You might have never heard of the Heysen Trail, the 1200km hiking route in South Australia that runs from the outback to the sea, but Elisha is ready to change that.


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While Australia isn’t short of hiking trails, we surprisingly don’t have many long distance walks that stack up with the well-known international thru-hikes.

But if you suddenly feel inspired to go for a very long walk in Australia after binge-watching one too many PCT YouTube videos, then your best bet is setting off on the Heysen Trail in South Australia. This is the longest walking trail in the country* and yet far fewer tackle the 1200 km challenge than you might expect.

Read more: 4 Thru Hikes in Australia

What is the Heysen Trail?

The Heysen Trail is a 1200km walk in South Australia running from the northern trailhead at Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges to the southern trailhead at Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The trail crosses some of the state’s most varied and challenging terrain, while taking you on a journey through several national parks and conservation areas.


Flinders Ranges National Park boundary


It’s considered one of three long distance walking trails in Australia, with the other two being the Bibbulmun Track in WA (1000km) and the Australian Alps Walking Track through Victoria, NSW and the ACT (650 km).

To complete a full thru-hike of the Heysen Trail, the average time is somewhere between 50-65 days. But this wildly differs between hikers. There are varying degrees of trail closures during the Fire Danger Season from 1st November until mid-April each year, so most end to end journeys are planned for sometime between April and November.

Read more: Endurance Runners Set New FKT on 1200km South Australian Hiking Trail

A Trail to Connect South Australia’s Parks

For those who appreciate a bit of context, it was in 1969 that Mr C Warren Bonython came up with the concept of building a long trail connecting the state’s parklands from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges.


Early morning in Flinders Ranges National Park


The first section of the Heysen was built in 1976. From then on, Terry Lavender became the true champion of the trail as he oversaw its development until completion in 1993.

So, who is Heysen you might ask? The trail was named after German born Sir Hans Heysen (1877-1968), who was a famous artist. He’s known for his watercolour paintings of the Australian bush, in particular of both the Mount Lofty and Flinders Ranges.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!

Why have you not heard of it before?

If you haven’t heard of the Heysen Trail, you’re not alone. Few people have heard of it outside of South Australia.

In fact, even my fellow well-travelled hikers looked at me before I left as if to say, ‘What is this Heysen Trail you’re babbling on about?’.

Many South Australian hikers see it as a lifelong goal, by completing it in sections or day hikes over months and even years. But for interstate hikers, its existence flies well under the radar.


The mid-north-section of the Heysen Trail

A fellow thru-hiker on the trail replied, ‘Honestly, I think I just Googled “long distance walking trails in Australia”’, when we were discussing how we’d both ended up following these endless red arrows across the countryside.

For me, I’d been introduced to the trail on a previous visit to South Australia. After completing numerous day hikes across the state, I kept seeing these intriguing red arrows pointing further into the vast distance.

It was then and there that I decided that I would one day return to follow them from start to finish.

A Diverse Journey Through Australia’s Landscapes

Without a doubt one of the highlights of the trail is the incredible variety of landscapes and terrain that the trail crosses.

In fact, while it’s a journey across a single state, it really provides hikers with a complete immersion in the great diversity of Australia.

You walk from the unforgiving outback in the Flinders Ranges, through the endless green hills and grassy paddocks of the Mid North, to the vineyards of the Barossa Valley, through the dense bush and pine plantations of the Adelaide Hills and finally, along the wild and rugged coastline of the Fleurieu Peninsula.


Rest stop on the Fleurieu Peninsula

Rest stop on the Fleurieu Peninsula


Within a blink of an eye (or in reality a few days’ walk), I went from stumbling through rocky gorges with towering walls to following rolling fence lines across exposed green hills.

The dramatic changes are enough to keep you captivated (and tired) even after weeks on trail.

From The Outback to The Coast (Or The Other Way Around)

The way I’ve described it here is walking south or southbound (SOBO), which is the direction I went from August to September.


A few kilometres from the end at Cape Jervis


Beginning from the northern trailhead in the remote Parachilna Gorge (i.e. the middle of nowhere), I headed south and made it to the bottom tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula after 55 days.

But in reality, you can walk north too (NOBO). In fact, the trail was originally designed as a northbound trek. But these days, you can do whichever direction suits you, depending on the time of year you want to walk.

So do you just follow the red arrows?

It really is that simple, but not necessarily always easy. The Friends of the Heysen (FOHT) organisation do an incredible job in maintaining the trail and placing markers along the full length of the track.


A red hiking arrow and the view from Bridle Gap


However, a backup GPS app or device, plus paper maps are all worth carrying in case you get into bad weather or for some reason, those red arrows seem to be hiding from you (it happens more often than you think).

I highly recommend FarOut (formerly Guthook Guides). This is the popular GPS app used on many long distance walks around the world.

You have to purchase the Heysen Trail to use it offline, but it’s kept updated by the FOHT and comments left by fellow thru-hikers provides some peace of mind.

‘Walkers Follow Fence’

The Heysen Trail is definitely not a linear, single-track trail. If you look closely at a map of the trail, you won’t be the first person to wonder why it seems to take you out on random doglegs and detours around ranges and towns.


Pichi Richi railway near Quorn


In reality, the trail is more of a connection of existing infrastructure and natural landforms. There’s a lot of dirt road walking, fence following, ridge line tracing and, my personal (least) favourite, creek bed walking. Seeing signs that say, ‘Walkers Follow Fence’ is commonplace.

While it does get you around to many of the state’s national parks and conservation areas, the trail also takes you through historic towns, across private stations and farmland, and along several dirt roads.

It’s Isolated and Lonely Out There

Before you grab your backpack and head off in search of a fun adventure on the Heysen Trail, one of the most important things to know is how isolated and lonely it is.


Kangaroo in the Burra region

Thru hiking in Australia is not quite the same as those bustling trails in the US that you see on YouTube.

To give you some idea, it’s estimated only about 40-50 people complete a thru-hike of the Heysen Trail each year. In my 55 days on trail, I only met 13 other thru hikers, 9 of whom were solo hikers.

However, it is slowly growing in popularity, with the latest figures from the FOHT suggesting that at least 50 people may have thru-hiked this year.

In fact, a comment that I heard so often from fellow hikers was, ‘I didn’t realise how lonely the trail would be and how it would affect me.’


Crossing Arkaba Station


My first three full days on trail, I didn’t see another human being, only a couple of cars in the far off distance. You really need to mentally prepare for being completely alone out there for days at a time.

What about food?

Despite painting a grim picture of the remoteness of the trail, it does pass through several towns on the way. From small outback settlements in the Flinders to historic mining and pastoral towns in the Mid North, you’ll get access to at least basic food provisions every few days.

The towns are actually a highlight of the trail too. Aside from providing a chance to shower, do laundry, head to the pub, and upload content to your Instagram Story, they showcase the much-appreciated hospitality of regional South Australia.


Canola fields


From caravan park managers happily storing my boxes of dehydrated meals to cafe staff politely allowing us stinky hikers to mingle with other customers over lunch, the trail would not have been as manageable without the people.

You Don’t Always Have to Sleep in Your Tent

And yes, those towns mean that you don’t have to sleep in your tent every single night on the trail.

With caravan parks, pubs, and B&B accommodation available, you’ll get frequent chances to have a shower, use a normal toilet, and sleep in a soft, plush bed (AKA hiker’s heaven).

But once you leave those pockets of civilisation behind, you’ll hop between designated campsites on the trail. There’s a convenient network of camps and huts, which are maintained by FOHT.

The campgrounds generally consist of a water tank, and if you’re lucky, a long drop toilet and bench or platform. Despite being primitive, they’re a welcome sight at the end of each day.


Grandpas Camp in the Adelaide Hills


You also get access to several huts and shelters. While some are historic stone huts that have been carefully restored with bunks and fireplaces, others are simple three-sided purpose-built shelters.

Either way, they provide much-needed respite from the elements and feel as close to the Hilton as you’ll get out there.

I pushed through 10 hours of walking on my toughest day on trail just to get to Dutchmans Hut, they really are that good.


Mayo Hut

Be Prepared for All Weather Conditions

There’s no way I’ll finish this without mentioning the weather. It didn’t take me long to figure out why South Australia has so many wind turbines.

While admittedly an unusually wild weather year, I could probably count on one hand the amount of calm, blue sky days I had.

From back to back frosty mornings below zero to climbing exposed ridgelines in powerful crosswinds, the weather certainly had the biggest (mostly negative) influence on my mood.

Pack warm layers, a pack cover, rain jacket, and gloves, don’t forget gloves!

Where To Find Out More

If you’ve read this far and still want to know more, the Friends of the Heysen Trail website has everything you’ll need. I also recommend joining the Facebook Group: Heysen Trail E2E & Through Hiking, where you’ll find an exceptionally helpful community of past and present thru-hikers offering all sorts of advice and answers to your burning questions. 


*You might be wondering, but isn’t the Bicentennial Track the longest trail in Australia? Short answer: yes. But the Bicentennial is a multi-use trail that was originally designed for horse riders and pack saddling. Whereas, the Heysen Trail is a designated walking trail and hence, referred to as the longest walking trail in Australia.