Ascending the Wells Cave Track to reach Sugarloaf Peak in the Cathedral Ranges State Park is a phenomenal experience. But attempting the Wells Cave Track isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s a seriously difficult rock scramble, set aside for experienced hikers and brave souls. As part of the premier day hike of the Cathedral Ranges; the Southern Circuit, the Wells Cave Track is an optional route to reach the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Essentially, the track is not at all a walking trail. It’s in fact, a rock scramble. At some points, a near vertical rock climb.
But despite the difficulty, ascending the Wells Cave Track is a truly memorable part of completing the Southern Circuit. Sure, there are easier routes to reach Sugarloaf Peak; a mountain top offering the most outrageous views of the Cathedral Ranges.
But it’s not merely these sensational views that make this trail Victoria’s best day hike. It’s the accomplishment of completing the Wells Cave Track that makes the views all the more sweeter. Doing so guarantees that your summit to Sugarloaf Peak remains an unforgettable experience.
This guide will thoroughly review the magnificent Southern Circuit trail via Wells Cave Track. We will help you decide whether it’s safe for you to attempt. If you give yourself the green light, what awaits you is an absolute rip snorter of a hike and one of the most epic day trips from Melbourne.
Cathedral Range State Park | Southern Circuit via Wells Cave Track Day Trip Guide
This guide will cover all the details for completing the Southern Circuit as a day trip from Melbourne. Indeed, due to its relative closeness to Melbourne, this day trip is a popular option for hiking enthusiasts. But it’s completing the Southern Circuit specifically via the Wells Cave Track that cements itself as one of the most epic trails in all of Victoria.
Initially, we’ll discuss the varied options for completing the Southern Circuit. We’ll then describe why you should or shouldn’t complete the trail. This ensures you make an informed decision about taking on the Wells Cave Track which will help guarantee safety. Additionally, we’ll recount the magnificence and outrageousness of this entire hike from start to finish so you know what’s in store.
But before we dive in, did you know that the Cathedral Ranges was declared a State Park in 1979? It’s also listed in the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. Under the care of Parks Victoria, the area combines recreation with conservation, hopefully leading to the maintenance of such beautiful land for years to come. Continual care of the land also relates to the knowledge and wisdom provided by the Taungurung Traditional Owners.
Southern Circuit Trail Options
Sugarloaf Peak offers the best views of the Cathedral Ranges throughout the entire Southern Circuit. Of course, we recommend taking the Wells Cave Track to reach Sugarloaf Peak. That’s because the effort and hardship involved adds to the sense of achievement in reaching the pinnacle. Plus, in your adrenaline-filled state, the feelings conjured when taking in the dramatic scenery are further elevated.
But there are many different ways to reach Sugarloaf Peak. It all depends on which direction you follow the trail, where you start and what trail options you choose. We do not wish to greatly detail every single option. But we will thoroughly review the Southern Circuit completed in the following way:
- Starting at the Saw Mills Car Park
- Going in a clockwise direction
- Choosing the Wells Cave Track option
The main difference in completing the Southern Circuit is usually ascending the Canyon Tracks trail (Grade 4) to reach Sugarloaf Peak instead of Wells Cave. For inexperienced hikers, this may be a better option as it’s slightly safer and easier. Alternatively, completing the trail anti-clockwise means reaching Sugarloaf Peak from the Razorbacks Trail. This is also an acceptable option.
But under no circumstance is it safe to descend the Wells Cave Track. So choosing the anti-clockwise direction option forefits your chance of completing the Wells Cave Track. That’s why we recommend doing the trail clockwise.
In regards to the starting location, there’s no rhyme or reason for starting at Saw Mills Car Park. You could also start from the Sugarloaf Saddle Day Visitor Area or Jawbone Car Park. These other car parks fall along the loop trail.
If you choose to camp at Cathedral Ranges, your camping location may dictate where you start. But for day trippers, the Saw Mills Campground is a popular trailhead as it has the largest car park. Plus, starting there gives you a chance to settle into some decent hiking, before tackling the monster that is the Wells Cave Track.
Is the Wells Cave Track Safe?
It really boils down to experience and track conditions.
If you are an inexperienced hiker, give the Wells Cave Track a miss. The Wells Cave Track is very technical terrain. It involves negotiating steep and narrow sections of rock and cliff face. You will need to complete rock climbing type manoeuvres in order to scramble up sections of near-vertical cliff face, exposed ledges and outcropped rocks. All this while you squeeze in and out of tiny caves and corridors.
Without much practice in rock scrambling, you place yourself in dangerous and vulnerable positions. Although you may have the physical capacity to complete the trail, you may lack the confidence and assertiveness that comes with previous experience.
If you fall into this category, don’t give up altogether on doing the Wells Cave Track. You probably just need some time to conquer some other less hardcore rock scrambling hiking. From Melbourne, there are several trails in the fairly nearby Otway National Park that would be good for practice. Consider completing trails like the Erskine Falls Circuit which have easier rock scrambling and river crossings. Bear in mind, this trail is still difficult, intense and requires hiking expertise. But it won’t be at such crazy heights.
If you are a very inexperienced hiker, than consider giving the Southern Circuit a miss altogether. Even the Canyons Track is a Grade 4 trail which requires some rock scrambling experience. Also, the Razorback trail, following the Wells Cave Track, is also a difficult affair with technical components. So you may need to build up your hiking repertoire before tackling the Southern Circuit.
Additionally, if you’re afraid of heights or experience panic, stress, dizziness or vertigo around heights, don’t attempt this trail.
Although common sense, the Wells Cave Track shouldn’t be completed if it’s wet. This means during or after rainfall. The rock scrambling involved in doing the Wells Cave Track is hard enough when it’s dry. When slippery, your ability to grip rocks becomes near impossible. In turn, making the trail dangerous. So to avoid disaster or accident, do not attempt on a slippery track.
Even on a dry and sunny day, we found that due to rainfall the preceding days, portions of the Razorback Trail were still very slippery. You’ll be descending the Razorback after completing the Wells Cave Track when following the trail clockwise. The Wells Cave Track is exposed to the morning sun, so it can usually dry off, on a dry day, even if it has rained the day before. But sections of the Razorback Trail are covered in shade from its own large and rugged rock formations. So it can still be slippery a day or two after rainfall. Luckily, I only had a bruised shin from slipping down one rock on the Razorback Trail. But it could have been worse.
So ideally, attempt the Southern Circuit after a period of dry weather. Easier said than done in Victoria! But safety is king. Even after a period of dry weather, if the Wells Cave Track is still damp, consider doing the Canyon Track instead to reach Sugarloaf Peak. Moreover, caution must be taken particularly on the Razorback Trail section if completed after rainfall. Obviously on a rainy day, do not complete any of the Southern Circuit.
Southern Circuit via Wells Cave Track
Below is an in-depth recount of the Southern Circuit via Wells Cave Track with the added South Jawbone Peak trail.
Tweed Spur Track
Let the fun begin! Find yourself a spot at the spacious Cooks Mill Car Park. There are drop toilets here for your convenience. The recommended time for this hike is 4-5 hours, with only one other official toilet stop en route, so make use of them before you set off.
There is no defined trail to begin. Rather, you’ll head in a southerly direction following signs to Tweed Spur Track. After 5-10 minutes of frolicking through the state park’s quaint and flat bush surroundings, you’ll arrive at the 4WD track. It appears to be one that’s seasonally closed to 4×4 vehicles. So for a lot of the year, you’ll only find hikers using the track.
Admittedly, the gentle ascent of this rocky and uneven track is fairly uninspiring. You’ll be wondering when the really juicy trails begin. But it’s a good way to get the speed hiking started. The slight incline is enough for you to work up a sweat. So by the time you have reached the first genuine walking trail of the day, you’d have adequately warmed up and will be ready to hit the ground running!
IS SPEED HIKING APPROPRIATE FOR THE SOUTHERN CIRCUIT? Only in some sections. Speed hiking is to only be completed on non-technical terrain. To speed hike on any technical terrain, on any trail for that matter, would be foolish and dangerous. Of course, no speed hiking will take place on the Wells Cave Track or Razorback Trail. But feel free to speed hike on the Tweed Spur Track, Messmate Track, South Jawbone Peak trail and the Jawbone Creek Track.
After about 1km on the Tweed Spur Track, you’ll arrive at the Messmate Track to your right. The terrain immediately changes to that of a bushwalk. A fairly well maintained trail meanders its way through the thick Messmate Forest. Only the occasional fallen tree will interrupt your flow. Unexpectedly the incline of the trail intensifies, with fairly steep and narrow sections. You’ll notice a gradual increase in physical demand. Surprisingly, a significant amount of elevation is gained over 2-3km on this track.
As you make your way through the trail, you will begin to catch glimpses of the stunning Cathedral Ranges. Within small gaps in the bush are sneak previews to what is ahead. Inspiring and incredible sprawling green mountain ranges. Next stop is the gateway to the incredible Sugarloaf Peak to be ascended via the Wells Cave Track. That is the Sugarloaf Saddle Day Visitor Area.
After being immersed in nature, you will emerge from the forest into a car park. It’s a bit disappointing to be abruptly thrown back into the sights of civilisation after feeling far removed on the Messmate Track. But with that comes one welcome sight. A restroom stop. Take advantage as you’ll not have another opportunity until returning to Cooks Mill. A nervous wee prior to tackling the outrageous Wells Cave Track won’t go astray! There’s a picnic area there as well. So fuel up and rehydrate before attempting the Wells Cave Track as it’s an exhausting endeavour.
Wells Cave Track
The wait is finally over. Time to tackle this crazy track you’ve heard all about. The Canyon Track veers to the left, while the Wells Cave Track heads to the right. The initial section of the Wells Cave Track isn’t so hard. You’ll begin peering above the forest, steadily hiking up some rocky terrain. But the rocks start to get bigger and soon enough, you’ll be faced with a seemingly impassable trail. The speed hiking stops and the rock scrambling begins. There is no sign postage from this point. Only small orange markers painted on rocks to guide you. Keep a close eye on these to stay on track.
Once you begin slowly and carefully rock scrambling, your confidence will grow. Plus, you’ll start naturally filling with adrenaline to sharpen your focus. The scramble will take you over varied rock terrain. Some large and exposed areas to crawl on. But sometimes you’ll be laterally steered by zig-zag narrow corridors. You’ll pass by tiny gaps where rocks have split and boulders have fallen, creating cave-like formations.
After negotiating rock for some time, you’ll have climbed a great deal before you even realise. It’s that flight or fight response, to reach the safest point as quickly as possible, but within reason. If you take a moment to take in your surroundings, the forest will be surprisingly far below you. The epic scenery awaiting you starts to take shape.
The Final Hurdle
But you’ll need to retain your focus, as the hardest rock scrambling is reserved for the final few pushes. To reach Sugarloaf Peak, the final section consists of near vertical cliff face and limited options for climbing it. Be sure to test out the stability of the rocks before attempting any manoeuvres. Rock scrambling safety 101.
As you near the top of the Wells Cave Track, Sugarloaf Peak will almost magically appear. With a sharp increase in focus and physical demand to reach the top, you’ll feel fatigued. Take breaks as necessary to regain your energy. Soon enough though, you’ll emerge from your final rock scramble onto Sugarloaf Peak. It’s a relief to stand on a relatively large and flat rock platform after all of the rock scrambling.
Of even more relief is to see your friends and companions join you at the top. Beck absolutely nailed this track. I had the utmost faith in her. But naturally, I was very thankful we both made it to the top, unscathed, to enjoy the accomplishment of smashing out Wells Cave Track together.
Once you have recomposed yourself, make your way over the small bushy rocks. On the other side are some of the best views you’ll see, not just in Victoria, but in all of Australia. The Cathedral Ranges seen atop Sugarloaf Peak is an absolute spectacle. Splendid green-topped forest trees splay generously over the ranges. The mountain tops and valleys below are surrounded by countryside. In stark contrast, a spine of rugged, rough and jagged rocks follow downward along the ridge. This is the Razorback. Although a fun part of the trail, the beauty of the Razorback really comes to life when viewed from Sugarloaf Peak.
To capture the beauty of your surroundings, advance down and away from Sugarloaf Peak slightly to improve visibility of the Razorback. The sun will likely interfere with photography opportunities. But for talented photographers, use it to your advantage. Stunning sun soaked skies may add further beauty to already near-perfect scenery.
After some well earned lunch, make your way down the Razorback trail. Although not as steep and scary as the Wells Cave Track, you’ll still need to retain your attention. It’s easy to drop your guard after the relief of scaling the Wells Cave Track. But if anything, portions of the Razorback Trail are even more challenging. There are consistently technical and steep downward sections that require caution and care. It’s also normal to feel a temptation to rush with the adrenaline streaming in your veins. So take it slow. No rush.
The Razorback Trail is also marked with small orange paint here and there. This helps greatly with guidance. Even though following the ridge’s descent is straightforward in theory, it’s still easy to lose your bearings. This is because there are random trail offshoots just adjacent to the rocky Razorback. Whether to follow tracks just adjacent to the Razorback or just merely scramble down the rocks is tricky to know. But as long as you’re safe and heading in a consistent direction along the ridge, it’s hard to go wrong.
As you begin to scramble down the Razorback, your views of the surrounding Cathedral Ranges begin to disappear. The imposing Razorback rock formations begin to block the sight of your glorious scenery. After an hour or so, you’ll have returned to the forest floor. Not before a few false starts though. The seemingly long and arduous rock scramble descent seems to come to an end as a forest floor trail begins. But soon enough there are more rocks to scramble. You’ll eventually reach a final stage of the Razorback trail, purely on the forest floor, heading to the Farmyard.
Adding the South Jawbone Trail to your Southern Circuit adventure is optional. But you will not regret this small add on. After what you have just conquered, it’s a relatively small effort for a big reward. Only a moderately steep 300 metre trail separates you from more epic scenery of the Cathedral Ranges. The terrain is fairly rocky and the track is quite narrow. Thankfully, speed hiking is possible. But with its proximity to the Farmyard Camping Area, expect more people on this trail. Some people complete this trail as a one-off hike. So safe to say you’ll be tad smellier and sweater than they are!
Before you know it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the scenery on offer. With all the effort that went into scaling the Wells Cave Track to reach Sugarloaf Peak, you’ll feel relieved that not too much tough work is needed to reach this lookout.
Views back to Sugarloaf Peak and the Razorback are the standout features. Admittedly, it’s impossible to beat the views from Sugarloaf Peak. But even South Jawbone Peak has a unique ability to extend you further into and closer to the mountain ranges. Spend half an hour or so to reach this additional vantage point. You’ll have an added appreciation of what you have just accomplished by looking back at the mountain tops.
Jawbone Creek Track / Saint Bernards Track
The home stretch! Recommence your speed hiking. From the Farmyard Camping area, follow signage to the Jawbone Creek Track. You’ll walk briefly on the grassy campground, followed by increasingly dried bushwalking terrain, before reaching a long set of man-made steps. After all of the tricky and technical hiking, you’ll be happy to see such a simple trail to follow. This trail meanders through the forest, winding along the calming flow of the Jawbone Creek. It’s one of the more tranquil components of today’s hike.
SIDE NOTE: The Jawbone Creek Track is a lovely trail in its own right. But Beck and I were on such a high after conquering the Wells Cave Track. So unashamedly, we were reliving the experience already, talking about the track in all its glory. So we perhaps didn’t totally take in and appreciate our surroundings on the home stretch.
After descending so many steps on the Jawbone Creek Trail, you’ll finish with a tedious staircase to climb to reach Jawbone Car Park. From here, follow the Saint Bernard Track to take you back to Cooks Mill. This track winds its way slightly downhill through more forest landscape. There seems to be fewer trees here than throughout the dense Messmate Track.
Honestly speaking, this track is fairly uninspiring to finish. But compared to the absolute mesmerising scenes on display from Sugarloaf Peak, you won’t be surprised that the finish lacks a punch. But we shouldn’t complain, as this final track allows the continuation and completion of the larger loop to Cooks Mill. Other than some muddy sections, the trail is well maintained. Eventually, you’ll reach sight of the Cooks Mill Car Park as you emerge from the forest. Mission accomplished!
Southern Circuit via Wells Cave Track Recap
It’s been an absolute pleasure to write this piece on the Southern Circuit via the incredible Wells Cave Track. Whichever way you reach Sugarloaf Peak, with agreeable weather, you are guaranteed mindblowing views of the sweeping green Cathedral Mountain Ranges. But, the added sense of achievement from conquering the demanding Wells Cave Track certainly elevates this hike to something really special. We hope this guide will help you determine whether it’s safe for you to complete the route, with consideration of hiking experience and track conditions.
Completing the Southern Circuit via the Wells Cave Track has the potential to be one of the most epic day trips from Melbourne. For all of the day trippers, find more information below on how to get there, accommodation, gear recommendations and total costs. We’ll also briefly cover camping options if you spend the night at the Cathedral Range State Park.
Getting to Melbourne
Flights: Of course, you’ll need to fly to Melbourne to do this trip from abroad. If you’re travelling to Melbourne from overseas, use Skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights. When flying abroad, we always get the ball rolling with a Skyscanner search.
Also, if you’re 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 on international travel. If you’re interstate, subscribe to I Want That Flight for the best flight deal alerts to and from Melbourne. You can usually find cheap flights with Jetstar or Tiger Airways.
Getting to/from the Cathedral Ranges
The Cathedral Range State Park is situated between the towns of Buxton and Taggerty north-east of Melbourne. You’re looking at a 1.5-2 hour drive depending on where you’re based in Melbourne.
You definitely need a car to get to the Cathedral Range State Park. Using RentalCars.com is a good place to start if you need to hire one. Public transport options from Melbourne to the Cathedral Ranges seem to be non-existent.
Accommodation in Melbourne
After car camping for nearly two weeks down South Coast NSW, Beck and I were ready for a proper bed to sleep in. When searching for accommodation, we always compare Booking.com and Airbnb. With an increased demand for accommodation in larger cities like Melbourne, you can usually find well valued accommodation.
Using Airbnb, we booked a very reasonably priced private granny flat in the leafy suburb of Greensborough. Being located north-east of the Melbourne CBD, it’s far closer to the Cathedral Ranges than much of Melbourne. Departing from Greensborough ensures a shorter drive compared to departing from more centrally, southern or western Melbourne suburbs. Greensborough is a nice, quiet neighbourhood with lots of trees and green space.
The self-contained granny flat came to $63AUD/night ($46USD) for Beck and I. It was fairly spacious with a modern bathroom and bedroom with an older kitchen and living area. All of the necessary amenities and facilities you could think of were provided. The heating was adequate in winter. But it had limitations in power and reach, as maximal settings would trip the circuit.
Cathedral Ranges Camping Options
Of course, the Cathedral Ranges State Park is a stunning area with many other hikes and activities to enjoy. Check out Parks Victoria for more information on the many other trails.
If you want to explore more of the Cathedral Ranges, camping is a good option to maximise your time. There is the Cooks Mill Campground, where the Southern Circuit hike begins. Because of this, it’s the most ideal spot for camping. Otherwise, there is the nearby Neds Gully Campground.
Another option for camping is The Farmyard Camping Area. It’s an area you will walk through as part of the Southern Circuit. Unlike the other campgrounds, this one doesn’t need to be booked in advance as it’s a walk-in campground. Because the Farmyard is a few km’s away from its nearest car park, the Jawbone Car Park, your effort to set up camp here will be rewarded with a quieter and more peaceful campground. But with that comes more basic facilities.
For more information on these campgrounds, click here.
Bring a packed lunch and plenty of water and snacks. Despite the Southern Circuit only being 11.8km (with the South Jawbone Trail extension), the significant elevation and rock scrambling make this an exhausting affair. You’ll want to have plenty of fuel on you to keep you going.
Our go-to grocery stores when travelling in Australia are Aldi and Woolworths. They will cover all the basic requirements. There’s actually an Aldi in Greensborough for your convenience, if you choose to stay there.
- Accommodation: $63AUD/night ($46USD) for two people
- Petrol: $20AUD/person ($15USD)
- Food: $10AUD/person ($7USD)
= $46.50AUD/person ($34USD)
Hiking Gear Essentials for the Cathedral Ranges
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.
- Merrell Moab 2 Mid Goretex hiking boots – given the rock scrambling up Wells Cave Track and the rocky descent of the Razorback trail, you’ll want hiking boots with excellent traction.
- Long sleeved shirt (or base layer) – if you’re starting early in winter, it can get quite cold in the Cathedral Ranges, so you may need an extra layer to start off with.
- The North Face Venture 2 waterproof/windproof Jacket – it can get windy atop Sugarloaf Peak. We had lunch there so a windproof jacket was necessary.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack – a perfect combination of spaciousness and minimalism makes it a good backpack for the Wells Cave Track. See below in the Bonus Tips for more information on backpacks for the Wells Cave Track.
- Karrimor 1L Clear Water Bottle x 2 – you’ll want at least two litres of water for the Southern Circuit. Even more during summer.
Trail navigation is necessary for the Southern Circuit. Initially, you may need help finding your way from Cooks Mill to the Tweed Spur Track. The Messmate Track, Jawbone Creek Trail, South Jawbone Peak Trail and Saint Bernards Track are very straightforward to follow. But the Wells Cave track and the Razorback Trail can be difficult to navigate. There are markers to steer you on these harder to navigate tracks. Plus, your hands will be in full use scrambling the Wells Cave Track. But every so often, particularly on the Razorback Trail, having the safety net of a GPD guided map will be helpful.
So consider downloading a GPS guided map before you set out. We recommend using our Wikiloc for GPS guided directions. 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.
- Day backpack: be mindful that given the difficulty of the Wells Cave Track, it’s not recommended to have a large backpack. Firstly, too large a backpack makes passing narrow corridors and cave openings even more challenging. You made need to feed your backpack through before you can proceed. Plus, a heavy and bulky backpack will disturb your centre of gravity and balance. That’s very dangerous when rock scrambling this track. But given the food, water, first aid kit and layers you’ll need to take with you, a backpack is necessary. The Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack fits the bill as it’s generously spacious but has a slim and minimal design.
- Be honest with yourself: Are you experienced enough to do the Wells Cave Track? Is the track dry? There have been many accidents and rescues here because people were either inexperienced or chose to hike on a wet track. Don’t be a goose.
- Don’t hike alone: For any Grade 5 hike, don’t go alone. If a trail is rated Grade 5, there is a higher level of risk involved. So it makes sense to have someone with you if the worst-case scenario eventuates.
This is the most complete guide on the Southern Circuit via Wells Cave Track online. Make sure to bookmark this page as a reference for completing this trail in the future.
Disclaimer: please note that some of the links provided above are affiliate links. By using these links, we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you. If you are booking a trip online and would like to support Travel Made Me Do It, using our links is one way to do that. Please feel free to email us if you have any questions about these companies or websites.