One Day in the Blue Mountains: Our Self Drive Itinerary

 
Image credit: M_carted,  pixabay

Image credit: M_carted, pixabay

In Australia, cities don’t come much bigger than Sydney: a metropolitan jungle that never sleeps.  So, it may surprise you to know that less than two hours west lies one of Australia’s most breathtaking, tranquil, and awe inspiring national parks – The Blue Mountains.  The rugged, at times unforgiving landscape is spectacularly showcased with dramatic rock formations, exquisite bushland, soaring mountain peaks, plunging canyons, and mystic ancient caves.  We would wager that no trip to Sydney is complete without a visit here, even if you can only spare a day.  In fact, we felt it would be rather rude of us not to call in during our road trip from Canberra back to our home on the Gold Coast.

Blue Mountains National Park spans a massive 267,954 ha, with over 140 km of World Heritage listed walking trails suited to a range of length and difficulty levels.  The Blue Mountains are about 10 times older than the Grand Canyon, said to be around 470 million years old.  The highest peak of the Blue Mountains is Mount Werong, elevated at 1,215 m above sea level, and is located close to The Three Sisters.

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Getting to the Blue Mountains

Although we were calling in mid-road trip, a visit to the Blue Mountains is certainly a doable as a day or weekend trip from Canberra, about three hours’ drive from the nation’s capital.  If you’re in Sydney, it’s even closer – Blue Mountains National Park is a short 1 ½ hour drive, and to reach the popular town of Katoomba (where you can visit the Three Sisters), it’s only 2 hours’ drive. 

If you don’t have the luxury of your own transport, our friends at viator.com have an amazing all-inclusive Blue Mountains day trip departing Sydney which includes a Scenic Railway ride through Jamison Valley, a river cruise, and a chef prepared lunch. Check it out here.

 

The Best Time to Visit

There is something on offer for visitors to the Blue Mountains year-round. Summertime is Australia’s wet season and this is also true for the Blue Mountains, so do expect rainfall and pack wet weather gear.  The benefit of visiting in summer is that with the increased rainfall the waterfalls are at their most spectacular.  In springtime, the gardens and flowers are in full bloom.  In winter, it gets very cold – and has even been known to experience snow.

We personally visited in late March, perfect for nature walks, where the temperatures are pleasant but slightly cooler and there is less rainfall.  We would argue that we could not have picked a better time to visit.

Blue Mountains Weather

At high altitudes, expect the Blue Mountains to have cooler temperatures to Sydney year round.  In summer (December to February), minimum temperatures average 13 C, whilst maximum temperatures are around 23 C.  In autumn (fall) (March to May), bring cold weather clothing if you’re staying overnight, with minimum temperatures averaging 6 C and maximums at 20 C.  Winter gets particularly cold, with a minimum average of just 3 C and maximum averages of 11 C.  In springtime, expect temperatures similar to autumn with temperatures back up around a 6 C minimum and a 20 C maximum.

What to Wear

No matter what time of year you’re visiting the Blue Mountains, nature walks are going to be a big part of your experience, so dress accordingly.  Wear comfortable footwear that is suitable for walking – choose walking shoes, joggers, or hiking shoes with good grip.  In terms of clothing, bring comfortable walking trousers or shorts, and a comfortable jacket

Always, always bring a hat and sunscreen, insect repellent and sunglasses

What to See

Jenolan Caves

The Blue Mountains is home to the Jenolan Caves – the most ancient cave system in the world, and arguably the most beautiful.  There are 11 caves open to be explored, but the cave system is actually still being explored and it’s suspected that there are yet more caves to be discovered.

It’s a 3 hour drive here from Sydney airport.  The drive is well signed – simply follow the signs to the Blue Mountains, then pass through Katoomba, turning left at the Jenolan Caves turnoff at Hartley Historic Village.  From Canberra, we had an easy and exquisitely picturesque drive via Goulburn and Taralga and the distance was roughly the same – about 3 hours from the ACT.

The little town of Jenolan is like something out of a storybook, nestled in a scenic bush blanketed valley, itself worthy of exploration.  For a bite to eat before your cave tour, Jenolan has three dining options – Chisolm’s Restaurant, The Caves Cafe and Jeremiah’s Bar, plus a picnics and barbecue area.  Prior to our cave exploration, we grabbed lunch at The Caves Cafe, where we were joined by the most adorable rosella. 



Jenolan also has a variety of accommodation options if you want to spend a few days exploring the caves (and we highly recommend this).

The cave we visited was the Orient Cave.  Widely known as one of the most beautiful caves in the world, the Orient Cave was truly spectacular.  It reminded me of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders – a jewelled underground paradise, the walls and roof covered in magnificent calcite formations.  The breathtaking crystal was illuminated by eco-friendly lighting, so we could really appreciate the detail in every pillar, stalagmite and stalactite.  By far my favourite formation was ‘The Crystal Basin’, which was filled with pure water from the caves’ underground river system. 

Whilst some of Jenolan’s other caves are better suited to the more experienced hiker or cave enthusiast, the Orient Cave is relatively accessible.  There are still 358 steps, but most of these feature toward the end of the tour and are optional if you’re not up to it.  Tour sizes are medium sized, taking around 25 people.  Whilst some spaces involve a narrow walkway, as someone who is easily claustrophobic I can vouch that I felt comfortable throughout the tour.

At 1.5 hours long, a visit to the Orient Cave will chew up a large part of your day, but it is worth every second.  It is one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had.  One of Australia’s most understated natural wonders, The Jenolan Caves should feature on everyone’s bucket list and are certainly reason enough to visit the Blue Mountains in and of themselves.

Carlotta Arch

After our cave tour, we stayed local to Jenolan to explore the Carlotta Arch Walking Track, a short (under 1 km) walking track.  Part of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve, the bushland features a rich array of wildlife and gorgeous views of pristine Blue Lake.  It should take about 30 minutes to an hour to complete, and whilst you don’t need to be an experienced hiker to walk it, I would suggest that a decent level of fitness is required.

Whilst the dramatic formation of Carlotta Arch is clearly the star of the show, her co-stars are almost equally as impressive.  We also explored the Devil’s Coach House cave and spotted a beautiful lyrebird making a nest.

Stunning Carlotta Arch, with views of Blue Lake

Stunning Carlotta Arch, with views of Blue Lake


The Three Sisters and Katoomba

We left my bucket list item for last!

After spending much of our day exploring Jenolan, we set off again toward Katoomba, the main town of the Blue Mountains.  We headed straight for iconic Echo Point lookout, with its dramatic panoramic views of the legendary Three Sisters rock formation.

Now, this place has been on my bucket list for a REALLY long time, but I was totally unprepared for just how breathtaking it was to stand there in person and behold not only the striking Three Sisters sandstone formation but the incredible Jamison Valley – a sweeping blue canyon with views as far as the horizon.  It was, in all honesty, the most stunning natural landscapes I have ever seen.

Three Sisters sandstone rock formation at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, NSW
Spectacular Jamison Valley at Echo Point Lookout, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, NSW

Rising up from Jamison Valley to heights of up to 922  m tall (3,000 feet above sea level), the Three Sisters take their name from the Aboriginal Dreamtime legends of their origin.  There are two stories about the three sisters Meenhi, Wimlah and Gunnedoo.  One involves their kidnapping by a trio of brothers from a neighbouring tribe who wanted to marry them.  A great battle between the tribes ensued, during which the witch doctor of the sisters’ tribe turned them to stone to keep them safe until the battle was over.  However, the witch doctor, who was the only one who could return the sisters to their human form, was killed in battle and so the sisters remained in stone.

My favourite indigenous Dreamtime legend about the Three Sisters, since I was a little girl, is the story of their father, a witch doctor named Tyawan, turning them to stone using his magic bone to protect them from a Bunyip who was attacking them.  The Bunyip then turned on Tyawan, who turned into a lyrebird to flee from the Bunyip.  In so doing, he dropped his magic bone and lost it and so the sisters must remain in stone until he finds it.  Legend has it that the cry of the lyrebird heard from the valley is that of Tyawan, calling to his daughters, as he searches and searches for his lost bone.

If you want a more up close and personal look at the stunning Jamison Valley, Scenic World offers both a railway (the world’s steepest incline railway) and a glass-floored Skyway cable car experience.  Day passes to ride both the railway and the cable car start at just $39 AUD per person.

Scenic World glass-bottomed Skyway experience overlooking the Jamison Valley at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains Image credit: barni1,  Pixabay

Scenic World glass-bottomed Skyway experience overlooking the Jamison Valley at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains
Image credit: barni1, Pixabay

Alternatively, you can take a short and easy walk to get up close and personal with “the girls” via the easy access Three Sisters Walk.  The track is accessible for all levels with no steps or steep sections.  It is about 1 km long, and about a 45 minute round trip.

And the beauty of the Three Sisters doesn’t disappear with the sunlight – at night time, Echo Point Lookout is well lit and the Jamison Valley is dramatically illuminated with flood lighting against the backdrop of the Sydney skyline in the distance.  After dinner, we came back to behold the Three Sisters from a new and equally as beautiful perspective.

Jamison Valley, Katoomba, Blue Mountains at night with views of the Sydney skyline in the background Image credit: Hamish Weir,  Unsplash

Jamison Valley, Katoomba, Blue Mountains at night with views of the Sydney skyline in the background
Image credit: Hamish Weir, Unsplash

Where to Stay

If a day of bushwalking and exploring the Blue Mountains’ natural beauty has left you in need of rest before tracking back to Sydney, Katoomba has a wide range of accommodation on offer to suit varying budgets and needs.  We booked last minute accommodation at The Echo Point Discovery Motel, literally a walk across the road from Echo Point Lookout, for less than $100 a night. No matter where you choose to stay, we recommend booking through our friends at trip.com for the best rates.

 

The uniquely spectacular natural beauty of the Blue Mountains took our breath away.  Whilst you can definitely squeeze the highlights in on a day trip from Sydney, if you can afford the time to take a little bit longer, we would highly recommend doing so.  The Blue Mountains are a bucket list item that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

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Travel in style

The Blue Mountains can be cold, but hours of hiking can work up a sweat. Think light, breathable, comfortable layers that can be added or removed depending on the weather. Wear sensible, comfortable hiking shoes, and make sure to bring a waterproof jacket to keep warm. Powdered tinted sunscreen is a fantastic alternative to foundation or BB cream because it’s less prone to coming off with perspiration during a big trek.

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FURTHER READING

Keen to start planning your trip? Get better acquainted with the Blue Mountains’ history and its must see landmarks.

Lonely Planet New South Wales Travel Guide, Amazon.com

Blue Mountains Travel Guide by Natasha Agaki, Amazon.com

The Jenolan Caves by Samuel Cook, Amazon.com

Walks, Tracks & Trails of New South Wales, Amazon.com

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The Blue Mountains is a world heritage listed national park less than 2 hours’ drive from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia and a little over 3 hours from Canberra, ACT. With its breathtaking natural beauty, we believe it’s a tourist destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list - and the best part is, it’s doable in just one day. Here’s how. #sydney #newsouthwales #bluemountains #katoomba #threesisters #jenolancaves #canberra #sydneydaytrip #visitnsw