpose-built cycle track.
This picture-perfect valley village surrounded by mountain ranges, sits on Morses Creek, and is surrounded by apple orchards and nut groves.
In the 1860s Wandiligong teemed with gold miners and in its heyday its 2000-strong population built schools, churches, shops, a public library, and hotels.
Many still stand and today the entire town and its landscape are National Trust-classified.
The Diggings Walk with its Chinese Swing Bridge is a great way to discover the history of this magical little town.
The valley’s largest town and commercial centre is Myrtleford which is set against the scenic backdrop of a dense forest mountain range.
Craggy Mount Buffalo stands sentinel over the southern end of the valley.
The town offers a vibrant shopping and professional precinct, first-class accommodation, and attractive parks, including Rotary Park, situated on the Great Alpine Road where it crosses Barwidgee Creek.
It features barbecues and picnic areas, a footbridge, and an historic Log Tobacco Kiln.
Several wineries are in the Myrtleford area including the traditional Italian Michelini Wines close to the town centre, and Gapsted Wines and Feathertop Winery.
Twenty-one kilometres south of Myrtleford, on the Buffalo River Road, is Lake Buffalo which features picnic areas, a swimming beach and a boat launching ramp, while Mount Buffalo National Park, which is named after the mountain peak within the park, is accessed via Porepunkah.
But it is the township of Bright on the fast-flowing, crystal clear Ovens River which is the jewel of the valley.
It is a Mecca for tourists, especially in autumn when Mother Nature transforms the town and its surrounds into a kaleidoscope of colour.
The town was first known as Morse's Creek, but it was renamed in 1861 in honour of the British orator and politician John Bright.
During the gold rush era of the 1850s there was a rush to the nearby Buckland River.
As the gold deposits gradually diminished, Chinese miners arrived in the area to sift the abandoned claims.
Tensions over Chinese success from Anglo-Irish miners caused the violent Buckland Riot in 1857, resulting in deaths of Chinese miners and the fleeing of 2000 Chinese.
The riot was eventually quelled by Beechworth police under the command of Robert O’Hara Burke of Burke and Wills fame.
The main industry of the town is tourism, but due to the number of paragliding and hang glider launch sites close by, the town is also a centre of activity for paragliding festivals and competitions.
Bright is also a popular family destination over summer and the population swells, particularly after Christmas.
The town is close to the Victorian Alps and various alpine national parks including the Mount Buffalo National Park, Mount Feathertop, Mount Hotham and Mount Bogong, the latter, at 1986 metres, is the highest peak in Victoria, and Feathertop is the second highest at 1922 metres.
The Bright Railway Station has been preserved as a local history museum.
Although trains no longer run from the township, the 95-kilometre Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail allows cyclists to travel the same route train passengers would have travelled via the townships of Porepunkah, Eurobin, Ovens, Myrtleford, Gapsted, Bowman, Brookfield, Everton, Tarrawingee, Londrigan, and Bowser to Wangaratta.
A branch line at Everton ran to Beechworth and Yackandandah.
The last section of the line closed in 1987.
From Albury-Wodonga the Ovens Valley is quickly accessed via Beechworth and Tarrawingee.
Total distance to the valley’s end at Harrietville, is 119-kilometres.
It is a stunning drive anytime of the year but autumn is the most popular time if spectacular colours, crisp weather, low cloud clinging to the mountain tops, and the smell of pine trees is your thing.
For those wanting to drive the GAR in its entirety, Harrietville through Mount Hotham, Dinner Plain, Cobungra, Omeo, Tongio, Swifts Creek, Ensay, Tambo Crossing, and Bruthen, to Bairnsdale, is a further 207-kilometres.
The GAR is one of Victoria's great driver's roads and has to been at least once in your lifetime.
Well, a couple of times!