The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park

We’re blessed to live on a coastline rich in wild natural places just begging to be explored. With this in mind, Coastbeat writer Geordie Bull and two friends tackled the 10-kilometre Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse walk with four kids in tow – and got more of an adventure than they bargained for.

I’m always on the hunt for kid-friendly activities that let us all experience the great outdoors and, after exhausting most of the shorter walks in our region, I was keen to tackle a longer hike that that would challenge my six and eight-year-old. Set amongst the stunning scenery of Hat Head National Park, the Little Bay to Smoky Cape Trail in South West Rocks seemed like the perfect fit.

South West Rocks in the Macleay Valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited, ticking all the boxes for white sandy beaches, untouched coastal forest and striking granite rock formations that are perfect for rock-hopping enthusiasts. Luckily for us, it’s just down the road.

The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park
Looking back over Little Bay where we commenced our walk. Image by Tim Hollister

Planning for the unexpected

My first step in planning the adventure was to recruit friends for the kids as experience has taught me that they whinge less when they’ve got mates to walk with. My husband was away so I also asked two of my friends, Samantha and Adam, if they wanted to tag along with their son. They were keen, so we stocked our backpacks with plenty of water, lunchboxes and lollies (in case the kids needed some encouraging) and we were off.

Beginning at Little Bay picnic area, the trail heads up past Overshot Dam, steeply ascending though heathland to the top of Little Smoky Mountain. A kilometre into the climb I remember that I’d told the kids the trail would be fairly level. Right on cue I hear, Mum, I thought you said this walk was flat! As the steep ascent continues, I admit that I haven’t done my research. We can’t turn back now, we’re only at the beginning, I answer cheerily.

The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park
Mini adventurers on the move. Image by Adam Williams

Reverence and relaxation

Full of energy, the kids stride ahead, the boys sword-fighting with sticks while the girls happily chat. At the top of the hill we refuel with a few jelly snakes before descending into a breathtaking forest of grass trees and rare coastal rainforest. Even the boisterous boys fall silent; there’s something about walking in the bush that inspires reverence and a deep sense of relaxation that can only be felt in the natural world. This is why I love hiking.

Shopping in the Heart of
Coffs Harbour

The track ends at an unsealed road leading to North Gap Beach which we follow all the way to the picnic area, the kids running down the steep road as fast as their little legs can take them. After checking out Gap Beach (a must-do and one of the prettiest beaches in the area) we eat lunch under cabbage tree palms.

After lunch, we follow a track running parallel to Gap Beach, passing through patches of paperbarks and swamp mahogany as well as rainforest (apparently, this is a great birdwatching spot, but our noisy party scares them away!) until we reach the next headland. Then the real adventure begins.

The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park
Even the noisy boys were silenced by the natural surrounds. Image by Tim Hollister 

The road less travelled 

Because I’ve done a few hikes in the Macleay Valley, I assumed this trail would be well-signposted. Boy, was I wrong. Searching for a path over the headland, we try a couple of overgrown goat tracks before giving up and heading back to the road leading up to the southern Gap Beach car park – an epic ascent that finally (and understandably) elicits complaints. The kids experiment with walking backwards and sideways before finally lying in the middle of the road in defeat. Eventually, they jump back up and manage to reach the carpark where the Smoky Cape track begins.

This section of the trail is our favourite a comfortable meander along ridges and through lush fern gullies that well and truly makes up for the arduous stint on the uphill road. We begin to see snippets of turquoise ocean, signalling that we’re nearing our destination and again, a peaceful mood settles on all of us as we continue at a steady pace. Judging by their energy levels we muse that the kids could walk another 10 kilometres as we watch them running, playing and marvelling at new discoveries.

Before we know it, the track ends and we’re thrust into the bright sun at Smoky Cape’s Captain Cook Lookout. With energy to spare, the girls join Sam for a victory dance on the picnic table while the boys scramble off to explore the bush.

Arriving home, Google informs me that the trail is grade five with no directional signage, many obstacles and a steep and difficult track for experienced bushwalkers. In hindsight, I enjoy the fact that my ignorance allowed the kids to surprise me (and themselves) with their capability and resilience. Bring on the next adventure!

The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park
The little bushwalkers climb through a fallen paperbark tree. Image by Geordie Bull

Tips for the walk

  • Feeling fit? Add in a three-kilometre detour to Green Island to enjoy views of Smoky Cape Lighthouse
  • Bring a friend, plenty of water and a sense of adventure as the trail is not well-signposted
  • If you’re visiting during the warmer months, pack swimmers there are plenty of opportunities to take a dip along the way
  • The trail can also be completed in reverse, starting at Smoky Cape and finishing at the Little Bay picnic area
  • It’s a one-way trail so organise to be picked up or bring two cars
  • Phone reception is poor so, as always, advise someone else of your plans

The trail from Little Bay to Smoky Cape Lighthouse in Hat Head National Park
A picturesque ending at Smoky Cape Lighthouse. Image by Tim Hollister

For more on this region see Our Top 10 on South West Rocks and read about a family break in the Macleay Valley