With the popularity of Manly Beach and the Spit to Manly walk, I’m really surprised that more people don’t know about another awesome Sydney Harbour walk in the area.
The Manly to North Head walk (technically called the North Head Sanctuary Loop) is an ~8km walking track that starts from above Shelly Beach and loops up and around to the end of North Head, aka the outermost point of Sydney Harbour. It offers dramatic coastal cliffs, interesting bushland, and epic harbour views with a side of military history.
I’d say we spent about 3 hours walking, including plenty of photo stops. The below map outlines the (counter clockwise) route that we took through North Head Sanctuary; for more details, look no further than this map put out by the government.
Shelly Beach to The Barracks Precinct
The first leg of the Manly to North Head walk can be done in one of two ways: 1). By walking/taking the bus straight up North Head Scenic Drive to the Barracks Precinct (shorter, more direct), or 2). By walking up the path that starts from the Shelly Beach parking lot (bit longer, much more scenic and interesting).
I recommend you walk up via option 2, and back via option 1. Or flip that if you prefer, but definitely don’t skip the part of the trail from Shelly Beach unless you’re really short on time. (Note that this is marked as a “secondary route” on the map I’ve linked to above).
To reach the start of the North Head walk, head for the steps that lead up from the picnic area at Shelly Beach, walk straight through the parking lot, and you’ll spot the start of the trail on the other side.
The first segment of this trail offers several viewpoints that look out over the ocean and up the coast toward the Northern Beaches.
Before long, the trail heads up and inland into the bush, though for the most part remains open to the sky (i.e. you’re not deep in the woods with trees overhead). There are distant views of the sea, interesting foliage, and military remnants to look at along the way.
The Barracks Precinct to North Head Lookout
Not long after the trail crosses Blue Fish Drive, it will deliver you to the Barracks Precinct (formerly the School of Artillery). Basically, you’ll be walking past buildings and thinking “wait… am I even allowed in here?”. Needless to say, we didn’t linger and followed signs directing us to the pedestrian path.
This next segment is my favorite part of the whole North Head Sanctuary loop. It veers toward Sydney Harbour and offers a couple of excellent lookout points over the water from Manly to Middle Head (with a little bit of the city skyline in the distance)
The trail here is mostly lined with boardwalk, which makes for smooth walking. Lots of banksia and butterflies.
There is a side track you can take that leads down to Q Station, where you can wander the grounds, grab lunch, or maybe even take a ghost tour. This venue once served as a quarantine station for migrants arriving in Australia, and all of its buildings have been preserved and kept in their original condition.
Quarantine Beach is accessible through Q Station grounds – the only other way to reach it is by boat, so it’s worth a look/swim if only for the novelty factor.
The North Head Sanctuary loop curves past the Third Quarantine Cemetery (Sydney, what is it with you and ridiculously picturesque cliffside cemeteries?) and drops down to what I consider to be THE best view of Sydney Harbour and certainly the best view on the North Head walk. It doesn’t seem to be named on the map, so I’m going to go ahead and call it the North Head Lookout.
Guys, this is the ULTIMATE spot for a sunset picnic, preferably of the romantic variety (future suitors, please take note: a date here is on my bucket list!).
There’s also a nice cafe and toilets nearby, so it’s an ideal spot to take a break. Plus, it’s about the halfway point of the Manly to North Head walk.
Fairfax Lookouts to The Barracks Precinct (via Australia’s Memorial Walk and Hanging Swamp)
From the North Head Lookout, we walked along the paved road to the Fairfax Lookouts, but you could alternatively follow the loop trail and take the side path to the lookouts (the less direct way).
Either way, the Fairfax Lookouts provide sensational views of the outer harbour and the rugged coastline around both North Head and across to South Head. Don’t skip them!
Heading back down to Manly, follow Australia’s Memorial Walk which honors those who served Australia in the war. There are historical monuments and names carved into the stones that comprise the walkway.
The North Fort area also hosts a couple of gun emplacements as well as a tunnel tour, which is held at 4 different times every Sunday year-round (book at the visitor’s centre).
After the Memorial Walk, the path forks a couple of times. I recommend you keep taking a right and follow signs for Hanging Swamp. The boardwalk through this area crosses some marsh-y bits and cuts through bush and it’s quite pretty.
From here, the North Head walk heads back in to the Barracks Precinct and down the Manly the same way you came, but you can cut down to North Head Scenic Drive for a more direct route to Manly Wharf and beach.
How to get there: Take the ferry to Manly wharf and start walking!
How much time to allow: ~ 3 hours return. Add more time if you’re visiting Q Station or taking a tunnel tour.
You’ll love this hike if you enjoy: Panoramic harbour views, history, bushwalking with few other people around