Going natural: Victoria's top outdoor adventures

From windswept coastline to lush forests and languid rivers, Kristin Lee discovers the great outdoors.

Heading off the well-trodden path can lead to locales with unspoilt aspects. Here are some top picks for outdoor enthusiasists. These destinations are within a 90-minute drive of large Victorian towns.

Mungo National Park

Technically speaking, this rain- and wind-carved landscape is in the far south-west corner of NSW. But as it's within 110 kilometres of Victoria's citrus-growing capital, Mildura, the state tends to embrace this archaeological and cultural marvel as part of its own.

The centrepiece of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage-listed area, this waterless lake bed is thought to have dried up about 16,000 years ago. It's where Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, fossilised human footprints, plus well-preserved artefacts have been discovered. Self-guided exploration is via the 70-kilometre one-way drive. It encompasses the boardwalk, the jaw-dropping crescent-shaped Walls of China plus remnants of European settlement, such as the ingeniously designed Woolshed. Well worth staying for are the crimson sunsets.

Camping is possible at the Main and Belah sites. Alternatively, the Shearers' Quarters has hostel-type accommodation and Mungo Lodge has comfortable higher-priced lodging.

Phone the Mildura Visitor Information Centre on 5018 8380, see visitmildura.com.au or nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.

Nelson

In contrast, quintessential bush spirituality prevails at this estuarine town that abuts the Victoria-South Australia border, less than an hour's drive west of Portland. Swathed by 27,300 hectares of thick bush in the Lower Glenelg National Park, notables here include the limestone gorge, canoe and paddle boats on the wide placid river, the fishing shacks that pepper the riverbanks, the fascinating limestone formations at the Princess Margaret Rose Cave and the Inkpot, a black-tinted waterhole.

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With a permit, canoe camping and regular camping is possible within the park. Bushwalkers can tackle some or all of the 250-kilometre-long Great South West Walk, a sizeable loop to Portland. Meanwhile, snorkelling and diving enthusiasts can explore the waters of Piccaninnie Ponds, about 10 minutes' drive into South Australia.

Phone Nelson Parks and Visitor Information Centre on (08) 8738 4051, see nelsonvictoria.com.au.

You Yangs Regional Park

Surrounded by a basalt plateau, "the big mountain in the middle of a plain" is ideal for day-trippers at 55 kilometres from Melbourne, or 22 kilometres from Geelong. The highest point, Flinders Peak (352 metres), has about 450 steps to contend with when ascending the summit, where on a crystalline day the panorama encapsulates the Brisbane Ranges, Mount Macedon, Geelong and Corio Bay and Melbourne's skyscrapers. The Great Circle Drive provides an overview of the park and for the active there are well-signed walks plus two designated mountain bike-riding areas, which have more than 50 kilometres of trails especially suited to adrenalin junkies.

Phone the You Yangs park office on 5282 3356, see parkweb.vic.gov.au.

French Island

Heading seaward, the 170-square-kilometre isle consists of an extensive salt-marsh coastline, mangroves, heathland and open woodland in Westernport Bay. At 70 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, it's a larger, ecological juxtaposition to its famous neighbour, Phillip Island, and getting there requires taking a ferry.

About 70 per cent of French Island is national park, with all roads being unsealed and the 80 or so permanent local residents generally living a self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle. For visitors, there is bike riding, hikes, devonshire tea at the old chicory kiln, the frequent spotting of some very healthy, chlamydia-free koalas and, by arrangement, tastings at French Island Organic Olives. Camping plus a smattering of accommodation are available, including the biodynamic Mcleod Ecofarm.

Phone French Island general store on 5980 1209, see parkweb.vic.gov.au. Inter Island Ferries runs daily services from Stony Point, Mornington Peninsula, to French Island for $21 adult return. See interisland ferries.com.au.

Tarra-Bulga National Park

A vestige of the forests that once covered all southern Gippsland, Tarra-Bulga is enchanting with its emerald fern gullies, giant myrtle beech trees, mosaic-like mosses and lichens and translucent mountain streams. One of four precious cool-climate rainforest reserves in Victoria, the 2000-plus-hectare rainforest has more than 41 species of ferns, with some reaching a staggering 10 metres high. There are two ways of approaching the park: from Princes Highway at Traralgon, or from the township of Yarram via the South Gippsland Highway. It's ideal for a picnic beneath a canopy of tree ferns and walking the handful of verdantly lined trails, taking in Corrigan's Suspension Bridge, waterfalls and lyrebird spotting Picturesque caravan parks with camping facilities are located along nearby Tarra Valley Road.

Phone Parks Victoria on 13 19 63, see parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Chiltern-Mount Pilot National Park

On the Chiltern to Beechworth Road, this 21,600-hectare park is about 35 kilometres north of Wangaratta. It incorporates the Mount Pilot Range and Woolshed Falls and protects box-ironbark forest that originally covered much of the north-east region. It's also a serene habitat for rare bird species such as the regent honeyeater and turquoise parrot. Short or day-long walks can be taken along vehicular tracks through open forest with a 25-kilometre historic drive marked from Chiltern. The uphill walk to the 200-metre summit of Mount Pilot provides outstanding 360-degree views of the far-ranging valley.

Cycling is possible on forest tracks at Donchi Hill, Frogs Hollow, Magenta Mine and Cyanide Dam. The Yeddonba Aboriginal art site, which is on Toveys Forest Road, reveals the traditional artwork of the Duduroa clan. Estimated to be more than 2000 years old, it portrays a Tasmanian tiger, snake and goanna.

Phone Chiltern Tourist Information on 5726 1611, see parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Jamieson

This rural township lies in a sweeping valley amid the alpine ranges of the High Country. About 35 kilometres south of Mansfield, it's an exceptional landscape, especially in autumn, when the town's liquid ambers and other deciduous trees turn to striking golds, deep reds and burnt orange. The small heritage-rich township is where the Jamieson and Goulburn rivers merge peacefully. Trout fishing, gold fossicking, canoeing and floating on a lilo are popular pursuits, while unspoilt bushland, alpine wilderness and stunning sub-alpine valleys have numerous tracks for hikers and off-road vehicles.

The dense timber-lined river is sprinkled with self-contained mountain cabins, retreats and campsites. For a bevvy there's the local Jamieson Brewery, or the bucolic, family-run Kevington Hotel, which is a scenic 10-minute drive from Jamieson. Phone the Mansfield Visitor Information Centre on 5775 7000, see jamieson.org.au.

Barmah State Park and Forest

On the Murray River flood plain, about 30 minutes' drive from the paddle-steaming town of Echuca, stand part of the world's largest forest of robust, gnarled river red gums. This wetland of international significance is the combination of the Barmah State Park and the Barmah State Forest, which creates a haven for about 230 types of birds and more than 500 plant species. It is regarded as one of the state's most important waterbird breeding grounds.

Self-guided activities include flat walking trails from the Dharnya Centre, which vary from about four kilometres up to about seven easy-to-tramp kilometres in length. Because of the nature of the wetlands, the trails can be inaccessible after heavy rainfall. Within the park is the 60-kilometre self-drive tour and canoeing, or visitors can take a two-hour outing with Kingfisher Cruises, which runs river tours through Barmah Choke.

Phone the Echuca Moama Visitor Information Centre on 5480 7555, see echucamoama.com.

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