21 October 2022.
The Waterfall Way is one of the best mini road trips in NSW.
End-to-end, the drive clocks in at under 3 hours, but this spectacular pocket of the NSW countryside packs a big punch with an exceptional amount to see and enough to keep visitors occupied for weeks.
Guiding you from the coast across the mountain escarpment, you’ll experience dense rainforest, powerful waterfalls, secluded aqua pools, mountain viewpoints, forested canyons, rural towns, several national parks, abundant wildlife and hiking trails that are ripe for exploration.
With so much to discover and given some areas are decidedly isolated, these Waterfall Way tips are a few things to consider before setting out on your adventure.
While I’d recommend an absolute minimum of three days to experience the beauty of the Waterfall Way, there’s so much to see and do nearby that you could easily spend weeks exploring the area.
Weaving between several very different national parks – Dorrigo, Guy Fawkes, New England, Cathedral Rock and Oxley Wild Rivers – with options for spectacular short or all-day hikes, countless waterfalls and incredible viewpoints, both remote and those that sit right beside the road, there’s something for everyone to enjoy and enough activities to fill as much or as little time as you have available.
If you’re just passing through, the absolute highlights that should not be missed are Dorrigo National Park (take in the views from the Sky Walk, stroll the Wonga Walk or hike to Red Cedar Falls), Wollomombi Falls and Dangars Falls.
Three jam-packed days will allow you to make many more stops along the way, take your time at each location and head out on a few short hikes. Read here for my full Waterfall Way itinerary.
However, if you’ve got even more time to spare, five days would allow you to explore at a more leisurely pace, travel down the remote, far-reaching roads that lead deep into the national parks and experience some of the region’s longer hiking trails.
Climbing steeply from coast to mountain, the climate changes drastically as you travel along the Waterfall Way.
Bellingen has a fairly mild climate year-round, but as you move higher up the escarpment towards Dorrigo, you’ll certainly notice the crisper mountain air. It’s when you continue onwards to Ebor, sitting just shy of the highest point along the route at 1,350m, that things can get particularly chilly.
The mountain climate tends to be about 10°C cooler than you’ll find on the coast throughout the year. In winter, the temperatures often fall below 0°C overnight, while even during the day, they usually hover around the low single digits. Summer also remains far cooler with an average high of just 21°C.
At the far end of the route, Armidale encompasses the full spectrum of seasons with hot wet summers and cold winters with occasional snowfall.
For winter trips, I’d recommend packing a decent set of warm weather gear including thermal layers, a cosy sweater and a thick winter jacket along with waterproof boots and thick socks. For summer, a sweater for the cool mountain evenings and a rain jacket are a good idea.
While the Waterfall Way may have earned itself a rather dreamy title, it’s literally the main highway between Coffs Harbour and Armidale with the 100km/h speed limit and a steady stream of traffic and trucks to go with it.
On the plus side, the road is well sign-posted and in excellent condition, but for visitors, this means that there aren’t a lot of places to stop directly along the roadside to take in the views and it’s not really an option to slow down in order to enjoy the scenery.
That said, almost all the best attractions lie away from the highway so I’d recommend taking the scenic detours wherever possible to enjoy the landscapes at a slower pace rather than watching them fly by beyond your window.
The Waterfall Way is just as incredible whichever direction you choose to drive it.
My decision of travelling from east to west came down entirely to which route I wanted to take out of Sydney to make the best possible start to my road trip.
Both Bellingen and Armidale are more or less the same distance from Sydney (around 6 to 7 hours) via the coastal or inland highways and either town would make a great starting point.
Personally, however, I find the coastal route far easier to navigate and with much more to see along the way. After an early start and a few hours churning through miles on the highway, you can take a short detour into the peaceful grove of Wingham Brush, up to the spectacular North Brother Lookout or stop for a beach stroll along one of Port Macquarie’s stunning beaches before arriving late in the day to little Bellingen.
Comparatively, the inland route can be much more of a stop-start experience with plenty of single-lane sections of highway, slow trucks and roadworks, and relatively few places to stop at along the way, which for me, was a better way to end the trip when I was heading home than start it.
Whichever way you choose to travel though, there’s a stunning attraction waiting for you at either end of the Waterfall Way to bookend what will no doubt be a fantastic trip.
Fuel prices between Bellingen and Armidale and the surrounding towns fluctuate hugely with some service stations having disparities of more than 40c.
Given petrol prices are already at an all-time high, it’s well worth planning ahead to find the cheapest fuel around when filling up.
While this will likely change over time, I found the cheapest options (by far!) in Kempsey if you’re arriving from the south, or Coffs Harbour if you’re travelling from the north. Along the inland route, Tamworth tends to have significantly better prices than Armidale.
Along the Waterfall Way itself, fuel is fairly limited with just two service stations located in Bellingen and Dorrigo, though there are plenty in Armidale.
To find the best rates, I’d highly recommend downloading the free NSW FuelCheck App which provides real-time fuel prices for service stations across the state and can help you plan the best locations to fill up.
You’ll find plenty of options for places to stay in Armidale and a few in Bellingen and Dorrigo, but elsewhere along the Waterfall Way, accommodation is somewhat sparse.
Aside from a couple of boutique hotels, accommodation offerings in Armidale are mostly in the form of the classic Aussie small-town motel with a few decent options to choose from. In Bellingen and Dorrigo, you’ll find some beautiful properties often accompanied by stunning vistas available for a similar price. Many of the smaller guesthouses that lie in between will require you to contact the properties directly for bookings and availability.
Depending on how much time you’re spending in the area, I’d suggest choosing a base at either end of the route to start and end your trip, as well as at least one or two nights somewhere along the way to avoid having to backtrack each day and allow you even more time to explore.
Given the limited accommodation available, if you’re visiting in the peak summer season or over a public holiday weekend, I’d highly recommend booking well in advance. Even in the dead of winter, some places completely book out so it’s a good idea to plan at least a few weeks ahead.
My top picks for accommodation are:
The Belfry Guesthouse | This friendly guesthouse offers cosy rooms at affordable prices in the heart of Bellingen and is worth staying at for the views alone! The place exudes laidback, bohemian vibes with a downstairs communal kitchen and lounge area, while upstairs, the wrap-around balcony overlooks fields and forests that extend into the mountains of the Dorrigo Plateau. Try to nab the upper corner room and wake up to see the sunrise streaming across the treetops. Check rates and availability here.
Lookout Mountain Retreat | This beautiful hotel lies just minutes from the Dorrigo Sky Walk – perfect for anyone hoping to roll out of bed and reach the viewpoint for sunrise. Rooms are modern, spacious and well-appointed and open up right onto the lush paddocks that surround the property with a mountain backdrop in the distance. It’s also home to the area’s best restaurant. Check rates and availability here.
Country Comfort Armidale | Located within walking distance of central Armidale, Country Comfort offers modern, newly renovated rooms that are a cut above the other motels in town. There’s also an onsite restaurant housed in a century-old converted Victorian house. Check rates and availability here.
Tattersalls Hotel | The best hotel in Armidale, Art Deco Tattersalls offers spacious, modern and luxurious rooms with an onsite bar, restaurant and parking in the heart of Armidale. Check rates and availability here.
Check out further options for places to stay in this post on Waterfall Way accommodation.
Now, if you’re planning to camp or living the #vanlife, you’ll have far more options of places to stay along the Waterfall Way.
Though understandably not for everyone, especially if you’re visiting during winter when temperatures can get pretty icy, or if La Niña continues wreaking havoc with the weather, camping, even if only for part of your trip, is an excellent way to delve deeper into the more remote pockets of bushland, wake up beside the region’s magnificent natural wonders and spend some quality time out in nature.
There are a number of fantastic campgrounds tucked away in the national parks or located just a stone’s throw from some of the route’s best attractions. In fact, if I were to do this trip again, I’d probably opt to spend a night in accommodation in each of Bellingen, Dorrigo and Armidale and camp along the way at Wollomombi Falls and Cathedral Rocks.
For ideas on where to camp along the Waterfall Way, read this post.
Aside from Armidale and Bellingen, most cafes and restaurants along the Waterfall Way have very limited opening hours.
Some establishments operate only on weekends to capitalise on the influx of visitors, while others may open for a brief period over breakfast or lunch and only on select days.
Each town tends to have at least one place that’s open for dinner, but you might have very limited options at other times of the day.
Basically, it’s a good idea to check the opening hours on Google before locking anywhere into your plans. I’d also suggest having supplies on hand to make a picnic lunch and a decent stash of snacks to carry you through the day, especially if you’ll be hiking or heading into the more remote areas.
Telstra has the best network coverage across Australia, but way up here in the mountains or deep in the rainforest, reception can be a little spotty.
While for the most part this isn’t much of an issue and offers up a refreshing opportunity to disconnect, I’d definitely suggest downloading any maps you may need or doing any necessary research before heading out for the day.
Furthermore, if you are heading into the more remote corners of the national parks, where roads tend to be unsealed and see very little traffic, it’s a good idea to let your hotel or the national park office know where you’re going.
It’s also well worth being prepared with plenty of food and water, a basic first aid kit, a map and proper wet weather gear just in case things do go south and you’re out of service.
While the Waterfall Way itself is well-maintained, as you venture off the highway into the national parks and the more isolated corners of the highlands, you’ll be travelling almost exclusively on unsealed roads.
Though most are in reasonably good condition, some can be a little dicey, particularly in wet weather where sections strewn with potholes, mud or loose gravel can make for a slow-going drive.
None of the roads I ventured down specifically required a 4WD, but the road condition is worth considering if you’re travelling in a small car or a rental car, especially if you’re met with heavy rainfall.
If you’re a first-time visitor to Australia, you’ll be glad to know that the national parks that flank the main road are abundant with wildlife and you’re virtually guaranteed to see a few furry friends hopping about while exploring the area.
Sadly, this also means that roadkill is reasonably common in these parts.
Kangaroos and wallabies, the largest of Australia’s marsupials, are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk, which unfortunately tends to coincide with peak hour traffic, particularly during winter when the days are shorter.
If you can, it’s best to avoid driving the highway at this time of day to reduce the chance of any wildlife collisions.
One of the unique characteristics of our mammals is that they carry their young in a pouch on their belly. If you do have a collision and there’s a safe space to stop, it’s best to check for any joey that may be present in the pouch or call a wildlife rescue group or Police for assistance.
The worst stretch is between Ebor and Armidale where the road meanders through thick forest and it’s not uncommon for animals to emerge right alongside the road to forage so be sure to take extra caution along this stretch.
Carrying you from the sparkling shores of the Mid North Coast, through the heart of the Great Dividing Range and several spectacular (and very much underrated) national parks that play host to countless waterfalls, viewpoints and hiking trails, this gem of a drive is without a doubt one of the prettiest in NSW and is brimming with opportunities for adventure.
Despite being wedged up against each other, the national parks found in this pocket of the highlands are all distinctly different and allow visitors to experience a wide variety of Australian landscapes, from the rugged mountain plateau to deep ravines, and ancient rainforests to dense eucalypt groves.
Dorrigo National Park is home to the magical Gondwana Rainforests which have existed here for millennia. Dense jungle dresses the mountain escarpment and conceals an array of birdlife, turquoise pools, lush ferns, meandering hiking trails and, unsurprisingly, some spectacular waterfalls.
Onwards, the landscapes transform into undulating hills blanketed in golden grasslands that guide you towards the sublime Ebor Falls at the southern edge of Guy Fawkes River National Park and Point Lookout in the heart of New England National Park.
A short drive further along, compact Cathedral Rock National Park is home to thick eucalypt forests that crowd the road and timid wallabies that dart through the undergrowth. As the name suggests, climb higher and you’ll discover a pyramid of enormous boulders that offers up magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.
Finally, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park conceals two of the Waterfall Way’s most impressive sights, the incredible Dangars and Wollomombi Falls which thunder dramatically into the gorge below.
Scattered between these key attractions, there’s plenty more to occupy your time. Think hidden mountain viewpoints, forested canyons, many more waterfalls and secret plunge pools and that lay tucked away between the trees just waiting to be discovered.
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