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Breadknife and Grand High Tops – Warrumbungles

The Grand High Tops Circuit Walking Track is the most popular walk in the Warrumbungles, and reputedly one of the best bush walks in New South Wales (NSW).

Fifty years ago, my family and I spent a day at Warrumbungle National Park taking in this iconic walk, then a steep climb on rocky, uneven paths. Today the route is a combination of two-metre-wide bricked pathways and several metres of wooden staircases with metal handrails. Most walks in the Warrumbungle National Park are graded 4, for hard, because of the lengthy sections of elevated climbs. Be thankful for these upgraded sections. They hasten your ascent and make this iconic walk more accessible to less experienced walkers.

Camping in the Warrumbungles

On my first trip to the Warrumbungles, all those years ago, we stayed in a hotel in the nearby town of Coonabarabran, a 30 mins drive away. You can still do this today, but many camping sites are now available within the park with closer accessibility.

Camp Blackman, with three designated areas, is the most popular base from which to explore the park. It has level powered and unpowered camp sites, van sites, barbecues, fire pits, picnic tables, waste disposal bins, flushing toilets and shower facilities. And plenty of placid resident kangaroos, with joeys poking their heads or feet from their mothers’ pouches, to help you settle into the natural surrounds of this comfortable campsite location.

During our visit the showers randomly varied between hot, tepid or cold. We couldn’t work out what energy source heated them, whether patronage, time of day or specific cubicle affected their operation. A lottery, really. Either way, you’ll end up clean. Just bring your own soap and shampoo. Pleasingly, the toilet facilities had toilet paper with regular cleaning every 24hrs. For peace of mind, bring an extra roll during peak periods.

As for the fire rings, these are delightful places to gather with friends on a chilly night. During this visit, I relived pleasant childhood memories of eating burnt toasted marshmallows. Remember to bring enough firewood from home or stock up at Coonabarabran’s service stations. National Parks doesn’t allow foraging for firewood within the park precinct.

Geology and history of the Warrumbungles

The Warrumbungle Ranges tell the fascinating story of the Warrumbungle Volcano, which erupted around 18 to 15 million years ago. Erosion of the volcano’s sandstone foundations since that time has produced some of the most outstanding scenery in NSW. The impressive jumble of spires, dykes, and domes is part of the volcano’s internal plumbing. They give us a rare opportunity to ‘see inside’ a volcano.

From the early 1930s, the area attracted the attention of Sydney bushwalkers and rock climbers. In 1937, Myles Dunphy, Secretary of the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council, lodged a proposal for the creation of a ‘Warrumbungles National Monument Reserve’, but there were concerns that large parts of the proposed area were Crown Leases. Alfred Pincham partly allayed this concern when he offered to donate a substantial part of his property ‘Strathmore’, including some of the most spectacular features of the range, to facilitate the reserve’s creation.

The area, comprising 3,350 ha, was first proclaimed a reserve in 1953. A trust managed the park, including developing visitor facilities and walking tracks. By 1958, they had developed Canyon Camp, Wambelong and Camp Pincham in the valley areas along established creeks. They also constructed several huts at various points around the Grand High Tops Pincham trail–Dows, Danu Gap, Ogda Gap and last, Balor Hut in 1967. They officially recognised the area as a National Park in 1967.

At the suggestion of Myles Dunphy, they named many points of interest in the park after Gaelic deities. Only Balor Hut, named after Balor, king of Formor–‘Balor of the death-dealing eye; Balor of the mighty blows’ – remains today. Sadly, in 1973, National Parks and Wildlife Service Plan of Management noted that visitors were not practising ‘Leave No Trace’ principles. They removed the rest of the huts because of pollution problems.

In December 2006, the Warrumbungle Ranges received heritage national park status. In 2016, it received Dark Sky status because of its pristine night sky being unimpeded by artificial light. This is not a surprise with astronomy research in the park dating back to the 1950s. Australia’s largest optical telescopes are at Siding Spring Observatory.

The Warrumbungle NP is also within the Pilliga Important Bird Area. Archaeological evidence suggests indigenous people occupied this area for at least 5,000 years. The name ‘Warrumbungle’ comes from the Gamilaroi language and means crooked mountains.

Grand High Tops Circuit (via Pincham Trail)

Start: All variations of the Grand High Tops Circuit walk start from Pincham Carpark

Option 1: Bread Knife and Grand High Tops Circuit (via Pincham Trail)

Grade: 3–moderate to steep
Distance: 12.5km return from Lughs Throne via Dagda Shortcut to Pincham Carpark
Time: 4-5 hours
Type: Out via Pincham Trail and Back via Dagda Shortcut and Pincham Trail

If you have only one day in the Park, I recommend you choose the Grand High Tops Circuit. To make it more challenging, you can add Bluff Mountain summit. Or simply lunch at Lughs Throne and return via Dagda Shortcut past Balor Hut back to Pincham Carpark. As of August 2022, the circuit choice, via West Spirey Track, is closed for maintenance. For now, the walk is an out and back route only.

Option 2: Bread Knife and Grand High Tops Circuit (via West Spirey creek)

Grade: 4–steep
Distance: 14.5km return
Time: 5-6 hours
Type: Circuit. Out via Pincham and Back via West Spirey Track.

As of August 2022, this route is closed for maintenance. Parks expect to re-open it shortly.

Option 3: Bluff Mountain via Grand High Tops

Grade: 4–steep
Distance: 19km return including Bluff Mountain, and descent via Dagda Shortcut, to join Pincham Trail and return to Pincham Carpark.
Time: 6-7hrs including snack and lunch break
Type: Out and back via Pincham Trail returning via Dagda Shortcut

The Bluff Mountain walk starts from Pincham Carpark on the Pincham Trail just after the monument dedicated to Alfred Pincham, a pastoralist who gifted large tracts of his ‘Strathmore’ property to help establish Warrumbungle National Park.

It’s an easy start as you wander through the shaded valley of Spirey Creek. The dominant trees on the flats are Ironbark, White Box and Rough-barked Apple. On the drier hill slopes, Black Cypress Pines, and White Gums. The forest is ablaze with wildflowers this spring. Purple coral pea or the smooth Darling pea evergreen creeper dominates the area.

About 3.1km along the trail, take the short 5-minute 140 metre spur track detour on your left to Spirey View, a sandstone outcrop, with pleasant views of the Breadknife and Belougery Spire.

Return to the Pincham Trail where the track shortly takes a right-hand turn and begins the steep Spirey Ramp ascent to the Breadknife. The park has made this much easier with well-constructed sections of brick pavements and wooden steps supported by sturdy metal hand rails.

The trail winds its way steeply up Spirey Ramp through a dry woodland of Black Cypress Pines and Ironbark. As you catch your breath, enjoy the close-up view of Belougery Spire (1057m), a fine example of a volcanic plug. You are seeing the cast of one of the volcano’s vents through which molten rock (magma) erupted to the surface. Erosion has worn away the less resistant rock surrounding the plug, leaving this magnificent cylindrical cast exposed. Belougery, a derivation of the word ‘Belougerie’, refers to one of the early pastoral leases in these mountains and was the name of the Blackman family’s property. The original ‘Belougerie’ homestead was on the land we now know as Camp Blackman.

Continue climbing till you reach the base of the Breadknife. To your right is the Dagda Shortcut via Balor Hut track. This is the way most people choose to return from the Grand High Tops Circuit from either Lughs Throne or Bluff Mountain for a circuit of sorts, with the alternate West Spirey Track currently closed. You can book historic Balor Hut on an exclusive use basis, sleeping up to 8 people. A campsite is located nearby with tank water available. A pit toilet is also available at this last remaining hut on the Grand High Tops Circuit route.

Take the left-hand path which veers around Lughs Wall, another volcanic dyke, and most probably an offshoot of the Breadknife. This is where my mum and I quit nearly 50 years ago. If we had turned the corner, we could have easily rock scrambled our way to the top of this wall to feast on these epic views. Fortunately, my recent accomplishment avoids the need for me to die wondering.

The Breadknife is a dyke, formed when molten rock (magma) forced its way into a long, narrow crack in the rocks beneath the surface of the volcano. The magma later cooled and solidified, forming a cast of the fissure. Erosion has since worn away the softer rocks that surrounded the fissure leaving the more resistant dyke, rising 100 metres above the ground, and running an impressive 600 metres northwards from Crater Bluff (another plug) believed to be the source of the magma that formed the Breadknife. A smaller Fish Knife and Butter Knife also surround Lughs Wall.

In some places, the magma was so viscous (a gluggy consistency) it couldn’t flow far from the vents and built up into huge piles or domes. Balor Peak (885m) to the left of the Breadknife and Bress Peak (850m) to Balor Peak’s right are good examples although Bluff Mountain (1200m), if you venture to the end point of this walk, is perhaps the most impressive lava dome in the park.

It’s time to continue onwards and upwards. Crater Bluff (1094m) is still not obvious to the walker until you cover a short but steepish climb to Lughs Throne, the perfect resting spot for admiring this magnificent volcanic landscape. You’ve reached the summit of Grand High Tops (960m) and are near the middle of what was once the Warrumbungle volcano. A perfect resting spot if you don’t mind pesky Currawongs quick to devour any crumbs you accidentally leave. Lughs Throne is part of a trachyte lava flow, often not a friendly place for plants. Knife-leafed wattle, Forest Phebalium and hardy heath plants, such as the Fringed Heath Myrtle, have hung on here.

If you are ready to complete your Grand High Tops adventure, follow the path west towards Dagda Gap. The path crosses the lumpy (southern) end of the Breadknife, then descends steeply past Finola Pinnacle (on your left) to Dagda Gap. Dagda Shortcut branches off the Pincham Trail here, so turn right and head back along a gently sloping track towards the Breadknife. The track reaches the western side of the Breadknife, plunges down to Balor Hut and emerges back on the Pincham Trail at the steep staircase which will return you to Pincham Carpark, along the main track beside Spirey Creek.

If you can handle another 5km, it’s worth kicking on to Bluff Mountain (1203m), the park’s most impressive lava dome and second highest mountain, only 3 metres lower than Mount Exmouth. Continue west along the Pincham Trail towards another saddle, Nuada Gap. This 1.2km stretch of track, called Dagda Ramp, takes you to the Bluff Mountain spur trail off to the left.

From Nuada Gap, the trail up Bluff Mountain climbs steadily uphill through Bush Pea and Tick Bush scrub. Soon it meets the steeper slopes of the mountain proper. On the shaded slopes, look out for outstanding groves of grass trees, some over 500 years old. If you like these specimens, you’ll love the more impressive and plentiful offerings on Mt Exmouth’s southern slopes and summit.

The track makes its way up a low cliff in a series of steps and zig zags, until you emerge onto the open rocky summit area where you continue up the exposed, rocky slope in a northerly direction. The summit of Bluff Mountain falls gently away from you, but don’t step too far off course. There’s a hidden cliff face with a sheer 250m drop. Stepping back from the edge, we couldn’t get over the exceptional view. To the east Crater Bluff, Belougery Spire and the Breadknife, to the northwest Mt Exmouth’s sheltered southern slopes, to the south Tonduran Spire, and a little further west, the thick lava flow of Mt Naman.

We found a nice, sheltered spot for lunch, (so we thought) until the bitter wind saw us make a hasty retreat. To return to Nuada Saddle and the Pincham Trail, follow the same route back down the mountain and continue down the Dagda Gap Shortcut route, the path chosen by those in our group who exited earlier in the day from Lughs Throne.

Best Time to Visit

The park is exposed. On hot days, make sure you take enough water as no reliable water sources exist on the ranges.
For comfort, autumn and spring are the best times to visit, with spring bringing the wildflower season.

How to get there

6hrs drive North West from Sydney or two and a half hours North East of Dubbo. The nearest township, Coonabarabran (known as the astronomy capital of Australia) is located 30 mins from the park entrance.

Where to stay?

Hotels and Motels: Several options are available in the nearest town, Coonabarabran, 30kms away.
For campsites bookings visit the National Parks Website. A car pass to enter the park is also required.

Campsites -on track

  • Balor Hut (sleeps 8 in 4 bunk beds–bring bedding) or reserve campsite
  • Burbie
  • Danu Gap
  • Dows
  • Hurleys
  • Ogma Gap

Campsites – limited amenities

  • Pincham
  • Walaay
  • Wambelong

Campsites – full amenities

  • Camp Blackman–Sites 1, 2 and 3

More Information

There’s an excellent Visitor Information Centre with very helpful staff just 2 kms from Camp Blackman, opened from 9am to 4pm daily. Informative displays, giftware and best of all, a selection of cold drinks and ice creams to enjoy after a hot day’s walk. They’ll recommend the best walks for you based on your fitness levels and interests, weather, and current park conditions. The Centre supplies basic overview maps.

Identification of key landmarks–spires, dykes, domes and peaks–and how volcanic activity formed them has come from an old NPWS brochure, kindly sourced from Oliver’s Hiking the World blog. Please visit his site for alternative approaches to these popular trails.

Detailed GPX files for these trails are available for download from reputable navigation apps, such as Alltrails. The topographic map reference for Warrumbungle National Park, downloadable to the Avenza map app, is 8635-2 TOORAWEENAH (1:50K).

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