Take a 10-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo for one of Sydney’s best harbourside bush walks.
It might look like it’s miles from the city, but this protected patch of bushland is a rare oasis just minutes from Sydney’s bustling business district.
A short 10-minute ferry trip from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo, on Sydney’s leafy Lower North Shore, will have you on the doorstep of this iconic bush walk.
The 1.3 kilometre Bradleys Head Trail, part of the Sydney Harbour National Park at Mosman, is famous for its dense bushland, towering red gums and priceless views of Sydney Harbour.
With the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge as a memorable backdrop, it’s no wonder tourists are making a beeline for this urban sanctuary north of the harbour.
Bradleys Head Trail – which turns from a dusty, leafy path to covered boardwalk and then back again – is most memorable early in the morning, as the sun is rising, or late in the afternoon, just as the sun is setting.
The bushland along the track provides shelter, food and habitat for a variety of native animals, including ring-tailed possums, blue-tongued lizards, southern boobook owls, tawny frogmouths, kookaburras and rainbow lorikeets.
You’ll notice regular signposts detailing native flora and fauna found in the area.
History buffs can also immerse themselves in the fascinating story of Bradleys Head, which was named in honour of William Bradley, lieutenant of the First Fleet ship, the HMS Sirius.
With its old military fortifications, towering naval mast and lighthouse, there are countless secrets waiting to be discovered. Just remember to wear good walking shoes.
Taronga Zoo to Bradleys Head Walk
As you leave the ferry, turn right onto Athol Wharf Road and walk roughly 500 metres up the hill towards the lower zoo entrance. At the zebra crossing, you’ll see a path that deviates to the right into bushland.
This is the start of the Bradleys Head walking trail – a 1.3 km trek through ancient Red Gums that leads to Bradleys Head lookout, or Booraghee as it’s called by the indigenous Cammeraigal people.
Follow the path through the bushland around Athol Bay, a protected bay that is popular for cruisers and party boats during the summer months. Often when you walk the track, the sound of music from the boats can be quite loud.
You’ll notice the bush track has a timber walk way in various sections as well.
As you walk, keep your eyes peeled for the sandstone steps to your left that lead to a clearing. Here you’ll find Athol Hall, an estate with over a century of history.
Athol Hall was built in 1908 from the ruins of a hotel that once stood there. Previously the area had been one of the many pleasure gardens that were established around the harbour in the 1860s.
Once popular with the city’s social set who used to arrive by ferry, the hall has been revived as a cafe and function centre. The Athol Hall café is open Tuesdays to Friday and Sunday between 11am and 3pm.
As you head back to the track, be sure to venture down the stairs and through the scrub towards the water where you can walk along Athol Bay Beach.
Athol Bay Beach is a secluded 100 metre stretch of harbourside beach, and one of the best kept secrets in this part of the world. Take a dip, have a picnic or just take in the sounds of the wild emanating from the zoo nearby.
The beach has no shark netting, but it is relatively safe for swimming.
After continuing along the track for about 20 minutes (depending on your pace), you’ll reach the Bradleys Head Amphitheatre, a popular spot on weekends where you’ll often see newly weds having wedding portraits taken.
Here you will enjoy sweeping views of the Harbour, crowned by the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the distance. There’s really no better spot to admire the city skyline, especially at sunset.
As the ferries cut their way between Circular Quay and Manly, you’ll spot Point Piper, Watsons Bay and Bondi Junction on the southern side of the harbour. Look for the numerous harbour islands as well, like Shark Island and Clark Island.
High on the headland at Bradleys Head is the historic HMAS Sydney mast. The mast -whipped by wind, soaked by rain and burnt by sun – was erected in 1934 as a reminder of the sacrifices of Australian sailors during World War 1.
Even though HMAS Sydney survived the war, the memorial is more poignant for the loss of its predecessor, HMAS Sydney II, during World War 2. The ship sank following an encounter with the German cruiser, Kormoran, in 1942.
The Royal Australian Navy funded a $500,000 refurbishment of the mast in 2013, which involved dismantling and sandblasting every centimetre of the structure.
Alongside you’ll see the heritage-listed Bradleys Head Light, built in 1905. It was the first pre-cast concrete lighthouse in Australia and still works to this day.
Also here, standing with its base sunk in the water, is a stone column from the first Sydney GPO at Martin Place. It was moved here in 1871 and marked one nautical mile from the centre of the Martello Tower at Fort Denison, in the middle of Sydney Harbour.
Head back towards the amphitheatre and take the steps up to Bradleys Head Road, near the car park. On the headland here, you’ll find the remnants of a fortification complex built to defend Sydney from seaborne attack.
The convict-built battery – which includes a firing wall, gun pits, timber gun carriage and slide cut into the sandstone bedrock – was built after two American warships arrived in Sydney Harbour undetected on the night of November 30, 1839.
Sydneysiders were outraged that they were so vulnerable to attack, and soon after the battery was erected, along with Fort Denison.
By 1853 military strategists decided there should be outlying fortifications at Middle Head, South Head, Georges Head and Shark Point to guard the entrance to the Harbour.
The forts were continually expanded and remodelled to house more up-to-date artillery. Bradleys Head was abandoned in 1903, but the others were maintained until after World War II.
Once you’re done exploring the fortifications, you can either turn around and head back along the track the same way you came. If you’re more adventurous, you can continue on the bush track towards Clifton Gardens, Chowder Bay and Balmoral.
Personally, I prefer to continue walking under the tree canopy on Bradleys Head Road (above) towards the top entrance of Taronga Zoo. The walk up alongside the zoo (below) becomes steep though, and for the most part there is no footpath, so it’s best to walk with care to avoid traffic.
You can actually circumnavigate the zoo, continuing around its external perimeter via Whiting Beach Road and Foreshore Track at Sirius Cove, and finishing back at your starting point, the ferry wharf. Much of the walk around the zoo is on a bush track or neighbourhood streets, apart from this section at Bradleys Head Road.
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