Wind your way slowly from the ocean to Australia’s highest city along the spectacular Waterfall Way to truly appreciate the bounty of natural, cultural and heritage treasures it packs into its short and scenic midst.
PLEASE NOTE: The Waterfall Way is currently closed due to the March 2021 floods. Please keep up to date with the latest travel alerts at Visit NSW.
While the Waterfall Way flies under the radar of NSW’s most iconic drives, it surely can’t be rivalled in the sheer diversity of spectacular natural landscapes it packs into just 200 short kilometres. And not to mention the cultural interludes, heritage wonders and good coffee it offers en route to boot.
From the Mid North Coast gem of Coffs Harbour to the bohemian town of Bellingen via Dorrigo to the graceful city of Armidale high on the New England Tablelands via Gondwana rainforest, rugged gorge country and, of course, spectacular waterfalls (including NSW’s highest), this is a road trip that can be driven in a day, but is best savoured over several.
About halfway along the Legendary Pacific Coast drive, and with its beautiful unspoilt beaches and memorable attractions including dolphin encounters, a butterfly house and a tree-top adventure park, Coffs Harbour is a much-loved family holiday destination for good reason. And while a selfie with the iconic – Australia’s original ‘big thing’ – is practically a prerequisite for anyone who visits, there’s plenty more to this coastal city besides. A thriving cafe culture, breezy beachside accommodation and the buzzing Harbourside Markets on Sundays are just the beginning.
You might choose to start your journey from the unique perspective of a SUPing adventure through Solitary Islands Marine Park with direct descendants of the “world’s first stand-up paddleboarders”, as the Gumbaynggirr owner-operators of Wajaana Yaam Gumbaynggirr describe themselves. Or perhaps 15 metres above the forest floor at Coffs Harbour’s first eco-certified tourism attraction, Niigi Niigi (Sealy Lookout) in Orara East State Forest. This Gumbaynggirr cultural site offers panoramic views for days from its famous Forest Sky Pier.
And don’t leave Coffs Harbour without visiting Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve, or Giidany Miirlarl, another site of great cultural significance complete with an award-winning outdoor learning space and guided tours run by Gumbaynggirr owners. The island, also an important seabird rookery and prime whale-watching spot between May and November, is a short walk along the break wall from Coffs Harbour Marina and offers up sensational views of the Coffs Coast and into the hinterland – where you’re headed next.
Bellingen: it’s all boho vibes in Bello
It takes 30 minutes to get to the bohemian town of Bellingen from Coffs Harbour, first driving south out of the city through Bongil Bongil National Park then heading west at the Bellinger River to join the official start of the Waterfall Way.
This tiny tranquil river town with its attractive heritage streetscape and counterculture community invites you to stop and stay awhile. You could happily spend a lazy couple of days soaking up its charms, from sipping coffee and browsing the curated selection of homewares and fashion at hip hangout HYDE Bellingen to perusing the town’s popular markets that showcase the creativity of the region. From tasting a taco or two at funky new cantina Tish Faco to working your way through the rainbow of flavours at The Bellingen Gelato Bar. And from sampling craft beer in the industrial-chic Bellingen Brewery & Co. to dining in a 112-year-old converted church at Cedar Bar & Kitchen.
But the star attraction here is really the Bellinger River, which cuts a lovely wide swathe through town. One of the best ways to experience it is with Bellingen Canoe Adventures, which offers both canoe hire and guided tours that take in swimming holes and provide plenty of wildlife-spotting opportunities: keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, koalas, egrets, eagles, jumping fish and even swimming cows.
From tucked-away cabins to the charming and funky Belfry Guesthouse overlooking the river in the centre of town, there are plenty of accommodation options in and around Bellingen to choose from. Studio 22 Bellingen is a cleverly converted garage space a stone’s throw from the main street that encapsulates the character of Bellingen, while the villa at Lombok on Waterfall between Bellingen and Dorrigo just off Waterfall Way itself offers majestic views over one of the region’s most beautiful valleys from its huge verandah.
Dorrigo National Park: explore ancient rainforest
The landscape takes on a different and altogether more dramatic cadence as you start the ascent up out of Bellingen along 30 kilometres of winding road that follows the river and scales the Great Eastern Escarpment. Here, Waterfall Way starts to inhabit its name as two falls tumble down the cliffside right beside the road. Turn off at Dorrigo National Park before you reach the lofty Northern Tablelands town of Dorrigo to explore some of Australia’s most spellbinding rainforest – part of the UNESCO-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia – and its stash of stunning waterfalls hidden within.
Orient yourself at the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, with its tasteful gift shop, environmentally minded Canopy Cafe and Skywalk Lookout: a 70-metre boardwalk stroll that leads to unparalleled views of the national park around you, Bellinger Valley and – on a clear day – the coast you’ve come from. On an overcast day, swirls of low-hanging mist help set the tone for the primeval landscape.
A range of well-marked trails radiate out from the centre and descend into the forest canopy, including the 3.5-kilometre return Crystal Shower Falls walk. This short but sweet walk provides a captivating snapshot of the world around you: 600-year-old trees tower above you while birds call out in an atmospheric rainforest chorus. You’ll hear Crystal Shower Falls before you see it as you arrive at a suspension bridge; walk across it and follow a path around the side of the falls to step right behind it. From here, turn back to join the road or continue your walk along the Wonga Trail to Tristania Falls.
Detour to Dorrigo and Dangar Falls
The air is cooler up here in Dorrigo, sitting pretty as it does among dairy farmland 731 metres above sea level. Make a pit stop here to fuel up – the car and your stomach. Components Cafe is a hidden gem serving good coffee and innovative food; take a seat in its rambling garden if the weather’s fine. And don’t miss the chance to browse the clutch of clothing, gifts and homeware stores that have sprung up here in recent years such as Red Cedar and Miss Wink.
Drive north of Dorrigo for two kilometres, a quick detour off Waterfall Way, to check out the picturesque 30-metre Dangar Falls. View it from the lookout not far from the road or stretch your legs on the path that leads to the river in 10 to 15 minutes.
The Northern Tablelands: for awe-inspiring lookout points
As you edge further into the Northern Tablelands from here the landscape changes proportions again. The seemingly gentle pastoral land you’re winding through falls away to reveal a series of rugged national parks harbouring granite outcrops, dramatic gorgeous, wildernesses that seem to stretch on forever and, naturally, more waterfalls.
Further along Waterfall Way from here is Cathedral Rock National Park with its striking granite tors, or boulder piles, ripe for hiking and scrambling. This is also a great place to pitch a tent for the night, with two campgrounds offering secluded spots among the banksias, eucalypts, myrtle tea trees and lemon bottlebrush. Note: The park is accessible, but there are closures to walking tracks due to bushfire damage.
The scenic spots come thick and fast on this stretch of road. No sooner have you rejoined Waterfall Way, then you’ll make another diversion into New England National Park for one of Australia’s most spectacular lookout points. Point Lookout allows a panorama of unspoilt wilderness, with views back across to the Bellinger Valley. Also within this World Heritage-listed park, protected for its ancient Gondwana rainforest, is a choice of accommodation options: from camping to cosying up in the one-bedroom cabin, The Chalet, or three-bedroom cottage, The Residence, right next to the lookout, to the rustic Tom’s Cabin or Thungutti campground among the trees.
Wollomombi Falls: for wilderness and waterfalls
Thirty kilometres further along is Wollomombi Falls within Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Plunging 220 metres into the valley, this is NSW’s highest waterfall and the second highest in Australia. Stretch your legs on the Wollomombi walking track, an easy four-kilometre return walk around the rim of Wollomombi Gorge for optimum waterfall and wilderness views or challenge yourself on the short but steep descent into the valley on the Chandler walking track.
Armidale: for the art lovers
It’s 30 minutes from Wollomombi Falls until you hit Armidale – Australia’s highest city – where, after all that fresh air and wilderness, it’s time for some wining, dining and culture. This graceful university town famed for its grand architecture and four-season climate offers a slice of buzzing cosmopolitan life in a picturesque rural setting. Check into the recently refurbished and gorgeously Art Deco Tattersalls Hotel Armidale or the impeccably styled Loloma Luxury Bed & Breakfast in one of the city’s finest residences before checking out all the city has to offer.
The Welder’s Dog is an inviting bar that serves craft beer made from locally sourced barley alongside drops from other independent brewers and local wineries. The hip Goldfish Bowl Bakery and Charlie’s Last Stand, where creative cocktails are in tune with the seasons, are two other names to add to your hit list.
The jewel in Armidale’s crown is the excellent New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), which boasts the most comprehensive overview of Australian art history in regional Australia. At the core of this is the Howard Hinton Collection, which NERAM was purpose-built to house in 1983, with more than 1000 significant works by artists including Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston and Brett Whiteley. While you’re here, pop next door to the Armidale and Region Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place, a community-based centre that showcases a diverse range of Australian Indigenous arts and culture through its gallery, history room and artists’ boutique.
And don’t miss a guided tour of Saumarez Homestead, a 30-room Edwardian mansion complete with its original furnishings and attractive gardens, which tells of the settler history of the region.
Now that you’ve reached the end of the Waterfall Way, it would be remiss of you not to make one final waterfall stop. Dangars Falls – not to be confused with Dangar Falls, though both were named after the same 19th-century pastoralist – is another beauty hidden within the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, 20 minutes’ drive south of town. Or finish your road trip in style by swapping wheels for a helicopter and taking a scenic flight over the falls and spectacular gorge country with Fleet Adventures; you’ll retrace your footsteps by air as you fly out over the New England Plateau to Wollomombi Falls and back again.
Make sure you stay up to date with the road conditions before you set off with the latest travel alerts at Visit NSW.