There are so many options when it comes to choosing a day trip from Sydney. For those keen to escape the city for a hike, it’s hard to beat the popular Blue Mountains, Royal National Park or Southern Highlands. But what about Illawarra? The area is a beautiful stretch of coast with underrated lookouts and hiking trails. Included, are beautiful waterfalls in the area such as Kellys Falls and Maddens Falls.
As a whole, Illawarra covers Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and Gerringong. There are obviously too many great things to do in all of these places to cover in just a day trip from Sydney. But a nice compromise would be a day trip from Sydney to Wollongong covering just the highlights in between, i.e. Northern Illawarra.
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Northern Illawarra Day Trip From Sydney: Hiking Guide
This guide does not intend on reviewing or even visiting the town of Wollongong itself. But it will cover an itinerary for those wanting to explore the highlights of Northern Illawarra. The guide will help you discover the best beach, lookouts, waterfall trails, plus the standout pub and takeaway shop in the area.
SIDE NOTE: Beck and I actually visited these places over two half day trips. This was because our initial plan to day trip to all of these places was foiled by 44°C weather in January 2020. We both know Beck the Brit would have literally melted! So on this day, we went to all of the lookouts, the pub, the takeaway shop and beaches listed below.
Other Highlights of Northern Illawarra
Why We Didn’t Include the Sea Cliff Bridge Lookout
Sea Cliff Bridge Lookout: First and foremost, accessing the Sea Cliff Bridge Lookout is dangerous. It has become synonymous with accidents, deaths and resultant rescue missions. Most recently in May 2020, there was a 25 person operation to rescue a woman who had fallen down the cliffs when attempting to get to this viewpoint. As a result, we do not condone anyone trying to access this lookout as it’s inherently unsafe.
Most, if not all of the accidents occur when people try to reach this point via a dangerous combination of trespassing council land and a rail corridor. There is, in fact, a much safer way to get to the viewpoint from the Grand Pacific Drive itself. But we in no way, shape or form condone people accessing this lookout through which ever trail. Additionally, if you are caught attempting to access this lookout in any way, the police are now issuing on the spot fines of $448AUD ($299USD).
Day Trip Itinerary
Waterfalls and lookouts: Luckily, there are many other great lookouts to enjoy in the Northern Illawarra area. The way we have tailored this day trip from Sydney is by starting the day off with the more time consuming waterfall trails. Once you have completed the Kellys Falls and Maddens Falls trails, you can re-evaluate how many of the lookouts you have time to visit afterwards. Also, the waterfall trails will be quieter earlier on in the day. Plus it’ll be much cooler, particularly during summer.
1. Kellys Falls Walking Track
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 1km
- Time: 0.5 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 25m
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Kellys Falls Picnic Area
Kellys Falls is a 48 metre waterfall located in the Garawarra State Conservation Area. It’s one of the most underrated waterfalls near Sydney. In fact, it was unlucky to miss out on our Top 10 Waterfalls in Sydney list. Thankfully the car park situated at the Kellys Falls Picnic Area is fairly spacious. It’s where all the different trails begin. You will first see a NSW National Park entrance sign detailing the area. If you simply want to see Kellys Falls from above, turn left onto the Kellys Falls Walking Track.
You will actually start above the upper cascades and then slightly descend to a lower lookout. This will give you the best view from afar of the more prominent lower falls. The small trail will only take around 20-30 minutes and is less than 1km. It’s not a trail for speed hiking though. That’s because it’s a really short and narrow trail that can get busy. You’ll need to take care as there are short sections of steep and slippery rocky terrain.
The lookout to the falls was admittedly underwhelming. Mainly due to the falls being so far away and looking quite minuscule among the bushland. Your views of the entire waterfall drop will be obstructed by this bushland as well.
2. Kellys Falls Waterfall Trail
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 1km
- Time: 1 hour
- Accumulated elevation gain: 48m
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Trailhead: Kellys Falls Picnic Area
Alternatively, accessing Kellys Falls is possible. There is actually an epic swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. To get here, you must follow the Princess Marina Walking Track initially by turning right at the entrance sign at the picnic area. This will involve descending some wooden steps. But if you actually continue to follow this track, you will start heading through the bush that takes you to Larwence Hargrave Drive.
To actually descend to the base of the falls, you’ll need to find an unofficial path. Essentially, it’s an offshoot from the Princess Marina Walking Track. Admittedly, we had difficulty locating it. Basically, once you descend the steps and pass the black railing to your left, descend down the second path to your left. Descending the first path used to be possible but the rope ladders needed to climb down a large rock are broken.
The second path is a new alternate trail opening that will bypass this rock. Afterwards, you will very quickly join the main trail down to the falls. Again, it’s definitely not a speed hiking trail as there are fairly steep and slippery sections. So make sure to wear hiking boots with decent traction. The bushland that surrounds you is fairly luscious and overgrown. As you descend further, you’ll begin to hear the magical sounds that a waterfall conjures. The trail down to the base of the falls will take only 15 minutes.
Go for a swim to cool off. Hopefully, you have arrived early enough so there aren’t too many people there. We passed a dozen people or so throughout the return journey when we visited in winter. Expect the path to get crowded in summer as locals flock to the swimming hole.
Visiting the Extra Waterfall
This is where I had been a few years ago and then returned to the picnic area. But there is actually another waterfall around the corner that a lot of people miss! To reach the other falls, simply continue the trail another 100 metres or so around the corner from the main waterfall and swimming hole. You will then arrive at another spectacular waterfall. It’s a similar height to Kellys Falls but not as powerful. It’s definitely worth checking out though.
Admittedly, with all our research, we still don’t know if this extra waterfall has a name. But it seems to just be a run off waterfall from Kellys Falls. If you know a bit more than we do, please let us know in the comments section below. If there’s a name for this mystery waterfall, the world must know!
Swimming here is also possible. But the swimming hole is tiny. Photography at both sets of falls was quite tricky mid-morning. That’s due to the significant brightness contrast of the sky and the shaded waterfall cliff face. Overall, we spent about an hour walking and photographing on this trail.
Be mindful that similar to the Sea Cliff Bridge Lookout, there have been reports of accidents and rescues here. This is from people injuring themselves or getting lost trying to descend to the falls. So we recommend only experienced hikers descend to the base. Otherwise, the lookouts from afar on the Kellys Falls Walking Track will suffice. Plus, doing the Kellys Falls Walking Track is quicker so you crack on with the rest of today’s day trip from Sydney.
3. Maddens Falls
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 1.5km
- Time: 0.5 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: None
- Difficulty: Very Easy
- Trailhead: Maddens Falls street parking
Maddens Falls is located in the nearby Dharawal State Park in Darkes Forest. After all of the years living in Sydney, I had actually never heard of Maddens Falls. It was nice to go to a place in Sydney that was new for Beck and I. The car park is essentially unofficial parking to the side of the road at the entrance of the Maddens Falls trail. So there is plenty of space available.
The trail to Maddens Falls is a very easy 750 metre boardwalk taking only 10-15 minutes. Although it’s a short trail, we decided to speed hike our way there and back to get the heart rate up. On the weekend, expect families to be around. Kids were swimming in small patches of the creek to the side of the boardwalk. The bush terrain is maintained quite neatly. Whilst the height of the trees and bush either side of you is neither tall nor imposing. It’s not the most inspiring of trails, but at least it’s only a short trail to a decent waterfall!
At the end of the boardwalk, you will arrive at the main viewing platform. The views from here are nice. But we recommend checking out the waterfalls from the other side of the creek. To get there, you will need to find a trail that shoots off from the boardwalk. The turn off is easily found just prior to the main viewing platform.
Exploring Maddens Falls
Once you find this offshoot, you will walk through fairly unimpeded bushland for less than a minute. You’ll then reach the rock platform and streams of the waterfall. You’ve arrived at the top of the falls. Be mindful that after heavy periods of rain, this may be unsafe to cross. However, when we visited and for the most part, the streams are fairly minimal. It’s more like crossing over wet rock. As long as you have proper footwear, it’s safe to pass. Once you cross the streams, then descend around the corner to a lower tier.
It only takes a minute or so, negotiating some rocks and trees, and you will appear at a lower tier of the falls. You’ll be facing directly opposite them. They spread fairly evenly along the rock platform creating a bridal veil style of cascade falls. They are not of great height but pretty nevertheless. Again, photography was tricky due to the sun just poking out above the rock platform around mid-morning. If you visit around this time, photography from the main viewing platform will be much better.
Additionally, we’ve heard it’s possible to get to the actual base of the falls. But Beck and I were satisfied with the views from the first level. Scaling down to the bottom looked like a hell of a dodgy scramble.
Overall Maddens Falls was a nice waterfall but nothing extraordinary. But it’s still worth visiting as it’s only a short walk that’s quick to do. For more spectacular waterfalls, take a trip to the Southern Highlands.
4. Robertson Lookout
Mount Kiera Ring Track
- Type: Loop
- Distance: 5.5km
- Time: 2-3 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 148m
- Difficulty: Grade 4
- Trailhead: Byarong Park Picnic Area
The first of the lookouts for this day trip from Sydney is Robertson’s Lookout, otherwise known as Robertson’s Knoll. This lookout is part of the 5.5km Mount Keira Ring Track which takes 2-3 hours to complete. However, given it was already 40°C by 9am on the day we visited, we opted just for the small lookout trail that we’ll describe below.
From the small car park, is an easy and flat 5-10 minute walk to the viewing platform. You’ll be walking on a fairly narrow dirt trail surrounded by bushland. The sounds of cicadas dominate. On the day we visited, we were sweating after only a few minutes. This was just doing a casual stroll as well! An occasional ocean breeze made its way from the coastline, briefly relieving us. After about 500m or so, you’ll arrive at the main viewing platform. The wooden platform bordered by a black metal fence extends a few metres from the coastal escarpment.
Fantastic views of Mount Keira, surrounding rainforest and the coastline can be seen from here. Unfortunately due to the severe 2019-2020 NSW bush fires, our views were impacted by the heavy smoke. So we didn’t take any photos. Similarly, on a cloudy or misty day, you’ll be left disappointed. So make sure to visit when there are clear skies. Because we visited on an extremely hot day, there wasn’t anyone else there. Otherwise, this lookout doesn’t actually get too crowded compared to the other lookouts you’ll visit later in the day. Make sure on a hot day to wear a hat, polarised sunglasses and sunscreen.
5. Sublime Point Lookout
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 1.5km
- Time: 1 hour
- Accumulated elevation gain: 36m
- Difficulty: Grade 4
- Trailhead: Sublime Cafe
The second lookout on this day trip from Sydney is the Sublime Point Lookout. There’s a short but challenging and steep 0.75km Sublime Point Walking Track to get there. As a round trip (1.5km), expect the hike to take about an hour. The trail is composed of a dirt track plus some steep metal staircases. It can get a bit crowded on the weekends and during summer. It’s certainly more well known than the Robertson Lookout. If not overcrowded, it’s a great small speed hike, culminating in a solid sweaty workout.
There is also a car park at the lookout itself. Because temperatures were around 40°C and increasing, we decided just to park at the lookout. And we call ourselves hikers! For shame.
There is plentiful space at the car park. By parking here, there is essentially no trail to follow. The main viewing platform is a mere stone’s throw away from where you parked. There are many brilliant but similar views of the coastline as you follow the escarpment railing.
The main paved lookout provides spectacular 180° views of the Wollongong coastline and rainforest. Compared to Robertson’s Knoll, you’ll feel closer to the ocean and further removed from the surrounding bushland. Again, we experienced a smokey haze due to the bush fires in early January 2020. This impeded our views of the coast. So we didn’t take any photos. However, on a clear day, you can see up to 17 beaches on this stunning stretch of coast.
6. Scarborough Hotel
It’s definitely time for lunch! The Scarborough Hotel is an institution of the Wollongong and Northern Illawarra area. It’s a beautifully located pub with sensational views of the coastline. The place itself is very spacious with a huge outdoor area with bars. It can get packed on the weekend so perhaps expect a wait for a table if you come here during peak times. If you can manage to find a spot close to the bordering garden, you’ll be incredibly close to the ocean. With the elevated position, gorgeous water views await you. There’s also a large indoor section with more bars, a cafe and dining options.
Because we visited on such a hot day, it was such a relief to sit down in the shade of a large outdoor umbrella to relax. We enjoyed a coffee here for around $4AUD ($2.50USD). It was strange to be enjoying a hot beverage on a crazily hot day. We definitely should have gone for the iced coffee! Or a beer. Anyway, the lunch menu isn’t exactly cheap. But it’s very decent pub grub. Alternatively, pack your own lunch to eat at or around one of the previous lookouts. You can at the very least stop here for a drink and to enjoy the views.
7. Bald Hill Lookout
The Bald Hill Lookout is our favourite lookout in Illawarra. Despite the smoke haze, we managed to experience better views here compared to the other lookouts. You can actually see the smoke haze in our photo below. It was certainly a bizarre time to be exploring NSW during the bush fires. Despite the bushfires being hours away, the smoke in the atmosphere was prevalent all throughout the state. On the worst days, you could even taste the smoke. Your clothes would be covered in the smell. Similar to when you’ve been hanging around a campfire. Smoke would even seep indoors creating a smoke haze inside a house!
It’s actually unbelievable to fully comprehend how severely damaged NSW and Victoria was after the terrible bush fires of 2019-2020. The amount of bushland and wildlife that got wiped out is truly horrendous. We wish all the best to the people and communities affected by these bush fires. Whilst we hope for a speedy regeneration of the land and quick recovery of the wildlife.
It’s great to see how quickly burnt land can regenerate. A few months after the bush fires in 2020, vast areas of horrifically burnt bushland and forest in NSW and Victoria are showing signs of a speedy recovery. Dark, burnt trees are littered with bright green leaves spiralling around the trunk. Small bushes and weeds quickly begin to dominate the floors of forests and national parks again. The bright colours of this regrowth springs hope to these otherwise desolate areas.
Tips For the Lookout
There is a small car park at the top of this lookout. Keep in mind that this spot can get very busy on the weekends. It’s possibly the most popular lookout in Northern Illawarra. You may opt to go to this lookout first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. You could do this before completing the waterfalls trails. It wouldn’t be too out of the way to do that if you really wanted an increased chance of peace and quiet here. Plus, the lighting is better for photography earlier in the morning.
But if you don’t mind the crowds or don’t care for optimal photography, it’s a good lookout to finish on. What is different about this lookout is that you’re far closer to the coast. With the Robertson and Sublime Point lookouts, you face opposite the ocean. But with the Bald Hill Lookout, the best views are afforded by following the coastline. This creates a unique perspective of how the coastline hugs the land. The whitewash of the waves becomes more apparent. Even the contrast of colours between the sky, ocean and land are more vivid.
With the lookout perched on a hill by the coast, expect a breeze. During winter, you’ll be grateful to have a windproof jacket. After you have explored the lookouts, it’s time to head to the beach.
8. Stanwell Tops Beach
Stanwell Tops Beach is a beautiful stretch of coast in Illawarra surrounded by scenic bushland. Growing up in Sydney, it was a beach that my mates and I went to often. It’s close to Sydney but far enough away that you don’t get the large crowds you would get in the Eastern and Northern Suburb beaches. But it’s fairly well known by Sydneysiders. So don’t expect to have the beach to yourself. Even the large car park can start to get full around midday during summer and on the weekends.
SIDE NOTE: Despite being a stunning beach, it’s a popular place for blue bottles. Sometimes there are so many in the water that you will be advised against swimming by the lifeguards. Also, the beach isn’t well protected from wind. So we would advise avoiding this beach on a windy day. Nothing worse than sand flying into your eyes!
Our Hilarious Hot Sand Scenario
Once you find parking, it’s a small walk to the beach. By the time we had arrived, it was well over 40°C. So the sand was already extremely hot. To get close to the water was like walking on hot stones. Hilariously, we saw people either entering or exiting the beach, without any footwear, sprinting about 15 metres on the sand, then throwing their towel down to stand on to relieve their poor feet. Because the stretch of sand is relatively long, this was repeated four or five times in a row before they got off the sand.
Even with flip flops on, on a really hot day, you will feel the heat of the sand penetrate through the rubber. Sand will inevitably get caught between your feet and flip flops. Unless you wear shoes, it’s unavoidable that your feet will endure some pain from the heat of the sand. But to reach the water for a swim is absolutely worth running the gauntlet!
Splashing around in the waves and facing back at the lava sand and bushland surrounds was an unbelievably moving experience. Beaches surrounded by nature are always better than the overcrowded city dwelling beaches. The best thing is, this beach isn’t too far away from the city when doing a day trip from Sydney.
9. Legendary Fish & Chips
Legendary Fish & Chips is another institution. Who would think an ordinary looking fish and chip store on the side of the highway could be so popular? It’s a local’s favourite. But it’s also a convenient stop for those heading back to Sydney on the Princes Highway. It’s located in Waterfall and is easy to miss. So plug it into your GPS and keep an eye out for the small blue coloured building with bright yellow roofing and umbrellas.
The seafood here is surprisingly good. Not world class, but better than expected. There are many meal deals available. But we opted for a $19AUS ($12.50USD) seafood basket and chips. We admittedly stopped here for fish and chips at the end of both half day trips. That’s certainly a reflection of how good this place is. Or it showcases our need to improve our diet. Luckily, we can justify this treat after all the speed hiking of course!
Although you can’t dine inside, there’s a small outdoor area adjacent to the shop. On a grassy appearing front yard, are some tables and chairs where you can enjoy your meal. Don’t forget to ask for chicken salt on your chips!
Northern Illawarra Day Trip Recap
This day trip from Sydney is jam packed full of activities. Waterfalls, hikes, lookouts and beaches await you in the underrated but gorgeous Northern Illawarra area. As it’s only touching distance from the city, this is a very easy day trip from Sydney to do. Even if you don’t have time to see everything on the itinerary, it’s not too far to revisit if you’re a Sydney local.
For international or interstate travellers, please find below tips on the best way to get around, accommodation options and total costs.
Getting to Sydney
Flights: Of course, you’ll need to be based in or around Sydney or Wollongong to do this trip. If you’re travelling from overseas, we recommend using Skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights. When flying abroad, we always get the ball rolling with a Skyscanner search.
Also, if you’re based in the UK or US, you should sign up to Jack’s Flight Club for the best international flight deal alert service. By simply subscribing to the free weekly newsletter or buying premium membership, you could save lots of money on international travel. If you’re interstate, subscribe to I Want That Flight for the best flight deal alerts to and from Sydney.
Getting There & Back to Sydney
Car hire: For this day trip from Sydney, a set of wheels will be necessary. The lookouts and trails you will visit are nearly impossible to reach by public transport. Plus, having a car means you can squeeze more out of the day. A 2WD will be fine for all the activities included. If you need a car, we recommend using RentalCars.com. Just follow our link or press on the banner below!
Accommodation in Sydney
Accommodation: Being based in Sydney means we have never personally needed to look into accommodation here. Unfortunately, accommodation in Sydney and Illawarra isn’t generally cheap. However, for those on a budget but are not camping or wanting to stay at a hostel, we recommend using Airbnb. That way, you will still have your own private space but won’t have to fork out for an expensive hotel.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for on Airbnb, we recommend using Booking.com. They’re our favourite accommodation search engine to use otherwise. Use our link to find other options for Sydney or Illawarra based accommodation.
Hiking Gear For This Day Trip From Sydney
The extra layers in summer will be unnecessary. However, in the cooler months, you will need at least a fleece and/or windproof jacket. Particularly if you intend on starting any of the trails earlier in the day.
For a thorough packing list, please check out the Ultimate Packing Checklist. It’s a great general summary of everything you’d need when travelling. For even more information check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. We go in-depth into what accessories and gear we travel with.
- Merrell Moab 2 Mid Goretex hiking boots – when hiking around Kellys Falls, you’ll want hiking boots with good traction for the slippery terrain.
- The North Face Venture 2 waterproof/windproof jacket – during the colder months, wear a windproof jacket at the lookouts close to the ocean.
- Ray-Ban Polarised Clubmaster Square Oversized Sunglasses – to avoid glare from the ocean, wear polarised sunglasses.
- Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50+) – a no brainer for preventing sunburn.
- Buff Unisex Coolnet Neck Gaiter – a great way to protect your neck from the sun, plus the sweat it collects and wicks nicely cools the neck in warmer conditions.
Accessing the base of Kellys Falls can get a bit confusing. For that reason alone, download a GPS guided map before you set out. We recommend Wikiloc or AllTrails. For those not so prepared, if you’re needing navigation help during the hike and don’t have any phone reception, consider using Maps.me. Although you need to have at least downloaded the map of the general area beforehand.
- Start your day early: Leave Sydney no later than 8am to ensure you can complete all of the activities on this day trip. Plus, you will beat the heat when hiking the trails early.
- Stay hydrated: As we experienced, summer in Sydney and Illawarra can get seriously hot. Make sure to pack enough water to see you through the day.
- Slip, slop, slap: If you aren’t sun safe, you will get sunburnt. In summer, make sure to apply sunscreen, wear a hat and cover your shoulders during the day.
- Listen to the lifeguards: Respect and listen to the advice given by lifeguards. That will ensure your safety when your swimming at the beach.
Are you a Sydney or Wollongong local? Let us know if we missed any epic places in Northern Illawarra by leaving us a comment below.