Melrose is a storied destination for cyclists in Australia, and during my October visit, I witnessed its full potential. Coinciding with the school holidays, the town was alive with energy and excitement. Everywhere you looked, there were people riding bikes, cars were loaded with bikes, and the caravan park was overflowing with bikes; it was buzzing. It was a joy to see a town that had fully embraced the cycling culture because of its trails and welcoming community.
Sitting at the foot of the Flinders Ranges, it’s home to the famous and long-running Melrose Fat Tyre Festival, making it a must-visit destination for mountain bikers at least once a year.
I travelled to Melrose to discover what the riding community had been cooking up, and I was not disappointed. After three days, I left feeling excited about what was to come. The mountain bike town was on the brink of a major transformation, with a project that has been ten years in the making.
Now the locals who have spent countless hours pushing to make it happen will soon be able to share the fruits of their labour. As we speak trail builders are hard at work on and around Mount Remarkable, creating something truly…errr…ummm…remarkable, as I was about to experience firsthand.
- Mount Remarkable Epic | New IMBA Epic Trail and family friendly singletrack for Melrose, SA
- Flow Destination Hub: Melrose, SA
What’s new in Melrose?
Since my last visit a decade ago, few new trails have been constructed. However, Melrose’s classic trails remain highly distinct, skinny, and made to work with the natural terrain, meandering through old farmland. Some of the network originated from sheep tracks, so the gradients are relatively gentle as they wind around the hillside. They are a lot of fun, with a few funky features thrown in, like a 360-degree berm with a tunnel to jazz things up a bit.
Recently, the brand new Willowie Forest trail network has been established just outside of town, within Mount Remarkable National Park, offering green and blue-grade trails through the stunning Australian bush.
And to top it off, there is now a full-fledged brewery on the site of the heritage Jacka Brothers Brewery. I can vouch for its bike-friendly, comfortable feel, with great beer and local produce to explore. The old building has a charm about it, with an earthy blend of brick and sandstone and a mix of modern and vintage decor.
Willowie Forest Trails | New Green & Blue Grade Singletrack
I was fortunate enough to have Garry Patterson, the big boss of Trailscapes as my guide for the long weekend. He’s a passionate bike rider and trail builder with decades of experience in the game. We rode the 4 km distance from the town café to the Willowie Forest trails. As we pedalled along the side of Mount Remarkable, Garry pointed out where they are currently developing new trails on the mountain.
For Patterson, the new trails in Melrose are more than just another project. He now calls Melrose home and has been a significant player in the development of mountain biking not only in South Australia but throughout the country.
His passion and expertise in trail building have helped shape the landscape and create some of the country’s most exciting and challenging mountain biking experiences. Garry’s contributions to the destination development space have made a lasting impact and earned him a reputation as a trail-building guru.
Mount Remarkable is a remarkable (boom tish!) sight; at 961-metres, it rises suddenly from the flat lands surrounding Adelaide, marking the start of the Flinders Ranges, which continue north for over 400km.
From afar we could see small scree fields; long trailing gullies of broken rocks creating gaps in the canopy and Garry pointed out wreckage from an old plane crash in 1980. Wikipedia informed me that the mountain had seen snow in the past, which was difficult to imagine as I stood there in the heat, shooing away flies and mopping the sweat from my face.
Rolling into the trailhead, we spotted some familiar faces. There eagerly gazing at the map board was a family we had met at the bike shop while they rented bikes.
We set off on the winding trails designed for beginner and intermediate riders. It was lovely; the terrain was vibrant. Dry and austere.
As the trail contours through the mellow terrain, it passes the remnants of the region’s agricultural legacy, highlighting the history and progression of the land. Once farmland, this tract now serves a new cause.
As we rode, we encountered more families, including two riders out there with their young daughters, who were camping in town and using the trails to improve their skills. They gushed at how much their riding had improved in just a few days in Melrose; thumbs up to that!
The group of kids were having the time of their lives as they navigated through the serpentine singletrack. Their faces lit up with joy and a sense of pride through every corner. They were clearly relishing their accomplishments, and seeing their enthusiasm and confidence was wonderful. Kudos to the kids!
While Willowie offers a fantastic addition to the town, the real highlight and foremost reason for our visit lay higher up the mountain, set to open sometime in mid-2023.
Mount Remarkable | Why So Significant? Building New Trails in National Park, That’s Why
Mount Remarkable is a towering presence above Melrose. But it sits inside the bounds of a National Park, and this mouthwatering terrain and vertical drop have historically been inaccessible to mountain bikers.
But now, Trailscapes is constructing around 40 kilometres of singeltrack on its slopes, allowing riders to choose their own adventure or join all the trails for an epic journey around the whole mountain.
The introduction of mountain biking in National Parks is a noteworthy development for cyclists. Historically, National Parks and mountain biking have been at odds. However, in recent years, National Parks services around the country have adopted a more progressive stance on cycling. Now, these land managers are striving to collaborate with the community and capitalise on the growing popularity of the sport as a recreational activity and valuable tourist product. This shift towards a more inclusive approach has fostered new opportunities for mountain bikers and expanded the range of available trails and destinations.
Previewing the New Trails | Up We Go
After a classic night in Melrose, which involved a hearty feed at The North Star Hotel (top pub) and a beer on the balcony with the locals, I rose early to meet the Trailscapes crew for a sunrise tour of the trails under construction. I met Tyson and Jake, two young fellows that have been digging away on various sections on Mount Remarkable. We piled in their side-by-side and ascended the mountain with mighty momentum as the sun hesitantly peaked over the horizon.
The panoramic view from the summit was breathtaking, surpassing all my expectations. To the east, a sprawling patchwork quilt of greens and yellows unfurled across a flat plane as far as the eye could see. To the north, the rugged peaks of the Flinders Ranges made themselves known against a moody sky. From the mountain’s western face, the bright blue waters of the Spencer Gulf were visible, stretching to the horizon. To the south, the quaint town of Melrose is nestled amidst rolling hills and sparse agricultural lands. A charming contrast to the rugged beauty of the mountain.
First up was a rocky traverse along the eastern flank of Mount Remarkable, selected with the aspiration of witnessing a sunrise. However, we were greeted by overcast skies and a light drizzle, creating a serene atmosphere. Against a moody backdrop, the scenery was still picturesque. The trail crew had expertly carved a path through the rocky terrain, dotted with majestic grass trees and towering eucalyptus trees. The wildflowers added a burst of colour to the scenery, with their petals painted in shades of pink, purple, yellow, and white.
The entire setting embodied the essence of the Australian bush, worthy of being showcased as a masterpiece in a gallery. Its beauty and uniqueness could easily be captured in a painting by Van Gogh or Albert Namatjira, conveying the rugged yet stunning landscapes of the land. I loved being there, it felt wonderful, and I can’t wait to ride it when I return.
Standing on fresh trails, free from their first tyre marks, I hung on Tyson’s every word as he recounted his trail-building experience. There is a unique quality to trail builders and how they approach their work.
It was heartening to listen to Tyson’s passion for transforming the landscape into a thrilling trail that doesn’t come at the expense of safety, predictability or the environment. His devotion to creating trails that are both functional and in harmony with nature was truly inspiring.
What looked like a nondescript section of singletrack, Tyson pointed out large rocks breaking the surface, which posed a challenge to build through. However, to keep the trail flowing and the gradient consistent to the brief, the time spent labouring on just a few metres would be lost on riders that will eventually fly along it.
The trail we were on wrapped around the eastern side (all trails are yet to receive official names) of Mount Remarkable; getting there would mean climbing up from the trailhead in town. However, to make the complete loop, it’ll be around 40km of solid riding, so the Trailscapes crew are building a ‘bailout’ option, that descends the eastern face down to Willowie Forest.
As we continued along the trail, snapping photos of Tyson riding past incredible views and through key features on the trail, I took a moment to smell the flowers — literally – and take in the diverse native vegetation that surrounded me.
We finally reached the end of the trail for now, where we were greeted by the rumbling sound of crunching rocks and rumbling machinery. At the controls of a digger making its way along the hillside was Simon Buzzacott, maneuvering around large trees, following the markers set by the trail mapping team. We watched on as he carefully lifted rocks, sifting through the debris, and gradually moved forward.
The last time I saw Simon, he was building the Bay of Fires trail in St. Helens, Tasmania. He has since worked on many projects around the place, including a trail-building project in Norway. Being from Adelaide, he was particularly excited about Mount Remarkable — as was apparent the night before at the pub while we scrolled through photos of the terrain on his phone. Now seeing it myself, I understand why he was so pumped.
The crew stopped for a break, and Simon reflected on his time in Melrose. Over a pre-made sandwich and a thermos of chai tea, he pointed to a spur lined with mega trees and plenty of rock where he was going to build the descending trail to Willowie Forest.
It was time for Tyson to take me to the part of the mountain he was working on. Located on the western side, it sounded vastly different, and not without its own challenging terrain. I could sense Tyson was excited to show me his latest work.
Weaving through a particularly spectacular patch of grass trees, the vegetation looked wildly different from the mountain’s eastern side.
The spontaneous sections of scree got me. Pockets of the landscape about the size of a house fully covered in broken rocks. Some as small as broken bricks, others the size of a microwave.
How on earth could you build through this stuff, I thought. Instead of skirting the scree fields, the crew went in head first, and figured out how to make it work. Tyson told me it was tough but not impossible. They scraped the rocks to make a flat bench to ride through and placed a few critical stones to form a track. The trail continued on.
In stark contrast to the rough and wild Australian bush on Mount Remarkable, the trail descends into a former farmland known as The Link Lands. These rolling green hills, which once served as pasture land, have now been incorporated into the National Park. The landscape is breathtaking. Towering eucalyptus trees dot the landscape, adding a touch of vibrance to the open space. The transformation of this land from farmland to protected wilderness has created another unique opportunity to explore the Australian bush by bike.
We expect this part of the ride to be challenging, yet scenic. And for a brief history lesson, the trail will pass Grays Hut.
Gray’s Hut was initially constructed near cow sheds in the early 1900s. It was used for milking cows and transporting cream to Melrose, located approximately 16 km out of town. Tragically, the hut was destroyed in a bushfire in 1988. This area is known as the ‘race course,’ as local young men used to secretly train their horses here for the picnic races. The current hut was built around the remains of the original structure, preserving a piece of history and offering a glimpse into the past. The story of Gray’s Hut reminds hikers and cyclists of the ingenuity and resilience of the early settlers and their connection to the land.
Garry tells us about his experiences working with the traditional landowners, the Nukunu. The Nukunu are Indigenous Australians located in South Australia, specifically in the region around the Spencer Gulf. Prior to commencing work, the Trailscapes crew participated in an induction session to gain a better understanding of the land, its history, how to recognize sacred sites and artifacts, and what to be mindful of during the project.
Naming the trails will be done in collaboration with the Nukunu, we are especially keen to hear what the trails are named. Watch this space!
When can we ride it?
The network of trails on Mount Remarkable is yet to be named, and the official opening date is still TBD. SO, stay tuned to Flow as we will bring you all the latest updates.
We plan to return when the trails are all built to shoot a full destination feature and video, as photos don’t do it justice.
I don’t get out much these days, but when I do, I make sure it’s worthwhile, and this trip was that and more. I was excited to return to Melrose after a decade and relive my memories of covering the Fat Tyre Festival while working at AMB Magazine. Seeing the trails under construction on Mount Remarkable and interacting with the trail builders themselves was a unique and insightful experience. And to see how the town has matured, with the addition of the brewery and more cycle-friendly accommodation, it’s a bloody nice place to be.