Newnes, Wollemi National Park
2 days/2 nights with full pack (20kms)
An adventurous hike along Red Rocks ridgeline which divides the Wolgan and Capertee Valleys in Wollemi National Park with sweeping views towards Pantoneys Crown and Airly Plateau in the Gardens of Stone National Park.
This 2-day hike is best done in the winter months with the sun’s lower position in the sky guaranteeing magnificent sunsets as you look westwards towards the Capertee Valley around 5pm. My propensity for good hiking weather prevailed. Our close-knit group enjoyed the setting sun’s orange, golden and soft pink hues over Pantoneys Crown and beyond as we sipped on Ashley-brewed tea and snacked on cheese and crackers. With a wind-free and cloudless sky we could not have asked for a more idyllic setting as we sat peacefully taking in the 360 ⁰ panoramic views from our cliff top perch.
Day 0–Arrive at Newnes Campground from 3.30pm
An early arrival gives you time to check out the facilities, essentially the toilets, select a safe level tent site and erect your tent without needing torch light. A quick hunt for dry firewood, and soon we seat ourselves by a warm campfire. The perfect setting to prepare our meals, share wine and stories and get to know our fellow walkers. The mood is upbeat. Everyone is eager to start this adventurous hike. I leave them to chat on as I retire early to sort out my gear.
Recently the national news has been reporting on a massive mouse plague wreaking havoc throughout country New South Wales (NSW). It is getting closer to Sydney each week, on the western fringes where we are now located. I have an expensive tent and I am not keen for late night mice visits.
Having walked in black bear country doing the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in America’s Pacific North West I am well familiar with bear proofing your tent. Lessons learnt there apply equally to rodents. I do not have a bear canister on me this time, but I always carry a military strength Loksak Opsak odour proof ziplock bag. I decant my food, cooking utensils, toiletries, and any other products that might have a scent. Sealed tightly, I place the Loksak Opsak bag in my food stuff sack in my pack, lined with a compactor trash bag, and then I rest my feet on the pack while I sleep.
Paranoid? A touch, but I can see the damage a mouse can do, and if we have a plague on our hands, I want to be as vigilant as I can. Meanwhile, the rest of my party are happily enjoying their after-dinner aperitifs. I turn out the light and settle in for the night. At once, I hear the dreaded mouse scuffle, no doubt the first of many, scurrying to my tent. I bash the tent wall and curse, hopefully sending it on its way. Silence. Success.
Time to drift off, until something very unpleasant starts hissing and cussing beside me, first a short distance from my left ear, then above my head before the sound moves closer to my right ear. Be brave, Katrina! You have a flimsy 2mm wall of Dyneema fibre that will protect you. I drift off to an aggressive ‘shook, shook’ sound. A possum apparently when I relate the story the next morning. What a wimp! I am pleased to report the tent remains unscathed. On closer inspection I can see no discernible nibble marks. For now, I am a happy camper.
Day 1 – 11km, 751m ascent, 324m descent
Last night was chilly on the valley floor, but having the right gear made it bearable. A magical dawn mist lingers as the sun bathes the upper reaches of the sandstone cliffs surrounding the campsite with its first golden rays. I breakfast in my vestibule, sort out my gear, and disassemble my tent and prepare my pack. Once complete, I saunter over to the campfire to see others cooking up a veritable breakfast feast.
Tempting rashers of bacon, sauteed mushrooms and scrambled eggs are being devoured. Far more appealing than adding boiling water to my ziplock-bagged oats and dehydrated fruit, but what a production. These guys are serious campers and when they have the luxury of camping beside a car, they will literally bring the kitchen sink. I eagerly accept a rasher of bacon and admire their dedication to meal preparation. Hope the cleanup is quick. I am eager to go.
After breakfasting, everyone packs their gear. We use hand-held scales to weigh our packs. Unless you have the most ultralight gear and are bringing minimal supplies, they are going to be heavy. There are no reliable water sources available on this hike. Everybody must carry 4 litres, which equates to 4kgs of weight. This is partly why you do this hike in winter as water requirements are much higher in summer on exposed ridgeline terrain contributing to an even heavier pack. Laden with essential provisions, warm clothing, a 2-day food supply and 4 litres of water most of our packs end up weighing 12 to 16kgs. Unsurprisingly, I am at the heavier end with removal of crucial-to-my-survival diabetic supplies absolutely non-negotiable.
We set off for a heart-pounding, steep unmarked climb. Ashley prepped us well yesterday evening on what to expect. I never disputed his words for one minute as I survey the vertical cliff faces surrounding us. As one of the older members of the group, I quickly end up at the back of the pack. Taking photos gives me a chance for a breather, but my pace is faltering. The heavy pack weight is not helping. Constantly focusing on balancing its load lessens my agility. The steep climb strains my calf muscles as I struggle to engage my glute and quad muscles. I am really feeling the burn and the impenetrable terrain full of ankle-grabbing creeper vine is not helping matters. To conquer these steep inclines I try to walk at a comfortable, steady, and consistent pace. Ideally, if I could lessen my load, the conditions would be much easier.
Ashley, sensing my distress, relieves me of my pack and carries it a few 100 metres further uphill. At first I am very reluctant to relinquish this demon of a pack. I want to do it myself but if I am holding up the group, I should defer to my leader’s better judgement. Ashley is right. I move more freely without it and before we know it, our entire group has safely made it to the top for a welcome morning tea break. From the bushfire-recovering rainforest, we emerge to an expansive hinterland rich with delicate sandstone sculptures, a labyrinth of pagodas, ravines and sweeping ridgeline views. Access to this mecca of spectacular scenery is worth every torturous step of this morning’s ascent.
We have done the hardest bit and the rest of the day is leisurely as we rock hop along the ridgeline. Nestled in the forest, Ashley presents us with a magnificent cave of cathedral proportions. This is where we will camp tonight. A brisk breeze gusts through the opening and several of us move around the cave, looking for wind protection. I decide to camp underneath the cave’s overhanging roof because I can see plenty of rocks to stake my tent. What I do not consider is that those rocks may have dropped directly from the cave’s roof, and I am erecting a widower-maker if I camp here. Fortunately, the campsite is ideal, and I live to hike another day.
With camp established, WOW factor time has arrived. With bodies fleeced up and heads covered in warm beanies, Ashley leads us to the ridgeline to capture an epic sunset. The setting sun turns the vertical sandstone cliffs of the Red Rocks a warm yellow, then deep orange as the sky mellowly transitions to the softest pink and apricot hues. A magic scene, as Ashley brews us a tea and passes around the obligatory cheese and crackers with smoked salmon and quince paste. This experience sure beats paying $2,500 a night to stay at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley Resort nearby to eat much the same grub.
We were fortunate to have superb winter weather with cloudless skies, minimal wind and excellent 360⁰ views.
Day 2 – 9km, 231m ascent, 606m descent
Today we can join Ashley for a ridgeline dawn view at 6.45am. A bracing pre-dawn wind whips through our campsite around 4am. I am incredibly warm cocooned in my -12 ⁰ Celsius Zpack hybrid sleeping bag. I pike out and stay an extra hour indoors. My choice. Remember to always Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH). Today, we do not need to leave until 9.00am and I treasure the extra time in bed. Once up, I enjoy photographing this unique campsite as the sun’s early morning rays bring the sandstone walls to life with a gentle golden glow.
When everyone is ready to depart we return to the ridgeline for more epic views along the spectacular Red Rocks traverse.
I love scrambling on rocks. It is fun, but the sandstone is delicate in places and looks brittle. You must pay particular attention to chosen hand holds and foot placement. Are the rock ledges strong enough to support your weight? It requires care and time selecting the right grip holds. The group works as a team in tricky sections and guides each walker to safety without damaging the sandstone’s delicate rock formations. Sometimes we pass packs to our leader to help our descents and safely jump over deep crevices.
There are more magnificent views at morning tea before plenty of PUDS–Pointless Ups and Downs–and a fair bit of bush bashing. Ashley offers an optional lunch trip to ‘The Room’ rock formation with its spectacular ridgeline balcony view. It involves walking along a skinny path directly above a sheer drop. He offers to rope this section for greater safety, but four adventurous souls, including myself, say we can manage it without rope support.
The sketchy traverse has its moments, but ‘The Room’ is a hidden gem–a square, roofless room surrounded by straight vertical sandstone walls with a passageway leading out to a private balcony. If this risk taking does not appeal, you can choose to lunch on firmer ground, which the rest of our group chose, but I love discovering hidden gems far from the madding crowd.
The full group gathers an hour later for the slow two-hour descent to Newnes arriving at our car campsite around 3.30pm. I found clambering over rocks and sliding on my bottom on slippery wet rock chutes most exhilarating. Bashing my way through overgrown ferns and massive regrowth towards the end of this descent on barely visible paths, littered with fallen logs and rocks, was perhaps less enjoyable.
It requires intense concentration to avoid injury. I used momentum to lever myself over a large fallen tree, but my heavy backpack preferred to throw me over an embankment. I promptly latched on to an upright tree trunk nearby, holding on for dear life as I swung precariously over a precipice. A fellow walker came to my rescue and pushed me back on to the path. I then rolled my ankle in a slight undulation and whacked my shin on a hidden fallen log. These mishaps occurred in the final 30 minutes of our walk.
Diabetes may have contributed to my fatigue with low sugar levels, often affecting energy levels and impairing concentration. Overall, this was a hard, challenging walk. I cannot complain. I might have gained a few niggly injuries, but the 2-day Red Rocks Hike was an exceptional experience delivering varied walking conditions, exceptional views and wonderful company.
The hike is a total bush bash with little discernable path and rampant exploding undergrowth, after the devastating 2019/2020 bush fire season. You can see regenerative leaf growth on the charred trunks of the many eucalyptus trees. Expect to get filthy, touching and brushing against the damaged vegetation.
With a heavy pack weight, the hike requires excellent balance, concentration, and perseverance. While the total mileage for the 2-day hike is low, the difficult terrain makes progress slow.
There is a significant amount of scrambling on overhanging exposed rock ledges and the occasional jump over crevices. We sometimes pass packs and trekking poles to other hikers to prevent them encumbering you. There are many occasions where you must use both hands, backside, and feet to slide down steep drops or keep three points of contact to propel yourself up rocky outcrops.
Fear of heights might surface on this hike, but Ashley’s expert guidance should get you through the most difficult sections. If you have any doubts, talk to Ashley to find out if you can manage this grade of hike. I rate it a Grade 5 moderate to difficult hike for those who wish to extend themselves and improve their scrambling skills.
With much scratchy sandstone cliff overhangs and thick prickly undergrowth, I highly recommend you bring protective gloves. It could be a pair of light fleece gloves with the built-in redundancy of keeping your hands warm as well or lightweight gardening gloves from Bunnings. I wore none. Miniscule thorns from falling into prickly foliage and grazes from scrambling over rough rocks covered my hands.
Being a senior hiker I enjoy using trekking poles to help with balance, but they proved more of a hindrance than a help on this hike. I left the ski baskets on as this can help stop your pole getting caught between rocks and prevent them breaking, but they caught every rampant low-lying creeper vine that littered the unmarked path. Stow them away and balance yourself against passing trees instead. They are useless for scrambling over rocky ledges. I persisted with them, and I had a technique for flicking them out of the way, but I did not enjoy using them in the tricky sections.
What to pack?
I recommend you pack as lightly as you can as you will need to carry four litres of water. The best gear to cut weight from is your ‘Big 3’ items–your tent, sleeping system, and backpack.
Most of us are carrying 15kgs, a weight the newer Ultra-Light (UL) Backpacks can comfortably support. I still use my Osprey Zena backpack–a workhorse which supports heavier loads, but it weighs 2.5kgs. I could save 1 to 1.5kgs in weight if I hiked with an UL backpack.
How do you trim weight from your sleep system? Being a winter hike, you will still need to bring a warm down or synthetic sleeping bag with a warmth rating of at least 0⁰ Celsius, and a quality sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground. Try to research the warmest compact sleeping bags, sleeping pads with the best R-value ratings, and products that are value for money. Be warned, ultralight products will be expensive but hopefully they will last and ease your pack weight.
The other item you can trim weight from is your tent. New materials, particularly Dyneema and sil-nylons, are getting lighter and lighter. Gone are the days of carrying hefty tents. My Zpack Duplex, a three-season tent made of Dyneema fibre, uses trekking poles for assembly and weighs less than 600gms.
As for food, concentrate on high calorific, low weight products. Choose dehydrated and convenience meals that don’t need a lot of water to rehydrate. Instant noodles, mash potato and breakfast oats are meal choices I highly recommend.
Who walked with me?
I did this walk with seven other walkers through MountainSphere Adventures. Ashley Burke, a highly capable mountaineer and expedition leader, guided us. His invaluable knowledge and skills enabled us to experience an adventurous hike in remote, seemingly inaccessible wilderness areas on varied and challenging terrain.
To enjoy the Red Rocks 2-day hike Ashley requests participants complete his two-day navigation course beforehand so he can assess your hiking skill level and help you learn vital map reading navigational skills crucial for any solo ventures off well-trodden paths. I thoroughly enjoyed the navigation course and this fully guided hike offered me the opportunity to improve my navigation skills or relax and follow our leader. Without local knowledge, better navigational skills, and mountaineering experience, I could not do this hike on my own.
It was exhilarating, adventurous, and has inspired me to seek new walking challenges. Never overestimate your abilities and always use experienced guides, if in any doubt.
Ashley Burke is a patient and experienced guide who expertly coaxed us safely to the top and back. I have every confidence in Ashley’s ability to guide any motivated hikers on a wilderness hike that is suitable for their skill levels. Just look at the many cheerful groups he has guided and taught on his dedicated Facebook page.
How long does it take?
2 full days with overnight camping the night before at Newnes Campground.
It is a three hour drive from Sydney to Newnes Campground in Wollemi National Park, on the western edge of the Blue Mountains north of Lithgow. The campsite is large with two pit toilets and extensive car camping options for multiple groups. Most areas have established fire pits and offer picnic tables. Bring extra water for your first evening’s meal as the campsites do not supply water except for the river water in the nearby Wolgan River.