Hiking Kalbarri Gorges – The Loop Trail

wide view over meander in river gorge with green vegetation on banks and red rock outcrop in left foreground
Nature’s Window

Mums Big Hike along The Loop Tail

A passage over the ripples of an ancient ocean, sands deposited almost half a billion years ago, and even footprints marking the first venture of creatures onto land from the sea…Taking a hike deep into the gorges of Kalbarri National Park takes you on a journey through time.

Hiking these gorges was the main reason we chose to start this family road trip in Kalbarri, and I was beyond excited to finally get the chance to explore this wilderness.

The most popular, and arguably the most stunning, lookouts in Kalbarri National Park are Z-Bend and Nature’s Window. These are also reportedly the best locations for searching for trace fossils, something I had always been keen to see. In all our previous trips to Kalbarri, to our great disappointment the main access roads were closed for maintenance and we had been unable to explore those areas.

View through hole in red layered sandstone to gorges beyond
Nature’s Window

Instead, we mounted our own little expedition to Ross Graham Lookout, spending hours ambling over the boulders and along cliff faces, searching for these elusive traces of primitive life. Back in 2017, with our 5 month-old baby and my parents in tow, I spotted the characteristic parallel lines crosscutting ripples in the sandstone. We had success!

Now, just over a year later, with a slightly more wilful child and full access to the national park on newly-laid tarmac, we were back to have another go.

The Challenges of Hiking With a Toddler

Hiking with a little 18-month-old passenger does mean we have to be a bit more selective about the trails we walk. Often, Maddie will be quite happy to be carried for a few hours, covering 10 to 14 kilometres a day. We avoid anything too lengthy for now as toddlers can get very restless when cooped up.

Our main concern when visiting Kalbarri National Park was that conditions are often very hot and very dry. The short trails leading to the main attractions are paved and have a shallow gradient, making them accessible to most. However, the longer ones are category four or five, meaning some climbing and scrambling; my idea of a fun day out but not so practical when carrying 12kg of child in a bulky carry pack.

We knew that getting to the iconic Nature’s Window and Z-Bend would be easy enough, but we wanted to talk to the Park Rangers before attempting any of the longer ones.

Man standing on red rock outcrop carrying toddler in carrier
Jed and Maddie at Nature’s Window

There was one trail that both Jed and I had wanted to hike since we first heard of it years ago: The Loop Trail. This category 4 trail starts at Nature’s Window and follows the cliff top overlooking the Murchison River before dropping down to the riverbank. From here it winds over rocky ledges and under escarpments, following the curve of the river, and then back through sandy track to the base of Natures Window. The trail forms a rounded triangle, tracing a meander in the Murchison River, with all three sides offering different terrain.

Making Plans and Changing Plans

Before our trip I read up on the trail and, although excited for the challenge, I was concerned that climbing around rocky ledges overhanging the river was not sensible whilst carrying Maddie. We spent our first few days in Kalbarri checking out the coastal hikes and took the opportunity to visit the Visitor Centre and National Park Headquarters. After chatting with the rangers we decided to give the hike a go, and if we didn’t think any part of it was safe, we could just return the way we came.

Our hikes along the Kalbarri coast had not gone to plan, however. Maddie, who usually loves a good hike, showed an acute aversion to her carrier. We tried on several occasions, and bribed her with the usual crackers and nursery rhymes, but in the end resigned ourselves to the fact that she just wasn’t in the mood. That’s ok though. We love having an outdoorsy baby, but we don’t want to push her when she’s not happy. We respect that at 18 months old Maddie needs her own time, and plenty of running around. If we push her too much she’ll end up hating her carrier and we don’t want that.

Green river winding through red sandstone gorges

I will admit to a tinge of disappointment at being unable to complete The Bigurda Trail on the Kalbarri coast. Jed reassured me that there would be another opportunity and we should just go with the flow. Driving back from town that day I was quiet (unusual for me). How ever much I tried to honour our new mantra, I wasn’t sure I could miss out on hiking The Loop for a third time, and manage to hold those feelings of disappointment, maybe even resentment, at bay. It is no over-exaggeration to say I badly wanted the chance to explore the depths of the Murchison Gorges, rummaging around searching for fossils.

I have been struggling to find a purpose of late. I stopped working before Maddie was born to concentrate on finishing a Masters Degree and that kept my mind busy for the first year and three months 15 months of motherhood. Now that the degree is done and dusted, and there is no sign of employment in my near future, I’ve been somewhat at a loss in finding out who I am. I don’t know who I am when I am not defined by what I do.

My first love has always been geology. I love learning just about anything, but seeing the intricacies of our natural world and phenomenal force of Mother Nature keeps my soul ignited. Can I even call myself a geologist if I am out of work? My geo-fix comes from these little family field trips and this one, in particular, had been on the cards for about six years.

path on right, red sandstone cliffs on left covered in small round green bushes

Hello, Old Fella

The half hour drive to Kalbarri National Park was spent discussing our Plan B. Plan A was, of course, to hike The Loop Trail as a family. If at any point along the trail this did not look feasible, Plan B was for me to continue on alone and for Jed to return to the car with Maddie. This did not sit well with me. There is an intrinsic feeling of failure and selfishness that comes with self indulgence as a mother, especially on a family holiday! However, Jed kept reassuring me that all would be ok. This hike was of particular importance to me, both professionally and as something I was keenly interested in.

father and daugher sitting on a wooden bench overlooking gorges, two parallel lines marked into the rock at their feet
Jed and Maddie enjoying the view from the path to Nature’s Window. If you look closely you can see the fossil tracks in the rock in front

From the very start of our hike it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to continue together. We walked the 500m down to Natures Window and stopped there to enjoy the view. A small bench by Natures Window provides a welcome resting spot to take in the stunning panorama over the gorge. Most people are so caught up in the view that they fail to look at what is beneath their feet.

If you glance down you will see perfectly preserved fossil footprints in the sandstone. Although remarkable in their clear preservation and grand age of 480 million years, these markings represent something far more important in Earth’s history; these little creatures were probably the first ever life to crawl out of the oceans and on to land. This was before even plants evolved to live out of the oceans!

woman crunching down on red sandstone with handoff two parallel lines of footprint fossils
Thats me investigating the trace fossils

In all the chapters of Earth’s history, the colonisation of land by life is probably one of the most significant, and yet here it is, right in front of our eyes. This is why I love geology, because we can find physical evidence to touch with our own hands. It’s kind of like finding Noah’s Arc or Atlantis.

I give more details on the fossils and their significance in my account of that first fossil hunting expedition so if you’d like to read more, click here.

Two lines of small indentations - footprints preserved in the red sandstone
Eurypterid Trace Fossils

You’re on your own, mum!

Maddie was getting more agitated so Jed made the decision that I should hike and he would spend the morning at the park. It was more of an order as there was no way I would have chosen to go on my own without a big old push. The signage shows the walk to be about 5 hours so we made a plan to rendezvous at the car park in three and a half hours. We always complete the trails in about two thirds of the time stated.

close up of small point flower in foreground with blurry background of red, layered rock in river gorges

With a bag full of snacks and a heart full of angst, I took those first steps onto The Loop Track. I could still hear Maddie crying for a good few hundred metres thanks to the acoustics of the gorges. I could imagine all the other visitors could hear it too and were wondering what kind of crappy mother I must be, going off to enjoy myself whilst my baby is sad. Then suddenly I heard Jed calling me. I guessed he had changed his mind and felt relief that we could reset the status quo, even if that was me feeling unworthy of personal time.

I raced back to Jed. “You’ve got the car keys in your bag” he said and I laughed, breaking the back of my anxiety. Can you imagine if he hadn’t remembered until I was too far along the track to hear? That would have made a boring morning for them at the car park.

Take two!

For whatever reason, I felt better setting off the second time. The trail skirts along the rim of the gorge, undulating at the start but flattening out to a gentle walk. After 2km I sat in an opening to take a break and regroup. I don’t remember much about the first two kilometres because I was fretting, but something in my mind changed as I sat there looking a back at Natures Window in the distance. I figured that I was well into the hike now so I should just stop with all the silly negativity and enjoy the activity.

And do you know what, from that moment on I had an absolute blast!

Back to hiking my pace quickened and I started to really enjoy bouncing up steps and over little boulders. I stopped frequently to enjoy the wildflowers and the hundred incredible vistas over the river below. A little while further the trail drops down some steep steps, all the way down to a sandy riverbank.

sandy river bank shaded by trees with red sandstone cliff in background
Sandy resting area along The Loop Trail

The trail changes here to involve a lot more climbing and creeping around narrow ledges. It is well marked though, making it easy to navigate. I enjoyed the thrill of the challenge, dangling over the shallow river and having to retrace my steps for an easier route more than once. This is real adventure.

red sandstone ledges, very thin, hanging over the green water of the river
Hiking The Loop involved climbing around some pretty challenging sections

The cliff rose gently above me, with abundant recent rock falls to clamber over. I was mindful of the fragility of these rock faces, careful which boulders to hang on to and watching for loose material. The opposite riverbank looked far more likely to yield trace fossils with its gently sloping strata, with sedimentary layers almost delaminating to reveal clean, flat surfaces. That would be a great place to explore but I didn’t see any sensible avenues to cross the river. Besides, I wouldn’t venture off track whilst on my own.

I could hear buzzing overhead, similar to a drone but far away. I stopped to see if I could spot anything, hoping to shamelessly photo-bomb some aerial photography. The sound grew louder then, all of a sudden a bright red plane came zooming around the far corner of the gorge and sped just overhead. It was low and fast. It made several flybys before disappearing off into the distance. That would have made one hell of a joyride!

white trail marker showing trail along red rocky ledge over hanging the green river with tree growing from cracks in rocks

I continued, passing many little trickles of water that must be quite impressive waterfalls after a big rainstorm. Wildflowers in pinks and yellows cling to every surface and I hear a constant overture of bird song. I had not expected to find so much life down in the gorges. Turning a corner I saw something else I didn’t expect to see; a gathering of black swans. I don’t know why these things always surprise me – perhaps I’m just ill informed – but this is what makes hiking so enjoyable. I felt a little like Cinderella with her animal friends, just a little sweatier.

some black swans in dark green water of the river with layered red sandstone cliff behind
Black swans in Murchison River

Making New Hiking Buddies

The path opened out into more of a narrow meadow, blooming with yellow wildflowers. It looked like a movie set. I stopped again to take maybe 300 or so more photos but was disturbed by two emus watching me quizzically. This was the first time I had seen an emu during a hike. I’ve seen them from the car before but never this close up.

two emus walking along sand path with grass and flowers to either side and red cliffs in background
My two emu hiking buddies

I froze so as not to scare them off. I watched them bop around in the funny, bouncy way they do, before deciding that I really should get moving myself. I was mindful that I didn’t want to be late to my rendezvous with Jed.

I edged forward, hoping not to startle the emus but they just moved a few steps further along the track. Ok, not a problem. I moved forward again and they started walking at a comfortable pace in the same direction I was heading. And so it went; for the next half a kilometre or so I had two feathery hiking buddies to keep me company, keeping pace with me, only 30m ahead. I couldn’t believe my luck that I should see them in the first place, but also how ironic it was that they would not move off the path. Ever respectful to nature I just went with the flow (valuable mantra whether you are dealing with emus or toddlers) and waited for them to eventually duck off into the undergrowth.

sandy track leading through flowering meadows, some small trees in background

I picked up my pace again, stopping frequently to admire the distinctive layered sandstone and colourful birds.

A few kilometres further and I was joined by two more emu hikers. These two moved faster but still kept to the trail. I didn’t mind though. This is exactly what English people like me expect when we move to Australia.

tiny pink flowers growing from red rock with overhanging cliff in background

small yellow flowers in front of red sandstone cliff

A Moments Reflection By The River

For the last few kilometres I walked on soft sand (uurgh!), weaving in and out of the wildflower forest and back down to the water’s edge. I was making really good time so stopped for another little snack at the base of the final big climb back up to Nature’s Window and the end of the track.

I sat there in peace for a moment, savouring my sugary snack and not really minding the army of flies I had accumulated. I was amazed that I didn’t feel at all tired. My body felt great.

sandy track on right leading through flowering grasses, trees in distance and green river on right leading to red sandstone cliffs

I have written recently about how hiking saved my sanity after having a baby, and how I needed that affirmation of my physical ability. Also about my first solo hike with Maddie and how liberating it felt to know I was capable of taking her on little adventures on my own if I so wished. This felt like the next iteration in my physical emancipation. I had once been a strong, independent woman, then I was a doting mother. Now I felt I was both.

Feeling accomplished, and full of newfound confidence, I started the tough climb back the steep rock face to where I had started. I was puffing by the time I got to the top and am sure took some tourists by surprise by popping up out of nowhere. The track is not easily visible from Nature’s Window, it looks like a near vertical drop down to the riverbank.

tiny yellow, pink, white and purple flowers growing from red rock

Final Thoughts

I chatted to many people along the paved track back up to the car park. I must have looked happy as nearly everyone gave me a giant grin and asked how I was doing. I reached the car park to find Jed and Maddie who had only just turned up themselves.

I had completed the track in two hours and forty-nine minutes, a little over half what they recommend. That felt good.

Jed and Maddie had spent the morning having fun at the park and collecting shells on the beach. Maddie was happy and didn’t seem at all phased that I had been absent for almost three hours. This really was a lesson that I should stop worrying so much.

girl being carried on fathers shoulders in from of view of river gorges, the girl is wearing an adult fly net that covers her down to her waist
Jed and Maddie at Z-Bend

toddler girl stands on sandy track with adult fly net over her head that goes all the way down to her waist

That afternoon I played with Maddie along the trail to Z-Bend while Jed got his adventure fix exploring the gorges trail there. We had such a good day in the end and all three of us were in high spirits as we left the national park at sunset.

Sometimes, we all need a little freedom to express our individual interests. I didn’t see any more trace fossils – to be honest I kind of forgot all about them – but I did hike through over half a billion year old beach ripples with some new emu buddies, and that’s pretty cool.

Just as we discovered during our Kalbarri coastal hikes, we have to go with the flow when hiking with our little girl. Sometimes our best-laid plans just aren’t going to work out. Sometimes we enjoy lazy days on the beach, all of us together; sometimes we wander off on solo adventures. It all adds up to a great family holiday in the end.

toddler walking towards camera down a red sandy track with bushes on either side, a blue and pink hat covers the girls face

girl wearing a pink and blue sunhat, pink pants and grey and white top pulling at a root perturbing from a red rock
Maddie exploring the path to Z-Bend lookout
view along a cliff with dense trees and bushes below, looking over green hills to the horizon
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend
a mature tree grows horizontally from the side of a red sandstone cliff
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend
a small valley cut into the sandstone cliff with abundant trees and bushes filling the area
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend
rocky river bank with red sandstone cliffs surrounding
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend
shallow green pool with red rocky outcrops in background
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend
view down deep gorge wiht green river flowing and red gorges on either side
Jeds photos from his hike down from Z-Bend

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