The Great Vic Gravel Route: crossing Victoria on unsealed roads

Ever dreamed of riding a bike down winding gravel roads without ever having to pedal along a paved road again? Romance aside, it’s a fascinating question: how far can you travel along unpaved roads before you end up bumping into a long stretch of pavement? Could you possibly ride from one side of the state to the other?

If you live in Victoria, Australia, we can answer that question using the detailed data in OpenStreetMap; the “Wikipedia of maps” and the dataset used by many cycling, off-road and bushwalking apps. So let’s get to it: how far can you ride across Victoria if you avoid paved roads?

Want the TL;DR version? You can’t totally avoid paved roads if you want to ride from one side of Victoria to the other. But it is possible to cross the state from west to east and avoid all but a tiny amount of paving. The E-W route with the least asphalt takes you through the mallee, the Murray and the alps. That’s quite a road trip. Welcome to the Great Vic Gravel Route!

(A quick note. All the maps and routes in this post show roads and vehicle tracks that might be travelled by bike or car, often a 4WD. Single track, paths, MTB trails and rail trails are not shown. The routes won’t change much if bike paths or single track are added. Check out the notes pages, here, here and here, for more details.)

Map 1. All unpaved roads and tracks in Victoria. Click on any image for a larger view.

There’s more than 132,000 km of dirt roads and tracks in Victoria. From a glance at the map above, you’d think you could travel almost anywhere without hitting the pavement. The trouble is, there’s also a lot of paved roads so, at the very least, you’ll have to cross a lot of paved roads even if you never ride down them.

Map 2. If you’re not in the mallee or the mountains, it’s hard to avoid Victoria’s comprehensive network of paved roads.

In many areas, paved roads break up the connections between the dirt roads and create stretches of dirt roads that can only be reached if you ride on the paved roads between them. We can call these isolated dirt roads, “gravel islands”: disconnected stretches of unpaved roads and tracks that are totally surrounded by paved roads.

Map 3. Many unpaved roads (brown) form ‘gravel islands’ that can only be reached by riding on paved roads (blue).

Small gravel islands are extremely common in densely settled parts of the state. The map below shows all of the gravel islands that contain less than 10 km of dirt roads each. It’s hard to ride far in southern Victoria without pedalling down paved roads too.

Map 4. Small gravel islands are common in southern and central Victoria. Gravel islands less than 10 km long are shown in orange. All other unpaved roads (which are part of bigger island networks) are shown in light blue.

Let’s pause for a minute. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with riding on quiet, paved roads in regional Victoria: it’s gorgeous. The point is, if we dream of a riding experience that avoids paved roads completely (except for those we have to cross), we put many great gravel routes out of reach.

So let’s revisit our dream route and agree that, while we do love to ride on unpaved roads whenever we can, we’re perfectly happy to ride down short sections of paved roads that lead on to more gravel roads. How short is a ‘short section’? (How long is a piece of string?) Let’s see what happens if we ride up to 1 km, but no more than 1 km at a time, along any paved road that leads on to another unpaved road. It’s an arbitrary rule but it seems vaguely sensible.

How far can we go?

It turns out that you still can’t ride across all of Victoria if you never ride for more than 1 km at a time along paved roads, but you can go a hell of a long way.

If you ask a computer to find all the roads you can ride on, it creates a map of Victoria’s “big gravel zones”. Each zone contains connected gravel roads and tracks and short sections (less than 1 km long) of paved roads that connect the dirt roads within each zone.

Where is Victoria’s biggest gravel zone? On forest tracks in Gippsland perhaps? Nope. It’s in north-west Victoria, where you can ride on dirt from the far north-west of the state all the way to Dunkeld, Ballarat, Bendigo and Echuca.

If you live in Melbourne, it looks like you can take the train to Riddells Creek or Macedon and ride to the north-west corner of Victoria without ever hitting asphalt for more than 1 km at a time. You can’t reach every dirt road in this region (there are still some small gravel islands hidden within this huge network), but you can reach most of them.

Map 5. The North West gravel zone is the biggest in Victoria. You can pedal down every purple road without needing to ride down a paved road for more than 1 km at a time.

If we map all of the big gravel zones that each contain more than 100 km of unpaved roads, we cover a lot of the state. The five biggest gravel zones are in the north-west (1), Gippsland (2), north-east of Bendigo (3), north-east of Shepparton (4) and in South Gippsland (5). Which is the most isolated? That’d be French Island. You’ll need to take the ferry to ride those beaut tracks.

Map 6. Victoria’s ‘big gravel zones’. Each zone contains more than 100 km of unpaved roads and tracks plus linking paved roads up to 1 km long. Adjacent zones are separated by stretches of paved roads more than 1 km long.

The Great Vic Gravel Route

Which way would we go, if we wanted to design a route from the west to the east of Victoria on dirt roads and vehicle tracks (not bike paths), with the minimum possible distance of paving? As an example, how would we get from Nelson, on the coast in far SW Victoria, to Mallacoota, on the coast in the far east?

The big gravel zones can help us to design a rough route. We just need to select the smallest number of large gravel zones that lie between our starting point and destination. The route with the shortest length of paved roads travels through these zones.

Map 7. The big gravel zones provide a broad pathway from west to east Victoria that minimises the distance along sealed roads.

Can we calculate a precise route? Yes we can. It depends on how we set the ground rules, so let’s be clear on what they are. We want to find the route from Nelson to Mallacoota that: (a) has the absolute minimum possible distance of paved roads, and (b) provides the shortest route to achieve this. (It’s a fun exercise to design routes like this, and I’ve explained the process and shown some alternative routes in another post.) And this is where it goes…

Map 8. The Great Vic Gravel Route (red) provides the minimum distance of paved roads from Nelson to Mallacoota. It’s almost twice as long as the most direct (and mostly paved) route between the two towns (blue).

What. A. Detour. To get from Nelson, in the far south-west of the state, to Mallacoota in the east, with the minimum possible distance of pavement, you’ll visit the mallee (and enjoy some hike-a-bike in the sandy Little Desert), the Murray River (camp beside the river near Barmah), the alps (you’ll pass within 10 km of Hotham Heights), plus lots of winding tracks in East Gippsland.

Wondering why you need to travel so far north? Remember the map of gravel islands we saw before (Map 4)? The Great Vic Gravel Route avoids regions with lots of paved roads and gravel islands, clings to the big gravel zones, and ‘threads the needle’, weaving between short gravel islands wherever it goes.

Map 9. The Great Vic Gravel Route (red) weaves between small gravel islands (orange) as it winds across Victoria.

How long is the Great Vic Gravel Route? From Nelson to Mallacoota it’s 1,728 km long. That’s nearly twice as long as the shortest route between the two towns, which is just 896 km (and 90% paved).

Which leads us to the elephant in the room. Is it really worth it? In a ride of 1,728 km, when you add up all the paved roads along the way, how much asphalt do you have to ride on anyway: 100, 200, 300 km?

Drum roll please. 30.

Yep, it’s possible to ride from Nelson to Mallacoota, for more than 1,700 km, and ride along just 30 km of paved roads. The longest paved section (near Benalla) is just 3.2 km long.

Want to give it a go? The Great Vic Gravel Route has never been ridden. Maybe it can’t be. But at 1,728 km from coast to coast, with just 30 km of asphalt, it’s one hell of a dream ride. If you’re keen, read the details in the links below, download the gpx files, phone your next-of-kin, and crack the FKT.*

Footnote

*FKT= fastest known time.

To keep this post short, I’ve cut out all the methods, ifs-and-buts, and lots of warnings. You can read more information about how the maps were created, how reliable the data is, and more about the maps and routes in the pages listed below.

All maps were created using the comprehensive data in OpenStreetMap. It’s an honour to acknowledge the thousands of editors who have compiled this amazing resource.

More info

  • Other route options. How the Great Vic Gravel Route was created and alternative routes that were generated by tweaking the route-selection algorithm.
  • Q&A. Questions and answers about data reliability and how it impacts on the GVGR.
  • Detailed methods. For the map nerds, lots of details on how each map was made.

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