Tasmania is an island that sits below the continent of Australia — at the bottom of the world. Despite its far-south location, its reputation as one of the few clean, green populated places left on Earth has attracted an increasing number of travelers. Yet while much of the attention centers around the capital city of Hobart, North West Tasmania is far less visited.
Those who do go to North West Tasmania may visit Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. Most of them miss the region’s other wonders, like Leven Canyon, a magnificent place as isolated as it is wild yet close enough to civilization to make it a comfortable place to visit. With incredible hiking and mountain biking, as well as small towns and a budding food and drink scene, this corner of Australia’s southernmost state is worth the journey to get there.
Getting to Tasmania from mainland Australia
While it is close to civilization, Tasmania is far from the rest of the world. North West Tasmania is a smooth overnight sail on one of two twin vehicular ferries — Spirit of Tasmania 1 or 2 — across the Bass Strait from Melbourne, which is itself on the southeast corner of Australia. Bass Strait can be a wild stretch of water, but the boats are large ocean-going vessels, and generally, the crossing is comfortable. The ships have bars, restaurants, and a theater, making the trip over an experience in itself.
The Spirits ships are also a great option for getting to the island because you can bring your large or bulky equipment for mountain biking, kayaking, or surfing. You can also drive your own car — or a rental — onto the ferry, making it easy to travel around Tasmania with your gear once you arrive. It’s not entirely necessary to bring your own gear, however. If you need equipment, there are plenty of rental options and a myriad of guided tours.
If you can, book travel on a Sunday night crossing as traffic and parking will be light around Port Melbourne. If you are sailing from Tasmania, go on a Saturday night. Traffic will be very light around Port Melbourne and the city, allowing you to get out of the metro area quickly and easily once you arrive. If you are traveling from outside Melbourne, book at a caravan or RV park close to the ferry.
We recommend Discovery Parks Melbourne in Braybrook (formerly called Ashley Gardens). It’s not the cheapest option, as you will have to pay for a night you don’t use, but you’ll save on fuel and whatever you do to fill in time. You can sit around and relax on the day of departure, leave at 6:45 PM for a 7:00 PM boarding, and have a no-stress drive to the dock and drive straight on to the ferry. The caravan park will give you a set of very accurate and straightforward directions, which will get you there quickly, mostly on freeways.
Most importantly, read the conditions on your ticket to ensure you are not carrying anything prohibited such as fruit and vegetables. Tasmania has strict quarantine laws to protect the disease-free status of the horticulture and farming sectors. Fuel in jerry cans is also prohibited although diesel is allowed. We think traveling by ferry is the best option for outdoor pursuits, as Tasmanian distances are short, the roads are excellent, and the self-drive option means you are not limited in what equipment you can bring.
Nonetheless, should you opt to fly, both Qantas and Virgin Airways have multiple daily flights from the international airports in Melbourne and Sydney to Tasmania’s regional airport in Launceston, which is about a one hour drive southeast of Leven Canyon. There is also a smaller local airport at Devonport. Devonport is only about a 45-minute drive from Leven Canyon — so either the ferry or airplane will get you right into the heart of North West Tasmania, or “Tassie” as its fondly known by the locals.
Arriving on the island and getting to Leven Canyon
The thing about Leven Canyon is that hardly anyone — other than a small crop of in-the-know locals — goes there. For lodging, you can stay right in Ulverstone or in Devonport, where a decent hotel room at the Formby Hotel or Elimatta Hotel will run you less than $100 per night. The canyon is only about 30 miles from Ulverstone, an easy day trip for those preferring to crash in a hotel after a hard day on the trails. Camping in the canyon is available at the Pioneer Park or Leven Canyon Picnic Areas.
The campsites are free and have well-maintained toilets and bins, though it’s not that big of an area so there are only a limited number of spots. It’s a beautiful camping area surrounded by towering forests. Although the road is paved, large RVs would struggle to find a campsite. The spots are ideal for smaller vans (up to 18 feet), motorhomes, camper trailers, and tents.
The first adventure to have once you arrive is the hike around the canyon, which takes about an hour. The views from Cruickshanks Lookout near the campground are spectacular and powerful: The cliffs plunge 275 meters, over 900 feet, to the Leven River. The walks and scenery are fantastic. The Leven River also flows through the canyon and is popular with whitewater kayakers at certain times of the year.
Hitting the world-class mountain bike trails around the canyon
You can’t ride your bike in the canyon, but the number of mountain bikes in the campground indicates that many campers use Leven as a base to access some of the world-class mountain-bike trails nearby.
Dial Range mountain bike park is about 25 miles from Leven Canyon near the magic little coastal town of Penguin. The park consists of a variety of tracks that cater to all riders, beginners and upwards. Intermediate to expert riders will get the most out of this park, as it has some very technical sections. The locals’ advice is to take your first lap gently until you have a feel for the layout. There used to be an annual ride called the Cranky Penguin Mountain Bike Marathon that covered about 43 miles of tracks through the area, including a stretch alongside the Leven River. You can recreate this ride with your crew during your trip. If that’s a bit much, opt for the “Not So Cranky” 25-mile version, a great name for a beautiful ride.
Wild Mersey is the newest of Tasmania’s growing network of mountain bike trails and the closest to Leven Canyon. Stage one and two are now open and offer 14 different tracks for varying skill levels, and stage three is under construction. Stage one starts near Latrobe and is an easy 60-minute drive from Leven Canyon. Eventually, stages one and two will link up with the planned third circuit near the town of Sheffield. Riding Wild Mersey is a solid option for day two, with easy access back to the campground or your hotel up on the northern coast.
The other major mountain bike parks are at Derby in the North East and Maydena in southern Tasmania. However, there are many tracks all over the state, which you can map out with an app such as Trailforks.
Tasmanians love to hike, and the scenery of the northwest is proof as to why.
Hiking, or “bushwalking” as we call it here, is part of the Tasmanian DNA. Millions of hectares of unspoiled wilderness make up most of Tassie, with plenty of gentle tracks through the bush — undeveloped, often forested areas — depending on your level of fitness. Bushwalking in Tasmania is serious business due to our rapidly changing weather conditions.
Beyond the walk at Leven Canyon noted above, the area holds a whole system of trails, and it’s possible to trek from nearby Penguin all the way to Cradle Mountain. Only hardened local bushwalkers with intimate local knowledge attempt this, as it requires excellent fitness and preparation, but all the sections are accessible for shorter walks:
- Overland Track — There are hundreds of trails, none more renowned than the multi-day Overland Track. This 50-mile trail heads around Dove Lake and, in the right weather, offers spectacular views of snow-capped Cradle Mountain.
- Cradle Mountain — Many people attempt to summit Cradle Mountain for its fantastic vista across Dove Lake, Barn Bluff, and Mount Ossa. This is a strenuous bushwalk requiring a high level of fitness as it reaches over 5,000 feet and takes about six and a half hours. You’ll need to be well prepared and ready for changing weather conditions.
- Lake St Clair National Park — Leven Canyon is close to one of the world’s great national parks, Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. It’s possible to trek to Cradle Mountain from Leven Canyon, but nearly everyone gets there by road. The park has an enormous amount of hiking options — including the Aboriginal Cultural Walk, which passes by Aboriginal sites in the southern part of the park. Plan to spend the bulk of your time in the park near Lake St. Clair, where you’ll see signs to many other trailheads around the lake. Even if you are not feeling energetic, the park is an unspoiled place to relax and enjoy the crystal-clear mountain streams, the unique wildlife, and the “cleanest air in the world.”
A word of warning here, all bushwalking in Tasmania is at the mercy of the weather. You should prepare correctly and have the appropriate equipment, including proper hiking boots, a rain jacket, and trekking poles. In case of emergency, keep an overnight bivvy tent and emergency aid kit with you as well. Bad weather can arrive quickly and without warning at any time of the year.
Research websites and literature that cover your planned walk, check the weather forecasts, and follow any advice you hear from guides or locals on the trail. Unfortunately, tragedies continue to occur in the Tasmanian bush, so play it safe. If you do, the reward will be a safe and genuinely unique experience of solitude and natural beauty.
Paradise exists in Tasmania, even beyond the outdoor excursions.
This part of Tassie is full of small country towns including one aptly called Paradise. It’s just a farming community and is most famous for the name and the fact that you pass through on your way to Cradle Mountain. There are, however, some larger and more charming towns, such as nearby Sheffield. Known as the “town of murals,” Sheffield is central to each of the trails and activities mentioned and has “Tasmania’s Outdoor Gallery,” a collection of public art painted on buildings throughout the town.
Tasmania is full of prize-winning food, wine, craft beer, and boutique spirit producers known for using natural ingredients. In the North West, surrounding you are small-scale producers, and you will drive past many of them on your travels. On self-drive routes like the Cradle to Coast Tasting Trail, which covers the region from Launceston through to Stanley in the far North West, you’ll find small artisan producers like Christmas Hills Strawberry Farm and Cafe, Ashgrove Farm Cheese, Devonport Cherry Shed, and Anvers Chocolate Factory. This part of Tasmania is unique, and if the upward trend in tourism in other parts of Tasmania is any indication, you should get here sooner rather than later.