Last updated on January 8, 2023
The Blue Mountains takes its name from the blue haze that hovers above the mountain range in every direction. You can’t actually smell the sweetly mentholated scent eucalyptus in the air, but the blue haze stretches as far into the distance. The blue haze is created by the oil released from eucalyptus plants—there are so many eucalyptus plants releasing oil that it tints the entire mountain range blue!
Several backpackers at my last hostel warned me that the Blue Mountains was best done on a day trip from Sydney, not as a four-day excursion. On the one hand, I see their point. The train system makes it easy to spend a mere two hours from downtown to Katoomba. But the photos looked beautiful, and I figured that staying overnight would give me a better chance to do a solid hike while I visited. It was so tranquil and lovely that my overnight turned into four days. Once I arrived, the hostel maps and guides showed several gorgeous hikes—like the Giant Staircase, Three Sisters, and Wentworth Falls—far too much to do in just two days.
I am not a city person, so I’m not sure why I initially felt that I should rush this time in the mountains. I love hiking (most of the time), and decided that time outside of Sydney would clear my head and give me some breathing space from the close quarters of my hostel. The hostel in Sydney was loud and cramped, so I was thankful for the new digs. What a wonderful, well run hostel. The Flying Fox hostel in Katoomba is independently owned and completely charming. It was still chilly when I arrived, and they offered hot tea on arrival and mulled wine next to a warm fire each evening.
The entire vibe at the hostel is indie and right up my alley. Ross, the hostel owner, is committed to helping tourists take responsible hikes that create a low-impact on the environment. He’s also knowledgeable about all the trails. On my day in town, Ross talked with me about my skills and hiking level, then he handed me a laminated map. The hike was moderate difficulty and three hours long on the outside. I don’t think he was counting on me getting lost. Or, perhaps he realized that the truth would have kept me rooted to the hostel couch and warming myself by the fire.
The hike got off to an ominous start. Within minutes of leaving the hostel, I was lost. No matter how I twisted the may, I couldn’t locate the correct trailhead. Hiking this region is popular, so the trails are mostly well-marked, but for some reason this one was more elusive. I lucked out when an equally lost Swiss guy wandered by in search of the same hiking trail. We decided to pair up for the afternoon and together we found the trailhead to begin our three hour hike.
I’ll give Ross this—it was a beautiful trail. With so many options, he picked well for me. Once I made it to the trailhead on the edge of town, the trail rapidly descended into the rainforests on the floor of the mountain range. Round and round on the switchbacks, but at least it was downhill. Hundreds of steps led down the mountain. And while some were metal and had handles, many were carved right into the rock. Iur path wound around dozens of waterfalls and vast vistas into the distance. The landscape in the Blue Mountains changes rapidly. Gone was the whooshing of cars passing by overhead. Instead, the dense rainforest created a non-silence that sent shivers up my arms.
With each footstep, water droplets fell from the heavy branches. Each bend in the path brought us in alongside pretty tinkling streams. Birds chirped their joy at the clear, cool day. And the sound of our shoes made a slurping noise as we walked through shallow mud puddles.
Christian, my Swiss friend, and I walked for hours. Sometimes we swapped stories, other times we plodded along lost in our own thoughts and happy for the companionable silence. After a couple of hours, it was Christian who realized that we hadn’t hit some trail signs in a long while. We decided to backtrack a bit to the last slight split in the trail with hopes that it would lead to a more defined path. Also somewhere along the way we had gone into a section of lightly maintained trails. Once we believed were back on track, we thankfully spotted another hiker. They shared their route since they were hiking our trail in the opposite direction. With their guidance, we stayed on the right trail and soon after we encountered what is affectionately called the Giant Stairway.
After four and a half hours descending into the rainforest, the Giant Stairway is more than 900 steps back up the mountainside. Just as the stairs started, the sign gave an estimate. It will take 45 minutes to summit the staircase if you stop along the way. More or less depending on fitness. For us, having taken so many detours we knew that it would take a bit longer. The final count as 70 minutes on the Staircase and 4.5 hours on the trail. That’s fairly terrible! But we had fun, and the views were spectacular, so that’s something.
The reward for braving the 900 steps of the Giant Staircase is an epic view of the Three Sisters and the long valley. The Giant Staircase edges around the Sisters, and you can’t see all three rock formations as a single unit until you reach the top. The hike wiped us both out, but we both returned to our hostels exclaiming over the beautiful views and stunning natural beauty.
How to Independently Explore the Blue Mountains
Visiting the Blue Mountains is one of my favorite memories from my time traveling Australia. It’s a gorgeous spot and worth at least a day trip from Sydney, though most people will enjoy anywhere between an overnight trip to even a five nights. There are plenty of interesting trails and relaxing evening activities to keep you entertained. And since you’ll be hiking, be sure you have good travel insurance (full review here) in case you need transport all the way back to Sydney for treatment.
Getting There: The Blue Mountains are a surprisingly easy trip from Sydney—you don’t have to book a tour. You might see more viewpoints and such on a tour, but taking the train is far cheaper.
- At Sydney’s Central Station train station, purchase a train ticket toward Katoomba. This is main trainline into the Blue Mountains.
- The trains run all morning from Sydney into the Blue Mountains. At least one train an hour throughout the day and you don’t need to book ahead, just show up. Then, on the return just make sure you catch the latest train back, which leaves usually no later than 10pm.
- On the train, the best seats are on the upper level on left hand side. With a seat here you’ll get a beautiful look at the Blue Mountains the entire trip.
Getting Around: Katoomba is small enough to walk on foot, but for families with young kids, or those who want convenience, there are still independent options once you get to Katoomba. (Also, the Lonely Planet Australia details some other hikes and adventures that I would consider if I returned).
- After two hours on the train, you end in Katoomba, the main town. If you’re staying overnight, head to your hotel. If you’re doing your own day tour, consider the “Blue Mountain Explorer Bus.” This is a hop-on-hop-off experience that takes you through the major spots to see the gorgeous views. If you’re in town for a few days, however, the Blue Mountains Bus Company is the public bus service and is much cheaper.
- If you’re renting a car in Sydney’s CBD, stop by the Featherdale Wildlife Sanctuary on your way to Katoomba, it’s a special spot.
- Most hiking trails start from the Jamison Valley lookout not far from the Katoomba train station. This is also where you’ll find the stunning lookout for the Three Sisters. Plan your hike and walks through this government and National Parks site. Also, take precautions on the longer hikes. Always hike with a buddy and always tell your hotel your planned route, as well as when you expect to return.
- Scenic World is much cooler than it sounds and the caged railway is a thrill for families to solos — it’s just stunning.
Eat: I am a coffee fiend so you can find me at Cassiopeia Specialty Coffee in Katoomba in the mornings to fuel up for a hike. Other than that, there are heaps of options at every price point. Leura is a good spot for dining, but every town has something to offer. I recommend cruising through the reviews at True Blue Mountains as I love the ease of navigating and they keep everything nicely up-to-date.
Shop: Leura has a charming shopping street and makes for a nice afternoon wander. All of the main mountain towns are connected by bus and train, so you can get there even if you’re staying in Katoomba.
Sleep: In Katoomba on a budget, the Flying Fox Hostel is a wonderful spot with a warm and welcoming vibe. If you’re staying for a few days, consider an Airbnb or book a nice hotel on Booking.com. When I go back I’ll be staying at this gorgeous spot.
6 thoughts on “A Little Story… (Mis)Adventures in Hiking the Giant Staircase in Katoomba”
Do you remember the name of this hike; is it Federal Pass? Looking at some options for when I am there in a couple of weeks.
Yes, good question! I have misremembered some things as I verified some thoughts just now through Googling, but it was definitely the Federal Pass hike since we eventually ended at the base of the Giant Staircase and the sites look familiar! The local hotel owners also always have favorite hikes and you can run anything by them and they’ll help you find something just right for your fitness level and sense of adventure. :)
I’m so glad to see you!! You look so happy and your in good company!! :) I’m with Niki and Lisandra – I’ve been waiting and waiting for your posts. Glad to see your finding all the cute guys in Oz (but it’s not hard to do).
Reminds me of the supposed “three-hour tour” of Gilligan’s Island fame!
I love the Blue Mountains! I’m with Niki… I was worried b/c you weren’t posting anything. :-) Umm, Mr. Swiss man is kinda cute. It seems like Australia is treating you well!
Wow, that is soooooo cool. Margie and I were a little worried there Shannon. It had been since Monday since we had heard from you. :) We were about to call the embassy. Peter and I are looking forward to more stories of your travels. Peter is willing to donate a dollar per story you write lol.
Miss you! And are you keeping in touch with the Swiss dude?