The Blue Mountains are peppered with old-world villages, historic hotels and some of Australia’s best bushwalks, but the main feature that draws visitors to this rugged region west of Sydney is its boundless gum-tree forests. This UNESCO World Heritage listed area is covered with 91 different species of eucalypti, whose oils give off the blue mist that lends the mountains their moniker.
“Its beauty is subtle,” says Carolyn Melbourne from Jenolan Caves, another of the Blue Mountains’ must-see attractions. “At first glance, visitors see an endless vista of the same type of tree, the eucalyptus…but the Blue Mountains is home to over 91 different types of eucalypts. After a rare heavy rain, the powerful scent of eucalyptus is intoxicating.”
Two hours inland from the centre of Sydney, the Blue Mountains don’t appear on every traveller’s Australian itinerary. Those who make the effort, though, are rewarded with 140km (87mi) of hiking trails, jaw-dropping rock formations, towering waterfalls, abundant native wildlife and a drool-worthy food and drink scene spread across a string of twee towns.
“So many tourists come to Sydney, see the Opera House, Bondi Beach and the Harbour Bridge before hopping back on a plane and flying to Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef or the Northern Territory’s Uluru – great experiences,” Melbourne continues. “But those people miss out on seeing the outback of New South Wales in its wild, dusty, rugged and treacherous beauty.”
From the world’s steepest passenger train and the oldest caves on Earth to crocodile pizza and apple cider fresh from the orchard, discover the best things to see and do in the Blue Mountains.
Katoomba’s Scenic World provides the best vantage point of the Blue Mountains. Well, the best four vantage points. The Scenic Railway is the steepest passenger train in the world at a 52-degree decline into the forest. The Scenic Walkway is a 2.4km (1.5mi) boardwalk winding beneath the canopy. The Scenic Cableway is a gentle 545m (1,788ft) descent into the Jamison Valley. And the Scenic Skyway is the highest suspended cable car in Australia, soaring 270m (886ft) above Katoomba Falls, the Three Sisters and Mount Solitary.“The Scenic Skyway also provides a unique thrill as the ancient rainforest is revealed beneath your feet through its electro-glass cabin floor,” says Scenic World’s John Mitchell. “We are a World Heritage Area, and the villages here are surrounded by a national park that enjoys stunning natural landscapes, and these can be accessed via many walking tracks and lookouts. We’re fortunate to live in a location that has so much natural beauty.”
Carved out by underground rivers as far back as 340 million years ago, this maze of spectacular limestone chasms are the oldest discovered open caves anywhere on Earth. And Jenolan Caves are in near-pristine condition, too — Aboriginal people used the waters to heal illness for millennia before European colonisers turned the area into one of Australia’s earliest reserves. Today, the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve houses kangaroos, wallabies, lyrebirds, platypuses, wombats, water dragons and rosellas, as well as nine caves from the system of 300 that are open to the public on easy-paced walking tours or more adrenaline-fuelled adventures. “Many countries have spectacular caves, but the caves here at Jenolan are very special and worth experiencing,” Melbourne says. “When today’s visitors see our caves, they are unspoiled – as stunning as the day they were discovered.”
This Doonside zoo is a compulsory stop on the drive from Sydney to the Blue Mountains. Featherdale Wildlife Park is the closest place to Sydney where visitors can hand-feed a kangaroo, as well as cuddle a koala and feed a crocodile. And that’s only a handful of the 1,700 Aussie animals at this hands-on wildlife experience. “Just east of the mountains, Featherdale Wildlife Park is a must,” Melbourne says. “This zoo is an amazing collection of native birds and animals, over 250 species, especially koalas – really healthy, happy, well-cared-for animals.”
Glenbrook is the gateway to the Blue Mountains, and another perfect pit stop en route to the rainforest. Grab a coffee from specialty coffee shop Kickaboom or a freshly squeezed orange juice from Cafe 2773 across to road to fuel up for a bushwalk through the Lower Blue Mountains. “If you are wanting a short walk, follow the Jack Evans Track as it meanders down from the Nepean Lookout Trail to Erskine Creek, where you can take a dip before returning the way you came,” recommends Justine Sinclair from the Blue Mountains Council tourism team. “Stop off in the early morning for a chance encounter with kangaroos at the Euroka Clearing or drive to the culturally significant Red Hands Cave to view traditional hand painting from the Darug people.”
Echo Point – the vantage point for the iconic Three Sisters rock formation nestled in the Jamison Valley near Katoomba – might be crowded with tourist coaches, but it’s a Blue Mountains must-see. “From the Echo Point lookout you can see Mount Solitary, the Ruined Castle, Narrow Neck Plateau and the inclined railway at Scenic World,” says Mitchell. “You definitely need to stop by at Echo Point to see the iconic Three Sisters up close. You might even consider venturing along some of the easy walking tracks of the Blue Mountains National Park that surround Echo Point.” But Govetts Leap lookout in Blackheath, just north of Katoomba, is perhaps even more spectacular thanks to the sheer sandstone walls and towering falls that frame the Grose Valley. “It’s one of Australia’s most famous lookouts,” Mitchell adds. “Govetts Leap features a magnificent waterfall that drops 180m (591ft) to the base of the cliff.”
The Blue Mountains first appeared on the tourist map in the 1800s as an escape from the city for Sydney’s rich and stylish. That old-world charm is ingrained in Katoomba, particularly the Carrington Hotel, the only surviving 19th-century grand resort hotel in New South Wales. The Sunday afternoon high tea in the opulent dining room is a particularly cherished tradition, plating up finger sandwiches, cakes, fluffy scones with jam and cream and savoury treats. Mitchell says, “Served in one of the last Victorian dining rooms in Australia with the sounds of a local pianist playing in the background, you’re in for a high tea filled with the history and charm of yesteryear.” Katoomba – the hub of the region – is home to a high street full of historic places to eat and drink, including Station Bar and its famous wood-fired pizzas. “My pick would be the delicious bullaburra pizza, which has crocodile on it,” Sinclair says.
East of Katoomba on the Great Western Highway, Lawson is another good launching pad for some of the Blue Mountains’ best walking terrain. Grab a croissant from Black Cockatoo Bakery – the best in the Blue Mountains, according to Mitchell – and a coffee from the Rust and Timber Chocolate Bar next door, which roasts its own coffee and makes its own chocolate in-house. That’s just the sustenance hikers need to tackle the South Lawson Waterfall Circuit or the string of walking trails to Dantes Glen Falls, St Michael’s Falls and Fairy Falls at the end of St Bernards Drive.“The South Lawson Waterfall circuit encompasses four stunning waterfalls,” Sinclair explains: Adelina Falls, Federal Falls, Junction Falls and Cataract Falls.
The Blue Mountains aren’t renowned as a wine-growing region – from Sydney, most people head north to the Hunter Valley in search of a drop, or cruise through the mountains on the way to Mudgee. But the vineyards of Dryridge Estate and Megalong Creek Estate, as well as the Old Zig Zag Brewery outside Lithgow and Bilpin Cider (surrounded by Bilpin’s apple orchards), provide plenty to drink. Mitchell recommends the single-estate wines from Megalong Creek. “The family farm is a boutique vineyard situated in the beautiful Megalong Valley,” he says. “Wine varieties include pinot grigio and shiraz.”
No corner of the Blue Mountains is as quaint as Leura, which boasts one of the prettiest main streets west of Sydney. Pick up one of the handcrafted pies from the legendary Bakehouse on Wentworth, then stroll down Leura Mall, which is particularly beautiful during spring – when the line of cherry trees blossom – or autumn. “Autumn in the Blue Mountains is beautiful with the leaves changing colours and the hint of fresh cold air,” Sinclair says. “It’s very special.” Close by, Wentworth Falls is a stunning three-tiered waterfall flowing from Jamison Creek, while the Leura Cascades walking track winds past a string of smaller falls. “However, if you want to get off the beaten track, try the Pool of Siloam,” Sinclair advises. “Follow the stairs that are surrounded by the sounds of native birds until you reach the stepping stones that pass by a waterfall tucked away in an alcove with the cliff face. Look out for the lyrebirds as they scratch for grass seeds.”
If the grandiose clifftop hotel looks like it’s been transplanted from some other part of the globe, that’s because it has – the central casino dome was shipped out from Chicago before being reassembled in the small town of Medlow Bath. Gazing out over the Megalong Valley, the Hydro Majestic is an over-the-top exercise in Art Deco extravagance, with a series of swanky dining rooms and accommodation options lining a lengthy one kilometre of escarpment edge.“It is the grandest hotel in the mountains, also with a spectacular view,” Melbourne says. “It is really wonderful to dine at. It was totally renovated only a few years ago – very grand and expensive, but it’s the sort of experience that people do for anniversaries and give as gifts.”