There’s a multitude of walks in West Head – but what are the best West Head bushwalks? Keep reading for my pick of the most rewarding walks out of the 20-odd official bushwalking trails (and the unofficial and “off-track” routes). West Head, part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, is one of my favourite destinations for short bushwalks near Sydney.
For a complete list of all the West Head picnic areas and bushwalks have a look at the Guide to West Head Bushwalks article, or the Guide to Ku-ring-gai Chase NP that covers 50+ bushwalks as well as swimming holes and mountain bike tracks.
Best Swimming in West Head
- Flint and Steel Beach – 2km return. Easy
- West Head Beach – 800m return. Easy.
- Upper Gledhill Falls – 400m return. Easy.
Best West Head Views
- West Head Lookout – no walking involved!
- Koolewong Track – 1.1km return. Easy.
- Birnie Lookout – 4km return. Easy.
- Bairne Trail – 9.6km return. Easy.
Best Adventure walks in West Head
- West Head Army Track – 1.3km return. Easy (Hard to Flannel Flower Beach)
- Hungry Beach – 3.6km return trail via Flint and Steel Bay. Moderate
- Bairne to Basin circuit – 12km loop. Moderate. Ferry required at high tide.
All the West Head beaches require a walk to reach them… but that also means you’ll avoid the crowds and you may even have a secluded beach to yourself. Here are three of the best swimming spots…
Flint and Steel Beach
This beach is the pick for swimming – even on summer weekends it doesn’t get too busy and there’s lots of shade around the beach. The walk down is about 1km from the carpark and is mostly in the shade. Depending on the wind and swell, there’s sometimes enough surf for body-surfing, but it’s always safe to swim even for younger children.
The rocky headland at the western end has some interesting rockpools and is a popular fishing spot. Behind the beach, the grassy area attracts wallabies that can often be seen grazing. (You can also go to Flint & Steel Bay – this is a rougher track that ends at White Horse Bay, and while you can also swim here it’s fairly rock and not as nice.) Or combine the bay and beach, with a rough trck that goes around the headland to form a loop walk.
|Location||Left-hand (west) side of West Head Road, just before end of road|
|Distance||Approx 2km return to the beach|
|Grade||Easy. Total ascent of 130m|
|More Info||Flint and Steel Loop|
West Head Beach
The easiest beach to access is West Head Beach, a short (but fairly steep) 400m walk down from West Head Lookout. The sheltered beach on Pittwater, opposite the Barrenjoey Peninsula, is best at low tide. There’s rarely any waves making it perfect for swimming.
The beach is surrounded by eucalyptus forest, and offers plenty of shade. At one end of West Head Beach, a large sandstone overhang provides shelter from sun (or rain).
West Head Beach and the track down to the beach forms part of a great loop walk you can do – the 4.3km Resolute Loop Trail goes past Resolute Beach, as well as Aboriginal rock art and engravings and a WWII observation post.
|Location||Park at the end of West Head Road (West Head Lookout)|
|Distance||800m return (20min).|
|Grade||Easy. Total ascent of 100m|
|More Info||Weekend Notes|
Upper Gledhill Falls
This swimming hole is becoming more popular – probably because it has featured in many articles on secret swimming holes, including Wild Swimming Australia. Just below McCarrs Creek Road is a series of cascades…
…which flow over a wide rock slab into a deep pool below. At one end of the pool is the waterfall (Upper Gledhill Falls), and next to it a small sandy beach. Forest and fern-covered rocks surround the 10m-wide pool. On a hot day, it’s a great spot for a swim.
|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 you can park at the start of West Head Road|
|Distance||20m total ascent.|
|Grade||Easy. A bit of scrambling required.|
|More Info||Wild Swimming Holes – Upper Gledhill Falls|
Almost all the West Head bushwalks offer a view, either over Cowan Creek and the Hawkesbury River to the west of the peninsula, Pittwater to the east or Broken Bay and Lion Island to the north. But some of the vantage points offer better views than others – and sometimes the shortest walks have the best views!
West Head Lookout
It’s not actually a bushwalk… but some of the best views are from the end of West Head Road at the lookout, near the carpark. The downside is that you’ll be sharing the view with a few other people, unlike the next couple of walks!
From the paved lookout area there are panoramic and almost-360-degree views over Pittwater, Broken Bay, the Barrenjoey peninsula, Palm Beach and the Central Coast. Sunset is a great time to admire the view – but make sure you’re leave enough time to drive out before the gates are locked (8:30pm during daylight savings and otherwise 6pm).
|Location||Park at the end of West Head Road (West Head Lookout)|
|Distance||N/A – carpark located here|
|More Info||National Parks West Head Lookout overview|
This is a great example of a short walk offering the best view… The Koolewong Track is only 1.1km return (or a 1.2m loop), and offers great views both from a bench at the of the trail, and a number of rocky outcrops nearby.
For the best views, carefully continue around the front of the fenced lookout area, to a rocky platform near the edge of the cliff. From here you can enjoy unobstructed views toward Patonga and the Hawkesbury River to the west and north-west and Lion Island to the north-east.
|Location||Start opposite Resolute Picnic area near the end of West Head Road|
|Distance||1.1km return or 1.2km loop|
|Grade||Easy. 60m total ascent.|
|More Info||Koolewong Track|
You can reach Birnie Lookout via the Towlers Bay Track (firetrail) and then a rough bush track, returning the same way. Or continue down to the water at Lovett Bay and return via the Towlers Bay Track. The destination is a spectacular viewpoint that’s perched over Lovett Bay and Pittwater, with Barrenjoey Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
Near the lookout is an overhang or cave that has been sculpted by the wind, resulting in an incredible honeycomb appearance.
|Location||Near the start of West Head Road; right-hand (east) side|
|Distance||4km return (1-2 hours). 6.5km loop via Towlers Bay Track (2-3 hours)|
|Grade||Easy. 65m total ascent (225km if doing loop walk)|
|More Info||Towlers Bay Loop via Birnie Lookout|
This is a longer track that follows a ridge-line on the eastern side of the West Head Peninsula. It’s not the most exciting walk along the maintenance trail – but it’s an easy walk and rewards at the end with views across Pittwater to Scotland Island and beyond, from a rock platform above a high cliff.
After following the Bairne Track for about 2.6km from the start, take the right fork and follow the firetrail for another 900m. It descends gradually until reaching a lookout above the cliff-line.
(The track to the left eventually becomes the Soldiers Point Track, leading another lookout with some filtered views over Pittwater. From this lookout there is a steep walking trail down to Coasters Retreat.)
|Location||Right-hand (east) side of West Head Road, about half-way|
|Grade||Easy. Total ascent of 120m|
|More Info||National Parks – Bairne Track|
Other West Head walks with views to consider
- Topham Track – 5km return. Easy. Like the Bairne Track it’s a pretty boring firetrail – but continue past the end of track for a cool cave and nice views over Cowan Waters, Jerusalem Bay and America Bay.
- Willunga Trail – 1.5km return. Easy. A short walk up to highest point in the park, with extensive views over West Head toward Pittwater and as far as the city of Sydney to the south.
Best adventurous walks
Despite most West Head bushwalks being relatively short and many of them following wide firetrails, there are some more adventurous options. These include off-track routes along the coastline and a more challenging bushwalking trails.
West Head Army Track
The West Head Army Track makes a short but fun adventure, following the original wartime track down to WWII embankments. Opened in 2016, the newly formed track initially zig-zags down the steep slope, before reaching a set of steel stairs. The first of the WWII structures is the two-storey Observation Post, from which there are views out across Broken Bay and Lion Island.
At the end of the West Head Army Track are more buildings that can be explored, including two covered concrete gun casings and an ammunition magazine cut into the cliff.
If you’re looking for a bit more adventure – and have enough time – continue off-track along the coastline to Flannel Flower Beach. A short but challenging route along the rocky shore takes you to a narrow sliver of sand backed by a 5m sandstone bluff. Low tide makes progress much easier, and at high tide there isn’t much of a beach!
|Location||Park at the end of West Head Road (West Head Lookout)|
|Distance||1.3km return. (30-45min) to end of West Head Army Track|
Flannel Flower Beach is about 1km return from end of Army Track.
|Grade||Easy. Total ascent of 105m.|
Hard to Flannel Flower Beach as there’s no track. Allow 2 hours.
|Resources||West Head Army Track and Flannel Flower Beach|
National Parks – West Head Army Track
Another off-track walk to a remote beach: Hungry Beach is on the Hawkesbury River on the western side of West Head. It’s a nice beach, surrounded by forest and with lots of shade. Above the beach is an old World War II bunker that you can explore, and there are nice views from this old WWII structure.
Hungry Beach is accessed via an established but sometimes rough trail to Flint and Steel Bay and Whitehorse Beach. From here follow the shore, over and between a few boulders and around a small headland – low tide makes this walk much easier. Even at low tide, the walk will involve some scrambling around obstacles over rocks.
|Location||Start at Flint and Steel trailhead near the end of West Head Road|
|Distance||3.6km return. Allow 2-3 hours.|
|Grade||Moderate. Partly off-track.|
|Resources||Hungry Beach hike|
Bairne to Basin loop
A half (or even full) day walk, combining the Bairne and Basin tracks creates a 12km circular walk. There’s a slight catch: The Basin (a narrow inlet off Pittwater) is between the two tracks. At low tide you could wade across the narrow inlet, but at high tide you’d need to swim. Or catch the ferry that connects make the crossing on a regular basis… It makes an interesting walk with some nice views, some steep and challenging tracks and the potential for a swim at a couple of spots.
Start the circuit via the Bairne Trail, as the ferry only operates in one direction and one of the tracks is hard to find if you’re coming from The Basin. The Bairne Track, a wide fire trail, eventually becomes the Soldiers Point Track and continues to Soldiers Point. You then take a narrow and sometimes steep walking track down the spur to Coasters Retreat, a small Pittwater community of 50 houses by the water (this track would be a bit tricky to find going in the other direction, as it starts behind a row of houses and is not sign-posted). From Coasters Hollow you can wade/swim across to The Basin near the shark net – or catch a regular ferry across!
The Basin campground is a nice spot, with picnic facilities and beaches for swimming. Unfortunately the walk up the Basin Trail is not so nice – it’s a partly-paved maintenance road used by NPWS to service the campground – and detracts from the walk a little. There are some Aboriginal rock engravings near the end of the walk which are worth making a very short detour to see.
Other challenging West Head walks to consider
- Mackerel and Basin Loop – 6.7km loop. Moderate. Combines the Basin Track and Mackerel Track with an off-track section along the coast. Similar to the Bairne to Basin loop, but avoids having to walk along West Head Road.
- Flint and Steel Loop – 2.8km partial loop. Easy. This is a great walk for a hot day, as there plenty of nice spots to for a swim. Parts of the track are a bit overgrown, and there’s a bit of an off-track scramble along the coast.
Tori · March 19, 2017 at 12:08 am
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.
oliverd :-) · March 19, 2017 at 12:30 am
Hi Tori, thanks for your feedback. I am fairly confident you can get down to Coasters Retreat. I will try and do this circuit as soon as it stops raining! But please let me know if you do manage to complete the circuit in the meantime! Oliver
oliverd :-) · March 26, 2017 at 12:56 pm
Managed to get there on the weekend… yes, you definitely can complete a circuit via Soldiers Point to The Basin. Just added a new blog: https://hikingtheworld.blog/2017/03/25/bairne-to-basin-circuit-west-head/. Let me know what you think; definitely not one of my best Sydney walks, but fun to catch the ferry!
Tori · April 7, 2017 at 11:00 pm
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!
Bairne to Basin Circuit, West Head – Hiking the world · March 26, 2017 at 12:53 pm
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