Jenolan Caves the Magic of Time
The Jenolan Caves. A wonder from millions of years ago
Not all of the Blue Mountains’ best attractions can be found above ground. The Jenolan Caves, found just 30km west of Katoomba, are a series of spectacular limestone caves that have been drawing visitors to the area for more than 150 years.
This otherworldly labyrinth of caverns was carved out of the earth over millions of years by underground rivers, forming a 300-cave system known around the world. Nine of those caves are open for public viewing, and at just a three-hour drive from Sydney are easily accessible.
If you’re heading out to explore the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, make sure you add a stop at the Jenolan Caves to your travel itinerary.
A wonderful discovery
The Jenolan Caves are old — really old. In 2006, the CSIRO determined that the clay in the caves is approximately 340 million years old, making this the oldest known open cave system in the world.
For thousands of years, the caves were known by the local Aboriginal people as Binoomea, meaning “dark places”. It wasn’t until 1838 that those dark places were discovered by European settlers when, as legend has it, local pastoralist James Whalan was tracking an escaped convict and robber by the name of James McKeown.
McKeown had reportedly been using the caves as a hideout — a very effective one at that — and in hunting down the bushranger, Whalan had inadvertently stumbled on a truly amazing natural attraction.
In the following years, James Whalan and his brother Charles would go on to discover several caves in the area.Other adventurers and explorers soon followed suit. The Elder Cave was discovered and explored in 1848, while the Lucas Cave, the largest cavern currently open to public visitors, was discovered in 1860.
As word of this breathtaking network of limestone chasms spread, and as the arrival of the railway made travel to the Blue Mountains a whole lot easier, the caves started to gain status as a tourist attraction.
In an effort to preserve this unique area, the government declared it a reserve in 1866. This did little to protect the caves from those visitors keen to take home their very own slice of the underground cave system, however, and the damage done by these early souvenir hunters can still be seen in some caves today.
But when this practice was outlawed in 1872, it was an important acknowledgement of the importance and beauty of the Jenolan Caves. By the 1880s, they had become a bona fide drawcard for tourists.
The Imperial Cave and the Chifley Cave had been discovered, pathways were built through the caves, electric lighting was introduced and moves were made to protect the most spectacular crystal formations. And with the construction of an accommodation house in 1880, the area really started to take off.
Throughout the early years of the 20th century, exploration of this astonishing cave system continued. Working by candelight and setting off into the dark unknown, brave cavers discovered the River, Pool of Cerberus, Temple of Baal, Orient and Ribbon Caves in 1903 and 1904.
Several other discoveries were made in the decades that followed, but there are still plenty of areas that remain unexplored. Who knows how many more underground wonders are out there just waiting to be discovered?
Planning your visit
Over 230,000 people visit the Jenolan Caves each year, and it’s not hard to see why. This is one of the most beautiful and accessible cave systems anywhere in the world, and each cave offers a unique experience to visitors.
The Lucas Cave is perhaps the best known of all and is home to the fascinating and oft-photographed Broken Column. It also offers views of the pure underground river and a wide array of cave formations, making it a must-visit.
If you’ve got extra time to go exploring, there are myriad options to choose from. The Temple of Baal Cave is known for its spectacular formations, especially the Angel’s Wing shawl, while the River Cave features the pristine blue pools of the underground River Styx.
There are kids’ tours, adventure caving opportunities for thrill seekers, and tours that take you off the beaten track. The after-dark Legends, Mysteries & Ghosts tour is led by lantern and has no set route, so it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.
And while the Jenolan Caves are understandably the main attraction, there’s plenty to experience and enjoy out in the sunlight as well. Historic Jenolan Caves House, built in 1897, is a grand old hotel where you can enjoy a hearty dinner or even stay the night.
There’s also great bushwalking in the area, with six tracks to choose from. The Blue Lake Loop is an easy 30-minute stroll, and worth it just to take in the views of the lake’s stunning turquoise water. The Jenolan River Walk is a 3km round trip past waterfalls and over bridges — if the weather’s warm enough, you might even want to cool off in one of the swimming holes.
Whether you visit for an hour, a whole day or even longer, there’s a whole lot to see and enjoy in and around the Jenolan Caves. If you’re searching for a unique and stunning adventure, these “dark places” offer some of the most memorable experiences in the Blue Mountains.