If you're not quite ready to head out to the regions (or you've discovered everything is booked out), you can still have an adventure not too far from the Sydney CBD at one of the national parks that are dotted around the city.
But not all our national parks guarantee social distancing. Despite the absence of international and interstate visitors, Sydneysiders are more than making up numbers with increased visitation during the COVID-19 era.
That has broken the record set in 2018, when national parks in Greater Sydney recorded almost 20 million visits. Topping the list was Royal National Park (6.1 million) and Ku-ring-gai Chase (3.9 million). Sydney Harbour and Lane Cove National Parks had more than two million visitors each.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) says that, compared with the same period in 2018, visitor volume has grown by up to 50 per cent in the last quarter of 2020. The trend has intensified in the first half of 2021.
The NPWS now advises visitors to avoid peak times between 11am and 2pm, and says some popular areas may be closed at short notice if they reach capacity.
There are however 50 national parks, nature reserves and other conservation areas in Greater Sydney, and not all see crowds. Among those recording the fewest visitors are Berowra Valley Regional Park near Hornsby and Marramarra National Park on the Hawkesbury, both in Sydney's north, and Garawarra State Conservation Area near Helensburgh in the far south.
Even the inner city has tranquil corners, says Deon van Rensburg, NPWS director for Greater Sydney. "Wolli Creek Regional Park is a pocket of greenery and a great place for a walk or run along Wolli Creek Walking Track. And you can get your exercise by kayaking over to stunning Rodd Island, Clark Island or Shark Island on Sydney Harbour."
Overlooked locations on Sydney's fringes include Mulgoa Nature Reserve and Leacock, Rouse Hill and William Howe regional parks. The latter's loop trail is suitable for children and dog friendly, says van Rensburg, with views across farmland to the distant Blue Mountains.
For those looking to escape to nature without the crowds, here are five places where social distancing can be easily maintained.
HEATHCOTE NATIONAL PARK
Kingfisher Pool. Photo: Nick Cubbin/DPIE
Heathcote is literally across the road – or Princes Highway – from busy Royal National Park, and easily accessible from Waterfall train station, yet remains devoid of overloaded carparks and turbulent teenagers. It has very hike-able bushland with swimming holes and waterfalls, though is suitable only for well-prepared bushwalkers.
Hit Bullawarring Walking Track to Kingfisher Pool's refreshing falls. You can return via craggy, rugged Mooray Walking Track. Tall Gymea lilies are red exclamation marks in bush dense with bloodwood and Sydney peppermint. You might see large yellow-tailed black cockatoos, or kingfishers zipping over pockets of water in electric-blue flashes.
SCHEYVILLE NATIONAL PARK
Longneck Lagoon Walking Track, Scheyville National Park. Photo: John Spencer/DPIE
With very few visitor numbers, this national park near Windsor in Sydney's northwest combines nature and history. Its variety of 20th-century structures ranges from a military camp to a post-World War II immigration hostel. Follow Migrant Heritage Walk and its interpretive signs to learn more.
Head to the northern end of the park for the easy four-kilometre Longneck Lagoon Walking Track through wetlands and forest where 140 bird species have been recorded.
A short hop away is compact Cattai National Park on the Hawkesbury River. Of its two sections, Mitchell Park is especially quiet, with five kilometres of track through bloodwood forest.
GEORGES RIVER NATIONAL PARK
Fitzpatrick Park, Georges River National Park. Photo: Jem Cresswell/Destination NSW
You do encounter others in this southwest Sydney park. On weekends when not locked down, local families enjoy the picnic tables, barbecue areas and boat ramps at Morgans Creek and Fitzpatrick Park. Water-skiing and jet-skiing can be intrusive.
Yet it's not hard to find tranquillity for fishing or kayaking, and even the easy Yeramba Lagoon Loop Track is little tramped despite its riverine outlooks and abundant bird life, including endangered pink robins.
Look out for engravings and rock art of the Dharug and Dharawal people. Soaring apple gums are wonderful in springtime, when their bark peels off to reveal pink beneath.
GARIGAL NATIONAL PARK
Davidson Park in Garigal National Park. Photo: James Brickwood
Garigal, wedged into Middle Harbour's top end, is just 12 kilometres from the CBD, but most of its visitors congregate at Davidson Park, which has a boat ramp and barbecue area. This convolution of sandstone headlands, lush gullies and small waterfalls is otherwise little frequented. Walking tracks are rough, with wonderful elevated glimpses of the harbour through trees.
Purpose-built mountain-biking trails are rated difficult; Steep Bare Creek Trail is heart-pumping. Only a few yachts and other watercraft penetrate this far into Middle Harbour, so you can also enjoy kayaking all to yourself too.
MUOGAMARRA NATURE RESERVE
Muogamarra on Sydney's northern fringe is surely Sydney's most peaceful pocket, since it opens only for six weekends in August and September. This year it will be even more exclusive, since it must be visited on a pre-booked NPWS guided tour.
Three-kilometre Muogamarra Highlights Walk provides impressive escarpment views. Keep your eyes peeled for glossy black cockatoos. The longest guided tour is the all-day, 10-kilometre Peats Bight Walk, which follows a convict-built road.
Spring is glorious on this stretch of Hawkesbury River as angophoras, banksias, boronias, waratahs and other wildflowers bloom in testament to the bushland's extraordinary biodiversity.