This Aussie summer we made two trips up to the Blue Mountains. It is a quick 90 minute drive from Sydney – and about 20 minutes longer from the Northern Beaches – and feels a world away. My first impression of the Blue Mountains was that they don’t actually seem to be mountains, but rather lots of valleys or canyons. As you drive from Sydney, you slowly climb along the Great Western Highway until you arrive at the top of a large plateau. All of the hikes then go down, rather than up, from the plateau into large valleys. The views are much more reminiscent of the Grand Canyon than the Sierra Mountains.
There are a few different regions within the Blue Mountains and to date we have focused all of our exploring in the southern section around the towns of Wentworth Falls, Leura and Katoomba. Each town has a very distinct character and all are worth a visit. Wentworth Falls is the smallest town with most of the stores and cafes centered on a single block. On both of our trips we stopped in the town on our way in and picked up delicious sandwiches (to takeaway for picnics on our hikes) and some treats for morning tea at Fed Deli. Other than a few cute cafes and a train station, there isn’t much else to do in this town.
The next town after Wentworth Falls is Leura, which is a bit bigger than Wentworth, but not by much. Leura has a Woolworths, lots of cute cafes, some nicer restaurants and some nice homeware and boutique shops. Leura is the most upscale of the three towns and Josophan’s Fine Chocolates is a great stop for ice cream after a hot hike. The Cafe Madeline looked like another cute place to grab a coffee or sweet treat. There are lots of nice restaurants if you are looking for a dinner spot as well. The Leura Garage and Bon Ton both get great reviews. We ended up eating out at the Alexandra Hotel and although the food was nothing special, the large patio area was perfect for a dog and kid.
Katoomba is the largest town and the backpacker hub of the Blue Mountains. We found it a bit “grungy”, but it had a selection of cheaper cafes and lots of outdoor adventure gear stores. It would be a great place to pick up provisions for a longer trek in the Blue Mountains or grab a quick bite to eat, but is not particularly special and not a must-see.
On our first trip we stayed two nights at the beautiful Nagual Retreat vacation home in Leura which we found on Airbnb. We had inquired about another property of theirs which allowed dogs since we intended to bring ours, but when that one wasn’t available they offered this property and allowed us to bring Mae. The house was a really interesting mix of rustic and luxury features, had lots of character, and amazing views off the upper deck.
One of the best ways to see the Blue Mountains is from one of the view points at the edge of the national park. The Three Sisters Lookout is the most famous and there are a handful of others including the Gordon Falls Lookout, Olympian Falls Lookout and Jamison Lookout. Our favorite though was the smaller Elysian Rock Lookout. To reach it, park on Olympian Parade right next to a small white picket fence. There is a sign on the fence announcing the “most spectacular view” in the Blue Mountains and charging an entrance fee, but if you walk just past the fence there is a trail you can walk down and get even better views for free. The Blue Mountains Drive follows the rim of the canyons between Katoomba and Wentworth and an early morning or late afternoon drive along it is a great way to take the most scenic views of the national park.
If you are trying to get pictures of the Three Sisters (an iconic rock feature that is the trademark view of the Blue Mountains) be mindful of the sun when choosing your lookout. In the morning, lookouts east of the feature will give you lots of light on the rock face, whereas in the evening lookouts west of the feature will give you better lighting. The heavy shadows and dense bluish green vegetation that covers the plateaus and valleys make it difficult to capture the topography of the area and my amateur photography skills resulted in some very flat pictures.
The Blue Mountains National Park has so many trails that the hardest part is choosing which one to hike. Wild Walks provides the most comprehensive overview of all the trails and most detailed information on each hike. We sampled quite a few different hikes between our two trips – here are our favorites:
Dog & Toddler Friendly (outside the national park)
MiniHaHa Falls – This is the only hike we went on north of the Great Western Highway and is not in the national park, but is probably our favorite for both kids and dogs (so much so that we did it on both of our trips to the Blue Mountains). The hike starts at the Mini Ha Ha Car Park about 10 minutes north of Katoomba. The hike takes about 30 minutes each way (a bit slower with a toddler walking on their own). The first three quarters of the hike is very easy along a wide pathway. It intersects the Yosemite Creek a handful of times with lots of shallow pools that are perfect for babies and toddlers to splash about in. The final few hundred meters of the track has a number of steep metal staircases that make an otherwise very easy trek a more medium-difficult hike. The ladders are so steep that we insisted our toddler ride in the backpack and we had to carry our dog down them. Matt ended up making a number of trips in order to get the whole family up and down them. The falls and swimming hole that await at the end are well worth the effort though. If you are looking for a good place to swim, this is it! There were no shallow spots though, so we didn’t let our toddler get in since we hadn’t brought any floaties (the water was so cold too that he was quite happy to obey).
Charles Darwin’s Walk – This easy walk connects the Wentworth Falls village with the Blue Mountains National Park and meanders along the Jamison Creek for 2.4 kilometers. There is easy parking at Wilson Park on Falls Road just across the highway from the village and if you have a dog it is definitely recommended to start at the north end since they can’t complete the last portion of the hike along the Wentworth Falls Lookout Track to the Wentworth Falls car park (so plan it as an out and back hike). The trail intersects a handful of shallow pools perfect for dogs and toddlers to splash about and cool off and has some nice shady spots for a picnic. There are no tricky or steep spots, so this walk is definitely toddler friendly and perfect if you want to let your little one wander and explore at their own pace.
Kid Friendly (but no dogs)
Prince Henry Clifftop Walk – This trail follows the clifftop and connects each of the lookouts between Katoomba and Wentworth. Because it follows the edge, there aren’t as many steep climbs or stairs as the falls treks. Anyone with a fear of heights might be a bit squeamish at the steep drop offs along the edge, but there is sufficient wire fencing to keep your toddler from falling down the cliff faces. The entire walk is 6.8 kilometers one way and would take at least 4 hours with a toddler, but you can pick up the track at any of the lookouts along the trail and make it as short as a quick five minute walk or anything in between. Although dogs technically aren’t allowed along this trail, we brought ours out with us to the lookouts.
Leura Cascades – Although much less spectacular than the Wentworth Falls track (see below), the Leura Cascades track is much shorter and easier, although still be prepared for some stairs. The car park has a nice little playground, picnic area and the Leura Falls Creek passes through although it isn’t as well suited to swimming or splashing as the previous creeks I’ve mentioned. There are lots of ferns overgrowing the track and is a pretty lush and shaded walk.
Scenic World – Scenic World is like a mini Disneyland in the middle of the Blue Mountains National Park and is so touristy we almost didn’t visit it, but on our second trip up to the mountains we decided to give it a go. The main attractions of Scenic World are the Scenic Skyway, Cableway and Railway and all provide a great way to get further into the park if you have a young child in tow and can’t manage the steep climbs down into the valley. When you buy a ticket you are assigned a time of when you are allowed to begin riding the attractions (we arrived around 11AM and were given a start time of 12PM) in order to keep the lines shorter.
The Skyway is suspended between the clifftops and provides amazing views of the Katoomba Falls. You can either ride out and back, or walk one way along the Prince Henry Clifftop Walk and ride the other way. Since we had an hour to wait between when we bought our ticket and could get on the first attraction, we walked along the clifftop walk between Scenic World and the Cliff View Lookout with a short foray down the Reids Plateau Lookout track for a view of Katoomba Falls. It took us about an hour and we arrived perfectly to ride the Skyway back to Scenic World.
We then decided to ride the Scenic Railway (which is the steepest passenger railway in the world) down to the Jamison Valley floor. You can angle your seat for an even more adventurous ride and it is quite a thrill – although mellow enough for the smallest of children. At the bottom there are a handful of different tracks you can choose from depending on the length of walk you’d like. There are shortcuts connecting the various tracks so you can shorten or lengthen your walk part way through depending on the progress you are making. The tracks all wind through old growth rainforest on boardwalks that are very easy to navigate. We ended our walk at the Scenic Cableway and rode the cable car back up to the top of the cliff at Scenic World.
Adult/Older Children Only
National Pass – The National Pass track is one of the more challenging hikes in the national park and provides a 4.6 kilometer circuit between Wentworth Falls and the Valley of the Waters. My parents were with us on our first trip up to the Blue Mountains and so we left the toddler with them for a few hours one day and got to experience this very beautiful section of the park. We started the hike at the Wentworth Falls picnic area and wound our way down towards Wentworth Falls. We descended the Grand Staircase to the valley below the falls and were amazed at the size of Wentworth Falls. Doing the route in the direction we chose was very advantageous since we got to go down, and not up, the staircase!
At the bottom of the valley (you’ll only feel like you are about midway down the cliff face) we followed the National Pass track west towards the Valley of the Waters. The track edges along the steep cliff face and passes under many rock overhangs with weeping rocks. In the Valley of the Waters the track crosses the Lodore Falls and Empress Falls and slowly winds upwards ending at the Conservation Hut at the top of the cliff. From the Conservation Hut we took the Shortcut Track back along the clifftop to the Wentworth Falls Lookout and picnic area to complete the circuit.
Trail guides say to allow approximately 3.5 hours to complete the circuit, but we did it in less than two hours including a stop for ice cream at the Conservation Hut. It was not particularly difficult either, except for the staircase sections (going down was definitely easier than going up!). A toddler or young child would have to be carried in a backpack carrier if you wanted to bring them along and the person responsible for carrying them would want to be in very good shape for the steep climbs. There were also lots of steep drop offs, water crossings, and other obstacles that would make the track unsuitable for a young child not contained in a carrier.
Overall, we’ve found the Blue Mountains to be a fun day trip or short weekend trip. In terms of best scenery, we are still biased to the Sierra Mountains in California, but its a great place to escape the City and stretch your legs. The swimming holes aren’t too bad either.