West of Newcastle, in a remote, high-altitude wilderness where the Warrumbungle and Liverpool Ranges meet, campers covet the high ground at Coolah Tops National Park.
This vast wonderland of silvertop stringybark forests and crystal cascades has plenty to offer, luring bushwalkers, mountain bikers and solitude seekers well off the beaten track to spend starry nights free camping beneath the towering snow gums.
Accessible to conventional vehicles and rigs, including caravans, Coolah Tops provides a cool summertime retreat, while in winter, light snowfalls dust the gum trees and, at sunset, campers commune around fires after a day on the trails. Once logged for its lucrative stringybark forests, Coolah Tops was granted national park protection in 1996, and now safeguards the habitat of greater gliders, kangaroos, wallabies and wombats, managing also to cater brilliantly for campers despite a somewhat remote location.
There’s a network of easy walking and mountain bike trails, pioneer-day relics to discover and great wildlife watching opportunities. In fact, you barely have to move from a sunny seat outside your rig at the Barracks campground to encounter the great mobs of red-necked wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos that welcome walkers returning to camp at day’s end.
Fairy wrens flit past, wombats waddle on by, and sulphur-crested cockatoos and crimson rosellas stake out the canopy of tall eucalypts that shade the Barracks’ spacious circle of caravan-friendly campsites. Although we didn’t manage to stay up late enough to see them, greater gliders – the largest of Australia’s gliding possums – are said to be quite common here, joining the hypnotic night-time chorus of boobook and masked owls, and the rare and endangered powerful owls that hunt the gliders.
TRAILS AND TRACKS
From the Barracks campground, a walking trail (600m) leads across easy ground to a towering stand of giant grass trees, said to be several hundred years old and some of Australia’s oldest. Head to nearby Bundella Lookout to peer over the edge of the escarpment and take in spectacular panoramic views of the Liverpool Plains and the Warrumbungles’ distant volcanic peaks.
From this scenic picnic spot, the easy Mullian Track leads walkers on a 20-minute return stroll to the Pinnacle Lookout (900m) to stand on a knife-edge of volcanic rock and watch the wedge-tailed eagles riding the thermals. Look along the escarpment’s steep cliffs made up of hexagonal columns of lava rock to spot the entrances to deep, tunnelling caves, some reported to be up to 60m-long.
From the Pinnacle Lookout, the Mullian Track continues on, following a sporadically marked path to Rocky Creek Falls (1.7km/20mins each way), where we surprised a herd of wild goats grazing on the steep slopes. Travellers with mountain bikes would enjoy tackling this easy, flat trail and the park’s other, broad, bike-friendly bush tracks. Try biking the Coxs Creek fire trail (3km one way), the Telstra fire trail between Norfolk Falls and the Pines camping area (2.6km one way), and the Bundella Track, which you can make into a 5.2km-long circuit by returning via the Racecourse Track.
The Snow Gum Walk – a trail beneath the largest known species of snow gum – is well worth your time and energy, as is the short interpretive trail that descends beneath a dense canopy of silvertop stringybark, forest ribbon gum and silver wattle to reach Norfolk Falls’ 35m drop. Two platforms provide good views of the falls and interpretive signs along the way help distract from the challenge of tackling the trail’s 250 steps (1.1km/25mins return).
AMONG THE TREES
Nestled among eucalypts, close to a watery cascade and the remains of an old sawmill, the campground at Coxs Creek provides a quiet bush setting to spend a few days. Tent-based campers and camper trailers seem to favour this spot and it’s a good alternative for caravanners, too, when the Barracks is busy. Facilities at Coxs Creek include picnic tables, fire rings, wood barbecues, and a toilet. In the park’s far east, 4WD vehicles can tackle the rugged route to a picnic spot above Bald Hill Falls with tables and fireplaces, and a walking trail that follows the cascading creek downstream to Bald Hill Creek Falls (30m), Boulder Falls (400m) and Norfolk Falls (1.4km). Close by and providing a spacious base for larger rigs is the cool, grassy camp at the Pines. The basic facilities on offer include fire pits and a wheelchair-accessible toilet, but there are no picnic tables or drinking water available.
Exploring on from the Pines, we discovered a red-bellied black snake on the road to historic Brackens Cottage, a restored 1937 cattleman’s hut that you can rent for $40 per night. The spartan furnishings include just a handful of wire beds so you’d need to bring camping mats and comfy chairs (or a tent to pitch in the grounds), but the lovely indoor fireplace looked a cosy spot for a group to gather around on wintery nights. The cottage suits a party of five and outside there’s a picnic table, rainwater tank and toilet.
The forests at Coolah Tops were well-utilised before national park protection was granted and as you drive, walk and ride through the park, it’s easy to spot the old tree stumps left behind by pioneering timber-getters who began logging the park’s stringybarks in the 1870s.
The timber went to build many of the old homesteads in the township of Coolah, located at the bottom of the plateau and, later, for railway sleepers, which earned timber-getters two shillings for each squareback sleeper. The timber boom didn’t last long, which has proved fortunate for this incredible park’s stringybark forest and its pockets of rare giant grass trees and snow gums.
The town of Coolah is located 275km inland from Newcastle via the Golden Highway.
To reach the national park, head east along Coolah Creek Road. Sections of this road are steep and unsealed, but navigable by conventional vehicles and small-to-medium-sized rigs driven with care.
- Camping within the national park is free and 2WD vehicles can access campgrounds at the Barracks, the Pines and Coxs Creek.
- Historic Brackens Cottage rents for $40 per group, per night (bookings required).
- Camping facilities include wheelchair-accessible toilets, picnic shelters, rainwater tanks and fireplaces.
- You can collect firewood within the national park but chainsaws are prohibited. Bins are not provided and pets and generators are not permitted.
- The best seasons to visit are autumn and spring.