Greater Blue Mountains Drive

The Regions

Hawkesbury Valley

Hawkesbury Valley is the big river country of the Greater Blue Mountains. The mighty Hawkesbury meandering north into broad tidal waters was a natural barrier to the spread of colonial settlement in New South Wales. In the early years, activity was confined to the relatively rich soils on the coastal side of the river, sweeping south to the Cowpastures (Camden area) in a fertile arc. This was the colony's bread basket, surrounded by harsh sandstone hills where nothing could be grown, reaching into the mysterious blue distance.

And yet for millennia the Wannaruah, the Darkinjung and the Darug people had nurtured this land, and it had supported them. The sandstone country, though not as naturally productive as the river flats, nevertheless produced a natural bounty of plants and animals. This produce could be sustainably harvested by those who understood the natural limits and rhythms and who could respond to them with stewardship and seasonal movement.

As white settlement pushed westward, the Hawkesbury River became a springboard for further expansion. After the Blue Mountains were crossed in 1813 from further up the river, the next three routes over the sandstone ranges were forged out of the Hawkesbury Valley. First was Howe's Track in 1819, a daunting traverse through the long axis of the wilderness to the Hunter Valley. The Putty Road from Windsor to Singleton still follows basically the same route. It was made into a substantial road during World War II, in case Sydney was invaded.

Next to fall was the ancient Aboriginal way along the Bell Range, from Windsor to the Lithgow Valley. Nineteen-year-old Archibald Bell was led there in 1823 by Darug men Cogy and Emery. Bells Line of Road was surveyed the same year and in the 1860s became an important route for diggers flocking to the Bathurst goldfields. It too received a strategic World War II upgrade.

Last, but not least, was the Great North Road, from the big bend of the Hawkesbury (now Wisemans Ferry) to the Hunter Valley. Completed in 1831, it was a major engineering and construction effort following a route of relatively low resistance (once up the Hawkesbury cliffs!) through the Wollombi Valley. These three roads, and the Great Western Highway to the south, remain the only transport corridors across the sandstone expanse west of Sydney.

So Windsor has long been something of a crossroads, as well as an agricultural centre. Today, the pattern of land use and transport in the Hawkesbury Valley reflects both the natural features of the landscape and those colonial origins. From a nucleus of agriculture and settlement around the river, the rugged hills reach higher and higher into the west and to the north. Left largely alone but for some logging and other low-key activity, this land was progressively given over for conservation, and in 2000 was still intact enough to warrant World Heritage listing.

Three major rivers flow out of those hills to join the Hawkesbury River: the Macdonald from the north, the Colo from the north-west and the Grose from the west. The Grose reaches almost down to the Hawkesbury in a steep gorge, but wide alluvial flats extend upstream on the Colo and the Macdonald until they too emerge from narrow gorges. The flats are perfect for agriculture, and were discovered quite early. Beyond those valley corridors, settlement and human activity in the outer Hawkesbury Valley is limited to scattered ribbons and patches along more fertile creeks and shale ridge-tops. The rest is national park a higher proportion than perhaps any other region in New South Wales, and a wilderness wonderland of forests, wildlife, Aboriginal heritage and enjoyment for all.

More information

For further information on things to see and do in this region and local national parks, visit the following local visitor information centres or websites. See also the Greater Blue Mountains Drive Companion Guide.

Snapshot of the region
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (Department of Environment and Climate Change)
Toll-Free: 1300 361 967
Tourism NSW
Hawkesbury Valley
Ham Common, Windsor Road, Clarendon
Phone: 02 4578 0233

Hawkesbury Valley Landscapes

The Hawkesbury Valley region has a greater proportion of land protected in national parks than perhaps any other area in the state. Yengo National Park and the eastern parts of Blue Mountains and Wollemi National Parks fall into the north-east Mellong and central Kedumba sectors of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and cover a great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.

The most dramatic landforms are the three great valleys running up into the mountains from the Hawkesbury River. The middle reaches of the Grose River and Colo River, upstream of the settled river flats, have gouged similar gorges deep into the layers of Hawkesbury Sandstone. Sun-filled woodlands of contorted bloodwood and angophora trees tumble off the ridges down yellow and orange cliffs to deep pools where platypus, wild ducks and bass swim.

Further upstream, towards the limits of the Hawkesbury region, the geology changes. The valleys widen into softer layers of shale, flanked by huge cliffs of Narrabeen Sandstone up to 300 metres in height. Above stand prominent peaks capped by remnants of basalt lava flows that once covered much of the area. Between the heights of Mount Tomah, Mount Banks and Mount Wilson and the banks of the Hawkesbury River there is a fall of a thousand metres.

The third river, the Macdonald, is more subdued. With a relatively dry catchment and lower relief, the alluvial flats extend further upstream. When the gorge begins, the river's sandy bed winds between small cliffs and stands of blue gums.

Between these rivers lies the sandstone expanse of even-topped ridges divided by a countless smaller streams a maze of complex terrain that bewildered the white explorers before they could find ways through. This is harsh country, with shallow sandy soils that dry out quickly and are poor in essential nutrients for plant growth, razed by regular bush fires. And yet it is this very hardship that has produced the amazing variety of plants for which the mountains won World Heritage recognition. When things are tough, plants have to find original ways of coping. Such evolutionary pressure is a wellspring of diversity.

Vegetation across the area covers a remarkable range from the warm temperate rainforest of the moist mountain-tops and shady gorges to the open woodlands of the driest ridges. Between there are numerous different communities of open forest and tall open forest, as well as heathlands, mallee and sedgelands.

The same landscapes that dominate the World Heritage area extend into adjacent reserves, notably Parr State Conservation Area (south of Yengo National Park) and Dharug National Park to the east. Together, the protected lands of the Hawkesbury Valley offer an amazing diversity of sights and experiences, and a lifetime of exploration for anyone.

Discovery Trails

The following Discovery Trails can be found within this region...