Most notable for its Penguin Parade, Phillip Island is a hub of wildlife activity. The island, just a 90 minute drive from Melbourne, also houses Australia’s largest Fur Seal colony. Within this well cared for and much loved island you’ll find koalas, kangaroos, and an array of birdlife. Perhaps you’ll even see migrating whales as they travel up and down the Victorian coastline.
The rugged south side attracts surfers and water sports enthusiasts, who take advantage of Phillip Island’s excellent swell and surfing conditions. The region was even named a National Surfing Reserve because of its flawless natural environment- the only one in Victoria. Even famous Bells Beach along The Great Ocean Road fails to hold that title.
And for speed hiking enthusiasts, like ourselves, the island offers an abundance of walks. Whether it’s coastal tracks, circuits, or the beautiful sites to see along the beaches, there’s plenty on offer.
Phillip Island | Two Day Hiking Guide
Here we detail how we spent two days in (and around) Phillip Island, and the top things to do. Enjoying the breathtaking coastal walks and rock formations along this stretch of Victoria, culminating, of course, with the magical and hugely enjoyable Penguin Parade!
Travel Made Me Do It have personally rated the trails in this guide.
DAY ONE: Exploring Cape Woolamai, Forrest Caves and Churchill Island
1. Cape Woolamai Circuit
- Type: Loop
- Distance: 18.5km
- Time: 2 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 100m
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Woolamai Surf Beach Car Park
A rugged and wild enjoyable walk. Due to our accommodations proximity to Phillip Island, we were able to get a nice early start on the itinerary. However, as I’m learning, surfers too enjoy an early start. You’ll find car parks begin to fill fast with vans and equipment. This does mean you get to enjoy the surfing spectacle. Groups of swell seekers dotted throughout the water, enjoying the excellent surf this area has to offer. Clad in their black wetsuits, they resemble a bob of seals, relaxing playfully together in the cool waters.
The top sites to look out for along the way include The Pinnacles, Cape Woolamai beacon- which signals the highest point of the island, and the old pink granite quarry. Hiking Trail Australia gives a very detailed description of this hike for additional information. That being said, the trail is very easy to follow.
In true us style, especially with a busy day planned, we decided this circuit called for a little speed hiking. Although the trail has a mix of terrain (sand, grass, gravel), its low elevation gain makes for a simple trail to up the pace a little.
WHAT IS SPEED HIKING? If you’re moving faster than your standard walking pace, but just slower than a run, you’re speed hiking. The emphasis of speed hiking is not on completing in a certain time, like trail running, but rather the ability to cover more ground and in turn observe more of your surroundings.
The star attraction. Beginning from the car park at Woolamai Surf Beach, the 8.5km loop commences. As you head down the wooden staircase to the beach, you’ll begin to get a sense of the rugged coastline that stretches along the south of the island. The sand is perfectly golden and the morning sea air feels crisp and refreshing.
The initial stages of the walk lead you eastwards along the beach. It’s a pleasant beach walk and, during winter, is quiet. Before reaching the end, you’ll see a wooden staircase leading back up to the cliff tops. Take the path east from the top here towards The Pinnacles. The trail curves around the coastal bluff and you can enjoy more extensive views of Bass Strait.
Upon reaching the Pinnacles, you’ll begin to see why the attraction is a highlight of the walk. The natural rock columns that make up The Pinnacles descend like marching soldiers into the sea. The early morning light just begins to light up their faces. There’s a wooden platform here to stop and admire the spectacle. Also built, we assume, to discourage people from getting too close to the unstable cliff edges and to prevent upsetting the habitats of many wildlife species that call this area home.
Throughout all of Australia, you’ll find many rock formations of the same name. We think The Pinnacles on Phillip Island rivals the best of them. But we guess you’ll just have to see for yourselves!
Cape Woolamai Beacon
The highest not-so-high point. At 112m, Cape Woolamai is the highest point on Phillip Island. However, you’ll note the “highest point” is not that high at all. The beacon affords views over the wild clifftops, surrounded by the fierce Bass Strait, with the whole of Phillip Island laid out directly in front of you. From here you get a real sense for the size of Phillip Island. For general hiking standards, the walk to this point is easily accessible, even for the most inexperienced of walkers. It is certainly not difficult.
After reaching the ‘summit’, the trail winds back through low grassland toward the old granite quarry. You’ll pass a lovely wooden boardwalk which leads to a wide viewing platform. The views back out to San Remo and mainland Victoria feel less rugged. The sea, as it hugs inland on its way toward French Island, is still and calm. You also get excellent views of Phillip Island Road- the connecting access bridge. Albeit from a distance.
Old Granite Quarry
A little piece of island history. If you take the old granite quarry trail, which is optional, you’ll find yourself heading along Cleeland Bight Beach. This section of the hike is recommended only at low tide. If attempted at high tide, you’ll find there isn’t much beach to walk on. We know this as we walked it at high tide! As this coastal stretch of the island is more enclosed than that on the south side, the waves were gentle. Their lapping of the shoreline resembling that of a peaceful lakeside, rather than huge waves. So nothing threatening to deal with. Before you turn left to head up the beach, check out some of the old granite blocks that were left over from the quarry.
The trickiest part of the beach section is traversing a large amount of driftwood, debris and general obstacles blocking your narrow patch of sand. Occasionally, unless you’re up for a paddle, there’ll be the odd scramble up the sand embankment to get around. No cause for concern though. You’ll see numerous footprint paths laid out by other hikers. Just follow those. And if you need to make a new sand scramble, that’s okay too, remember you’re still sticking to the beach at this point.
After 1.7km of beach walking, you will see an opening, with a trail signpost, where the track begins to head back inland. Follow this back to the car park. The Cape Woolamai Circuit is a wonderfully wild and picturesque hike. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, you’ll be sure to spot wallabies and birdlife as you adventure. The hike is neither long nor difficult and is the perfect introduction to what Phillip Island has to offer.
Watch Out For Wildlife
STORYTIME: Now, we’re not sure whether the following coincided with us cracking out our muesli snack bars or not, but we did seem to have a slightly concerning yet amusing experience with what we thought was a hungry seagull but turned out to be just straight-up angry. You know how it starts, you’re enjoying your stroll down the beach when you get the odd annoying seagull hovering about for a short while, before heading off to bother someone else.
However, this one stuck with us, flying very low overhead and squawking incessantly. There was a definite angry tone to its tweet. With a slight giggle, we decided to get a bit of a jog, hoping to try and lose it. Unfortunately, it was not to be lost. We can still remember seeing its shadow on the sand in unnerving proximity to my head!
We ended up running down the beach, half laughing half in genuine fear! And let’s face it, running on soft sand in hiking boots is not the easiest at the best of times, never mind during a seagull escape mission. After a good kilometre, it eventually gave up on our hot pursuit. Which was good as we was just about to give up on the beach run and succumb to my fate.
However silly the above tale, it did bring us to realise a good point and also something to be mindful of. Phillip Island is a hive of wildlife activity, thriving and living undisturbed. It could be quite reasonable, given the high tide and the fact we were walking very close to the beaches edge, that we just happened to disturb a nesting area for these gulls. Very bad form from us if we did, and completely reasonable to see why the seagull was so angry with us. So, take note of where you’re walking and always be mindful of who lives there. Still, it could just have been a very hungry Seagull…
2. Forrest Caves
Check the tidal times. Next stop on the itinerary is Forrest Caves. Located on Forrest Caves Beach, the caves have been formed over millions of years by sea erosion of the cliffs. Kindly leaving behind a warren of tunnels to be explored by the likes of you and me. Sadly, visiting the caves requires some planning. Access to inside the caves is only possible during low tide. Our visit coincided with high tide, and so our enjoyment was limited to viewing the caves from on top. Take care if walking over the top of the caves if the tide is high. The waves can be large and strong, and so we would never recommend walking too close to the outer edge.
Given how rough the sea is here, the sheer force of each wave created a sort of blowhole effect through openings in the cavern ceiling. We hadn’t viewed any of those since our stop in Kiama, NSW, which is known for its blowhole. We thought the effect was still very cool to view here, even if we were unable to gain access inside.
The Forrest Caves are a very popular attraction on Phillip Island, and so you can expect to see several people here at any time of year. We visited in winter and still found it to be somewhat busy. If you walk a little further on from the caves, you’ll find some interesting rock formations that jut out into the sea that you can have a scramble over. Again, be careful with your footing and stay away from the edges. Waves can be unpredictable.
To reach the caves, park at Forrest Caves Car Park and walk down to the beach. From the beach, turn left and head a few hundred metres east. You’ll spot the caves. Again, like Woolamai Surf Beach, you’ll find this a popular surf spot. The car park can become full quite quickly. There is also a drop toilet here for your convenience.
3. Churchill Island Circuit
- Type: Loop
- Distance: 5km
- Time: 1 hour
- Accumulated elevation gain: Minimal
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Churchill Island Visitor Car Park
Yes, that’s right, there’s an even smaller island off an already very small island. Welcome to Churchill Island. A short visit here provides a glimpse into the life of early European settlers to Victoria and their farming heritage. Churchill Island was the first location of agricultural pursuits in this part of Australia. You can read more at Visit Phillip Island.
We took the short coastal walk around the north part of the island. It’s a pleasant 2km walk. If you really enjoy yourselves, you can add a further 3km onto the trail to complete the full island circuit. Beginning from the car park at the Churchill Island Heritage Farm, follow signs for the trail. The north section hugs around the low coastal woodland surrounding the farm. From Observation Point you’ll find views towards the main body of Phillip Island. Further along the loop, at North Point, you’ll find views that stretch out north toward French Island and east to Western Port.
The walk certainly isn’t the height of hiking excitement. It requires little effort and its low elevation means breathtaking views aren’t so much on the cards. However, Churchill Island felt so far removed from the rest of Phillip Island, a little patch of tranquillity (and history if you’re interested), and so for that reason alone, we think it’s worth a stop.
Churchill Island is accessed via a single traffic bridge. There are no traffic lights in place, it’s more a one-off, one-on system. Best practice would be to slow as you approach the bridge and check for any oncoming vehicles on the other side. Take care of the freely roaming Cape Barren geese too as you drive on and off the island.
DAY TWO: George Bass Coastal Walk, Nobbies and the Pengiun Parade
4. The George Bass Coastal Walk
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 14km
- Time: 3-3.5 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 120m
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Punchbowl Road, San Remo
The best walk in the area. Our original plan was to spend just one day exploring Phillip Island. However, we were recommended the George Bass Coastal Trail at the last minute and well, we’re glad we stuck around. The walk offers wonderful views and the coastal route follows that of explorer George Bass and his epic voyage of discovery.
The 14km return trail is a clifftop sweeping, exposed hike. The rugged headlands and grass-covered bluffs felt more reminiscent of UK coastal walks. For me, this speed hike was seeing Australia in a whole new light. One I very much liked. Gone were the dense bush or forest edged beaches I’d been introduced to in NSW, on our wider road trip. In place were wide expanses of field, sometimes farmland, gently undulating along the edges of the cliffs. It was homely and familiar. Perhaps the gloomy weather aided in that sense too. And with that being said, we found this is a hike that works well in all weather. Be warned, some sections can become quite muddy due to the grass terrain in poor weather.
The out and back trail stretches between the towns of San Remo and Kilcunda. There’s even the bonus of a pub pit stop upon arrival at Kilcunda. Again, adding to the English feels surrounding this walk. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions of COVID-19 when we undertook this hike, a pub drink for us was not to be. Instead, our sandwiches overlooking Kilcunda Beach would have to suffice before retracing our steps to San Remo.
This speed hike can be started from either destination and takes around 3 hours to complete. This includes stopping to take photographs of the lovely scenery. If beginning the trail at San Remo, you’ll find a smallish unpaved car park at the end of Punchbowl Road. The area is popular with fisherman and so fills up quite quickly. Alternatively, you could begin in Kilcunda. Here you’ll find ample parking, and public toilets, at the beach. However, you’ll have to wait until the end of the hike for your reward of a pub drink, rather than as a halfway treat. Perhaps that might suit you better, the choice is entirely yours.
5. The Nobbies
Wildlife galore! Look out for Little Penguins and Fur Seals. After a morning of coastal walking, it’s time to return to Phillip Island. Head straight to the furthest tip west of Phillip Island and you’ll arrive at The Nobbies. A spectacular headland home to a huge colony of little penguins and fur seal. A carefully laid boardwalk leads you through the nesting area of the penguins where, if you’re lucky, you may a see a few that decided not to head out for a days fishing. The boardwalk offers excellent vantage points across to the Nobbies and Seal Rocks.
The landscape feels wild and untouched and the consideration that’s been taken in merging tourism with natural habitat is highly commendable. Again, it’s a popular visit when spending time on Phillip Island, but we found it wasn’t too overcrowded during our winter visit.
The fur seal colony that call The Nobbies, or in particular Seal Rocks, home is Australia’s largest. They make up a quarter of the entire population. Recognisable by their brown fur and external ears, you may spot some swimming in the waters below as you take to the boardwalk.
6. The Penguin Parade
What you come to Phillip Island for, the Penguins, at last. No trip to Phillip Island is complete without a visit to the Penguin Parade. The penguins are, of course, what the island is most famous for. A visit to the parade will, by far, be the highlight of your time here. I know it was for us.
To view the parade, bookings must be made in advance online. The standard ticket for the Penguin Parade provides tiered seating at Summerland Beach. From here you can watch the Little Penguins waddle back to their beach bunkers. We visited during COVID-19 and so the number of guests per night was restricted to just 100. Even more reason to book in advance.
Luckily for me, our time at Phillip Island fell just before my birthday. Dan treated us to the Ultimate Penguin Tour. This accredited eco-tour takes visitors out of the centre and across to secluded Shelly Beach. You and your small group (no more than 10) are then treated to front row seats of the little fellas washing up after a hard day at sea.
Tickets are $100AUD ($70USD) each, but the experience is phenomenal. Guests are provided with night vision goggles, an infrared torch and cushioned seat to relax in on the beach. You arrive a little before sundown and wait patiently for darkness to fall. That’s when the magic really starts.
The Little Penguins
Up close and personal with nature. We listen out for a slight hum coming from the sea. It was evidence of the penguins heading back to shore. You can also look for shadows on the water, but it was far too dark to see that. First to be sighted was a little lone ranger, a brave penguin soldier out on his own. We watched through our goggles as he wandered, tentatively, up the beach, peering behind to see if his comrades were following. They were. Slowly groups of up to 10 Little Penguins at a time began to wash up on the shoreline.
Huddled together they dashed for the dunes and back to the safety of their burrows. Dan and I were lucky enough to have the best seats in the house. The penguins walked within mere metres of us as they headed home. Some amused us as they tried and failed to get up the small sandbanks. All in all, we must have witnessed over 100 penguins come out of the water that night. It was an unbelievable experience.
A Night We Won’t Forget
Penguins, everywhere! But it didn’t end there. Our walk back to the visitor centre took us past some of the burrows that were slightly more inland. By now glimmers from the street lighting were beginning to show the Little Penguins without any need for night vision. There were so many! And they were SO noisy! At one point we saw a patch of land, full of penguins, with even a wallaby and rabbit joining in the fun! Sadly it is not permitted to take photographs during the tour, and so it’s just an experience we’ll have to remember. In all honesty, it’ll be hard to forget.
We thought the tour was extremely well organised, brilliantly led and an incredible experience. If you’re a huge wildlife fan then we can highly recommend this tour. You can get more information here.
Phillip Island Recap
So that’s our run down of the top things to do on (and around) Phillip Island. We thoroughly enjoyed this rugged little part of Victoria and think it’s well worth a visit, whether part of a wider road trip or just a weekend from Melbourne. However, if there’s one part that’s an absolute must, it’s the Penguin Parade! So, a quick reminder for you:
- Cape Woolamai Circuit
- Forrest Caves
- Churchill Island
- George Bass Coastal Walk
- The Nobbies
- Penguin Parade
Please find below extensive information on how to get to/from Phillip Island, accommodation, total costs, extra things to do and bonus tips.
Getting to & from Phillip Island
A car is best, but there is public transport. Our visit to Phillip Island was part of a wider road trip through Victoria, and so we drove from Wilsons Promontory National Park. The journey time is around 2 hours from there. It is more common to take the trip from Melbourne. Here you have an average drive time of 1.5 hours. If you don’t own a car, we’d recommend hiring one. It makes getting around the island much simpler, meaning you can see a lot more in the time you have. We always check with RentalCars.com when hiring a car.
There is public transport available from Melbourne to Phillip Island, though much less convenient. However, it may suit you better. The V/Line coach service leaves Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station and heads for Phillip Island daily, stopping at many of the towns on the island. You can expect to add another hours journey time if you take this option, with the route taking around 2.5 hours.
If you’re travelling to Melbourne from overseas, we recommend using Skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights. When flying abroad, we always get the ball rolling with a Skyscanner search. Also, if based in the UK or US, you should sign up to Jack’s Flight Club for the best flight deal alert service. By simply subscribing to the free weekly newsletter or buying premium membership, you could save lots of money with international travel.
After our time at Phillip Island, we were headed to the Mornington Peninsula. A drive time of around 1.5 hours. If you’re headed back to Melbourne, expect the same drive time.
Consider staying next to Phillip Island for a better deal. Staying on Phillip Island is not the most budget friendly, although we’re sure if you checked you may come across the odd good deal here and there. At the time we booked we opted to stay at nearby San Remo instead.
San Remo is the small town on the opposite side of the bridge to Phillip Island. It’s the gateway if you like. So really you’re practically there anyway, just with a more agreeable price. Although San Remo can still seem quite pricey. Through Airbnb we found the Westernport in San Remo to be the perfect base. It cost $184AUD ($129USD) for the two of us for a two night stay.
STORYTIME: We had a little confusion as to its location at first. Knowing the accommodation sat above a pub/bistro, we actually stopped at the first bar we saw. Of course, this turned out to be the wrong location. Unfazed by our error, they bizarrely sent us to the bottle shop next door for our keys. Is this a normal thing in Australia? Anyway, of course, they didn’t have our booking either but kindly pointed us 50 metres down the road to our actual pub dwellings.
We were The Westernport’s first guests post the COVID-19 lockdown, and the only people staying. Hence we were rewarded with the only balcony of any room, and lovely views as seen below.
Additional Things to do on Phillip Island
A few extra activities to look into. There are countless other things to do on Phillip Island. So if you’re lucky enough to have more time there then you really won’t be short of options. Phillip Island has a Koala Reserve with a treetop boardwalk meaning you can get up close and personal to these sweet tree-dwellers. We only decided against this as we were holding out our luck to spot some at Kennett River on the Great Ocean Road. You can also take boat tours for whale watching and visit the farm on Churchill Island.
There are numerous more walks to take. For example the 7km Bush to Bay trail which takes you from the Koala centre to Rhyll. Also, the Oswin Roberts Reserve, which is the last remaining bushland on Phillip Island.
Then there are motorsports. But I won’t pretend I know anything about that and let you investigate for yourselves here.
Total Costs for Phillip Island
- Accommodation: $92AUD/person ($65USD)
- Food & coffees: $10AUD/person ($14USD)
- Penguin Parade: $100AUD ($71USD)
= $202AUD/person ($150USD) + fuel/bus costs for getting there.
Five Hiking Gear Essentials for Phillip Island
These are our five hiking gear essentials for exploring Phillip Island. For a more comprehensive packing list, please check out the Ultimate Packing Checklist. It’s a great general summary of everything you’d need for a trip. For even more information check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. We go in-depth into what hiking and camping gear we use. There, you’ll find specific recommendations for all the products we love.
- Merrell Moab 2 Mid Goretex hiking boots – Having a decent pair of hiking boots is a must, especially over the different terrains of grass, sand and rock at Phillip Island. We love the Merrells and have used them for years.
- The North Face Venture 2 waterproof/windproof Jacket– The weather on the south coast of Victoria can be quite unpredictable, especially in winter. Rain jacket essential!
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack – I bought this rucksack in January 2020 and its hardly left my back since. It’s volume is fantastic for fitting all your day trip and hiking needs. Plus, its very comfortable.
- Karrimor 1L Clear Water Bottle x 2 – These water bottles fit perfectly in the side pockets of the Osprey Skarab rucksack, so it just makes perfect sense.
- Nikon D3400 Digital SLR Camera – Purely because the scenery is THAT good and needs to be photographed. Plus, this is my favourite entry level camera.
Although the trails of Phillip Island aren’t too hardcore, you may still want to have some maps. To be fully prepared, consider downloading a GPS guided map before you set out. We recommend Wikiloc or AllTrails. For those not so prepared, if you’re needing navigation help during the hike and don’t have any phone reception, consider using Maps.me. Although you need to have at least downloaded the map of the general area beforehand.
- Bundled tickets: You can purchase a bundled ticket option to see multiple attractions on Phillip Island when you book your Penguin Parade ticket. This includes the Koala Conservation Centre and the Churchill Island Heritage Farm.
- Wildlife, everywhere: As I’ve mentioned, Phillip Island has an abundance of wildlife, and so it is imperative that you always consider where you walk and how you drive. Such is the conservation effort around the little Penguins that the road to head to their nesting area (The Nobbies) is actually closed at sun down. Also a hugely successful effort to rid the island of foxes took place, meaning Phillip Island is fox free! There are even cameras on the bridge tracking if any try and make it across.
We hope you enjoyed this post on The Top Things To Do On Phillip Island. We’d love to hear from you so feel free to leave a comment at the bottom.
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