50,000 Shades of Blue: A Day in Royal National Park

Garie Beach, Royal National Park, Australia. Photo: Oz MLCN / Unspslash

Of all the places I’ve been, the Royal National Park in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, remains in my mind as the bluest.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire… of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Remembering a place for its color may sound strange, but blue is my favorite color. It’s the sea and sky, the background of our visual universe, and Mother Nature’s mood ring – changing with latitude and season and weather. When I went for a day trip in Royal National Park and discovered so many shades of blue, I couldn’t help but be awed. A Royal National Park day trip from Sydney is a must if you love the great outdoors.

Australia’s first national park

I was visiting Sydney for the first time with my friend, and she’d helped us secure free accommodation with a family friend, Lance, who lived in Sutherland Shire south of downtown Sydney. Seeing how close we were to the Royal National Park, I asked Lance how we could get there…and he generously offered to take us himself!

The Nasho, as locals call it, is the oldest national park in Australia and the third oldest in the world (after Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia and Yellowstone in the USA).

“It’s our lucky day,” declares Lance as he points to a road sign while driving into the park. “Back burning begins tomorrow and you wouldn’t be able to get in.”

It’s early spring and still a lovely 17°C, but I learn that bushfires are a perpetual threat in Australia’s hot and dry climate. Lance shares that a bushfire almost consumed his house ten years ago, the flames devouring his not-so-lucky neighbors’ homes across the street. Back burning or controlled burning is therefore a vital measure to reduce the amount of fuel – trees, shrubs, and grass – feeding any spontaneous wildfires. But today, just before back burning, the forest is lush and the roads deeply shaded.

Shaded road in Royal National Park, Australia. Photo: John Elfes / Unsplash

Along the breathtaking southeastern coast

Our first stop is Wattamolla, which I later learn means “place near running water” in the local Aboriginal tongue. From the beach, we clamber over sandstone rocks and streams to get to a lookout.

Bald Hill Lookout at Stanwell Tops.

Looking straight out from this point, says Lance, the opposite coast is somewhere in South America. According to this cool map by cartographer Andy Woodruff, Lance was right: over the horizon might be Colombia or someplace in Central America.

“Today’s not a very good day to visit. Too much wind,” sighs my host regretfully. But I am whooping and laughing ecstatically, arms stretched high above me, even as the strong breeze pushes me dangerously close to the edge of Bald Hill and middle-aged uncles on their weekend get-together glance at me in amusement. What the locals consider nuisance (for strong dry winds threaten bushfires) is, for me, delight. The grass looks soft and I fantasize, for a moment, about rolling all the way down into the cerulean sea.

Stanwell Park and the Sea Cliff Bridge

As if reading my mind, Lance drives us down to Stanwell Park Beach, which is technically outside the boundaries of the Royal National Park. It’s much smaller than it looks from up on Bald Hill, and amazingly, there are no surfers or tourists to be found. Time adjusts itself to flow with the waves as I marvel at the 50,000 shades of blue before me. I’m not a fan of beaches but if I had to choose one, this is it.

While Victoria has the Great Ocean Road, NSW has the Grand Pacific Drive and the Sea Cliff Bridge.

We make our way further south along the coast to Sea Cliff Bridge. The views are spectacular, but as we strolled along I couldn’t help but inspect the assortment of padlocks decorating the railing. If only these symbols of commitment could truly lock two people in eternal love.

The best walks in Royal National Park

The Coast Track

The Coast Track, stretching along the coast all the way from , is a trail that you can easily customize. Walking the full track will require 2-3 days, but you can access several scenic spots by car and walk for short stretches. This is also the best spot for whale watching at Royal National Park. Whales can be spotted anytime between May and November, but late June to early July gives you the best chances of seeing them.

Figure 8 Pools

The Figure 8 Pools is a naturally formed tide pool (together with others surrounding it) that, in recent years, has become a somewhat popular Instagram photo spot. However, you should only attempt to visit during low tide as it’s extremely dangerous when the waves are crashing onto the rock shelf where the pools are located.

Figure 8 Pools. Photo: Haydenwarner (CC BY-SA 4.0) / Wikimedia Commons

Getting to Royal National Park

If you’re staying in downtown Sydney, the best way to embark on your Royal National Park day trip is to drive to the park’s northern entrance at Farnell Avenue, Loftus. It’s roughly a 40-minute drive but may take twice as long during peak traffic hours. The Royal National Park entry fee is A$12 per vehicle per day.

Alternatively, you can also take the T4 train from Sydney Central Station to Loftus Station on the South Coast Line (~55 minutes), then cycle or walk (~15min) to the Royal National Park entrance at Farnell Avenue.

It’s also important to check for park closures and other safety warnings before you visit. For more visitor information, visit the NSW National Parks website.