One of the most spectacular sites in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is the Jenolan Caves. Decorated with jaw-dropping limestone crystal formations, Jenolan Caves are Australia’s largest and most spectacular caves system that is open to the public. The caves are also the oldest caves in the world, having formed 340 million years ago. The only older rocks I visited in Australia are the 460-million-year-old Glasshouse Rocks in Narooma.
More than 300 caves have been discovered in Jenolan but the tourist activities are limited to the 11 show caves and a few adventure caves.
In December 2019, Jenolan Caves area was decimated by a bush fire. This particular fire burned out of control for several weeks destroying vast stretches of forest and some infrastructure around the caves. To add insult to injury, in February 2020 the area was hit by severe floods that washed through the area, bringing down tonnes of rock from the surrounding hills.
Consequently, like many other areas in the Blue Mountains, Jenolan Caves have been closed for most of 2020 as repairs were carried out in the caves, the buildings, and the access road. Finally, this November two of the most show-stopping caves re-opened: The Orient and Temple of Baal Caves.
And this is where the silver lining of covid-19 pandemic lies. While in the past you had to share a cave tour with up to 30 other visitors, the new normal at Jenolan is small group tours. We had 6 people in our group, so it was a pretty exclusive experience. Just make sure to pre-book your cave tour here.
This arrangement may not last, as the government relaxes covid-19-associated restrictions on public gatherings, so there really is no better time to visit Jenolan Caves than now.
Here is everything you need to know to plan your Blue Mountains Jenolan Caves adventure
Exploring Blue Mountains Jenolan Caves
We visited the caves on a particularly hot November day and while Sydney cooked in 41 degree-heat, we enjoyed a balmy but bearable day at Jenolan Caves. My friend Anu and I were also very excited to be exploring the Blue Mountains with Wolfgang and Hedi from Hiking in the Blue Mountains. We’ve been very fond of Wolfgang and Hedi since our initial adventure on the Glow Worm Tunnel hike, and we prefer to explore the further reaches of the mountains with them.
We drove from Wentworth Falls, past Hartley village and once we joined Jenolan Caves Road we were 1250 meters above the sea level, driving along the top of the Dividing Range. The trees in the surrounding wilderness of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve are slowly starting to recover from last years fire, sprouting new growth which makes the forest look quite fluffy. Although the damage is still very obvious.
The entrance to Jenolan Caves complex is quite dramatic – you drive through a giant arch, naturally called the Grand Arch, past the mesmerizing Blue Lake and emerge in a pretty village dominated by a Victorian-style hotel propped against the backdrop of thickly-forested mountain.
What is the best cave to see at Jenolan Caves?
With 11 stunning show caves available for exploring, how do you decide which cave you should visit? Well, of course, you could visit more than one cave on your trip. Most cave tours last 1.5hrs in normal times (with large groups). At the moment, while the caves are open only to small group tours, the tours run for 1hr.
The best way to see a few caves, of course, is to stay overnight at the Caves House hotel or at the Mountain Lodge. You could see two or three caves a day if you were really keen.
But if you only wanted to see one cave, you’d need to decide for yourself what is the best cave to visit at Jenolan Caves. Generally, the Orient and Temple of Baal caves are concidered to be the most beautiful caves in terms of crystal formations. The Jenolan Caves management indirectly confirmed this assumption by only opening these two caves to the public after the closure of Jenolan Caves for most of 2020. The next three caves to be opened are Chifley, Imperial and Lucas caves.
Below is a short description of some key distinguishing features of the main 8 caves to help you choose the one you like. If you are planning to see more than one cave, when all caves have re-opened, I suggest you see either Orient or Temple of Baal for the jaw-dropping crystals covering every inch of the caves, Ribbon cave for the feeling of being enclosed in the sparkling beauty (it’s a narrow cave and only open to small group tours), and the River cave to meander along the beautifully light up river running through the cave. To book a tour, head to the Jenolan Caves website. The website also offers some combinations of multiple cave tours.
Many people consider the Orient Cave to be the most beautiful cave at Jenolan. This entire cave is covered in crystal formations. There is hardly a bare spot on the walls or the ceiling. Two of the most iconic Jenolan formations are found here: ‘The Pillar of Hercules’ – a 10-meter natural sculpture and ‘The Indian Canopy’ formation that used to be featured on Jenolan Caves logo. The cave passage is quite narrow so you are always close to the crystals. (More on exploring Orient Cave below).
Temple of Baal Cave
The Temple of Baal Cave has only two chambers but they are some of the most beautiful at Jenolan. The Temple chamber is also one of the largest chambers at Jenolan, second only to the Cathedral in the Lucas Cave. The most famous formation at the Temple of Baal Cave is ‘The Angel’s Wing’ – a large white shawl that looks like a pair of wings.
While the Orient and the Temple of Baal caves have the most beautiful formations at Jenolan, they don’t have a river running through them. The best river cave at Jenolan is not surprisingly, the River Cave. Apart from the beautifully light-up river, the River Cave is home to some spectacular formations like the ‘Giant Shawl’, a magnificent stalagmite – the ‘Minaret’, and the beggest column at Jenolan – the ‘Grand Column’.
Imperial Diamond Cave
The Diamond Cave is a delicate passage lined with many unusual crystal formations, like the pure white crystals tinted with multiple shades of pink as well as cave corrals, Dogtooth Spar crystals and shelf stone. The famous ‘Gem of the West’ formation at the end of the tour is a medley of helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, shawls and wave crystal.
Lucas Cave is perhaps the best known of Jenolan caves. It features the widest cavern in all of the Jenolan system, which combined with high ceilings, gives an impression of an unearthly cathedral. In terms of formations, Lucas Cave is home to the most photographed limestone formation of the Jenolan – ‘The Brocken Column’ and areas of ‘white lace’ that hang in the narrow walkways between the chambers.
The tour of the Imperial Cave follows an ancient river bed that contains a variety of marine fossils embedded in the limestone roof and walls of the cave. At the entrance to the cave, you can see the bones of a Tasmanian Devil (the species became extinct on the mainland around 1,000 – 3,000 years ago).
The Chifley Cave is one of the shorter tours at Jenolan and it is recommended as the best option for people with children. It is also the only cave where coloured lights are used. In terms of crystal formations, Chifley is home to one of Jenolan’s best examples of ‘spar’ crystal.
If you miss the opportunity to visit Jenolan caves on a small group tour during the pandemic, here is your second chance. All tours of Ribbon Cave are small group tours due to the delicate environment of this cave. Ribbon Cave is marketed as an addition, something to do once you have seen one or two of the main caves. Another bonus of taking a tour of the Ribbon Cave is that to get to it, you have to pass the entire Orient Cave. So it’s practically two tours in one. Although, you don’t stop to admire the stunning formations of the Orient Cave. And you will want to, believe me.
Exploring the Orient Cave
The Orient Cave was discovered 38 years after Jenolan Caves became a protected reserve, so its stunning formations have been preserved from the start.
The two Jenolan guides who discovered the Orient Cave in their free time in 1904 named the cave and its main chambers after the most exotic locations they could imagine. That’s why there are Persian, Egypt and Indian chambers in the cave.
We started the tour by walking through a fairly long Binoomea Cut – a shortcut that’s been cut through sheer rock in 1954. This long narrow tunnel looks, for all intents and purposes, just like Stalin’s underground nuclear bunker in Moscow.
After walking through a few metal doors we finally entered the ‘lobby’ of the Orient Cave known as Bat End (not to be confused with Bilbo’s Bag End). Back in the days before the shortcut tunnel, visitors used to enter the cave from the opposite end and as they travelled through the chambers they flushed the resident bats. Fleeing from the disturbance, bats would come to this chamber and congregate here in large numbers. Today, there is no sign of the bats at Bat End, to everyone’s relief and my disappointment.
From Bat End, we entered the dimly-light stairwell and followed it up to an even more dimly-light ‘Persian Chamber’. Then, Jacob, our guide turned on the spotlights concealed behind the crystal formations and our world was immediately transformed into an otherworldly wonderland. Every inch of the cave surface was covered in the most unexpected giant formations – stalagmites, stalactites, columns, shawls and straws. You didn’t know where to look first.
As we walked along the metal walkway, on our right, the cave wall was dominated by the ‘Petrified Forest’ made up of flowing formations of all shapes and sizes. On our left, the floor dropped a few meters and from the well below the towering formation of the ‘Pillar of Hercules’ rose to meet the ceiling. Standing 10 meters tall, this pillar is the tallest stalagmite at Jenolan caves.
From the ‘Persian Chamber’ we followed a narrow passage down to ‘The Jungle’ and onto the ‘Egyptian Chamber’. The shawls in this chamber are absolutely jaw-dropping. They are huge (second largest at Jenolan) and boldly striking. For me, these organ-pipe looking formations were the most memorable individual feature of the Orient Cave.
But we still had more awe-inspiring formations to discover. As we descended into ‘The Indian Chamber’ we were greeted by the view of one of Jenolan’s most famous formations – ‘The Indian Canopy’.
But we still had more awe-inspiring formations to discover. As we descended into ‘The Indian Chamber’ we were greeted by the view of one of Jenolan’s most famous formations – ‘The Indian Canopy’. This striking formation used to be the official logo of the Jenolan Caves.
On the level below ‘Indian Canopy,’ there is a crystal pool that collects water when the cave gets flooded. Jacob showed us images (on his phone) of the cave guides swimming through the Orient Cave to collect the spotlights when the caves got flooded in February 2020. It was difficult to imagine that the metal walkway we were standing on was underwater.
At the end of the tour, we retraced our steps, lingering by our favourite formations. In the tunnel, we met one of Jacob’s colleagues who showed us some fossils found in the cave.
On the walk back from the cave, we spotted a few Eastern water dragons and Cunningham skins. The skins are chubby but very shy critters that retreat into their ‘dens’ as soon as you approach. I tried to photograph one during its retreat, and the image below is the best picture I have.
Things to do around Jenolan Caves
There is of course more to Blue Mountains Jenolan Caves that the caves themselves. There is a selection of walking trails leading into the hills from the reception area. The walks range from a 15-minute walk to Carlotta Arch to 2-3 day Six Foot Track. There are also a few different options to lunch or dinner at the hotel and for an overnight stay. And of course, there are plenty of options for things to do around the Jenolan, depending on how far you wish to go.
High Tea at Chisolm’s Restaurant
If you worked up an appetite from all the explorations, the main options for a meal at Jenolan are the Cafe and Chisolm’s Restaurant. And if you feel like a little splurge, and there is no better feeling than a bit of a splurge after a few hours of walking in the great outdoors, then treat yourself to High Tea at Chisolm’s.
We Felis covered the high tea option quite by accident when there was some technical issue with our lunch order being prepared in time for our tour and as compensation, we were offered higher tea free of charge. And it was quite a decadent experience.
In true British fashion, we were served a selection of finger sandwiches, scones with jam & cream and an assortment of scrumptious desserts with strawberries. All this at a beautiful window table with the sun streaming in. Heaven.
Carlotte Arch Walk
A steep but short (15-min) walk uphill from Jenolan Caves House leads to Carlotta Arch – a striking rock formation that opens up to the views of the Blue Lake below. The lake walk is unfortunately still closed with no firm plans for the opening date. Which is a great shame since the Blue Lake is the only more or less reliable site near Sydney to see a platypus. But the floods filled the lake with tons of gravel and according to the staff at the Caves House, it only recently regained its dreamy colour.
What we were really hoping to see were the resident Brush-tailed rock-wallabies, but at 29 degrees it was too hot for them to be out and about.
McKeown Valley Walk
The first thing to know about this walk is that the valley and the walk are named after a convict and a thief, James McKeown who was indirectly responsible for the discovery of Jenolan Caves. Having stolen a few head of cattle from the nearby farms, McKeown hid out in this valley and in the twilight areas of the caves.
In 1838, a local farmer, James Whalen, pursued and captured McKeown in the valley and later returned with his brother Charles to explore the area around the Grand Arch and Devil’s Coach House, becoming the first European to discover Jenolan Caves.
The walk to McKeown Valley follows the road from Jenolan Caves House, through the Grand Arch and Devil’s Coach House cave. The trail takes you into the valley and across Jenolan River where you can see some pretty cool karst formations and spot local wildlife including Swamp and Rock wallabies, goannas and if you are lucky, lyrebirds!
Visit Kanangra-Boyd National Park
If you would like to venture further ahead, check out Kanangra-Boyd’s National Park famous Kanangra Walls Lookout. The turn off to Kanangra-Boyd is only 6km from Jenolan Caves road. The road is unsealed but in a good condition. Once your park at Kanangra Walls car park, it’s a 10-minute walk to the stunning lookout with views over Kanangra Deep to Kanangra Walls, and in the distance, Mount Cloudmaker. Allow about 30 minutes for the lookout visit.
And if you would like to take a longer walk, Kanangra Waterfall walk is 1.6km one-way and would take about 30 min each way. This walk will take you past Kanangra Walls lookout to the cascading Kanangra and Kalang Falls.
Take a scenic drive in the countryside
If you are visiting on a super hot summer day (like we did) and prefer to explore out of the air-conditioned comfort of your car, you can go on a scenic drive in the countryside.
We drove past the green pastures to Oberon, an uninteresting little town, and then onto Tarana. The rolling hills of the surrounding farmland were vibrantly green after the recent rains and the flowers added a splash of color to the landscape. It was a very picturesque drive.
Unlike the blanket of purple Paterson’s curse flowers in Wolgan Valley, the fields we were driving through were yellow-themed with a few patches of purple here and there.
I couldn’t believe that you could be in proper farmland so close to Sydney. And after a few years of city life I was quite excited to see so many farm animals. One property had a huge flock of sheep and as soon as we pulled in on the side of the road to check them out, as one, they all decided that they urgently needed a drink and ran for the waterhole, kicking up thick clouds of dust. It was like a mini wildebeest migration in the paddock!
While we watched the sheep racing for a drink, a few cattle spotted us and purposefully walked to the roadside edge of thier paddock to see what we were up to. Serengeti Safari, indeed.
Driving from Tarana towards Lithgow you pass Lake Lyell – a huge man-made lake popular with water sports enthusiasts. If you find yourself in the upper Blue Mountains on a sweltering summer day, the lake would be a good option for some water fun. It does get as crowded as Sydney beaches though.
Visit Hassans Walls Lookout
As you approach Lithgow, make sure to check out Hassans Walls. Hassans Walls Lookout is possibly the most panoramic lookout in the Blue Mountains, and it is definitely the highest at approximately 1,100 metres above sea level. The entire Hartley Valley is visible below as well as Mount Wilson, Mount York, Mount Tarana and Mount Blaxland.
The 180-degree views from the tip of the boardwalk are simply breathtaking. There is also a little cave just to the right of the main lookout that offerers a different perspective as you look down into the valley through the cave mouth of the cave.
On the short walk from the lookout to the car park you also get a nice view of the Great Western Highway down below.
Visit historic Hartley Village
If you have more time, then head towards the Great Western Highway to Hartley village – an exceptionally well-preserved century-old village, 12 kilometres from Lithgow. Set among pastures and remnant cottage gardens, Hartley is a quaint little village nestled in the valley of the River Lett. It is one of the first rural settlements west of the Blue Mountains dating back to 1837. And it is one of the best-preserved such villages in Australia.
The main building in the village is the Court House that operated for over fifty years and dealt with a constant stream of robbers, thieves and convicts. In fact, one of the most interesting exhibits in the little museum in the village is the chilling job ad for a Flagelator. WANTED Flagelator able to flog efficiently with minimum loss of labour of convict due to wounds.
What are your favourite places to explore around the Jenolan Caves? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
More Things to do in the Blue Mountains
And if you are planing a trip to the caves, pin this post for later.