About 2.5hrs outside Sydney, way up in the Blue Mountains, lies the cute, quaint town of Katoomba. With a variety of eateries, pubs, antique and convenience shops on the main street, the vibe is an eclectic blend of aging hippie/foreign backpacker/rugged mountain folk/shiny city slicker… all served up among some amazing backdrop vistas. This World Heritage region got its name from being densely populated with oil bearing Eucalyptus trees. The atmosphere is filled with finely dispersed droplets of oil, which, in combination with dust particles and water vapor, scatter short-wave length rays of light which are predominantly blue in color. This, and the ease of getting here via train, plays a big part in it’s inclusion on a lot of Must See lists. The locals are, like most Aussies I’ve encountered, quite friendly and eager to help you find your way (plus a few suggestions of their own to add to the mix). Some of the hiking trails start in Leura, the slightly ritzier sister town of Katoomba. Think Breckinridge and Aspen – both cute mountain towns but one has a little bit more shmanciness going on.
We chose to do the Explorer Hop On/Hop Off Bus because we couldn’t make sense of the town or hiking layout that we found online. One of the perks of the HO/HO is that the drivers are super knowledgeable about the area and keep a running commentary (great, clear PA system!) about whatever you’re seeing out the window or what the next stop entails (and they’re quite funny as well!). Also, the bus route includes stops at the curated shortlist of shops/restaurants (plus discount coupons) if you’re into that sort of thing. That’s not our gig so I can’t speak to price/quality of those. I prefer to cook and can say that groceries are slightly more expensive at $5.81/per meal than in Sydney but there’s a Cole’s and Aldi (similar to Kroger and Trader Joe’s for my American friends) with a good selection of tasty goods.
Having caught the lay of the land now (and if paying a premium to be dropped off for artisan chocolates and high tea aren’t priorities for you), I’d suggest the 686 public bus (Opal card necessary) and saving a bunch of money over the HO/HO bus. You can catch the public bus at a major stop in town (was a 7 min walk from where we stayed) and it takes you to the Scenic World stop, the Katoomba Casacades trailhead and also the Echo Point/3 Sisters (where you start the Cliff Walk for Leura Cascades) in Leura. The bus runs every 30min and is about $2USD to any of these stops.
Definitely recommend (for the reasonably fit):
1) Scenic World: There’s a reason this is the second most visited site in New South Wales (Sydney Opera House being #1). The views are spectacular and tickets are only around $40USD.
There are a few -ESTs I didn’t know about when I booked this, but are kind of fun anyway….
- The Cableway that runs 1,673ft from the escarpment down to the valley floor and back is the steep-EST and large-EST aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere.
- The Railway is the steep-EST passenger railway in the world at 128 degrees (52% incline) and runs for 1,361ft with a vertical drop of 675ft – 262ft of which are through a natural tunnel and down the face of a cliff. There are signs indicating that if you want to increase your thrill, you can adjust your seat to create a 205 degree (64% incline). Well who wants to ride the steepest railway in the world without going all in?!? So of course… I did…. and… meh. In reality, I found that the angle of your seat and back rest don’t mean much when your whole body is pitched so far forward that you have to brace hands and feet on rails above and below the seats to keep from falling to the front of the compartment. I’m not exactly sure how people manage their kids in this thing since there aren’t any seatbelts, but no kids went flying past me.
- The Skyway doesn’t have an -EST but is still pretty cool at 885ft above valley floor, which is twice the height of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and 60ft higher than the Sydney Tower observation deck, and runs 2,362ft in length between rock outcroppings.
Having taken in the view from these angles, we renamed the valley that day. From here on out, Jamison Valley shall be referred to as “Broccoland”. For obvious reasons.
Anyway, get the unlimited pass (only option online, in person you can buy INDIVIDUAL rides at half the price of the unlimited but that’s $20 EACH WAY for EACH RIDE). Each ride is under 5 minutes and there’s too much to see/shoot in that timeframe. I’d suggest being on the doorstep as they open and ride each segment back to back to back 3-4 times to get all the different angles for shots in relative ease and with relatively few people getting in your way (plus, it’s fun!). Besides, by noon you’ll have a 30min que to wait in. Also, have a chat w the ride operators. They seem to enjoy the interaction. Otherwise, they have to say the same speech every 10 min to another group of random strangers who mostly just ignore them. Oh, and skip the Scenic Walkway unless you’ve got kids or elderly in tow. In that case, send them around it while you enjoy your day elsewhere.
Some of the key features of Broccoland you’ll see from Scenic World…
- 3 Sisters at Echo Point – Originally there were 7 Sisters forming a finger-like ridge that juts southward from the north lip of the valley. The sandstone here has strong vertical jointing in a grid-like pattern. Over time, erosion widened these joints to leave the vertical turrets of sandstone which now form the 3 Sisters. This section also contains many horizontal layers of erosion resistant ironstone that have helped the Sisters to resist erosion. Over time, they will eventually grow narrower, thinner and tumble into the valley-like their 4 Sisters before them.
- King’s Table – To the east of the 3 Sisters is the prominent escarpment of King’s Table, which was an important meeting area for the Aboriginal tribe Gundungurra. It’s one of the places where white men’s progress into the valley was first seen and monitored.
- Mount Solitary – Rising 1,050ft from the valley floor in the center of the valley is Mount Solitary, its the only mountain in the Jamison Valley and fills about 3 of the 6 mile wide valley.
2) Katoomba Cascades and Falls: End your time at Scenic World with the SkyWay (after having gone back and forth a few times to get valley and waterfall views). This drops you off at the Katoomba Cascades trailhead (Explorer Bus and public bus 686 also stop here). There’s a nice little picnic area at the top of the Katoomba Cascades if you want to sit for a snack. Bird watchers will be in paradise with the flocks of 20+ Sulfur Crested Cockatoos that roam the valley. It’s crazy that these exotics go for $500-600 in stores but are so plentiful here that they’re considered a nuisance.
Enjoy the small, rippling cascades and then head down the trail toward the Furber Stairs to the Falls (signage sucks, but it’s only way you can go that’s not UP). There are 2 sections to the Falls and heaps of pretty forest views and waterfall look outs along the way. The track zigzags down sloping ground and cliff-face hugging stairs, skimming the rock face and dipping under massive rock overhangs so low even I had to duck in places. I think I enjoyed the views best from the midway point. After you spend your time at the bottom of the Falls, work your way back around to the Scenic Railway (the only way that’s not the way you came) and then take the Railway back to the top….unless you want to reverse your trip down by going back up the Falls track (the 998 stairs of Furbers are only about ¼ of that track so you’re better be up for that if you don’t do the Railway.)
This was our first day and about 4.5mi of walking/hiking all in.
3) Hike Echo Point/3 Sisters to Leura Cascades via Prince Harry/Edward/Some Dude Cliff Walk and then down to Leura Falls. We were lucky enough to see the famous Lyre bird along this hike – it’s known for imitating the calls of other birds, has gorgeous long tail feathers and is about the size of a chicken. The track splits after you pass the bottom of the Falls. You can either take the Dardanelle track (to the left) to the Giant Stairway and end up back at Echo Point/3 Sisters or just follow the Falls track (to the right) looping back up to the Royal Guy Cliff Walk. We started late and ran out of daylight so did it this way (bummer to miss Giant Stairway).
If you’re bailing after this loop rather than Cliff Walking it back to Echo Point, just find your way to the actual road (you can hear it above you) and catch the HO/HO bus or public 686. Both have stops near the Solitary Cafe (restaurant at lookout point where you emerge).
This was our second day and the Echo Point/Cliff Walk/Leura Cascades/Leura Falls/bus stop at Solitary Cafe was about 6.5mi.
Things To Skip:
1) Aforementioned Scenic Walkway. Unless you’ve got prams, grams or like seeing stupid ‘art’ set in the forest. You’ll get plenty of forest views on other hikes.
2) Not a ‘skip’ per se but just be aware that the closer you get to 3 Sisters, the less impressive they are. They just look like every other cliff. Do go and ‘touch’ them….mostly cuz the stairs down are cool and that’s where the Giant Stairs join up to get back to Echo Point….but don’t expect any fab views of them from so close.
3) Waradah Cultural Center. Understand that I love culture stuff….but this is just a 20min video/dance in a tiny, indoor theater. The description on the HO/HO site makes it seem much more ‘native’, outdoors, engaging, informative. Reality is that 5min of google will get you more info than the presentation or the ‘cultural center’. I totally respect the desire to share aboriginal culture and wish you could find that here but this place is just about taking pics with sweaty men in body paint and selling overpriced gift shop items.
After “flinging ghee” (Siri autocorrected “doing these” to that?!), we felt we’d gotten a pretty decent feel for the area. None of the hikes are strenuous for a reasonably healthy person but they are only about 20% over level-ish ground. The other 80% are somewhat to very steep and there are loads of stairs. From a safety standpoint, though, it’s a cakewalk. There are handrails and fencing anywhere it’s remotely sketch (unlike the muddy Monalua ridges I’ve climbed in Oahu where you’re on your hands and knees grasping at muddy tree roots and grass tufts to keep from falling off the trail). Some tracks/steps get muddy, just watch where you step. Maybe the other waterfalls (Gordon and Wentworth) would be worth seeing another time, but during our visit (April, end of summer), we were told they were just a trickle.
I really enjoyed the area and would love to hear from others what their experience was like – or answer any questions about our trip!