The Gippsland Plains Rail Trail covers the path of the former Maffra railway line. It provided an alternative route to East Gippsland that bypassed Sale. The line separated from the main line at Traralgon and met the Gippsland line at Stratford. The line was closed over a period of 8 years, initially beginning with just a partial closure, but ultimately fully closing in 1994. A key purpose of the line was to transport goods from the towns along the line, such as sugar beets in Maffra and timber in Heyfield.
The rail trail was opened in 2005, and further upgraded from 2013-2014. The surface of the trail is gravel, and is mainly flat, taking you through 63 km (39 mi) of farming country.
Mobile phone coverage is generally pretty good along the track, so nothing like a satellite phone is necessary, and you shouldn't be any further from a town during your journey than 5 km (3.1 mi). Nothing more than the basics should be needed: water, a snack if necessary, a mobile phone.
At both ends of the rail trail, there are rail connections, so it's very easy to get to the starting point on both ends. To get to Traralgon, you can either drive down the Princes Highway/M1 from Melbourne, or you can take the train from Melbourne's Southern Cross station. Unless your service is going past Traralgon, you do not need to book a ticket for train services to Traralgon, and you can use a Myki card. However, Traralgon is, at least by Gippsland standards, a pretty busy city of 25,000, and traffic is likely to be a factor, as in order to get to the beginning of the trail, you have to snake through Traralgon.
A quieter option on the eastern side of the trail is Stratford, a town of a couple thousand. Stratford can also be accessed via the Princes Highway and Southern Cross station — the only difference is that a paper ticket is required to take the train, which can easily be purchased from the Southern Cross train station. Being a smaller town, traffic isn't as much of an issue, but there are less services.
This guide goes through a trip on the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail originating in Traralgon, but this advice can be adapted if you're travelling from Stratford.
Traralgon to Glengarry
The Gippsland Plains Rail Trail begins in 1 Traralgon, at the intersection of Marshalls Road and Traralgon-Maffra Road, which is where the Traralgon marker is located on the map. From Traralgon railway station, cross the M1 freeway from Victory Park (which is nearby the station), head down Peterkin Street until you reach the end, turn right on Davidson Street, turn left on Park Lane at the end of Davidson Street, turn right on Marshalls Road at the end of Park Lane, and then you'll reach the intersection where the trail begins. This should be about 4 km (2.5 mi) and 15 to 20 minutes on bike. Then, you'll finally reach the beginning of the rail trail! There's a trail map and an information shelter here.
From there, it's about 6 km (3.7 mi) to 2 Glengarry. This path includes crossing 4 restored rail bridges across the Latrobe River, and you'll be treated to pretty views along the floodplains. Glengarry features a pub where you can stop for food, and an IGA supermarket where you can grab some supplies. The old railway station still remains here, interestingly enough.
Glengarry to Toongabbie
The 9 km (5.6 mi) smooth and flat path from Glengarry to 3 Toongabbie takes you to Eaglehawk Creek. A new 25 metre bridge was installed here in May 2020. It's a nice place to just stop and enjoy the scenery before getting back on to Toongabbie. Toongabbie has a few historic buildings to see, as well as a cemetery and wetlands. The town also has a general store and public toilets.
Toongabbie to Cowwarr
To get to Cowwarr, it's about a 9 km (5.6 mi) journey, and the trail is a well developed gravel path. You'll be able to see mountains in the southern foothills of the Great Dividing Range. You'll eventually arrive in 4 Cowwarr. The Cowwarr Cricket Club Hotel offers a bar and restaurant from Wednesday to Saturday.
Cowwarr to Heyfield
The 11 km (6.8 mi) route to Heyfield isn't fully developed, and some of the trail goes on quiet country roads. Heading north past Cowwarr, you'll cross the Rainbow Creek. However, once you reach Cowwarr-Heyfield Road, the track is cut off. Turn left on Cowwarr-Heyfield Road for 600 m (2,000 ft), and at the intersection of Cowwarr-Seaton Road, turn right for about 2 km (1.2 mi) until you reach Heyfield-Dawson Road. Turn right and travel for 2 km (1.2 mi) until you reach the Dawson Flora Reserve, where the track continues. Note that the removal of plants from the flora reserve is an offence. From here on to Heyfield, the track is on smooth packed gravel. There is a short but steep hill on Racecourse Road, so take care when going down (or up) the incline.
But eventually you'll reach 5 Heyfield, and in fact the rail trail goes right through the middle of the town. The railway station here burnt down, but there's a sign where it used to be, as well as a disused weighbridge. The Railway Hotel, which is right opposite the former railway station, has a bar and a restaurant, and also offers accommodation from $110-$140 a night. Heyfield also has a number of cafes and restaurants, such as Stag and Doe and Cafe 3858. It's the perfect place for a stop, overnight or not.
Heyfield to Tinamba
Improvements have been made to the 10 km (6.2 mi) track here, meaning that the trail here, which is flat gravel, is easygoing before you get to the one street town of 6 Tinamba. Tinamba Hotel punches above its weight, and it's not the country pub you might expect, but it has a more fine dining feel. That being said, you'll still be welcome here. It's open for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, and just lunch on Sundays. The Tinamba General Store is also a good place to pick up some takeaway food or any essentials.
Tinamba to Maffra
- See also: Maffra
The trail continues for 8 km (5.0 mi) past Tinamba, mainly flat gravel, and passing through a wetland and forest before reaching 7 Maffra. Maffra has accommodation facilities such as the Maffra Motor Inn, and there are many cafés and restaurants to stop at, before finishing up the trip, such as The Pickle Pot.
Maffra to Stratford
- See also: Stratford (Victoria)
The final leg of your journey is the 10 km (6.2 mi) flat gravel path between Maffra and Stratford. Along the path, you can stop at The Vines on Avon, a restaurant and winery. The trail meets the Princes Highway at the Avon River bridge crossing. When you cross the bridge into 8 Stratford, do a U-turn to arrive at Apex Park, the end of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail.
Stratford has cafes such as Badger and Hare and the Segue Cafe, as well as places to stay the night such as the Stratford on the River Caravan Park which offers cabins, and the Stratford Motel. It's worth a stop, especially if you happen to be travelling in April or May, when the annual Shakespeare festival is ongoing.
After you've completed the rail trail, you can head to Melbourne and check out the bustling capital of Victoria. As both ends of the trail are connected to each other by rail, it's very easy to head to Melbourne, or even to visit other destinations in Gippsland. If you want to explore more rail trails, take the train to Bairnsdale and visit the East Gippsland Rail Trail.
If you end the trail in Stratford, however, planning additional rail journeys is a bit difficult, as paper tickets are required to use the train to or from Stratford, and there is no way of purchasing paper tickets in Stratford, as the train station is not staffed and there are no other outlets in town. You could purchase your train tickets ahead of time at Southern Cross station, or if you'd like more flexibility, it's possible to purchase your tickets at Heyfield Newsagency while you're on the Rail Trail. Alternatively, once you're in Stratford, you can cycle 20 km (12 mi) to Sale train station.