Trial Bay, NSW: Destination Guide

Trial Bay NSW

Trial Bay has a century-old jail and a laid-back ambience that draws regulars back for generations.

Read on to discover the best things to see and do in Trial Bay or find and book accommodation in Trial Bay today.

Almost every caravanner has a favourite place where they love to return; a place where they feel as contented as they do at home, where the familiar is as comforting as the surroundings are relaxing. For some, that can be a return to a childhood home, for others, it’s a place where the attractions meet their desires and the weather seems always perfect. It can be a remote, get-away-from-it-all spot, or a window in an urban landscape.

These favourite locations rise out of discussions around campgrounds like islands in the sea and, for those in New South Wales, it so often comes back to South West Rocks. Midway along the north coast, between Sydney and Brisbane, turn off the Pacific Highway at Kempsey and follow the meandering Macleay River through rich dairy country.

As with so many of these highly-favoured locales, what was once a small settlement of seaside shacks at `1`the end of a winding side road has evolved into an urban fringe, with the growth of subdivisions and shopping centres, as people chase a daily lifestyle that matches the experiences of summer holidays.

But while this discussion has so far centred on South West Rocks, I’m actually going to focus on Trial Bay. This is the body of water in front of South West Rocks and also the location of the main tourist drawcard in the region, the old Trial Bay Gaol. At the jail’s feet lies a campground that has visitors who have been returning each year for decades, with several generations of some families growing up over holiday periods, playing in the crystal clear waters of the adjacent beaches.


The jail was built by convict labour, starting in 1877, as a place to house convicts who were then to build a breakwater to create a safe harbour for coastal shipping midway between Sydney and Brisbane. And while the core of the jail was completed in 1886, and work began on the breakwall, it was abandoned after only a short section had been built. The empty prison was reopened in 1915 when it was used to house German internees from within Australia and the surrounding region during the First World War.

The partly restored jail is open daily for visitors, and is one of just a few tourist attractions in the area. But that doesn’t mean you will be bored. There’s the Smoky Cape Lighthouse (just to the south, in Hat Head National Park), drives to local villages and towns, numerous walks along the trails skirting the coast and down to beaches, plenty of places to go fishing, scuba diving or snorkelling, and a smattering of local restaurants, including the local country club, if you need a break from the van.

Of course, if you enjoy surfing or the beach life, you will be in your element here, with numerous strips of pristine golden sand washed by the Pacific Ocean. Many are quite secluded and only accessible by meandering bush tracks, while others are populous and patrolled. If you enjoy more formal activities there’s an 18-hole golf course, tennis, squash and bowls facilities.

It’s also a great spot for whale watching when the humpback and southern right whales are migrating between May and August. Northerly-facing Trial Bay can be the scene of spectacular displays as these 15-18m mammals launch themselves from the water, often surprisingly close to land. The views from the car park outside the jail or even at the end of the Trial Bay camping area in late afternoon can be fantastic and the numbers amazing. Occasionally, they even come into the bay pursuing bait, and if it isn’t the whales then it might be the dolphins surfing the waves as they roll in around the end of the breakwater.

There are four caravan parks in South West Rocks itself, the one on the Horseshoe Bay headland right in front of the original village, facing due north, the Big 4 park behind Trial Bay Beach, the South West Rocks Tourist Park on the river just west of the village, and the one at Trial Bay Gaol, on the eastern side of the bay. Each of these is well-appointed and clean. There are also two campgrounds in Hat Head National Park, though facilities are more limited with bore water showers and composting toilets.


The Trial Bay Gaol campground is ideally situated for families, being located right on the edge of the shallow and still waters of Trial Bay’s eastern shore. The outlook is due west, towards the Norfolk Island pines at South West Rocks and the sunsets are to die for. Facilities include powered sites, hot showers (20c per shower), fresh water, a boat ramp, wood and electric barbecues, picnic tables, and a cafe and kiosk. Tariffs aren’t cheap but the attractions ensure a steady clientele and in peak holiday periods, bookings are absolutely essential. A brief canvas of other caravanners in the park when we were there showed most to be casuals, but all knew of the park before and always made it a point of dropping in whenever they were in the area.

If, like us, you’ve driven past the turn-offs to South West Rocks while going elsewhere, take the time to divert your journey, down the side roads through 1950s-style dairy farm countryside, to a little slice of heaven. Maybe you will add your name to the long list of those who come back each year.

Getting to Trial Bay

Trial Bay is around 500km south of Brisbane and just over 455km north of Sydney.

To reach the jail, turn off Gregory St (main access road to South West Rocks) on to Landsborough Street, which becomes Phillip Drive. Turn left on to Cardwell Street, 600m after crossing the creek and follow to the jail. The campground office is at the jail and the campground behind.

More information about Trial Bay

Trial Bay Gaol, Cardwell St, South West Rocks, (02) 6566 6168

Facilities at the Trial Bay Goal campground include hot and cold showers, four amenities blocks with flush toilets, picnic tables, wood and electric barbecues, drinking water, 13 powered sites, and a 4WD boat ramp. Pets, generators and motorcycles are prohibited.

There’s a kiosk/cafe in the campground, and shops and service stations at South West Rocks.

Where to stay in Trial Bay

For more accommodation options in and around Trial Bay, click here.