Only an hour’s drive from Sydney, Bundeena to Marley Beach track in Royal National Park is the most scenic coastal walk in Sydney. It is the northern end of Sydney’s beloved two-day Coast Track and unlike the full track, it can be easily completed in half a day.
The track at a glance
- Distance: 9km
- Grade: Easy
- Time to complete: 3-4hrs
- Directions: Catch a ferry from Cronulla to Bundeena across Port Hacking. From the wharf follow Brighton Street and turn right on Scarborough Street. Turn right again at Beachcomber Avenue and follow to the end. If you are driving, Bundeena is about 1hr 20min from Sydney city center via Princes Hwy/A1
- Parking: Park on any of the streets near the park gate
If you are coming by train, take the opportunity to get some sustenance for the walk at one of the beachside cafes in Cronulla. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants strung along the beach, though my favourite spot is the Pilgrims, conveniently located between Cronulla beach and the ferry terminal (97 Gerrale Street). It is one of the best vegetarian cafes in Sydney and serves a range of hearty healthy meals that will fuel you up nicely for a 3-hr walk.
Walking Bundeena to Marley Beach track
The track starts at the National Park gate at the end of Beachcomber Avenue in Bundeena. From the gate, a fire trail runs across a typically Australian habitat of coastal heath. This is probably what the coastline of ancient Gondwana looked like. Towering sandstone cliffs, flowering coastal shrubs and scores of nectar-feeding birds, like the ever-present New Holland honeyeaters.
The first turn off you come to leads to Jibbon Head trail. This is an optional side trip that you could also take on the way back. A few meters ahead, another turn-off leads to the start of the Coast Track. Take this turn-off and follow the signs to Marley Beach, which at this point is 4.4km away.
The Coast Track starts in a spectacular fashion at the geological formation known as the Balconies. Here, the cliff top has been eroded by the elements into a series of irregular jagged layers of sandstone. If you are not prone to vertigo, have a seat on one of the balconies jutting out from the cliff and watch your feet dangle 30 meters above the thundering surf.
And if you visit between June and October, keep an eye out for the Humpback whales. They cruise past Sydney on their epic annual migration between Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef.
From the Balconies, the track continues south over largely flat ground along the cliff tops with spectacular views of Illawarra coastline. As you walk on the open rocky platforms along the cliffs, keep an eye out for the Copper-tailed skins and Garden skinks.
The small birds darting between the bushes are the New Holland Honeyeaters and the larger ones are the Little Wattlebirds. The croaking sound you hear belongs to the Common Eastern Froglet, though you are unlikely to spot the tiny critters themselves, they are well camouflaged underneath the leaf litter.
The Water Run is a dramatic cut in the landscape that runs from the top of the escarpment all the way to the ocean below. Here the track descends sharply, crosses the creek and ascends just as sharply on the other side. Despite the rugged terrain, the climb is quite easy. And there are so many opportunities to stop and admire the scenery, that you could take the steps at the snail pace if you wanted to.
You can walk out onto the rock platform at the bottom of the run to have a closer look at the mammoth slabs of rock that have toppled down to the ocean below, like the enormous LEGO pieces tossed by a giant.
As you cross the creek at the bottom, check out the towering wall of the escarpment that hides the source of the creek by a blanket of thick coastal shrub. This scene is at its best on overcast days.
Once you climb up on the other side of the run, the trail straightens out again and continues along the largely flat ground.
Wedding Cake Rock
Shortly after, you arrive at the Wedding Cake Rock. Bleached white by the sun and eroded by the elements into an almost perfect cube, this striking rock formation is one of the major attractions of Bundeena to Marley Beach track.
Unfortunately, a few years ago, the rock was fenced off amid concerns over the stability of the structure. Later geotechnical assessment revealed that the entire structure of the Wedding Cake Rock is “precariously balancing on the edge of the cliff’ and is certain to collapse any time within a decade”.
Amazingly this does not stop a large number of visitors from climbing over the fence to get a better view for a selfie. I guess it’s natural selection at work.
To see the rock in the context of the surrounding landscape follow a rough trail to an impromptu lookout. A rough trail through the heath runs to it from the main track a few meters south of the fence.
The section between Marley and Bundeena Lookouts on Marley Head is one of the most picturesque parts of the walk. With sweeping views over Marley and Little Marley beaches and the endless expanse of the ocean, it is an excellent place to linger and try spotting dolphins, whales and the magnificent White-bellied sea eagles.
It is also one of the most interesting sections of the rock platform on the entire Bundeena to Marley Beach track. Water and wind have weathered the cliff top here in a patchwork of unexpected shapes and colors.
Pick one of the dramatic rocky outcrops and spend some time resting and recuperating while watching sea birds plunge into the ocean hunting fish.
From the headland, the trail descends to Marley Beach. One of 11 beaches in Royal National Park, this unpatrolled sandy beach is considered as the most hazardous beach in the park. It is exposed to southeast swell and southerly winds, while bordered by 20-30 m high sandstone headlands.
At 360m in length, Marley beach is one of the larges beaches in the Sydney metropolitan area. It appears even larger because of the expansive sand dunes lying behind the beach and covering 130,000 square meters.
These dunes are the remnants of the ancient super-beaches that stretched along the cliff base approximately 7,000 years ago. In places, these giant beaches reached as high as cliff tops and deposited large amounts of sand a few kilometres inland. Among the dunes, Marley Creek snakes its way across the northern end of the beach and empties into the ocean.
Wildlife on Marley Beach
Nature lovers will love Marley beach. Apart from the spectacular scenery, there is always plenty of wildlife action going on. Garnets and terns dive-bomb into the surf to catch some lunch, gulls quarrel on the rock shelf, crabs scurry in the sand and occasionally, White-bellied sea eagles soar overhead.
But don’t rush to get into the water at Marley. The ocean here has a very strong undercurrent, the surf is rough, rogue large waves are frequent and the beach is unpatrolled. Unless you are an excellent swimmer, wait until you get to Little Marley.
Little Marley Beach
Little Marley beach is the hidden gem of the Coastal Track. Only about a 15-minute walk from the big Marley, it is a much more gentle bay with generally calm water. There is still a fairly strong current here, but it’s much more manageable.
The trail from the Big Marley to the Little one goes along the bottom of the headland, past the multitude of rock pools filled with all kinds of aquatic organisms from tiny crabs to starfish.
Little Marley is not a good surfing beach, so it remains largely deserted and has a distinct wild feeling to it. Framed by the towering walls of the headlands on both sides, Little Marley feels a thousand miles away from civilization. It is the perfect escape from the contestant string of walkers on the trail and an ideal spot for some rest before the return journey.
On the way back, it is possible to return to Bundeena via Big Marley fire trail and Beachcomber Road Service trail, if you do not wish to re-trace your steps.
But if you do decide to return the way you came, you will get to see the scenery transformed by the golden light of the late afternoon. As the sun gets lower in the sky, it emphasizes the surrealistic shapes and colours of the weathered limestone formations.
Birdwatching at Bundeena
As you walk back through Bundeena, keep an eye out for a variety of Sydney’s parrots: Black cockatoos, Sulpher-crested cockatoos, Galahs (or Pink cockatoos), and the smaller King parrots and Rainbow lorikeets.
The Yellow-tailed black cockatoos are more common on the fringes of the national park, but all the other species are easier to see on the quiet, leafy streets of Bundeena.
If you feel like a little bit more of a challenge, try the Palm Jungle Loop Track that covers a portion of the southern end of the 20-kilometre Coastal Track. The coastal scenery may not be as dramatic on that track, but you get a much more varied landscape from cliffs to beaches and from palm jungle to coastal grassland.