FUN THINGS TO DO IN LIGHTNING RIDGE
The Ridge is quintessential outback Australia, it’s quirky, eccentric, welcoming, and home to plenty of characters! There are plenty of unique things to do in Lightning Ridge and we spent several days trying them out so we could share them with you.
How to Spend 3 Days in Outback NSW
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.
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.
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.
The nearest town is Walgett, just under 80km away but there is not a lot there, the nearest big town is Dubbo 273km south.
What is the population of Lightning Ridge?
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.
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 holders 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.
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.
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.
Things you should not miss in Lightning Ridge
So let’s start exploring
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.
You will meet one of the Ridge’s first “characters” before you even enter the 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.
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.
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!
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
Our full list of things to do in Lightning Ridge will take you 2-3 days depending on how fast you move in the heat! Joining a tour for the Orange Car tour is a good idea because you learn so much about living in this unique place on the drive out and someone else can drive you home after you have a few drinks at the pubs throughout the day.
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 of 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
One of the most impressive stops on the Red car door tour – Amigo’s castle represents the weird and wonderful Lightning Ridge. It took Mr Stefanato, aka, 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.
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. Mr Stefanato was recently charged with murder so you may find changes to the opening hours of the castle.
Opening Hours: Most days between 9am – 5pm (Amigo was recently charged with murder so access may have changed.)
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.
Where: 8 Opal St, Lightning Ridge
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.
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
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.
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. This leads to the next question that 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.
We felt the key sites on this tour were:
- The Ridge Castle – a stone and bottle house
- Astronomers Monument
- Amigos Castle
- The Bottle House
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.
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.
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.
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.
This full drive takes about 30 minutes to complete and starts just outside town.
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.
Outback Opal 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.
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.
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 offcasts 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.
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 choices. 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.
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.
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
Almost everyone else we met was staying at Opal Caravan Park. Part of the Top Parks chain is the closest 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
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.
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.
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.
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 its quirks.
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 out what the Ridge Castle looks like on the inside here
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 per person. 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; Covid had limited numbers but 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.