The Ballarat to Skipton Rail Trail follows an old passenger and freight branch line that ran from Ballarat to the town of Skipton, about 50 kilometres south-west of Ballarat. The line closed in 1985 and was subsequently turned into a shared use path running along its entire length. Unlike the Bellarine and other rail trails around Victoria, there are hardly any visible remains of the railway other than a few bridges and platforms. It does have some terrific scenery and can be easily ridden in sections if you don’t feel like tackling its entire length.
Wendouree to Scarsdale
Getting to the trail from Wendouree Railway Station is harder and more convoluted than necessary. It requires cycling along a badly-surfaced sealed path down a side street and then riding back up north towards the railway line. It would be easy to put a shared path in the very wide VicTrack reservation between Wendouree and the Ring Road.
In any case, due to roadworks, the first section of trail was closed for 14 months. No diversion signage or temporary infrastructure to assist pedestrians or cyclists was in place. There is a side road that connects to the trail but we had to work this out for ourselves and much of the road falls within an 80km/h speed zone. Combined with a lack of footpaths or sealed shoulders, I can’t imagine this situation passing any rigorous safety standards.
After this poor beginning, we began riding along the trail itself. This first section to Scarsdale is not very interesting. The scenery mainly consists of farmland interspersed with occasional patches of trees and road crossings.
We did find thousands of little caterpillars scattered across the trail for long distances soon after leaving Wendouree. Not sure what species they are or what they were doing, but the ravens and magpies seemed to be having a great feed.
After being swooped by a couple of said magpies near Smythesdale, we arrived at the rest area at Scarsdale. The whole trail is well-supplied with good shelters, toilets and picnic areas (since added to OpenStreetMap).
One other point to make about this section of the trail is the path surface. The compacted gravel makes a good surface in dry weather but it was quite wet in the morning when we were riding. Combined with the strong southerly headwinds, this made it quite tough going even when riding on downhill slopes. Due to the gentle gradients (almost never more than two percent), gravel washup was not too much of an issue, but it is difficult to get about 18km/h when your tyre is trying to plough its way through 2-3cm worth of wet gravel.
Scarsdale to Linton
We were caught in the rain for about 15 minutes at Scarsdale. The temperature dropped even further due to the rainclouds, despite the optimistic weather forecast. But from this point onwards the scenery more than made up for the cold.
Soon after Scarsdale, the trail continues south and turns west to avoid some of the steep hills in the bushland through which the Glenelg Highway runs. Soon after this first bend is a large railway cutting followed by Nimmon’s Bridge. This is a large wooden trestle that spans the Woady Yaloak River valley and provides beautiful scenic vistas in all directions.
Across the bridge is another long cutting and the beginning of a large and well-preserved woodland. The significant Clarkesdale Bird Sanctuary also lies adjacent to the Trail but unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop and have a good look at some of the ornithological interests of the wetland and its surrounding forest.
The path continues for a long way through this bushland. The habitat changes slightly as you get closer to Linton with more densely-placed gum trees and less scrubland in the undergrowth. Wattle also features prominently along much of this length of the path.
We arrived in Linton at the well-maintained recreation reserve. There are toilets, a large sheltered area and plenty of areas to sit down. There is also a public BBQ and picnic shelter closer to the main street.
Our original intention was to ride all the way to Skipton but after the delays from the rain and subsequent reduced speeds on the path’s surface, we decided to turn back. It turned out to be a good decision as my lack of training on long bike rides in hilly areas caught up with me and my legs started to give out on the way back to Ballarat.
Some work needs to be done at the beginning of the trail in Wendouree but this is otherwise one of the best-provisioned rail trails that I have ridden. If you have the option of doing so, I would actually recommend starting the trail at Scarsdale rather than Ballarat if you are interested in the scenic aspects of this trail. Other than saving your energy for the more interesting sections you also avoid most of the magpie swooping areas.