Winding along the southern Victorian coast just a few hours out of Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s most popular attractions, a sea of tourists cluttered around every beautiful viewpoint and an alarming number of signs reminding visitors to drive on the left in Australia. It’s popular for a reason; the wind-whipped sea cliffs, crescent coves, and flourishing koala population are enough to draw locals down the coast in equally high numbers.
But there’s still so much more to this region than can really be experienced along a paved road or at an over-crowded lookout— much of its magic lies deep in the Great Otway National Park, hours out of mobile reception on wild headlands and in sheltered coves. The Great Ocean Walk is an attempt to capture some of that magic, and in exchange for walking 104km with all of your own gear, you’ll be rewarded with the kind of breathtaking views that most road-trippers could only dream of.
Whether an experienced hiker or a novice looking to tackle their first multi-day trek, here is absolutely everything you need to know about planning and hiking the Great Ocean Walk on your own, including when to walk, how to get to the trail, how to reserve campsites, what each day on the trail looks like, itinerary suggestions, what to expect along the way, and a comprehensive packing list.
About the Great Ocean Walk
The Great Ocean Walk is a 104km trail located about 3hrs west of Melbourne, providing a more intimate, slow-paced look at Victoria’s most coveted stretch of coastline.
From Apollo Bay in the east to the Twelve Apostles in the west, the Great Ocean Walk passes through towering eucalypt forests, traverses secluded beaches, and leads up wild, wind-whipped headlands to reach some of the state’s tallest and most dramatic sandstone cliffs several days later. It is, without a doubt, some of the most spectacular and varied scenery you’ll find on any walk in mainland Australia.
The Great Ocean Walk is officially divided into 8 stages, which I’ve broken down in further detail below— it’s possible to walk each stage as a separate day or combine various stages to suit an itinerary of any length.
At the end of each of these stages is a dedicated GOW campsite with simple tent sites and basic facilities (described below). This isn’t a luxurious hut-to-hut walk, but it’s still a reasonably easy trail accessible to hikers of all experience levels, so long as you are up for the adventure!
Planning the Great Ocean Walk
When to do the Great Ocean Walk
Given its location on Victoria’s chilly south coast, the Great Ocean Walk will be at its warmest and sunniest during the summer months (November to February). Consequently, you can expect a large number of hikers on the trail and you’ll need to book campsites well in-advance, particularly if hiking during the school holidays.
Consider also that summer carries the greatest risk of bushfires, heat exhaustion, and also (lest we forget) SNAKES— as a solo hiker, I wouldn’t even consider doing this walk in summer without a very reliable EPIRB/PLB.
Some hikers have said they didn’t enjoy the Great Ocean Walk because of how crowded it was during summer, which is a HUGE shame on such a spectacular trail— but if you’re relatively new to bushwalking or you’re hiking solo, it’s possible that having a lot of people around might actually be a positive!
Personally, I’d suggest hiking during off-peak, either opting for the somewhat quieter but still reasonably nice spring months (March to May) or just diving in head-first for a winter walk (May to August).
Unpredictable winter weather means that it’s especially important to be well-prepared for quickly changing conditions, to have some basic backcountry skills in case of emergency, and to pack appropriate cold-weather gear— but the reward is hardly anyone else on the trail, plenty of last-minute availability at campsites, and no real risk of bushfires OR snakes.
I completed the Great Ocean Walk in July, basically the dead of winter in Victoria, and enjoyed sporadic sunshine mixed with a LOT of rain and nighttime temperatures just barely above freezing.
With adequate rain gear, a sturdy tent, and a thick sleeping bag, I had an absolutely phenomenal adventure— the wild weather only added to the intrigue of the walk and I also really liked the solitude!
Reserving campsites on the Great Ocean Walk
There are 7 purpose-built Great Ocean Walk (GOW) campsites along the route and all need to be booked in advance using the super convenient ParkStay system by Parks Victoria. These are small hike-in campgrounds with just 8 sites— booking early in summer or over the holidays is essential!
Each campground along the Great Ocean Walk costs $17.20 per night, meaning that a 5-day hike will cost you $68.80 and an 8-day hike (staying at every single campsite) will come in at $120.40.
As soon as you book and pay for your camping, download the PDF itinerary, which includes detailed information about each of your chosen campgrounds, and check your email for the permits. It’s unlikely anyone will ask to see these, but it’s handy to have a screenshot just in case.
Getting from Melbourne to Apollo Bay
The Great Ocean Walk begins in Apollo Bay, about 3hrs west of Melbourne via Geelong, and then ends at the Twelve Apostles, further west along the Great Ocean Road. There are a few different ways to get to and from the trailhead:
Driving to Apollo Bay
Obviously the easiest way to get to the trailhead in Apollo Bay is to simply drive 3hrs from Melbourne and park at the information centre. You can then catch a shuttle from Twelve Apostles back to your car in Apollo Bay at the end of the hike.
Parks Victoria specifically recommend:
- GOR Shuttle: 0428 379 278
- Walk 91: 0439 893 950
- Timboon Taxi: 0438 407 777
- Christian’s Bus Company (V/Line): (03) 5562 9432.
Public transport to Apollo Bay
If you’d rather use public transport, you can take the V/Line train from Southern Cross Station to Geelong (1hr) and then catch a V/Line bus towards Warrnambool (2.75hrs). All up, this journey will take you around 4.5hrs (including transfer time) and tickets are $30.80— book in advance on the V/Line website!
This is how I got to Apollo Bay and it was great not having to hassle with a shuttle or parking! The bus also delivers you directly to the Information Centre in Apollo Bay, which is the official start to the Great Ocean Walk.
Twelve Apostles back to Melbourne
At the end of your walk, you can either catch a shuttle back to your car in Apollo Bay (see recommended companies above) or catch the V/Line bus to Apollo Bay (1.5hrs; $11.20) and then follow the same bus/train route described above to get back into the city (4hrs; $30.80).
Hiking the Great Ocean Walk
The Great Ocean Walk is officially divided into 8 stages, with the first 7 stages finishing at a designated GOW campsite (and the final stage culminating at the Twelve Apostles).
For each stage, here are the official distance given by Parks Victoria, the time it took me to actually complete (I’m a moderately quick hiker, for reference), my own assessment of difficulty, and some of my favourite highlights!
Stage 1: Apollo Bay to Elliot Ridge
Trail hours: 2h50m
Highlights: Beautiful stretches of beach walking along quiet Marengo, Three Creeks & Shelly Beaches; incredible ferns and towering trees in the Great Otway National Park; koalas at Elliot Ridge
Campsite: Elliot Ridge GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 2: Elliot Ridge to Blanket Bay
Trail hours: 2h45m
Highlights: Wild coastal views out towards the cape, with some of the walk’s most dramatic sea cliffs; historic Cape Otway lighthouse
Campsite: Blanket Bay GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 3: Blanket Bay to Cape Otway
Trail hours: 4hrs
Highlights: Beautiful forest scenery through Great Otway National Park; a muddy but very scenic descent to sunny Blanket Bay
Campsite: Cape Otway GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 4: Cape Otway to Aire River
Trail hours: 2hrs
Highlights: Pumping surf at Station Beach; views over the wetlands at Aire River Lookout
Campsite: Aire River GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 5: Aire River to Johanna Beach
Trail hours: 4hrs
Highlights: Wild coastal views between at Castle Cove; fairytale manna gum and grass tree forests; severals kms of walking across Johanna Beach; camping with an incredible view of the coastline
Campsite: Johanna Beach GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 6: Johanna Beach to Ryan’s Den
Trail hours: 4hrs
Highlights: Eastern Grey Kangaroos hopping through the rolling hills near Johanna Beach; sun at secluded Milanesia Beach
Campsite: Ryan’s Den GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 7: Ryan’s Den to Devil’s Kitchen
Trail hours: 4h10m
Highlights: Wild coastal views from Moonlight Head & The Gables Lookout, perched on one of the highest sea cliffs in Australia
Campsite: Devil’s Kitchen GOW Hiker Camp
Stage 8: Devil’s Kitchen to Twelve Apostles
Trail hours: 4hrs
Highlights: Glimpses of the Twelve Apostles down the coastline; beautiful scenery at the Gibson Steps; the incomparable Twelve Apostles & the end to the Great Ocean Walk!
Some hikers take 8 days to complete the walk, staying at every campsite and treating each stage as its own day— but there are a number of very short stages (2-3hrs), so it’s also completely reasonable to pack the full Great Ocean Walk into a shorter time frame.
I did the Great Ocean Walk in 5 days, which was a bit of a challenge in the winter given the short daylight hours, but still a perfect amount of time for me. This involved 8hrs of continuous hiking on day 4, so if that sounds like too much, you probably need to break those stages apart.
- Day 1: Travel from Melbourne & Apollo Bay to Elliot Ridge (9.8km)
- Day 2: Elliot Ridge to Cape Otway (22.5km)
- Day 3: Cape Otway to Johanna Beach (23.4km)
- Day 4: Johanna Beach to Devil’s Kitchen (26.6km)
- Day 5: Devil’s Kitchen to Twelve Apostles (16km)
By staying in Apollo Bay on the night before your planned departure (and if you’re a fast hiker), you can also reasonably condense the Great Ocean Walk into 4 days:
- Day 1: Apollo Bay to Blanket Bay (21.8km)
- Day 2: Blanket Bay to Aire River (20.1km)
- Day 3: Aire River to Ryan’s Den (27.6km)
- Day 4: Ryan’s Den to Twelve Apostles (28.8km)
If the thought of walking 6-9hrs for most of your days on the trail is unappealing, then a 6-day or 7-day walk may be more suitable!
If you only combine 2 stages for your whole trip, it should probably be Stages 3 & 4, since these are the shortest.
* Yes, I’m aware these distances don’t add exactly up to 104km, but it’s what Parks Victoria uses on the offical GOW site, so it’s what I’m using here.
What to expect on the Great Ocean Walk
There is lots of varied terrain on the Great Ocean Walk, which is part of what makes the journey so interesting! Expect to walk across sandy beaches, narrow dirt trails, wider fire trails, some sections of gravel or paved road, slippery wooden bridged, and up/down stone steps, with a few kilometres of boardwalk scattered throughout.
The terrain really never includes gnarled branches or unstable rocks, but I’d still strongly recommend hiking in boots— this is coastal Victoria, so no matter the time of year, you can expect at least some mud and a lot of slippery wooden planks or steps to navigate. Walking long days, you’ll also be very appreciative of the ankle support.
Over the course of the Great Ocean Walk, you will gain and lose around 3,300m of elevation, which isn’t a massive amount compared to trekking in the Alps or the Andes— but it’s also nothing to scoff at, especially if you’re doing the walk in 4 or 5 days.
Very little of this walk is actually spent on flat ground, and although some of the ascents/descents are undulating or very gradual, others can be fairly steep. Trekking poles will be a massive asset to those, like me, burdened with knees beyond their years (I believe the medical term is bung knees).
The Great Ocean Walk is impeccably signed, making navigation incredibly simple along the trail. All important junctions are marked with a yellow arrow and various points throughout the journey also have a sign indicating kms to major landmarks, including the nearest GOW campsite.
There is an official Great Ocean Walk map available for purchase at the Apollo Bay Information Centre, but there is genuinely NO need to have this with you, nor is there a need for a GPS. It is 110% possible to navigate by signs, arrows, and common sense alone (although, obviously, get the map if you want the map).
I do not say this lightly, because I have the directional sense of a carrot, but: you would have to try bloody hard to get lost on the Great Ocean Walk.
One of the very best things about the Great Ocean Walk is the opportunity to see endemic Australian wildlife, particularly koalas and echidnas that are rare enough to excite even the most jaded native. Koalas are particularly common at Elliot Ridge and Cape Otway campsites— I had a delightfully close encounter with a koala at Elliot Ridge my very first night on the trail!
Although not a rare sight in country Victoria, there are also heaps of Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the rolling hills behind Johanna Beach, and this is also where I spotted an echidna digging into the grass. In winter, it’s even possible to see Southern Right Whales off the coast from The Gables (near Ryan’s Den).
Camping & facilities
All 7 GOW campsites along the Great Ocean Walk have 8 tent sites, untreated rainwater tanks, drop toilets (with toilet paper, although it’s never a bad idea to pack some just in case), and three-wall shelters with a communal table.
If you want to plan your itinerary around specific campsites, or even if you just want to know what to look forward to, these are the 7 GOW sites along the trail in order from east to west (walking towards Twelve Apostles):
- Elliot Ridge | shaded spot below towering eucalyptus trees
- Blanket Bay | sunny campsite set a few steps back from the beach (nearby vehicle access)
- Cape Otway | 600 metres from the Cape Otway Lighthouse, nestled in the forest (nearby vehicle access)
- Aire River | located just off the river, near some larger public campgrounds (vehicle access)
- Johanna Beach | situated on a bluff overlooking Johanna Beach, about 5min walk from the public campsites at the beach (nearby vehicle access)
- Ryan’s Den | shaded spot in the trees along the cliffline
- Devil’s Kitchen | remote site set amongst coastal woodland with great coastal views
In terms of favourites, both Elliot Ridge and Cape Otway are known for frequent koala sightings, while Johanna Beach and Blanket Bay have the best coastal views.
As mentioned, all 7 GOW campsites have untreated rainwater tanks, which will be your primary source of cooking and drinking water along the Great Ocean Walk.
It’s possible that these tanks may run low in summer and it’s also recommended to treat the water before drinking (although Australian park rangers will often tell you that they drink the rain water untreated), so it is highly recommended to bring a reliable water filtration device.
Worst case, you can boil your drinking water each night before bed or just take your chances with the rain water, but if the tanks are empty, you’re going to really need that filter to safely drink from a creek.
Certainly don’t count on having consistent mobile reception along the Great Ocean Walk, but given its proximity to the Great Ocean Road and several popular tourist sites, there is some mobile signal (I can vouch for Telstra only) at:
- Blanket Bay
- Cape Otway
- Aire River
- Johanna Beach
- Ryan’s Den
- Devil’s Kitchen
- Gellibrand River & most of the way to Twelve Apostles
All the gear and safety equipment in the world are no substitute for common sense and basic wilderness experience, but it’s still an essential part of a safe and happy hike. In my opinion, these are the three most important safety considerations for the Great Ocean Walk:
- Be prepared for all weather
- Be ready to respond to a medical emergency
- Be able to call for help if the situation requires
Be prepared for all weather
The weather along Victoria’s coast is notoriously wet and unpredictable, and the Great Ocean Walk is absolutely no exception.
In winter, that means bringing warm clothes and rain gear, a durable tent with a rain fly and guy lines, and a cold-weather sleeping bag (rated to at least 0C).
In summer, pack plenty of sunscreen and a hat, make sure to carry enough water for the day (as well as a filter in case the tanks are empty), and stay alert for bushfire warnings.
Be ready to respond to a medical emergency
It’s also essential that you carry a well-stocked first aid kit in case of emergencies, probably the most concerning of which is a snake bite. This wasn’t an issue on my winter hike, but the summer months bring quite a few poisonous snakes to the region— so it’s VERY important to have the necessary items in your kit and to know how to use them.
Most first aid courses in Australia teach the Pressure Immobilisation Technique for snake bites (also works for some spider bites), but you can get the idea just from watching a video on YouTube.
Make sure you stock your kit with plenty of bandages, antiseptic, strapping tape, and assorted drugs (anti-inflammatories and antihistamines are a good place to start).
Be able to call for help
Lastly, you need to be able to call for help if you or someone else is badly injured (even correctly using the PIT for a snake bite, you have to be urgently rushed to hospital for anti-venom) or if weather conditions get too far out of hand and you’re worried for your safety (e.g bushfire in summer).
You should carry a mobile phone with a backup power bank, but also be aware that much of the walk is without reception— if you’re hiking in summer (especially if you’re alone), you should really have a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon).
Without the risk of snake bit or bushfire in winter, I felt comfortable with just my phone, but that is a decision every hiker needs to make for themselves.
Packing list for the Great Ocean Walk
- Hat + sunnies
- 2x short-sleeve hiking shirts
- Lightweight fleece
- Insulated mountain jacket (synthetic, so you can hike in it)
- Down jacket (winter)
- Goretex rain jacket
- Waterproof gloves (winter)
- Hiking shorts/pants
- Fleece tights/trackies for camp (winter)
- 3x pairs hiking liners
- 2x pairs wool hiking socks (wear the first pair on days 1-3 and sleep in the second pair, and then wear the second pair on days 4-5 and sleep in dirty socks for just one night)
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Sandals for camp (I like Birkenstocks for this, since they are super light and you can wear them over socks)
- Toothbrush + toothpaste
- Body wipes (mountain shower!)
- Hand sanitiser + toilet paper
- First aid kit: anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, bandaids, medical tape, antiseptic, etc
- Camera + extra batteries
- Phone + power bank
- PLB (see Safety section above)
- 50L hiking backpack + rain cover
- 2-3L bladder
- Trekking poles
- Tent with rain fly
- Sleeping bag— recommended rating 0C or below for winter, it can get really chilly in the evenings
- Sleeping pad
- Camping pillow
- Camp stove & lighter
- 1 gas canister
- Cookwear: bowls, cups, cutlery
- 4x Cliff Bars for breakfast
- Cheese slices, 4x tuna cans, Jatz crackers, etc for lunch (5x days)
- Other trail snacks, like Skittles or jerky
- 4x powdered soup for dinner
- 4x dehydrated dinners
- 8x tea bags
- Wine (I always hike with wine, it’s such a treat at the end of a long day!)
- Water filter
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