Established in 1879, Royal National Park is the second oldest national park in the world, and is the nature fix of choice for many Sydneysiders thanks to its proximity to the city.
One of the most popular ways to experience Royal National is via the Coast track which runs the length of the park from Bundeena to Otford. Clocking in at 26km, it's a multi-day hike that can be completed in two days with a stop at North Era campground. Tackling sections of the Coast track as day hikes is also a popular choice — whether Bundeena to Marley or Wattamolla beach, or taken from the other end of the track, Otford to the Figure 8 Pools.
But there's more to Royal National than the Coast track. If you're looking for a hike that is easily accessible from the city via public transport, the Karloo track which starts at Heathcote train station is a great option. Heathcote is about an hour's train ride from Sydney CBD on the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line. While this track won't give you coastal vistas and whale watching, it does have a swimming hole and plenty of opportunity for bird watching.
The Karloo track together with the Uloola firetrail will take you through around 11km of bushland starting at Heathcote station and ending just a few hundred metres from Waterfall station. Waterfall train station is the next stop on the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra line so once you're done with your hike you can easily get the train back into the city.
There's an opportunity for a swim along the way at Karloo Pools, and if you'd like to make it a two day hike you can book a camp site at Uloola Falls campground. I was walking in the late afternoon so I didn't stop to swim, but I did stop for many photos, and the walk took me around 4 hours.
If you're going to do this walk, read on to hear more about my experience, and be sure to take a look at this guide too — I found it a really useful reference, particularly for the portion of the track beyond Karloo Pools.
Walking from Heathcote to Waterfall through Royal National Park
Coming out of Heathcote station you'll find yourself on Wilson Parade — turn right, walk past the NSW Rural Fire Service. The Karloo track starts a short distance down Wilson Parade — there’s a sign marking the way. Once you get on the track, it'll be about 5 kilometres before the track lands you at Karloo Pools — a pretty spot to have a lunch break and go for a swim.
From the pools you can turn back and get out the way you came in, or you can carry on toward Uloola Falls campground and then get on the Uloola track through to Waterfall. If you're going to take this route make sure you have enough day-light (you've got another 5 or so kilometres to walk) and plenty of water (there's nowhere to refill your bottle).
The track between Karloo Pools and Uloola Falls campground is a bit of a scramble and climb in some spots, and you may periodically feel that you’ve lost the track... but if you keep an eye out for marked rocks (painted with a red and white line, see below, and in some cases a yellow arrow), these will help you stay on the track.
Once past the campground there are signs pointing toward Waterfall via the Uloola Firetrail.
This part of the walk is comparatively easy with a wide and obvious track all the way to the end of the trail, which is very close to Waterfall train station. You'll know you're just about there when you start to hear traffic instead of birdsong.
When you get to the end of the Uloola Firetrail, come through the gate and turn left. There you’ll see a road, this road leads up to the Waterfall school which is on the main road and just a couple of hundred metres from the train station.
When I did this walk I timed it so I got to shoot last light in Royal National, and walk into sunset at the end which was really beautiful... it did mean a bit of extra hustle for the final 2km to get out of the park before dark (but I made it 💪🏼).
If you're looking for a moderate to challenging walk with a train station at either end, Karloo and Uloola from Heathcote to Waterfall is a winner. Take it slow and have a swim, or smash through it and feel your legs burn as you come out the other end — however you take to the track, this is another great way to enjoy Sydney's Royal National.