Not far south of the city, the Royal National Park is a big Sydney secret.
By Katrina Lobley
Sandwiched between the cities of Sydney and Wollongong is the Royal National Park, home to great surf beaches, family-friendly waterholes and long and short bushwalks.
Sydney's natural beauty
Soak up history
The Royal National Park, 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Sydney, is the world's second oldest national park (after Yellowstone National Park in the United States). A national park since 1879, it has stunning coastal beaches, bush and biking tracks, and serene swimming holes. Originally known simply as National Park, the park gained the Royal moniker in 1955, acknowledging Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Australia the previous year, when she passed through the area on a Wollongong to Sydney train. Park entry costs $12 AUD per vehicle per day. The park has multiple entry points.
Saltwater and freshwater swims
The Royal National Park is home to 11 beaches, including the surfing hot spot of Garie Beach, patrolled by surf lifesavers in summer. There are calmer conditions at the large sand spit near Bundeena's Bonnie Vale campground, and nearby Jibbon Beach is a family-friendly swimming spot. Wattamolla Beach, midway along the coast, has a large expanse of sand that's perfect for beach volleyball. For a freshwater dip, try Karloo Pool or Deer Pool.
Paddle or row a boat
The park is home to the historic Audley Boatshed, established in 1893. Hire a rowboat, canoe or kayak for an hour or for the day and explore the upper reaches of the Hacking River and Kangaroo Creek. The boatshed also has child-friendly aquabikes and mountain bikes for hire. The boatshed is open every day, including Christmas Day. You can walk to it from the tram terminus near the park visitors centre. Sydney Tramway Museum’s vintage trams run from a spot near Loftus railway station (in south Sydney) into the park on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Watch for migrating whales
Take a hike along the coastal track from Bundeena to Otford between May and November and there's every chance of catching sight of passing whales. They'll be following what’s known as Australia's Humpback Highway as they migrate between their feeding and breeding grounds. Pack a pair of binoculars for a better view of their antics, which can include spectacular leaps from the water and fin slapping.
Explore the bush on foot
Bushwalkers can traverse more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) of park tracks. Those keen to raise a sweat can tackle the Curra Moors Loop Track, which rewards with sweeping coastal views from sandstone cliffs. Along the way, take a break at the spectacular Curracurrong waterfall. The 26 kilometre (16 mile) Coast Track, connecting Bundeena and Otford, is a multi-day experience (obtain a bush camping permit from the park office in advance). For an easy stroll showcasing native plants and flowers, take the 4.4 kilometre (2.7 mile) Forest Path loop.
Go mountain biking
Grab your bike – or hire one from the Audley Boatshed – and hit the park's cycling trails. The 10 kilometre (6 mile) Loftus Loop Trail ranges from flat, wide trails to steep single track that will get the heart pumping. Lady Carrington Drive is a one-way 10 kilometre (6 mile) cycle that traces a historic carriage route alongside the Hacking River. It takes cyclists over 15 creeks and through patches of lush rainforest.
Stay the night
If you fancy waking up to the sound of birdsong, surrounded by bush, spend the night in the national park. Options range from the Bonnie Vale campground at the town of Bundeena to more luxurious options such as the heritage Hilltop Cottage, which caters for six guests; Reids Flat Cottage which accommodates eight; or Weemalah Cottage, which sleeps six in a secluded riverside setting.
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