Adventures in Lightning Ridge – 3 Days in Outback NSW

Lightning Ridge is quintessential outback Australia, it’s quirky, eccentric, welcoming, and home to plenty of characters! There are about 2600 permanent residents, although locals tell us there are probably a few hundred more who lay low. This is a spot you can easily escape and go about your business with virtual anonymity.

Added to the local population are the 80,000 or so visitors who drop by each year for an average stay of 2-3 days.

The Kamilaroi are the traditional owners of the land on which Lightning Ridge sits. Their dreaming stories tell them that a huge wheel of fire fell from the sky and deposited the earth with these bright stones.

Opals are the lifeblood of Lightning Ridge, commonly referred to as “the Ridge”, so is hardly a surprise that most of the attractions are centred on finding the elusive gems. While opals are everywhere, you don’t have to be a fan of this precious stone to enjoy a visit.

Things you need to know before you plan your visit to Lightning Ridge

Before we begin, let’s get some of the most common questions out of the way, these are the things we wondered when planning our trip and friends have asked us on return.

Where is Lightning Ridge?

Located in Northern NSW, only 65km short of the southern Queensland border, Lightning Ridge is one of the most accessible of Australia’s mining towns. From Sydney, it is 730km north-west (via Dubbo) and from Brisbane 660km south-west.

It is only 64 km south to the Queensland border.

Lightning Ridge Sign
We drove to Lightning Ridge from Moree

The nearest town is Walgett, just under 80km away but there is not a lot there, the nearest big town is Dubbo 273km south.

Is Lightning Ridge worth visiting?

In a word, yes, it’s best known as being the Australian home of the Black Opal and one of only a few places in the world where these unique and valuable gems are found. It’s also likely to be one of the most unusual places you will visit in Australia.

When is the best time to visit Lightning Ridge?

Head here between April and October if you can for the best weather. We visited in early October and the days were warm and dry. It was hot but not uncomfortably so. There is no way I could imagine visiting in summer, and we were told by locals that is when many of the mining license holder head underground or go on holiday to escape the heat.

For lower costs and good weather, the sweet spots are in March-April and October.

Lightning Ridge Weather

Between November and February, the Ridge sees average daily highs of 39°C and temps can go as high as the mid-40s°C. At the opposite end of the scale in June-August, the average high is 17-19°C, and overnight lows drop down to 7°C. Rainfall is lowest in winter and highest in Jan.

Do you need a four-wheel drive to explore Lightning Ridge?

No, you don’t you can visit and explore in a two-wheel-drive. The road into town and the main streets are paved. The ‘roads” to the sites are often gravel and pothole-ridden however, if you drive slowly and avoid wet weather, you should be OK. Ask for local advice at the visitors centre before you head out of town.

A road just outside town in Lightning Ridge
A road just outside town in Lightning Ridge

Be very careful driving to Lightning Ridge after dark, the highway from Walgett sees lots of wildlife, and the risk of collision is high at dusk and into the night.

So let’s start exploring

You will meet one of the Ridge’s first “characters” before you even enter town.

Introducing Stanley the Emu, one of Australia’s Big Things

You will find Stanley on the main road into town – at 18-metre high, it’s almost impossible to miss him. Created by local artist John Murray, whose work we will cover later, Stanley was built entirely from donated, recycled products including VW Beetle bonnets and doors and a satellite dish for his head.

Stanley Emu Lightning Ridge
Stanley Emu Lightning Ridge

He was named after Local Police Area Commander Stan Single who donated materials from the old police station.

Stanley contains a time capsule “egg” that will be opened in 2063

Stanley has his own Facebook page if you want to know more.

The rest stop outside Lightning Ridge
The best way to light a loo we have ever seen shine your headlights as shown.

Local tip: Directly opposite Stanley is a rest area with some pretty unique lighting – you face your vehicle headlights to a reflective panel that lights the loo!

The lay of the land.

Lightning Ridge is not a big place – the town is really only a few dozen paved streets before it heads off into the mines’ moonlike landscape. At first, it does not look like much, but there’s plenty to see here, go slow and try to find some opportunities to chat to the locals for insider tips on the more unique things to see. You never know, you might even get invited to go fossicking with someone who knows what they’re doing!

There are piles of dirt from dug up mine shafts and old rusty vehicles and sheds dotted across the town.

Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre

A good first stop on arriving in town and the place to pick up the $1 self-guided Car Door Tour driving maps, the Visitors Centre is the best spot to find out about tours and road conditions.

Other than being barked at upon entry to sanitise our hands – which we were already doing when the order was given – the staff were helpful if not exactly welcoming, I like to think it was just fear of COVID-19 from the southerners that threw them off their game that day.

Where: Morilla Street
When: 9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 9am-1pm Sunday

The best things to do in Lightning Ridge

Lightning Ridge Artesian Bore Baths

At the other end of town and open almost 24 hours a day is one of the most popular places in the Ridge. With free entry, visiting the Artesian Baths is no brainer. Water temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees celsius take a little getting used to. Luckily we had three days practice at the baths in Moree to get our bodies used to it.

If you are first-timers, we suggest you time your visit for early morning before the heat of the day or late evening, which is particularly fun with the locals all sitting around chatting.

Have a dip in the 40°C artesian hot baths if you are brave!

The baths are closed for cleaning between 10am – 12noon Monday to Friday – guess what time we visited lol 10.05am, but the staff let us pop in for some photos.

Where: Pandora Street
Cost: Free

Take a walk on main street

You can easily spend a couple of hours walking the two main streets of the town and visiting some of the historic buildings, checking out the famous Lightning Ridge street art and of course browsing the opal shops.

John Murray Black bird mural Lightning Ridge
John Murray mural
John Murray Emus Lightning Ridge
3 of John Murray’s 5 emus

Take a step back in time by visiting the Historical Society Heritage Cottage where you will find a life-size sculpture of Charlie Nettleton, the man who sunk the first mine in the Ridge in 1903 and is considered the founder of the black opal mining industry.

See the bronze sculpture of Charlie Nettleton the “Spirit of Lightning Ridge” by artist Brett “Mon” Garling

On the site, you will find a Miner’s Cottage built in 1932 and 1915 Cottage Hospital. The complex was closed during our visit, although we could wander around outside and peer in the windows. If you are luckier and find it open there looked like there was plenty to see inside.

One of the oldest buildings in town, Coopers Cottage (1916) is directly across the road.

Cost: Donations accepted
Opening Hours: open 3 days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday 10am-4pm),

Australian Opal Centre

The best place to begin your opal journey, the centre is not a shop selling opals (although they do sell some) but rather the world’s leading collection of opalised fossils. It may be small but there is plenty to see here and the staff were really knowledgeable and happy to answer questions

A dinosaur fossil at the Opal Centre

We learnt during our visit to the New Australian Opal Centre being built near Lunatic Hill at the cost of 33 million dollars. The project is due to be completed in 2022 we have heard. Definitely, a reason to go back!

Where: 11 Morilla Street, Lightning Ridge
When: The centre is only open half days on weekdays, usually mornings and all day on Saturday but check the website before you visit. 

Amigo’s Castle

One of the most impressive stops on the Red car door tour – Amigo’s castle represents the weird and wonderful Lightning Ridge. It took Amigo, who build the castle by hand twenty years to construct before the council decided it was not safe and made him cease work on it.

Amigos Castle Lightning Ridge
Amigos Castle Lightning Ridge

The castle which became his passion is now heritage-listed, but Amigo has since moved to a house on the back of the property, I suspect he tired of the attention of too many visitors.

Anita, who is an artist in residence, gave us a short talk on Amigo and his fabulous building before letting us loose to explore.

Opening Hours: Most days between 9am – 5pm
Cost: $5
Where
: 52 Black Prince Dr, Lightning Ridge NSW 2834

John Murray Art Gallery and Lightning Ridge Street Art

Murray’s style is very distinctive, and you will recognise it instantly, there are several murals around town, but it’s worth popping into his gallery for a quick look. We also really enjoyed the photography of his partner Vicky.

artworks on the wall John Murray Art Gallery Lightning Ridge
The John Murray Gallery in Opal Street is free to visit.

Where: 8 Opal St, Lightning Ridge
Cost: Free

Bottle House Museum

We didn’t manage to go inside the impressive Bottle House to see its collection of artifacts, but we did have a good look around the outside.

Bottle wall at the bottle house Lightning Ridge
Dog House at the Bottle House

Free to poke about outside and plenty to see indoors if they are open, sadly the pandemic restrictions mean we missed out.

Opening hours: 9am – 5pm 7 days
Cost: $10
Where: 60 Opal St, Lightning Ridge

Car Door Tours

The self-drive car door tours are the most popular things to do in Lightning Ridge, and we almost missed out! Our motorhome hire conditions were sealed roads only – a pretty standard rule so keep this in mind if renting – we were not allowed to go off-road with ours.

We were also not very organised, and as the pandemic had seen an increase in travellers to the Ridge and a reduction in the numbers of people allowed on tour, so things did not look good.

Orange Car Door Tour Lighning Ridge
The Orange Car Door Tour

We worked out which of the stops on the tours we could get to safety and were going to have to be happy with that we lady luck stepped in – no we didn’t find an opal – but we did meet two friendly travellers at our caravan park who offered to take us with them in their four-wheel drive, so we were off. Which leads to the next question we have been asked a bunch of times…

Can I take a two wheel drive on the Car Door Tours?

The green and orange car door tours offer the most challenging conditions so perhaps try the red one first and if your car survives that keep going 😉 Provided your car has not been modified, and you have decent clearance you should be fine. It also probably depends on how much you love your car ha-ha! 

Red Car Door Tour – We started with the Red Car Door Tour, and this was probably our favourite of the town tours if you only have the time or inclination for one this should be it. We feel it covers the most impressive sites in town.

Built from bottles and rocks – you can book a stay in Ridge Castle if you like.

We felt the key sites on this tour were:

  • The Ridge Castle – a stone and bottle house
  • Astronomers Monument
  • Amigos Castle
  • The Bottle House
Most of the car doors are easy to follow
Lightning Ridge always has a sense of humor!

Driving time on the Red Car Door Tour is only 20 minutes, but we spent a good twenty hours on this one including the stops.

Yellow Car Door Tour

Driving the Yellow Tour takes about 45 minutes, but you will probably need two hours if you stop and explore a couple of places.

The big sites on this drive are the Three Mile Opal Fields, the Chambers of the Black Hand, Lunatic Hill and the corrugated iron church at the Four Mile Opal Field.

Lunatic Hill Mine Lightning Ridge
Lunatic Hill Mine Lightning Ridge

While it looks old, the church was purpose-built for an almost unheard-of film Goddess of 1967. Photographers will find plenty to keep their cameras buys on this tour.

Lihgtning Ridge Iron Church
Not an original the church was built for the movie Goddess of 1967

Blue Car Door – We gave this one a miss so I can’t comment – driving time is only 10 minutes with 8 stops (doors). The main site on this tour is Bevan’s Cactus Nursery.

Green Car Door Tour – Our tour guide suggested we do the green door tour in the late afternoon to time our visit for sunset – perfect advice! It was spectacular – reminded me a lot of an Uluru sunset.

Four people apparently built the Stone Labyrinth in six hours.

The last and main stop on the tour is Nettleton’s First Shaft Lookout with its view over the Coocoran Opal Fields.

Charlie Nettleton dug the first mine in Lightning Ridge in 1903.

There were probably about 20 cars out here the night we went. We kept taking photos for a good half hour after sunset and drove back to town in total darkness which was quite an experience.

Our IGA picnic
Waiting for sunset

This full drive takes about 30 minutes to complete and starts just outside town.

Well worth hanging around for.

Orange Car Door Tour

You can drive out to Grawin Opal Fields and visit the key sites, the Glengarry ‘Hilton’, The Pub in the Scrub and the Sheepyard Hotel and Opal Fields on your own using the Orange Car tour map ($1) but again we were thwarted by the roads and so booked a tour.

We signed up for Outback Opal Tour’ 8-hour tour that covered all the above sites and included morning tea and lunch. Our guide was a local and gave an excellent commentary on the drive. 

Glengarry Hilton
Glengarry Hilton – just one of the stops on our tour

Check out the full details of our day exploring the Outback Opal Tours in this post – there were way too many highlights to include on this page. Walgett Council has a PDF on their site that shows the stops on this tour.

Where to eat in Lightning Ridge

We visited just after travel within the state opened up, and as a result, lots of restaurants and cafes were on limited hours and with strict numbers of guests. We ate at Morillas Café, every day, usually for brunch/lunch and enjoyed every meal. The coffee was excellent too!

We cooked dinners ourselves most nights, so we can’t give too much insight into the local dining scene. The pub had lost their cook (due to restrictions), and the Club was booked out!

Where: 2 Morilla St, Lightning Ridge
When: 7-2pm most days

IGA supermarket was a fantastic surprise – well stocked with plenty of ready meals and salads that tasted great – it was one of the better supermarkets we found in outback NSW and really well priced too surprisingly. We were happy to make use of the fabulous camp kitchen at our caravan park.

Where: 33 Opal St
When: 7am-7pm (9am-5pm Sunday)

All about Opals

Words like “doublet”, “triplet” and of course “Black Opal” will be thrown at you left right and centre, if you don’t know anything about opals, you will after your visit.

Black Opals on white background
Black Australian opals

The Ridge is a great spot to pick up some unique artwork or jewellery. While the opals we have seen in souvenir shops across the country never really attracted my interest, there are some gorgeous designs.

So did I buy one? You bet I did – I fell in love with the work at Down to Earth Opals – sadly much of it was a little out of my budget, but I did buy a lovely solid stone to have set when I decide what I would like to do with it!

Can you really find Opals in Lightning Ridge?

Sure can, if you find the opal bug takes hold while you are here, then you can try a little fossicking in the opal dumps where heaps of cast-off material is “dumped”. All you need is a small handheld metal rake and a bottle of water to wash the rocks.

There are a few official areas where tourists can dig through these off casts looking for opals, and valuable finds do happen. The easiest site to find is right by the visitor’s centre, and there is another on the way to Grawin.

Charlie trying his hand at fossicking

Our day tour with Outback Opal tours included some time at one of the heaps and a lesson on finding valuable (albeit small) pieces.

Where to Stay in Lightning Ridge?

If you are looking for accommodation in Lightning Ridge, you don’t exactly have a multitude of choice. Basically, you can choose between a motel, one of the caravan parks or an Airbnb.

Lightning Ridge Caravan Parks

We visited as part of our five-week Northern and Central NSW Road Trip. We were travelling in a motorhome and decided that we wanted power for this visit, so we booked into one of the town’s caravan parks. There are at least five caravan parks in town. These are three we checked out.

Lightning Ridge Holiday Park

We chose Lightning Ridge Holiday Park for our stay based on recommendations from friends who had really enjoyed their stay. We also liked the location in the centre of town. The supermarket, cafes and sites on Opal Street and Morilla Street with just a couple of minutes walk away. The towns Olympic pool and water theme park are next door but are only opened during the summer season.

Camp Kitchen at Lightning Ridge Holiday Park
Camp Kitchen at Lightning Ridge Holiday Park

The owners were great and work hard to create a friendly vibe, with thrice-weekly happy hours in the busy season. We were lucky enough to be there for two of these and enjoyed the chance to meet other travellers and taste the delicious complimentary pizza they cooked for us to share.

They offer tent sites, powered and unpowered sites and several cabins. While the facilities are old, everything is spotlessly clean. We highly recommend staying here and actually spending one day longer in the Ridge than we planned to because we loved the place.

Where: 44 Harlequin St, Lightning Ridge

Opal Caravan Park

Almost everyone else we met was staying at Opal Caravan Park. Part of the Top Parks chain it is the closet caravan park to the Artesian Baths – you can walk over – and also has an onsite swimming pool.

There is a variety of cabins, including an accessible cabin. Prices are a bit higher – it was $12 a night more expensive for a powered site when we checked, but if you want the extra facilities, it might be worth it for you. It’s probably the best choice if you are travelling with kids.

Where: 142 Pandora Street, Lightning Ridge

Lightning Ridge Outback Resort & Caravan Park

If your idea of a caravan park includes a pub, this might be for you! Located close to the visitors centre on the main street there is a range of accommodation options here.

Where: Onyx St, Lightning Ridge

Airbnb in Lightning Ridge

Airbnb options like this one give you a chance to experience the local lifestyle.

THE Tardis-Cara-Glamping

This stay in a 20ft caravan nicknamed the Tardis offers all the comforts you need for a good nights sleep and the chance to fossick on site.

Airbnb caravan in Lightning Ridge
The Tartis caravan in Lightning Ridge Credit: Airbnb

There are some lovely outdoor spaces on the property and you can even have a try finding opals with the tips you get from the owners! If you like quirky I think you will like this. Check more photos and availability here.

The Ridge Castle

We discovered Ridge Castle on the red car door tour, if we had known about it before our visit I would likely have booked a night to enjoy all it’s quirks.

A unique airbnb in Lightning Ridge called Ridge Castle
Ridge Castle lets you live like a king – Lightning Ridge Style that is!

Located 2km from town and a short drive to the hot baths, the Castle can sleep up to seven guests and is very rustic – but it is an experience you won’t forget.
Find our what the Ridge Castle looks like on the inside here

The Old School House

If you prefer something a little more conventional then perhaps the Old School House is more your thing.

The Old School House Airbnb Lightning Ridge
The Old School House Airbnb Lightning Ridge Credit: Airbnb

Built in 1912 the house was moved to the current location 5 minutes drive from town. If offers three bedrooms and can sleep, nine guests. Check out the rest of the photos here and check availability on Airbnb.

Want to learn more about Lightning Ridge before you visit? Check out the series Outback Opal Hunters on Discovery Channel

Do you ever ignore the must-see sites when you travel?

We missed a couple of places here – Chambers of the Black Hand, a mine that features hand-carved artwork instead of opals is on every must-see list, but it just didn’t appeal to us at $40 a head. It was also a challenge to fit into our schedule we decided to leave it out. 

We also missed The Big Opal at $20 each and the Opal Mine Adventure, also $20; we felt our money and time were better spent on the Grawin Opal Fields’ full-day tour.

So there you have it, our travel tips for enjoying 4 days in Lightning Ridge, one of the most unique Aussie towns we have visited so far! If you have any questions pop over to our FB group and we will try to help.

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