The National Pass walking track
Be prepared to be awestruck by the majesty of what must be considered among Australia’s finest day walks.
THERE'S NO SHORTAGE OF transfixing vistas in the Blue Mountains but there’s a point somewhere along the National Pass at Wentworth Falls that demands you peel your eyes away from the sweeping blue-tinged spectacle of the Jamison Valley and consider your position.
At this point a nervous peek over the safety barrier reveals you’re higher than birds in flight. In fact, way higher; what appear to be tiny little white birds, so conspicuous against the dark green vegetation below, are actually big raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos socialising – a handy hint of the scale of things around here. Halfway up a sheer sandstone escarpment that stretches almost as far above you as it does to the valley floor, you’re proceeding along a path that’s seemingly etched into the cliff face, hugging every furrow along its golden edifice.
The National Pass is a track that defies logic. It’s a triumph of ingenuity and courage, hewn from the rock by pick and shovel and the occasional stick of dynamite. It’s an enduring monument to a band of bloody-minded, tweed-clad, flat-capped bushwalkers of old, determined to claim the views by cleaving out a bush track no matter how improbable the terrain. It speaks volumes about a time of growing national confidence (its name is reputed to commemorate Federation in 1901), when the bush was for conquering and Sydneysiders caught the train up to the Blue Mountains in droves to make the most of their leisure time.
Today, the National Pass still draws crowds, albeit more comfortably attired than those pioneering tourists, and it’s arguably the most breathtaking of the region’s day walks. It will thrill you to your boots at every twist and turn along its 5.4km length that seamlessly integrates man-made and natural features in a truly dramatic setting. And what’s more, it can be tackled on a day trip out of Sydney. There’s even a regular direct train link from Sydney to nearby Wentworth Falls station.
Such ease of access could pose problems if you’re seeking moments of quiet communion with the bush, but even on a warm, sunny Saturday morning in the Easter school holidays, the track isn’t overly busy, once you venture beyond the more accessible end sections.
My walking buddy Andreas and I start at the Conservation Hut on Fletcher Street in Wentworth Falls but you can set off from the Wentworth Falls carpark end. Following the anti-clockwise route, we take in Empress Lookout on the way down to the evocatively named Valley of the Waters. A number of tracks branch off as you head down so keep your eye on the signs and follow the Valley of the Waters track that will eventually join the National Pass. The descent is steep in places and a progression of wood and stone steps followed by metal stairs takes you down through dry eucalypt woodland into cool, moist temperate rainforest fed by a succession of beautiful waterfalls tumbling off the plateau above. The sights and sounds of falling water, coupled with the songs of numerous unseen bird species, provide a spellbinding start to our National Pass adventure, and my vocabulary seems to have contracted to a single word as I exclaim “wow” at every new delight.
We carefully negotiate a series of solid steppingstones across the face of Lodore Falls and emerge into blinding sunlight as the track flattens out and wraps itself around the cliff face. The next thrilling section follows the claystone layer that’s sandwiched between massive sandstone blocks and runs for almost 3km halfway up the cliff. In parts, the safety rail is almost all that stands between you and a vertiginous drop, and you might want to think twice about tackling this section if you suffer badly from vertigo.
The track infrastructure throughout is in excellent condition thanks to a heroic five year restoration project, finished in 2008, to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the pass in 1908.
Just past the Slack Stairs intersection, there’s a wonderful view across to Middle Wentworth Falls. From this vantage point, a small crowd of bushwalkers milling about in front of the falls appears to teeter on the very edge of a rather terrifying precipice. The sight causes my stomach to flutter and I look forward to checking it out for myself very soon. We duck down to walk under a rocky overhang and pass through a gentle veil of water floating off the plateau before descending a flight of stone steps to join the crowd. The spectacular sight of Jamison Creek gushing over the cliff high above you and then disappearing over that edge into the infinitesimal vista of the Jamison Valley is the perfect spot to take a break, so Andreas and I eat our packed lunches perched on one of the boulders there. This mid-section of Wentworth Falls is readily accessible to those with only an hour or so to spare, so from here back up to the carpark and picnic area, the track can get busy.
Once fed and watered, we’re ready to tackle the most challenging section, the Grand Staircase. Whittled and blasted out of the rock, this very steep set of rock stairs zigzags back up to the top of the 90m cliff. Be prepared to question your personal fitness as you labour up each step, but don’t get so wrapped up in the effort that you forget to turn around from time to time and enjoy the truly glorious view.
The track passes in front of Upper Wentworth Falls where you come face to face with coachloads of Blue Mountains day-trippers. We could have chosen to join the crowds heading back up to the Wentworth Falls picnic area, and from there taken the Shortcut Track back to the Conservation Hut, but we spied an escape route. The Undercliff-Overcliff Track doubles back along the cliff top following a near-parallel route to the National Pass. It takes us about 50 minutes to get back this way and allows us to experience the vistas we had seen on the outward journey from an entirely new perspective. Along this medium grade 2.5km track we encounter a variety of vegetation communities from dry eucalypt and temperate rainforest to heath and swamp environments. The track is relatively even and we make light work of it after our morning’s exertions up and down the hard graded National Pass.
The National Pass is a must-do for anyone who lives in Sydney. You will need to be moderately fit and comfortable walking up and down lots of stone and metal stairways and ladders. By starting the Pass at Wentworth Falls Picnic Area and carpark you’ll avoid having to climb up the Grand Staircase towards end of your walk, but having done the anti-clockwise route starting out from the Conservation Hut, I can’t wait to go back and do it all again, in the opposite direction.
Where: Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains National Park
Estimated walking time: 3h 30m
What to bring: Drinking water, hat, sunscreen, map, GPS, topographic map, compass, rain jacket, insect repellent, head or hand torch, camera, energy snacks.
Before you go: Check the weather and track conditions before you set out as some sections of the track can become impassable after rain. There is limited mobile reception in areas of the park.
On your feet: Appropriate closed-in waterproof footwear. Preferably good walking boots.
1:25 000 Map Series:89301S KATOOMBA
1:100 000 Map Series:8930 KATOOMBA
Contacts: Blue Mountains Heritage Centre (Blackheath), (02) 4787 8877, 9am-4.30pm daily (closed Christmas Day), or visit <i>www.nationalpass.com.au<i>.
How to get there
Wentworth Falls is 95km from Sydney, at an elevation of 867m.
Driving takes about 90 minutes from central Sydney. There is free parking at the Wentworth Falls Carpark and the Conservation Hut, but these spaces can fill up on weekends.
There is a regular direct train from Central Station to Wentworth Falls Station that takes around two hours. Check <i>www.sydneytrains.info/<i>.
You can then take the 2.4km Charles Darwin Track to the Wentworth Falls Carpark and Picnic Area, or walk the 2.4km along the streets to get to the Conservation Hut. Either takes about 30 minutes.
Most beautiful part of the walk: a series of waterfalls along the Valley of the Waters.
Most thrilling part of the walk: the dramatic section along the middle of the cliff face.
Most challenging part of the walk: ascending the 173 stone-cut steps of the Grand Stairway that zigzag up the face of a 90m cliff.
Most surprising part of the walk: passing behind Den Fenella Falls, a curtain of water tumbling off the cliff above, at around the halfway point.
Best view: so many jaw dropping vistas all along the track but the view from the Grand Staircase across Jamison Valley to Kings Tableland is up there with the best.
Annual visitors: 50,000
Other walks in the area
Empress Falls Walk: If you are short of time, you can tackle some of the many shorter walks in Wentworth Falls. From the Conservation Hut you can walk down to Empress Falls and back. This is a 1.1km hard graded walk that passes through 145m of climbing and takes about an hour.
Conservation Hut, National Pass and Wentworth Pass: Follows the same route as the National Pass from the hut, but then continues down deeper into the valley. The circuit is 4.8km and climbs through more than 913m, taking about four hours to complete.