This rural town sits in Queensland’s Central Highlands, just past the eastern edge of a vast sapphire producing region.
A lot of the names around Emerald are taken from precious stones, like Rubyvale and Sapphire Central, while off to the east is Queensland’s coalmining capital, Blackwater.
You can head off to the Sapphire Gemfields and Blackwater to immerse yourself in the gem-hunting and coalmining.
As for Emerald, the town’s 19th-century growth was spurred by the arrival of the railway, and has always been associated with crops like cotton, various grains and citrus.
There’s a phenomenal botanical garden in the town, on the banks of the Nogoa River, and two must-see national parks are in range, at Minerva Hills and Blackdown Tablelands.
1. Emerald Botanic Gardens
Emerald is ten kilometres shy of the Tropic of Capricorn, so if you’re from a more temperate part of the world it’s well worth seeing the kinds of plants and trees at home at this latitude.
Emerald Botanic Gardens were refreshed with new landscaping and infrastructure in 2017 and give you a superb, labelled overview of the various biomes around the Central Highlands region.
There are 12 different themed plant communities in all, as well as a preserved historic windmill and various works of public art.
You can amble through these 42 acres on gravel and poured concrete paths, and pause by the Nogoa River, which courses through the park.
On top of all that there’s exercise equipment, BBQs and a free camping area near the entrance.
2. Minerva Hills National Park
South of Emerald, outside Springsure, is a remnant of Oligocene hot spot volcanics, in a craggy landscape of volcanic peaks, sheer cliffs and gorges.
The Minerva Hill National Park rises sharply above Springsure, and there are four lookouts in this tortured basalt mountainscape affording views back over the town.
A prominent peak in the park is Mount Zamia, and on the town-facing side is a formation dubbed “Virgin Rock” for its resemblance to the Virgin Mary with Child.
These figures are illuminated at night and can be seen via the 1.6km Skyline Lookout trail, which also gives you a clear sight of the fertile farming region between Springsure and Emerald.
3. Fairbairn Dam (Lake Maraboon)
Immediately south-west of Emerald is a reservoir with a capacity three times as large as Sydney Harbour.
Impounding the Nogoa River, the dam was begun in 1968 and completed four years later, mainly for farming irrigation but also as a potable water supply.
The Fairbairn Dam is famed in the angling community, and is stocked with bass, silver perch, Mary River cod, barramundi and southern saratoga, while a host of other species are present without stocking.
For non-fishers, there are no boating restrictions, allowing a wide range of water sports, while from the shore you can make the most of a designated swimming area, picnic/barbecue spaces and a majestic lookout over the lake and dam spillway.
4. Van Gogh’s Sunflower Painting
Australia is a country of “Big Things”, novelty sculptures on a giant scale, erected as minor tourist attracts and to celebrate a local point of pride.
Emerald’s big thing is a giant easel, standing 25 metres tall and comprising 13.6 tonnes of steel.
The image on the “canvas” is a vibrant reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1889), the original of which hangs at the Van Gogh.
This ties in with the Central Highlands’ extensive sunflower fields, and was produced by Canadian artist Cameron Cross in 1999. It’s all part of an international project to erect seven sunflower sculptures in seven countries, one for each of the sunflower still lifes produced by van Gogh in 1888-89. Emerald’s sunflower painting is the second of three so far.
5. Sapphire Gemfields
Spreading out over some 900 square kilometres and within an easy drive west of Emerald is one of the largest sapphire-bearing regions on the planet.
The Sapphire Gemfields encompass a number of townships, including Rubyvale, Anakie Siding, Sapphire Central and Willows Gemfields, with tons of things to get up to.
Foremost of course are the many gemshops and galleries, some with skilled gemcutters and jewellers to help you create a one-of-a-kind piece.
There are also nine spaces across the Gemfields designated for fossicking (licence required), if you’d like to try to dig and sieve for your own gemstone.
For a bit more expert input you could join a guided fossicking tour, or make for a fossicking park where the digging has been done for you and you set about sieving for sapphires and zircons right away.
6. Emerald Historic Railway Station
The railway was responsible for Emerald’s late-19th-century development, and the palatial National Trust station is one of the town’s finest pieces of heritage.
When the Central Western Railway came through Rockhampton in 1879 Emerald was identified as a junction for the branch lines that continue to run to Clermont and Springsure.
The Neoclassical station building (1900) is impossible to miss on Clermont Street for the central portico, complete with intricate ironwork, and the two flanking pavilions with genteel awnings.
7. Emerald Art Gallery
For a taste of the arts scene in the Central Highlands, the Emerald Art Gallery is an impressive space, putting on high-quality exhibitions, workshops, talks and competitions.
The premier award for the region, the Central Highlands Regional Council Annual Art Awards, is held here every August.
This acquisitive award has also helped form the basis of a growing collection of art in oil or acrylic on canvas, built up since the early-1970s.
Check the calendar for solo exhibitions for prominent Queensland artists, travelling shows from Australia’s major institutions, and showcases in all sorts of media for talent from in and near Emerald.
8. Rubyvale Observatory
With zero light pollution, the remote environment of the Sapphire Gemfields is a fantastic place to view the night skies.
Even with the naked eye you can make out stars, nebulae, planets and satellites with rare clarity.
So imagine what it would be like to study the Gemfields’ skies through a powerful telescope.
You can do just that at the Rubyvale Motel & Holiday Units, which has a professional-quality observatory on the property.
At an observatory session you’ll begin with a naked eye overview before stepping inside to peer into the universe through a 14” Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope in the company of Mick, the man who built this facility from scratch.
9. Emerald Aquatic Centre
Open September to March, Emerald has the kind of public outdoor pool complex that would be the envy of most towns.
The Emerald Aquatic Centre is packed with facilities, including a 50m international standard pool, a 25m heated pool, a shaded splashpad for little ones and a slide complex with three superb waterslides of varying speeds.
The entire centre was overhauled in the 2010s and, complete with shaded grassy space for picnics, presents a first-rate day out for families.
10. Central Highlands Visitor Information Centre
Needless to say, Emerald is in a far-flung kind of place, so you’ll need to be prepared if you’re about to head off to national parks, distant townships and mining areas.
Licences and permits are also needed for a lot of activities, like fishing and fossicking, which makes the visitor information centre such an essential stop.
Swing by for tailored itineraries, brochures, maps and great firsthand advice from people who know the Central Highlands like the back of their hand.
And while you work out your next move, you can pick up a hot drink or ice cream, and use the free Wi-Fi.
11. Blackdown Tablelands National Park
East of Emerald, about a third of the way to Rockhampton, is a national park conserving a big tract of Central Highlands scenery.
Here a sandstone plateau climbs 900 metres above the surrounding plains.
At this elevation there’s a more temperate climate, and growing in this enclave of fern-lined gorges, heathland and forest are several plants and animals found nowhere else.
The creeks weaving through the tableland plummet into gorges at places like the marvellous Rainbow Falls.
This is the traditional homeland of the Ghungalu people, whose rock art adorns walls throughout the park.
Tracks lead through those rare plant communities to interesting rock art sites and wonderful lookouts, and you can pass a night or two in the bush at the Munal camping area.
12. Blackwater International Coal Centre
Also east of Emerald, at the gateway to the Central Highlands, lies the town of Blackwater, which emerged as Queensland’s coal capital in the 20th century.
Coalmining peaked here in the 1970s, but is still the main employer, with six huge open cut and one underground mine.
If industrial heritage piques your interest, the Blackwater International Coal Centre is a showcase for the Australian coalmining industry as a whole.
The museum has all kinds of interactive exhibits and models explaining the past and present of coalmining, incorporating a highly-detailed timeline 50 metres long.
There’s also some colossal mining equipment to check out, and you can book a tour of a functioning open-cut pit, to see this outsized machinery in operation.
Back at the centre is a Japanese garden for a moment of tranquillity.
13. Old Rainworth Fort (Old Rainworth Stone Store)
A simple drive down the Gregory Highway will get you to this intriguing piece of settlement heritage, just outside the town of Springsure.
The Old Rainworth Fort, dating to 1862, is surviving evidence of the violence between pastoralists and the local Kari people, who in 1861 had attacked a nearby pastoral property at Cullin-la-ringo, killing 19. This fortified blockhouse was designed to provide a safe, fire-proof haven in case of a raid, and is composed of basalt, bricks and mortar, with a corrugated iron roof.
The property is furnished with period items, and is managed by two older women, Coleen and Lorna, who have encyclopaedic knowledge of Central Queensland’s pastoralist history.
14. Emerald Golf Club
On a long plot hugging the Nogoa River, Emerald Golf Club is a highly-regarded public course in lovely scenery.
These 18 holes are enclosed by natural forest, and rich with rhododendrons, ferns and azaleas, while the abundance of water affords a fun variety of hazards.
Confident players can enter two different competitions, one on weekdays and one on weekends, for the chance to win prizes.
You can hire all the necessary equipment from the pro shop, and there’s a bistro for a cold drink and a satisfying bite.
15. Vicki Peters Park
Parents in town with energetic children need look no further than this revitalised park in the south of Emerald.
Fully fenced and equipped with shade sails, the playground at Vicki Peters Park was upgraded in 2019 after inviting plenty of input from the community.
The equipment, including slides swings and climbing frames for various abilities, is bedded with soft fall tiles and ensconced in grassy space with trees and seating.