The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage site is an enormous area, 1.3 million hectares to be precise. So you can spend months exploring it and you wouldn’t even scratch the surface. This is where local knowledge becomes priceless. And with the rise of Airbnb Experience, there are now opportunities to explore the lesser-known trails and secret spots in the mountains with local guides.
This is how my friend Anu and I came across the Lithgow Glow Worm Tunnel hike with Wolfgang and Heidi (check availability here). The glow worm tunnel is a well-known destination in the Blue Mountains and there are a few ways of reaching it: you can drive to within 1.5 km of it on the unsealed Glow Worm Tunnel Road or take the more adventurous 4WD track, and you can hike to it from a few different starting points.
We took the picturesque 9-km hike from Wolgan Road car park returning via Pagoda Track and Old Coach Road and I genuinely believe that this is the best walk for getting to Lithgow glow worm tunnel. It is the perfect combination of history and nature.
But the day out with Wolfgang and Hedi was more than just a hike. I learned more about the history, ecology and geology of the Blue Mountains in that one day than I have in all the years of visiting the mountains. We visited lookouts, a historic village, the bucolic Wolgan Valley and an Aboriginal cave art site; spotted kangaroos, wombats and even a Lyrebird; and our entire trip had zero carbon footprint since we travelled in an electric car that Wolfgang and Hedi charge with the power collected by the solar panels at their home.
Here is how we turned a visit to Lithgow glow worm tunnel into a full day adventure in the Blue Mountains with Wolfgang and Hedi. You could follow this itinerary independently, but it would be a very long day of driving, especially if you are coming from Sydney, and you would miss out on some of the hidden gems and a wealth of local knowledge.
View of Megalong Valley
We started the day at 10 am as Wolfgang and Hedi picked us up at our Airbnb in Katoomba in their wonderful fully electrical Hyundai Kona Highlander.
We left Katoomba in drizzling rain and headed to Hydra Majestic for a quick stop to check out the view over the Megalong Valley. The Blue Mountains National Park is made up of three major valleys: the south-west facing Jamison Valley that you see from Katoomba and Wentworth Falls and Megalong Valley that’s separated from Jamison’s Valley by the Narrow Neck Plateau, and the north-east facing Grose Valley that you see from Blackheath.
We spent the previous afternoon staring at the moody sky over Jamison Valley from Echo Point, so it was interesting to get our bearings looking into Megalong Valley.
From Hydra Majestic, we hit the road climbing Mt Victoria and then descending into Hartley Valley towards Hartley Historic site that sits at the edge of the Blue Mountains National Park near Lithgow.
As we drove through the forested countryside, we could see the extent of the damage caused by the Gosper Mountain Fire in December 2019. Locally known as The Monster, Gosper Mountain Fire was the biggest forest fire to have started from a single ignition point that Australia has ever known. It destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore.
Many parts of the Greater Blue Mountains are still closed to public access due to fire damage. Some areas, however are slowly reopening, including the glow worm tunnel track that we were about to walk.
Hartley Historic Village
Hartley village came into view seemingly in the middle of the bush. Set among pastures and remnant cottage gardens, Hartley is a the quaint little 19th-century 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 at 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.
Downhill from the village is a 200-meter boardwalk along the River Lett. According to the signage, the river is home to platypus, although the river is quite far below the boardwalk and the view is partially obstructed by trees and giant boulders, so spotting a platypus here would be a very challenging task. But it was good to know they are there.
At the end of the walk, there are the remnants of an early settler’s hut – the Rowson’s Hut. It’s essentially just the chimney and a part of a brick wall, everything else must’ve perished in the fires over the years.
As we left Hartley Village, the sky was starting to lighten up and a few rouge rays of sunshine were breaking through the cloud cover. By the time we began our descent into Wolgan Valley, the clouds were punctuated by large patches of blue sky.
The sealed Wolgan road we were travelling on is a reasonably recent addition to the valley. The superbly luxurious and pricey Emirates One & Only Resort located in the valley needed an access road. So it paid to have one built.
Thankfully, the resort owners didn’t need mobile reception and Wolgan valley remains a blissful digital detox.
As we drove through Wolgan valley, I couldn’t believe how incredibly picturesque it was. After the recent rains, the valley floor was carpeted in lush green grass and giant patches of Paterson’s curse – beautiful purple flowers that happen to be toxic to the domestic stock. Unsurprisingly, the paddocks were largely deserted.
The feeling of remoteness in Wolgan Valley is intoxicating. There were no other cars on the road. Not a soul around at all.
Once we drove past One & Only, the sealed road ended, since the Emirates didn’t need it to continue past their property, and we drove the last few kilometres on the dirt road.
Lithgow Glow Worm Tunnel Track
When we parked near the start of the glow worm tunnel track, Wolfgan and Hedi had a surprise for us – they handed us little towels and announced that our hike will start with wading across the Wolgan River. It wasn’t deep. The water ran just a little too high to cross with boots on. And it was a very refreshing exercise – the water was bitingly cold.
Once we crossed the river, we started walking along the Old Coach Road. A hundred or so years ago, horse-drawn coaches transported materials for the construction of Newnes Oil Works & the Wolgan Valley Railway along this road. Today it’s reserved for bushwalkers – the few adventurers who know about this trail and prefer it to the short walk from the Glow Worm Road car park.
The first few hundred meters were the steepest section of the entire walk with about 150 meter gain in elevation. At the end of the steep section the road splits into two: one going to the glow worm tunnel along a rock ledge where Newens railway used to run (aka Glow worm tunnel track) and the other heading towards glow worm tunnel via Old Coach Road and Pagoda Track.
These two trails meet just past the glow worm tunnel making it a 9-km loop track. Alternatively, you could go and return via Glow Worm Tunnel track, but you would only save 1km of walking and miss out on some epic scenery.
We followed the railway path and entered Wollemi National Park where the last ancient Wollemi pines were discovered in the mid-1990s. The now dismantled railway was mainly used for ferrying goods to and from Newnes Oil Shale mine and went through a 400-meter tunnel that today has become the Lithgow glow worm tunnel.
From here the path appeared virtually flat, although we would be gently gaining elevation as we walk along. Most of the 4-km stretch to the tunnel follows a rock ledge with occasional glimpses of Wolgan Valley through the trees.
As we walked along, Wolfgang pointed out the occasional remnants of the train tracks and I was constantly imagining a steam train running down this narrow ledge on the side of the cliff. Building a railway in this rocky landscape must’ve been a tough job when all you had was backhoes and dynamite. I kept thinking about the scenes from Hell on Wheels TV show.
The railway was dismantled in the 1940s and since then a number of significant rockfalls have deposited massive boulders on the trail. Which makes you wonder how many other enormous chunks of rock are ready to come down from the cliff tops at any moment.
Among the giant boulders, Hedi spotted some delicate beauties – Pagoda Daisies – a rare and threatened plant found only on the exposed sandy soils between Lithgow and Newens. How’s that for endemism!
Just before leaving the rock ledge, we came across a lovely viewpoint looking at Wolgan Valley below. Now we could appreciate how high we actually climbed without really noticing it.
From here, the track just kept getting more interesting. First, it emerged on the exposed narrow ledge with a sheer cliff wall towering above us on the left and a steep drop on the right. Then the trail narrowed and ducked into a narrow pass between two steep cliffs.
And once we went through the pass we found ourselves inside a cool and humid canyon covered with thick vegetation containing dozens of different species of ferns, much like the Grand Canyon in Blackheath.
We crossed the Tunnel creek a few times and scrambled over a few boulders as we made our way through the canyon that was no more than 20 meters wide. This was the wildest section of the track so far.
Soon the canyon widened and Wolfgang pointed to the dark hole in the cliff wall – we reached the Lithgow glow worm tunnel. We expected to see quite a few people at the tunnel’s entrance, Wolfgang and Hedi warned us to expect a steady flow of visitors through the canyon, most people coming from the nearby Glow Worm Tunnel Road car park, but there was not a soul around.
Lithgow Glow Worm Tunnel
If you’ve been following my blog, you would’ve noticed that I’ve been borderline obsessed with glow worms lately. And from experience, I can say that Lithgow glow worm tunnel is not the best glow worm site in the Blue Mountains. Both Burralow Creek and Horseshoe Falls have much bigger glow worm colonies. But the setting of the tunnel and the hike to reach it make this site quite special. Another plus is that in the tunnel, you can see the glow worms in daylight hours.
The main downside to Lithgow glow worm tunnel is its popularity. On most days, there is a constant flow of visitors going through the tunnel, all with their bright lights on. This level of disturbance is not only harmful to glow worms (hence the low numbers of worms in the colony), it also detracts from your experience. You need to be in total darkness to have the best view of the glow worms.
We were exceptionally lucky – the Glow Worm Road was closed on the day we visited, probably to prevent damage to it after a few days of rain. So the only way to get to the tunnel was by hiking between 8 and 10 km. This of course meant that there were few visitors around, and we were even able to photograph the glow worms. With exposure times of 1+ minutes, you pretty much need to be alone in the tunnel to avoid the light from other people’s torches getting into your camera.
We entered the tunnel in blissful solitude. Almost as soon as we walked, in we found ourselves in total darkness, despite the light still filtering in from the entrance. Wolfgang handed us our red torches (the only light that doesn’t disturb the glow worms) and we walked single-file deeper into the 400-meter tunnel.
Around halfway through, there is a bend in the tunnel – the darkest spot since no light reaches here from the two entrances. Once we turned off our torches, we could see hundreds of glow worms on the lower part of the tunnel wall. This was a great spot to set up for some photos.
Of course, by the time I set up the tripod and the camera and took a few long-exposure shots, a group of about 4 people appeared from around the bend and the light from their torches filled the tunnel.
Behind them, another group could be heard. So we decided to pack up and continue walking through the tunnel to the other side. It’s incredible that’s a hundred years ago, it took only 6 months to cut this tunnel through the mountain. Most of the time, the construction workers, most likely convicts, would’ve had to work without any natural light, just like in the mines.
If you are as keen as I am on glow worms, check out my guide to finding fireflies and glow worms in the Blue Mountains.
When we emerged from the tunnel into a fern-shrouded gully, it was time for a tea break. Wolfgang and Hedi unpacked a thermos with fruit tea and some delicious German gingerbread cookies and we had a much-appreciated break by the tunnel’s entrance.
Pagoda Track and Old Coach Road
Refreshed by the tea and cookies, we started making our way back via Pagoda Track and Old Coach Road. Pagoda Track is full of fascinating rock formations. According to Hedi, the cliffs here have large content of ironstone and as the softer rock eroded over the eons around the areas of ironstone, it left all kinds of unusual shapes particularly around thecliff tops. Many of the cliffs have these large mushroom top-like formations at the top, which reminded the early explorers of pagodas, hence the name of the track.
All around us, charred trunks of eucalypt trees were covered in new leaves, which was making them look quite fluffy. Interestingly, the leaves were growing on the trunks rather than in the crowns. Probably because the crowns were too damaged by the fire and couldn’t sprout new growth yet.
Even more interesting were the trees and stumps with burnt-out insides. According to Wolfgang and Hedi, what happens with eucalypts in the fire is that they explode from the inside.
There is a lot of oil inside of eucalypt trees and that oil ignites at about 60 degrees C. When it does, the pressure of the fire inside the tree makes it explode. Which is obviously very dangerous for firefighters in the vicinity.
Yet, interestingly, the tree doesn’t necessarily die from this violent release. Most Australian trees are adapted to survive the fires, some even need them for seed germination. So if the conditions are good after the fire, the outer shell of the tree can start generating new growth and the tree might survive. That’s why you occasionally see living eucalypt trees with burnt out insides.
This trail is also where we had our most exciting wildlife encounter – Anu spotted a male lyrebird scraping in the leaf litter. Unfortunately, both of us had camera failures right at that point: Anu’s battery died and I had a wide-angle lens on the camera still set to manual focus from photographing glow worms. But the sighting was very exciting nonetheless. Anu had been talking about wanting to see a lyrebird since we day we met on Kangaroo Valley tour.
Once we reached the junction with Old Coach Road, the trail widened and continued mostly downhill. The first section of the road passed through a dramatic section of towering rock walls on both sides of the trail fringed by tall trees. It was almost like walking through a wide canyon. Some of the cliff walls were almost perfectly vertical and smooth as if they were sliced from the plateau with a knife.
Walking past a wet rock face (there was some rain runoff trickling from the top of the cliff) we came across something I never knew existed in Australia – a carnivorous plant!
Most people are familiar with carnivorous pitcher plants of South-East Asia (like these ones in Borneo), but I was surprised to learn that Australia has quite a variety of insect-eating plants as well. And we would’ve never known what we were looking at if Hedi hadn’t pointed them out.
These plants, called sundew plants, lure, capture and digest their insect prey by the mucous membranes that cover their stalks, like in the image below. A similar strategy to glow worm’s mucous-covered strings. It’s amazing what you discover in the nooks and crannies of the Blue Mountains when you are in the company of knowledgeable guides.
The last section of the Old Coach Road was quite a steep descent for a few hundred meters, which is why Wolfgang and Hedi prefer to walk this loop starting with the more level glow worm tunnel track and returning down the steep Old Coach Road.
Once we arrived at the place where Old Coach road meets the Glow Worm Tunnel track, it was another section of steep descent along a washed out trail that we climbed on the way up.
The best treat was wading barefoot across Wolgan River again. The biting-cold water was the perfect remedy for our tired feet.
By the time we got back to the carpark, ours was the only car there. The track we just did must be the most peaceful walk in the Greater Blue Mountains. Apart from one couple that we met on the way up and the two small groups in the tunnel, we had the trails to ourselves
Maiyingu Marragu – Blackfellow Hand Cave
The drive across Wolgan Valley in the late afternoon was a magical experience. Kangaroos and wombats emerged to feed among the purple fields, seemingly undeterred by the poisonous Paterson’s curse. The setting sun bathed the cliff tops in golden light, adding drama to an already gorgeous landscape. I quickly became convinced that Wolgan Valley is one of the prettiest places in the Greater Blue Mountains.
It was getting quite dark when we arrived at Maiyingu Marragu Blackfellow Hand Cave. Luckily, it is only a short walk from the car park to the caves via a set of stone steps.
The site is a natural amphitheatre of cliffs containing stencil-art produced in red, white and yellow ochres. The cliffs and the overhang are enormous and steeped in a sense of significance and meaning.
According to Lithgow Tourism website: “Blackfellows Hand holds special meaning to Wiradjuri people because of their continuing cultural connection to the place. The site complex includes culturally significant rock shelters and stencil-art which provide a physical and spiritual link to ancestors and provide a place where traditional culture can be sustained. The area is used by the Aboriginal community as a ‘bush school room’ where young people can hear stories from Elders and learn to collect and use bush food and natural medicine.”
The last part of our adventure with Wolfgang and Heidi was the race against the train. Anu and I still had a 2hr train ride to Sydney ahead of us so we were keen to catch the earliest train we could. It would already be close to midnight when we got home even if we managed to catch the early train.
Google maps prediction of our ETA was 4 minutes earlier than the train. Doable, but no room for error. Of course, given how fantastic our day worked out, luck was obviously on our side. And we made it to the train station with 6 minutes to spare. Quite an exhilarating way to finish a day of adventures in the loveliest company.