Urban Reprieve

Some of the best hiking, rock-climbing, and abseiling in New South Wales are a short jaunt from the wilds of Sydney, uniting the granola set and the city-chic crowds.
  |  Gorp.com
blue mountains
All in a Row: The Blue Mountain's Three Sisters  (Leanne Mitchell)
The Affordable Australia
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Given the suburban sprawl and decidedly urban-meets-beach flair of Sydney, it's downright miraculous that you can you can leave it all behind so easily. One minute you're in the middle of the tourist mayhem in The Rocks, and 90 minutes later, you're in the Blue Mountains, ensconced in a eucalyptus forest atop a 3,500-foot sandstone plateau, trekking through the bush or shopping for antiques in a fairytale mountain town, rappelling through a waterfall on a canyoning excursion or letting a parrot eat out of your hand after a long night's rest in one of the region's quaint, rustic guest houses.

The gentle foothills that eventually soar into the Great Dividing Range and the Blue Mountains rise from innocuous surburban sprawl extending northwest from Sydney. It took British settlers took over 75 years to penetrate the maze of sandstone cliffs, canyons, and plateaus that make up the Blue Mountains. Today, you can zip through the 'burbs and be in the mountains within an hour and a half, or take a train from the heart of Sydney and reach the mountain town of Katoomba two hours later.

The Blue Mountains themselves are actually a collective of 26 small towns strung along the cliffs and valleys of the Great Dividing Highway. The region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in November 2000 and is composed of eight different national parks and reserves comprising over 1.5 million protected acres of sandstone cliffs and valleys, stark-white trunks of eucalyptus, and blue-tinged forests, a color that originates from the oil evaporating from the dense eucalyptus, illuminated in the sunlight. The evaporated oil also causes more than its share of brushfires.

As evidenced from the steady stream of buses trucking day-trippers in from Sydney, tourism is the region's largest industry. Join those ranks and you'll likely see several of the stunning views along R51, otherwise known as Cliff Drive. But you'll just as likely end up at ScenicWorld, a privately owned oddball tourist haven outside of Katoomba with a few good valley views and a short, rollercoaster-style ride accompanied by the theme from Star Wars blasting through the mountain calm.

To do the Blue Mountains—and your inner Audubon—justice, plan on at least an overnight stay. That'll give you time to follow your particular passion, whether it be day hiking, mountain biking, canyoning, shopping, dining on some truly remarkable cuisine, chasing after the some 400 animal species in residence, or just breathing the crisp mountain air. Then, as the fanny-pack-adorned crowds return to Sydney, you can leisurely retire to one of the many quaint guesthouses, embrace the ethereal silence, and wait for the tree-filtered glow of the Southern Cross.

While the pastoral qualities of the Blue Mountains do invite introspective relaxation, it's also one of the best places in all of Australia for the adventurous soul. The extensive national parklands mean you could spend as much time as you wanted in the backcountry—provided you stay within the designated hiking areas and have fresh water. Four-wheel-drive routes can lead you to swimming holes and rivers, and the sandstone cliffs, canyons, and caves make for some of the world's best rock climbing and canyoning—in short, enough outdoor distraction for weeks on end. The outfitters, most based in Katoomba, will happily customize guided outings, hook you up with maps and advice, or just point you in the right direction for whatever outdoor obsession has brought you to the hills. But if you have your heart set on canyoning, don't go during the winter; the waterfalls are too cold, and the rivers too high.

We'd carved two nights out of our schedule, one lazy half-day meandering around Katoomba, the region's largest town, followed by an amazing dinner of fowl and lamb at the Gardener's Pub and a languorous night by the wood-burning heater in Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge. The next day I'd be taking a leap of faith—several, actually—while on an abseiling adventure with High 'n' Wild.

Published: 13 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 30 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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