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The North Head Sanctuary at Manly

Looking for a walk that is a little offer the beaten track and offers amazing views? The scenic North Head walk is a bit under the radar but well deserving of a half day of exploration on a longer visit to Sydney.

Exploring Sydney’s North Head

Along with its gorgeous view of Sydney Harbour, the North Head Walk offers something extra, a glimpse of Sydney’s past. Initially a traditional healing place of indigenous people the site went on to become a quarantine station to house early settlers who had arrived by ship. It also hosts a military fort built to protect the new city from possible invasion. The land here holds many stories and thankfully today it remains open to all to explore. 

Covering just under 4 square kilometres North Head is home to some pretty cool wildlife and some of the harbours most magnificent vistas. It was traditionally known as Car-rang-gel and held great significance for the indigenous with people who travelled along the coast to this spot for physical and spiritual healing.

What to see and do on the North Head Walk

Learn more about the history of North Head

The visitor’s centre offers advice on walking tracks.

Make sure you call into the Visitor’s Centre where volunteers can point out the highlights and give you a map of the various walking tracks.  We meet Keith who had lots of tips for making sure we saw as much as we could in the time we had here. He gave us an excellent introduction to the area and was a font of information.

Along with all the natural beauty the sanctuary also encompasses North Fort, a former military base. Military buffs may be interested in visiting the artillery museum or signing up for a guided tour of the tunnels and gun emplacements which runs every Sunday.

As you follow the walking tracks you will come across a paved pathway, Australia’s Memorial Walk, which links five monuments built to commemorate the significant conflict periods in Australia’s history.

Take in all the fantastic harbour views

Third Quarantine Cemetery Manly

There are also three fantastic lookouts providing different aspects of Sydney Harbour.  This one at the Third Quarantine Cemetary offers views across to South Head and its lighthouses.

North Head Cemetery View Manly

Walk, run or ride

There are over 10km of trails and tracks here that are well signposted.  If you want to practice off-road cycling or trail running, I can’t think of a better spot.

North Head Walk Manly
There are lots of well-marked walking trails

It’s also perfect for slow, gentle walks that are suitable for most levels of fitness.

North Head Manly Walkaway
The walkway has mesh along the path in sections to make it easier to walk on wet days

Spot some Australian wildlife

Blue Tongue lizards, rainbow lorikeets and kookaburras are almost always around, bandicoots, echidnas and possums are also occasionally spotted at dawn and dusk.

Kookaburras are easy to spot
Kookaburras are easy to spot

Where to Eat at North Head

At North Head Fort you will find the aptly named Bella Vista Cafe where you can take in the view with a fresh juice or coffee. If you are here at breakfast, the coconut and almond bircher muesli is fab!

Breakfast at North Head Manly
Breakfast at Bella Vista Cafe

Also worth a look is the Boiler Room Cafe at Q Station.

How to get to North Head Sanctuary

It’s a 45-minute walk from Manly Wharf to North Head Sanctuary. However, the walk from the wharf to the start of the park is very steep. You can also walk into North Head from Shelley Beach.  If you plan on walking make sure you pick up the free guide from the Manly Information Centre at the wharf as it’s easy to feel like you are a little lost on the beginning of the track.

If you want to conserve your energy for walking the trails, you can jump on bus 135 from Stand J opposite the wharf to the Visitor’s Centre. On weekdays the first bus leaves Manly Wharf at 7.01am but terminates at Q Station requiring you to walk about 10 minutes to the Visitor’s Centre, from 8.30am buses run the complete route.

On the way back to Manly I strongly suggest turning down Collins Beach Road and taking a detour along the beach before joining the road again at the end of the beach. The is very limited parking and this seems to be a good deterrent to visitors. On the many occasions (admittedly not on summer weekends)  we have visited there have been less than a handful of people here.

Detour: Collins Beach Manly

From the bus stop, it is a 30-minute easy flat walk to North Head. The views back down the harbour are pretty damn impressive.  Looking out to sea, particularly on a grey day can the surroundings feel so desolate, I can only imagine how those quarantined here must have felt.

An alternative way to reach North Head is on the private Manly Fast Ferries Eco Hopper; it stops at Q Station wharf.

Q Station

Sitting right next door to the Sanctuary Q Station has a full range of programs and also offers on-site accommodation.  There are lots to see and do here so if you have time to spare I suggest you check it out too.

View across Middle Head to Balmoral

Notes– This track is closed during total fire bans. Most of the walks here are suitable for those with limited mobility, and the short lookout walk that starts at the Visitor’s centre is pram friendly.  There is very little shelter so make sure you take sunscreen and wear a hat! I would give this a miss on a very hot day too.

When: The North Fort Visitor Centre is open daily from 10am-4pm, except Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Good Friday.

Want more? Download the North Head Sanctuary Visitors Guide (PDF) 

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