Explore the ancient & rugged cliffs of the Great Ocean Road's most popular national park
Port Campbell National Park is about a 30km stretch along the coast of the Great Ocean Road where every part of it will take the breath out of your lungs as you witness what the monstrous Southern Ocean has created over the last 20 million years.
The national park is part of the Shipwreck Coast and this section of it is mostly made up of huge cliffs that get pounded against by the ocean, eroding the stone to create huge, rugged formations. Anywhere that you can get out of the car or tour bus will provide a view of some of the most wild coastline in the country showcasing incredible natural Limestone formation and the sight of dozens of ship wrecks during the Australian Gold Rush that began in the 1850’s.
It’s best to spend a few a days here and see as much as you can of this unique coastline. There are loads of accommodation options within the national park. Each day, drive to one or many of the attractions and then explore by foot. However, if you are just passing through and your time is limited, then make sure you stop in at the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge, which are both just a few kilometers apart and the main attractions of the area.
Loch Ard Gorge
The Port Campbell National Park is a coastal reserve on the mid south-west Victorian coastline, as far as your Great Ocean Road trip is concerned, you’ll enter the area as you come out of the Great Otway National Park forest and return to the coast..
The park stretches along the coastline for about 30kms. It begins to the west of the Gellibrand River Mouth in Princetown and continues west to Curdies Inlet which is another, larger river mouth running from the Curdies River in Peterborough, just short of the Bay of Islands.
Curdies Inlet, Peterborough (Western Tip)
Gellibrand River Mouth, Princetown (Eastern Tip)
Guide to exploring Port Campbell National Park's best from east to west
Princetown isn’t much of a town, but a beautiful place to stop-in and have a picnic or to set up your tent and camp for the night. The town centre is on top of a small hill, but the general store closed down, so it’s really just the 12 Apostles Inn, the Apostles Camping Park & Cabins across the road from and a lookout (the Inn has some general goods for sale, although a small supermarket is only 15 minutes to the west in Port Campbell).
It’s nice to pull into Princetown and take a look at the wetlands from on top of the small hill, then if you’re not staying the night, head down to the Princetown Recreation Reserve to try and spot some Kangaroos!
To get down to the reserve, you’ll need to drive another few hundred metres along the Great Ocean Road and take the first left, which is a dirt track.
Just a short drive down the road, you’ll come across the Gellibrand River. This is a nice place for lunch and a safe spot to launch a kayak into the slow moving and calm river.
You can drive over the river via the small bridge and you’ll come to the Princetown Recreation Reserve. There’s a good chance of spotting Kangaroos here, anytime, but the best time to go looking for them is in the morning or early evening. The reserve is also now a budget camp ground where you’ll hear the ocean crashing at night and possibly wake up to dozens of Kangaroos.
If you are spending the night and have plenty of time, there’s a walking trail from Princetown to the 12 Apostles that will get you there with-in a couple of hours, unless you spend some extra time exploring other places along the way.
A lot of the time, the staircase is closed due to hide tides or bad weather, but the the steps are just next to the car park, so it’s worth a try.
If you make it down to the beach at the bottom of the stairs that are carved into the 50 metre Limestone cliff, looking to your right, you’ll see two huge chunks of stone towering from the ocean, this is Gog & Magog. Most people assume that they are two of the 12 Apostles, although they’re not and the Apostles can’t quite be seen from this beach.
Just behind Gog & Magog is Castle Rock, which is a huge cliff that’s part of the mainland, this blocks the view of the Apostles that begin only 100 metres or so on the other side of it.
Port Campbell National Park's (& Australia's) most visited natural tourist attraction
The 12 Apostles are an incredible group of 8 Limestone Stacks that have formed over the last 15-20 million years and now tower 45-50 metres above the ocean. They’re the most visited natural tourist attraction in Australia.
Originally, there were 9 Apostles, although just like they were formed, erosion from the mighty Southern Ocean resulted in one of them collapsing in 2005.
Heavy marketing since the 1920’s when the name was changed from the Sow & Piglets to the Apostles has turned this place into magnet for tourists from all over the world, especially China. There’s a visitor information centre, coffee shop and toilets here, making it a good place to not only see one of the national parks highlights, but to also take a pit stop.
From the main Apostles viewing area, only 5 of the Apostles can be seen. It can look like more are in sight, although you’re most likely looking at cliff edge that’s still attached to the mainland. To view the other 3 Apostles that can’t be seen from here, keep driving to west to Loch Ard Gorge car park and walk 300 metres to The Razorback (here’s more information on how to get to The Razorback).
Five Of The Eight 12 Apostles
Here’s loads more information and a guide to visiting the 12 Apostles, including how they were named.
The Apostles are super impressive and an absolute must see, although we think the next place along the Great Ocean Road is more intriguing and interesting to explore.
The 130kms part of the coastline was named the Shipwreck Coast after hundreds of ships wrecked along it in, mainly in the gold rush era during in the 1800s.
The most well-known shipwreck was in 1878, when the Loch Ard smashed into Mutton Bird Island. On board was some important cargo and over 50 people, including a wealthy doctor, his wife and five children. Also onboard was a tough 18 year old Aussie born chap named Tom Pearce. You can read the entire story here of the Loch Ard shipwreck, in short, the ship sunk and tough Tom rescued one of the doctors daughters by swimming them both into the gorge now known as Loch Ard Gorge. They were the only two people to survive.
Although it would have been handy for them at the time of the shipwreck, there’s since been a wooden staircase built that goes down to a beach in the gorge.
Here’s a guide to visiting Loch Ard Gorge with the story of the Loch Ard Shipwreck in 1878.
From the Loch Ard Gorge carpark, other than going down into the gorge where you’ll find a gold sandy beach with massive cliffs on either side. There are a bunch of of other short walks, including heading to the Razorback to get a view of the Apostles that can’t be seen from the official viewing area, the Shipwreck Walk to see where the Loch Ard hit Mutton Bird Island, walks to Thunder Cave, Broken Head and a slightly longer trek to the Sherbrook River Mouth. All of these places are a lot of fun to check out and easily spend half a day here.
Out of all of the places in the Port Campbell National Park and possibly the entire Great Ocean Road you should budget your time to spend a lot of it here and nearby.
Sherbrook River Mouth
Port Campbell is one of the most stunning coastal towns along the entire coastline and where the first town of European colonials settled in the area.
Much larger than any other town in the Port Campbell National Park, here you’ll find a protected, gold sand beach in the middle of town and loads of places to either eat, drink or sleep.
If you’re looking for somewhere to spend a night or several in the area and you still want modern day comforts and facilities, Port Campbell is your best option.
Most of the tour groups only go to the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge as the magority of them will be doing a full Great Ocean Road tour starting at and returning to either Melbourne or Geelong. The final part of the Port Campbell National Park is between Port Campbell and Peterborough, which is about 15 kms and the natural sights are just as impressive as the Apostles.
There are a few places where you’ll be able to stop near the side of the road or take a short track to visit another incredible part of the jagged coastline.
Although half of the London Bridge collapsed and it’s now called the London Arch, it’s a good chance to see what it looks like when stacks, like the Apostles are beginning to form. The Grotto is a natural window that looks into a natural pool. The Grotto was formed by both erosion and it’s a sink hole, so it’s unlike anywhere else in the Port Campbell National Park, not only that, the walk out to the Grotto is several hundred metres with beautifully colored creeping native plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions.
History of the Port Campbell National Park
The Kirrae Whurrong (Girai wurrung) tribe were the first people to live in this area and did so for tens of thousands of years.
In 1843, Alexander Campbell was avoiding a storm in a cove that’s now known as Port Campbell, which is the largest town in the Port Campbell National Park. To protect the 12 Apostles and nearby stone formations, the area became a National Park in 1965, for the next 15-20 years the park grew in size from around 700 hectares to more than 1,700 hectares.
How the coastline was formed
The entire Port Campbell National Park is sitting on ancient seabed made of Limestone that formed millions years ago.
Around 20 million years ago, this entire coastline was deep under water. Plant and and fish that died and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, alongside other ocean debris and sand from rivers all compacted from the pressure of the water to form the Sandstone & Limestone. Limestone is Sandstone (sedimentary rock) with 50% or more of it being fossils.
The ocean eventually retreated and then begun to erode the coastline to form the rugged cliffs and stone formations that exist today. The current water level was reached around 6,000 years ago after the last Ice Age.
At first, the water and wind creates caves in the cliffs. Weak stone erodes and huge tunnels can be formed that go for hundreds of metres into the land. With a bit of luck, a whole area will crumble away and leave just the entrance to tunnel, which then looks like a huge arch such as the London Bridge. With more time, the centre of the arch will collapse and ‘stacks’ are left, just like the Apostles.
Accommodation & places to stay
As the Port Campbell National Park is worth spending a few days at and is around 3 hours west of Melbourne, you’ll be needing somewhere to spend one or a few nights.
There are several towns in and around the Port Campbell National Park and almost 100 campgrounds with-in 100kms of the park, so there are plenty of options to chose from.
Port Campbell is the main town inside the national park. It has dozens of accommodation options, from luxury holiday homes to beautiful boutique hotels. You’ll also find more cost effective options, such as the camping park and backpackers hostel.
Camping in the Port Campbell National Park
Other than the dozens of campsites in national and state parks near the Port Campbell National Park, there are a huge amount of options for camping right in the Port Campbell NP itself, although they will be at private camping parks.
You can drive straight into Port Campbell where you’ll find some large and busy private camping parks, otherwise for somewhere with facilities but with a little bit more of a remote feeling, head ten minutes to the east of Port Campbell to Princetown.
There are two main campgrounds in Princetown. The Apostles Camping Park is in the centre of Princetown, opposite the 12 Apostles Inn, which has decent affordable accommodation. Here, you can pull in your caravan, set up a tent or rent a cabin. The Apostles Camping Park is super neat, very well kept, comes with nice views of the Princetown wetlands. The facilities are clean and in good working order.
Next to the Gellibrand River, between the centre of Princetown and the beach is the Princetown Recreation Reserve. This is the most affordable camping option where you can set up a tent on the old cricket oval, camping beside the Kangaroos with the mighty roar of the Southern Ocean crashing into the nearby Gellibrand River Mouth to nurse you through the night.