This trail starts just out of Ballarat, and heads down to the the small town of Skipton. Although the railtrail description has it at 56km, leaving from central Ballarat and arriving in Skipton, and taking short diversions into the town centres as we passed, we cycled 63km on the one-way trip. Certainly a good days cycling.
We hired bikes from the Bicycle Centre in Armstrong St. The bikes were fine for the purpose, but our start was delayed for around 45 minutes while the guys in the store pumped the tyres, and tracked down the helmets, pump, etc that we would need.
It wasn't too hard to pick up the start of the trail. We headed south of Lake Wendouree and by the Botanical gardens, but we discovered on the return trip that it really would have been best to to follow Gregory St to the north of the Lake, which is a quiet and wide street. If you were coming from Melbourne by train, the other option would be to start from the new Wendouree Railway station, which is just next to the start of the trail.
The last part of Gregory St (Gregory St West) has a new off-road cycle path, which joins a cycle path running alongside Ring Rd. From this point the Skipton railtrail is signposted, and starts just to the south of the level crossing on Ring Rd. Part of Gregory St West is closed to traffic, so you would (obviously) need to be on a bike to go this way.
Lake Wendouree was almost totally dry, with the exception of a very small section near the Botanic Gardens. Interesting area, with piers extending out into what is now grassland, but not exactly scenic. The Botanic Gardens looked nice as we were cycling past, but we would have felt guilty stopping for coffee and a walk under 3km into our trip, so we pressed on.
The cycle trail starts a little rough along the side of the railway, but it soon smooths out to a fine flat fine gravel surface. Sometimes near the road crossings there is some rutting from cycle tyres to watch out for, but the surface should be easy for a hybrid/urban bike to cope with, and ours coped with no problems.
The first part of the trail is through open agricultural country.. It is easy and fairly level cycling, and the first town along the trail is Haddon. Didn't see anyone else on this part of the trail. There are a few shelters built here and there, some with information on the trail in them. The shade of the trees seems to make a better stopping point though.
Soon we started counting down the kilometre markers. One every kilometre along the trail.
Haddon itself was a just a spot to fill up with water. There are toilets there, and a huge modern looking recreation centre that looked out of proportion to the size of the town. I guess it was really just a suburb of Ballarat at this distance probably only a 10 minute drive.
Smythesdale was the first serious town on the trip. We stopped at the Courthouse Hotel for lunch, and I had the Steak and Guinness Pie, which was exceptionally tasty. Not one of those pies without a bottom. Food always tastes better after cycling, but we saw the jugs of Guinness being poured into jugs to make tomorrows pie. Well worth the stop. The Hotel is open for meals seven days a week for lunch and dinner. There is a general store in Smythesdale, and an antique store as well.
After lunch a quick trip following the Glenelg Highway to Scarsdale, and the more scenic part of the trail began. After stopping to refill our water bottles again, we took the quick trip downhill to the Nimmons Bridge which has been restored to give the ability to cycle across it. There is still the option of going the the lower route under the bridge which gives a more scenic view of the bridge as you pass. A short stop to practice photography.
After the bridge the trail leaves civilisation, enters the bush and begins to climb. At the top of the hill there are the remains of an hold wooden road bridge that crossed the railway. This marks the top of the climb, and from here is is largely downhill to Linton. There are a few smaller restored bridges along this section, crossing a few of the bush roads.
We emerged from the bush again at Linton, which became an afternoon coffee stop. There was a takeaway place right near where the cycleway crosses the highway, next to a park and memorial to the fire fighters that lost their lives saving the town on Black Friday. The township proper is up the top of the hill, and we made the cycle to the top, but not much there to see, the pub being about the only thing open. The other shops seem quiet or closed. The coffee from a small machine, basic and frothy.
After a little more bush cycling the railtrail returns to follow the Glenelg Highway to Pittong and on to Skipton, although at least in the section to Pittong there is some bushland separating the trail from the road alignment. The engineers have worked hard here to maintain a steady grade, and the alignment is built up around the surrounding country, and then cuts through the hills in shady cuttings filled with butterflies.
Pittong has showers and toilets provide by the neighbouring chemical processing factory. No more of a town there though. After Pittong the trail follows the road closely to Skipton, and the scenery becomes the agricultural golden plains for which the area is famed.
The flies came out here - they like it anywhere there are farm animals, and they are pests, but we try to keep our speed up so they can't land. The grasshoppers jump up in front of the bike types. They are probably a pest to the farmers, but they are no problem to us.
We stayed the night at the Skipton Hotel, which is a typical country motel. Basic, but nice enough. They serve an evening meal with $10 specials, but the chicken parmigana was really just cheese and schnitzel, and the nachos was filling, but also rather basic. There are a few cabins attached to the roadhouse in town as well.
The evening was spent searching for the claimed platypus in the adjacent Mt Emu Creek in Stewart Reserve, just by the pub. They proved elusive on the night.
I mapped the whole trail quite accurately on OpenStreetMap. You may need to zoom in and scroll around to see the details. I also put a brief description on Wikitravel
This is the elevation plot. You could certainly feel the downhill at the end of the day heading towards Skipton, but the climb on the return trip was hardly noticeable.
There is more information on the trail at the Balbug site or the Railtrails site. You can also buy a book on the history of the Ballarat to Skipton railway