Barely three hours from Sydney sits the second largest canyon in the world, and within its walls and beyond the rim you’ll find some of the best exploring to be had in eastern NSW.
For holding such an impressive title as the world’s second largest canyon, an awful lot of folk don’t even realise the Capertee is even there. At 30 kilometres across it’s slightly wider than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, although not nearly as deep, and couldn’t be more different in terms of scenery.
Ringed by age-eroded sandstone cliffs and a sprawl of untouched wilderness, the valley has long been a draw for serious birdwatchers, due to its incredible array of birdlife, but there’s far more to check out beyond birds.
The valley sits out beyond Lithgow and the Blue Mountains, and is accessed via the small town of Capertee, situated on the highway to Mudgee. If it weren’t for the fantastic Pearsons Lookout just before town you’d barely realise the valley was even there. I start most of my trips out there with a quick stop at Pearsons, because no matter how many times I see it, it’s one of those views that never gets old.
The Gardens of Stone
From the lookout, a large portion of what you can see ahead is all part of the Gardens of Stone National Park, including the impressive butte of Pantoneys Crown. It’s one of three national parks within the valley walls, although the Garden’s boundary stretches all the way across the adjacent Wolgan Valley and onto Newnes Plateau to the east.
Fields of rocky pagodas and incredible sandstone formations define the Gardens, and make for one of NSW’s most spectacular natural areas, while also being one of its least developed. You won’t find any facilities, campgrounds or even maintained roads, but there are some great 4WD tracks and remote bushwalking opportunities, through an area riddled with dry canyons, caverns and incredible mazes of sculpted rock. Baal Bone Gap, found along a 4WD route that begins at the small hamlet of Ben Bullen, is a good starting point for exploring the area, or for attempting the tough climb up Pantoneys Crown.
Mugii Murum-ban State Conservation Area and Mt Airly
The road into the valley from the town of Capertee is such a great drive, winding gradually down through the spectacular terrain of rolling hills and ridges to the open farmland of the valley floor. On the way down, you pass a couple of towering sandstone clifflines to the left; this is Mugii Murum-ban State Conservation Area. It protects a similar bit of country to the Gardens of Stone, with pagoda mazes, slot canyons and incredible ancient rockforms, as well as one of Australia’s rarest plant species and a trove of forgotten mining history.
I manage to find something new just about every time I head out there, be it hidden natural areas or some forgotten relic of a bygone age. Two huge mesas, Genowlan Mountain and Mt Airly, stand beside a narrow valley where shale oil, gold and even diamonds have been sought over the years. With a little searching it’s pretty easy to find the remains of old stone huts, cave-houses, tramways and other mining relics. There’s a nice little campground tucked in there too, and nearby, there’s a hidden road up through the cliffline to the top of Genowlan Plateau.
Check your CamperMate app for tonnes of other camping options in the region.
Glen Davis and Coorongooba
At the far end of the valley floor is where you’ll find the historic mining village of Glen Davis. While there isn’t too much around these days, there is a nice community-run campground with a canteen the locals sometimes open on weekends. On Saturdays though, you can join a tour through the Glen Davis Oil Shale Works, a fantastic set of ruins that represent the only attempt to commercially produce petrol from oil shale in Australia, and at one point provided almost a fifth of the shale oil produced in Australia.
If you head a few kms past Glen Davis, further into the mouth of the valley as it narrows, you’ll come to Coorongooba camping area, on the fringe of the Wollemi National Park. Surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs, the gently flowing Capertee River and a whole lot of rugged wilderness, I reckon it’s one of the nicest campgrounds in the state, and a free one at that. A gated fire trail continues to run well into the remote wilderness along the river, making for a great walk or bike ride.
Capertee National Park and Glen Alice
The road through the valley can be followed right on through to form a huge loop. It’s all sprawling fields, remnant bushland, huge views and neat little side trips. There’s a series of signs marking birdwatching locations, and the one at Genowlan Bridge is great for a walk, or even a swim if the river’s full. The small hamlet of Glen Alice has a nice picnic area opposite the old cemetery, and happens to lie on the route of the Bicentennial National Trail, which runs from Cooktown all the way down to Melbourne.
The Capertee National Park is hidden in the centre of the valley, and accessed via a gated dirt road. Between the sprawling hills and wild mountains, there’s a peaceful little camping area which is a great place to spend a few isolated days. There’s a couple of rustic bush cottages out there too, with Woolshed ruins, off-track walking and mountain biking trails to hit up.
Ganguddy, Rylstone and the Wollemi
Eventually, the valley opens up and the road’ll take you out to the picturesque historic towns of Rylstone and Kandos, choked full of nice cafes, stores and local wineries. If you take a small turn and head back to the east though, you’ll return to the edge of the vast Wollemi National Park, and the inaccurately named Dunns Swamp Campground, or Ganguddy.
If Coorongooba is one of the nicest campgrounds in the state, then I reckon Ganguddy/Dunns Swamp might just be one of the best in the country. There’s beautiful bush campsites right on the tranquil water, walking trails with amazing views, and lookouts over rocky pagodas where you can catch some incredible sunrises. The dammed river makes for amazing swimming and canoeing, and the wildlife is just out of this world, with echidnas, wallabies, frogs, gliders, quolls, lyrebirds and platypuses all at home around the campground. Seriously, it’s a place that makes it very hard to even consider leaving.