A Perfect Day at Royal National Park in Sydney
Royal National Park stretches out just an hour south of Australia’s largest city, but it’s overlooked by tourists and locals alike. I’m no exception: I lived in Sydney for two and a half years and I didn’t visit until the very end of my residency! With a flight looming, I knew I could put it off no longer. But I only had one day to fit in over 37,000 acres of parklands. So what did I do? Research.
Fortunately, I had more than the internet to rely on. Plenty of my friends had visited, and they gave me tips on what to see and what to skip. So I planned out each minute, and managed to fit the highlights into one day. Here’s how you can do it too, and my guide to maximizing your time.
Royal National Park: Background
If anyone knows how to do the outdoors, it’s the Aussies. Which might be why Australian Premier Sir John Robertson set aside over 37,000 acres of bushland back in the late 1800s and called it a National Park. A century later, that same spot has become a favorite place for Sydneysiders to reconnect with nature. With campsites, beaches, lagoons, cute towns, and dozens of amazing geological wonders, skipping a visit would be a tragedy indeed.
How to Get There: Your best bet is to drive — it’s about an hour away on Princes Highway, and all roads in the park are paved.
When to Go: Anytime the weather is nice! Winter will have fewer crowds, but lower temps might mean sunbathing is off the menu for the day. However, you might appreciate the cooler air when you’re out on the trails!
Cost: $12 per vehicle
Planning Your Visit
You could spend weeks exploring the park and still not manage to fit in everything. But there are three places I think every first-time visitor should go, and fortunately you can fit them all into one day. However, there are a few requirements:
- Plan carefully! You will need to know the tides, wave height, and sunset time to make sure you’re safe. Knowing these will also help plan what day of the week to visit, what time to get started, and what order to see the below attractions.
- Pack a lunch. You may be tempted to stop in one of the cute communities for a quick bite, but you’ve got a lot of hiking ahead of you if you want to see the best of the park, so bring plenty of food, snacks, and lots of water. Pick up marinated meat and some sides for a BBQ!
- Bring LOTS of water. Yes I just said this, but it’s so important that you do this because there aren’t many places to replenish your supplies inside the park, and you will be doing a lot of hiking. If you go in the summer (like I did), it will be HOT and even more important to stay hydrated.
- Start early. Two of the three ‘must-see’ spots below are a good hike through bushland, beach, and over sea cliffs and rocks. You’ll want to take your time and not feel like you’re rushing, so leave Sydney bright and early (the park opens at 7 a.m.)
- Dress smart. You will definitely need at least the following things: sneakers (trainers) or hiking boots, a hat, and a swimsuit. You can wear just those things, but you might get a few strange looks from your fellow hikers. You’ll be going over some crazy terrain, so flip flops will not cut it!
The Can’t-Miss Sights & When to See Them
You’ll be planning your visit around the low tide, so check it now! Because you can only access the Figure 8 Pools at low tide and in calm sea conditions, you’ll need to make it your priority if you hope to see them at all (and without injury). More details below:
Figure 8 Pools
The most Instagrammable of spots in Royal National Park, this is where the sea has carved out several perfect circles in a rock shelf. During good conditions, they’re a sight to behold. Under less than perfect conditions, you might not get that perfect shot, but you still can swim in the pools and marvel at the perfect geometry of nature. To have the best shot of getting here, start your hike at least 90 minutes before low tide, so you can arrive at the pools 15 – 30 minutes before the lowest tide point. This will give you the most time at the pools, but start back over the rocks when you see the waves start to pick up some steam. We passed a few girls who were sporting some cuts and bruises because they made their way down too early!
When to Go: 90 minutes before the low tide point (mornings and early evening will have less crowds)
What to Wear: Good shoes, a swimsuit, a hat, lots of sunscreen
What to Bring: Your camera (in a waterproof bag), a towel, lots of water
Don’t Miss: Swimming in one of those perfect circles!
Wattamolla Lagoon & Beach
Photo: Wittylama [CC BY-SA 3.0]
This place is best to stop for lunch and have a swim. There’s a beach that separates the salty Pacific Ocean from the freshwater lagoon, and a 20-foot high cliff for daredevils who want to have a jump (but be wary, it’s been made illegal due to injuries and rangers have zero tolerance). There are BBQs if you packed your lunch like I suggested, and it’s a fun spot to pass a couple of hours and wash off the sweat from your last hike. I suggest sandwiching this one between the Figure 8 Pools and Wedding Cake Rock (whichever order you visit them) to give your legs a break.
When to Go: Between your hikes to Wedding Cake and Figure 8 for a bite to eat
What to Wear: Your swimsuit and lots of sunscreen
What to Bring: All the fixings for a BBQ lunch to refuel for your next hike
Don’t Miss: Watching daredevils jump from the cliff into the lagoon
Wedding Cake Rock
This bleach-white sandstone formation is truly a sight to behold (and ONLY behold, it’s in danger of sliding into the sea if you ignore the fences and walk on it). To get here, you need to follow signs to Bundeena from the Park Entrance, then park at the end of Beachcomber Avenue (there is a small parking lot). It’s a 45-minute hike to the viewpoint for Wedding Cake Rock, and it’s not a particularly fantastic hike, to be honest. But it’s not strenuous, and the view at the end is worth it.
When to Go: Early afternoon has the best lighting for photos (this should be secondary to the low tide for the Figure 8 Pools)
What to Wear: Good hiking clothes to cover your skin (there’s no shade on the trail and the Aussie sun is harsh)
What to Bring: A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, lots of water
Don’t Miss: The secret photo spot. There’s a turn-off from the marked trail about 100 feet before you get to the rock. Go down it (you need a duck a branch or two) to find a perfect platform for a photo. Be careful though!
Have you been to Royal National Park? Think I missed something first-timers shouldn’t pass up? Let me know in the comments!