February 13, 2023
9 mins Read
The combination of ease of access and natural wonders has seen the Blue Mountains occupy a special place in the heart of Sydneysiders for more than a century. Like a giant backyard, it’s the place they go to immerse themselves in nature, to suck in lungfuls of fresh mountain air and to experience nose-nipping winter cold. The best way to experience its compelling attractions is on a road trip. You can dip in and do day trips or easily spend a few days exploring.
Watch the video below for a taste of what awaits you along the Greater Blue Mountains Drive…
Heading out of Sydney, your ascent into the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park along the Great Western Highway passes by or through a string of quaint villages and towns. Stop for morning tea in Leura, with its pretty main street (known as The Mall) lined with cafes and shops, including Moontree, filled with lovely scented candles and artworks by local artists, the well-stocked Megalong Books, and Josophan’s Fine Chocolate, which makes its sweet treats by hand, including truffles and rocky road.
It’s less than five-minutes’ drive from Leura to Katoomba, the bustling heart of the Blue Mountains and home to two of its most famous attractions: Echo Point and The Three Sisters, recognised as a place of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of the area. Stretch your legs (and work off your Josophan’s purchases) by heading off on the impossibly scenic Three Sisters walk that takes in Lady Game lookout, the Giant Stairway and Honeymoon Bridge, which links to the first rock formation (or sister), or book a walking tour with Tread Lightly Eco Tours.
Another non-negotiable Katoomba icon is a ride on Scenic World’s vertiginous Scenic Railway as it plummets through the lush vegetation to the Jamison Valley below.
You can recover from all the heights and hiking with lunch and a glass of something cool at Bar NSW at The Lookout at Echo Point, or book in for a grand high tea (accompanied by equally grand views of the Megalong Valley) at the historic Hydro Majestic in nearby Medlow Bath.
If visiting in November you will find the streets of Blackheath lined with colour during the annual rhododendron festival, and the queue outside Anonymous Cafe twice as long as patrons wait for what many consider the best coffee in the Mountains; book Parkside at Blackheath, a gracious 1930s mountain cottage that has been meticulously transformed into a chic place to stay to make a weekend out of it. Passing through the charming town of Blackheath, the Great Western Highway continues on to Mount Victoria, where the road commences to weave its way this way and that down the escarpment at Victoria Pass. Keep one eye on the road and the other on the breathtaking views as you descend.
Once the landscape finally evens out, you’ll find yourself driving through wide open countryside dotted with grazing horses and cows (at dawn and twilight the grassy flats are populated with kangaroos, a sight that just never grows old). Stop at Hartley Historic Site, one of the best collections of historic buildings in the country. Visit the art gallery in town and stay overnight in one of the unique heritage properties, such as St Bernard’s Presbytery.
When you see the turn off for Oberon coming up on your left, take it. The drive to Jenolan Caves along Jenolan Caves Road takes less than an hour but be sure to book ahead due to Covid-19 restrictions. Billed as ‘Australia’s Most Spectacular Caves’, school excursions here were a rite of passage for generations of NSW kids, and the stalagmites, stalactites and fossils still fascinate. Stay at heritage-listed Caves House for more time to explore. Go on a guided tour of the jaw-dropping caves and bushwalk to spot rare native animals including brush-tailed rock wallabies.
Another 30 minutes in the car delivers you to the lovely rural community of Oberon, where the headlining attraction is Mayfield Garden, the largest cool-climate garden in the world. You can spend hours wandering through meticulously manicured gardens, grottoes, woodland plantings, and past fountains, ponds and even a Chinese pagoda. The menu at the on-site cafe uses produce grown in the gardens themselves or supplied by local partners, while the pièce de résistance is the Mayfield Garden Glampsite, which operates during the autumn and comes with the bonus of exclusive early-morning and evening access to the garden.
The town of Lithgow is the gateway for the Bells Line of Road, which climbs the ridge on the outskirts of town through the thick bush that cascades down into the Grose Valley. The landscape here is still scarred by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20, but there are signs of regeneration in the green leaves sprouting at odd angles from charred trunks and branches.
Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mount Tomah were thankfully spared from the worst ravages of the fires. Its 28 hectares of curated cool-climate gardens give way to 244 hectares of wilderness within the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains. An insider’s secret is that you can actually stay for the night within the gardens at the delightfully named Camellia Cottage.
The sleepy hamlet of Bilpin is the epicentre of apple country, and the perfect place to fill up a basket and take some local produce home. You can pick your own apples straight from the tree at one of the many family-owned-and-run orchards in the area, including Bilpin Springs Orchard or Shields Orchard, or sip the products made from them: Hillbilly Cider offers up sweet ciders and delicious wood-fire pizza or drop in to Bilpin Cider for its Picnic on the Farm baskets (definitely order ahead), which can be enjoyed sitting on the grass behind the cellar door.
Leaving Bilpin loaded up with apples, you are heading into the lush, green Hawkesbury region, which is earning quite a reputation for the quality of its produce and alcohol. Stop off at Kurrajong Village to browse the eccentric old wares at the Kurrajong Antique Centre, or make time to stroll around the historic centre of Richmond, one of the five original Macquarie Towns established by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.
Now it’s time to indulge in a foodie trail through the towns that thrive on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Download a Harvest Farm Gate Trail map and follow its path through the likes of Richmond, Windsor, Wilberforce and South Maroota stopping to buy everything from farm-fresh fruit to chestnuts to award-winning meats.
Visit Tizzana Winery in the tiny village of Ebenezer (where you should stop in at Ebenezer Church with its cemetery filled with heritage gravestones), which looks like it has been transported straight from Tuscany and produces dry whites and reds from its vines. For something a little stronger, head to Karu Distillery, in Grose Vale for tastings of a weekend.
And, as if to prove its foodie credentials, the Hawkesbury has its own local star chef in residence. Martin Boetz’s Cooks Shed is a 20-minute drive from Windsor at Sackville, where the award-winning chef holds dining events out of a stylishly rustic corrugated iron shed.
Before leaving the area and heading back to Sydney, spend some time in Dharug National Park, where you can walk or ride along the historic Old Great North Road, built by hundreds of convicts between 1826 and 1836. Or stay a little longer by booking a night (or two) floating on a houseboat on the river, sipping your Ironbark Gin and enjoying the quiet.
Make sure you stay up to date with the road conditions before you set off with the latest travel alerts at Visit NSW.
Download our beautifully-illustrated map of NSW’s best road trips (pictured below) or find the giant wall map inside issue 90 of Australian Traveller magazine.
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Sparadise in South Bowenfels is another must-see day experience located to the west of Mount Victoria.