“Why would you goto to Coffs?”, scoffed a friend as I explained our pre-Christmas road trip, from Brisbane to Coffs Harbour along the Mid-North Coast of NSW. She seemed to think that Coffs was much like it’s famous Big Banana icon, a tacky and second-rate place not worth a visit.
Contrary to my friends opinion, Queenslanders, flock to this hugely popular family holiday hotspot. A great escape from the suffocating heat and humidity of the summer and a manageable 5 hour road trip with the kids from Brisbane.
Incredibly appealing, was the opportunity to drive part of the 188km route from Coffs Harbour to Armidale known as Waterfall Way, renowned as one of Australia’s most scenic drives.
The drive along Waterfall Way evokes moments of happiness like: wondering through a tranquil rainforest, standing mouths agape overlooking waterfalls and feeling a sense of calm not often experienced in a road trip with my two young kids aged 2 and 5.
These feelings would have me shouting from the rooftops that every family must drive Waterfall Way. However, the road trip was tainted with the lingering memory of a rock thrown at my head by a brat of a teenage girl. She had me thinking Coffs Harbour and it’s surrounds is exactly as my friend had warned it would be.
Wonderful vistas of Waterfall Way
Waterfall Way itself does not disappoint, the road trip journeys through five national parks taking you through a journey through moutain ranges, tumbling waterfalls, the green hills of the New England Tablelands, picture perfect paddocks, quaint townships and woodlands where giant red cedar trees stand proud. All this within an easy road trip from Coffs Harbour.
Taking the kids is easy, with a variety of 2-4 hour self-drive circuits that provides the best of Waterfall Way before circling back to Coffs. Alternatively, overnight at Armidale on a 2.5 hour drive along Waterfall Way that will allow for a full immersion of the regions rainforests and waterfalls.
First stop – spirits are high at the Dorrigo National Park
An hours drive from Coffs Harbour and the first stop along Waterfall Way is the Rainforest Centre at Dorrigo National Park in Bellingen.
Dorrigo National Park Rainforest Centre
Whilst the kids were occupied by enticing gift shop goodies, friendly staff provided useful tips on exploring Waterfall Way and were mindful of our young kids.
Less appealing for the kids yet still holding a small amount of their attention was the local art and information exhibits. The displays seem carefully and lovingly put together, right down to the fresh vases of hydrangeas, as if straight from nan’s garden.
The Rainforest Centre is also the entry point to several well maintained and kid friendly walking trails including the easily accessible Skywalk. An elevated boardwalk over the Dorrigo National Park, where you can get a birds eye view of the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests.
Gondwana Rainforest are prehistoric rainforests that once covered the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago and are preserved in small patches around Australia. Entry to the National Park is payable per person by a gold coin donation.
Under the dense green canopy, it’s easy to be transported back to primitive times. With weird and wonderful plants climbing up or growing from the 600 year old trees. Walking through these ancient rainforests is the essence of road tripping with kids, collectively discovering new things and exploring fresh surroundings as a family.
Walking behind Crystal Showers Waterfall
A short 500m drive from the Rainforest to the Glade Picnic Area lies the shortcut to Crystal Showers Waterfall, one of the most popular falls walk in the area. Although it is the shortest waterfall walk at 3.5km return, for my kids this was the limit before coming undone.
Although the signs suggest the 3.5km return trip will take 1-hour. With little ones, the gently sloping track to Crystal Showers Waterfall took approximately 1-hour one way, making frequent stops with the kids to rest, admire the plants and listen to the songs of the rainforest birds.
Crystal Showers Waterfall cannot be more fittingly named, the water gently cascades down like a twinkling shower of crystals, which can be admired from the suspension bridge or better still by walking behind the waterfall. A nice refreshing mist can wake up tired kids for the walk back up.
The return inclined journey from Crystal Showers Waterfall does get problematic. My kids wanted to be carried for the last half hour of the return walk. A baby carrier or purpose built baby hiking backpack is recommended and can be loaned from the Rainforest Centre free of charge. Though this does little help for a whiny 5 year old that “can’t possibly go any further!”.
Second Stop – an afternoon lull but otherwise content in Dorrigo
Pulling into the township of Dorrigo, slightly tired and a little hungry the overall feeling was of contentment. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods to feel centered and inspired. Perhaps it’s the crisp fresh air of the rainforest or the tranquility that comes with waterfalls, mountains and trees or maybe for the kids the happy vibes was due to a promised treat at the bakery?
Lunch at the township of Dorrigo
The sleepy country town of Dorrigo with a population of approximately 1523 people is positioned atop a plateau overlooking the Dorrigo National Park. The charming town is surrounded by rolling green farmland and home to busy Dorrigo Bakery. So popular that a lunchtime queue had formed leading out to the street.
As if stumbling upon Dorrigo’s best-kept secret our expectations were made high. The meat pies tasted OK, much like the township itself, they were nice enough.
As a country girl myself, I know better than to base the reputation of the town on one interaction with the local bakery staff whom were more matter of fact than overflowing with warm country hospitality.
Trying my luck at a café’ on the main street which turned out to be the “world’s smallest motorcycle museum”. Kitschy cool, Juan’s Café Del Fuego, was adorned with bike memorabilia. Guests can admire the model bikes whilst being served a slice of cake, a ready made wrap or sandwich or hot food made to order. Whilst it was lunchtime the tables were empty, the order of a few drinks and a small chips which cost a handsome $6, took quite some time and smiles were shortcoming.
About to write off Dorrigo, positioned a few doors down from Juan’s Café was the Dorrigo Antiques Shop. Although it was closed, peering into the windows were a collectors dream of beautiful antiques. This little gem alone makes Dorrigo a worthwhile stop.
Admiring Dangar Falls
The main reason to drop in on Dorrigo is for the nearby Dangar Falls a short 2km drive from town. Grab some supplies and head to the sheltered picnic area adjacent to a children’s playground, where you can enjoy lunch by the roar of the falls.
A few snaps can be taken from the platform that overlooks Dangar falls and the Bielsdown River below.
There’s a short 15-20 minute walk down to the bottom of the river where it’s safe to paddle, be mindful of the incline on the way back up to the plateau and the deep riverbank for little ones.
Third stop – a rock to the head at Platypus Flat and hating Waterfall Way
Going off the beaten path, our route takes us away from Waterfall Way through Nymboi-Binderay National Park and Cascade National Park and the small villages of Ulong and Coramba before arriving back at Coffs. Maybe this is why things took a turn for the worst.
Tranquil Platypus Flat
Platypus Flat was meant to be one of the highlights of the road trip, a beautiful picnic area and campsite with impressive granite gorges covered with lush green rainforest. Nestled on the banks of Nymboida River it’s a peaceful little spot amongst the trees where kids can float along the gentle current, splash in the swimming hole, skip stones from the rivers edge or go for a walk around the trails.
1-hour drive from Dorrigo had the little ones arriving in Platypus Flat a bit grouchy, particularly as the last 30 minutes on Mills Road was unsealed and a little bumpy. Whilst 2-WD vehicles can take the drive to Platypus Flat, it’s more comfortable when we switched to 4WD mode.
Bad vibes all round
A few campers already set up for the weekend had staked out prime spots along the river, still there were plenty of open space to share. Feeling like unwanted guests, a family emerged from a tattered caravan awning, standing with hands on hips staring down our arriving car.
Two teenagers ran straight to a set of hammocks positioned a little way off from the family caravan making a declaration it was theirs. After awhile, the parents scratched their bums and retired to the sanctuary of their caravan.
Usually I’d give a little wave and a smile and consider approaching happy campers for a chat to get some tips on where to go exploring, on this occasion we kept to ourselves.
Overtired kids and tag team toilet breaks where the drop toilet was located far from the car park was exhausting. In that time the teenage girls had abandoned their hammocks.
Trying to enjoy the moment
When our kids were refreshed they headed to a clearing by the riverbank, an ideal spot to launch kayaks and an entry point to the river, it was also a great spot to skip rocks. Unfortunately this was exactly the spot where the teen girls had tied their hammocks. Surely enough, the teen girls returned back to the hammocks to protect their claim.
For a little while the kids skipped stones as we contemplated going into the water. One child wanted in and the other was not interested. The water was a little cool for my liking and I preferred to relax by the rivers edge, soaking in the tranquil surroundings.
Suddenly and completely unprovoked I felt a rock hit the back of my head with force. Though it wasn’t enough to knock me unconscious, it had a bit of a sting to it.
I swung around and there was a pimply, mousy blonde girl rolling her green eyes and swinging in her hammock. I waited for her to apologise but one wasn’t forthcoming. “Did you just throw a rock at my head!?” I asked in more of a statement than a question.
She looked sideways at her friend whom was suppressing a grin. She hunched further into her hammock and twirled her straggly hair around her fingers. “Nah”, she mumbled into her chest. I thought she was pretty if she could stop snarling, a trashy pre-pubescent version of Kate Winslet.
I looked at my husband, who knew that I felt like grabbing her by ear and dragging her back to her parents. He calmly said “Nothing good will come of this”. I was in mother bear mode, thinking what if it the rock hit the head of one of the kids!?
I was seething, but my husband was right, the parents were nowhere in sight. Recomposing myself I eyeballed this girl one more time to show her I meant business. She crossed her arms and and stared at the ground as I started the difficult task of relocating my oblivious kids.
Time to go and a lesson in raising teenagers
As we were walking away, a young girl from the nearby tent site, wades up to exit out of the river. The teens had another target, this time her arsenal wasn’t a rock.
“Are you in high school?” asked the rock thrower. The young girl nervously dried herself and replied “No”. “You look fat enough to be in high school, but anyway, there’s no way you are going to hang out with us”. Luckily her dad was nearby to collect the young girl in his arms, exempting me from dealing with the situation.
No matter how lovely Platypus Flat was it was not worth enduring the meanness any longer, I had let this spoilt brat get the better of me and ruin our road trip. Hastily throwing everything back in the car it was time to drive out of teenage hillbilly hell. Making it our mission to ensure we do not raise a rock throwing mean spirited daughter.
Our last stop – an unexpected meeting with Santa in the woods
Turning out of the road to Platypus Flat, there he was, Aussie Santa Claus standing at the fork of the road. His white wooly beard was trimmed short for the Southern Hemisphere and he was sporting a bright red shirt, pants and boots.
“Is that Santa?” asked my son in surprise. “I think it is!” I replied equally bewildered.
Wondering if he needed help, the windows went down and we slowly approached him as if any faster he might vanish back to the North Pole.
“Are you feeling a bit lost?” He says right off the bat. Santa always knows! Yes we were feeling a bit lost with the world, I thought.
“Just heading back to Coffs”. My husband replies. Santa then grinned and said “Just go left and head all the way to Coramba and follow the signs to Coffs, you’ll be right then”.
Chuckling to ourselves we thanked him and quickly put the windows up before my son could ask whether he was a good boy this year.
Moments later we caught up to a dingo running along the road. He stopped and gave us a little grin before disappearing into the woods.
Seeing Santa and his dingo friends in the middle of nowhere was just the bizarre thing we needed to lift our spirits and open our eyes to the areas beauty and rich timber heritage. A sense of calm fell over us and the kids slept most of the 2 hour return drive.
It was an exceptionally memorable journey back through timber country, dwarfed by beautiful tall trees of giant tallowwood, hoop pine and cedars. Despite a deliberate rock aimed at my head, Waterfall Way is absolutely worth the drive. The only proviso is to steer clear of teens in hammocks.
Waterfall Way road trip tips
Map of Waterfall Way
The NSW North Coast Visitor Guide includes different route variations, area information and attractions along Waterfall Way
Our route around Waterfall Way
Here’s our route that was recommended for young kids around Waterfall Way. This allowed for shorter walks and more accessible attractions.
It’s a 4 hour circuit that returns to Coffs Harbour allow for the entire day (9 hours) with stops.
Before you go on your road trip to Waterfall Way
- Take your car in for a service if it’s close for one before your trip. This ensures professionals have checked that it’s roadworthy and ready to go.
- As you maybe going off the beaten path along unsealed roads. Go in for a tyre check for wheel balance, alignment and general health of tyre i.e enough tread and tyre pressure. This includes the spare tyre.
- Make sure your car insurance is up to date before your road trip to cover the family car from any potential accidents during the road trip. Check out Youi Comprehensive Car Insurance for more details.
- Purchase travel insurance, we have an annual policy that covers loss, theft or damage of valuables such as iPad, laptop and cameras. Even with driving around Australia its handy to have travel insurance to cover your personal belongings.
- The unsealed roads around Waterfall Way are dry weather roads only and unsuitable for caravans unless they are 4WD (though it didn’t stop rock throwers family!)
- 2-WD vehicles are permitted but it’s a bit more comfortable with a AWD / 4WD. Ours is a Ford Territory and we had no problems on the dips and narrow winding roads.
Waterfall Way vehicle entry fees
Vehicle entry fees are $7 per day as of April 2015. Check out the latest prices here.
Best time to goto Waterfall Way
Summer months is the best time to go in terms of weather from Mid-December to Mid-March is ideal for Waterfall Way. Whilst it maybe a bit hot, the rainforest is a little cooler making it perfect for walking with kids. The summer brings blue skies and smaller chances of rain.
What to pack for a road trip along Waterfall Way
Whilst you can pick up some supplies in the main town of Dorrigo or at the end of Waterfall Way in Armidale. There is no shops or services between each village or within the National Parks. Be prepared and pack all your supplies to take with you when road tripping Waterfall way with kids. Things to pack include:
- Leave the stroller behind but take a baby backpack harness or a baby carrier. We had our ergo for our 2 year old and it was a life saver.
- It gets a bit cool on the rainforest floor. Dress in layers.
- BYO food and water. Have a packed lunch, snacks and enough water for the entire day. Great snacks to keep energy levels up include trail mix, dried and fresh fruit, muesli bars and rice crackers. A few sweet treats can sweeten the deal when tired kids get a bit antsy.
- Entertainment to keep the kids engaged and happy during the longer length car rides. Because you’re in a car your not limited to items that just fit in an overhead compartment. So take things that appease bored kids such as toys, books, stickers, colouring in sheets and technology such as CD books, DVD player, iPods and iPads. When all else fails there are the classic eye spy and punch buggy road trips to send parents mad.
- First aid kit to be kept in a car with a smaller kit (zip log bag) full of essential first aid items like creams, bandages, bandaids and medicines for when you go for longer walks.
- Medicine including ibuprofen, panadol, antihistamines and any essential drugs for the kids such as epi-pen and asthma puffers.
- Insect repellent, sunscreen and hats
- There are places to swim and some areas for water sports such as floating, kayaking or fishing so bring along the swimming and fishing gear.
- Picnic rugs, camp chairs and sun shelters in case you want to sit and stay awhile.
- Picnic supplies and an esky to keep the food and refreshments cool.
I wonder if I overreacted? What would you have done if a teenage girl deliberately threw a rock at your head?
Waterfall Way story courtesy of Youi Comprehensive Car Insurance, all opinions are my very own.