How to Arbo: Single Tracking the National Arboretum

The National Arboretum is a really coming along.  I look at the layout and trees and can see just how amazing it will be in 20 or 30 years time.  Notwithstanding the need for many trees to grow, the “Arbo” still has so much going for it when it comes to cycling: amazing views with great roads and tracks to see them from.  Spend enough time and you’ll see commuters short-cutting on River Road, roadies pumping up and down Forest Drive, and mountain bikers zooming across single track.

The single track provides awesome ways to explore the Arboretum.  If you have a look at a map, the single track is the colour-marked tracks as well as uncoloured walking tracks.  With limited exceptions cyclists are permitted on all of these.  The challenge, however, is how to combine these into a ride?  Having spent some time exploring throughout, I have combined them into a favourite 19km-long set of loops: one with very little cross-over but covering almost all of what there is to see.  In addition, it is possible to add the side-adventure of Zoo Pines, making for an extra fun morning or afternoon out.

Entering the Arboretum

There are many choices as to how to enter the Arboretum.  If you are driving and then riding, I recommend parking at the lower car park – near Lindsay Pryor National Arboretum and the National Rock Garden (no I’m not kidding).  It is then a short ride into the Main Entry/Exit.  An alternative free car park is at Cork Oaks.  If you choose to park up the hill inside the arboretum (near the Village Centre), you need to pay for the privilege.

You can also easily access the arboretum if travelling there by bike.  For example, there is connection to the main entry from the shared cycle path around Lake Burley Griffin.  Alternative entrances include via the Cork Oaks Forest (see Option A below), River Road / Boundary Road (see Stromlo to Arbo), and other back road routes (see, for example, Molonglo River Reserve).

The route described here assumes a start at the main entry. Once inside the arboretum, it heads almost immediately right on Cork Oak Road.  This road soon becomes unsealed gravel, and heads over and down towards Black Mountain and a car park.  It is from here that the single track starts – zig zagging up towards the Himalayan Cedars.

Himalayan Cedars

Joining the Himalayan Cedar Track at the edge of the forest, the route then heads past a barbeque area below a car park and the Wide Brown Land sculpture.  One of the best views of the arboretum is from this track, amongst the California Fan Palms (these are going to be epic fully grown).  If you want to check out the sculpture, it is possible to head up the hill just as the track approaches Himalayan Cedar Road. 

Crossing the sealed Himalayan Cedar Road, the track provides a fun sweeping descent through the trees to another sculpture.  Here the map and track is a bit deceptive – you can start heading towards the Ecosystems Park, but there are now clear signs indicating that cyclists are not allowed in the garden. This is fair enough – this is a tight and narrow area that is not a great combination for cyclists and pedestrians.

Taking the marked detour, the trail diverts to Boundary Road and passes near the maintenance depot.  This is definitely the least scenic part of the route.  From here, however, it is time to start the upper part of Mountain View Track.

Mountain View & Dairy Farmers Hill

This CyclingGravel route gradually works from the upper levels of the arboretum to the lower ones.  Mountain View track is used twice, starting at the upper end and using an unnamed track to then connect with the Dairy Farmers Hill track.  The views are spectacular, combined with a beautiful tree-lined trail.  Also on Dairy Farmers Hill a sign provides detail on the Australian Alp views to the southwest, a scene that in winter often includes snow-tipped peaks. 

I confess to not being much of a botanist, but the arboretum has taught me about trees I’d never heard of but now really like.  As you wrap around Dairy Farmers Hill one of my favourites is the Mediterranean Red Bud.  Its beautiful colours in these photos provide a strong case for visiting in spring.  Other spring highlights include the Chinese Mahogany. Once around the circumference of Dairy Farmers, the route uses Forest Drive to return to the northern end of Mountain View track and start on the lower part of the trail.  This part of the trail provides clear views of Mount Stromlo and the Molonglo valley, before heading back through the Radiata Pines – trees that covered the arboretum until Canberra’s 2003 bushfires.

After exiting the pine forest, the trail heads towards the Village Centre after crossing Forest Drive.  I like to ride past the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion and on to one of the busiest parts of the arboretum.  The Pavilion often hosts weddings and on weekends and during holidays the Amphitheatre is often filled with families.  The Centre also has a café for a break, made all the better by the view.

Explorer track

From the Village Centre, the route uses Forest Drive to connect with the longest track in the arboretum – Explorer Track.  Whilst not as view-filled as the other parts of the route, it provides the pick of the riding as it winds its way through the different plantations.  This part of the arboretum typically seems to have few visitors as well, so you can often feel like you have the place to yourself.

Turning back towards the north and the last part of the arboretum, it is possible to head down and under the Tuggeranong Parkway to explore Zoo Pines (see Option B below).  There is a clear trail beside the pond that can be used to head that way.

The final part of the trail passes a final sculpture (pretty interesting on a windy day) before a final crossing of Forest Drive and a return to the main entrance. 

Option A: start at Cork Oaks

Starting at the Cork Oak Forest is an alternative to entry and exit from the main entry.  The Cork Oak Forest is interesting as it was planted over one hundred years ago, and is therefore the oldest European cultivated part of the arboretum.  It also can be ridden as a short optional add-on if you just want to explore.

Option B: add Zoo Pines

Zoo Pines is a popular set of mountain bike trails behind the National Zoo & Aquarium created by the Kowalski Brothers – a group responsible for many cool trails around the ACT.  Suitable for kids and for gravel bikes, it is a great addition to an arbo ride.  There are a number of ways to create loops here (one is shown in the Komoot below) and it is also possible to exit on the Molonglo River trails (and potentially the Molonglo River Ride).  Worth a diversion under the Parkway.

Details of this ride – core route, start & end at rock garden car park

Details of Option A and B alternatives – start at Cork Oak entry, shorter arbo, illustrative Zoo Pines ride

Travel guidance

  • The single tracks in the arboretum are in excellent condition, and can be ridden on a touring or gravel bike without any problem. 
  • I have now tried the coffee at the visitor centre, and it is fine.  The best place to park your bike is at the back of the visitor centre (ie the side that the view and Margaret Whitlam pavilion is on) – there is a nice big bike rack here.
  • Please be considerate of pedestrians – these trails are for walkers too. I love riding in the early morning or towards dusk as it is most likely you will only have fellow cyclists and the occasional jogger for company (at least of the human kind).

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