Whether you’re after a coastal drive, the sight of a winding road cutting through a barren landscape or a the beauty of mountains rolling along the skyline, there are more than enough iconic drives to keep you exploring – here are the best NSW road trips.
The NSW’s Far North Coast town of Byron Bay is one of the most celebrated and celebrity-packed places in the country, a mecca for Sydneysiders who flock here all year round for a unique dose of its boho-meets-luxe shopping, restaurants, accommodation and beaches – especially the beaches. But Byron Bay is not the only superstar in these parts. There are cute inland towns, a lush landscape and a profusion of national parks packed with natural wonders and wildlife, all of which can be explored by tracking your way along the Rainforest Way.
Byron Bay to Murwillumbah
Leaving the sun, sea and sand of Byron Bay to lush hinterland and the charming towns and villages that are sprinkled across the landscape here is an exercise in going slow. The dense, humid air and laid-back vibe to be found in this slice of NSW’s Far North Coast all but demands visitors shift down a gear or two and take their time. The first stop, less than an hour’s drive along the Tweed Valley Way (and A1) is the town of Murwillumbah.
With a wide main street lined with heritage Federation-era buildings that hint at its prosperous past – thanks to the local banana and sugarcane industries – Murwillumbah has now settled into a charming small-town groove, with the drawcards now being its cafes, shopping and regional art gallery.
Morning coffee should be ordered at Keith, a funky cafe-cum-bar situated in a ‘70s-era arcade. Owned and run by locals Matthew Taylor and Katie Browne, its stock in trade is carefully brewed coffee, sandwiches and sweet treats (with lots of gluten-free options) during the day, before it morphs into a cosy cocktail bar at night. At the opposite end of the arcade, Keith’s Shop of Really, Really, Really Good Things sells all manner of deli items, as well as illustrated tote bags that are the perfect souvenir of a visit.
After your caffeine hit, the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre should be your next stop. The gallery hosts many travelling shows like the Archibald and iconic Australian artists’ work like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series to name a few.
The pièce de résistance here is the meticulous reconstruction of various rooms from celebrated artist Margaret Olley’s former home, including everything from books and furniture to crumpled Cadbury Roses chocolate wrappers placed exactly where she left them when she passed away in 2011.
Murwillumbah to Uki
Heading south out of Murwillumbah, the village of Uki (pronounced yook-eye) sits in the shadow of Wollumbin (Mount Warning). Plan a visit to coincide with the Uki Buttery Bazaar Markets, held in the old buttery on the third Sunday of every month, or the local Farmers Market at the Uki Hall every Saturday morning.
Uki to Kyogle
From Uki, the 53km drive to the town of Kyogle passes between national parks on both sides of the road so dense with the rainforests that gives this drive its name. This area, part of the Bundjalung nation, is rich in Indigenous history and forms part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, home to some of the oldest rainforest on Earth, dating back millions of years.
The Byrril Creek walking track in Mebbin National Park meanders through subtropical rainforest and past ancient native fig trees (it’s a total of one-kilometre return). Over in Nightcap National Park, the Mount Nardi to Mount Matheson loop trail is a three-kilometre walk through more verdant rainforest that rings the base of Mount Matheson, before gazing down into thick eucalyptus forest from a vertiginous cliff edge.
While in Nightcap it is also worth the walk to Protesters Falls and Terania Creek, which anti-logging protesters managed to save from destruction in the late 1970s.
Nightcap National Park to Lismore
It’s another 50 minutes from Nightcap National Park to the regional city of Lismore. With the feel of a big country town, complete with gregarious, welcoming locals, Lismore has a buzzing food, arts and music scene that is worth taking the time to discover. Lismore Regional Gallery is a perfect example: one of the oldest art galleries in NSW (established in 1953, it houses works by the likes of Lloyd Rees, Albert Namatjira and Thea Proctor), it is now part of The Quad, a new culture and arts precinct that is also home to the Northern Rivers Conservatorium and the Richmond Tweed Regional Library.
The Back Alley Gallery program is also transforming the laneways of the city one large blank brick wall at a time. All up, there are more than 60 artworks – from giant murals to graffiti art to stencils – created by local and international artists now scattered across the city.
Stop in at Friends of the Koalas’ Care Centre before leaving the city. Committed to protecting koalas and their habitat, especially in the Northern Rivers region, you can tour the centre, learn about the work done here and even catch a glimpse of some of the koalas in permanent care.
Lismore to Casino and Tabulam
After passing through the town of Casino, with its main street lined with Art Deco buildings, take a detour off the Buxner Highway into the Mallanganee National Park, created in 1999 and covering 1144 hectares, to stand in open-jawed wonder at the views from the Mallanganee Lookout. On a clear day looking out over Mallanganee Nature Reserve and Cambridge Plateau, you can see Wollumbin (Mount Warning) to the east and the Great Dividing Range to the west.
The pretty historic town of Tabulam is the last official stop on the Rainforest Way. While it lays claim to being the location of the longest single-span truss timber bridge in Australia, it also provides easy access to two of the area’s most stunning national parks: Richmond Range and Tooloom.
While Richmond Range National Park has two main walking tracks (at the time of publishing they are closed) , the 32-kilometre Cambridge Plateau scenic drive is the superstar here, tracing the ridge through ancient rainforest and providing views of the Richmond Valley below (currently closed as it is being repaired after flood damage).
Meanwhile Tooloom National Park is teeming with wildlife – there are 10 different species of kangaroos and wallabies – and houses a number of significant Aboriginal cultural sites. Take the time to survey the area one last time as a panorama from Tooloom Lookout before heading back to the sun, sea, sand – and celebrities – of Byron Bay.
Charming towns worth the side trip
Bangalow is a picture-postcard proposition – its main street is lined with heritage shopfronts and cafes offering great coffee and stylish shopping. Grab a table at Woods cafe, a sister to Byron Bay’s popular Folk, and order from the plant-based, ethically sourced menu (also packed with gluten-free options). The cafe is part of a collection of shops and galleries at 10 Station Street that includes an outpost of Assembly Label and local fashion brand Rowie.
Browse Bangalow Pharmacy, with its vintage wooden shelves stocked with creations from Aesop, Santa Maria Novella and Cire Trudon, whisper-thin ceramics from France, and Lucy Folk jewellery. Local label Queen Mab’s has fashion designs in impactful prints imported from the Netherlands, and Our Corner Store is a modern take on the general store. Head to Bangalow Hotel for a glass of something cool and to admire its lovely Art Deco interiors.
The sleepy town of Mullumbimby, 24 kilometres north of Byron, comes to life every Friday, when the local farmers’ market springs up in the showground from 7 am until 11 am. Expect locally grown and organic produce, raw-food treats, handmade candles, and fashions with a hippy vibe.
Newrybar is a hotspot for local creatives. Many can be found at Newrybar Merchants, a collective of ‘local artisans and curators of fine goods’ that includes ethically produced kids’ clothing and decor, eclectic homewares and a pretty florist that supports small-scale flower farmers.
While here, head to Harvest, with its artisan deli, bakery (using a 116-year-old wood-fired oven to produce its loaves) and award-winning restaurant. A 15-minute drive from Newrybar, The Farm Byron Bay is another creative collective that includes a market garden, grazing cattle, nursery, bakery and restaurant from the Three Blue Ducks crew.
Make sure you stay up to date with the road conditions before you set off with the latest travel alerts at Visit NSW.