Practical Advice for Sydney's Blue Mountains
A daytrip to the Blue Mountains is a great way to connect with nature and see an impressive collection of Australia’s native eucalyptus trees.
Hot Take: If you’ve already been to the beach and Hunter Valley but are still looking for a Sydney daytrip, then the Blue Mountains are a great way to see Australia’s natural beauty. (3.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds and don’t overlook seeing the charming town of Katoomba.
As one of the more highly recommended daytrips to take while visiting Sydney, we decided to venture out to the Blue Mountains to see what all the fuss was about. The Blue Mountains are Australia’s most famous mountains and have a UNESCO World Heritage Area designation. Their name comes from the unique way that the air takes on a blue tinge (when viewed from a distance) due to the volatile oil production of the hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees that blanket the area.
Now one thing to understand about Australians is that (despite having an amazing country) they seem to have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders about the ‘whole down’ thing and feel the need to overcompensate with superlatives, especially oldest, biggest, longest, fastest, highest, etc – though that is often followed by ‘in the Southern Hemisphere’ (where only about 10% of the world’s population lives). We wish they would be a little more tempered in their pronouncements of greatness (we thinks they doth protest too hard), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some quite interesting things to see. For us, the Blue Mountains are one of these places.
Billed as the ‘Grand Canyon of Australia’; the marketing reports on Blue Mountains conjure something quite epic that the reality has a hard time keeping up with. We loved our day in the Blue Mountains, but go with the expectation of experiencing some dramatic eucalyptus-lined valley views with some nice hiking trails thrown in. A great day in nature? Absolutely! The Southern Hemisphere version of the Grand Canyon? We’re afraid not…
One thing that Sydney does really well is transportation infrastructure, especially if you’re a tourist. From an integrated system of subways, trains, ferries, and buses to more streets than you can count, visitors to Sydney can certainly get around. In fact, one popular option to get to the Blue Mountains is via the train to Katoomba from downtown Sydney and actually takes you within walking distance of the major highlights (though you will have done a lot of walking if you visit this way). We were fortunate enough to be able to borrow a car from a friend, so we drove instead (though the 2 hour each way distance combined with the high price of petrol in Australia meant that we actually spent more money than we would have if we had taken the train).
Planning Your Day
Before you set off, decide what kind of day you want to have. There are many enjoyable ways to experience the Blue Mountains, from hardcore hiking to gentle sightseeing. While the idea of enjoying one of the numerous 5+ hour hikes sounded appealing, the dicey weather threatened rain all day so we thought it best to stick to the more casual activities. However, the best part about the hikes is that they are free (monetarily as well as from crowds); whereas the touristy spots were predictably more crowded and spendier. What you want to see will also dictate your departure time from Sydney. Given the 2 hour transportation time, you need to leave pretty early if you are going to take a serious hike. For us, we settled on a plan to sleep in then do a half-day of visiting some of the more famous overlooks and going where the day took us.
Echo Point and the Prince Henry Cliff Walk
As the highlight of most trips to the Blue Mountains, we arrived first at Echo Point. After paying $4 for street parking, we walked 5 minutes to a series of observation platforms built over 1,000 feet (300+ meters) from the valley floor and overlook the marquee highlights of the area: the Three Sisters, numerous waterfalls, and (of course) the Jamison Valley itself. After spending an hour on the various platforms (which make up part of the Prince Henry Cliff Walk), we decided that if this was all we saw of the Blue Mountains then it had been a worthwhile trip. Don’t leave the Blue Mountains until you have seen Echo Point and explored part of the Prince Henry Cliff Walk.
The Yellow Deli
Always seeking to avoid eating in tourist traps (where the food is generally disappointing compared with the price, we made our way to downtown Katoomba). Wanting to mix it up from our generally internet researched eating locations, we decided on an impulse to stop at an adorable eatery called The Yellow Deli (which made great sandwiches but was likely a hippy cult). Fortunately, we were not recruited and avoided any Kool-Aid, but the stop did give us a hint at the alternative lifestyles in Katoomba. However, we would definitely recommend the well-priced, organic foods of The Yellow Deli over the greasy pizza or deep-fried fish and chips alternatives in the area.
Katoomba Art Walk
Feeling good from our spontaneous lunch decision, while wandering back to our car we noticed a giant mural on the side of a building. Curious, we stepped into the alleyway (we were the only ones there) and discovered a whole side-street of murals almost on the scale of a Melbourne laneway. Needless to say, we spend the next 20 minutes entranced by the skill and creativity of these artists. Some of the images were pretty far out, reinforcing Katoomba’s growing reputation (at least in our heads) for artists and free-spirits.
Having experienced some of the local color, we were eager to get back to nature as we had the good fortune to luck into some tickets to Scenic World (a nature amusement part located just down the road from Echo Point). Normally these tickets cost [$XX] for the unlimited ride passes we had, so they are by far the spendiest part of a trip to the Blue Mountains. The park consists of a gift shop/restaurants complex with 3 rides and a long stretch of boardwalk on the valley below. The rides are not rollercoasters but are instead scenic viewing opportunities to experience the Blue Mountains from different angles. The ‘world’s steepest train’ is a 52* angled train that takes about 90 seconds to go from the cliff edge to the valley floor. Kelly squealed the whole time, so maybe it should count as a rollercoaster! Next up, we walked along the very nicely maintained boardwalk (past the coal mining tunnels that originally put this area on the map) to the Scenic Cableway. The “steepest aerial cablecar in Southern Hemisphere” Scenic Cableway takes up to 84 people from the valley surface back up to the main base in a few minutes with progressive views of the valley floor through its mostly glass composition. While it was not the most interesting ride, it certainly beat the alternative of climbing the exhausting 1,000+ steps back up the cliff! Finally, we took the “largest aerial cablecar in the Southern Hemisphere” Scenic Skyway which was a 72-person gondola ride across the valley to another outcropping. The Scenic Skyway had a terrific parlor trick which was a frosted glass platform that you could stand on, then not help but be a bit scared when the operator unfrosted the glass to instantly reveal the forest below. While we would probably not recommend Scenic World (especially at full price) to an avid hiker, it was perfect for more casual visitors and families.