Mount Gambier, in South Australia’s south east, is the second largest city in the state. It’s also perfectly located at the half way point between Melbourne and Adelaide. With great food, natural attractions, even a nearby wine region, it’s becoming a very popular destination. To help with your planning, here is the ultimate list of things to do in Mount Gambier and surrounds.
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- 1 Natural Mount Gambier Attractions
- 2 Things to Eat and Drink in Mount Gambier
- 3 Animal Experiences in Mount Gambier
- 4 Mount Gambier Walking Trails
- 5 Mount Gambier Arts & Culture
- 6 Mount Gambier History
- 7 Things to do in Mount Gambier Surrounds
- 7.1 Port MacDonnell
- 7.2 Cape Nothumberland
- 7.3 Tantanoola Cave
- 7.4 Dingley Dell Cottage & Conservation Park
- 7.5 Glencoe Woolshed
- 7.6 Mary McKillop Centre
- 7.7 Father Wood Sculpture Park
- 7.8 Coonawarra Wineries
- 7.9 Ewen Ponds
- 7.10 Picininnie Ponds
- 7.11 Carpenter Rocks & Canunda National Park
- 7.12 Penambol Conservation Park
- 7.13 Beachport & Pool of Siloam
- 7.14 Naracoorte Caves
- 7.15 Millicent
Natural Mount Gambier Attractions
The Limestone Coast area is all about volcanoes and caves and sinkholes. There are dozens of different natural attractions to see in and around Mount Gambier, Here are the most popular.
One of the most popular attractions in Mount Gambier is the Umpherston Sinkhole. It is located right in the city centre and is the most well known of Mount Gambier’s many sinkholes, even though you will find them all over the place. Originally a limestone cave, over the years the roof collapsed leaving just a big hole. Back in 1886, James Umpherston created a garden inside the sinkhole, and over the years it has matured into a beautiful sunken oasis. As cool as that is, the best time to visit is at dusk, when the nocturnal possums come out looking for a meal. We visited twice at different times, first to see the gardens, then later to see the possums. The sinkhole is well lit, making a visit to see the possums in the dark achievable. Take along some cut up apple or banana as a snack and the possums will come right to you.
In non-covid times, evening tours of the Umpherston Sinkhole are available. Keep an eye on this Facebook page to see when they start up again
Another of the biggest Mount Gambier tourist attractions is the Blue Lake. During the months of December to March, the lake turns a bright, cobalt blue. For the rest of the year, it is a steel grey. It is not known exactly why this lake changes colour so dramatically, but it is believed the warmer temperatures change the chemical composition of the water. Since it sits in the crater of an ancient volcano, there are probably all sorts of mysteries still to be uncovered.
The Blue Lake has multiple viewing platforms and a walking trail encircling it. There are some grassed areas that would be perfect for a picnic overlooking the lake in the warmer months.
In normal times there are Blue Lake Aquifer Tours that take visitors right down to the lake and to the pumping station to learn how it all works. Unfortunately during our recent visit the tours were not running due to Covid. Keep up to date by checking their Facebook page here.
Like sinkholes, in Mount Gambier caves are everywhere. The Engelbrecht Caves are located right in the city and stretch out under eleven suburban streets. Unlike most other caves in the areas, these are dry caves, so no stalagmites or stalactites. Even though they are called “dry”, in reality most of the caves are actually filled with water, forming lakes. These lakes are a popular cave-diving location for those experienced enough to dive in the claustrophobic passageways (definitely not me!). The tour into the caves is mostly about the history and geographical nature of the caves, with a strong focus on environmental issues that the cave has faced over time and faces now. The price of the 45 minute tour for adults is $1$.50AUD.
Right on the main street, between the library and the town hall, are the Cave Gardens, another sunken garden in Mount Gambier. The area has lovely gardens, great for relaxing in during the day, and getting some nice photos. We visited the gardens at night because there is a nightly light and sound show held each night at 8:30pm (9pm in summer). Look up onto the side of the town hall building and learn some of the history of the area, including some of the Aboriginal dreamtime stories. Over the festive season, the light show changes to one with a Christmas theme, so look out for that one too.
Ghost mushrooms (Omphalotus nidiformis) were the catalyst for one of our Limestone Coast road trips. They are glow-in-the-dark mushrooms that are native to Australia and grow in the pine forests of the South East of South Australia. They are predominantly found throughout May and June with the onset of the wet, cold weather, and ForestrySA are now opening up an area to allow the public to visit and view the mushrooms during this time. We visited in the second week of June, and we had a couple of locals comment that the mushrooms were reaching the end of their season, so if you are planning a visit, May might be the best option. Having said that, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of mushrooms, and while some were certainly beginning to die off, there were still plenty to see.
This is another incredible sinkhole that is filled with water. What looks like a tiny hole in the middle of a wheat field opens up into some incredible underwater caves. Visits here are by tour only, for either scuba diving, snorkelling or just a sinkhole discovery tour.
Plans are in process to build and open a cafe here at Kilsby sinkhole, as well as tasting rooms for the Sinkhole Gin that is produced using the crystal clear aquifer waters that seep into the sinkhole and other local Limestone Coast botanicals. For updates, keep an eye on their Facebook page here.
Little Blue Lake
The beautiful Blue Lake might look incredibly inviting, especially when its cobalt in summer, but it’s not the place for swimming in Mount Gambier. Instead, drive just a few kilometres out of town to the Little Blue Lake, which is a few, local swimming hole. Beware though, the lake is cold, sitting at a constant 12-15 degrees Celsius all year round.
Things to Eat and Drink in Mount Gambier
There are some great food and drink experiences in Mount Gambier, from local produce to markets to unique places to eat. Make sure you include some of these on your Mount Gambier itinerary!
Mount Gambier Farmers Markets
Every Saturday morning from 9am to 12pm the Mount Gambier Farmers Markets are set up at the Cave Gardens. The people running the stalls are all local farmers who are selling fresh, local produce straight from the farm.
ScRoll Queen is a must in my opinion! This tiny little store on the outskirts of town is becoming famous for the interesting scrolls they are producing. During our visit there were Tim Tam scrolls, Oreo scrolls, fairy bread scrolls and of course traditional cinnamon scrolls, amongst others! Even better, is that for those of us who are gluten free or vegan, on Saturday’s they make some special scrolls just for us so we don’t have to miss out.
Molony’s Soft Drinks
I’ve tried to find historical information about Molony’s Soft Drinks, but it’s very elusive. The bottles say they’ve been around since 1911, so that’s over 100 years of local soft drinks! What I do know is that these old-style drinks can be found all over town. You just have to try the Blue Lake Lemonade.
As mentioned above, the people from Kilsby sinkhole are now distilling their own gin. Soon you will be able to taste it in their own tasting rooms, but in the meantime you will have to try it elsewhere in town. There are many locations on the Limestone Coast, in Adelaide, and other parts of rural South Australia that have Sinkhole Gin – you can see the whole list here. I recommend popping into The Gambier Hotel right in the middle of town to try it, perhaps while enjoying a meal.
Little Rippa Beer
Want to try some of the local beer? The Little Rippa Brewing Company is a microbrewery located just outside of Mount Gambier. The best place to taste the beers is Sorrentos Cafe which have the current offerings on tap. You can also buy six packs and cartons here to take home of the beers on tap and other styles too.
Blue Majik Latte
I’m sure this may not be unique to Mount Gambier, but it is the only place I have ever come a Blue Majik Latte, so I did wonder if it was made here to honour the Blue Lake? If you want to try it, I got mine at Presto Eatery in the centre of town.
The Apple Farm is mainly a wedding and function venue on a working apple farm (unsurprisingly!). But during the apple picking season, generally from February to May, they have events, usually on Sunday afternoons, where visitors can come along and relax in the gardens, enjoy live music, local nibbles and drinks, and venture into the orchard to pick their own apples.
Animal Experiences in Mount Gambier
While Mount Gambier is less about animal experiences than some other areas of South Australia, there are still a few things to do, including seeing the possums at the Umpherston Sinkhole that I mentioned previously. Here are a couple more ways to enjoy animals around Mount Gambier.
Valley Lake Conservation Park & Boardwalk
On the banks of Valley Lake is this lovely park area. Part of it is the Valley Lake Conservation Park where you will find some indigenous flora and fauna to observe as you walk through the wetland boardwalks. The best time to visit would be at dusk as many of the animals are nocturnal, but during the day we saw wallabies, turtles, cape barren geese and many other birds. We searched hard for the koalas but they were hiding from us.
This is a popular place for the locals who often come here on the weekends to use the barbecue facilities while the kids play on the playgrounds and relax in the natural surroundings. There are a number of nature walks leading to a lookout over the area. The park is accessible for disabled visitors, has toilet facilities and plenty of parking. Best of all, entry to the park is free.
Echo Farm is one of the best things to do in Mount Gambier with kids. This farm has all the usual farm animals and a few native animals for the kids to interact with. Enjoy strolling around the farm at your own pace, or book a tour with the farmer to learn more. A full High Tea can be booked (on the last Sunday of the month), or if you prefer, just include some scones in your visit. See their website for all the details.
Mount Gambier Walking Trails
There are plenty of walking trails in and around Mount Gambier to keep the avid hiker busy. Here are a few that are in the city.
Blue Lake Loop
Taking a walk around the Blue Lake is the best way to enjoy the incredible blueness. The path takes you on a 3.6km loop. It’s flat all the way around and an easy walk. There are a few lookouts to stop at for different views of the Blue Lake, and interpretive signs along the way too.
Mountain Trail/Valley Lake Loop
This trail seemed to be alternately called the Mountain Trail or the Valley Lake Loop, depending on the source. It’s about 4.2km around the second of Mount Gambier’s Crater Lakes. This trail is much more difficult than the Blue Lake Loop. The trail takes walkers right up to the Centenary Tower which can be a tough climb, but there is also an easier detour for those who don’t want to brave the stairs. I recommend walking anti-clockwise as this makes the climb a little easier as there are stairs going up instead of a long sloping road.
Leg of Mutton Lake Trail
Another short walk of about 1.6km, this time around the third Crater Lake. The Leg of Mutton Lake is now dry after the water table in the area has dried up, but it is a lovely walk through what feels like a wooded area with a clearing (the old lake bed) right in the middle.
About 15km south of Mount Gambier lies the dormant volcano Mount Schank. It is possible to walk up to the crater rim, look down into the volcano, and to get 360 degree views of the surrounding farm land. It’s a bit under 2km round trip from the carpark, taking about an hour, and is a relatively easy walk. Don’t worry, the volcano last erupted around 5000 years ago and it’s not expected to erupt anytime soon (well, ever really!).
Mount Gambier Railways Lands
There used to be a railway line that ran right through the middle of Mount Gambier. It is no longer used, so the track has been pulled up and replaced with a walking and cycling trail. The path now stretches for over 5km through the city, and is a great place to take a walk or go for a run. If you don’t want to do the whole length, just choose a shorter section. This is a great option if you are looking for things to do in Mount Gambier for kids, because there is a great nature playground along the way, and the path is bike/scooter/stroller friendly.
If you prefer to bike along the Mount Gambier Railways Lands, there are bikes available to hire for free from the Lady Nelson Visitor & Discovery Centre and the Riddoch Art Gallery.
Mount Gambier Arts & Culture
If it’s arts and culture you are looking for during your Mount Gambier holiday, then there is some of that here for you too.
Riddoch Art Gallery
Billed as South Australia’s number one regional art gallery. It houses over 1500 items with a large collection of Aboriginal art. It’s not just traditional arts, with many modern art forms displayed too. There are always temporary exhibitions and events going on – while we were in town it was a virtual reality experience about Aboriginal dance. Entry is free, so it’s worth calling in for a quick look.
In May each year (but unfortunately it has been cancelled for 2021) Mount Gambier plays host to thousands of Jazz musicians during the Generations in Jazz event. It’s mostly a Jazz competition hotly contested by more than 100 schools Australia wide, but there are also performances by well known musicians. The music is of a very good quality, so if you are a jazz fan, this might be a great time to visit. If you are not a jazz fan, I suggest visiting another weekend, because the town will be overrun with visitors.
Morrison’s Jazz Club
After the huge success of the Generations in Jazz Festival, a dedicated jazz club has opened in Mount Gambier. There are a variety of acts that perform in this New York style bar, from local jazz musicians to more well known national, and even international acts.
Note: I hesitate to include this one in this list because during my recent visit it was closed due to covid. I have not been able to confirm if it will reopen again. I will leave this here for now though, and keep an eye on their Facebook page to see what the future holds.
Mount Gambier History
Mount Gambier is the traditional land of the Buandig people. The volcanoes here were first discovered by Europeans in 1800, and a settlement called Gambierton began in 1854, before changing the name to Mount Gambier soon after. Learn all about this history and more at the following places.
The volcano of Mount Gambier was the first place in South Australia to be named by European settlers. On top of that volcano now sits Centenary Tower, built in 1901. Hiking up to the tower will give you 360 degree views over the city of Mount Gambier and the surrounding countryside. It is possible to go inside the Centenary Tower to get an even better view too. The sign said it was open when the flag was flying for a small admission fee, but there was no flag flying during our visit.
Mount Gambier RSL War Museum
This is a great little museum to visit if you are a war memorabilia enthusiast, or even if you are keen to see a small slice of Australian history. The Mount Gambier RSL have put together a collection which is now displayed in five rooms. Most of the items have been donated by local families. Included in the building is the usual RSL offerings of a bar and restaurant, so you can grab a meal or refreshments before or after you browse the memorabilia. The lime cheesecake I had was delicious. Entry to the museum is free, and opening hours are from 9:30am to 8pm daily.
Lady Nelson Visitor & Discovery Centre
If you are looking for more information on what to do in Mount Gambier then head to the Lady Nelson Visitor Centre. While here, have a look at the full sized replica of the Lady Nelson, the first ship to sail along the coast of South Australia in 1799, then venture into the Discovery Centre, a mini museum about the history of the area and some of the local wildlife. I just loved the area with the glass floor – but be careful of the miner staring down at you from the ceiling. He made my daughter jump because he looked so real peering down at us.
Free Movie “Volcano”
Another of the Mount Gambier activities is a free movie shown twice a day during the week, 11am and 2pm, and once a day on the weekends, 11am, at the Main Corner Complex. It is a documentary called Volcanos about the geological history of the area. It also shows many of the local sites such as the Blue Lake and some of the caves and is good background information on them before a visit. It’s done in a scientific style rather than as a long tourism video, and if you like the science of an area, this will be interesting for you.
Things to do in Mount Gambier Surrounds
While there are lots of things to do in Mount Gambier itself, there are also plenty of great attractions just outside the city. All of the below things to do are within a one hour drive of Mount Gambier
There is no Mount Gambier beach, but about thirty kilometres south of Mount Gambier, Port MacDonnell is the next best thing. Known as “Australia’s southern rock lobster capital”, there are plenty of water sports in the summer or fishing year round. Check out the colony of little penguins that live near the town as they come back in from the sea at dusk. There is a Maritime museum here that gives lots of information about the history of the area, and so many parks and reserves with free facilities such as playgrounds and BBQs that even a whole day here may not be enough.
Cape Northumberland in the most southern point of South Australia. Take a walk and learn about the lighthouse that used to stand here while enjoying the great coastal views.
The Tantanoola Cave is about 30 minutes drive (23km) from along the Princes Highway towards Robe. It is only a relatively small cave, but has some impressive cave formations such as stalagmites and stalactites. It does have one major selling point though. These are the only caves near Mount Gambier that have wheelchair access, so even those people who can’t deal with many stairs can visit here. Adult entry tickets start from $14AUD. Click here for more information on other ticket prices and opening hours.
Dingley Dell Cottage & Conservation Park
Located just outside of Port MacDonnell, Dingley Dell was once home to the well known poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. He is the only Australian poet to have a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner, and a line from one of his poems was used by Queen Elizabeth II in her “Annus Horribilis” speech.
The cottage has now been turned into a museum, housing some of his early works, his personal effects and a display of horse riding bits and pieces. The grounds around the cottage are home to more memorabilia, as well as a picnic area if you are here at lunch time. The cottage is open every day from 10am-4pm and there are guided tours available.
This was another attraction closed due to covid during my recent visit. The website here will be the best place to check for current information.
The Glencoe Woolshed gives a glimpse into the past as it is still as it was when it was built in 1863. Maintained by the National Trust, the woolshed also displays many items related to the history of the wool industry in this area. Located in the small town of Glencoe about half an hour from Mount Gambier, this could be combined with the Tantanoola Caves above. The entry fee is $6AUD and you will need to call into the Glencoe General Store to pick up the key.
Mary McKillop Centre
Mary MacKillop is Australia’s only Catholic saint. She lived in Penola from the age of 14 and it is here that she made her declaration to God and founded the Australian Sisters of St Joseph order. The visitors centre here contains lot of information on the life of Sister Mary and the history of Catholic education, a resource centre for research, and a gift shop.
Father Wood Sculpture Park
Sister Mary’s mentor, Father Wood enjoyed wood carving, and as you drive from Penola to Coonawarra there is a small park on the roadside showing off some of his creations.
The Coonawarra is one of South Australia’s premier wine regions. Located about ten kilometres from Penola, it is most well known for it’s cabernet and shiraz varieties. Currently home to more than 25 wineries, there are plenty of cellar doors here with tastings available. While some, such as Wynns Coonawarra Estate or Leconfield Wines, are well known, there are many other smaller family wineries that are also producing top quality wines that are being exported world wide.
Ewen Ponds are located about 25km from Mount Gambier and are a diver’s mecca. There are three linked sinkholes that have filled with water and become the ponds. The water enters the pond through the surrounding limestone rocks which acts as a natural filter. It is incredibly clear, and whens cube diving or snorkelling the visibility is amazing. Once under the water it’s like snorkelling through grasslands, with water plants reaching up to the surface, some up to six metres tall. The downside to the ponds is that the water temperature is a chilly 10-15 degrees and a full length wetsuit is required at all times. A permit is required and can be booked here.
Picininnie Ponds are located right next to the Victorian border, about 30km from Mount Gambier. These are similar to Ewen Ponds and are also great for snorkelling and scuba diving, particularly for those who like cave diving. Picininnie Ponds contains areas like The Chasm (which is over 100m deep) and The Cathedral, both of which are stunning places to dive. Permits are again required, and can be booked here.
Carpenter Rocks & Canunda National Park
On the coast to the north west of Mount Gambier is the tiny hamlet of Carpenter Rock. Keep driving north into the Canunda National Park and towards the Cape Banks Lighthouse. On the beach here is the wreck of the Pisces Star which sits out of the water at low tide.
The Canunda National Park stretches for about 40km north of the Cape banks Lighthouse. At the northern end (best accessed from Millicent) there are some walking trails to explore the diverse nature of the park, or you can just enjoy the pristine beaches and do some fishing.
Penambol Conservation Park
This is yet another conservation park tucked in between all of the pine plantations about 25 km to the south east of Mount Gambier. We visited here to do the Wombat Walk, a 5km walking trail through the scrub. This are is home to countless wombats, and although we didn’t see any, we saw plenty of evidence thatchy were around, such as wombat poo (which strangely is cube-shaped!), where they’ve been digging and wombat burrows too. I recommend visiting late in the day to increase your chances of spotting a wombat.
There is a second, shorter walk here too called the Butterfly Walk. It is aptly named, because throughout this whole area there were always butterflies to be seen.
Beachport & Pool of Siloam
Beachport is an incredibly popular beach town, and it can become very crowded during school and public holidays, but there is a good reason it is popular. The beaches here are some of the best in the state and the town has enough history to be interesting. There is a long jetty that is perfect for fishing and plenty of walking trails around the town.
Beachport is also home to the Pool of Siloam, a salt lake that is good for swimming. At 7 times saltier than normal sea water, it is a lot more buoyant, reminiscent of the famous Dead Sea in the Middle East. Having been in both now, I can say it’s definitely not quite as easy to float in the Pool of Siloam, but it is definitely easier than a normal fresh water lake. Give it a try and see what you think!
This one is pushing the limits of distance as Google Maps tells me it takes 1hr4min to get there, but it is such a unique attraction that I think it’s a valuable addition to the list.
Located just south of the town of Naracoorte, the Naracoorte Caves are South Australia’s only World Heritage site thanks to the fossils that have been found here. There are 28 known caves in the national park, but only four of them are accessible to the public. Most people will just come here to do one of the many easy tours each day, but there are also options to do some more adventurous caving too.
After visiting the caves, there are BBQs and picnic tables here for an easy lunch, or visit the cafe for a meal. Visit the Naracoorte Caves website to check tour times and prices and for more information.
The town of Millicent is 50km from Mount Gambier. If you are passing through it’s worth a stop at the Millicent Museum to learn about the history of the area. They have all sorts of things from a steam engine to a collection of buggies, clothes from bygone eras and a shipwreck room with all sorts of things that have been recovered.
If it’s warm the Millicent Swimming Lake is perfect for a quick dip to cool off. To stretch your legs take a walk through the wetlands surrounding Lake McIntyre and take advantage of the BBQ and picnic facilities here.
Looking for somewhere to stay? I recommend Pine Country Caravan Park. Click here for my review.
Visiting more great South Australian locations? These posts might help
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.