Guide to Heysen Trail

Since exploring the Flinders Ranges in my van, I’d been dreaming about hiking the Heysen Trail. The 1200 km walk is Australia’s longest marked walking trail stretching from Parachilna to Cape Jervis in South Australia. After months of dreaming and planning, I finally set out on 1st August 2022 and walked south all the way to Cape Jervis over 55 days.

As Australia’s longest thru hike, the Heysen Trail is a once in a lifetime experience for hikers. Taking around two months to complete, it’s an adventure that requires quite a bit of planning and preparation. With very few people actually completing the trail in it’s entirety, there’s not a whole lot of information about thru hiking the Heysen online.

So, I’ve decided to put together this comprehensive guide with all the practical information you’ll need about planning a full end to end traverse of the trail. This guide is based on completing the Heysen as a thru hike, but it will still offer some helpful advice and information for those planning on doing it in sections. 

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Quick Facts About the Heysen Trail

  • Distance: 1130 kilometres (often advertised as 1200 km)
  • Total ascent: 28,113 metres
  • Time to complete: 50-65 days
  • Direction: Northbound (NOBO) or Southbound (SOBO)
  • Northern trailhead: Parachilna Gorge
  • Southern trailhead: Cape Jervis
  • Walking options: Independent end to end, multi-day sections or day hikes, plus guided section hikes with Friends of the Heysen Trail
  • Campgrounds: Official Heysen Trail campsites, historic huts, forestry and national park campgrounds and caravan parks
  • Fees: Free to walk the trail (no permit), a few campgrounds have fees (mostly in the southern section)
Bridle Gap
Bridle Gap

About the Heysen Trail

The Heysen Trail is Australia’s longest designated walking trail. The long-distance walk stretches for almost 1200 kilometres in South Australia from the rugged outback of the Flinders Ranges down to the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula. The marked path runs between the northern trailhead at Parachilna Gorge to the southern trailhead Cape Jervis. It can be completed in either direction, although it was originally designed as a northbound hike.

The trail follows the natural landforms of South Australia, through rocky ridgelines and dry creek beds of the Flinders Ranges, to the rolling, green hills of the Mid North, famous vineyards of the Barossa Valley, pine forests and thick bushland of the Adelaide Hills and the rugged coastal cliffs of the Fleurieu Peninsula. For this reason, it’s one of the most diverse trails in the whole country. 

It also crosses some of the highest mountains in the state, including Mount Brown, Mount Arden, Mount Bryan, Mount Remarkable and Mount Lofty. It’s certainly no walk in the park, with over 28,000 total metres of ascent across the whole trail. However, this enables hikers to experience the best landscape, scenery and wildlife that the state has to offer.

Walking to Cape Jervis
Walking to Cape Jervis

History of the Heysen Trail

Mr C Warren Bonython is said to have been the first to mention the concept of building a long walking trail in South Australia at a meeting in 1969. The first few kilometres in Cleland Conservation Park were completed in 1976.

In 1978, the state government handed over the trail development to Terry Lavender. Over around 15 years, he brought the idea to life. It was slowly built and opened in sections until it’s full completion in 1993.

The trail was named after German born Sir Hans Heysen, a well-known Australian artist who spent plenty of time during his career in the Flinders Ranges and Mount Lofty Ranges.

Wild flowers
Wild flowers

When to Hike the Heysen Trail

The Heysen Trail is only open in its entirety from April to November. There are limited trail closures for the Fire Danger Season from 1st November until mid-April. The Flinders Ranges sections generally close first, with the Mid North and Mount Lofty sections closing later in November. 

Some sections like the coastal section through Deep Creek National Park remain open all year round, but to complete a thru hike, you’ll need to plan to walk between late April and the end of October. 

But it also depends on which direction you want to hike in too. Most hikers prefer to avoid the hot weather in the Flinders Ranges, which means timing a hike so you’ll be in the Flinders in the middle of winter.

Flinders Ranges National Park
Flinders Ranges National Park

NOBO (Cape Jervis to Parachilna)

Most people heading north tend to start at the beginning of the walking season. This means starting at Cape Jervis around April-May and ending up in the Flinders Ranges around June-July. This enables you to start in the mild autumn weather on the coast and arrive in the Flinders Ranges in the moderate winter. 

SOBO (Parachilna to Cape Jervis)

For those heading south, you’ll want to plan to start in mid to late winter around July-August and then heading down through the Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu coastline in spring around September-October. This enables you to start in the Flinders Ranges in the mild winter weather and walk down to Adelaide and the coast as the weather is warming up.

Looking over Adelaide from Morialta Conservation Park
Looking over Adelaide from Morialta Conservation Park

Why Did I Go SOBO?

While the trail is officially designed as a NOBO walk, I decided to go SOBO for a few reasons.

Firstly, I always pictured myself walking from the mountains down to the coast. To me, it provides a nice end goal to be dropped in the middle of the Flinders Ranges and start walking to the coast. 

Secondly, finishing at Cape Jervis is a nice way to end, because you literally walk until there is no more land at the bottom of the peninsula. Plus, you can head straight to the pub and easily get back to Adelaide! Whereas, going NOBO you finish in the middle of a remote gorge in the Flinders Ranges with no phone reception and no sign of civilisation. To me, that would have been an anti-climax.

Lastly, I wanted to tackle the harder northern sections with fresh legs at the start. I figured that if I managed to get through the Flinders Ranges, then it would all seem much easier after that. Otherwise, heading north, you’ll always know that the hardest parts are still to come towards the end. 

Obviously, this is a very personal decision and there are plenty of reasons people prefer to head NOBO. It’s up to what you think will suit you, plus weather, timing and logistics may also play an important role in deciding which way to walk.

Read next: Heysen Trail Itinerary and Resupply Plan

Early morning in the Flinders Ranges
Early morning in the Flinders Ranges

Cost of Hiking the Heysen Trail

There’s no permit required for walking the trail, it’s free. Camping is also mostly free along the trail, with a few exceptions.

The only camping costs are at a handful of campgrounds in the southern half of the trail. Public drive-in campgrounds like Chookarloo Campsite and Rocky Creek Hut are run by Forestry SA and have fees that require booking.

The new campgrounds on the Wild South Coast Way at the southern end of the trail also require booking and fees paid in advance. 

Grandpas Camp Heysen Trail

Camping on the Heysen Trail

Camping on the Heysen Trail varies from basic campsites with minimal amenities to old huts with bunks and fireplaces. Most of the campsites and huts on the Heysen Trail are managed by the Friends of the Heysen Trail (FOHT), but there are also some that are inside national parks or forestry areas and managed by the governing authority. 

For this reason, you really need to be self-reliant and independent. You must carry everything with you, including sleeping and cooking equipment. 

However, you also have the option to stay at private accommodation and caravan parks in the towns along the trail. This is a nice way to break up the nights spent in a tent or hut. More on this below.

Waukarie Creek
Waukarie Creek

Walk-in Campsites

Most nights on the trail, you’ll stay at the numerous walk-in campsites that are spread out along the Heysen. Most of them are on private land, where the landowners have allowed FOHT to establish a basic camp for hikers only.

Most are not vehicle accessible directly, but some aren’t too far from a road or 4WD track. All are on the trail, so you don’t have to go off trail to find them. You can hike most of the trail simply using this network of camps, although further south the distance between gets further and you’ll likely have to use other accommodation, such as shelters, huts and caravan parks. 

Still, the FOHT have done an incredible job with these camps. While often not in the most beautiful or practical spots, completing the trail would be impossible without them. 

They all have rainwater tanks installed. These are generally small-ish tanks with a roof. Some campsites also have a long drop toilet and platform or bench to use, but not all. 

Inside Mayo Hut
Inside Mayo Hut

Shelters and Huts

One of the highlights of the trail are the old huts that you can stay in. There are over 10 huts on the trail that have been beautifully restored and maintained for hikers use. They are all different in design, but most have bunk beds or platforms, a table and chairs, fireplaces and outside drop toilets. They have rainwater tanks and are mostly free to stay in.

There are also some other shelters that have been built at campsites for hikers. These range in design, from three walled shelters to just a roof, but they still offer a bit more protection from the elements.

Beetaloo Creek
Beetaloo Creek

Accommodation on the Heysen Trail

There are many accommodation options on the Heysen Trail in towns. Each town that the trail passes through offers some form of accommodation, with larger towns having more choices. 

The smaller towns in the north generally have caravan parks and pubs, whereas larger towns in the southern part offer bed and breakfasts and hotels as well. 

I tended to opt for caravan parks in most towns because of the price and facilities. I camped on an unpowered site if the weather was okay but did splurge on a cabin with other hikers when the weather was terrible. There were also a few times when I opted for other guesthouses and pub accommodation.

All the accommodation I used on the trail included:

  • Wilpena Pound Caravan Park (camping)
  • Hawker Caravan Park (camping)
  • Elizabeth House, Quorn
  • Beautiful Valley Caravan Park, Wilmington (cabin)
  • Melrose Caravan Park (camping)
  • Crystal Brook Caravan Park (cabin)
  • Spalding Pub
  • Burra Caravan Park (camping)
  • Kapunda Caravan Park (camping)
  • Sir John Franklin Hotel, Kapunda
  • Mount Compass Caravan Park (cabin)
  • Heysens Rest B&B, Myponga
Elizabeth House in Quorn
Elizabeth House in Quorn

Transport and Logistics

If you’re completing a thru hike of the whole trail, you’ll need to arrange transport to and from the start and end. The northern trailhead at Parachilna is much more difficult to reach than Cape Jervis in the south, but there are options.

Getting To and From Parachilna Gorge

This is by far much harder to access than Cape Jervis. Parachilna Trailhead is 485 km north of Adelaide, accessed via the Outback Highway and then a dirt road for the last 13 km.

There is a weekly bus operated by Genesis departing Adelaide for Copley which stops in Parachilna at The Prairie Hotel on the Outback Highway. From there, it’s still 13.5 km along Parachilna Gorge Road to the trailhead. You can either walk this or arrange a pick up and drop off with Angorichina Tourist Village. He charges around $50 for this service. 

This same Genesis bus then departs Copley and returns to Adelaide the next day. If you go NOBO, you could take this bus back at the end of your walk from The Prairie Hotel. 

If you wanted to keep a vehicle near the northern trailhead, I’ve heard the owners of Alpana Station can offer assistance. They also operate a shuttle to the trailhead for hikers. You’d have to call to enquire price and availability. 

Northern trailhead Parachilna
Northern trailhead at Parachilna

Getting To and From Cape Jervis

The southern trailhead at Cape Jervis ferry terminal is 108 km southwest of Adelaide. 

There is a twice daily bus operated by SeaLink between Adelaide and Cape Jervis. While this is generally linked in with the ferry to Kangaroo Island, hikers are welcome to book this bus as well. There is a morning and afternoon bus service in both directions. The ticket costs around $25 one way. 

For other services from Cape Jervis to Victor Harbour, the private tour company, Backyard Universe, operates a minibus for hikers along the Wild South Coast Way. They tailor the service for individuals or groups, but they can book out in peak season. They’re great to deal with and very friendly, as I called initially to chat about transfers to Victor Harbour which I didn’t end up needing. 

If you want to store a vehicle near the Cape Jervis trailhead, I can highly recommend Peter at Aldinga Beach Motorhome and Caravan Storage. He kept my van for the two months I walked, and it was a super easy process. I simply got off the SeaLink bus at Aldinga and walked the few kilometres to his yard. Storage starts from around $25 per week. 

Southern trailhead at Cape Jervis
Southern trailhead at Cape Jervis

Safety While Hiking the Heysen Trail

There are several safety considerations when planning the Heysen Trail, especially regarding remoteness, isolation and weather.

Remoteness and Trail Access

The Heysen Trail is quite remote in places. The northern sections of the trail in the Flinders Ranges are certainly the most isolated and it’s not uncommon to go days without seeing anyone. From Parachilna to Wilpena, I didn’t see a single other person until I got to Wilcolo Camp near Wilpena – that was three days without seeing a human!

The trail gets less remote the further you head south. Although, there are still sections that go through national parks and pine plantations where few others go.

Despite being so remote, the trail is surprisingly quite accessible. I met people doing the entire trail in day hike sections, so it is possible to reach different parts of the trail. However, a lot of it is also on private property and in national parks, with very limited vehicle access.

While the remoteness and accessibility shouldn’t stop you from doing the trail, it is important that you understand and are aware of it.

Walking to Wilpena Pound
Walking to Wilpena Pound

Phone Signal and Reception

With such a remote trail, it’s no surprise that phone reception is also difficult to find. However, it’s not as bad as you might think.

In the Flinders Ranges, phone reception is the least reliable, especially between Parachilna and Quorn. For Optus users, this is basically a complete black spot, except for a couple of locations on top of ridgelines and in Hawker. Whereas, Telstra users will have a bit better reception, including at Wilpena Pound. It’s still quite isolating, and I went days without any outside communication.

Further south though is much more reliable, although you’ll still find some sections with very limited reception. I’m not going to go through the whole trail, but generally, from Melrose heading south, I had a lot more phone reception, with it getting even better south of Burra.

Highland cow

Snakes and Other Animals

The Heysen Trail comes with plenty of wildlife. Fortunately, most of the wildlife are harmless to humans and make it such a memorable experience. However, there are some dangerous animals and annoying pests to be aware of.

Snakes are usually most hikers’ main concern. However, considering that thru hiking the Heysen Trail is generally done in winter each year, they’re not overly common. In fact, I only saw one snake and other thru hikers I met didn’t recall seeing any on the trail.

The other main pest are mice. They are found in many of the huts on the trail and they’re often not shy. There are usually hooks to hang your food and pack up with, which I highly recommend you use even if you don’t see or hear mice. They generally came out at night, and will do anything to get into any of your belongings that have a strong aroma, including sunscreen and toothpaste apparently!

Other animals you’ll see are emus, kangaroos, wallabies, eagles, echidnas, foxes, rabbits, koalas, cows, goats and more!

Parsons Beach
Parsons Beach

Weather Conditions

Weather was not our friend on the Heysen Trail. I had a terrible time with the weather, being one of the wettest and coldest winters in decades in South Australia. You need to be prepared for all conditions.

In particular, South Australia is extremely windy. And I mean, extremely windy! This makes some days really frustrating and challenging, especially when exposed for many kilometres. There’s not much you can do, other than be mentally prepared for it!

Temperatures can also drop quite dramatically on the Heysen Trail. I had below zero a few times on the trail and many other frosty mornings. Bring all the layers, including down jacket, rain coat, fleece, and merino wool base layers. And gloves, don’t forget gloves! Find my full packing list here.

Heysen Trail markers
Heysen Trail markers

Navigation on the Heysen Trail

The Friends of the Heysen Trail do such an impressive job with marking the trail. It makes navigating so much easier, with very minimal stress when it comes to finding your way. The trail is marked with large reflective markers with red arrows pointing the way.

The arrows are actually placed so precisely that you need to pay attention to the exact orientation of the arrow. Even a slight angle of the arrow means something – you need to literally head in the exact direction the arrow is pointing (there’s a perfect example of a slightly off centred arrow in the image above).

Along some sections, you can actually see the next arrow almost always. They are spaced quite closely so that you can simply walk from one to the next. However, in some other sections where the trail is quite obvious, such as following a straight road, they are spaced out more widely.

Other signs on the trail include, Walkers Follow Creek, Walkers Follow Road etc. These are quite common and are used when the trail is less an obvious walking trail and more just following an existing landscape feature or infrastructure.

Did I ever get lost? No! I actually never got lost. Only a handful of times did I have to stop and actually search for the next arrow, but I was never more than a few metres off track. A couple more times I missed a turn on a road, but it always linked up again.

But, this is different for everyone. A couple of guys we met said they got lost a few times and admitted to not always paying too much attention to the arrows. Everyone has a different experience.

Ridgeline outside of Hawker
Ridgeline outside of Hawker

Navigation Devices and Apps

I would say that you still need at least one navigation device. You can’t solely rely on the arrows. The consensus is that FarOut (formerly known as GutHook) is the premier app when it comes to hiking the Heysen Trail. You need to purchase the specific trail, but once you’ve downloaded it, you can use it offline. It costs around US$16.

While it’s not the most detailed GPS or mapping app, the most useful features are that you can see where you on the trail and find out how far you have to walk to the next camp or water tank. The other useful feature is the comments left by other hikers. While not as updated as I originally thought, it’s still nice to read what other hikers have to say about water levels, camp conditions and town tips.

I also used Maps.Me often. A free GPS app that has the Heysen Trail marked on it. However, don’t rely on it all the time, as the trail was marked on the app wrong in some places. Whereas, FarOut is updated directly by Friends of the Heysen, so it’s more accurate.

I personally don’t think you need to have a specific GPS device, like a Garmin InReach or similar. Between the physical trail markers, FarOut app and the paper maps, I never seemed to wander off trail.

Kangaroos near Burra
Kangaroo near Burra

Food and Water on the Heysen Trail

You need to be self-sufficient on the Heysen Trail. However, the placement of water tanks, towns and accommodation along the trail means that you can get ample food and water as you go. I had water every night on the trail from the tanks, and the longest stretch between food resupplies was 7 days.

Whether you do food drops or rely solely on the towns and general stores along the way is up to you. Read more below.

Rainwater Tanks

Rainwater tanks are so well placed along the trail that you never really have to carry more than a day’s worth of water at a time. I had water every night on the trail as I camped at official sites most of the time. However, it’s important to be aware that the tanks rely on rain and are not filled by anyone. This means, in dry times they can be low.

One of the benefits of walking in a wet year meant most tanks were literally overflowing with water. But, if you’re hiking early or late in the season, you might want to read the comments on FarOut to try and gauge how much water is around in the tanks.

Supermarkets and General Stores

Despite being a remote trail, the Heysen does pass through about 18 towns across the entire 1200km length. This means that you can get supplies along the way and some hikers rely solely on these towns to resupply their food.

However, in the north, you’ll find that most of the towns only have very small general stores or IGAs. While this is perfectly fine if you’re happy with noodles and muesli bars, if you have any dietary restrictions (like me) then they won’t be suitable for a full food resupply. This is why I opted to do food drops and just used the supermarkets and general stores to top up my snacks if I needed.

The trail towns are useful though for other supplies as well, such as gas canisters and first aid items that you might need along the way. However, not all towns have what you might need, so it pays to be aware of what each town can supply for you so you can plan accordingly. More on the towns below.

Food Drops/Resupply Boxes

I opted to organise my own resupply boxes for the trail. This was mostly because I have dietary restrictions, being gluten and dairy free, so I didn’t want to rely on the small towns having enough food options for me. In the end, I’m glad that I had my food boxes and just used the towns to top up snacks and other items as needed.

I had 9 resupply boxes across the trail. This basically worked out to one for each of the towns and accommodation I would stay in, so I could pick up my boxes easily. While you can get someone at home to post them ahead for you to post offices on the trail, I decided to drop them at accommodation and caravan parks that I booked to stay in along the way. I rang and asked each place in advance and they were all very obliging and happy to hold a box for me.

The longest stretch between boxes was 7 days, and the shortest was 3 days.

After I dropped my van in Aldinga, my parents were driving me to the northern trailhead at Parachilna. On the way, we simply stopped at each of the 9 locations to leave my box with the accommodation. It worked out perfectly. My food boxes were left at the following locations:

  • Hawker Caravan Park
  • Elizabeth House, Quorn
  • Melrose Caravan Park
  • Crystal Brook Caravan Park
  • Spalding Hotel
  • Burra Caravan Park
  • Kapunda Caravan Park
  • Woodhouse Activity Centre, near Bridgewater
  • Heysens Rest, Myponga
Walking to Spalding Hotel
Walking to Spalding Hotel

Trail Towns

Each town on the trail plays an important role in a hikers journey. They offer food, a shower, friendly faces, a bed and essential supplies. While I didn’t stop and stay in every town, they do make for nice breaks and a chance to get some fresh food from a cafe and a good sleep in a proper bed.

The towns range from very small to very large, with varying levels of services and supplies available. I’m going to outline the important towns along the way and list what they offer hikers.

  • Wilpena Pound: Small IGA, restaurant, Wi-Fi, caravan park and resort.
  • Hawker: General store, post office, pub, caravan park, hotel, cafe, smaller general store and camping supplies at petrol station.
  • Quorn: IGA, hospital, pharmacy, post office, caravan park, hotels and B&Bs, multiple cafes and pubs.
  • Melrose: General store, pub, cafe, caravan park, post office and B&Bs.
  • Crystal Brook: Foodland, hospital, pharmacy, post office, hardware, caravan park, pubs, B&Bs, cafes and bakeries and op shop.
  • Spalding: Small general store and cafe, pub/hotel and post office.
  • Hallett: Two cafes, small general store, and pub.
  • Burra: IGA, pharmacy, hardware, multiple cafes, bakeries and restaurants, pubs, post office, caravan park, B&Bs and op shop.
  • Kapunda: Foodland, pharmacy, hardware, cafes, bakeries and pubs, post office, and caravan park.
  • Greenock: Pub, cafe, general store, post office, and B&Bs.
  • Tanunda: Foodland, pharmacy, hardware, cafes, bakeries and restaurants, pubs, post office, B&Bs and caravan park.
  • Bridgewater: Coles, pharmacy, cafes, bakeries and restaurants, hardware, hotels and B&Bs, and post office.
  • Mylor: General Store, cafe and hardware.
  • Mount Compass: IGA, cafe and restaurants, post office, caravan park, pub and hardware.
  • Cape Jervis: General store, pub, and caravan park.

If you want to know where you can get gas canisters along the trail, check out the Heysen Trail E2E and Through Hiking Facebook Group as this has an updated list of the towns that supply gas. I managed to find some at Wilpena, Hawker, Quorn, Melrose (sold out but they usually stock it), Crystal Brook, Burra, Kapunda, and Tanunda.

Pichi Richi Railway near Quorn
Pichi Richi Railway near Quorn

Preparation and Training for the Heysen Trail

My preparation and training was very minimal for the Heysen Trail. In the months leading up to it, I was living in my van in a very wet and flooded NSW, so it was difficult to do a whole lot. But I did walk a minimum of 10km a day consistently for about two months prior to leaving for the Heysen Trail. While this wasn’t always difficult hiking, I think it still helped my feet and legs get used to walking every day.

I went home (to Victoria) for a couple of weeks before leaving for South Australia. This was when I packed my food boxes and dehydrated some of my own meals. I also picked up some new gear I’d bought online and made a trip into the city to Backpacking Light for my new Gossamer Gear backpack.

During these couple of weeks, I did do a few hikes up Mount Riddell. A good 12km return hill climb not far from home and a trail I used to practice for the Larapinta Trail a few years before. Other than this, I didn’t do much specific training and only wore my new backpack once before leaving. I then drove over to South Australia before storing my van, dropping my resupply boxes and going to the trailhead.

Looking back, I probably should have walked a bit more with my pack to get my body used to the weight. But at the end of the day, my body adapted pretty quick on trail and I didn’t get any overuse injuries which I was happy about.

I think as long as you’re relatively fit, it’s possible to complete the Heysen Trail successfully. However, to prevent overuse injuries, it is a good idea to do some sort of exercise every day before leaving. This just gets you used to being on your feet repeatedly day after day, which I think helped me a lot.

What to Pack for the Heysen Trail

Packing for such a long trail is a very personal process. Everyone will have different preferences as to what they think they’ll need and want on trail. However, it’s also one of the main things that people want to know and get advice on, so if you’re interested in exactly what I carried with me for 55 days on the trail:

Read next: Complete Heysen Trail Packing List

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7 Comments

  1. Wow this is amazing Elisha! I wish I had the guts to do a huge hike like this! Have you done the Bibbulmun here in WA? Thats about 1000km of walking for you!

    1. Thanks Anna! I am planning on doing the Bibbulmun in the next couple of years hopefully! You certainly could do it, it’s not as scary as you think!

      1. Thanks for the encouragement Elisha… for years I’ve been saying I want to do it but I get too chicken to go it alone! If you come to Perth for the Bibb let me know. Happy to help x

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