Jenolan Caves Blue Lake River Walk, Blue Mountains
For mystery, magic and a little eeriness, you can’t beat the Jenolan River Walk. Its’ impressive locale at the gate of the famous Jenolan Caves immediately sets the tone and elevates its status amongst the many walks of the Blue Mountains. For this isn’t just any place. Nor is it the site of the Mysteries, Legends and Ghosts tour for nothing? Come. I’m sure you’ll agree.
Sequestered deep in the mountain; isolated from major roads and townships, there is a mysticalness about the Jenolan area that touches a more primitive part of oneself. With over 340 million years to their credit (established by CSIRO clay dating methods), the Caves have been around far longer than you or I. They’re even older than the dinosaurs (extinct a piddly by comparison, 65 million years ago). There is something daunting about anything so old!
Is it the compression of all that time that gives this ancient spot such a feeling of intensity? Perhaps its the dominion of nature and time over mankind and our vulnerability to both. Or perhaps even, the remnants of the late 1880’s – early 1900’s that still cling to the area: (the old walls, bridges, buildings and hydro-electricity plant) reminding one of a harsher period in Australian colonial history. Is it the ghost stories? Or the fear of the dark?
The local indigenous Gundungarra tribes called the area “Binoomea” meaning ‘Dark Places’. They visited the caves to bathe their sick in the curative subterranean waters.
The River Walk starts at the suitably named ‘Blue Lake’, east of the Grand Arch (the rock structure that hangs eerily overhead like a set from a vampire movie).
The Lake dwells like a magic billabong below the somewhat spooky Grand Arch. This ultra-pretty man made lake (created in 1908 for the generation of electricity), is fed by the River Styx and Jenolan River. Fringed with palms, it reminds me of the movie “The Blue Lagoon,” minus the adolescence. Here you will find tourists lingering and taking photographs of the unnaturally blue water. You will find yourself doing the same.
The surreal water is naturally coloured by the refraction of light upon the limestone deposits and bed-rock. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a magical creature – the resident platypus. It’s also possible water nymphs and bunyips come here to drink.
Fancy aside, some practical information:
The Blue Lake River Walk has a total length of 2.6km which should take you in the vicinity of 1 to 2 hours depending on you. It is generally cited as taking 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
It comprises some short steep hills, gentle slopes and occasional steps, but would be suitable for most walkers including children.
Graded ‘Easy’ to ‘Moderate’, it’s a gentle and safe walk over a well-formed and easy to see pathway. It is well sign-posted and close to the facilities (like public toilets and a kiosk / cafe) at the Caves.
The walk takes one along the hillside and downstream the river, within the greater Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve. A circuit style walk, it starts outside the Grand Arch and ends back there.
The walk passes the weir, various bridges including a suspension bridge, some waterfalls and the hydroelectric power station (first completed in 1917 and Australia’s first hydro-electric system) and picnic area. You will return back from an intersection above a bridge.
The last part of your journey back to the Grand Arch will take you upon a railed bridge.
The sound of rushing water (on your left) provides an acoustic accoutrement to your walk. Though, its’ song, I should point out, is more of a gush or roar than a melody.
The main vegetation is forest and woodland with some radiata pine (free-ranging from Oberon plantations) and other introduced trees. There are also great infestations of nettle. This gives it a slightly different and greener feel to the standard Australian bush walk. The main visible wild-life seems to consist of lizards and birds, particularly lyre-birds and small finches. At night, small bats are common.
Shade cover for the most part and the coolness of the nearby running water, make this an excellent choice of walk for summer. With the mountain on one side, it’s also well sheltered against wind. As it doesn’t enjoy much sun, it can feel dark and cold in winter.
In my experience of this walk, it is reasonably populated during school holiday and weekend periods, but never frantically busy. During quieter days during the week and particularly after 5pm, you may find yourself alone on it. In fact, the whole Caves area seems to empty out after 5pm. Must be all those rumours of ghosts and hungry vampires. Fortunately, lighting now exists at the Blue Lake. Very comforting!
As you drift deeper towards the valley floor, an eeriness sometimes seems to lurk. There is an intensity about the bush that makes one sometimes feel they are being watched. But by what? Or who? It could be the feng shui of the land, which seems to tilt upward so that the light seems to peer down at you at an odd angle from over the tops of the trees. Or so I tell myself. On the other hand, it could be watching spirits. I’m sure the Aboriginals believed such things.
As a short walk, one can feel the need for something more once any troublesome stomach rumbles or bladders have been dealt with. No problems. There is plenty more opportunity for walking and exploring here. One option is instead of turning back at the intersection, continue further down into the valley.
Personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to do this walk on my own. Few people seem to. If you do, make sure you allow enough time to get back before nightfall. Otherwise, you might, like me, find yourself running back along the darkened path during an impromptu thunderstorm, with images of ghosts in the back of your mind. For those with less active imaginations, it should be no problem. But know, there is a resident ghost at Caves House and a waitress I once worked with claims to have seen her at the window. You can find out all about Mrs Chisolm (former employee of Caves House) in the Jenolan Caves Legends, Mysteries and Ghosts Tour.
Alternatives to continuing on the River Walk, are Carlotta’s Arch Track (30 minutes), the Devil’s Coach House Look down (30 minutes) or the McKeowns Valley Track (2-3 hours return). The latter takes one through the the Devil’s Coach House cave. Appropriately named, this free to enter open cave, is big and dark enough to house the Devil’s own coach and all his minions within it. Check it out! I promise bone chills and creepiness galore.
For those who prefer a walk of a very short, sweet variety, instead of the River Walk, choose the easy 30 minute Blue Lake Loop. It’s simply a walk around the Blue Lake.
For more info on all these walks, click on this link to the bushwalking section of the Jenolan Caves website.
How to Get There
Jenolan Caves is only accessible via car or coach tour. To get there follow the Great Western Highway along the Blue Mountains to Hartley. At Hartley watch for the sign to Jenolan Caves telling you to turn left. Follow the signs all the way. From Katoomba, the caves are approximately one hour away. At certain times of the day the road is one way in or out.
There is free parking onsite. Drive through the cave mouth and pass Caves House (the old European looking building). It’s just up from there. From the parking spot it’s a quick 5-10 minute walk back down to the Grand Arch.
Weather Conditions and Clothing Issues
Temperatures in the Jenolan area can range from an average maximum of 25 degrees Celsius (in January) to a average minimum of 0.2 degrees Celsius (in July). Its probably best to wear closed footwear for this walk. If you turn up in sandals or thongs, keep to the paths and avoid walking near the nettle plants.