A Guide to West Head walks

A multitude of short walks 90min north of Sydney, from secluded beaches to rocky outcrops with views over Pittwater.

West Head, part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and only 90min from Sydney, is one of my favourite destinations for short hikes, or to find a beach that won’t be crowded even on a summer weekend. There are about 20 trails, almost all of them starting on West Head Road and all well sign-posted. Within West Head there are two picnic areas – Salvation Creek and Resolute Picnic Area. There’s even a few “off track” walks that take you to secluded beaches or hidden lookouts…

Even if you’re not a hiker, the drive to the lookout at the end of West Head Road offers spectacular views over Broken Bay and towards Palm Beach. (Note: there is a gate that is locked at night – from 8:30pm to 6am during daylight savings periods and 6pm to 6am at other times of the year. In times of extreme fire danger, the walking trails may be closed. Park entry fees apply, from $13 per vehicle.)

Best swimming

  • Flint and Steel Beach is the pick for swimming – even on summer weekends it doesn’t get too busy and there’s lots of shade.
  • Next best is Resolute Beach, which you can access via West Head Lookout or the Resolute Picnic area.
  • A popular swimming hole is Upper Gledhill Falls which is right by the road – although there’s limited parking and it can get busy.

Best views

  • Overall the best views are from the end of West Head Road at the lookout – although you’ll be sharing it with a few other people!
  • If you want great views without the crowds, try the Koolewong Track which is only 1.1km return and is generally pretty quiet.
  • For a longer walk with a really nice outlook, take the Bairne Trail but make sure you take the right-hand fork for views across Pittwater to Scotland Island and beyond.

Best adventure

  • West Head Army Track makes a short but fun adventure, following the original wartime track down to WWII embankments that you can explore.
  • Or go “off track” by taking the track to Flint and Steel Bay and continuing along the rocky coastline to Hungry Beach  (low tide best).
  • If you have more time, you can combine the Bairne and Basin tracks to create a circular walk (12km) with a ferry ride in the middle. This walk has some nice views and includes a couple of places you can swim.

Summary of walks

 

Picnic areas

The most popular picnic spot at West Head is the Resolute Picnic area, which is just before the end of West Head Road. It has many picnic tables across the large site, gas BBQs and a toilet block – but it is Bring your Own Water (no taps or water available. Despite its large size it gets busy – so on weekends get there early!

Less busy is the much smaller Salvation Creek picnic area, located on the right hand side of West Head Road, about half way along the road. It has three picnic tables near the small carpark – and you’ll to need to bring your own (gas) BBQ. It has is a small but nice swimming hole in the creek, right next to the picnic area – perfect for kids to play in.

 

Upper Gledhill Falls (Mar 2019)

This isn’t really a bushwalk, but a secluded swimming hole accessed via a short scramble down to the creek from McCarrs Creek Road. At the top of the falls is a series of small cascades, just below where the road crosses McCarrs Creek.

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The reason you’d come here and why the Upper Gledhill Falls are so popular (especially in summer) is the small but deep pool just below the cascades. The track is a bit rough and can get muddy if it has recently rained, but is not too difficult to follow – small kids might need a bit of help getting down a couple of the drops. There’s large boulders around the swimming hole, and a small sandy beach (although after a few day of rain the “beach” was mostly submerged. The pool has featured in many articles on secret swimming holes, including “Wild Swimming Australia“. It can get busy on weekends (it’s not really that “secret” any more) and I’m not sure how clean the water is, although most of the creek’s catchment is in the Ku-ring-gi Chase national park.

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Location Near the junction of McCarrs Creek Road and West Head Road. There are 2-3 car parking spots near the start of the short walking track on  McCarrs Creek Road, or park at the start of West Head Road
Distance 200m
Grade Easy. A bit of scrambling required.
Resources Wild Swimming Holes – Upper Gledhill Falls

Challenger Trail (Mar 2019)

This is a fairly short fire trail that heads out from West Head Road toward the coast. It doesn’t appear to be particularly interesting, so it takes me a while before I venture down the wide maintenance track. My estimation of the walk proves correct: while it’s an easy and not unpleasant walk, it is also rather boring and I really can’t think of any reason to recommend it. Unless you’ve already done all the other West Head walks. Or you’re looking for a “beginners” mountain bike track, perhaps for kids, in which case this fairly flat track would be a good option. Or you need to hide a dead body somewhere that’s out of the way!

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While some of the more boring fire trails reward with great views at the end, this one doesn’t. There are filtered views of Pittwater, but nothing spectacular.

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But… there is a faint foot track that seems to continue from the end of the fire trail. As I continue along what the very indistinct track, I spot two Casuarina trees with some decaying yellow tape, the only sign that perhaps there is a trail that leads somewhere. Mostly, though, I’m dodging the spider webs which suggest there’s hasn’t been anyone here for a while.

As the trail skirts the edge of a small cliff (at which point I really can’t see where it continues), there’s some nice views over the Hawkesbury River and Little Pittwater Bay.

I haven’t got time to explore further, and the faint trail has disappeared, so I take a couple more photos from my vantage point, before heading back to the Challenger Trail. Maybe there is a way from here down Little Pittwater Bay – I’ll have to come back and explore on another day!

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Location Locked gate towards the end of West Head Road.
Distance 3km return.
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 40m.

Waratah Trail (Aug 2016)

A long fire trail along the ridge, culminating in views over the Coal and Candle Creek and Ku-ring-gai Chase national park.

The sandy fire trail descends gradually down the ridge from West Head Road, through low heath. It’s nicer in spring when the wildflowers are out and can get hot in summer as there’s not much tree cover. Although, it’s really not the most exciting walk at any time of the year! You could also do this trail on a mountain bike.

After about 3.5km there’s a faint trail off to the right (north) that’s marked on some maps – this doesn’t go very far before disappearing.

At the end of the Waratah Track there’s a large rock platform; in the distance you can see Yeomens Bay (a tributary of Cowan Creek).

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Location First trail on the left, at start of West Head Road
Distance 9.5km return (2-3hrs)
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 135m.
Resources National Parks web site. Google Street View Trekker

Bairne Trail (June 2016)

One of the longer (but easy) tracks along the ridge line, that leads to great views over Pittwater.

Bairne Trail should really be Bairne Trails, as there are a few different options you can take. All of them start from the main track off West Head Road. The fire trail follows the ridge, and is fairly flat. It’s not the most exciting of walks. After 2.4km there’s a small cairn on the left-hand side and what seems to be a faint trail leading down-hill. Ignore this, as it soon peters out. A little further, about 2.6km from the start, there is a major fork and decision to be made…

Take the the right fork and the trail continues for another 900m, descending a little until it reaches a lookout above the cliff-line. There’s views across Pittwater to Scotland Island and beyond.

To the right (south-west) is Towlers Bay, accessible by boat or via another walking trail from West Head.

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If you take the left fork, the trail becomes the Soldiers Point Track (there’s an unmarked track off to the right after 100m) which leads to another lookout over Pittwater.

The track narrows as it goes done the ridge to Coasters Retreat, a small bush community of 50 houses beside the beach. The town is serviced by the Palm Beach Ferry Service (Bonnie Doon Wharf), providing another means of access. You can also combine this walk with the Basin Trail, to form a circular walk (returning to the start of the Bairne Track along West Head Road) – see Bairne to Basin circuit.

Finally, you can take the left fork and turn right after 100m down a narrow, unmarked track – this is the now-defunct Portuguese Track. It continues for about 500m, descending down a spur, before it stops. There’s a sign saying “track closed” and the trail is completely overgrown after the first few metres. It looks like it may still be possible to “bush bash” down to Portuguese Bay and Beach, but it would be (very) hard work.

Location Right-hand (east) side of West Head Road, about half-way
Distance 9.6km return (taking in both look-outs)
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 150m
Resources National Parks web site. Google Street View Trekker

Willunga Trail (June 2016)

A very short track to a trig point, which is the highest lookout in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (albeit, only about 240m above sea level).

The track goes from dry heathland to woodland, with scribbly gums and red bloodwoods.

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From the top, there are 360-degree views across the national park, toward Pittwater and as far as the city of Sydney to the south.

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Location Left-hand (west) side of West Head Road
Distance 1.5km return (30min)
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 60m
Resources National Parks web site. Google Street View Trekker

America Bay Track (June 2016)

One of the few West Head tracks that offers Aboriginal engravings, a waterfall, views (over Cowan Water) as well as descending down to the water.

Near the start of the walk, a short detour leads to rock engravings on a sandstone shelf.

The trail descends gradually for about a kilometre, crossing a creek which is then followed down to a waterfall and rock platform.

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From here there are views over America Bay and out to Cowan Water, with the creek dropping off the sheer cliff.

If you continue another 100m or so along the track past the rock platform, there is a rough track that leads down a through a gap in the cliff. It’s only about 150m down but very steep, with the track following the creek to where it flows into America Bay.

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Location About half-way down West Head Road on the left
Distance 2.6km return (including down to bay). 1hr
Grade Easy to lookout. Moderate to bay. Total ascent of 125m
Resources Wildwalks track notes. National Parks web site.
Google Street View Trekker

West Head Beach (May 2016)

A very short walk to a secluded beach – you can also extend this walk into the 4.3km Resolute Loop Trail.

Starting at the West Head lookout (very end of West Head Road), a well-marked track heads directly down to West Head Beach (it will be sign-posted as “Resolute Beach”, which is the second beach). Follow this sandy track for about 400m, initially going down some rock steps and later a section of timber stairs. Just after you cross a small creek, a side-track leads down to West Head Beach.

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It’s a sheltered and picturesque beach, located directly opposite Barrenjoey Peninsula, which you can see across Pittwater It’s rarely busy – although it does get a bit busier each year! There’s lot of shaded spots to sit. The beach is a bit rocky and is best at high tide.

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From West Head Beach, return to the car the same way. Or you can do a loop and return via Resolute Beach and the Resolute Loop Trail via Resolute beach.

Location Park at the end of West Head Road
Distance 800m return (20min).
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 100m
Resources Weekend Notes

Towlers Bay (Mar 2016)

An easy walk on a 4WD / management road, that leads down from West Head Road to Towlers Bay (where there are are a few houses that are accessed via water only). There’s also a YHA youth hostel at Towlers Bay, accessed via this track or by ferry/water taxi.

The tracks starts with a very gradual descent, becoming steeper after about 2km as it heads towards Morning Bay, when views of Pittwater below start to emerge.

At around the 3km mark, the track starts to follow the coast (still 50-60m above sea level), with side-tracks down to Lovetts Bay and houses, and after another kilometre Woody Point is reached. There’s a sign to the ferry wharf, and another to the youth hostel. Continue along the coast to Towlers Bay, which is reached after about 4.5km.

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At Towlers Bay, there’s a dilapidated house (with an empty swimming pool) close to the shore. From the scarce information I’ve been able to find, it was built around 1963-64 on private land and was named “Cove Lee”, having  landscaped gardens and manicured lawns. The property was compulsorily acquired not long after being constructed; there was an intent to acquire all private holdings in the area, but this was too costly. There’s also some references to this having been used as a safe-house for Petrov when he defected, which I can’t verify (and the dates don’t correspond).

It’s a fine setting for a house and a shame it’s been left to decay. There’s an old jetty that stretches out into the bay, and views across Pittwater to Bilgola and Avalon on the other side of the water.

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There’s also crabs. Swarms (or schools, to be precise) of light-blue soldier crabs that are scurrying across the exposed mangrove flats. It’s quite a sight, which I’ve never seen before.

Location Near the start of West Head Road; right-hand (east) side
Distance 9.4km return (2-3 hours)
Grade Easy. Total ascent of 184m climb.
Resources Wildwalks track notes

Flint and Steel Beach & Bay (March 2016)

This is my second-favourite walk (after the Resolute Loop Trail), with the option of going to either the beach (the more popular walk, and a good swimming and fishing spot) on one one side of the headland, or the bay (where you’re unlikely to see anyone else) on the other.

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You can also connect the two, and walk around from the beach to the bay (or vice versa) – this is a harder walk, that’s covered by the Wildwalks web site (see info box below).

For either option, the track starts near the end of West Head Road, descending steadily on a good track through light forest. After about 300m, the track splits and there’s a sign-post.

Head left for Flint and Steel Bay; the track continues to descend for another 500m before reaching the water. You can see the ruins of McGaw House here, although not much remains except some well-built sandstone foundations. The history is fascinating and documented by an archaeological student in a detailed report: the house was built by E.R. McGaw from 1920-65, and while the land was resumed as part of Ku-ring-gai National Park in 1939, the McGaws were permitted to stay. It wasn’t until 1968 that the NPWS requested that all structures be removed. There was an application to include the house in the Register of Historic Buildings, which the NPWS reluctantly agreed to – but in 1971 the house was destroyed by a fire. According to the report, there is a spring behind the house with fresh water.

The track continues along the shoreline of Flint and Steel Bay, with views across Pittwater.

A few hundred metres further along the track (which is now more of a pad) is White Horse Beach, which is where the track ends. It’s a nice spot for a swim or picnic.

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For Flint and Steel Beach (which is where I often go for a swim with the kids), turn right after 300m (it’s sign-posted) and follow the track down another 700m to the beach.

After about 500m you can see the end of the beach below, with Lion Island Nature Reserve in the background.

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It’s a great spot, with many shaded areas to sit, rock pools at the western end and I’ve often seen wallabies grazing just behind the beach. It’s a popular fishing spot, but there’s rarely more than a handful of people around (although it’s getting more popular).

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Location Left-hand (west) side of West Head Road, just before end of road
Distance 3.4km loop (1:30hr). Approx 2km return to either the bay or the beach
Grade Easy/Moderate. Total ascent of 130m
Resources Wildwalks track notes for loop walk

Maps

For all these walks, the free map at the West Head entry station is sufficient; for a more detailed topographical map there’s the “Ku-ring-gai & Berowra Valley” visitor guide, which you can purchase from the Information Centre at Bobbin Head. You won’t need a 1:25,000 topographical map, but if you are venturing off-track Broken Bay (9130-1N), Mona Vale (9130-1S) and Hornsby (9130-4S) would be needed to cover all the walks.

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7 comments

  1. Hello, this is a great resource – thanks!

    With the Bairne Track, I know you said you didn’t go via Soldiers Point but I’m keen to take up your suggestion to link up this walk to the Basin Track.

    Do you know if you can get from the lookout to the Coasters Retreat village? It would be great if we could get the ferry from Bennets/Bonnie Doon to the Basin and get back to West Head Road along the Basin track.

    Like

  2. Hi Oliver, that’s awesome that you managed to get out there in this weather! This makes me think I should definitely use the Bairne Track to get to the Basin. Will try to pop down to Towler’s Bay for a better view, but then double back to Soldiers Point to get to the Basin. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

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