A Day Trip to the Blue Mountains | Sydney, Australia
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Most people don’t visit Australia for the cities. They visit for the beaches, the scenic drives, the kangaroos, and the stunning expansive landscapes. While Sydney is one of the world’s best cities, after a couple of days, a bit of you might still yearn for a break from the skyscrapers and crowds. Blue Mountains National Park is just a 2-hour train ride from Sydney’s CBD. The Blue Mountains offers miles of hiking trails, alluring views, waterfalls, and record-breaking adventure attractions.
The gateway to the Blue Mountains are the towns of Katoomba and Leura. If you are spending a night or two in the Blue Mountains, you will likely be staying in one of those two neighboring towns. The larger of the two, Katoomba should be your starting point if visiting just for the day.
Tip: Check the weather in Katoomba before you go. It may be sweltering hot in Sydney, but a chilly 19ºC (65ºF) in the mountains. A thin jacket may be welcome in the morning, but it will likely heat up in the afternoon as you hike around.
How to get to Katoomba From Sydney
Train from Sydney CBD
The easiest, fastest, and most cost-effective way to get to the Blue Mountains is to take the train. The Blue Mountain Line leaves from Sydney Central Station at 30-minute intervals from 7 to 9:30 am and at 1-hour intervals after that from Monday - Friday. The train runs more frequently on the weekends and public holidays. The fare currently costs $6.08 aud ($4.35 usd) each way so be sure to load up your opal card with at least $13 for the day.
Like most trains in Sydney, each carriage is a double-decker. For the best views on your journey, get a seat on the upper level on the left-hand side on your way to the Blue Mountains. We passed the 2-hour train ride with audiobooks and podcasts on the way there and a nap for the ride back. You can also bring a deck of cards to play with your family or friends.
Renting/Hiring a Car
Depending on traffic, it might actually take you longer to drive to the Blue Mountains than taking the train. Adding in fuel costs, you will be hard-pressed to rent a car for cheaper than the train tickets (even if you are stuffing 5 people in a sedan). Oddly enough, other methods of transportation in the Blue Mountains might be more beneficial than having access to your own vehicle (as I will explain later on).
However, you already have access to a car or are insistent on avoiding the train, driving to the Blue Mountains is definitely an option. The M4 Highway becomes the Great Western Highway and leads straight to the Blue Mountains. Once you get to Katoomba, there is plenty of free parking in the town and at each of the attractions. The only parking you will have to pay for is at Echo Point.
The final option is to visit the Blue Mountains as part of a tour group. If you’d prefer a guided experience through the Blue Mountains with access to other attractions in the area that are not as easily accessible by public transport (Featherdale Wildlife Park and the Parramatta River) then this is a great option to consider.
Getting around in the Blue Mountains
If you are renting or using your own car, the roads in the Blue Mountains are very easy to navigate. Street parking is free in both Katoomba and Leura and at most of the attractions. There is metered parking at Echo Point that helps pay for the park’s maintenance.
If you are traveling by train to Katoomba, we’d highly recommend getting a ticket for the Blue Mountain Explorer Bus. We generally are not the biggest fans of tourist hop-on hop-off buses, the Blue Mountains is one place where it works perfectly. It has 29 stops throughout the Blue Mountains with buses running at 30-minute intervals. The biggest benefit of going with the explorer bus is the ability to do many of the one-way hikes. The entire day, we never got back on the bus at the same stop we got off. Instead, we did multiple hour or longer hikes that took us from one attraction to the next one further along the bus’s path. If we had a car with us, we’d have to back-track on the trails and we would not have been able to get in as many of the hikes in the area. We got the pass that included tickets to Scenic World (Lyrebird Pass).
There is also a public Opal bus (Route 686) that stops at some of the major stops fairly frequently for a couple dollars each ride.
If you are going to visit Scenic World while in the Blue Mountains – do it early! Ideally, as soon as it opens at 9 am. We took the first Explorer Bus from Katoomba at 9:10 am and arrived at Scenic World by 9:25 am. We were within the first 20 visitors and were able to ride our first attraction without a wait. By 10 am, the place was already starting to get packed and the lines were growing.
Scenic World is an amusement park, of sorts, for nature. It has four rides, each of which seems to have some accolade or broken a record. Apparently, that is quite easy to do if narrow down your competition to just the Southern Hemisphere. It has the largest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere. The steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere. However, they do say they have the steepest passenger railway in the world (although that can be debated with the Stoosbahn in Switzerland). So, why don’t we just say they have the steepest railway in the Southern Hemisphere?
Jokes aside, it was an incredible place to visit. You get a little bit of adrenaline with your experiences in the Blue Mountain. Scenic World has (get ready for this naming scheme) the Scenic Walkway, Scenic Cableway, Scenic Skyway, and Scenic Railway. Note, none of these are actually rollercoasters or thrill rides. If you are afraid of heights, however, they might be a bit anxiety-inducing.
Get started with the most thrilling ride first. The Scenic Railway goes down into the valley at a 52º incline! The seats themselves can be adjusted to either lessen or increase the incline, depending on your preference. It is quite the experience. Originally, the railway was used to transport coal, but the coal mines in the area were closed down in 1945. Shortly after, it was converted to passenger use. The carriages themselves have been updated many times, the latest being in 2013.
The Scenic walkway was a picturesque walk through the ancient forest – and surprisingly one of my favorite parts. The rainforest feels like it is straight out of Jurassic Park. When we visited, they had large dinosaur animatronics in one section of the forest that just added to the feeling of going back a couple hundred million years. Okay, the dinosaurs were very obviously fake, but the vegetation was very reminiscent of documentaries, movies, and mock images of the Jurassic period. There are different path options you can take through the forest, customizing your hike for the amount of time you want to spend. You will hear incredible bird songs, unique to this area of the world. If you are lucky, like we were, you might also see the unusual Lyrebird doing its mating dance (i.e. shaking like its having a seizure). The walkway is nicely maintained, but it is a steep walk back up.
To get to the Scenic Walkway, you need to take the Scenic Cableway down. This enclosed cablecar gradually descends down 200 m into the valley over a 510 m journey. Along the way, you get views of the three sisters and the Jamison Valley. The cableway was recently updated in Sept 2018.
The Scenic Skyway takes you across a deep ravine, passing Katoomba Falls. The middle section of the cable car has a glass bottom so you can see the forest below 270 m below your feet. If you are taking the Explorer Bus around the Blue Mountains, then I would highly recommend doing the Scenic Skyway last. Instead of re-loading back onto the Skyway to get back to the main Scenic world complex, walk around the corner to Cliff View Lookout. From there, you can follow along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point. This was one of the most magnificent hikes of the day. It is about a 1.2 km walk that should take you about 20 minutes if you ignore all the amazing scenery around you or 30-40 minutes if you stop and take pictures or soak in the view.
Three Sisters & echo Point
Even if you are skipping Scenic World, I’d recommend taking the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point. You can either start it from the Cliff View Lookout or farther back at the Katoomba Cascades.
The Three Sisters is the most recognizable landmark in the Blue Mountains. This set of three rock formations overlooks valleys. To the right of the 3 standing sisters, you can see remnants of previous stone formations that have fallen over millions of years. They get the name, The Three Sisters, from an aboriginal legend that told the story of 3 sisters from the Katoomba tribe that were turned to stone to protect them from harm after they fell in love with men from a neighboring tribe. The aboriginal people in the area still treat this site as sacred.
Echo Point offers the best view of the Three Sisters. This is a large platform will likely be filled with tourists that stop at the major sights by coach bus.
If you walk farther on, you will see signs for the path to get up close and touch the stone of the one the sisters. If you have a careful eye, you can see the walkway to the left of the rock formations in these pictures.
From Echo Point, we walked to the Blue Mountain Chocolate Company. Originally, we got some extra chocolate to take home for gifts – but it was quickly eaten before we even left the country. They are also well known for their rich hot chocolate.
Leura Cascades to Gordon Falls
The next, must-see stop is the Leura Cascades. Of special interest is the walk from the Leura Cascades to Gordon Falls. In total, this hike took us 1.5 hours at a moderate pace, taking plenty of photos along the way. It is a great hike that takes you through some diverse areas – along waterfalls and streams, through the thick forest, and cliff-side for scenic views of the valley below.
The hike starts at the Leura Cascades picnic area – if you brought a packed lunch, this would be a perfect time to eat. We had a bit of difficulty finding the trailhead, but it is located just to the left of the bathrooms, near a bulletin board.
The first destination on the hike is the Leura Cascades. Do not continue on the trail that says Gordon Falls until you see the Leura Cascades first. The Leura Cascades is a lovely set of short waterfalls that flows into a creek. The area has some bridges so you can get close to the creek and have different views of the falls. You then head back up the trail, the way you came, looking for the sign that says Gordon Falls.
Along the walk, there are a couple other off-shoots of the trail for other lookouts (the Rock and the Bridal Veil Lookout). If you have time, I’d recommend doing both. They will only add an extra 10 or so minutes to your hike.
Further on, there are two spectacular lookouts – Olympian Lookout and Elysian Rock – that are part of the trail. On the trail, we only came across 3 other groups (that were going the opposite direction) for the whole hour and a half. It is an unbelievable feeling that you have this incredible nature, pretty much, completely to yourself.
The end result of the hike is Gordon Falls, which is actually a bit anticlimactic. For such a magic hike, the thin mist coming from Gordon Falls was a bit disappointing. However, if you are visiting right after it rained, expect to see a more impressive waterfall.
After all of our hiking, we built up a considerable appetite and had a late lunch in the cute mountain town of Leura. We had a delicious (but a bit pricey) meal at Leura Garage. During lunch, it started pouring rain, so we spent some time after lunch wandering through the artsy shops of Leura. We were then ready to head back to Sydney!
Instead of trekking back to Katoomba to take the train to Sydney, we got on the train at the Leura station that is just within the town.