Australia’s ‘most accessible’ national park not so bad despite that
Blue Mountains National Park is billed as Australia’s most accessible. That brings both good and bad for visitors seeking the peaceful beauty of nature in this World Heritage Area.
Like many popular U.S. parks, this one has, at times, too much to offer. Less than a two-hour drive from Sydney, the country’s largest city, it suffers somewhat from the overdevelopment that plagues the outskirts, and occasionally the insides, of American icons.
The good news is that most visitors never bother to experience the more difficult-to-reach portions, which aptly describes both most of the park and most of the rest of Australia.
The park is part of eight protected units making up the heritage area. With 4.3 million visitors in 2014, it is one of the most-visited parks in the country because of its proximity to Sydney and (to a lesser degree) Melbourne, two cities which together account for almost 40 percent of Australia’s population of 23.6 million.
At 1,034 square miles, it is not among Australia’s 25 biggest national parks, but would be No. 18 on the U.S. list, just behind Kenai Fjords in Alaska and but more than 10-percent larger than Michigan’s Isle Royale.
Most visitors don’t get much past the mechanized train and cable cars of Scenic World, a crowded, privately owned concession perched on the cliff above the heavily wooded and virtually unpeopled valley below. The small town of Katoomba encompasses Scenic World and gives most visitors comfortable, yet thrilling, access to the steep, Jurassic World-like slopes of the park immediately under the rim.
The red tram is like a carnival ride with a 52-degree track angle and speedy drop, making it a literal scream for some. The aerial cable cars also have a steep vertical rise and a long horizontal journey across the deep gorge carved by Katoomba Creek and its falls.
A pass for unlimited daylong ridership went for $35 Australian while my University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point communication class toured the park Jan. 4. The rides deposit and pick up people at major overlooks and the excellent raised walkways winding through a small portion of the rain forest below the cliffs.
Unfortunately, visibility was poor and steady rain made our visit less than comfortable. We spent as much time watching an indoor show on Aboriginal culture and riding the conveyances as we did on the trail, and we ended up in Katoomba for lunch, then left early.
I like to experience travel in a more thorough and relaxed manner than groups allow, so I returned Jan. 11, when the weather looked good, and the students traveled independently to locations of their choice. The second trip was well worth it.
Challenging walk brings different park experience
After 11 days in Sydney, I was ready for time away from crowds and traffic, but at first, it didn’t look like I’d get it.
Arriving by train late Sunday afternoon in Katoomba, I went to my motel and learned from the owner that to walk any of the park during the remaining daylight, I’d want to follow Narrow Neck Road and Cliff Drive. They wind uphill through neighborhoods near the motel, past a few overlooks before reaching Scenic World.
I’d avoid the longer way through downtown, but this was still likely to take a couple of hours and be a challenge, he warned.
It didn’t sound completely pleasant, and at first, it wasn’t.
I initially saw little more than homes, yards and Aussie drivers who entertained by swishing by me as near as possible on the streets, which had no sidewalks.
The highlight was almost getting a good photo of a white cockatoo, the loudly squawking species omnipresent in Katoomba, when it flew down to drink out of a roadside puddle.
After about 30 minutes, I came to the Narrow Neck lookout. Not that impressive, but soon I was at the Landslide Lookout, a short hike down a slope from the road that offered an expansive view of the near-empty forest and peaks to the south. My spirits picked up.
More spectacular views came at the Eaglehawk Lookout, approaching the developed area around Katoomba Falls. I began to feel the tiring walk worth it. The impending sunset began casting a reddish-gold glow on the famous Three Sisters, the rounded vertical outcroppings that cap the end of a jutting peninsula of cliff that is the park’s landmark photo opportunity.
I then circled back to the motel by walking through a nature reserve, between the escarpment and the downtown shopping area, via yet another neighborhood. The reserve protects land around Katoomba Creek, a pleasant walk with gurgling water and chorusing frogs as darkness fell.
I woke early Monday to walk downtown, a quicker route to the falls area. There, I tackled the trail from the Katoomba Falls Kiosk down to the Furber Steps, a steep, challenging path that quickly took me away from the masses above.
While Sunday’s walk was good, it was Monday morning’s peace and quiet that made me realize how accustomed I’d become to the blaring city. My soundtrack was mostly breeze in the heavy forest canopy and the raucous screaming of the white cockatoos, who at one point roosted in a group of about a hundred in a huge tree just below the falls.
With a careful ear, I could just make out a little of the rush of traffic on the Great Western Highway through Katoomba, but only after it occurred to me that I was in an area of near complete tranquility.
If you go, take good shoes
Before our Australia trip, I invested in a pair of Merrill walking shoes. At just over $80 on sale, they were well worth it as my go-to city and country pair. The thick soles and good grip made my life easier by an untold factor, as both my feet and knees had a tremendous workout everywhere from airports to parks.
Make no mistake; the Furber Steps trail down to the Federal Pass, which circumnavigates the ridgeline of the Three Sisters, is a challenge, both down and up. I briefly considered taking the cable car or train back up for $16, but decided that would defeat the trip’s purpose.
Instead, I counted steps on the way back up: more than 900 of them, not including the 120 or so on side trips (double that for out-and-back calculations) and the few interspersed downward steps where the trail roller-coastered a bit.
I’ve had surgery on both knees, and as experienced hikers know, going down is generally harder on the legs then going up, but it was manageable both ways. I was amazed at trekkers who didn’t wear closed or thick-soled shoes on these routes – I only saw a couple of dozen people in my two-hour trek, but many seemed ill-equipped.
In addition, a good number of the hikers were older couples or young couples with small children, so the walks should be doable for most.
In the parts of three days I was in the park, I never saw a ranger, and from what I can tell, there are only a few small campgrounds scattered about different units, almost all requiring short walk-in trips. The park’s website gives good information on what look like several spectacular hiking trails to more remote primitive campsites both north and south of Katoomba.
I couldn’t find a park guidebook of the type that virtually every U.S. national park sells. I haven’t yet had time to explore differences between the Australian national park system and ours, but they appear to be substantial. On one steep trail in the park proper, a railing was out and simply replaced by orange plastic netting meant to serve as mostly a visual warning to keep away.
I’m not sure what all of that means, but the system’s presence is certainly more low-key, at least in Katoomba.
Like the Grand Canyon or other national parks, once you get away from the easy, accessible portions, the Blue Mountains are worth it for the peace and quiet.
Hip or hippy, Katoomba proper also deserves visit
I’m not the most prolific visitor of U.S. national parks, but I’ve seen enough to know that there are similarities between Katoomba and other park gateway communities.
It’s busy, but not gaudy, like Gatlinburg outside the Smokies. It may be most like Moab (Arches) or Springdale (Zion) in Utah – slightly hip, slightly hippy, but with enough small-town conservatives to leaven the experience.
There are plenty of private galleries and public art, like the three shovel-faced, sheet-metal, found-art sculptures of the Three Sisters at the kiosk on the escarpment. There are outdoor-equipment stores and art galleries, plus plenty of Asian, Mediterranean, organic and fast-food places to eat on Katoomba Street and scattered about.
I particularly enjoyed a smoked-chicken, tomato and cheese sandwich on pumpernickel with a mango smoothie at the Yellow Belly Deli, a Hobbit-hole of a restaurant with rough and polished wood all around, a curving and flowing interior, and New Age music with flute, sitar and mandolin. The waiter was from California, but the crowd seemed mostly local.
All in all, Katoomba was a lovely last-minute trip that made me realize how much I missed both my traveling students, my family and friends and home, and even the snow of Wisconsin – one of those times when a solitary, slow pace makes you both glad you went by yourself and sorry that your loved ones aren’t there to share it.
As we’d be gathering soon for the last few days of our Australia experience, I got that slightly melancholic feeling we all know when preparing to leave a place we’ve enjoyed immensely and may never see again, at least with the same eyes.
There’s always an air of things both gained and lost, heading back to something both familiar and yet not, because somehow we may have changed, and – with a spectacular place like the Blue Mountains – generally for the better.