EXPERIENCING THE GARDENS OF THE DANDENONGS WITH KIDS


The Dandenongs are famous for their soaring gums and valleys of tree ferns. If that's not enough nature to fill your cup there are a number of beautiful public gardens scattered throughout the hills. Many of these were privately owned before being bequest to the state so everyone could enjoy them. My children, Piper (5) and Oakley (2) love visiting these spots and seeing how they change throughout the seasons. They each have their own favourite areas and I've loved watching these change as they have grown. Each garden is free to enter and explore and open from 9:30/10am until late afternoon each day except for Christmas and days of total fire ban or extreme weather conditions.


We love welcoming you to our part of the world but when visiting please do remember to look after the environment by taking your rubbish home or placing it in bins, to not disturb or scare local wildlife and to be respectful of local residents by driving and parking carefully.


Family of three at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl in hat and blue dress exploring National Rhododendron Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Boy in green top and cap exploring George Tindale Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl in red jumper exploring Pirianda Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.

1. Pirianda Garden, Olinda

Pirianda is one of the lesser known gardens in the hills managed by Parks Victoria, being tucked away on a side street. I always think of the 23 acre garden as being in three sections, each quite different from the others. The top third is grassed with a magnificent range of trees including 13 types of birches and 28 types of maples. My children like to leave the paths and run below the trees, hiding in amongst the lower branches and making cubbies. As you go down the slope you come to the middle section which is a series of stone walled terraces each with its own walking path and stairs connecting them. This is perfect for little explorers as the adults can take one path and the littles their own allowing them to feel awfully grown up and intrepid. Below the terraces, at the bottom of the hill, you come to the fern glades which are mystical with moss, a tiny creek and bridge.


Address: 9 Hacketts Road, Olinda (enter from Olinda-Monbulk Road, 4WD access only from Perrins Creek Road)

Terrain: Extremely steep

Dogs allowed: Yes

Public toilets: Yes

Family of three at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Father and daughter at Alfred Nicholas Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Portrait of young boy at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl in dress and hat at National Rhododendron Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.

2. Alfred Nicholas Garden, Sherbrooke

Alfred Nicholas is perhaps one of the most photographed spots in the hills, with its iconic lakeside boathouse drawing hoards of visitors, particularly in Autumn. During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 this garden became quite literally a playground for my children. Piper refers to it under the moniker "lookout lake". This name came about after she discovered a small stone set of steps that runs up the left hand side of the upper portion of the waterfall which runs into the lake below. Her and Oakley (who is like a little mountain goat) love to run up to the top and call to us below. Their next favourite playspot is over behind the famous boathouse where there are two hollow trees. One is still standing and they like to hide inside it. The second is laying against the slope and they love to crawl straight through it like a tunnel. We have only just recently taken to exploring the lowest part of the gardens (the signed Arboretum) and they love running down the grassed hill at full speed. If little legs are too tired to make it back up the hill to the entrance there is a bottom gate. It opens onto the corner of Nobles Lane and The Crescent and is a handy pick up point if someone can be convinced to go back and fetch the car (there is no parking available on the corner itself).


Address: 1A Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke

Terrain: Steep

Dogs allowed: Yes

Public toilets: Yes

Boy in pram amongst plants at National Rhododendron Garden by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl in red jumper walking path at Pirianda Gardens by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Family of three walking in forest by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl in purple hat and black coat amongst the plants at Alfred Nicholas Garden by Melbourne photographer Kate Cashin.

3. Doongalla, The Basin

I've heard Doongalla mentioned many times but we only visited for the first time very recently. Previously a private property and mansion it burnt to the ground in 1932. The stone steps and remnants of the gardens survive today. Driving the dirt road through the gums my husband questioned if we were heading in the right direction. Then up the hill above us I spotted European trees tucked in below the natives and assured him that must be it. We spent a lovely hour or two exploring the area. The kids had a great time running around, trekking up the tracks and balancing on large rocks. With plenty of tables this is a great spot for a picnic. I have heard it gets extremely busy on weekends so I recommend visiting during the week or else first thing in the morning. It is one we will definitely go back to as I have heard it is stunning in Autumn.


Address: Simpsons Road, The Basin

Terrain: Mixed, areas of flat space connected by steep walking tracks

Dogs allowed: Assistance dogs only as this is within a national park

Public toilets: Yes, at the lower Stables Picnic Ground

Young boy sitting on park bench at George Tindale Garden by Melbourne photographer Kate Cashin.
Father and son at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Girl amongst flowers at Piridianda Garden by Melbourne photographer Kate Cashin.
Black and white photo of girl in a hat at National Rhododendron Garden by Kate Cashin.

4. George Tindale Garden, Sherbrooke

Just down the road from Alfred Nicholas is George Tindale, which I tend to think of as the little cousin to the much larger and more famous Alfred. This is perhaps my favourite garden in the hills for our littlest explorers and is where one of the local kinders holds their nature play sessions. It is relatively flat and has so many tiny paths through the flowers, bushes and trees that Piper says makes it feel "like the jungle". For a more compact garden it punches above its weight in the variety of colours it has on display. There are benches along the paths where you can sit back whilst the littles wander amongst the flowers and lawns perfect for picnics. Be sure to let little ones peek through the drilled out hole in the massive rock in the centre of the lawn on the right of the entrance.


Address: 33 Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke

Terrain: Reasonably flat (by hills standards)

Dogs allowed: Yes

Public toilets: Yes

Father and son at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Portrait of girl in red jumper with blue eyes by Melbourne photographer Kate Cashin.
Boy peering through concrete tunnel by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.
Family of three at Doongalla by Melbourne family photographer Kate Cashin.

5. National Rhododendron Garden, Olinda

When somewhere has National in the name you expect it to be big and impressive and this garden is certainly that at 103 acres. These gardens are home to 3,000 camellias, 12,000 azaleas, 15,000 rhododendrons and 250,000 daffodils. There are so many pockets for kids to explore that Piper tends to gravitate to different areas each time we visit. Favourites include the paths through the flower bowl area below the main entrance, the cherry blossoms and the paths near the ornamental lake. If you want to really stretch your legs out, beyond a toddler paced wander, I recommend taking the outer path in a clockwise direction. This is probably a 45 minute walk with some hills and is pram accessible. Be sure though to pause and take in the views across the Yarra Valley as you huff and puff your way around. At the end you can sit on a bench in the sun whilst the kids have a play nearby.


Address: The Georgian Road, Olinda

Terrain: Sloping

Dogs allowed: Assistance dogs only

Public toilets: Yes

Kate Cashin is a family photographer based in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

She specialises in nature sessions and forest adventures with the motto "Play. Move. Explore.".