Home » Towns » New South Wales » Illawarra » Royal National Park, NSW

Royal National Park, NSW

Australia's oldest national park.

The Royal National Park, which is the second-oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone in the US), is a glorious 14,969 hectares of bushland and rugged coastline less than 40 km from the centre of Sydney. It is a delightful mixture of quiet beaches, sheer cliffs and headlands, excellent bushwalks and, perhaps most famously, an extraordinary coastal walk from one end of the park to the other which affords beautiful, panoramic views over the Pacific Ocean. In winter and spring the low scrubland and heath offers sublime displays of wildflowers. The tangy aromatic smell of the wildflowers and the bushland; the onshore breezes blowing up from the ocean, the sculptured sandstone of the headlands and caves, the sandy beaches, and the sounds of the birds, all contribute to make the Royal National Park an unforgettable experience.


The Royal National Park lies 36 km to the south of Sydney via the Princes Highway. It is clearly signposted beyond the southern suburbs of Sutherland and Loftus.


Origin of Name

Known originally as the National Park it became the Royal National Park in 1954 to honour the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II who, while visiting Australia, journeyed from Sydney to Wollongong and passed through the park on her way.


Things to See and Do

Audley Weir
Most people driving from Sydney find that the first place of significance as they enter the park is the Audley Weir. It is often closed after heavy rain but for most of the year it is open and it leads through the park to Stanwell Park in the south and Bundeena in the north-east corner. The appeal of Audley Weir is simple: it has extensive grassy parklands which are ideal for picnics and barbecues and it has the only cafe within the borders of the park. People come here to spend a day beside the quiet waters, to play games on the large flat parklands, and to hire canoes, kayaks and Aqua Bikes from the historic Audley Boatshed, tel: (02) 9545 4967 or check out http://www.audleyboatshed.com/. They also hire mountain bikes.

Activities in the Park
There are essentially three major activities which draw people to the Royal National Park: bushwalking, surfing, fishing and picnicking. Given the park's proximity to Sydney most of these are 'day out' activities although to walk the Coast Track from Bundeena to Otford is best done over two leisurely days. It can be done in a day if you are fit.

Most visitors to the park have a specific activity they want to pursue. They plan to go surfing at Garie Beach or Burning Palms; lagoon paddling and swimming at Wattamolla; ocean fishing at a special haunt; picnicking at Audley Weir or Wattamolla; hire a canoe or kayak and paddle on the small lake above Audley Weir; or bushwalk on the dozens of bush trails which were developed in the park in the 1920s.

Bushwalking in the Park
The park has walks ranging from a 500 m stroll to the Bungoona Lookout which is wheelchair friendly and takes about 30 minutes through to the Coast Track which is 26 km, medium difficulty and takes two days. A personal favourite, on the edge of the park, is the walk from the Bundeena ferry to Jibbon Point which involves walking along a wonderfully firm and sandy beach, passing some fascinating Aboriginal rock platform carvings of sea creatures (including a whale) and reaching a vantage point where the vista crosses the past two centuries with the timeless, rugged cliffs of the Royal National Park to the south and the southern suburbs of Sydney (particularly Cronulla) just across the waters to the north.

It is a reminder of the idyllic nature of life for the Tharawal peoples before the arrival of Europeans. It was a life which dominated by fishing and catching crustaceans; sleeping under the gum trees or in the caves and gazing up at the clear southern skies; waking at sunrise, catching fish and then spending most of the day sitting and talking and enjoying themselves. It must have been as close to paradise as anyone could reasonably imagine.

Bushwalking is always about more than just walking and the flora and fauna of the park is well worth detailed study. There are six major vegetation regions in the park.

(1) Rainforest
Across the park, particularly in the valleys of the Hacking River and in the valleys around Garie and Marley, there are impressive pockets of subtropical, warm temperate and coastal rainforest. These can be easily identified by the stands of cabbage tree palms. If you look carefully you will also see coachwood and sassafras, wombat berry, settler’s flax, wonga-wonga vines and shiny fan ferns.

(2) Coastal Heathlands
Around the beaches, along the cliffs and in the sand dunes the walker will find open heathland which is alive with wildflowers between July and November. This is also an area where such exotics as hairy spinifex (a dune grass which can withstand the severe southerlies which blow up the coast) guinea flower, coast rosemary brush as well as coastal tea-tree, banksias (Old Man Banksia, Silver Banksia and the red Heath Banksia among others), dwarf apple, scrub oak and she oak, Port Jackson mallee and finger hakea with its dense clusters of white flowers and its egg-shaped fruit that splits to release winged seeds abound.

(3) Wet Eucalypt Forest
Further from the coast is an area characterised by red bloodwood (a eucalypt with an urn-shaped gumnut), gnarled and twisted scribbly gums, stands of blackbutt and Sydney blue gum.

(4) Grassy Woodlands
The grassy woodland areas include false sarsaparilla (its deep purple flowers add to the colour of the park between August and December), hairy spider flowers and the eggs and bacon shrubs (characterised by yellow flowers with red centres), hopbush, blady grass and a twining creeper with dark red flowers called dusky coral-pea. These areas also have distinctive grass trees (once known as 'blackboys') with their spear-like flower spikes and their leaves that spread out like a grass dress.

(5) Freshwater Wetlands
The park's freshwater swamps have stands of Christmas Bells with their red and yellow flowers (they appear between December-February), needle bush, bottlebrush, pink swamp-heath, coral-heath and paperbark shrub.

(6) Saltwater Wetlands
These lie mainly on the tidal zone at the edge of the Hacking River where mangroves and saltmarsh thrive in the mudflats.

Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkVegetation.aspx?id=N0030 for more details.

Parkland Fauna
The park very proudly claims to have recorded 43 native mammal species and twitchers have sighted 241 species of birds, 140 of which are resident. The coast is home to the silver gull, white-breasted sea-eagle, pied oystercatcher, the crested tern, the black cormorant, albatross and the white-faced heron. The coastal heathland also attracts honeyeaters and wattlebirds

In the forests and woodlands there are wedge-tailed eagles, rainbow lorikeets, black-shouldered kites, crimson rosellas, pee-wees, sulphur-crested cockatoos, and bronzewings. Satin bower-birds and superb lyrebirds inhabit the rainforests and around the swamps and lagoons the eastern whipbird, azure kingfisher, welcome swallow, New Holland honeyeater and black duck can be sighted.

Native mammals in the park include swamp wallabies, brushtail possums, red-necked pademelons, tiger quolls, black rats, bush-rats, New Holland mice, a range of gliders including the sugar glider, bandicoots, ringtail possums, dunnarts, lizards and goannas. There are also 40 species of reptiles including tiger snakes, brown snakes, death adders and red-bellied black snakes. Summer walkers should be sensibly careful. Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkWildlife.aspx?id=N0030

The main NSW National Parks and Wildliffe Service website - http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkWalking.aspx?id=N0030 - describes in detail eleven walks in the park and provides maps, distances and levels of difficulty for each of the walks. In many instances the greatest challenge, because the paths are one-way, is arranging to be collected at the end of the walk. The park does not have bus services.

The Coast Track
The Coast track is one of the great, relatively easy, walks in Australia. So close to Sydney and yet so timeless. The track starts at Bundeena, traverses the coastline for 26 km, and arrives at Otford and Stanwell Tops where there is one of Australia's greatest coastal vistas. The track passes Little Marley, Marley Beach, Wattamolla, Burning Palms, Era and Garie and while it can be done as a continuous one or two day trek it can also be broken into easier, shorter walks according to fitness and whether the walker is being collected at a certain point. For example, the first section from Bundeena to Little Marley is a two hour walk.

The walk follows the park's eastern cliff line and affords dramatic, panoramic views over the Pacific Ocean. This is unspoilt coastal terrain which is heady with wildflowers in winter and spring; is characterised by beautiful sandstone formations weathered by the influence of the ocean; and peaceful, isolated beaches nestled between high, rocky headlands.

For more information check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkWalking.aspx?id=N0030. There is a commercial operation which offers guided walks. Check out http://www.lifesanadventure.com.au/guided-coastal-walk/

Garie Beach
For decades Garie Beach has remained unchanged. Historically it was a secret place, less than half an hour from Sydney's southern suburbs, to "get away from it all", lie on a virtually uninhabited beach, go for a walk along the edges of the ocean, marvel at those lucky people who managed to have relatives who built houses in the National Park and still had land rights, and enjoy the craggy beauty of the coastline. In recent times it has had a modern makeover with a large car park and a huge, timber and glass surf club has been constructed. There's a very pleasant one kilometre walk down the coast just above the rock platform to North Era where the hillside is dotted with old angler's shacks which now call themselves, officially, the Royal National Park Cabin Community. It is no longer possible to continue south on the coast track and you have to seek local advice as to how to clamber up and over the hills to get further south to Burning Palms and Otford. The views – a quiet beach edged by huge cliffs – are breathtaking and there is a pleasant timelessness about the place.

One of the most delightful, family friendly destinations in the park is Wattamolla with its large, shallow lagoon. It is located on the Coast Walk and, therefore, can be reached by foot from Bundeena but most people prefer to arrive by car with plans for a picnic, a barbecue, some walking but mostly spending family time playing on the edge of the lagoon and swimming. It is particularly beautiful with both a waterfall and a quiet beach with cliffs on either side. The beach is not safe for surfing. It is said that Wattamolla is a Tharawal word meaning "place near running water" which, given that it is dominated by a waterfall, seems both logical and sensible. Check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/royal-national-park/wattamolla-picnic-area/picnic-bbq for more details.



* Prior to European settlement the Illawarra had been occupied by the Dharawal or Tharawal Aboriginal people for at least 20,000 years. They roamed across the narrow coastal plain, ate fish and crustaceans they caught in the rock pools and lived an idyllic life beside the sea.

* In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed up the coast. Cook attempted to land in the Illawarra but was forced to return to his ship because of the heavy surf that was running at the time.

* Shortly after the settlement of Port Jackson in 1788 George Bass and Matthew Flinder, accompanied by their servant William Martin, sailed down the coast in tan eight-foot (2.4 m) rowing boat, Tom Thumb,  in 1796.

* In 1797 the survivors of the Sydney Cove traversed the area on their walk from the coast of Victoria. The vessel had been beached on the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. A boat was launched with seventeen of the crew but it was wrecked at Point Hicks. The survivors started walking north to Port Jackson but only three survived.

* In August 1797 George Bass sought Governor Hunter's permission to take two of the three survivors from the Sydney Cove and return to the Illawarra to investigate the survivor's reports of coal in the area. He set out in Governor Hunter's whaleboat, passed the cliffs of Royal National Park, and discovered coal at what is now known as Coalcliff. The journey lasted only eight days.

* Sir John Robertson, who became the Acting Premier of New South Wales, was the first person to suggest the idea of a National Park to the south of Sydney. He wanted to create a large, open space for the residents of Sydney.

* In 1879 it was formally established with 7,200 ha south of Port Hacking being set aside specifically for rest and recreation. As such it became the second 'National Park'  in the world (Yellowstone in the USA was the first) and was established on a modest 7200 ha south of Port Hacking. At the time some wit observed that it should be "a sanctuary for the pale-faced Sydneyites fleeing the pollution - physical, mental and social - of that closely-packed city."

* The park was expanded in 1880 to 14,500 hectares

* In 1934 the famous New South Wales conservationist, Myles Dunphy, convinced the government to add 520 ha around Garawarra.

* In 1954 when Queen Elizabeth travelled through the park by train it was officially changed from a National Park to a 'Royal'  National Park.


Visitor Information

Royal National Park Visitor's Centre, Farnell Ave, Audley, tel: (02) 9542 0648. Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkCamping.aspx?id=N0030 for details.



The Royal National Park has three camping areas (Bonnie Vale - 74 sites; North Era - 12 sites; and Uloola Falls - 6 sites). Visitors should book through the Royal National Park Visitor's Centre, Farnell Ave, Audley, tel: (02) 9542 0648. Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkCamping.aspx?id=N0030 for details.



There is a cafe at Audley Weir and a number of cafes at Bundeena.


Useful Websites

The NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service website is comprehensive - see http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkHome.aspx?id=N0030

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.