Conquering The Castle | A Beautiful Hike In The Budawangs

Sweat dripping into my eyes, palms burning as they cling to the strategically placed rope, swinging 800 m from the Monolith Valley floor. My heart races as I lift myself over the last boulder that’s keeping me from the summit of The Castle. 

How many incredible and challenging hikes in Australia reward you with a vista of the deep blue ocean and jagged mountain tops? The Budawang Ranges is something so spectacular, words cannot do it justice. A once flat ocean floor rose up through tectonic shifts to create the valley of mesas we see today. 

If you search for adventure and scream for challenges, The Castle hike in the Budawang National Park and Morton National Park will soar to the top of your hiking list once you finish reading this.

Overview of The Castle Hike

Distance: 12.5km return

Grade: Grade 4 – Experience Recommended

Time: 6 – 9 hrs

Elevation Gain: 850 m 

Highest Elevation: 836 m

Entrance Fees: NSW National Parks Pass

Facilities: Drop toilet at car park

Climbing the ropes on The Castle hike in the Morton National Park

Just four short hours south of Sydney lies the incredible and unique ‘Budawangs’. An uncompromising mountain range within the Morton National Park and the Budawang National Park. 

A mountain range with a rich history dating back 400 million years, home to many endemic species and geological wonders. And most currently, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Littered with caves, waterways, winding trails, and sheer rock walls, an adventurer could spend many days exploring these magnificent mountains. 

But perhaps the most exciting and spectacular adventure is The Castle Hike, a hike that grinds vertically for the most part of 6 km, ending with a rope-assisted scramble to the summit known as The Castle. 

The landscape unfolds beneath you, stretching from the Monolith Valley to the iconic Jervis Bay on NSW’s south coast. A landscape of mesas and folding gullies, completely unique to this pocket of Australia. The feeling of awe and solace cannot be erased easily as you look down on the birds circling below.

The Castle walk is not to be taken lightly and we speak from experience when we suggest allowing extra time. Exposed rock and vertical climbs assisted by ropes make up the last several kilometres of this hike. And with the majority of the ascent exposed to the beating sun, expect very little respite.

Our recommendation is to make this hike into an overnighter. Climb to the Cooyoyo Creek campsite that sits on the edge of the Monolith Valley and attack the Castle the following morning, when your legs are fresh and the sun is slouching low on the horizon. 

View of Pigeon House Mountain and the coast from the summit of The Castle in the Budawangs

The Ascent Of The Castle

Beginning from the Long Gully Car Park, located to the left of the campsite, you will be met with a sign at the entrance to the trail. This sign warns of the dangers that lie ahead due to exposed rock and steep ascents, and for once, they’re not exaggerating! 

400 m from the entrance to the trail lies the first obstacle, a mandatory crossing of the Yadboro River. Most often, finding a place to cross without getting your feet wet is simple, but be sure to keep a close eye on the forecast as swelling can occur after heavy rain.

The canopy of ancient tree ferns casts a green hew all around as the trail meanders alongside a dried-up creek bed, with moss covering the giant trees fallen from the recent bush fires.

Before long, the skinny trail links up with an old overgrown 4WD track and the ascent begins. 

Crossing the Yadboro River at the base of The Castle Hike in the Budawang Ranges

With legs burning, reaching the first peak of the day is a relief. The landscape flattens out as the trail veers right and wanders through scrubby bushland occupied by tall grass and wildflowers. Wildfires have fallen trees, causing new tracks to form, though they all connect back together eventually. And with a wide-open perspective of the rising mountain in front, getting lost isn’t a concern.

When the ascent begins again, it begins with a vengeance. Loose scree now accompanies the climb, with log steps gratefully positioned in the steepest of sections.

This is all to prepare you for what’s to come. 

The open scrubland ends at the foot of the mountain, where a right turn leads you into a gully and another environmental change. A make-shift staircase guides you through gigantic boulders and exposed tree roots that belong to the ancient tall trees towering above. 

A chain bolted to a large slab of rock indicates you’re almost at the traverse and provides an incredible view of the trek you’ve accomplished so far. 

Walking up the steep chained section of The Castle walk in the Morton National Park
Walking through a cliff side cave on The Castle hike in the Budawang Ranges
Climbing through the twisted trees on The Castle hike in the Budawangs as the sun shines through

Veering left, the trail hugs the cliff line as it traverses deep into the Budawang Ranges. Arrows etched into rocks keep you on course as a couple of goat tracks try to trip you up. Squiggly trees force you to weave over and under their exposed roots, while boulders require you to use your climbing skills to clamber up and over. 

The traverse is our favourite part of this hike, the joys of twisting along the trail, the beautifully quirky rock formations, caves, and snippets of the view that’s to come all compete for our divided attention.

Once the trees thin and the trail steepens yet again, the valley unfolds beneath you, with views stretching to far reached peaks and plummeting cliffs. More make-shift stairs lead you higher until you reach a fork in the path. Left to the Monolith Valley and the Cooyoyo Creek campsite or right to The Castle’s summit.

Sun peaking through the trees on the traverse at the top of the Castle walk in the Budawangs

The Scramble To The Castle Summit

After enduring perhaps the steepest trail that doesn’t require climbing as such, the fun begins. If you’re scared of heights, this may be as far as you go. The scramble to The Castle’s summit is not for the faint of heart and to get this far is an accomplishment in itself.

A skinny tunnel with an arrow etched into its side is your entry point to the backside of the rocky peak and where the access to the summit lies. Pack hauling is a must through here, though be careful not to go hurtling out the other end where a 5 m drop and your first rope awaits.

From the drop, the trail continues left as it traverses alongside the jagged mountain top. Much less used, this track is harder to navigate, though rock cairns and arrows help to lead the way. Reaching the second rope signals the beginning of the big push to the summit.

Sliding through the tight rock tunnel heading for the summit of The Castle in the Budawangs

Now to test your strength and fear levels as you place all your trust in a frayed old rope. Stick to the widest section of the rock in order to make the climb a little less treacherous.

Another two ropes almost immediately follow, with a slightly gentler nature, lifting you higher above the valley floor. The trail leads you down a tight path dipping over and under boulders as you make your way to The Castle.

Our poor attention spans led us down the wrong trail, bringing us to a mightily sketchy scale attempt before forcing us to return. With our tails between our legs, we searched for a better way – or I guess the right way…

Now paying full attention, we were gobsmacked we managed to miss the obvious marker leading to the correct route. After a silent, sheepish moment of realisation, we began climbing up the trail once again.

Working your way closer to The Castle’s summit, the scrub disperses and the land unfolds beneath you. You find yourself perched precariously atop a ridgeline constructed of boulders, looking back on the trail you’ve hiked. The range is unbelievably beautiful as it dips and weaves, telling a story as old as time.

Climbing up rocks with ropes on the final summit of The Castle hike in the Budawang Ranges

The fifth and final rope sets the mind on edge as you’re required to butt shuffle and twist into weird contortionist positions, all the while exposed to the longest fall yet. 

But once that mission is complete, you’ve made it. The 360-degree view, obstructed by nothing, rewards you with a panorama of the iconic Jervis Bay, the pointed Pigeon House Mountain, and the entire Monolith Valley. 

We wish we had more time to sleep atop The Castle’s magnificent mesa, to watch the sun set and cast shadows over the ocean. But as luck had it, we could only spare a day. 

The trek down to the car on tired legs is long. The ropes burn already blistering palms and the trail somehow seems less obvious. But it’s not all negative, the view is all the more spectacular in the setting sun and you could get lucky enough to spot a few cheeky animals. 

Standing on the edge of The Castle's Peak, looking into the distant Monolith Valley

Quick Tips and Suggested Gear

The Castle hike is demanding and exposed, there’s no sugar-coating it. You’ve got to be prepared for a hard slog and expect to need more water than you think, the sun is strong and hammers down on you for the majority of the hike. 

Beginning early is my recommendation to beat the worst heat of the day and to allow enough time to complete the whole hike if you’re doing it in a day.

But an overnight hike, staying in the Morton National Park at the Coyoyoo Creek campground, would be much more enjoyable if you have the time and resources.

This is the list of gear we took with us and highly recommend:

  • Compass and some sort of map ** – The trail is a little tricky to follow in sections.
  • Head Torch – It’s always better to be over-prepared.
  • Sturdy hiking shoes – our favourites for this hike are the Salomon XA Discovery Trail Runners.
  • Extra warm clothes – if you get stuck in the mountains overnight, it gets cold.
  • Rain Jacket – Always prepare for rain in case.
  • Sunscreen – Even in winter, the sun beats down hard on this hike.
  • Water Bottles – preferably VERY hard plastic or metal, the chances of dropping it are high.
  • Sunglasses – Those rocks can be mightily reflective.
  • Small Backpack
  • SNACKS – The highlight of our lives.
  • Camera – DER… If it’s not documented, did it really happen!?
  • First Aid Kit – Unbeknown to Dylan, I always put this in our pack. He’s clumsy on a good day!

** – You can purchase a topographic map from most Visitors Centres in the area. Or, our favourite app to use is Gaia GPS. It has a huge range of walking trails added to its offline settings and tracks your location. It even tells you which direction you’re going with its arrow.

Pretty Butterflies enjoying the sun on a wildflower on The Castle hike in the Budawangs

When To Visit The Budawangs

The Castle hike is open year-round, however, I would avoid hot days as there is very little shade throughout the entire hike. Winter or the shoulder seasons are the best time to visit The Budawangs as the cool weather makes the hike a hell of a lot easier.

Just be prepared for the shorter days and plan to sleep overnight if you’re not sure you’ll make it in time. We surprised ourselves with how long the hike took.

Getting To The Castle Hike

The Budawangs is located within the Morton National Park and the Budawang National Park, approximately 4 hours south of Sydney and 3 hours east of Canberra. 

The Long Gully Car Park, next to the Campground, is the starting point for The Castle Hike. Departing from Sydney, the way is quite simple with the dirt roads beginning at Clyde Ridge Rd after you turn right off Woodburn Rd. 

These dirt roads are 2WD accessible, however, some weather situations could change that. It’s best to check the conditions of the roads and campsites via the national parks website before you depart for your adventure.

The Castle Hike in the Morton National Park Pinterest Pin

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