Guest article by Nick Leonard.
With its gorgeous scenery, abundant wildlife, endless hiking opportunities, excellent public transport, proximity to Sydney and emerging plant-based food scene, the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia is a superb destination for vegans, vegetarians, eco-friendly travelers and nature lovers.
In this article, I’ll tell you how to get there and get around, what to do and where to eat so you can enjoy the beautiful natural environment while doing it as little harm as possible.
When to go
The Blue Mountains can be visited year-round, with autumn (March to May in the southern hemisphere) considered ideal for walking.
Be aware that temperatures can reach nearly 40 degrees Celsius in summer, when there can also be bushfires. In winter, it can be very cold, as Katoomba is just over 1000 metres above sea level. I remember making a snowman with my brothers after a snowstorm on a family trip to the Blue Mountains when I was a child!
When I visited most recently in early May, there were mostly clear blue skies, with maximum daily temperatures of between 11 and 16 degrees Celsius, falling to overnight lows of between 0 and 6 degrees Celsius.
Both these temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees lower than their equivalents in Sydney on the same days, so if you visit outside summer, make sure you pack for the cold!
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is a very popular destination for international and domestic tourists, and some of the main sites, such as Echo Point, can be very crowded. To enjoy a more peaceful experience, try to visit outside weekends and Australian school holidays, which occur four times a year.
Trains from Sydney’s Central Station serve the Blue Mountains National Park hourly and take just under two hours to reach Katoomba. These trains also stop at other Blue Mountains destinations, such as Wentworth Falls, Leura and Blackheath.
The Opal card used for public transport in Sydney can also be used for this train; the trip costs about AUD$6-8 depending on the time of day, which is excellent value.
Blue Mountains Accommodation
You could make a Blue Mountains day trip from Sydney, but that’s a lot of travel for one day, and you might not get to see that much beyond the Three Sisters and one or two other places in Katoomba. If you have time to spend a night in the mountains (or better yet, two or three nights), you will get so much more out of your visit.
Katoomba is the most obvious town to base yourself in, given its tourist infrastructure and proximity to the Three Sisters, the most famous site in the Blue Mountains.
I stayed at the Katoomba Mountain Lodge, which offers budget accommodation that was simple but adequate for my needs. The lodge charges AUD$40 for a single room with shared bathroom, which is just over half the price of a similar room in the inner city of Sydney.
If you want something more upscale, there are plenty of other options in Katoomba or elsewhere in the region.
If you want to visit Blue Mountains attractions such as the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum or the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, you will find it very useful to have your own car. But with a bit of planning, most places of interest can be reached by public transport, which is the most eco-friendly option.
Trains run roughly hourly in both directions from Katoomba, and these are great for exploring the Blue Mountains. The towns are small, so the train stations are often close to hiking trails and natural attractions, especially at Wentworth Falls.
One exception to this is Blackheath, where the train station is about 3km from Govetts Leap lookout. I was happy to walk this (twice in fact!), but if you prefer not to, consider taking the 698 bus instead.
This bus runs roughly hourly from Katoomba to the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre, whicih is a five-minute walk from Govetts Leap. Opal cards can be used on local trains and buses.
The Blue Mountains Explorer Bus is a hop on, hop off bus service, but the route is limited to Katoomba and Leura, so it’s not useful if you want to explore further afield and do a lot of hiking. It’s basically designed for visitors who want to go between the main Blue Mountains attractions in and around Katoomba, such as Echo Point and Scenic World.
To reach the Jenolan Caves without your own vehicle, CDC runs a daily bus tour, leaving Katoomba at 10:35am and returning to Katoomba at about 5pm. This gives you around three-and-a-half hours at the caves.
You can book just the transport or transport plus admission and guided tours to certain caves. I chose to book Chifley and Lucas Caves in addition to the transport, which seemed more economical than purchasing entrance to those caves on arrival.
Blue Mountains Attractions
Echo Point and Govetts Leap are two of the most famous lookouts, but there are many viewpoints throughout the Blue Mountains. After seeing these two, explore and find your own!
Echo Point and the Three Sisters
This lookout, about a 30-minute walk from the centre of Katoomba, is the most famous viewpoint in the Blue Mountains, and justifiably so. There are two large viewing platforms, so you should be able to get a good spot despite the many other visitors who are likely to be joining you there.
The Three Sisters represent one of Australia’s most iconic natural sites. According to Aboriginal legend, three sisters were turned to stone to protect them from three brothers who were trying to capture them.
From Echo Point, a short 30-minute round trip walk takes you across the Honeymoon Bridge to the northern-most of the Three Sisters to give you a worthwhile close-up experience. The overall view, though, is unsurprisingly better from Echo Point.
This viewpoint near Blackheath was recommended to me by two Sydneysider friends, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s arguably more spectacular than Echo Point.
While it lacks the Three Sisters, it looks out over an enclosed amphitheatre of sandstone cliffs, rather than the vast valley expanse of Echo Point.
There are also considerably fewer visitors at Govetts Leap than Echo Point, which makes it more peaceful and potentially more enjoyable. I was there at four different times of the day, and I never saw any tour buses there.
There were never more than about 10 people at the lookout at any one time, and sometimes I had it completely to myself.
There are also plenty of great hiking opportunities from Govetts Leap, making it a highly recommended half or full-day excursion.
Bushwalking (Australian for “hiking”) is probably the most rewarding activity that you can do in the Blue Mountains. The possibilities are endless, and you could spend days happily walking different trails and seeing new things, just as I did. One day I walked 28 kilometres!
If you only have a limited amount of time and are focused on Katoomba, there are a couple of short and easy walks you can do from Echo Point. These are the 30-minute round trip walk to Honeymoon Bridge and the Three Sisters, and the Prince Henry Cliff walk.
The latter is a 7km trail in total, but many people choose to walk a partial 45-minute section between Echo Point and Scenic World.
Although these are nice little walks with excellent views, going beyond Katoomba will get you away from the crowds and further into nature for a better overall experience.
The village of Wentworth Falls is a nine-minute train journey east of Katoomba back towards Sydney.
Charles Darwin Trail
This easy, two-kilometre trail starts in the center of Wentworth Falls (the village), meaning you can get into nature virtually as soon as you step off the train. It runs alongside Jamison Creek and ends near the top of Wentworth Falls (the waterfall). Wallabies may be spotted near the trail if you’re lucky like I was!
Around Wentworth Falls
From Wentworth Falls (the waterfall), there are plenty of options for further bushwalking. There are two recommended viewpoints, Fletcher’s Lookout and Rocket Point Lookout, within 10 minutes’ walk of the falls on either side. Both give a bird’s eye view of the falls and of the Jamison Valley below.
From Rocket Point, you can walk another 20-25 minutes to Lincoln Rock, which offers expansive views of the valley.
Two longer walks in the area are the National Pass Walking Track and the Overcliff-Undercliff Track. I walked parts of both of these, but some sections of both trails were closed for track maintenance during my visit in May 2019.
There's also a third circuit track known as the Wentworth Pass hike. It's said to be one of the most difficult but rewarding hikes in the area, along with the Grand Canyon walk.
Blackheath and Govetts Leap
Blackheath is a 13-minute train journey west of Katoomba. The 698 bus takes longer than the train but will drop you much closer to Govetts Leap.
There are several excellent bushwalking options from Govetts Leap. I detail two of them below, but there are more if you’re really keen and have the time! You could easily spend a full day walking in this area.
Govetts Leap to Pulpit Rock
This excellent walk is listed as one-and-a-half hours each way at medium difficulty. If you’re a regular walker, though, you should be able to do it in less time and might consider it on the easy side of medium.
There are several lookouts along the way, and Pulpit Rock itself offers superb views in nearly all directions. It’s perhaps my favourite viewpoint in the Blue Mountains.
Pulpit Rock can also be visited via a much shorter walk from a nearby car park, although there don’t appear to be public transport options to reach it. And besides, the walk from Govetts Leap is fabulous anyway!
Govetts Leap Descent
The views from the lookouts on the rim of the valleys in the Blue Mountains are spectacular, but a great way to gain a different perspective, and to better comprehend the size of the cliffs, is to walk down into the valleys themselves.
From Govetts Leap, a fairly short but very steep path, consisting virtually entirely of steps, takes you to the valley floor and the base of the waterfall, offering wonderful views along the way. When I walked this trail shortly after dawn on a drizzly morning, I didn’t see a single other person the entire way down or back up.
If you stay in the Blue Mountains for a few days, you’re likely to see some Australian wildlife in the bush.
I saw a wallaby munching on some leaves very close to the Charles Darwin Trail at Wentworth Falls, and saw a rock wallaby at close range at the entrance to Lucas Cave at the Jenolan Caves.
The Blue Mountains is also a paradise for bird watching. At dusk at Govetts Leap I saw plenty of birds, including colourful rainbow lorikeets and crimson rosellas. At dawn at Eagle Hawk Lookout in Katoomba, I didn’t see any birds of prey but saw and heard a lot of noisy cockatoos!
The Jenolan Caves, 75km by road from Katoomba (but only 25km as the crow flies), are a great highlight of the Blue Mountains region and definitely worth a visit if you can drag yourself away from the mountain views for a day.
There are 11 caves at Jenolan Caves, and, since you have to visit them individually on scheduled guided tours, you won’t get to see them all unless you dedicate several days to it.
However, each “cave” is not just one cave. They all consist of several chambers, and tours can take as long as 90 minutes. Local guides say that each cave is different and that there aren’t necessarily “better” and “worse” caves, but Lucas Cave is the largest and most popular.
On this trip, I visited Lucas Cave and Chifley Cave. The latter was the first cave in the world to have electric lighting, installed in 1880. Visitor numbers on each tour to Lucas Cave are capped at 60, and it often fills up, but I was lucky to be part of a group of only five people on a Thursday in May.
Both caves have some spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations, some forming fantasy shapes such as the Statue of Liberty, dragons, rhinos, etc.
Most surprising of all for me was hearing the stories of the early tours of the caves in the late 19th century, when wealthy visitors dressed in their Sunday best had to slide down part of the caves in candlelight before steps and lighting were added.
These days, going through the caves is a fair bit easier, but be aware that you will have to go up several hundred steps to enter Lucas Cave.
Where to Eat
Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants
At the time I visited in May 2019, there was one vegan restaurant and two vegetarian restaurants in Katoomba. I ate at two of them, but it’s a bit unfortunate that all three are café-style places that aren’t open for dinner. There’s also a great vegan café in Wentworth Falls.
Plant-Based Whole Food
This non-creatively but accurately named restaurant in Katoomba offers healthy vegan burgers, wraps, salads, etc. I had probably the healthiest plate of nachos I’ve ever had. It was virtually a nacho salad and was a lot more delicious than it sounds!
An interesting and low waste but perhaps not terribly useful addition to the menu, given Katoomba’s tourist focus, is a note saying that the restaurant will accept excess produce from patrons’ own backyards!
Embassy Vegetarian Cafe
This great breakfast spot is an eclectic diner-type place near the train station in Katoomba with some original 1940s decor. Almost all items can be made vegan if they aren’t already. On the breakfast menu, this typically means replacing eggs with scrambled tofu.
I had avocado on rye sourdough, which was excellent and, at $12, much better value than most Sydney cafés. A common joke among young Sydneysiders is that they have to choose between smashed avocado on toast and getting a mortgage on a house!
There are also a variety of lunch options at the Embassy, but I didn’t have a chance to try them.
Little Niche Nosh
This is a great little vegan cafe near the train station at Wentworth Falls. Combining a visit to this cafe with some bushwalking around Wentworth Falls makes for a brilliant half-day excursion!
Among other items, Little Niche Nosh offers burgers, bowls, salads and, best of all, savoury pies. In Australia, individual savoury pies, typically called meat pies, are a much-loved part of the traditional food culture and are especially connected with the various local football codes.
Australian vegan chefs are coming up with creative plant-based pies, and Little Niche Nosh is no exception. The day I was there, they had a curried vegetable pie and a Mexican bean pie. I chose the latter, and it was delicious!
A Sydney-based vegetarian friend of mine likes to say that 2018 was the year veganism went mainstream in Australia. If that trend hadn’t reached the Blue Mountains by then, it certainly had by 2019, as three of the four mainstream restaurants I went to for dinner in Katoomba had clearly marked vegan options.
If you’re keen for a glass of wine or a beer after a long day of bushwalking, be aware that many Katoomba restaurants are BYO (bring your own), which is not uncommon in Australia. It means that these restaurants don’t have a license to serve alcohol, but you can bring your own and pay a small corkage fee to have a drink with your meal.
This is an Italian restaurant on the main street of Katoomba with vegan options labeled on the menu. The pizzas can be made with vegan cheese (for an extra charge), and the pizza base can be made with wholemeal flour (also for an extra charge) if you want to make it healthier.
I ordered the vegetarian pizza with both those add-ons. While the final product (and the price!) will hardly make me forget Naples’ pizzerias anytime soon, it was decent enough.
This Indian restaurant at the lower end of Katoomba’s main street has a full page of vegetarian curries, five or six of which are marked as vegan or veganizable on request. The naan bread can also be made vegan, which was a nice surprise.
I ordered Chole Masala ― a spicy chickpea and potato curry ― with garlic naan, and it really hit the spot on a cold evening.
This Thai restaurant on Katoomba’s main drag has a full page of vegetarian items on the menu, about half of which are marked as vegan. These are mostly mock prawn dishes.
I opted for a tofu satay sauce dish, which I enjoyed, although the service wasn’t great.
Another Thai restaurant on the main street. Although vegan items are not marked, all dishes come with the option of tofu instead of meat. I had a Massaman curry, which was very good, but be aware that all curries here contain oyster sauce.
The three main Australian supermarket chains ― Woolworths, Coles and ALDI ― all have locations in central Katoomba and offer a large selection of snacks. These will come in handy if you’re hiking throughout the day.
Since I used to work at Woolworths many, many moons ago, that tends to be where I go, but you should be able to get what you’re looking for at any of the three supermarkets.
If you’re into healthy snacks, Woolworths has a Macro wholefoods market aisle with a lot of great options. I liked the Smooshed Wholefood Balls because they come in a small bucket of 18 balls, and it’s super easy to grab one (or two, or three!) from your bag while on the trails.
If you like spreads, there are a lot of types of hummus available at Woolworths, but the fat content varies considerably. I like Willow Farm hummus for value (AUD$2 for 200 grams), low fat content (only 8 percent, compared with up to 25 percent for some other brands) and taste.
Some of the guacamole-type spreads at Woolworths contain milk, especially those just labelled as avocado, but one that doesn’t is Obela. It contains 88 percent avocado and is very tasty by pre-made guacamole standards, but not cheap at AUD$5 for a 225g tub.
The supermarkets mentioned above will have everything you need to self-cater if you have access to a kitchen. The Katoomba Mountain Lodge, where I stayed, has a communal kitchen, which is perfect for self-caterers.
For photographers, knowing when to visit particular sites in the Blue Mountains is important to get the best light and, therefore, the best photos. Even if you’re not into photography, these tips will still enhance your experience, because they will help you to catch the best colours and views and avoid looking into the sun at viewpoints.
Early morning and late afternoon (up to two or three hours after sunrise and before sunset) are usually the best times for outdoor photography, because the light at those times will bring out the colour in your subjects and the sky.
On the one hand, this is especially true in the Blue Mountains, because the soft light close to sunrise and sunset creates a magical effect on the sandstone cliffs, giving them a pinkish or golden hue. On the other hand, wide-angle shots of the valleys are best closer to the middle of the day, when the sun is higher and there are no shadows on the valley floor.
Keep in mind that these tips are based on a visit in early May and that the light may not be the same at other times of the year, when days are shorter or longer. And all tips assume that the sun is out!
Echo Point and the Three Sisters
The viewpoint faces back east towards the west face of the Three Sisters, so the afternoon is certainly the best time for viewing and photographing the most famous icon of the Blue Mountains. If you have time, I recommend staying around the viewpoint for a couple of hours, perhaps doing the short walk to the Three Sisters themselves between shots.
From around two hours to one hour before sunset, you will be able to get a beautiful shot of the Three Sisters with some of the valley in the background, without any shadows. But make sure you stay until just before sunset, when the valley floor is in complete darkness and the Three Sisters turn golden in the last light of the day.
I was at this viewpoint at multiple different times over two days, and I think late morning or early afternoon is best for sunlight on the waterfall and cliffs to the right and for wide-angle shots of the valley in front of you.
In the very early morning, you’ll be shooting against the light or, at best, across the light. After mid-afternoon, the closest cliffs and the valley below are in shadow.
With 270-degree views of the amphitheatre of cliffs that rise above the Grose Valley, it’s hard to go wrong at any time of day from this superb viewpoint. I was there in mid-afternoon, which was great for panoramas looking back east before the shadows cover too much of the valley floor.
Mid-afternoon is also the best time to photograph Pulpit Rock itself from viewpoints on the bushwalking trail from Govetts Leap. In the morning, possibly depending on the time of year, the cliffs closest to the viewpoint would be bathed in sunshine, making this a great time to visit as well.
The falls themselves face west, lending them to afternoon photography, but I visited in the morning to have the best views looking out from the falls west towards the Jamison Valley.
Because there are many lookout spots around the falls facing in different directions, you’re virtually guaranteed to hit one of them at a good time for light no matter when you visit, unless it’s in the middle of the day during or near summer.
About the Author
Nick is Wendy’s husband. He grew up in Sydney, making occasional family trips to the Blue Mountains with his parents and older brothers.
He left Australia in 2001 and has lived and traveled overseas ever since, visiting over 110 countries and working in media operations at major sports events around the globe, as a tour guide in Lisbon and Rome, and as an English teacher in Geneva.