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The Royal National Park, where unspoilt beaches and rainforests collide


The Royal National Park, where unspoilt beaches and rainforests collide

Miniature aerial view of Garie Beach

Where is the Royal National Park?

The Royal National Park, located in the Sutherland Shire on the outskirts of Sydney, is arguably one of the most beautiful coastal and rainforest regions in Australia, if not the world.

Looking north from Little Garie beach towards Eagle Rock

Looking north from Little Garie Beach to Eagle Rock

Bordered by the Port Hacking River in the north and Otford in the south, the Royal National Park is steeped in both Aboriginal and Colonial history, and covers over 15,000 hectares of unspoilt beaches with awe-inspiring dramatic backdrops. The park contains hundreds of kilometres of walking tracks, sub-tropical rainforests, forests, heaths, woodlands and swamps, and is home to a diverse variety of native flora and fauna.

Northern end of Garie Beach facing Eagle Rock

Northern end of Garie Beach, the climb doesn't look as intimidating close up

The world's third oldest National Park

Established on 26th April 1879, it is Australia's oldest and also the world's third oldest National Park behind Bogd Khan Uul (Mongolia 1783), and Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. (1872, often mistakenly recognised as the oldest). It was set up largely due to the farsightedness of the N.S.W Premier at the time, Sir John Robertson, who wanted to create a space where people could escape the pressures of urban living and enjoy recreation facilities in a natural environment.

Coastal walk track at Burning Palms

The coastal walk is one of the main attractions of the park

The 26km long park is a place of such importance in Australia that it was added to the National Heritage List in December 2006.

Garie Beach looking south from Eagle Rock

The view you're rewarded with after a 20min hike to the top of Eagle Rock

So many beaches to choose from

There are numerous beaches in the park, each with their own unique sense of character. The main surfing beaches are Garie, Era and Burning Palms, and these are located in the south-east section and are patrolled during the summer months via volunteer SLSC clubs. Marley and Little Marley beaches aren’t patrolled but are ok for swimming and are ideal if you want some peace and quiet to yourself, although be prepared for a decent 45min walk along the Big Marley Trail to get there.

Wattamolla Beach, Royal National Park
Wattamolla lagoon, always calm

Wattamolla Beach

Wattamolla Beach is popular with families and gets so crowded during summer days that they close the carpark off, so make sure you get down there early. A waterfall cascades into a beautiful lagoon below, and kids can swim safely here as there are no waves. Theres also a sandy beach if that’s more your thing, or grass and tables up the top if you want a view of the area.

Southern end of Wattamolla Beach, Royal National Park

Southern end of Wattamolla Beach

About an hour and a half north is Wedding Cake Rock, a hugely popular spot to stop and take photos. The uniquely-shaped white rock stands out against the beige/orange sandstone cliffs and is apparently caused by iron leaching - this in turn makes the layers extremely brittle and dangerous and means there's a high risk of it collapsing.

A popular rock jump at Wattamolla Beach
 Always a popular rock jump (despite NPWS best efforts)

Curracurrang is around 3km further south from Wattamolla and has a nice swimming hole and waterfall and is an idyllic spot for a picnic. Further south is Curracurrong, a popular spot for photos as waterfalls plunge 40 metres over white sandstone cliffs.

Wattamolla Beach

Access track to Wattamolla Beach

Werrong, or ‘Hell Hole’ as it’s otherwise known, is located at the southern end and is one of the most remote and pristine beaches in the park. Due to its isolation it’s one of NSW’s few designated nude beaches, so be prepared to see some flesh if you end up making the 2km walk down the steep slope from the Otford Lookout starting point. Bulgo beach can be accessed from the same starting point via a different trail, and is a small rock-lined bay that’s home to a local community of shack dwellers, plus weekend enthusiasts who visit the shacks that have been passed down to them from ancestors. It’s worth a walk down the hill just to experience the shacks dotted along the beach - unspoilt water views mixed with minimalistic living.

Garie beach looking south towards Little Garie beach
These hills make for a great backdrop when you're out in the water

A hatrick of scenery, surf and solace

Garie, Era and Burning Palms beaches are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. Of the three Garie is the northernmost beach, which can be accessed via serpentine Garie Road and the drive to get here is an adventure in itself. As the road winds through endless hills, lush greenery and flora you might be lucky enough to share the road with a wombat or countless other species of animals. The nature of the road makes it popular with motorcyclists (some who use the park as a racetrack), so keep an eye out for them as you drive through as the accident and fatality list grows every week.

View from Governor Game lookout

A handy place to check the surf at Garie and Era beaches

Governor Game Lookout is the second turn right after you’ve turned into Garie Road. This is a great spot to view the coastline from Garie through to Era beaches as well as taking photos, and for surfers it’s a handy place to visit to see if the surf at Era is worth the 20min walk around from Garie.

South Era beach from Governor Game Lookout

The view from Governor Game lookout towards South Era Beach

Garie Beach

Once you finally get to Garie it’s like you’ve arrived in heaven, and you get the feeling nature’s showing off a bit. Around 900m long and blessed with soft white sand and aquamarine water, it provides a view rarely seen from the water in Sydney, with huge cliffs and untouched greenery rolling down the coast for what seems like eternity. It’s a renowned surf beach and the headquarters of the Garie Surf Life Saving Club (founded in 1938) and the Garie Boardriders Club. 

Garie beach carpark on a typical sunny day
Garie Beach carpark on a typical sunny day

Amazing waves can be found along the whole stretch of the beach, with a left-hander in the northern corner being able to handle swells up to around 3 metres. Facing south east, it’s a swell magnet and one of the most consistent waves in Sydney and prefers west to north west winds and moderate NE-S swells. Amenity-wise there are toilets, showers, picnic tables and a kiosk and a 175 space cark-park, but you’d be crazy to spend all your time near these as there’s so much more to do up and down the beach. If you like bushwalking you could even tackle the full Coast Track, which is 26km long and can be completed at a push in one day, or with an overnight camp at Era Beach (permits required). If that’s too far you could just do different segments of it - the walk from Wattamolla to Garie takes around 3.5 hours, and the descent into Garie Beach heading south is known for some of the best views in the entire Royal National Park. Fishing is also a popular activity, however spearfishing’s not allowed and people have had their spears confiscated by park rangers when caught.

Heritage listed shacks at South Era beach
Heritage listed shacks like these are dotted throughout the park, South Era Beach

North and South Era beaches

Walking south from Garie you’ll come across the next few beaches - Little Garie, Era (north, semi-detached point and south) and Burning Palms. This entire stretch of coastline is dotted with heritage listed shacks that were built by Helensburgh miners during the 1930s and 1940s. The shacks are now listed on the NSW State Heritage Register, and are still used by descendants of the initial owners as weekend getaways and others who use them semi-permanently. 

Looking north from South Era beach
Looking north from South Era Beach

Both Era beaches are gorgeous and secluded spots, perfect places to get away from it all. Camping at North Era is available for anyone with a permit and perfect if you want to stay a night or two right on the beach. I've spent many nights camping here, with friends (and by myself in times of soul searching), and I can truly say it's one of the better places to find solitude. Thousands of deer freely roam the park since they were introduced in 1885 (the predominant species being the Javan Rusa deer), and it’s a joy to wake up in the morning unzipping your tent to see that you’ve been surrounded by hundreds of them during the night. Campsites are limited so make sure you book ahead of time. Access to Era campground is via the coastal walk from Garie beach, or you can park at the Garawarra Farm car park and follow the track downhill for about half an hour. 

North Era Point looking towards North Era Beach
North Era Point - the campground is to the right behind the beach

Burning Palms NPWS sign

Don't be a tosser, let's keep the park in pristine condition

Burning Palms Beach

Southernmost of the three beaches is Burning Palms, which tends to be the least crowded as it takes the longest to get to. But if you make the effort to walk here you’ll certainly be rewarded and it will feel like you’re millions of kilometres away from civilisation. The Burning Palms Surf Life Saving Club was established in 1939, and volunteers patrol the area on Sundays and public holidays from October to April each year (and Saturdays as well during December and January).

Burning Palms Beach

Looking south along Burning Palms Beach (none were on fire that day)

Picture perfect day at Burning Palms Beach
A picture perfect day at Burning Palms

Waves at Burning Palms

Worth the hour walk when the surf's on

Another point of interest near Burning Palms is the Figure Eight Pools which are circular pools in a rock platform, and best to visit during low tide. 

Wildlife in the Royal National Park

White-Faced Heron, Royal National Park
White Faced Heron are common throughout the Royal National Park

Wildlife is abundant in the park, and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of one of the following species: 

Birds - New Holland Honeyeater, Lewin's Honeyeater, Sea Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Satin Bower, Pied Currawong, Grey Butcher, ScrubMrens, Lyrebirds and Wattlebirds.

Animals -  Wombats, Echidnas, Javan Rusa and other species of deer, swamp wallabies, Ringtail and Brushtail possums (at night), a variety of swamp and bush rats, New Holland Mouse, and a rare marsupial called the Antechinus.

Whales can also be spotted here during the winter months migrating north along the coastline, and the high cliffs throughout the park provide an ideal vantage point.

Fish - too many to list, although this badly shot photo gives you an idea of what's around.

Fishing bag limit sign Garie Beach
Bag limit sign at Garie Beach

What are you waiting for?!

With the amazing scenery and all there is to see and do, the Royal National Park should be high on your priority list as a place to visit. Unspoilt beaches, a myriad of flora and fauna, views as good as anywhere in the world and a range of activities to suit everyone, the park truly is a wonder of nature, and I hope these photos inspire you to visit it one day.

Garie Beach sign
Turn right here for an unforgettable experience 

Getting to the Royal National Park

The Royal National Park is around 25kms south from the Sydney CBD, and you can enter the park from three different directions:

From Sydney (north) - turn off the Princes Highway near Loftus into Farnell Avenue and follow the signs - the Garie beach carpark is about a 20 minute drive once you've entered the park, depending on traffic.

From Waterfall (middle) - turn off the Princes Highway at Waterfall into McKell Avenue. After about 5 mins of winding road you'll come to a point where you can either go left or right - simply turn left to go to Garie, Era and Burning Palms beaches and follow the signs.

From Wollongong (south) - depending on where you are coming from, simply keep driving past the lookout at Stanwell Tops and you'll be entering the park before you know it along Lady Wakehurst Drive. If you are completing the coastal walk from this end, you can park your car in the carpark just past a little group of shops at Otford.

Map of Royal National Park


Current weather at Garie Beach


Thanks for reading

I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Growing up in the Sutherland Shire, the Royal National Park is one of my favourite places on the planet, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more scenic place to be. Whether you walk, surf, bird-watch, camp, kayak, fish or whatever else it is you do, the park has something for everyone and should be on your bucket list of places to visit in Australia.

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