If you own a boat (or are friends with someone who owns a boat!) you might be familiar with Refuge Bay at West Head; it features a waterfall that plunges onto the beach, and a natural swimming hole at the top of the cliffs. But there’s also a “secret track”, or rather an unofficial and unmarked bushwalking track to Refuge Bay, that lets you reach this spectacular West Head spot by foot… (Thanks to Phil from ODWG who discovered this the Refuge Bay bushwalk.)
To reach the Refuge Bay bushwalking track take the Salvation Loop trail, which is off West Head Road, before turning onto the Walleroo Track.
Just before the Walleroo Track descends steeply downhill (about 350m from the turn-off), look for a narrow bushwalking track on the right. It’s not easy to spot. Here’s where the fun starts! The Refuge Bay track is a rough but fairly distinct pad. It initially ascends gently for a short distance, before descending along a spur off the Walleroo Track. Some rock cairns help to mark the route.
Theres a few glimpses of Cowan Creek as the track descends the spur, and the track makes use of a few small rock platforms to avoid the thick scrub.
Near the half-way point is a large rock platform; keep an eye out for the small rock cairns as you continue in a northerly direction.
There’s some nice views over Cowan Creek from this point, although there’s still a bit of a way to go!
As the path descends the spur, the views keep getting better… there are a few easy rock scrambles; look out for the rock cairns as the route sometimes twists around the larger boulders. There’s two spots where it’s easy to lose the track. The first is where it looks like you need to walk straight down a very steep slope (there’s a great view from here), but the track actually turns sharply right to descend much more gently.
The second is where the track seems to end at a another rock platform. Continue down thr left-hand side of the rocks.
There’s a good chance you’ll spot some sea eagles soaring above the coastal cliffs.
You’ll eventually reach a rather conspicuous and incongruous piece of cloth tied to a branch… this is where the “secret track” meets the much more well-trodden trails used by people who have moored their boat at Refuge Bay and climbed up to the top of the cliff. There’s great views from here over Cowan Creek. On a summer weekend, you’ll probably encounter a few people here.
You’ve now got a few options for where to go next…
Refuge Bay Cascades
Turn left (south-east) and continue along the trail (always keeping left!) to reach the upper cascades, which are above the Refuge Bay waterfall. It’s a nice spot here, with the creek forming some small pools as it cascades over the rocks.
At the bottom of the cascades, the creek plunges through a narrow chute.
If you look carefully, in the creek bed is an Aboriginal engraving of an eel.
Refuge Bay swimming hole
Return the same way until you reach a large rock platform, then look for another trail that descends toward the east. It passes a few interesting rock formations before reaching the creek. The trail then follows the creek a short distance to the edge of the cliff.
Perched on the very edge of the cliff above Refuge Bay is a spectacular swimming hole or natural plunge pool.
The pool overlooks Refuge Bay, and unless it’s been very dry (and the creek stops flowing), it provides the perfect spot for a dip!
Refuge Bay beach is almost directly below; on a summer weekend, expect to see a few boats moored at this popular spot.
Refuge Bay beach
To get to the beach, head back to the colourful ribbon, and head west along the top of the cliffs. After about a hundred metres, the trail starts to descend the cliff, passing some large overhangs before heading through a narrow gap in the rocks. This section requires a bit of scrambing – nothing too serious, but best avoided when it’s raining and the rocks are wet.
As you get closer, you’ll see (and hear) the waterfall before the last scramble down to the beach.
The Refuge Bay Waterfall plunges onto the rocks at the back of the beach; it flows year-round but is most impressive after some heavy rain.
You can even clamber up to a long cave behind the waterfall (access is easiest from the right-hand side when facing the falls).
There’s also a serious side and some fascinating European history associated with Refuge Bay, which is recognised by a plaque attached to the rocks. The Allied “Z” Special Unit in WWII had a secret camp known as Camp X at Refuge Bay in 1942. It was used for intensive military training over three months, with five of the eleven trainees selected to undertake “Operation Jaywick”, This was a special operation in September 1943, when 14 commandos and sailors raided Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour, sinking six ships.
The men used to hide their canoes in the cave behind the waterfall. There’s little evidence left of the camp, other than some names engraved on rock and a few retaining rocks where the camp used to be.
On a quiet day, Refuge Bay would be a great spot to spend some time… but on a summer weekend the beach is way too busy, so we head back up the same way. It’s been a fantastic walk, and definitely one of the best bushwalks at West Head.
Getting to Refuge Bay
This walk starts about halfway down West Head Road on the Salvation Loop Track (and then the Walleroo Track for a short distance). This is easy walking. The Refuge Bay Track should be considered a “cairned route” – please don’t undertake this trail without a map and some basic navigation skills, and allow plenty of time for this bushwalk. Although there is a rough track, it’s easy to lose the track, especially where it crosses a rock platform.
More information on the Refuge Bay bushwalk
- Australia at War – Camp Z, Cowan Creek
- Wikipedia – Operation Jaywick
- Visit Sydney – Sydney’s Most Amazing Swiming Spots
More West Head bushwalks
For more West Head bushwalking suggestions, have a look at the Guide to West Head bushwalks post or download the PDF summary below.