Gravel Guide Sydney: Gondwana Grinding
Join Matthew as he explores the top gravel routes and bikepacking trails in Sydney Australia's diverse landscapes. Whether you're new to Sydney's gravel or in search of new adventures, this guide is your perfect start point.
Sydney, Australia is a city with a cycling split personality. On the one hand, the endless concrete sprawl that fills a roughly 1800km2 swathe of the Sydney basin represents a basic failure of urban planning. Pavement and the personal automobile rule, and successive generations of state governments have been openly hostile to even the idea of cycling infrastructure (though this is, fortunately, changing). On the other hand, consider this: the United States has more than 300 cities with a population greater than 100,000. Europe has more than 500 such cities. Australia has just 19.
This is all to say that Australia's reputation for wide-open spaces is incredibly well deserved, as I've discovered over the past twelve years of exploring the Sydney region by bicycle. Greater Sydney might be the concrete jungle, but it's surrounded by a vast and public transit-accessible network of forest roads and firetrails that make it perfect for gravel riding. You're genuinely spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a sweet dirt ride: hop on a quick train, and within an hour or two you'll be cycling through the remnants of Gondwanaland. Think craggy cliffs, rushing rivers, cockatoos, kangaroos and endless eucalypt forests. This continent is special, and the riding around Sydney is a genuine wonder.
The routes explored below are all doable on a gravel bike with 38c or wider tyres, and over the years I've ridden them on everything from an old Surly Disc Trucker to cushy 29+ set-ups. On the former, I've often struggled where the terrain gets really rough, steep or rocky. Wider is always better. The routes can also get pretty far out there, and I always make sure I carry a well-stocked repair kit. The routes are reasonably well-trafficked by other cyclists, and big sections will have phone service. If you get marooned by a mechanical, however, it can be a looooong walk out. Regardless of what I'm riding, there are crazy climbs that always get walked, and descents that always put a huge smile on my face. So pick a train line leading out of the city, and set off. You can't go wrong.
Cycling in Sydney
You don't want to try to cycle your way to the start of any of these rides. Greater Sydney is huge, and it could conceivably take you all day just to pedal out past the sprawl to the trailhead. The great equaliser is the train. Sydney Central Station is the jumping off point for every ride I've done, and I've found it easy to reach on a combination of separated cycleways and quiet roads from almost any point in the inner city.
You shouldn't neglect to explore the city of Sydney itself while you're here. Largely thanks to the continued advocacy of Lord Mayor Clover Moore, cycling infrastructure and cycling culture in Sydney have improved massively in recent years. And while inner Sydney's cycling network isn't perfect, the heart of the city is now mostly safe and easy to explore by bike. Even after a decade here, I still love spending a sunny afternoon cycling between museums, restaurants, pubs, and the spectacular harbourside itself. Consider the marvelous Three Bridges Ride as an introduction.
There's no shortage of bike shops to outfit from in the city, but Omafiets in Alexandria is always my first stop. The staff are super-friendly and super-knowledgeable, and they stock a huge selection of tools, spares, equipment and accessories. They're also an excellent resource for ride suggestions, and first introduced me to many great gravel rides in the area.
Route: Narrow Neck (Blue Mountains)
The first time I rode the Narrow Neck Peninsula - a narrow finger of high eroded plateau reaching out from the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba - my impressions of the ride changed so fast I practically got whiplash.
Off the train and rolling downhill through town from Katoomba Station, the ride felt pretty ordinary. The town of Katoomba was nice, but didn't feel much different to a dozen other small Australian towns I'd been to. It was a solid 4km of 'ho hum'. That all changed the moment I made the turn onto the dirt curves of Glenraphael Drive and got my first glimpse of Narrow Neck itself. From that vantage on the edge of the Blue Mountains escarpment, the plateau swept off into the distance, soaring high above the vast expanse of the valley. To the south, the isolated rocky fin of Mt. Solitary rose above the endless green carpet of gum forest. I churned up the stupidly steep first hill to the locked gate at the start of the firetrail, hefted my bike over the stile, then started off along the well-maintained track.
Oh wow. Nothing matched this trail in terms of sheer views-per-mile. The vistas were always evolving as I spun along - first the high orange cliffs of the escarpment, then the rolling green hills of the Megalong Valley below. The firetrail itself was often silly steep, with crazy grades that had me hanging far off the back of my saddle, skidding with the brakes locked, or else panting as I pushed up ridiculous curves. A few Ks in and I hit the eponymous Narrow Neck itself. A spot where the plateau tapers to just a few hundred metres wide, the isthmus suddenly opened before me, sheer cliffs falling away from the sides of the trail and the blue apparition of Lake Burragorang hanging in the distance far below. Incredible.
I pushed on - short steep climbs and fast swooping descents, following the firetrail to the plateau's edge 10km in. And then, just like that, the trail dead-ended! I wasn't done, though. I locked my bike to itself and, on foot, descended Taros Ladder - an adventurous hiking route off the end of the plateau where chains and ladders bolted into the rock descend steeply to the valley floor below. I spent a few minutes recovering amidst the humming greenness of the Kanangra Wilderness, then climbed back up to my bike for the return trip to Katoomba.
Andersons & The Oaks (Blue Mountains)
If I had to recommend a single challenging, day-long gravel ride near Sydney, it would be the twin linked firetrails of Andersons and the Oaks. I first heard about it as a top-to-bottom tour of the Blue Mountains, combining long cruisy firetrail descents through UNESCO World Heritage gum forests with some truly leg-destroying climbs. There was even a little bit of techy singletrack thrown in for good measure. I mean really: what's not to like?
I popped off the train with my bike at Wentworth Falls Station on an overcast Saturday morning and backtracked a couple of kms down the busy Great Western Highway to Kings Tableland Road. A few minutes later I was past the settled outskirts and swooping downhill at speed to where the pavement ended, splitting left on a heavily potholed dirt road where black cockatoos called out from the trees above me.
For how recently I was in civilisation, I thought, there was really nothing out here. It was glorious. I continued down the deserted road through a long tunnel of arching white-barked gum trees, then turned off past the locked gate onto Andersons firetrail. The track started off sedate: an hour of easy forest cruising. And then, without warning, the trail dropped into a screaming descent to the clear (and deceptively deep!) waters of Bedford Creek at the bottom. Physics is a stern teacher - did I end up much, much wetter than expected? I will never tell.
No matter. On the other side the track corkscrewed up through one steep switchback after another. My lungs and quads were on fire, hammering hard on the pedals. After 10 brutal minutes, I hit my limit, popped off, and started pushing. I clawed my way back up to the ridgeline, and the grade finally slackened. A few minutes later I was riding paved residential backstreets again near the town of Woodford, the ride's halfway point.
Nearby Woodford Station is the bail-out option if you're cooked, or a sensible starting point for the second half of the ride: the Oaks firetrail. I zigzagged through the backstreets, gratefully refilled my water bottles from the spigot by the gate at the head of the trail, then headed on down the track. It was in better shape than Andersons, and if you're seriously underbiking, is probably the safer choice.
The firetrail undulated through forest and past bare patches of bedrock, alternating short climbs and descents. It was good fun - enough to get my heart pumping, but not enough to seriously wind me. After about 12 km of this, I hit the feature for which the Oaks is most rightly famous: a fun, fast descent five kilometres long. Feeling spicy, I caught a bit of air off of some of the waterbars, dodged a spiky little echidna waddling across my path, and admired the beauty of the Blue Labyrinth, a huge stand of old-growth forest at the bottom of the trail.
I finally hit a locked gate and a fork in the road. I could head right, continuing along the firetrail, or break left into a 5km section of singletrack. I went left, obvs. If you're not running serious rubber, maybe skip this section. It's fun and a little bit techy, but - being filled with rocks, roots and ruts - it's not called Pinchflat Alley for nothing.
At the end of the singletrack section, there's an optional MTB course full of drop-offs, berms and rock gardens, but I skipped this. Instead, I popped out onto a paved road at the bottom of the firetrail, and descended steeply to Glenbrook Causeway, where I forded the river, which can get impassably deep after rain.
Glenbrook train station - the end point of the ride - was only 2 km away, but I had to earn it. Those last two Ks were 120 vertical metres of climbing up steep, twisty switchbacks. With basically no gas left in the tank, I found myself walking it. Fortunately there was a coffee and a bacon and egg roll waiting for me at a café in Glenbrook at the top.
The Royal Ramble (Royal National Park)
This is an easy intro to dirt riding around Sydney, but also my pick for an accessible first bikepacking overnighter for a new visitor to the area. I was initially introduced to this route by my friend and champion track cyclist Lizanne Fox. Royal National Park - Australia's first national park - lies just south of Sydney, a short distance away on the train. And while it's best known for its beaches, there are also heaps of cycling tracks and trails to explore.
Guided by Lizanne, I popped off the train at Loftus Station, less than an hour south of the city. There's a huge network of MTB trails crisscrossing the forest just across the road which are wildly popular with the full-suspension crowd, and we popped into the trees for a few easy minutes of cheeky, non-technical singletrack to start the ride. A bit of powerline access trail led us onto the bitumen road into the Royal, and swooped down the steep pavement curves to a pretty causeway across the Hacking River.
Across the causeway (and past the little coffee kiosk beside it), we soon left the pavement, ducking into the trees along the firetrail of Lady Carrington Drive (no driving allowed). The track, which was once a carriage route, followed the Hacking River upstream, undulating gently through towering blue gum forests and past bushy cabbage tree palms, called dharawal by the local indigenous folk whose country this is. It was a popular spot - walkers, kids on bikes with their parents and occasional dudes in lycra; I was glad that I had a bell. We soaked in the lush, lovely forest riding, spinning along past trees, grass, rocks and streams.
After 10 easy kilometres, we popped out onto pavement once again and started in on roughly 4km of strenuous, sweaty on-road climbing - oof! Topping out near Waterfall train station, we turned back into the national park past another locked gate and onto the Uloola Falls firetrail. After the sedate riding along Lady Carrington Drive, the way to the falls was great fun. It was fast going on decent track, with just enough chunk to keep it interesting. After about 6 kms, zooming along the trail through the dense scrubland, the track turned sharply downhill and dead-ended at a drop toilet. We girded ourselves and carried our bikes down a short set of very steep rocky ledges that descended to Uloola Falls a short distance below.
Pretty little Uloola Falls, its waters plunging off a ledge amidst the dense bush, was a great campsite (book ahead here), with several private-ish cleared spots amongst the trees. I'd brought my tent, and pitched it on the rocks overlooking the falls, listening to the parrots above and the trickling water as I fell asleep.
The next morning, it was a short hard schlep up the ledges, then a fun jaunt back along the firetrail to Waterfall Station. The direct train back to Central was super quick, and by 10am we were back in the thick of the city, having dumplings at the imaginatively named 'Chinese Noodle Restaurant' in Chinatown for breakfast. Win!
After more than a decade of making the place my home, I've come to a single conclusion: Sydney is a classic insider's city. When it comes to great dirt riding, that's doubly true. I'm still discovering great routes - from the chill to the rim-destroying - and with all the vastness of the Australian continent stretching away just beyond Sydney's borders, I don't expect that discovery to stop.
The most important thing is that the Sydney train system will get you a long way without needing to book or box your bike. All the way to the city of Newcastle in the north, to Lithgow on the far side of the Blue Mountains to the west, to Nowra on the south coast, and to the town of Goulburn in the Southern Highlands. Take a look at those places on the map, and realise that we're talking about a HUGE geographic area. It may take a bit of effort to get out past the concrete of the city, true, but once you do, the possibilities go on and on and on. Make a friend, and they might just tell you about their favourite ride. Happy hunting!