The Royal National Park, Ku-ring-gai Chase, Lane Cove and Sydney Harbour National Parks might be the most popular for walking, swimming and picnicking in and around Sydney, but, according to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger David Croft, “Smaller parks are fantastic for more intimate experiences, away from the crowds that larger parks tend to have.

“You have excellent chances of wildlife encounters in smaller parks. Some of the best bits are very close to suburbia, so people don’t have to travel far to have a great time,” he tells Broadsheet.

And he’s right. To help you explore the lesser-known national parks around Sydney, we’ve listed seven you should try, all within an hour’s drive of the CBD.

Scheyville National Park
Just under an hour’s drive west of the city is a park rich in natural features and history so significant that it’s been registered on the NSW state heritage list. Take the self-guided Migrant Heritage walk, a 1.1-kilometre loop, and learn what life was like for those fleeing war-torn Europe in 1949. Keen on discovering more of the natural environment? Explore the bushland on horseback on a 1.5-hour trail ride with Hawkesbury Valley Equestrian Centre. Or, soak up the beauty of the wetlands on the four-kilometre Longneck Lagoon walking track loop. A staggering 140 bird species have been recorded in the area.

Malabar Headland National Park
Between Maroubra Beach, Malabar Beach and a gun range, this park is all about the coastal walkway with its spectacular ocean views and dramatic sandstone cliffs. Recently upgraded, the walking track is divided into two sections: the one-kilometre, one-way Western Escarpment walk and the 3.7-kilometre, one-way Boora Point walking track. (Note: this track is closed when the Anzac Rifle Range is in use.) The most remarkable coastal views can be seen on the Boora Point section, perfect for whale-watching season, while the Western Escarpment showcases native heath, birdlife and wildflowers with coastal views. As it’s only around 30 minutes’ drive east from Sydney’s CBD, parking is at a premium on weekends. Midweek is peaceful and much less busy.

Heathcote National Park
Alongside the Royal National Park, about an hour south of the city, is a wilder version of the most popular park in Sydney – without its crowds. Its rugged landscape, isolated bushwalking tracks and campsites make this park an ideal escape for self-sufficient walkers. Take the 5.5-kilometre, one-way Bullawarring walking track, where you’ll be challenged by its rough, steep sections and rewarded with its unspoilt bushland vistas. You should also look out for the hidden oases, including swimming holes at Lake Eckersley, Mirang Pool and Kingfisher Pool, where you can take a break and cool off.

Georges River National Park
Bring a picnic and all your water toys to this family-friendly park that runs alongside the Georges River. Boats, jet skis, kayaks and canoes can be launched at the large boat ramp, which has plenty of parking available. Separate from the launching area is an extensive grassy, waterside picnic area with plenty of picnic tables, toilets and bins. It’s only 40 minutes’ drive from the CBD, so it’s crowded on weekends, but during the week it’s much quieter. Take the 1.8-kilometre Yeramba Lagoon loop track or the 1.6-kilometre, one-way Ridge walking track to see the wildflowers.

Garigal National Park
Davidson Park picnic area and boat ramp is only 30 minutes north of the city centre. From this picturesque spot by the water you can walk, mountain bike or ride a horse along the 3.2-kilometre, one-way Cascades trail. Or, challenge yourself to the one-way, 6.8-kilometre Natural Bridge track to Davidson Park walk with its incredible sandstone rock formations. Mountain bikers can also try Bantry Bay on the purpose-built Gahnia and Serrata mountain bike tracks.

Kamay Botany Bay National Park
Home to picturesque coastal walks, popular scuba-diving sites and Aboriginal cultural sites, this national park is split in two by the waters of Botany Bay. At La Perouse on the northern headland, you can shop Aboriginal-made designs and take part in workshops on traditional arts and bush food at Blak Markets. Or, take the guided eight-kilometre Bare Island and Cape Banks “ultimate walking tour” and learn about the area’s significant historical sites and coastal landscapes. While on the southern headland at Kurnell, you can explore the site of Captain Cook’s landing in 1770. Take the 1.2-kilometre Burrawang loop walk to learn about this tragic first encounter between Europeans and the Gweagal people of Kamay (Botany Bay). The Kurnell area is also renowned for its whale-watching lookout at Cape Solander and its outstanding scuba-diving sites at the Steps and the Leap – recommended for advanced divers only.

Berowra Valley National Park
Wear your sturdiest shoes, as this park is all about the walk – it’s one section of the 250-kilometre Great North Walk from Sydney to Newcastle. Here you can traverse 36 kilometres of it in three parts. There’s the 10-kilometre “across the watershed” section, the 14-kilometre “into the gorge” walk or the 12-kilometre “hidden valleys part one”. Though it’s surrounded by suburbs, this park offers more than 70 kilometres of tracks and fire trails, many accessible by public transport. And if all that walking is a bit much, take a seat at Crosslands Reserve and enjoy a bite to eat by the quiet waters of Berowra Creek, which happens to be a great place to launch a kayak.

Check NSW National Parks for alerts and closures ahead of your trip, and to find the best access point for each park.