The hike from Palm Beach up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is one of Sydney’s most beautiful and diverse. The start of the climb is in shady rainforest, sea breezes blow through the exposed coastal heath, and the peak rewards with beautiful rocky platforms, amazing views of one of Sydney’s most famous beaches, and – if you go on a Sunday – a tour of the iconic lighthouse. And that’s all before you swim.
Grab a hat, plenty of water, (there’s no water or toilets on the headland), snacks, bathers and a towel and set off: here’s how to get there and what to do along the way.
City to Palm Beach Golf Course
Jump on the L90 bus from Wynyard station to the Palm Beach Golf Course stop. The trip takes just over 90 minutes. Once arrived, you need only walk to the end of the car park on the Pittwater side of the headland to begin. You’ll have to jump on the sand at this point as the base of the walk begins off Station Beach. It’s tempting to take your shoes off here, but know that both tracks into the park involve some pretty sharp and uneven terrain.
Access Trail and Smugglers Track
After a short distance, the track breaks off into two trails – the Access Trail and Smugglers Track.
The Access Trail is about 800 metres long and should take about 15 to 20 minutes. While this is meant to be the easier option, especially if travelling with children, be aware there are some very steep inclines along the way.
The Smugglers Track was built in the late 1800s and used by customs officers to help monitor those ferrying goods in and out of Broken Bay, the body of water directly north of the headland. The entire path is carved out of natural stone to form stairs, so although it’s only half the length of the Access Trail it’s much steeper. Glimpses of Palm Beach offer a brilliant incentive.
The beauty of the two connecting tracks also means you can do a 1.2-kilometre loop by ascending one way and descending the other.
Being 91 metres above sea level really does expand the horizon. Barrenjoey Headland is the northern-most tip of Sydney, so looking north you not only see the base of the Central Coast but sensational views of Lion Island and the Hawkesbury River outlet. Looking south you’ll be blown away by the full view of Pittwater, the peninsula, and the walk you’ve just conquered, as well as the headlands at Whale Beach and Avalon Beach.
Between the months of May and November, whales and dolphins can be spotted journeying directly past Barrenjoey Headland. It is not uncommon to see big splashes further out to sea, as well as mothers and new calves playing on the surface closer to shore. Bring binoculars or a decent zoom lens for a closer inspection.
While you’re taking in the scene don’t forget to look up – the headland is prime hunting ground for sea eagles. The ocean breezes make perfect uplifts for them to hover above the sea for prey. Blue-tongue lizards, bandicoots, and a huge variety of smaller birds can be found here rustling in the undergrowth, which peters out to reveal a clearing and Barrenjoy Lighthouse.
Built in 1881, the stunning lighthouse is now heritage-listed. Made entirely of Hawkesbury sandstone it remains entirely intact in original pristine condition.
Between 11am and 3pm on Sundays you can take a tour of the Headkeeper’s Cottage and lighthouse tower for as low as $5, where you can learn about the Indigenous history of the area, the lighthouse operation and keepers, and ascend to the top for glorious views.
Pause and play
Governor Philip Park is the perfect spot to stop at a picnic table and take in the scenery. There’s shady trees to lounge under and if you’re keen on a swim you can try body-surfing the waves on the Palm Beach side (stay between the flags, kids), or mellow out in the calm shallows of Pittwater.
Making the decision to finally pack up and head home will be difficult. But knowing this stunning part of the world exists just 90 minutes out of the city makes it one worth returning to.