When determining how to best split up the remaining weeks of our trip, we had initially planned to spend a couple days in the Blue Mountains, a range of mountains west of Sydney. Upon discovering an inexpensive, little self-contained apartment, centrally located in the town of Wentworth Falls, we decided to spend a week in the area to give us more time to explore some of the local trails.
The Blue Mountains actually don’t look much like mountains and, in fact, they are not – they are actually a dissected plateau, which is a plateau area that has undergone enough erosion to break apart the elevated expanse, allowing individual “peaks” to appear. Their name comes from the blue haze that appears in the valleys, the result of light scattering through the volatile oils which emanate from the eucalyptus trees that cover the area. While perhaps not as impressive in elevation as some of the mountain ranges we’ve visited, they are part of the Greater Blue Mountains Area, a 3,900 square mile expanse listed as a UNESCO world heritage site for its incredible plant diversity.
Upon arriving at our apartment, we were pleased to note a large berry tree out front that was swarming with birds. A mother satin bowerbird spent a lot of time watching over her large, noisy and awkward child, and chasing away the boisterous sulfur-crested cockatoos as king parrots and rosella gorged themselves on the berries.
While in the area, we figured we had to see some of the iconic Blue Mountain sights (e.g. The Three Sisters), in addition to exploring a bunch of the short walks (abundant within the park) and trying to find a couple “longer” trails. We first headed to the Three Sisters, a trio of eroded rock columns that watch over the valley. Between the site’s easy accessibility to tour busses (right on the edge of the town of Katoomba) and the fact that we went on a Sunday, we were overwhelmed with oppressive swarms of sightseers, pushing and shouting and going through a hundred different poses in front of the rocks. In an effort to escape the madness, we started to descend the Giant Stairway – a rock and metal staircase with over 800 steps that leads into the valley. This immediately proved to be a bad choice, as our descent down the stairs turned into a frustrating queue as we watched dozens of people in flip-flops, high heels, loafers and various other ill-advised footwear try to navigate the steep steps. We aborted our journey to seek refuge down some of the other trails along the cliff’s edge, fleeing what Jenn referred to as a “veritable tourist hell,” before eventually abandoning Katoomba entirely. Thus, we spent the majority of our stay poking around small hikes in Leura, Blackheath and Wentworth Falls, (there are many to choose from as the entire region is primarily made up of short, one- to four-hour tracks). Additionally, just a few minutes from our apartment, we enjoyed a couple pleasant strolls around Wentworth Falls Lake in the company of many coots and ducks.
Govett’s Leap/Evan’s Lookout/Rodriguez Pass
We arrived at the lookout for Govett’s Leap in the afternoon, as the morning rains had kept us away from the trails. Despite some conflicting trail information – one site indicating the hike to be 6 km and a whopping 7 hours, while another site indicated the walk was 10 km and 5 hours – and the sky still threatening, we headed out to see what the hike was like.
Govett’s Leap is a nearly 600-foot drop straight down into the Grose Valley below. The hiking track starts at the overlook for the falls, then winds its way along the top of the cliff, providing numerous panoramic viewpoints out onto the nearby plateaus and the rich, green valley below. Eventually, the trail turns and slopes down beside Greaves Creek, a steep descent over loose boulders, winding back and forth over the river. The emerald forest around us is blanketed with ferns and moss as we walk through the cool, damp air.
When we reach the bottom of the valley, the trail turns into a sandy track and the rainforest-like climate of the descent vanishes into a sparse forest, full of spindly saplings as it follows the gurgling creek. Tiny skinks and a juvenile (judging from the size) water dragon patrol the creek banks alongside us as we listen to the birds chattering in the tops of the tall trees. After a relatively short walk along the valley floor, we arrive at Junction Rock – a large boulder where several trails converge – and turn back uphill. The forest track ends at the base of Govett’s Leap, where we’re treated to a view from underneath the waterfall. We enjoy the spectacle of the wind whipping the falling water around and snap some photos before turning to the last part of the hike: a combination of stone, metal and wooden stairs that thread their way up the wall of the plateau. While precarious in places, the stairs provide a quick exit out of the valley and some spectacular views along the way.
Total Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,501 feet
National Pass/Overcliff/Undercliff/Den Fenella
Our second hike was suggested by Keith, the person whose room we were renting. We had it on a list of possible walks, and when he said it was his favorite hike in the Blue Mountains, we moved it to the ‘must-do’ list.
The hike began near the top of Wentworth Falls, a three-tier, 600-foot waterfall at the end of Jameson Creek. As we descended a small staircase approaching the top of the falls, Jenn suddenly leapt sideways. She pointed at the source of what startled her – an endangered Blue Mountains water skink that had been sunning himself on one of the stairs. This skink is endemic to the Blue Mountains region and has been under threat from human development as well as feral cats. We snapped a few photos before ensuring that he was safely off the path before we proceeded onward.
The trail wraps around the top of the falls before descending a stone staircase to National Pass, when suddenly the edge of the trail simply disappears. As we skirt the cliff edge, we are treated to a stunning view of the surrounding plateaus – and a vertigo-inducing look straight down into the valley. The hike proved to be as wonderful as Keith suggested, with precipitous stone staircases, paths carved directly into the side of the cliffs, and spectacular panoramas everywhere you looked. As we reached the Valley of the Waters, the forest grew dense and damp around the numerous waterfalls that are scattered through the area. From the waterfalls, the trail rapidly ascended, bringing us out of the valley and back along the cliff’s edge.
Towards the end of the hike, we briefly departed the Overcliff/Undercliff trail for the Den Fenella lookout, a short trip off the main track to a valley overlook. On the way back from the lookout, two people ahead of us were stopped and quietly watching something on the trail. The man turned to us and whispered that there was a lyrebird diligently building a nest. The superb lyrebird is a large songbird, 3-4 feet long, with an amazing ability to mimic virtually any noise it hears. In fact, roughly 80% of the lyrebird’s sounds are mimicry of both natural and man-made noises (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjE0Kdfos4Y). We watched for nearly 30 minutes, enthralled as this busy female hunted for just the right sticks, twigs and mouthfuls of leaf litter to build her nest.
Total Distance: 5.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 945 feet
National Pass/Wentworth Pass/Valley of The Waters
Our last hike in the area followed the start of our previous hike, from Wentworth Falls to National Pass, and provided us with yet another dizzying trip around the cliff’s edge. Instead of continuing along the length of National Pass, though, we descended down to Wentworth Pass via the Slack Stairs, a series of steep metal ladders that provided access to the bottom of the valley. Sulfur-crested cockatoos called and chattered loudly at each other while we moved through their trees, and we’d frequently stop to watch their antics as they’d socialize and eat in large family groups.
As soon as we reached the valley floor, a large Australian water dragon scrambled up a nearby rock, startling both of us. The large lizard appeared to be about as big as these creatures get – nearly 3 feet long and with beautiful red patterning on his chest and belly (an identifying characteristic of adult males).
Unfortunately, despite the weather report which assured us of clear skies, rains set in about halfway into the hike, forcing us to pick up the pace and preventing much photography as we made our way through the densely vegetated trail. By the time we started up out of the Valley of the Waters, the stone staircases were slick with water, requiring a lot of care during the ascent. The end of the trail brought us past the same waterfalls we had seen the previous day, their waters now roaring after the evening rains.
Total Distance: 4.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,134 feet