The World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains in Sydney's backyard is an enormous area, encompassing 1.03 million hectares of wilderness. So if you think it's all about The Three Sisters, think again – there's a lot to take in and plenty of surprises for first time visitors.
THEY REALLY ARE BLUE
You'll notice the phenomenon as you head west along the M4 from Sydney – the looming sandstone plateau straddling the horizon in variegated shades of hazy blue. Later, as you gaze across the Jamison Valley from the southern escarpment of the Blue Mountains, the science begins to make sense – that vast forest of eucalypts casts out droplets of oil, which, when combined with dust and water vapour, scatters short wavelengths of light that are predominantly blue. It's all an optical illusion – but beautiful magic indeed.
IT'S NOT JUST THE THREE SISTERS
While Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo – three young girls who were turned to eternal stone by their over-protective father – are the most famous of the Blue Mountains landmarks, there are many other lookouts that offer just as spectacular views without the selfie-taking crowds. Admire the comely rear-end of The Three Sisters from Elysian Rock Lookout at Leura; or for great sunset vistas, check out Hargraves Lookout on the western edge of Blackheath.
IT'S AN ACTUAL CITY
The City of the Blue Mountains holds the rare honour of being just one of two cities situated within a World Heritage-listed area (the other being Banff, in Canada). With a population of nearly 80,000, the local government area consists of 27 villages dotted along a 100-kilometre ridgeline, each with its own distinct character. Leura, with its cherry tree-lined Mall, is a favourite amongst Instagrammers; Blackheath has an artsy bent and awesome antique collective; while Katoomba has a vibrant nightlife as well as being a great base for all the major sights.
IT DIDN'T ALL BURN
The bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 were horrific; but headlines screaming that 80 per cent of the Blue Mountains wilderness had been "destroyed" were a little emotive. Impacted, certainly – but the Australian bushland has an amazing capacity for recovery, with much of the burnt land regenerating within months. While some areas, such as Bells Line of Road, were charred to a crisp and may be permanently affected, the main tourist areas near Katoomba were barely touched, and are as lush as ever.
THE OTHER WAY UP
While most people trundle up the Great Western Highway from Sydney, the alternative route via Bilpin and the Bells Line of Road is more alluring, with less traffic and some charming rural scenery. Stop by apple orchards at Bilpin to pick your own fruit or relax over a glass of craft-brewed cider. The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah is also well worth a visit, a glorious cool climate garden with some of best examples of the rare Wollomi Pine, the dinosaur tree. Leave home with an empty esky and fill it with fresh produce to support fire-affected local businesses.
With elevation comes cooler temperatures, vibrant colours of the seasons defining glorious mature gardens - blossoms in spring, falling oak leaves in autumn, and even a snowfall or two in winter. It's a magical occasion when this happens; local schools close as kids throw snowballs, toboggan in parks and build snowmen, with hopeful Sydneysiders creating traffic chaos as they attempt to join the winter wonderland action.
THE TRAFFIC CAN BE A NIGHTMARE
If there's one thing locals dread, it's traffic that inevitably banks up on Sunday afternoons, long weekends, school holidays and above-mentioned snow days as day-trippers head home after their Mountains jaunt. Long queues create a veritable carpark, particularly around the village of Blackheath where the road narrows into a single lane and a railway crossing furthers the chaos. Choose your travel times wisely, and utilise the Bells Line of Road where possible.
Aboriginal people from six language groups are traditional owners of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, with the Blue Mountains proper the home of Dharug and Gundungurra people. From enduring legends to rock art sites, their culture still resonates in this ancient land, with National Parks and Wildlife Service increasingly working with elders to acknowledge custodial rights. For instance, a new Gathering Place recently opened at Echo Point, an amphitheatre with a "'Map of Country" etched onto the stage area, which will be used for cultural presentations.
The European history of the Blue Mountains is also intriguing, from first attempts at crossing the range, to early settlements en route to western goldfields. Katoomba had its start as a coal mining village, originally called The Crushers; while tourism in the region dates to the early 20th century, when flamboyant retailer Mark Foy established his "Palace in the Wilderness", the Hydro Majestic Hotel, opening it in 1904 as Australia's first hydropathic spa. Take a history tour at this white edifice – it's one of the great untold Australian stories about an extraordinary man and his passions.
IT HAS SECRET VALLEYS
Megalong Valley. Photo: DNSW
The Hydro Majestic gazes over bucolic Megalong Valley, a tucked-away treasure that offers a gentler version of the Mountains' outdoor lifestyle. Relax over homemade scones at Megalong Valley Tearooms; hike the Six Foot Track to the Swinging Bridge; or raise a glass to stunning escarpment vistas at two cellar doors. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Kanimbla Valley, explore the bush on the back of a horse at Centennial Glen Stables, lingering to enjoy the moods of this remote rural paradise with an overnight stay at the Woolshed Cabins.
IT'S HOME TO SYDNEY'S CLOSEST WINE REGION
Not only is Megalong Valley the closest micro wine region to Sydney, you'll also be hard-pressed to find cellar doors with a more spectacular view anywhere in the world. Dryridge Estate offers tastings of its cool climate varietals accompanied by sumptuous grazing platters, terraced seating overlooking the dramatic escarpment the perfect place to while away a lazy weekend. Meanwhile, neighbouring Megalong Creek Estate has a family-friendly vibe, with pop-up food trucks, local musos and friendly alpacas a photogenic foil as you sip on single-vineyard wines created by award-winning Mudgee winemaker, Jacob Stein. See dryridge.com.au; megalongcreekestate.com
LOWER MOUNTAINS GEMS
While Katoomba and Leura rightfully claim their share of tourist love, the Lower Mountains has its own treasures without the hefty commute. With its picturesque main street awash with cool cafes, bohemian Glenbrook is a pleasant stop-off as you head west; while 15 minutes on, Springwood's sophistication and access to unsung bush trails make it a great base for a weekend's exploration. Mountain bikers can tackle the 27-kilometre Woodfood Oaks Trail; or take a vigorous short hike to sublime Jellybean Pool, where a pretty sand beach at the base of a gorge is an idyllic spot to cool off.
YOU CAN SWIM
Empress Falls. Photo: Daniel Tran/DNSW
With a dearth of coastal breezes, summer in the Blue Mountains can be surprisingly brutal. But after a long drought, consistent winter and spring rains has brought the Mountains' rivers back to life: waterfalls are flowing, filling rock pools with cool liquid ambrosia. Follow the Valley of the Waters track to Empress Falls, which plummets into a bracing plunge pool; or for a less hypothermic experience, dip your toes into the delicate Pool of Siloam. The aforementioned Jellybean Pool at Glenbrook, with its sunny, sandy beach, is your best bet if you have kids in tow.
THE FOOD IS SURPRISINGLY GOOD
Anonymous in Blackheath. Photo: James Horan/DNSW
Just a few years ago, you were hard-pressed to find decent coffee and passable food in the Blue Mountains – but times are thankfully changing. From inner-city vibes of hip cafes like Anonymous in Blackheath and Kickaboom in Glenbrook, to innovate farm-to-table kitchens like Sean Moran's High Hopes Roadhouse in Bilpin and Ambermere Inn in Little Hartley, dining in the Blue Mountains is becoming the experience it always promised to be. Mid-week closures are an issue if you are visiting outside peak season, so save your appetite for weekends.
THERE ARE COOL BARS
When 30-something-year-old Kelly Walls struggled to find a decent bar in her 'hood that appealed to people of her age, she rectified the situation by opening her own. The resulting Bootlegger Bar in Katoomba, with its speakeasy vibe and enticing smoked cocktails, joins a growing list of venues where both locals and visitors want to be seen. Katoomba's Mountain Culture Beer Co has the craft beer scene covered, while Blackheath Bar & Bistro is a sophisticated alternative to local pub offerings.
IT'S JUST AS SPECTACULAR AT NIGHT
As spectacular as the wilds of the Blue Mountains are, step out after dark and look up for a truly breathtaking experience. With minimal ambient light, the wonders of the universe are at their dazzling best, particularly on moon-free winter nights when the Milky Way is a blanket of pin-prick lights. Join an astrophysicist observing planets, stars and nebuli through a professional-grade telescope on an astronomy tour; or for a more grounding experience, abseil into the Grand Canyon where the twinkling of glow worms adds an ethereal edge to a thrilling nocturnal adventure. See bmac.com.au; airbnb.com.au/experiences
IT'S A WILDLIFE PARADISE
You may not see a kangaroo jumping down the main street of Katoomba, but venture into the valleys around dusk and you'll see them in droves, along with echidnas, wombats, goannas, snakes and a glorious array of birdlife. There's even been the odd koala sighting of late, a happy sign that numbers may be recovering after being wiped out by hunters in the 1930s. Be particularly mindful driving in fading light, as most wildlife is nocturnal and on the move at night.
YOU DON'T NEED A CAR
With a train line running right through the Blue Mountains to Lithgow, you can leave the car at home and utilise a range of local touring options once you arrive. The Blue Mountains Explorer Bus allows you to hop-on/hop-off at all the major sights; or for a more active reconnaissance, rent an electric bicycle from Blue Mountains Bike Hire and pedal your way from lookout to lookout (the bike hire has been temporarily closed, see bmbikehire.com.au for updates).
IT HAS DIVERSE TOUR OPTIONS
From hard-core adventure, to quirky paranormal tours led by true believers, the Blue Mountains is rich in immersive experiences, led by locals with a passion for their own backyard. Delve deeper into the wilderness on a guided eco-tour; plunge into the icy depths on a canyoning adventure; or connect with Country as you absorb the traditions of the oldest living culture on earth during an immersive walk with an Aboriginal NPWS guide. For more inspiration, see visitbluemountains.com.au
A WHOLE NEW WORLD LIES BEYOND
The Blue Mountains officially ends as you tackle the precipitous curves of Victoria Pass, but as the countryside opens into rolling farmland, so a whole new world is on offer. From the history and dramatic landscapes of the Lithgow Valley, to the wonders of Jenolan Caves, the gardens of Oberon and the wine region of Mudgee, there's plenty to warrant further investigation. Westward ho…
Julie Miller is a Blue Mountains resident.
See also: The Blue Mountains' secret attraction