Adventures in the Heemskirk Range | Silver City trail network near Zeehan opening soon

Opened in November 2019, Oonah Hill near Zeehan was the first purpose-built mountain bike trail on the West Coast of Tasmania. The 2.5km descent was part of a project led by TAS Parks and Wildlife, but now the West Coast Council is expanding the trails into the Heemskirk Range.

“Oonah Hill was designed completely differently, from point A to point B. Now three years later, this  (the Silver City trail network) is the council project, and they are incorporating the Oonah Hill descent into the big design,” says Marcelo Cardona from Next Level MTB, which built Oonah Hill, and is now leading the project up into the mountain range. 


Heemskirk Range
Adventure is out there! The Next Level machines are nearly finished with the trails in the Heemskirk Range.

As it turns out, Zeehan has been slated to become a mountain bike destination since the Mount Lyell Mine closed in 2014, and the council was looking to diversify the local economy.

“It builds from there through engaging with trail consultant, Rob Potter and Dirt Art to do the preliminary work. They’ve been working with the council along the way to identify the best opportunities. Mount Owen was first out of the gate, but the Heemskirk and Zeehan were always slated for trail developments,” says Aaron Stewart, Coordinator of Projects and Infrastructure at West Coast Council.

This new development up in the Heemskirk Range covers 35km traversing the picturesque landscapes near Zeehan. With these new trails set to come online December 10, 2022, along with Queenstown, Montezuma Falls, the Sterling Valley Trail and more, you’ll be able to spend quite a few days riding across the West Coast.

Silver City

Zeehan’s first boom came when a prospector Frank Long discovered sizeable deposits of silver-lead near Mount Zeehan. This find brought masses of prosecutors to the area, and kicked off a mining boom that saw Zeehan grow to be the third-largest town in Tasmania, and awarded the Silver City moniker.

And so began the boom and bust cycle of resource extraction that Tassie knows so well. The mining operations have largely moved on, but the title of Silver City remains and is now carried on through the trails.

Big adventure through big scenery

The trails up into the Heemskirk Range are remote, requiring a 13km singletrack commute, each way, for the trail builders to reach their machines. There aren’t any roads in or out, the trails are totally exposed, and the winter weather on the West Coast of Tasmania is anything but friendly. But the scenery they’re working in is absolutely spectacular.

“It’s been interesting logistics. We have to know who’s going to be where and if it’s safe. We do radio checks every hour and make sure we all stay within line of sight,” says Cardona.

Heemskirk Range
Cardona tells Flow this is the most remote project Next Level has ever worked on.

With this remoteness, these trails are designed as adventure rides in a stacked loop arrangement. Locals have been piecing together routes out here for a while, bashing around on old mining and access tracks, but there hasn’t been anything close to a formalised trail.

The new Heemskirk network will be made up of a green, blue and black loop. The green loop will include the existing Oonah Hill descent but sees the addition of a new 4.5km climbing trail. Stewart tells Flow there will be options to peel off early if you just want to session the bottom half of the descent. 

Heemskirk Range
Cardona tells us they have had to be super careful about where they’re cutting trail because any mistakes can be seen from kilometres away.

“From there, it’s about 12-13km for the intermediate loop, which will extend from the top of the (Oonah) hill and take riders out to Piney Creek. This is the confluence of a couple of rivers right at the base of the Heemskirk Range and is a beautiful spot for a picnic, and to soak it all in,” says Stewart. 

The fork to the black loop is just before the start of the final descent on the blue loop and adds an additional 14km, climbing up to the top of the Heemskirk Range before descending back down again. 

Heemskirk Range
The stacked loop format trails are meant to be ridden in an anti-clockwise direction.

Backcountry style riding

Once you have committed to the blue and black loops, there are no bail-out options or shortcuts back to the trailhead, and the isolated nature and fitness needed to pedal the loop play a role in the difficulty rating. Cardona explains that the terrain becomes increasingly rugged as you get further away from the trailhead.

Heemskirk Range
The trails out in the Heemskirk Range are anything but manicured. But even with their rough and tumble nature, Cardona tells Flow, a confident intermediate rider should be able to enjoy the black loop.
Heemskirk Range
Sections of trail traverse low-lying wet areas, so Next Level helicoptered in bridges and elevated boardwalks.

“Oonah Hill is a super flow trail; it’s very three-dimensional, almost bike park style,” says Cardona. “The blue and black trails are more backcountry and old school — more body language, not too steep berms, but just banked enough to give you support.”

Each loop is designed around its flagship descent, for the green loop that’s Oonah Hill. The blue trail goes out to Piney Creek and features a ~2.5km descent — Cardona thinks this will be an extremely popular option because it’s shorter and more accessible.

But the pièce de résistance of the entire project is the nearly 5km descent from the top of the Heemskirk Range.

Heemskirk Range
I mean, come on, just look at that descent! The ride down the range looks nothing short of spectacular.
More gratuitous ridgeline descending.

“It traverses this massive basin with all of these ridgelines cutting back down to Piney Creek, and you descend down one of these ridgelines. At the top, it’s quite atmospheric — sort of a knife edge ridge — and you’re picking your way down rock slabs, and it gets quite technical. It is a black trail, and it’s quite slow speed with drops and rock slabs with catch berms,” says Stewart. “Further down the descent (in the foothills), the terrain opens up, with some faster, wide open ridgeline riding”

Something different on the West Coast

The Silver City trails are less than an hour from Queenstown and Mount Owen, and both will get lumped in together for their proximity and wide-open views. But they offer totally unique experiences.

“This is an opportunity to ride in some really breathtaking and unique landscapes, with the added bonus of bagging some epic descents along the way,” Stewart says.

“The Heemskirk trails have a real natural, untouched wilderness feel, but, similarly to Mt Owen, the area has a long history of mining and mineral exploration,” says Stewart.

Cardona offers a similar sentiment.

“The photos don’t do it justice. When you’re there, you turn around a hill, and seven other mountains appear in front of you. And then you turn around again, and you can see another valley with rivers and cascading waterfalls. It’s magical,” he says. “It’s an adventure trail — I don’t even want to call it a trail. It’s more like a traverse or a route or something like that, because when you ride it, it feels different to anything else.”

Heemskirk Range
The views from the Heemskirk Range look almost computer generated, and you can see Mount Owen from the top of the range.

The Heemskirk Range does not lay above the treeline, but natural conditions have aligned to create a very alpine landscape. Trail networks in Australia are usually under a canopy, and when you do have big, wide-open spaces like this, it’s the result of a natural disaster. For this to be here without a big fire, landslide, or logging is pretty special. And winding through this button grass oasis, you can see the white path contouring across the landscape.

“It looks like you’ve gravelled the whole trail, but that’s just what’s underneath. It’s this beautiful quartzite gravel,” says Cardona. “It drains really well, which is good — because the West Coast can be very wet — but it’s got plenty of cohesion, so it sticks together, and it’s really grippy.”

Heemskirk Range
All that white soil isn’t imported gravel,  just what’s underneath the button grass.

The remote riding experience

Out in the boonies, don’t expect to see gaps and uber-technical features full of wheel traps, but don’t expect glass-smooth singletrack either. All of the trails and descents put a premium on predictability, and for Next Level, it’s been a balancing act to try and create an engaging ride while also ensuring the black trail won’t end in folks breaking bikes, or themselves.

“There is a kind of duty of care to apply some risk reduction strategies. There is a lot of exposure, and sometimes there is very steep terrain right next to you. There are a lot of accidents in mountain biking on a daily basis, and we don’t want those accidents happening in remote areas. But we still want to create a trail that isn’t boring,” he says.

Next Level has been working through winter and is on track to have the Heemskirk Range trails set to open on December 10, 2022. The Council is hosting a kickoff party complete with a sausage sizzle and guided rides. For the latest updates on the progress of the Heemskirk Range trail project, watch the West Coast TAS website.

Heemskirk Range
Would you look at the views! The trails in the Heemskirk Range look to be quite the adventure, and they are nearly finished.

Photos: Kristina Vackova / @kiphotomedia, Matt Staggs / @mattstaggsvisuals, West Coast Council

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