A short drive from Sydney’s outer metro area are the Blue Mountains: an undulous range of sandstone escarpments, gorges, rivers, rock formations and waterfalls, all covered by a thick carpet of eucalypt-scented Aussie scrub. From the best vantage points in the area, these mountains seem to stretch on forever.
Part of the Great Dividing Range – the world’s third-longest mountain range, and a thing of great national pride and beauty – the Blue Mountains get their name from the purpleish hue of the eucalyptus trees, as noted by the area’s early colonial explorers: Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson.
How this trio managed to navigate such unforgiving terrain – they were the first colonists to cross the range – is inconceivable. This serene yet treacherous area, like much of the Australian bush and outback – still regularly takes the lives of visitors through falling, drowning, starvation, and overexposure.
Blaxland was motivated to cross the range by his desire to find more grazing land for his cattle, and beyond the ranges , that’s exactly what you’ll find – bucolic countryside and impossibly green fields full of cows, sheep, horses and the most famous of all Australian grazing beasts: kangaroos. Stay in any guesthouse or mountain retreat around Oberon or Lithgow and you’ll probably see a troop of them picking slowly through the grass.
But back to the famous sisters. The main touristic zone within the Blue Mountains is the quiet, chilly heritage town of Katoomba. Katoomba’s main strip offers a handful of vintage stores, cafés, restaurants, historic hotels and bric-a-brac shops.
The main attraction of Katoomba lies at the end of the main road: Echo Point, the primary lookout for the Three Sisters. Three large rock formations overlooking the immense Jamison Valley, local indigenous legend has it that the sisters Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, fell in love with men from a rival tribe. To prevent their marriages, their uncle turned them to stone, and was killed before he could turn them back.
Visitors with moderate fitness can walk to Meehni to a small observatory point, or keep going down the Giant Stairway, an 800-step trip to the valley floor, where there are numerous walking tracks. To get back up, you need to either tackle the 800 stairs or walk 90 minutes to the rather harrowing ‘Scenic Railway’, which hoists visitors up 300 meters to Katoomba Scenic World, in parts of the track, at a 45-degree angle.
Both Echo Point and Katoomba Scenic World have restaurants and souvenir shops, but the most ‘Aussie’ experience on offer here are the rainforest bushwalks and treks. Even non-hikers can walk through Australian flora and catch glimpses of wildlife from elevated decking, with plenty of places to rest and fresh mountain streams – like Marrangaroo Spring – to drink mineral water literally from the source.
Experienced trekkers can explore Jamison Valley’s more remote features via a network of established tracks and campsites. The valley – at 10 kilometers wide and 12 long – is traversable by campers with permission from Sydney Water (who own the service roads), but there are single-day and three-day treks for a less intense experience.
How to get there: Take the M4 highway from Sydney city center – it’s a 90-minute drive of wide, well-maintained and, once you begin the ascent, winding roads. Alternatively, take the City Rail Blue Mountains line from Sydney Central Station – it couldn’t be easier.
Where to eat: To avoid the greasy fast foods of the main tourist points, head to Carrington Hotel for Afternoon Tea or Paragon Café for a milkshake and handmade chocolates. The main drag of Katoomba has many lovely ambient cafés and restaurants – Thai and Chinese included – so there’s no dearth of food offerings, just don’t leave it too late for dinner, most places will probably be closed by 9.30-10pm.
What to see: The Three Sisters from Echo Point, The Jamison Valley floor and Scenic Railyway from Katoomba Scenic World, and the Jenolan Caves. These are a further a 30-minute or so drive from nearby Oberon – soaring limestone caverns with nine separate ‘show caves’, guided tours, canyoning and adventure caving at four different levels of expertise. The Edge Cinema in Katoomba features a 38-minute large-screen nature film of the Blue Mountains.
Where to stay:
Lilianfels Blue Mountains Hotel 5* - luxury resort right next to Echo Point
Carrington Hotel: Historic hotel on the main street.
Three Explorers Motel: on the main street, within a 5-minute walk of Echo Point: