The North Head Walk in Manly

Last updated: October 13, 2020

The North Head Walk in Manly is one of Sydney’s most fascinating hikes, with lots of history, panoramic views, and scenic beaches to enjoy.

What’s great about this adventure is that it is both a coastal walk as well as a bush walk. And while it is a rather long trail, it is suitable for all ages and fitness levels.

An added bonus is that the starting and end points are both in beautiful Manly, so there is even more reason to put this walk on top of your hiking todo list!

North Head Walk
Distance:9.5 km (part circuit)
Time:3-5 hours
Grade:Moderate
Dogs:Not allowed

How to Get There

The best way to get to Manly and do the North Head Walk is by ferry.

The North Head Walk is essentially a circuit walk that starts and ends in Manly, and the ferry wharf is an excellent location to officially start this hike.

Manly ferry wharf
Manly ferry wharf

The ferry ride to Manly is one of the most scenic ferry trips in Sydney Harbour, and really adds to the experience. Plus, there’s no need to worry about parking in Manly.

If you do want to drive to Manly, there are quite a few large car parks in the centre of town. They typically provide two hours free parking, but after those two hours it can get a bit expensive. Just keep in mind that the walk will take at least 3 hours.

About Manly’s North Head

North Head is one of the two Sydney Heads that provide access to Port Jackson from the ocean. South Head forms part of the suburb of Watsons Bay, and North Head forms part of Manly.

There’s also Middle Head, a large headland that faces the entrance. This is where Port Jackson splits into North Harbour towards Manly, Middle Harbour towards the Spit Bridge and beyond, and Sydney Harbour towards the city.

North Head is traditionally known as Car-rang-gel, and was, and still is, a place of significance for the Gayamagal people. It was a place used for ceremonies and medicinal practices.

Aerial view of North Head in Manly
North Head

In the 19th century, the headland was used as a quarantine station, processing passengers and ships arriving in the colony. Some of the old quarantine station buildings still exist today and can be visited.

In the 20th century, during WWII, North Head was used as a military site to defend Sydney and New South Wales. As such, North Head became one of the most heavily fortified sites in Australian history.

Today, North Head is home to the North Head Sanctuary, a protected area managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. It’s a fascinating place to visit, with not only great views to enjoy, but also lots to learn about Sydney’s military history.

Most of the North Head Walk passes through the North Head Sanctuary, and is the best way to experience everything this unique area has to offer.

Highlights and Map

The North Head Walk is the second section of the Manly Scenic Walkway, which also includes the Spit Bridge to Manly Walk as the first section.

In this guide to the Manly North Head Walk, we are going to focus on the following 12 highlights and landmarks:

  1. Shelly Beach
  2. Shelly Headland Lookouts
  3. Bluefish Track
  4. The Barracks Precinct
  5. Hanging Swamp
  6. Gun Emplacements
  7. Australia’s Memorial Walk
  8. Fairfax Lookout
  9. North Fort
  10. Third Quarantine Cemetery
  11. Collins Beach
  12. Little Manly Beach

In the track notes below, we’re describing the North Head Walk in a clockwise manner, following these highlights, starting at Shelly Beach.

Here is a map for your reference, with the highlights marked from 1 to 12:

Map and highlights of the North Head Walk in Manly

North Head Walk Track Notes

While the North Head Walk isn’t a very hard walk at all, there are quite a lot of intersections along the way where you might head into the wrong direction.

You certainly won’t get lost on North Head, but it would be a pity to miss out on one or more of the interesting sights and landmarks.

The North Head Walk actually forms part of the 80km long Bondi to Manly walking track, and you will notice that there is quite a lot of signage for that walk.

The best tip to stay on the right track is to actually follow the Bondi to Manly signs. These are marked with a yellow fish symbol, and are very easy to recognise.

1. Shelly Beach

From the Manly ferry wharf, make your way to Manly’s main beach via The Corso on the other side of the peninsula.

Once you’re at the beach, follow the Marine Parade along the shoreline to beautiful Shelly Beach.

Shelly Beach as seen from Marine Parade
Shelly Beach as seen from Marine Parade

The Marine Parade walking path is a tourist attraction in itself, with stunning views of the ocean and Shelly Beach at the end of the walk.

The track continues behind the beach to the Shelly Headland Lookouts via the steps leading to the car park.

2. Shelly Headland Lookouts

There are several lookout points on this headland from where you can enjoy sweeping ocean views.

Views from the Shelly Headland
Views from the Shelly Headland

The track continues southbound, but if you do have the time, you can actually do a detour and turn left to explore the headland a bit more via a walking track.

Otherwise, simply keep following the path southbound towards North Head. This path now slowly evolves into a bushwalk with a few steep parts.

3. Bluefish Track

The track soon hits a huge sandstone wall, which was built in the 1880’s to separate the land owned by the church from the quarantine land.

Sandstone wall on North Head
Sandstone wall with access gate

Make your way through the little door inside this wall to continue on the main track. This part of the walk is called the Bluefish Track, which ends at Bluefish Drive on North Head.

The Bluefish Track is an interesting trail through scenic bushland and swamp areas, with a few old military gun pits and observation posts to explore.

Old Quarry Swamp along the Bluefish Track
Old Quarry Swamp along the Bluefish Track

Bluefish Drive, at the end of the Bluefish Track, forms the eastern boundary of the North Head Sanctuary.

This is where the main walking track crosses the road, and continues towards the historic Barracks Precinct.

4. The Barracks Precinct

The Barracks Precinct is a collection of art deco buildings, a parade ground, service areas and sheds, and a large area of bushland.

Parade Ground in the Barracks Precinct
Parade Ground in the Barracks Precinct

The main Barracks were the largest in Australia, and played an important role in upgrading the nation’s coastal defence throughout the 1930’s.

After World War II, the Barracks were used by the newly established Army School of Artillery. The school remained there until 1998, before the Harbour Trust took over management of the area in 2001.

5. Hanging Swamp

The main walking track crosses the parade ground where you will see a large signpost. This is where you turn left and follow the signs to the Hanging Swamp.

Hanging Swamp on North Head
Walking path through Hanging Swamp

The Hanging Swamp is essentially a large area of swampland with a long boardwalk constructed through and above it.

This is actually quite a fascinating section of the walk, with excellent views of the natural surroundings to soak in.

6. Gun Emplacements

The main track continues on to an area where two heavy 9.2 inch calibre guns were positioned during the second World War to protect Sydney against enemy ships.

Gun Emplacements on North Head
Gun Emplacements

The road where these weapons were located is painted in camouflage colors to help conceal the location from potential aerial observation.

The weapons were only engaged once, in 1943, when an unidentified Polish ship approached the Harbour without official clearance. After warning shots, the ship turned away and moved on to Newcastle.

Barrel Display on North Head
Barrel Display

One barrel is displayed along the road, which gives visitors an idea of how big these weapons were at the time.

7. Australia’s Memorial Walk

From the Gun Emplacements, the walk flows into Australia’s Memorial Walk.

The Memorial Walk is a paved pathway with five monuments to remember the major military conflict periods in Australia’s history. It honours those who have served and supported Australia’s defence in peace or in war.

Australia's Memorial Walk on North Head
Australia’s Memorial Walk

The monuments have been designed to provide visitors with information on the military conflicts, and also serves as a place to rest, reflect, and to remember.

8. Fairfax Lookout

The path to the Fairfax Lookout starts from an intersection at the Memorial Walk, which is clearly signposted. At that signpost, keep walking straight to visit the Fairfax Walk and the Fairfax Lookout.

Path to the Fairfax Lookout
Path to the Fairfax Lookout

The Fairfax Walk is a family-friendy 1km long circuit trail which takes in several lookout points that offer incredible views of Sydney Harbour, the city skyline, South Head and the ocean.

The highlight along this walk is the Fairfax Lookout, which is widely considered one of the most scenic lookout points in Sydney. It’s also the perfect whale watching spot, with clear ocean views.

Harbour views from the Fairfax Lookout
Harbour views from the Fairfax Lookout

Once you’re finished admiring the views at the Fairfax Lookout, it’s important to retrace your steps back to the intersection at the Memorial Walk.

This will allow you to continue the rest of the Memorial Walk from there, and visit the Defence of Sydney Monument.

This is a sandstone lookout over Sydney Harbour, dedicated to the memory of all those who served in the defence of Sydney during the Second World War.

9. North Fort

The next stop is the Visitor Centre and the cafe in the North Fort section of the North Head Sanctuary.

North Fort signpost
Cafe in the North Fort section

The Visitor Centre unfortunately is currently closed until further notice, which also means there are no guided tours of the underground fortifications being organised.

The cafe close to the Visitor Centre is open for takeaway coffee and food, so you can pick a nice spot outside with views to enjoy a refreshment.

North Fort walking path
Path leaving North Fort behind

To continue the main track, look out for the path to a small sandstone wall. From there, the track continues northbound to the Third Quarantine Cemetery.

10. Third Quarantine Cemetery

The Third Quarantine Cemetery was established in 1881, initially for victims of a smallpox outbreak. It was later used to cater for victims of the bubonic plague in 1900 and the influenza epidemic of 1919.

Third Quarantine Cemetery on North Head
Third Quarantine Cemetery

The National Heritage listed cemetery was closed in 1925, and now contains the remains of more than 200, mostly young, people.

Visitors are welcome to access the cemetery and wander around.

11. Collins Beach

From the cemetery, the walking track continues back towards the Barracks Precinct via a well-maintained path through scenic bushland.

Note that there are a few intersections where things may get a bit confusing, but if you keep following the Bondi to Manly walk signs, you’re on the right track.

Collins Beach signpost
The road to Collins Beach

The track soon arrives at North Head Scenic Drive. Follow this road a little while, and turn left into Collins Beach Road at the signpost.

Follow that road until you get to one of Sydney’s prettiest secluded beaches, Collins Beach, also known as Collins Flat Beach.

Collins Beach
Collins Beach (aka Collins Flat Beach)

Walk across the sand to continue the walking track heading into the bush on the other side of the beach.

The track is now officially leaving North Head behind and is heading back into Manly, but not before taking in a few more scenic highlights.

12. Little Manly Beach

From Collins Beach, the track continues past “Jump Rock” to Little Manly Point from where you can enjoy very scenic views of the bay and the Harbour.

Little Manly Point
Little Manly Point

Little Manly Beach is a popular family-friendly beach, quietly tucked away between Manly Point and Little Manly Point.

It has excellent facilities, including a shark-proof swimming enclosure and a cafe right at the beach.

East Manly Cove Beach
East Manly Cove Beach

From Little Manly Beach, the walking track returns to Manly via Stuart Street, followed by the esplanade along East Manly Cove.

And now it’s time to pick a good cafe, pub or restaurant for a well-deserved lunch, and perhaps even a nice cold beer.

 

North Head Walk in Manly

 
 
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