The Dandenong Ranges lie in East Melbourne, only an hour drive from Melbourne CBD. I started discovering this region a couple of years ago on a day trip from Melbourne.
I keep coming back to East Melbourne, and on my last trips, I had the opportunity to explore more of the beautiful mountain region. In this post, I take you on a virtual trip to the best places to visit and do things in the Dandenong Ranges. This is a guide for active people who love to get out and about in the outdoors near Melbourne.
Places to visit and the best things to do in the Dandenongs
When I first visited the Dandenong Ranges National park in 2014, I got to see a small fraction of this huge region. The Dandenongs stretch between Lilydale, located in the upper north, to Ferntree Gully in the southern part and from Belgrave south-east to Gembrook.
It will not be possible to tour the entire Dandenongs on one day trip, so if your time frame is limited, this list of places will help you choose what to explore on your Melbourne Itinerary Trip.
If you ask Melburnians about their picks for visiting the Dandenong Ranges, the first thing that they would probably say is the 1000 Steps walk and the Puffing Billy Train. But there are many more places worth seeing, like the Alfred Nicholas Gardens, the Sherbrooke National Park, The Botanical Gardens and more.
So now, let’s dig deeper and take a closer look at all things to tick off your Dandenong Ranges bucket list.
8 Things to do in the Dandenong Ranges for Nature Lovers
All these places are about one-hour travel distance from the city, and the best way to explore this area is to go on day trips from Melbourne by car. Some of the sites can be visited by public transport too.
1. Go on a Puffing Billy Train Ride
Puffing Billy is the most popular heritage steam train in Australia. It is an old steam train that rides on the original mountain track for 25 km. It takes nearly 4 hours to do the whole circuit, but you can get on and off where you want to. I went on the Puffing Billy ride from Lake Emerald to Gembrook. It takes 45 minutes to go one way.
Despite the cold winter temps – 6°C – I enjoyed sitting in the open carriage, dangling my legs over the side of the carriage, leaning out and taking as many photographs as I could of the fantastic mountain landscape. The train also offers first-class luxury dining and special events, as well as various kinds of functions. This is one of the coolest spot and the funniest things you can’t miss.
Gembrook is a lovely small village with Sunday markets and charming coffee shops. Riding on the Puffing Billy train isn’t cheap; a return-ticket from Lake Emerald to Gembrook will cost about 49 dollars; prices vary depending on the train route you choose. This Puffing Billy route offers more things to do along your way.
2. Visit Lake Emerald
Lake Emerald Park is a little jewel in the Dandenongs. From Fern Tree Gully, it’s a 20 minutes drive and from the city 45 minutes. The place is a popular spot for families with kids, and tourists alike, who flock here to walk around the lake. A paddleboat ride is a must, but I would also recommend the walking tracks starting from the lake.
There are picnic and BBQ facilities and also an outdoor swimming pool. The area is very photogenic, so if you love photography, this is a great spot and one of the best places to visit in the Dandenongs. If you are visiting on the third Sunday of the month, you cannot miss out on the Sunday Market, with various stalls from local farmers and artisans selling their fresh produce and local products.
3. Walk the 1000 Steps Kokoda Memorial Track
The 1000 Steps Walk in the Dandenongs Ranges is one of the most popular spots of the Dandenongs. Locals love it. Among outdoor and fitness lovers is one of the top landmarks in Melbourne’s surroundings for jogging and exercise in nature.
This 3 km walking trail was initially created in 1900 by soldiers who died on the real Kokoda Trail in Papua Guinea. Originally made with the trunk of tree ferns, concrete and wooden steps, then replaced it. The track is quite steep, but anyone with a reasonable fitness level can walk up to the hill.
Learn more about my adventure hiking solo 1000 Steps.
Once I reached the top, I came back through the Lyrebird Track, which goes parallel down to the 1000 steps. The vegetation is impressive; you will find yourself in the fern gully, surrounded by different tree ferns and manna gum trees. To walk the 1000 steps track, you need 1 hour.
Be prepared for crowds of people flocking here from Melbourne and the suburbs. Parking your car can be a struggle. Avoid weekends, if you can, and the busiest time of the day, which is in the morning.
4. Enjoy The Sherbrooke Falls Walk
The Sherbrooke Falls Walk is another excellent and easy walk you can do in one hour, not far from the 1000 steps trail. Start your walk from the Sherbrooke Picnic Ground and walk through the beautiful forest to marvel at the tallest flowering Eucalyptus in the world, the Mountain Ash.
I happened to be there just after the rain, and the smell of the wet hardwood was so fresh and intense. You can spot swamp wallabies, wombats, brush-tailed possums being the perfect habitat for lyrebirds in the Mountain ash forest. There are good chances to see and hear these fantastic birds mimicking other birds’ singing.
5. Don’t skip on SkyHigh Mount Dandenong
This is probably the most popular place in the Dandenong Ranges. I recommend checking it out on a clear day. This is the highest point in the Dandenongs, and the view from the lookout is superb. You can enjoy Melbourne from the distance and much of Port Phillip Bay.
Some of the things you can do there are taking a stroll through the beautiful gardens, walking under dense eucalypts, sitting at the restaurant, relaxing in the picnic area, and having fun at the SkyHigh Maze taking selfies at the Giant’s Chairs. There is an entry fee of 6 dollars per can, worth paying on a sunny day and sunset.
6. Soak in the magic of William Ricketts Sanctuary
The William Ricketts Sanctuary is on your way to SkyHigh Mount Dandenong. I highly recommend it as this is a unique site, with its striking sculptures carved into rocks, representing the aboriginal culture and the artworks stunning, meaningful place. There is a small entry fee worth it.
On your way back, another great thing to do is stop at Olinda village, visit the Botanical Gardens and have tea at the famous Sassafras Cafe, a heritage tea house with excellent cakes and breakfasts.
7. Have fun at Grants Picnic Ground on Sherbrook
Another fun thing to do in the Dandenongs is bird feeding at the Grants Picnic Ground. It is a unique experience. I used to think of cockatoos as lovely birds, but they are wild animals, big and heavy birds with spiky claws in reality. I got scratches on my arms, and when you have a few cockatoos landing onto your shoulders or arms, it’s easy to lose balance.
The entry fee is 4 dollars; you get a plate with a seed package to feed the birds within a designated area only. If you like birds, go on the walking trails in the Sherbrook Forest near the Grants Picnic Ground Cafe, it’s the best way to see more birdlife.
8. Take a stroll at the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens
When you drive back from Sherbrooke National Park, make sure you don’t miss the parking on the left-hand side and the free entrance to these beautiful and picturesque gardens with – I dare say – the most beautiful ornamental lake I have seen in Australia. The Alfred Nicholas Gardens are spread on two levels with a nice walk through native and exotic flowering shrubs and trees.
The most iconic place is the ornamental lake with the Boathouse, a very tranquil and romantic place, ideal for taking photographs and enjoy a kaleidoscope of colours. Furthermore, this is the right spot for seeing birds like Rosella, King Parrots and hearing the laughing Kookaburra in the treetops. There are many gardens in the Dandenongs, but I think this place is unique and worth checking out.
How to get to the Dandenongs from Melbourne
The best way to organise your day trips from Melbourne is to hire a car or use public transport. Or a combination of both. I do prefer a self-driving. While trains and buses take you to the main destinations, you will need a car to make the most of this region. If you are on a tight schedule or want to sit back and relax, then maybe a guided tour is the best option for you.
How to plan an extended trip to the Dandenong Ranges
These are my picks for a Dandenongs itinerary from Melbourne. While you can combine a trip to these destinations with a visit to the nearby Yarra Valley, Healesville Sanctuary, North East of Melbourne, you can visit all these top places on day trips from Melbourne too.
The Dandenong Ranges is a stunning region of Melbourne; I highly recommend checking it out. It makes it to great destinations for both, as a solo traveller, but also with family.
They are easy road trips and fun things to do around Melbourne.
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First published in 2018, last updated in Jan 2021
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