“I can see EVERYTHING!” at Barrenjoey Lighthouse

Want to take in the most amazing view in Sydney?  Then look no further than Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach, on Sydney’s northern beaches.  With the ocean spread out sparkling before you, the national park beyond, yachts skimming the waters and turquoise waves hitting the rocks below, it’s simply breathtaking!  The climb up to the lighthouse provides a fantastic day out for the whole family, combining natural beauty, history, adventure and, yes, some physical exercise.  You and your kids will love it!

I was only one year old the first time I climbed Barrenjoey Head to the lighthouse.  According to legend (created and perpetuated by my adoring parents) I clambered all the way to the top and back down again clad in nothing more than a singlet, my nappy and favourite pair of black, patent leather shoes.  Photos from the day confirm the outfit, however I suspect the part about me independently conquering both the ascent and descent may be a bit of a stretch.  Earlier this year as I lugged my 7-month pregnant self up the hill, I certainly had my doubts.

Barrenjoey Head Lighthouse Palm Beach NSW Sydney Australia

Seeing the light

Barrenjoey Lighthouse is a beacon location at the very tip of Sydney’s northern beaches, about 40km (90 minutes drive) from the city.  Perched atop Barrenjoey Head at Palm Beach, the lighthouse marks Sydney’s northernmost tip and sits within one of the city’s largest and most picturesque national parks, Kuring-gai Chase National Park.

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The heritage listed lighthouse is made from the headland itself, huge blocks of sandstone hewn from rocky outcrops overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one side and Pittwater on the other.  Erected in 1881, it is the third ‘light’ constructed on Barrenjoey Head as a replacement for two wooden lighthouses that first occupied the site from 1868.  The stone blocks were hauled into place by horse-drawn ‘trains’ along tracks carved into the sandstone hillside, which are still visible as you make the ascent to the top of the headland.

The view from the top of the lighthouse out across the Pacific, up the Pittwater and over to the Central Coast offers one of the best views in Sydney.  Sure, the view from the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge is pretty cool, but to stand up there at Palmy with the ocean spread out sparkling before you, the national park beyond, yachts skimming the waters and turquoise waves hitting the shore – it’s breathtaking!  The drone of seaplanes above and the muffled sound of waves hitting the rocks below just add to the drama.  I think our two year old daughter, Coco, summed it up best when she looked out from the lighthouse balcony and yelled excitedly at the top of her lungs “I can see EVERYTHING!!”

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Looking south towards the city from the top of Barrenjoey Lighthouse. The waterway to the right is the Pittwater, with the main part of Kuring-gai National Park beyond.  On the left the Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon.

View west from Barrenjoey Head Lighthouse Palm Beach NSW Sydney Northern Beaches Australia

From the top of the lighthouse looking west, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage in the foreground and in the distance is (from left to right) West Head, Lion Island, Broken Bay and the Central Coast.

Further out on the headland are the graves of lightkeepers past.  Nowadays it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to live out here, charged with keeping the light on through both calm and stormy weather, night after night.  The lighthouse was once central to Sydney’s maritime trade, whilst the customs house constructed at the bottom of the headland in 1843 was built as part of an attempt to stymie the smugglers who frequented the waters of Broken Bay and Pittwater during the early years of the colony.

The lighthouse’s commercial significance may have dimmed over the years, however over the past few decades it has consistently featured in the backdrop of local TV drama Home and Away (which incidentally currently stars one of my husband’s very talented cousins, Penny McNamee!).  

Barrenjoey Lighthouse grave Mulhall lightkeeper

The grave of George Mulhall, the original lighthouse keeper. The signage here suggests that his death is one of the “Tales from Barranjoey” written by Jervis Sparks. “On a stormy night in June, 1885, George Mulhall venturing out for more firewood, was struck down by a tremendous bolt of lightning, and as the journalism of that day recorded, was burnt to a cinder.” His death was actually due to some sort of illness, though interestingly enough George’s son, George Junior, followed in his father’s footsteps as the lighthouse keeper and he was struck by lightening some years later, however did not die as a result.

To the top

The ascent to Barrenjoey begins from the beach and consists of a 2.2km loop track.  The fastest way to the top is via the steep ‘Smugglers Track’, which commences with a series of steps cut into the rock.  If your fitness levels aren’t quite what they should be, or if you have small kids with you, then you’re probably better off taking the gentler ‘Access Road’ where once upon a time those poor horses slogged up and down the hill.  Regardless of which way you go, you’ll find plenty of spots to stop, take in the view and snap a few photos.  We took the Smugglers Track and our two year old was happy enough climbing and being carried every now and then until we reached the top.

Make sure to keep an eye out for the locals too.  At one point we perched on a boulder overlooking the sea and noticed a rustling in the bushes nearby.  Initially dismissing it as the sounds of a rat or other small rodent, we were delighted to finally see a rather large and rather bold blue tongue lizard eyeing off the apples we were munching on.  Tossing him a piece, we watched as he snapped it up in his jaws before slowly plodding back off into the undergrowth to devour his treat.

Views from the top

Once at the top you can explore the grounds, settle into a picturesque picnic spot and – if you visit on a Sunday – take a tour to the top of the lighthouse.  Guided tours are run by NSW National Parks every Sunday between 11am to 3pm, lasting approx 30 mins and only costing $5 per adult, $2 per child.  The tour guides relate the history of the lighthouse and the lives of the various lightkeepers.

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“I can see EVERYTHING!” – Coco

Top Tips

Where:  Barrenjoey Lighthouse is part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, situated just north of Palm Beach, approximately 40km (90 minutes drive) from Sydney CBD.

Getting there:  Drive north from the city to Sydney’s northern beaches.  Follow Pittwater Road until it becomes Barrenjoey Road and follow that all the way to Palm Beach.

There is a ferry service which runs from Ettalong on the Central Coast to Palm Beach ferry wharf.  See here for timetables and ticket prices.  From Palm Beach ferry wharf you’ll need to walk or catch a bus to the beach car park, then walk to Governor Philip Park to start the climb to the lighthouse. 

Cost:  Free to visit the grounds.  Guided tours (Sundays only) to the top of the lighthouse cost $5 per adult and $2 per child.  (Tip: you need to take a tour if you want to climb the lighthouse).

Don’t forget:  You must display a parking ticket (if you don’t have a Northern Beaches Council parking permit) at Governor Philip Park.  There are no toilets and no drinking water at the top so visit the loos at Governor Philip Park before you start the ascent.  Take water, food, sunscreen, camera, binoculars (great for whale watching between May and October!), hats, sturdy footwear and your swimmers so you can take a refreshing dip once you get back to ground level!

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