In December 1873, four months after a visit from the statesman, Sir Henry Parkes, the town known as “Bushman’s” changed its name to Parkes.
At that time Parkes was in the midst of the gold rush, and even today mining is a way of life for many.
There are lots of things to pique the interest of travellers, but the largest in every sense is the colossal radio telescope of the Parkes Observatory, completed in 1961 and a vital piece of equipment to this day.
Elsewhere, there’s captivating gold rush history close by at Peak Hill and Forbes, the remnant forest of the Goobang National Park and a much-loved tourism complex on the edge of town.
1. CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope (Parkes Observatory)
It’s amazing to think that if weren’t for this 64-metre steerable radio telescope the world might not have viewed the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in the same way.
Now heritage-listed, the Parkes Observatory was built in 1961 as the brainchild of Welsh physicist Edward George Bowen (1911-1991), who had played a driving role behind the development of radar before WWII.
The Dish, as it’s known, has a become a symbol for Australian scientific progress, and was one of a network of radio antennae that helped transmit live images of the Moon Landing.
The telescope, among green rolling hills west of the Herveys Range, continues to function 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is still used for groundbreaking astronomical research.
If you’re in Parkes this is a must-do, if only to gauge the size of the dish and admire it from the visitor centre’s picnic tables.
2. Parkes Radio Telescope Visitor Centre
Near the base of that epic telescope is the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope Discovery Centre, recounting the history of the facility and exploring astronomy in a wider sense.
There are interactive exhibits to help visitors young and not so young ponder the big scientific questions, like “What is the Universe Made of?”, and “How Old is the Universe?”. The centre also goes into detail on the origins of the telescope, explaining some of the milestones in its past and laying out some eye-popping statistics.
Also here is an HD theatre, showing educational 3D presentations that can be seen for a small fee.
Afterwards you can browse the shop and make a pit stop at the Dish Cafe, with a terrace in the shadow of the observatory.
3. The Henry Parkes Centre
On the Newell Highway heading north out of Parkes is the sort of tourism complex that would do any town proud.
Essentially, the Henry Parkes Centre is a visitor information centre combined with four museums in two groups.
The first of these is the Parkes Motor Museum, with a century-spanning collection of vehicles in pristine condition, and the King’s Castle Elvis Exhibit, comprising one of the greatest displays of Elvis Presley memorabilia and personal items outside of the USA.
Then next door you’ve got the Henry Parkes Museum, dipping into the riveting story of Parkes, together with the Antique Machinery Collection, charting the evolution of agricultural technology in the Parkes Shire.
4. Goobang National Park
In Parkes you’ll be too close to this treasured national park to pass up a trip.
Thirty kilometres out of town, Goobang National Park preserves the largest tracts of remnant forest and woodland in the Central West region.
Something that makes this 50-kilometre strip of wilderness so compelling is that NSW’s coastal and interior flora and fauna overlap here.
The park encompasses the Herveys Range, and you can hike to some magnificent lookouts.
One hike worth every moment is the 4km Burrabadine Walking Track, setting off from the Greenbah Campground for a tough climb to the top of Burrabadine Peak where there’s a sensational view of the farmland to the west.
5. Parkes Aviation Museum
Parkes is a town with a few interesting ties to the field aviation.
One is that Parkes Airport, just east of the town, served as an RAAF station during World War II, home to schools for air navigation and wireless air gunners.
Two decades earlier, in 1919, the aviation pioneer Sydney Pickles landed his Sopwith Camel in Parkes.
The airport’s aviation museum, maintained by the Historic Aircraft Aviation Society (HARS), is in an old RAAF hangar.
Among the exhibits are a Convair 580 (VH-PDW), a Bell AH-1 Huey Cobra, a De Havilland DH. 114 Heron (VH – AHB) and a De Havilland DHC-4 Caribou (A4-275), all intact.
You can also check out airframes for a variety of aircraft, while an extremely rare Lockheed Neptune A89-302 has been going through a long-term restoration.
6. Memorial Hill Lookout
The best vantage point for Parkes and the surrounding region is a few short blocks east of the CBD.
This is capped by a striking white memorial tower, visible for miles round and which we’ll talk about in the next entry.
As for the hill, this is the most prominent in the area and so gives you unbroken, 360° views of Parkes and the farmland of the Central West region.
There’s a car park near the monument and you can step out and take a bushwalk around the top of the hill.
On the south side are picnic tables so you can idle over the magnificent view south towards Back Yamma, while Rotary Park on the hill’s north side has more picnic facilities and an adventure playground.
7. Parkes War Memorial
While taking in the panoramas on Memorial Hill you can turn your attention to the monument itself.
This fluted column stands 33 metres tall and is built from reinforced concrete.
On the square lawn surrounding the memorial is a low fence with a concrete flagpole at each corner.
This structure was planned as early as the 1920s, but work was interrupted by World War II and it was finally unveiled in 1953. Initially it paid tribute to the Parke citizens who served in the Australian Army in the world wars, but was later updated for Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.
8. Bushmans Hill Reserve
Visiting this public park north of the CBD you’ll be standing on the site of one of Parkes first goldmines, which was last worked well over a century ago.
There’s a few remnants from that time lying around, including a preserved square chimney stack.
On the southern side of Bushmans Hill is the newly created Wiradjuri Amphitheatre, testifying to the traditional owners and embellished with indigenous art by Wiradjuri artists from the area.
The hilltop also commands a satisfying view of Parkes and can be climbed from near the Visitor Information Centre.
9. Peak Hill
To really get in touch with the region’s gold-mining heritage a trip to Peak Hill will be in order.
In the Parkes Shire, this town is around half an hour north of Parkes proper.
Where Peak Hill differs from many other NSW gold rush towns is that the gold rush never really ended.
The goldmine here was still productive up to the 21st century, and you can head for the Peak Hill Open Cut Experience to take a guided or self-guided tour for great views over the mine’s giant terraces, accompanied by fascinating details about the gold rush.
For a fun detour there’s the Big Fish Fossil Hut, the star of which is a Xiphactinus, a monster fish that grew to 4.5 metres.
10. Kelly Reserve
While plotting your next excursion you could retreat to this peaceful public park enclosing the Bushmans Dam reservoir.
Kelly Reserve combines typical park facilities like picnic tables, a covered barbecue area and an off-leash dog park with some interesting monuments that merit a few minutes of your time.
One is the Elvis Wall of Fame, which has plaques paying tribute to legends of the Australian music scene, from Glenn A. Baker to Noeleen Batley.
Each year, during the Parkes Elvis Festival there’s a new inductee.
Also in the park is a historic steam locomotive, which we’ll describe in more detail below.
11. Cooke Park
This carefully looked-after parcel of greenery, sprinkled with trees, is at the south end of Parkes’ CBD.
If you’ve picked up lunch from one of the restaurants on Clarinda Street you could amble over to Cooke Park for a relaxing picnic.
Many of the trees here are mature hardwoods, comfortable in Parkes’ temperate climate and shedding their leaves in autumn after turning beautiful shades of gold and brown.
More than that, on the north-western, Welcome Street side of the park there’s a brand new, multimillion-dollar multipurpose centre, complete with an events stage and events hall.
One of the annual get-togethers intended for this facility is the Parkes Elvis Festival, taking place every January.
Resting on the banks of the Lachlan River, Forbes is a recommended day trip, less than half an hour south-west of Parkes.
The town is made for a walking tour for its rich 19th-century heritage, encapsulated by the Italianate Post Office, completed in 1881. No wonder then that Forbes was a major shooting location for The Dish (2000), the movie starring Sam Neill, telling the story of the Parkes Observatory’s role in relaying the Moon Landing in 1969.
The town is also suffused with exciting stories from the gold rush days: It was just outside of Forbes in 1862 that the Hall-Gardiner Gang bailed the Lachlan Gold Escort in 1862, committing the largest gold robbery in Australia’s history.
At Billabong Creek you can visit the bushranger Ben Hall’s Death Site, while his grave can be found in Forbes Cemetery.
13. McFeeters Motor Museum
Another reason to make the journey down to Forbes is to see one of Australia’s great private vehicle collections housed in a giant, twin-level showroom.
This fleet includes a lot of rarities you may never have seen before and covers a big spectrum of production dates, from 1902 to the last couple of years.
With informative labels, each vehicle has its own tale to tell and has been polished up to a bright sheen.
Where possible the cars, bikes or trucks are accompanied by mannequins in period dress.
Special mention for the 1905 Minerva, the series of Holdens from the 1950s and 60s, the 1958 Porsche 356 and the 1968 E-Type Jaguar.
14. Railway Pioneers of Parkes
Parkes played its own small part in making Australia’s vast expanses more accessible by rail.
The town was first hooked up to a branch line of the Orange-Molong line in 1898. Over the years this branch was extended through NSW and South Australia’s immense arid interior, eventually becoming part of the Orange-Broken Hill line, ready in 1927.
In Kelly Reserve there’s a reminder of the achievements of Parkes’ railway pioneers in the form of a preserved 3075 “S” Class Steam Locomotive, which was built at Eveleigh Workshops, NSW and entered service in 1912. The engine was acquired by the Parkes Apex Club in 1975 and has recently been given a fresh paintjob.
15. Sir Henry Parkes Statue
Enjoying pride of place in the heart of the CBD is a statue of Sir Henry Parkes, who between 1872 and 1891 had multiple terms in office as premier of the colony of New South Wales.
In his day, Parkes was described as “the most commanding figure in Australian politics” and now is commonly known as the “Father of the Federation”. He made his mark on the fledgling nation by advocating for the expansion of the continental rail network, opposing convict transportation early in his career and by pushing for the federation of Australia’s six colonies.
Rumour has it that the people of Parkes (then Bushman’s) petitioned the statesman to adopt his name in order to flatter him and make sure the new east-west rail line called at the town.