Driving the Barrier Highway with kids
Updated: Oct 9
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The Barrier Highway stretches 1,012km from Nyngan in New South Wales to Giles Corner in South Australia, through some incredible Aussie outback.
There is so much to love about this highway - the breathtaking views, the straight sections of road that continue all the way to the horizon, the way the earth changes colour from brown to orange and red, not to mention all the emus and kangaroos you’ll see - but the real reason you are reading this... will your kids enjoy it?
We drove the highway twice on our Big Lap - once at the very start, and again as we made our way home to Sydney - and I can honestly say that my kids loved this outback adventure.
So, let’s start from the beginning:
The drive from Sydney to Nyngan is massive. It’s over 500km, but there are so many amazing places to stop on the way, that the time goes by surprisingly quickly!
We love to break up the drive by stopping in:
Mudgee: 1.5 hours from Lithgow and so many family-friendly wineries to visit
Dubbo: 1.5 hours from Mudgee - I recommend staying at least for a night so you can visit the Taronga Western Plains Zoo
From Dubbo, it’s less than two hours to Nyngan, although I recommend stopping in Narromine for lunch and coffee at Soul Food Depot and Gallery.
Nyngan sits on the Bogan River between Narromine and Bourke and is said to be the start of “The Outback”.
There is a museum that had been recommended to us - The Mid State Shearing Shed museum - but we were there on the weekend and it was closed.
You can’t come to Nyngan and not get a photo of yourself with the town’s Big Bogan (you know how we love our Big Things).
The next town along the Barrier Highway is Cobar, less than an hour and a half from Nyngan. Cobar is a mining town and you will see evidence of this everywhere.
We stayed at the Copper City Motel, which was a good budget friendly choice and is a good location to explore the town on foot. The rooms are fairly typical regional motel standard.
Next to the motel is the Miners Heritage Park (with some huge pieces of old mining equipment which my kids loved). Across the road is the Great Cobar Heritage Centre, which was unfortunately closed for renovations when we were there.
Our trip often feels like a tour of Australia’s playgrounds and I am happy to report that Cobar has one of the best playgrounds we have visited.
Drummond Park (a short walk from the motel) has a huge selection of equipment for kids of all ages, from a fenced-off toddler area, to huge slides and flying foxes that even teenagers would love. There are clean toilets and shady picnic tables, making it a great place to relax while the kids burn off some energy.
We ate dinner in the bistro of the Great Western Hotel, which apparently has Australia’s longest verandah. It was lovely and had a good children’s menu, however the pub got pretty rowdy (it was Friday in a mining town!) and we had to run the gauntlet of staggering drunks as we left, which was a bit full on with little kids at 7pm.
The Fort Bourke Lookout is worth a stop while you are in Cobar. It sits high atop what seems to be just a hill as you drive up there, but when you arrive at the top and see that it is an open cut mine, it will take your breath away with just how massive it is.
The drive from Cobar to Wilcannia is straight and dry - two and a half hours through the red outback. If you are driving West, I suggest that you try to head off in the morning, as driving with the sun in your face (especially when your air conditioning is broken like ours was) is hard going.
About an hour and a half from Cobar is the Emmdale Roadhouse, our first real roadhouse of the trip! It’s a good place to stretch your legs, use the bathrooms and get some snacks, before hitting the road to Wilcannia.
We travelled along the Barrier Highway during COVID-19 and signs on the way to Wilcannia said that the town was closed to visitors.
75% of the town’s population are Aboriginal people, including small children with respiratory problems and elderly people with chronic health conditions. If the virus spread through the town, the results would be devastating, so we respected their wishes and kept out.
We stayed at the Warrawong on the Darling caravan park, a couple of kilometres out of town, on a grassy site right by the billabong. We spent our time exploring the beautiful nearby bushland and the Darling River.
The bathrooms at this caravan park were amazing! Huge, spotless combined showers and vanity spaces, which were so good when trying to shower with wriggly boys. They also have a big campfire in the evening, complete with happy hour snacks, and we were made to feel so welcome.
White Cliffs, NSW
White Cliffs is about 45 minutes off the Barrier Highway, but it is such a unique detour.
It is an old opal mining town, where to escape the heat (which can reach 50 degrees in summer!) many of the residents live underground. The houses are called “dugouts” and are sometimes built in the remnants of old mine shafts.
We stayed at the White Cliffs Underground Motel to get a taste of what it’s like to live underground, and we loved it! I was a bit nervous that having no windows would mean that we wouldn't sleep well, but I guess the lack of light and noise was relaxing, as we all slept very well.
There are over 50,000 old mine shafts here, most of them long abandoned, covering almost every inch of the land.
You can drive around the opal fields to check them out, but be very careful wandering around them with small kids - so many holes they could fall in!
As long as you do go onto private property, you are able to “noodle” through the piles of rubble left by the miners, looking for the sparkle of an opal. We had no luck but apparently it is possible to find decent opals out there.
With no shade, noodling was a bit hot for us, so we joined a tour group and went underground into a working opal mine. It was fascinating, but honestly, a bit too long for our little ones.
Broken Hill, NSW
Two and half hours after leaving White Cliffs, you get to Broken Hill. We initially planned on spending 3 nights in the Silver City, but we loved it so much that we ended up staying for over a week.
You can read more in depth info about our time there on our Broken Hill blog.
The NSW / SA Border
Broken Hill is only a half an hour drive to the South Australian border. You will drive through a few tiny towns as you head further into SA, but we didn’t find much in the way of services until Yunta, an hour and a half from the border. In Yunta, there are a couple of petrol stations and a rest area with toilets.
An hour from Yunta, and a 15km detour off the Barrier Highway is Peterborough. It was once the busiest rail hub in the world and we loved this tiny railway-obsessed town. If you have kids who love trains, this is definitely a great place to stop!
All four of the main roads into town have welcome signs made from miniature sculptures of steam locomotives made by a local blacksmith.
While you are in town, it is worth checking out the miniature train set in The Burg (the local newsagent). It’s a working model of the Peterborough rail yards in the late 1960s, including 70 buildings, and our boys loved it.
The Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre is supposed to be awesome for kids and adults, however (...as with so much that we wanted to do this trip...) it was closed so we didn't get a chance to go.
An hour south of Peterborough, back on the Barrier Highway, is this little abandoned cottage. It is known as "the Midnight Oil House", as it features on the cover of their Diesel and Dust album.
We listened to Midnight Oil a lot on our trip, as well as many other classic Aussie bands like the Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi. Seeing the parts of the country that they sing about gave us a new appreciation for the meanings, the politics and the passion behind their lyrics.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to get close to the house as it's on private property, but it was still cool to see it from the other side of a fence!
Back onto the Barrier Highway another few minutes is the town of Burra. It’s a pretty tiny town, full of beautiful heritage buildings, and like pretty much every other place we visited along the Barrier Highway, it began as a mining town. Burra’s mine is called the Monster Mine and was the largest metal mine in Australia until 1860.
If you want to make the most of your time in Burra, I recommend heading to the Visitor's Centre to purchase the Burra Heritage Passport.
School aged kids are free, and are given a history hunt sheet to keep them amused as you travel the 11km route, exploring fifty sites around the town. You will also be given a key to access eleven locked sites, including the Monster Mine area, Redruth Gaol, the underground Unicorn Brewery Cellars and the Dugouts. It is a great way to spend a day!
From Burra, it is another hour drive to reach Giles Corner, and then that’s it - the end of the 1,012km Barrier Highway!
The road is sealed the entire way, making it a great way to experience the outback in a 2WD, although it is a long drive so please make sure that you plan your trip well and have plenty of stops, remembering to fill up with petrol and water when you can. I hope that you enjoy your roadtrip along the Highway and have fun exploring this beautiful section of outback Australia.