26 November 2020.
As a Northern Beaches local, West Head and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park has always been on my doorstep, and while I’ve visited numerous times over the years, it took a pandemic enforced lockdown and an insatiable need to keep exploring to give it the attention it deserves.
And as far as nature in the city goes, West Head is a true wonder.
Extending into the mouth of the Hawkesbury River at Sydney’s northern reaches, the West Head peninsula plays host to a magical pocket of Australian bushland. Thick eucalypt forests rise high above the roadside, sweetly scented native flowers colour the landscapes, the chorus of bird song fills the air and the unique textures of bark and sandstone create a fascinating canvas.
Alongside some of Sydney’s most spectacular coastal viewpoints, you’ll also find displays of historic Aboriginal art, gushing cascades and a number of hiking trails that allow you to experience the best of the area.
Having spent countless days in the area in recent months, I’ve put together this guide on my favourite West Head walks, other things to see on the peninsula and all the practical information you’ll need to plan the perfect day out.
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In total, there are 15 hiking trails carved across West Head ranging from short and easy to more challenging tracks that will occupy the better part of a day.
Several trails pass by or end at a beach and make an ideal option for those looking to prioritise nature and relaxation (don’t forget your swimmers!), while avid hikers will be more than satisfied with some of the longer trails or could combine multiple short hikes for a full and active day out.
Distance: 8 km return | Time: 2 to 3 hours
Best for: coastal views, picnics, easy walks
For me the most underrated trail in the park, Bairne Track begins along a sandy fire trail, weaving through open forest and a smattering of flowers toward the Towlers Bay Lookout which is, without a doubt, one of the best viewpoints in the entire national park. From this precarious rocky perch, gaze across the many bays of Pittwater and McCarrs Creek and the countless small boats tacking back and forth leaving delicate threads of white in their wake.
From the main road, it takes about an hour to reach the final point which makes a sublime spot for a picnic lunch or tea break.
On the way back, there’s an optional 1 km detour to Soldiers Point which runs through a peaceful stretch of forest where you may encounter a wallaby or two, but the final view is not quite as impressive as the one at the end of Bairne.
Distance: 8km return | Time: 2 to 3 hours
Best for: wildflowers, picnics, scenic views
Waratah is one of West Head’s more challenging trails with some incredibly steep hills and little shade along the way, but the vibrant wildflower displays and expansive views more than make up for it.
The final section opens up onto a wide rock platform that overlooks the treetops toward Cowan Creek and makes another wonderful spot for a picnic. That said, unlike Bairne, there’s not a great deal of shade here so it’s a good idea to bring plenty of sun protection for your visit.
Flint and Steel Track
Distance: 2km return | Time: 1 hour
Best for: short walks, uncrowded beaches, picnics
One of West Head’s most popular hiking trails, Flint and Steel is a short and relatively easy option which rewards you with a remote sun-drenched beach at the end. Pack your book, swimmers, a packed lunch and an umbrella and settle in for a day of mooching between sand and sea sandwiched between an easy enough walk in and out.
For a lazy summer day that still allows you to be immersed in nature, Flint and Steel makes a fantastic choice.
The trail itself is well maintained and meanders downhill all the way to the beach. This does however mean that the return journey is virtually all uphill.
As an optional detour, there’s also a short side trail (600m) which feeds through the bush to Flint and Steel Bay. The track is rather overgrown in parts, crowded with ferns and shrubbery, and involves plenty of scrambling over rocks which gives the place a somewhat wild atmosphere and makes for a fun little side adventure.
Distance: 1.4km return | Time: 40 mins
Best for: treetop views
Climbing to the highest point in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Willunga meanders toward a rocky outcrop that offers up panoramic views across the sea of eucalyptus trees that sprawl across the peninsula. Unlike the many other tracks that gaze over the ocean, this is one of few hikes that gives some perspective on just how vast and untamed the national park really is.
At 700m each way, it’s also one of the shortest and easiest trails in West Head making it a manageable addition to any other hike.
The Basin Trail
Distance: 2.8km one way | Time: 45 mins to 1 hour
Best for: open spaces, swimming, picnics, camping
Tucked away in the far reaches of the national park, the Basin is marked by a large grassy picnic area and a protected lagoon.
Growing up, this was somewhere I was forever yearning to visit again and a place that pretty much guaranteed a Sunday well spent.
I whiled away hours here paddling about the vast lagoon on lilos and boogie boards, dosing in the shade of the Norfolk Island pines and keeping an eye out for the cheeky wallabies and goannas that would appear to investigate our picnic situation. These blissful summer days would end with salty hair and sandy feet on the ferry back over to Palm Beach, but just as beautiful is taking the hiking trail in from West Head.
The way in is mostly flat with a steep final section that delivers you straight into the open picnic area. After a relaxing visit, this does, of course, mean you’re in for an arduous climb to make your way back to the plateau.
Admittedly, the Basin does become rather crowded, particularly on summer weekends, but for families, it really is an ideal spot to spend the day before hiking out or camping overnight.
Resolute Beach Track
Distance: 3.5km | Time: 2 to 3 hours
Best for: secluded beaches, scenic views, Aboriginal art
Combining gorgeous views, protected bays and Aboriginal art, the Resolute Beach Circuit is another favourite West Head walk.
Beginning at the Resolute Picnic Area, the trail meanders through the forest before veering steeply downhill towards the beach. Wrapped in gum trees and with a small cascade that traces a path across the sand, emerging at this pristine cove feels like discovering a secret slice of paradise. Visit during the week and you might just have this place all to yourself.
To complete the circuit you’ll need to cross over the river and continue through the trees but the trail is not terribly obvious so be sure to keep an eye out. From here, the path climbs gently uphill towards West Head Lookout where you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views across Palm Beach and Barrenjoey Headland.
To complete the circuit, take the trail back to the Picnic Area via the Red Hands Track.
America Bay Track
Distance: 1km one way | Time: 20 mins
Best for: short walks, scenic views, sunset
Another beloved West Head trail, and with good reason, America Bay is a short and easy track which delivers you to a rock platform with sublime views. Facing west, it makes an insanely beautiful spot to catch the sun sinking behind the mountain folds and casting a golden sheen across the ripples of the bay.
On weekends, this is a very busy spot, but arrive during the week and you’ll have no problem finding plenty of quiet here.
For visitors who want to enjoy one of West Head’s best views and get a taste for the Australian bush but don’t really want to walk all that far, this is probably your best bet.
Elvina Bay Trail + Fredericks Track
Distance: 5 km return | Time: 2 to 3 hours
This hike begins along a sandy fire trail that meanders into Elvina Bay, a wonderfully peaceful cove shrouded in ferns and rainforest.
Officially, this is a one-way trail directing you to Elvina and back, but there is also an alternative option – Fredericks Track – which takes you past the tranquil Lovett Pools and allows you to hike a circuit rather than going in and out along the same trail.
Start along the Elvina Track fire trail where the landscapes shift from open heath to thick casuarina forests. When you reach the bottom of the hill, turn left and follow Wirringula Avenue through the small seaside village. Just before you hit Sturdee Lane which traces the shores of Lovett Bay, you’ll find a small nondescript trail veering off to the left. From here, you’ll be travelling uphill along an overgrown, barely visible trail toward a rocky outcrop which should stay on your left as you climb higher toward the ridgeline.
This section is quite tricky to follow and, though the tracks aren’t marked, I’d recommend having maps.me on hand to ensure you’re at least heading in the right direction. Once you’ve emerged on the ridgeline, the track is far more obvious and will lead you to a junction – to the right is Lovett Pools, while the left fork completes the circuit back to the Elvina Track.
Towlers Bay Trail
Distance: 7.2 km return | Time: 3 hours
Towlers Bay Trail weaves gradually downhill through dense forest into Lovett Bay and onwards to Morning Bay.
There’s a detour that guides you to the tip of the peninsula where you’ll find a collection of tree stumps that are perfect for, you guessed it, yet another picnic or a hot cuppa.
Nearby, you’ll also find the only accommodation option in the national park, the secluded Pittwater Eco YHA which holds prime position near the water, offers both private and shared rooms, has a spacious lounge and kitchen area and includes guest access to kayaks for exploring the many waterways that wrap around West Head. A great option for anyone seeking a remote, budget-friendly escape to explore the area at a slower pace. Check rates and availability here.
For those overnighting in the park, easier than walking with your luggage is to arrive by ferry from Church Point to Halls Wharf which is just a 15-minute walk from the hostel.
Salvation Loop + Wallaroo or Yeomans
Distance: 3km to 10km return | Time: 1 to 3 hours
The Salvation Track has two entry points and can be completed as a flat and easy 3km loop or as part of a longer hike when combined with either Wallaroo or Yeomans which both lead through the forest towards a scenic lookout overlooking the bays of the Hawkesbury River.
These days, Yeoman’s view is largely blocked by foliage, whereas Wallaroo still offers beautiful glimpses of the waterway down below.
The walk is mostly flat with a few small hills and a gradual downhill slope towards the lookout at each fork.
Distance: 900m return | Time: 30 mins
Located opposite the Resolute Picnic Area, Koolewong is short and sweet, culminating in a fantastic viewpoint that overlooks Broken Bay and Lion Island and takes in the chiselled coastline of the Central Coast that extends north.
Though perhaps not as perfectly situated as America Bay, Koolewong is another great option to catch the sunset.
Distance: 4km return | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours
Another reasonably short and easy walk, Topham meanders through open bushland decorated in native flowers toward a peaceful grove of gum and casuarina trees.
Although the information panel for this trail suggests you’ll be welcomed with excellent views, the outlook across the surrounding bays is largely obstructed and, in all honesty, this is one I probably wouldn’t bother doing again.
Distance: 3km return | Time: 1 hour
Despite the name, Challenger is one of the shortest and easiest walks in West Head.
It follows a flat, shaded fire trail and ends at a small clearing encased in a sea of lilac flowers come spring. Between the trees, you’ll catch glimpses of the Hawkesbury River and Brooklyn Bridge in the distance.
Cool Off Between Natural Pools and Cascades
Tucked away amongst the gum trees, there are a handful of small cascades and natural pools to see (and even swim in) on West Head.
The Gledhill Falls are a pair of small cascades scattered along the far reaches of McCarrs Creek. You can access them just after the turnoff to West Head Road where there’s a small car park and the Duckholes picnic area where a short trail feeds through the trees to various vantage points of the falls.
Lovett Pools is another tranquil spot that makes a lovely place for a mid-hike snack or dip, albeit a rather shallow one. The pools can be reached along Fredericks Track which feeds off the Elvina Trail. Despite occasionally being referred to as Elvina Falls, the cascades here are tiny but the picturesque setting and views overlooking Lovett Bay are well worth the walk.
Enjoy The Views At West Head Lookout
Perched at the very tip of the peninsula, the West Head Lookout offers up one of Sydney’s most iconic and spectacular viewpoints.
Gaze across Pittwater and the narrow isthmus that climbs toward the red spire of Barrenjoey Lighthouse, take in the vast craggy coastline of the Central Coast and be awed by the countless beautiful bays of the Hawkesbury River.
If bush walking isn’t your thing, make a beeline here to enjoy the views instead.
Keep An Eye Out For Aboriginal Art
The area of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park was once home to the Guringai people who were decimated by disease following the arrival of the First Fleet.
However, remnants of their way of life remained in the form of tools, paintings and rock engravings and today the park plays host to one of the largest displays of Aboriginal art in Sydney, much of which can be found on West head.
The Aboriginal Heritage Walk combines sections of the Resolute and West Head Tracks and takes in some of the most significant cultural sites in the area, such as Red Hands Cave and an occupation shelter.
Near the entrance to Elvina Track – just 200m from the parking lot – you’ll find a small trail veering off to the right through dense undergrowth that will guide you to a vast rocky platform and natural canvas. Engravings of an emu are clearly visible amongst other wildlife, while if you wander to the far edge, you’ll find a sea of curious hexagonal shapes reminiscent of basalt columns, blurring the line between what is natural or manmade.
Smaller engravings can be found elsewhere in the park, though these are often alongside small unmarked trails that funnel off the main track.
Cost Of Entry To West Head
As part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, there is a $12 entry fee for West Head, payable by cash or card at the gate.
If you’re a Sydneysider who loves getting outdoors or a visitor planning to explore more widely in NSW, it’s well worth purchasing a NSW Annual Parks Pass which will cover entry to all fee-collecting national parks in the state except Kosciuszko.
Essentially, if you intend to visit the state’s national parks six or more times over the next year, the pass will save you money.
West Head Opening Hours
Once inside the West Head section of Ku-ring-gai, there is a gate that is locked overnight at the intersection where General San Martin Drive meets West Head Road.
During daylight savings (summer), the gates are closed between 8:30 pm and 6 am, while during the rest of the year, they close for the day at 6 pm.
If you’re sticking around for sunset, be sure to allow enough time to make your way out of the park. It takes at least 15 minutes of driving from the furthest point but that doesn’t account for any walking to get back to the main road.
Driving And Parking In West Head
The road into West Head is narrow and winds through a dense swathe of eucalyptus forest. It’s a popular spot for cyclists, particularly in the morning, which can make navigating the twisting roads a little tricky. Be sure to stick to the speed limit, allow the cyclists plenty of space and don’t overtake on blind corners.
Although they usually steer clear of the tarmac, the Ku-ring-gai bushland is thriving with curious wildlife who do occasionally venture close to the road, especially around dusk and dawn when the park is relatively quiet and free of traffic, so be sure to keep a close eye out.
When it comes to parking, there are dedicated bays for every hiking trail in West Head, however, the larger parking areas are found at West Head Lookout, Resolute Beach Picnic Area, Elvina Track and the Flint and Steel Track.
Elsewhere, you’ll find a wide shoulder or a small pull in bay that is able to accommodate just a few cars at a time so if you’re visiting on a summer weekend, it’s a good idea to arrive early to ensure you can easily find a spot.
Just before you reach the national park entrance gate on West Head Road, there’s also a reasonably sized parking area which is perfect for when you’re meeting others and want to avoid buying an entry pass for each individual car.
Facilities In West Head
Facilities in West Head are limited so it’s best to arrive prepared with absolutely everything you’ll need for your visit.
Resolute Picnic Area is home to the main amenities including toilets, picnic tables and even a barbecue. There is no drinking water available within the park so you’ll need to bring enough to keep you hydrated during your hike.
The Basin is another well-established recreation area with picnic tables, toilets and camping space.