Tasmania’s West Coast is rugged and remote. The landscapes are raw, untamed and look more like what you would expect to find in the Rocky Mountains in North America, or even across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Queenstown (not the one in New Zealand) is the biggest population centre in Western Tasmania and is located 260km from Hobart, and a little over 200km from Maydena. Overlooking the small western settlement is Mount Owen, an otherworldly moonscape that bears the scars of the mining activity which initially brought settlers to the region. With 800m of vertical drop, a new mountain bike park has just opened on its slopes.
Ahead of our visit the Queenstown in February, check the story behind the trails, and how this project came to life.
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Check out the trails on Mt Owen
New mountain bike park for Queenstown, set to blow minds
“It’s that real big mountain kind of experience,” says Simon French, the Managing Director of Dirt Art, the trail building outfit which led the project. “You’re picking your way down barren ridgelines, surrounded by mountains and there are no trees to block the view. It feels very remote and mountainous; it’s a remarkable experience.”
If we’re going to build on Mount Owen, let’s try to make it something completely different and spectacular.
As with a lot of Tasmania, resource extraction brought settlers to the region, and copper was the precious metal being pulled out of the ground around Queenstown. In essence, mining activity is also what created Mount Owen’s barren appearance. The smelters that were used to melt copper ore released sulphur fumes into the atmosphere, killing much of the local flora. The trees that did survive were cut down to fuel fires, burning under the 11 smelters operating during the mining boom. With the plant life and its root systems removed from the mountain, the three-meters of annual rainfall washed away the topsoil, bringing the gravely underlayer to the top.
While mining stripped the landscape, many years later it also brought the opportunity for mountain biking to the region.
“After a major copper mine shut down on the West Coast the local government wanted to diversify, and decided with Parks and Wildlife, to put money into mountain biking infrastructure. Most of what was available on the West Coast was four-wheel-drive tracks, and the money went into making them rideable, as well as a few more purpose-built projects,” explains Dirk Dowling, Project Consultant for the West Coast Council.
One such project was the Oonah Hill trail network, which is the first purpose-built mountain bike trail on the West Coast — more on this further down.
Mount Owen, backcountry, rugged, with more elevation than Thredbo
With the first round of work complete at Oonah Hill, the next step was to develop Mount Owen. Parks and Wildlife had put together a plan for the mountain; the trail network had been approved, and with a bit of money left over, they handed the reigns over to the West Coast Council to finish the work.
“I got Rob Potter from Dirt Art to come out, and we looked at the trails that had been approved in the plan. We walked the lower parts of the spur there on the mountain, and the proposed trail was all under a canopy — it wasn’t going to be maintainable or a good riding experience. We then spent over a year working with the council, and Parks and Wildlife, to work on a new plan for the future of mountain biking on the West Coast,” says Dowling.
“If we’re going to build on Mount Owen, let’s try to make it something completely different and spectacular; keeping with the mountain, and not fighting it trying to come up with manicured tracks. Let’s do it properly,” he continues.
It’s incredibly rugged up there, the trails are going to be a different style to what you would find somewhere else
Dirt Art was brought in to re-survey the mountain and piece together how the trail network would look. With more usable vertical drop than Thredbo, it’s no surprise that the upper section of the network is gravity fed.
“It’s incredibly rugged up there, and we found a couple of ridgelines that we didn’t think were going to work, but they did, and it allowed us to shift the focus to bring in more intermediate trails — though it isn’t nice friendly flow trail,” says French. “It’s intermediate, but it’s backcountry mountain biking, and the trails are going to be a different style to what you would find somewhere else — they are more of a dark blue and won’t be suitable for absolute beginners.”
These descending trails are shuttle access with two main dropoff points, and a third at the summit that requires a short hike-a-bike. Starting from the tippy top of Mount Owen, this double black, backcountry style, big mountain descent is mega steep, technical and exposed — not for the faint of heart. Dirt Art had looked at putting in a climbing trail, but 800m of elevation gain is a massive climb to begin with, and creating a trail to bring riders back to the top would have taken up the majority of the usable real estate for the gravity trails.
Lower on the mountain, the network continues with a couple of XC/trail loops.
“There is a beginner-friendly loop that gets you to a nice lookout point, and then you gradually descend and finish your ride down on the bank of the river,” French says.
“Off the top of that is a nice intermediate loop which gets you up a little more elevation, and into some rockier country. This intermediate loop will serve as a bit of an introduction into the gravity-based trail network, and it also means you can go for a 10km ride without the need for shuttle service,” says French.
Part of the draw to Mount Owen is that the trails flow directly into town, and the trailhead will be about 1km from the centre of Queenstown along a flat paved path.
“Queenstown is quite a funky little town; it’s got a growing cafe culture and some really nice old buildings. It used to be quite a large town back in its mining days, and there is plenty of infrastructure,” French says.
Dowling, who only moved to the West Coast from Queensland half a dozen years ago, was impressed at the standard of the restaurants and cafes around town and said all that’s missing is a brewery.
Queenstown is quite a funky little town
Both French and Dowling say the project at Mount Owen offers something completely unique in the Australian mountain biking market, but stress that the plans don’t stop at Queenstown. All up the West Coast is looking to build about 50km of trail, including an additional 20km in the Heemskirk Mountains, and is investigating town to town backcountry trail options; including one from Queenstown to Strahan following the West Coast Wilderness Railway — once used to transport the region’s copper to the harbour port of Strahan, and is now a unique tourism attraction.
With the mountain bike trail networks set for the West Coast, it fills the missing piece of infrastructure needed to complete the lap of Tasmania on knobby tyres.
“We had quite a few comments from people when word got out about this project saying, ‘oh that’s wonderful, now we can come from the mainland, start up north, come down the east coast, do Maydena, drive up to the West Coast and then catch a plane back,” says Dowling.
Dirt Art moved machinery into Queenstown in November 2020, and have cut the ribbon on this rugged trail network just before the new year — and the reopening of the Tasmanian border to the rest of Australia.
Oonah Hill, The West Coast’s first purpose-built trail
Oonah Hill was the first purpose-built mountain bike trail on the West Coast. The green descending trail offers sweeping 360-degree views over the Heemskirk Range and was a key piece in the puzzle of mountain biking on the West Coast.
“At the moment Oonah Hill is only 5km (of descending trail), in the Heemskirk (mountains) outside Zeehan, but it’s attracting a tonne of people. It set the tone for where we are headed for the region, but we know Mount Owen is going to be different,” explains Dowling.
Watch Brett Tippie ride Oonah Hill and The Stirling Valley Track
Sterling Valley Trail, a West Coast Icon
Not far from Queenstown is an absolute classic Tasmanian mountain bike experience; the Sterling Valley Trail, which we first experienced in the famous Tasmania Wildside race in 2010 and 2012, an experience we still recall vividly. It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere (because you are), and the vegetation in the myrtle forest is incredibly vibrant and lush — the scenes will stick in your mind forever.
An absolute classic Tasmanian mountain bike experience
Dripping in moss and ferns, the dense canopy of trees above locks in the moisture and filters out all but the strongest sunlight, resulting in a dark and damp place with a classic old track running down to the valley floor. It’s technical, raw, and we love it.
The short 4km point to point is worth doing a few times. If it’s wet, you’re up for a big challenge to ride it all, but we’d undoubtedly suggest stopping at least once, getting off your bike to experience the incredibly lush and vibrant wilderness and views of Mt Murchison. You don’t want to miss the brilliant scenes, by just staring at your front wheel.
Check out our 2017 trip to the West Coast region and Sterling Valley Trail here
How to get there?
If you’re heading for the West Coast, the fastest way to get there will be to fly into Hobart, pick up a rental car and do the three-hour drive. It’s pretty rugged country, and you’ll have to negotiate the 99-bends of Gormanston Hill. There is a bus service that runs once daily, but it doubles the transit time and requires a transfer.
If you plan to take the Spirit of Tasmania across the Bass Strait, from Devonport to Queenstown is just under 200km, and the drive takes about two-and-a-half hours.
Where to stay?
Depending on your price range and what type of stay you’re looking for Queenstown has no shortage of accommodation. There are pages of AirBNB’s available as well as more traditional B&Bs like the Comstock Cottage or Penghana Bed and Breakfast. There are also a few motels and hotels in town that range in price, as well as the Queenstown Cabin and Tourist Park if you plan to bring a tent or camper van.
Other things to do
Beyond the hiking, lookouts, and spectacular drives through the national parks and regional reserves on the West Coast, there is no shortage of off-bike activities.
If you want to rub shoulders with the locals – catch a game at the Queenstown Oval, also known as ‘The Gravel,’ said to be Australia’s most feared oval.
If you’re after some of the local culture – check out the Eric Thomas Gallery Museum or catch a flick at the Paragon Theater.
If you need more adrenaline in your life – go white water rafting on the King River.
Or for a more relaxing adventure – book a river cruise on the Gordon River or hop aboard the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
For more info, head over to the fantastic new West Coast Tas website. We’re headed to Queentown in February so stay tuned for more from the slopes of Mount Owen.
Watch Brett Tippie explore the wild West Coast
Photos and video – Ryan Finlay