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North Coast NSW is packed with beautiful holiday towns on the well-travelled east coast of Australia. But it’s also home to a string of small towns and attractions that don’t get so much attention.

I’ve already written blog posts on each place I stayed on my Sydney to Brisbane road trip, but there were so many other little places I visited for coffee, lunch or even petrol that I wanted to write another post to cover them!

For my whole Sydney to Brisbane route, have a read of my big drive itinerary linked below. It also links to quite a few places on the lower end of North Coast NSW, such as Port Stephens and Myall Lakes.

Sydney to Brisbane Drive Itinerary: Amazing East Coast Australia Adventure

This blog post covers a few detours and great places to see in Mid-North Coast NSW (from Port Macquarie upwards), the Northern Rivers region up towards Yamba, and some scenic hotspots south of Byron Bay. Enjoy!

Mid-North Coast NSW: Macleay Valley Coast

If you’re travelling from Port Macquarie up to South West Rocks, there’s a lovely scenic detour if you come off the highway at South Kempsey.

Mid North Coast NSW map showing drive stops of Port Macquarie, Crescent Head, Gladstone and South West Head.

Crescent Head

Head east on Crescent Head Road to the beautiful little seaside town of Crescent Head. The town is famous for its brilliant surf and lovely beaches such as Killick Beach.

River and beach at Crescent Head, NSW.
Beach and town at Crescent Head

We only stopped here for a picnic lunch, but the scenery was spectacular, and it had a great holiday feeling. You can even camp at Crescent Head Holiday Park!

Surfing at Crescent Head in NSW.
Surf at Crescent Head

From Crescent Head you can take scenic Loftus Road north alongside Hat Head National Park and then drive next to Belmore River.

Bridge over the Belmore River to Loftus Road in North Coast NSW.
Taking the Loftus Road from Belmore River

Gladstone NSW

Once you reach the Macleay River, a fantastic place to stop is Gladstone. It’s an absolutely tiny town, but with so much character! We ended up staying a good hour or two.

Macleay River in Gladstone NSW.
Macleay River in Gladstone

There’s a little park beside the river, which is perfect for a picnic. There’s also The Heritage Hotel of Gladstone on Kinchela Street, if you fancy a drink or pub lunch.

Arty, bohemian homeware at Roxy's Boutique in Gladstone NSW, Australia.
Quirky homeware inside Roxy’s Boutique Studio

My favourite thing about Gladstone was how it had arty little shops! I really wasn’t expecting that in such a tiny, country town. There was even an outdoor hair salon at a boutique called Roxy’s, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world!

Roxy's Boutique Studio outdoor hair salon in Gladstone NSW!
Roxy’s Boutique Studio outdoor hair salon!

Mid-North Coast NSW: Nambucca Valley & Bellingen

North of South West Rocks are quite a few little towns worth stopping at before you reach Coffs Harbour.

Mid-North Coast NSW map, Australia for a, East Coast road trip.


I literally only stopped here to get petrol, but I happened to arrive at sunset, which was absolutely stunning! A former port town, Macksville is set on the banks of the Nambucca River, so the perfect place to stop for a picnic, coffee or pub lunch.

Amazing sunset at Lions Park in Macksville, Noth Coast NSW Australia.
Amazing sunset at Lions Park in Macksville

Nambucca Heads

Just 15 minutes north of Macksville is gorgeous Nambucca Heads, somewhere I definitely wouldn’t have minded staying longer. Set at the mouth of the Nambucca River, this beautiful coastal town has magnificent beaches and some cracking scenery!

Lookout in Nambucca Heads, North Coast NSW, Australia.
Looking down at the mouth of Nambucca River

Just like Port Macquarie, Nambucca Heads has a breakwall (known as the V-Wall) that’s been painted with messages. You can also visit Captain Cook Lookout or Pilot Lookout to appreciate the views.

Painted breakwall at Nambucca Heads NSW.
Painted breakwall at Nambucca Heads

Stroll along the waterfront boardwalks to read the storyboards about this beautiful Mid-North Coast NSW town. It’s a bonus if you visit at sunset! Click the link below to look through hotels, apartments and caravan parks in Nambucca Heads.

Browse Nambucca Heads accommodation on

Gorgeous Nambucca Heads sunset in North Coast NSW, Australia.
Gorgeous Nambucca Heads sunset

Bellingen & Dorrigo

A fantastic detour from the highway before you get up to Coffs Harbour is beautiful Bellingen. It’s a quirky, arty little town with gorgeous scenery and really interesting historical architecture. You can also drive to nearby Dorrigo National Park and explore the stunning waterfalls!

Guide to Bellingen NSW: Rainforest, Waterfalls & Bohemian Boutiques

Bellingen High Street: historical buildings and shops.
Historical architecture in Bellingen

Northern Rivers NSW: Clarence Valley

Heading up into the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, there are some great North Coast towns in the Clarence Valley between Coffs Harbour and Yamba.

Northern Rivers NSW map: driving route from Grafton to Yamba, with drive stops at Ulmarra and Maclean.


Grafton is actually a Northern Rivers city, so bigger than most of the other places on this list. It’s set on the banks of the Clarence River and has some beautiful colonial buildings as well as pleasant, leafy streets.

Grafton shopping street, NSW.
Shops and historical architecture in Grafton

Grafton is also famous for its abundance of beautiful Jacaranda trees that blossom in spring, and the city hosts Australia’s annual Jacaranda Festival. You can enjoy riverside scenery, visit art galleries or even go to the heritage-listed Christ Church Cathedral, which was completed in 1884.

The banks of the Clarence River in Grafton Australia.
The banks of the Clarence River in Grafton

Grafton has an airport too, so you could fly directly from Sydney if you want to explore the Clarence Valley on a short break. Take a look at Grafton hotels, holiday parks and apartments via the link below.

Browse Grafton accommodation on

Centenary Drive, Clarenza NSW.
Centenary Drive near Grafton (spot the kangaroos!)


Just a 20-minute drive up the Pacific Highway from Grafton is charming little Ulmarra, one of the most memorable small towns in North Coast NSW that I visited. It’s literally just off the highway, so it’s really easy to get to, and perfect for a rest break.

Ulmarra Hotel and historical buildings in Ulmarra, North Coast NSW.
Step back in time: Ulmarra Hotel and historical buildings in Ulmarra

It was like stepping back in time walking down the high street with all the old shops and the lovely Ulmarra Hotel! The book store opposite was fantastic too!

Beautiful riverside garden at Hotel Ulmarra, NSW.
Beautiful riverside garden at the Ulmarra Hotel

Make sure you stop for a coffee or food at Ulmarra Hotel, as it has a beautiful garden with seating right on the edge of the Clarence River. I could have stayed there for hours (you can stay over at the hotel too)!

Book a stay at Ulmarra Hotel

Beautiful sunny day by the Clarence River in Ulmarra in Northern Rivers NSW.
The beautiful Clarence River in Ulmarra

It was quite smoky by the river, as there had been some controlled burning in the area. But I thought it looked even more atmospheric with the haze above the water.


Maclean is another rather quirky North Coast NSW town, about half an hour north of Ulmarra. It has Scottish heritage, and you’ll find Scottish souvenir shops as well as a lot of tartan!

Historic buildings in Maclean, NSW, Australia.
River St in Maclean

Even the power poles are painted in tartan, which was carried out for the Olympic Torch arrival in 2000! From Maclean you only have a 15-minute drive up to pretty surf town Yamba.

Scottish souvenirs in Maclean, a Scottish town in Australia.

Byron Bay Region

If you’re continuing up to beautiful Byron Bay from Yamba, there are a few scenic spots if you detour off the highway towards the coastline.

Byron Bay region map Australia.

Lennox Head & Lake Ainsworth

Seaside town Lennox Head has great surf, kayaking on the lake and stunning views of the coastal scenery at Pat Morton Lookout.

Pat Morton Lookout at Lennox Head in the Northern Rivers NSW Australia.
Pat Morton Lookout at Lennox Head

Slightly north is pretty Lake Ainsworth, a tea tree-stained dunal lake with barbecue and picnic facilities.

Beautiful reflections at Lake Ainsworth, Lennox Head, NSW Australia.
Lake Ainsworth

Broken Head

Whites Beach seemed to be the place to visit when I stayed at the Arts Factory Lodge in Byron Bay, so my travel mate and I decided to take a detour on our way south.

Whites Beach walking track near Byron Bay, NSW.
Whites Beach walking track

We were a bit late setting off, so the sun had disappeared, but the walking track through the forest was beautiful, and the little craggy beach was certainly stunning.

Looking down at Whites Beach NSW.
Looking down at Whites Beach

A short drive south is Seven Mile Beach, an enormous (I’m guessing seven miles long!) beach that’s well worth a visit.

Seven Mile Beach at Broken Head, NSW.
Seven Mile Beach

If you’re continuing north after Byron Bay, make sure you read my guide on what to see and do at the Gold Coast on a backpacker budget.

Gold Coast 3-Day Itinerary on a Backpacker Budget

Also check out some of my favourite beaches in NSW, so you can visit them on your journey!

25 Beautiful NSW Beaches

If you’re carrying on to Brisbane, find out what to see and do in this guide.

15 Fun Things to Do in Brisbane

Happy travels!