Hat Head National Park

Somewhere along the Mid North Coast between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, you’ll find Hat Head National Park. As one of many national parks on the New South Wales (NSW) coast, you might not think much about visiting this small park. But, think again. It boasts terrific camping, challenging hiking trails, stunning beaches, and interesting historical landmarks, making it one of my favourite spots along the coast north of Sydney. 

Hat Head National Park, along with the adjoined Arakoon National Park, is a great place to set up camp for a couple of days and enjoy the incredible coastline around the small town of South West Rocks. If you’re looking for somewhere different to explore on your next trip north, this guide will outline all the best walks and camping spots in the national park.

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About Hat Head National Park

Hat Head National Park is a small but diverse national park on the Mid North Coast of NSW. It covers two large bays, with the park boundary stretching from Crescent Head, to Hat Head and then further north to Smoky Cape. The park is home to numerous beaches, sand dunes, rocky headlands, wetlands and sub-tropical forest, as well as, plenty of native wildlife like kangaroos, wallabies, and echidnas. 

Hat Head is on the custodial land of the Dunghutti Aboriginal people, with numerous burial sites, ceremonial grounds and campsites found within the park boundary. 

One of the most prominent features of the park is the Smoky Cape Lighthouse. Originally built in 1891 by the renowned Colonial Architect, James Barnet, it’s light is the highest on the NSW coast.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse
Smoky Cape Lighthouse

Just to the north of the park, in Arakoon National Park, is Trial Bay Gaol, another prominent landmark. The gaol first opened in 1886 and its prisoners attempted to construct a breakwater in the bay to increase its safety for ships sailing between Sydney and Brisbane. The construction failed, but the remains can be seen in the bay from the guard tower. During World War I, the gaol was used as an internment camp for people of German descent who were feared to be enemy sympathisers. The camp was closed in 1918 and was dismantled in 1922.

Now, the gaol is open to the public and its surrounding grounds are home to one of the best campgrounds in the area (more on this below!).

Hiking in Hat Head National Park pin

Getting There

Hat Head National Park is around 460 km north of Sydney. It’s located on the coast between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, making it easily accessible from either place on the Pacific Highway.

Port Macquarie to Hat Head National Park: 88 km or about an hours drive

Coffs Harbour to Hat Head National Park: 114 km or about an hour and a half drive

Don’t forget! You need a NSW Parks Pass to enter Hat Head National Park. You can choose from either a day pass or a yearly pass, with the latter working out much more cost effective. Purchase online or in person at the visitor centre.

Trial Bay Beach
Trial Bay Beach in front of the campground

Camping in Hat Head National Park and Arakoon National Park

There’s some fantastic camping in and around the national park. The main campground is Trial Bay Campground, which is located inside Arakoon National Park. Situated around the old Trial Bay Gaol, it’s right on the beach with many sites having sea views.

It’s a large camp that is well-maintained and has more of a caravan park-feel than most national park campgrounds. You’ll find 97 sites there for campervans, caravans, tents and camper trailers. There are toilets, hot showers, a camp kitchen, drinking water, and powered sites available.

This is where I camped on an unpowered site. It was such a great spot, I highly recommend basing yourself there for a couple of nights at least. Prices vary depending on site location and whether you want power. There is also a huge difference between summer pricing and low season (I visited in low season).

In summer, you’ll be looking at $67 per night for a powered site, but that drops to $44 in low season. Unpowered sites are around $57 in summer, and drop to $34 in low season. Bookings must be made online on the NSW Parks Website.

Otherwise, inside Hat Head National Park, you’ll also find a couple of smaller bush camps with unpowered sites. 

  • Hungry Gate Campground: In the southern end of the national park, Hungry Gate has 20 camping sites for tents and camper trailers. There are toilets and water available onsite. It’s just a 20-minute walk from the beach, plus Connors Walking Track begins from camp which goes to Kemps Corner.
  • Smoky Cape Campground: Not far from Smoky Cape Lighthouse, this secluded bush camp has 20 sites for tents and camper trailers. There are toilets and water available onsite. It’s a popular spot for fishing, as the beach is just a short walk away.

Prices for these two campgrounds are much more affordable. Sites are around $12 per night, with the same price offered all year round. Bookings must be made online on the NSW Parks Website for Hungry Gate and Smoky Cape.

Read next: How to Leave No Trace and Be Respectful in the Outdoors

Kangaroos at Trial Bay
Friendly kangaroos at Trial Bay Campground

Other Accommodation in Hat Head National Park

Good news if you’re not into camping too much, because there’s other accommodation nearby.

Hat Head National Park has accommodation available at Smoky Cape Lighthouse Keepers Cottage. Next to the historic lighthouse at Smoky Cape, you’ll find two restored three-bedroom cottages available for rent. They can both house up to eight people with fully self-contained amenities. However, there is a minimum of a three night stay, and prices range from $450 – $650 per night depending on the season. You can check them out and book here.

There’s also the Little Bay Cottage available in Arakoon National Park. Located right by Little Bay, this two bedroom, self contained house is for rent and conveniently close to many of the walking trails in Hat Head National Park. Prices start from $220 per night. You can book it here.

Otherwise, you can also stay in South West Rocks just outside the national parks. Here are some accommodation options in town:

  • Heritage Guesthouse: Just opposite Horseshoe Bay Beach, this guesthouse is located right in town. A beautifully restored building from 1887, they offer twin, queen, king and family rooms. It’s also home to The Heritage Cafe, open for breakfast and lunch. Prices are around $150 per night, book here.
  • Smoky Cape Retreat: Outside of town on the way to Smoky Cape, this is a beautiful guesthouse in a secluded location. With suites offering a spa bath and private courtyards, plus an outdoor swimming pool and lovely garden, it’s the perfect place to stay close to the national park. Prices are around $180 per night, book here.
Trial Bay Gaol
Trial Bay Gaol from Monument Hill

Walks to Do in Hat Head National Park

Hat Head National Park actually has some fantastic hiking trails to secluded beaches, through the coastal forest and up to Smoky Cape Lighthouse. Whether you’re just looking at getting some nice views and a chance to spot whales, or wanting a more challenging hike, there are options for everyone.

I ticked off all five of the hikes below, so if you’ve got yourself some time, I highly recommend packing your walking shoes and hitting the trails around Hat Head. Here are the best Hat Head National Park walks:

Monument Hill Loop and Powder Magazine Track 

  • Start/end: Trial Bay Gaol
  • Distance: 3 km
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Easy

The perfect short walk from Trial Bay Gaol, the Monument Hill Loop is a great walk for almost everyone. Starting from the gaol or campground, you can follow the signs on a well-kept walking trail around Monument Hill. There are some short hills, but it’s generally an easy walk for most people.

There are some beautiful views to be had along the walk, and some interpretive signs with historical information. You’ll likely spot plenty of kangaroos as well. You can reach Little Bay via this walk, which then leads to other trails in the area.

Trial Bay Gaol to Smoky Cape Lighthouse Hike

  • Start/end: Trial Bay Gaol or Smoky Cape Lighthouse
  • Distance: 7.5 km one way (15 km return)
  • Time: 2-2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

This is the ultimate day hike in Hat Head National Park. It was a great day out from the Trial Bay Gaol, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a challenge.

You can either begin from Trial Bay campground/gaol or cut a bit off the trail by parking at Little Bay. Either way, this walk takes you all the way to Smoky Cape Lighthouse on foot via the Smoky Cape Range Walking Track. It’s a beautiful walk along the coast and through the dense forest as you climb up and down the folds of the land – it’s harder than you might think!

Once you make it to Smoky Cape, you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views across the ocean from the lighthouse and Captain Cook Lookout. This walk is 7.5 km one way, but unless you have two cars, you’ll have to return the same way, making it a decent 4-5 hour effort. It’s well signposted, so stick to the Smoky Cape Range Walking Track at each junction.

There are options along the way to take extra detours to Gap Beach and Green Island Track, if you want to extend your walk. I added on a trip to Gap Beach, which was an additional 2 km, making it a 17 km hike in total. This included nearly 800m of total ascent, so it was a great workout.

Read next: The Ultimate Day Hike Packing List

Gap Beach
Gap Beach

Gap Beach Walk

  • Start/end: Little Bay 
  • Distance: 5.5 km return
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

This rough walking track will take you to a secluded beach known as Gap Beach. Starting from Little Bay (or you could also begin from Trial Bay Campground), you’ll be able to follow the Smoky Cape Range Walking Track at first, until the turn-off to Gap Beach.

It’s a very steep walk down to the beach, but the wonderful spot is perfect for a break, before the return trek. The beach is popular with 4×4 drivers and fishermen. It’s a 5.5 km return walk from Little Bay and should be reserved for moderately fit hikers.

Hat Head
Hat Head

Korogoro Track – Hat Head Circuit

  • Start/end: “The Gap” Carpark, at the end of Ledge Street in Hat Head
  • Distance: 3.5 km loop
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Easy

At the southern end of the park, there’s a couple of great walks that begin from the same carpark known as ‘The Gap’ in Hat Head. This wonderful option is a spectacular walk that packs a lot of views into a short distance.

It’s great for all ages, as the skinny walking trail encircles the headland offering views of Connors Beach and even across to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in the distance. From the end of the headland at Korogoro Point, you can stop to appreciate the sea breeze.

If you’re visiting in the cooler autumn months, you may also spot whales off the coast, making it a great whale watching spot. I also found a cool cave on the headland to explore, so it’s a fun spot to take your time and enjoy the landscape.

Hat Head sand dunes
Hat Head sand dunes from Kemps Corner

Connors Walking Track to Kemps Corner 

  • Start/end: “The Gap” Carpark, at the end of Ledge Street in Hat Head
  • Distance: 6.5 km return
  • Time: 1.5-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Heading south from Hat Head, Connors Track is a longer option that offers wonderful views of the national park looking south. Tracing the coastline, the walking trail takes you to two different beaches frequented by fishermen, O’Connors Beach and Third Beach. 

It then continues to Kemps Corner, where you’ll find an exposed cape offering the perfect picnic spot. From there, you can look south to the impressive sand dunes of Hat Head National Park, with Hungry Gate Campground accessible at this southern end of the walking trail.

When I was there in June, I saw a few whales off the coast from Kemps Corner, so it’s worth visiting in the cooler months. The 6.5 km return walk can either be started at The Gap Carpark or Hungry Gate Campground.

Korogoro Walking Track
Korogoro Walking Track

Other Things to Do in Hat Head National Park

If you’re not into walking like I am, then you might be wondering what else there is to do in Hat Head National Park. Well, there’s plenty of things to do, including fishing, surfing and whale watching.

Fishing

You’ll often find fishermen on many of the coves and beaches in Hat Head National Park. The most common catches here are bream, flathead, dart, whiting, tailor, mulloway, and occasionally Australian salmon.

Stand-Up Paddle Boarding/Surfing

Hat Head is a popular surfing destination. You’ll find world-class right hand breaks beside the headland. Otherwise, the southern end of Hat Head Beach is perfect for beginners with gentle waves.

You can also try stand-up paddle boarding in Trial Bay, just in front of the campground. Here, the water tends to be more calm than further south.

Whale Watching

During the cooler months from June to October, you’ll also be able to spot whales off the coast on their annual migration. Hat Head National Park is known as one of the best whale watching locations in the Mid North Coast region, with lookouts at Smoky Cape Lighthouse, Kemps Corner, Korogoro Point, and Monument Hill all great places to try your luck.

Humpbacks and southern right whales are the most commonly spotted whales off the coast there.

View from Smoky Cape Lighthouse
View from Smoky Cape Lighthouse

Essential Camping and Hiking Gear

  • Head torch: As soon as the sun sets, you’ll be needing a good quality headlamp to help you find your way around the campground. This Black Diamond one is USB rechargeable too.
  • Camp chair: Kick back and relax at the end of the day with a comfortable and lightweight camping chair. This Helinox camp chair is a high quality option that packs away easily.
  • Gas cooker: Cooking up quality meals while camping makes the experience so much more enjoyable. I recommend a JetBoil stove which is super portable and boils water rapidly for easy cooking.
  • Portable solar panel: If you’re camping at an unpowered site, a small portable panel can come in handy when trying to charge your phone off the grid. This BioLite Panel is easily packable and powerful enough to charge your devices.
  • Sleeping bag: A good sleeping bag is essential to keep you warm, dry and comfortable while camping out. Sea to Summit make some incredible down options, with the Spark III being a staple for many different adventures.
  • Day pack: For exploring beyond camp and heading off on day hikes, a good sized day pack will help you carry all your hiking essentials. Osprey Tempest is the classic day pack I take on all my adventures.
  • Water bottle: To save plastic bottles ending up in landfill, I always carry a LifeStraw Water Bottle with me so you can refill it from anywhere and be confident that the water will be safe.
  • Quick drying towel: From beach swims to freshwater swimming holes, carrying a quick drying towel is a handy addition to any camping trip. Sea to Summit make great lightweight and quick drying towels of all sizes.
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