The NSW Solar System Drive
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Have you heard of the drive through central NSW where you can pretend to be an astronaut exploring our solar system as you head towards the sun?
The Solar System Drive is a scale model of the solar system - 38 million times smaller than the real thing!
You can see each planet up on a billboard, and you follow them to reach the sun (which is the Siding Springs Observatory, and each planet is scaled in size relative to the observatory’s dome).
It is a great way to learn more about our solar system and to get a feel for its enormous size, while exploring some beautiful NSW countryside.
There are five different routes you can take to travel the Solar System Drive, depending on where you are coming from. Each one starts 200km from the “sun” at either Birriwa, Merriwa, Tamworth, Bellata or Dubbo.
Each of these roads meets at Coonabarabran, where you follow Timor Road to drive past Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, before finally reaching the sun!
Starting in Dubbo
We began our solar system journey at Pluto (yes, yes, we know it’s not officially a planet, but we love it anyway!) in Dubbo, at the Dubbo Visitor Information Centre.
This is also a great, free place to park and explore the centre of town, as it’s only a short walk to great cafes, shops and the Old Dubbo Gaol, as well as having free wifi and clean toilets.
From tiny Pluto, it is a 64km drive north along the Newell Highway to Neptune, which is outside the Coo-ee Heritage Centre in Gilgandra.
The centre was unfortunately closed for upgrades when we were there, but as well as the visitor information office, it houses three museums and an art gallery, so it sounds like it is worth a look if it is open!
Moving on from Neptune, you can find Uranus at the Tooraweenah Rest Area - 40km further along the Newell Highway. This is a great place to stop for a picnic, as there are shaded picnic tables and toilets.
From here, you can also take a 6km detour to visit the G K Rohr Warrumbungle Viewing Platform, which gives you a lovely, if distant, view of the Warrumbungle National Park, with its huge rock formations rising up out of the flat plains.
Back onto the Newell Highway, it’s another 42km to Saturn, at the Camkeena Rest Area. There are no facilities at this rest area, so best to go before you leave Uranus :)
The Newell Highway takes you all the way to Coonabarabran, where the other four routes will join for the final leg of the drive. This is a great place to stock up on food and petrol, especially if you are heading into the Warrumbungle National Park after the observatory.
From Coonabarabran, head west along Timor Road for 7km and you will find massive Jupiter, on the right hand side of the road. There is a spot to pull in off the road, so that you can read all about the largest planet in our solar system.
Back onto Timor Road for another 15km, is the red planet - Mars - making sure to avoid the asteroid belt on the way!
As you drive along this stretch of road, you can also spot the observatory in the distance, up high on one of the Warrumbungle’s rocky peaks.
Compared to Jupiter, Mars is so tiny, and from here the drives in between each planet get much smaller too. In fact, from Mars it’s only a 1.5km drive to get to Earth, turning off Timor Road onto Observatory Road as we make our final approach towards the sun.
Caravans aren’t permitted on this road as it is so narrow, so if you are towing a van, it’s best to leave it in either Coonabarabran or at your campsite in the National Park.
Venus is another 2km along Observatory Road, and from there it is only 750m to reach tiny Mercury, and then after another 1km you reach the sun - the huge white dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Springs Observatory!
The Observatory is Australia's premier optical and infrared astronomical observatory, and is definitely worth a visit!
It’s inside the Warrumbungle International Dark Sky Park - which means it is recognised internationally as an outstanding place to view the stars, away from light pollution.
There are over 60 telescopes onsite at the Observatory, and the Anglo-Australian is the largest.
There are a range of different tours that you can do at the observatory, although none of these are at night, as that’s when the astronomers are here doing their work. You can book tickets on their website here.
We did the “Family Friendly Adventure”, which was excellent, as it was tailored to the kids. Our tour leader (Donna the Astronomer) was lovely and made the tour informative and so much fun!
The highlight for us was getting to see the telescope and all the equipment inside the huge dome (quietly sneaking past the buildings where the astronomers were sleeping!).
By turning what is otherwise a fairly long and uninteresting drive for kids, into a fun and educational space themed adventure, the Solar System Drive is definitely one to add to your road trip list!
We recommend doing some planning beforehand to make sure that your kids get the most out of it.
We bought our kids space activity books for them to do during the drive, and we put together an epic space-themed playlist on Spotify!
It is probably also worth brushing up on your space knowledge with some cool facts beforehand, as phone reception can be limited along the way. My kids loved pretend-bouncing our way through the asteroid belt, doing space walks around the van while we were stopped at each planet, and learning about why poor little Pluto has been scrapped from the planet list.
We really enjoyed this drive, and with a bit of preparation and an excellent playlist, it is something that you and your kids will talk about for years!
May the force be with you :)