There’s really nowhere on earth quite like Queensland. Where else can you find desert, rainforest, mountains, islands, coral reef, and some of the most spectacular beaches on the planet all in one place? It’s an enormous place, but if you want an epic Queensland road trip, you can see most of the good stuff by following the coast up from Brisbane to Cairns.
If you’re sticking to the coast, the Brisbane to Cairns drive is less than 24 hours. You can easily do a coastal Queensland Road Trip in under 2 weeks and still visit all the must-see sights. I’m all about road trips and slow travel, so I spent a month doing it, and I still only scratched the surface. There’s so much to see, do, and photograph.
The Ultimate Queensland Road Trip
These are the locations you won’t want to miss. If you’re pushed for time, you won’t be able to visit them all, but if you have 10-14 days it’s totally possible. Obviously, since we’re talking about a Queensland road trip, it will help if you have your own vehicle. Even if you don’t, you’ll still be able to follow this itinerary, as there are buses between Brisbane and Cairns that stop at all these locations.
Whether you’ve driven, flown, bused, or hitch-hiked into Brisbane, you’re gonna want to spend a night there. Brisbane has an unfortunate reputation as a bit of a hole. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just been compared a little unfairly to Sydney and Melbourne, two of the most liveable cities on earth.
I really liked Brisbane. If you like amazing food, rooftop bars, and live events virtually every night of the week, I’m sure you will too. We spent a couple of nights at the Brisbane City YHA. We timed our visit perfectly as one of my favourite comedians – Stephen K Amos – was on tour. He gave us a few good LOLs and we spent the rest of our time there exploring the city. I particularly liked the New Farm and Fortitude Valley areas.
Brisbane, like most of Australia, is insanely expensive, so if you’re on a budget you’re not gonna want to hang around too long. As much as I liked Brisbane, I was itching to get out of the city and on the road.
Your first stop after leaving Brisbane should be Noosa Heads, on the aptly-named Sunshine Coast. Think gorgeous beaches, epic surf, coastal walks, and more amazing bars and restaurants. Noosa is a big tourist attraction thanks to all of the above, so you won’t want to visit during the holidays. Any other time, though, it’s a super chill little town.
All within a short distance from Nomads Hostel Noosa, you’ve got one of Queensland’s best surf beaches, stunning walks that follow the coast through Noosa National Park, the beautiful Noosa river, and loads of food and beer to top it all off. Hastings St has a bunch of great options, but can be pricey. I recommend heading up to Noosa Junction, where the best bars, food, and nightlife can be found.
Since long before arriving in Australia, I’ve been wanting to visit Fraser Island. The largest sand island on earth and a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, there’s nowhere on earth quite like it. Think rainforests, crystal-clear lakes and rivers, whales, dingoes, turtles, beaches, and a whole lotta sand. You’re gonna want to make sure you have your camera for this one, because Fraser Island has some incredible photography spots.
Fraser Island was the place I was most excited about visiting on my Queensland road trip, and it didn’t disappoint. We had three nights camping on the island, and really only scratched the surface. It’s 4WD only on the island, so if you don’t have a vehicle that’s set up for extreme off-road driving, you’ll need to rent one or go with one of the many Fraser Island tours.
Hervey Bay is a popular base for exploring Fraser Island. It’s also the place to do a whale-watching tour. Each winter, tens of thousands of humpback whales migrate up the east coast of Australia to breed. If you’re doing your Queensland road trip around this time, I definitely recommend going whale-watching. Seeing these incredible creatures close-up is something truly special.
Other than Fraser Island and whale-watching, Hervey Bay is a pretty sleepy little town. If you’re not whale-watching, or if you’re self-driving Fraser Island or doing a tour from Noosa, I would skip Hervey bay. It does have a massive pier that’s worth a look.
It must be the only town in the world named after a year. The Town of 1770 was the second place that Captain James Cook landed in Australia that same year. Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy are so close that they’re basically the same place. It’s a cute, quiet little town that makes a good base to explore the area.
Seventeen Seventy is the place to join a tour of Lady Musgrave Island, known for some of the Great Barrier Reef’s best diving and snorkeling. The area is also surrounded by national parks, which are great locations for bush camping and hiking.
I would skip Mackay and head a further half-hour to Cape Hillsborough National Park. It’s a beautiful headland that has a few different beaches and campgrounds to choose from. We unfortunately missed out on the only Queensland National Parks campground (which are only about $6 per person), but lucked out and found a hidden gem of a campground at Halliday Bay.
If you’ve ever seen photos of kangaroos on the beach, they’re likely here in Cape Hillsborough. Every morning, kangaroos and wallabies come down to the beach to eat seed pods that have washed up on the beach overnight. Or so we were told. What actually happens is a “tour guide” puts food down for them, along with orange cones to keep the crowds back. Not exactly what I was expecting. On the plus side, you’ve made it over half way from Brisbane to Cairns.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
The only instructions I was given for our Queensland road trip were from my partner-in-crime, Rach. “I want to spend my birthday on an island!” What better place to spend your birthday than Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays?
We spent three nights in Airlie Beach, and LOVED it. We didn’t intend to stay that long, but due to some trouble with our 4WD, Al Bundy, we needed to stay an extra night. I was completely okay with it.
For such a popular tourist destination, the town has a surprisingly laid-back feel. We spent Rach’s birthday jetting out amongst the Whitsunday Islands, snorkelling amongst the coral reef, sunbathing on Whitehaven Beach, watching whales play, and drinking cold beers on Palm Bay Island. Bliss.
There are a ton of Whitsunday Island tour companies based in Airlie Beach. They offer everything from half/full-day tours to overnight reef-sleep packages and self-charters. Whatever you choose to do, don’t skip the Whitsundays. It really is one of the jewels of the Great Barrier Reef.
Townsville and Magnetic Island
I’ll admit, I didn’t know a lot about Magnetic Island before our Queensland road trip. I knew it was off the coast of Townsville, and that was about it. Sometimes it’s better to visit a place without any expectations.
Magnetic Island has so much going on, you’re gonna need a full day at least. I wish I had stayed a night there and made it two days. If you get the early ferry, you can watch the sunrise from the boat (always a great start to the day). You can get a bus pass for the day, which will take you all over the east side of the island.
Make sure you don’t miss The Forts hiking trail. You can see some old WWII forts, and if you’re lucky, some koala bears. Also, Radical Bay is a gorgeous little cove that you can’t miss. Watching sunset over Horseshoe Bay is a pretty epic way to finish the day.
North of Townsville, on the Cassowary Coast, lies Mission Beach. It’s actually a few beaches, but the whole area has come to be known as Mission Beach. If you go in winter, like we did, you’ll find you’re well and truly in the territory of the grey nomads, a horde of retirees escaping the colder southern states.
This sleepy little collection of beaches is paradise. Endless, white-sand beaches, palm trees, crystal-clear water, and the perfect climate will make you want to unpack and stay forever. This is a great spot to spend a day or two reading and chilling on the beach. If you can’t sit still, you can catch a boat the short distance to Dunk Island, just off the coast. I also recommend checking out Kurrimine Beach, north of Mission Beach.
Although the Brisbane to Cairns drive follows the coast, there is one location where I would recommend getting off the Bruce Highway and heading inland. The Atherton Tablelands is an elevated plateau southwest of Cairns, and if you like waterfalls, definitely worth taking a detour for.
If you turn off the highway north of Mission Beach and head towards Millaa Millaa, you’ll come across a circuit of three stunning waterfalls within a few minutes drive of each other. They’re pretty popular, so get there early. I was a little disappointed to see the area at the base of Millaa Millaa Falls has been concreted following some flood damage recently.
They’re well worth a visit, and you’re not missing much on the coast by taking the inland route. If you’re up for it, there are more waterfalls in the area that require a bit more driving. It’s a slow, windy road, but makes a nice change from the coastal route.
If you make it this far, congratulations. You’ve made it further north than most Australians ever will. You’ve not only made it all the way from Brisbane to Cairns, you’ve also reached the heart of Tropical North Queensland. I’m not sure exactly where the tropics begin, but somewhere along the way, you enter a lush, green world.
Cairns is bigger than I expected. There’s so much going on there, you could easily spend a week exploring the area, as well as the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is super popular amongst backpackers, so there are a ton of hostels. The city has a pretty decent nightlife, if that’s your thing, and some great food.
We decided we hadn’t had our fill of the reef, so we took another tour, this time right out to the outer reef. We spent a few hours snorkeling amongst the coral, searching for turtles, and wearily watching the reef sharks swimming below us.
For many people, their Queensland road trip ends here. Whether flying out of Cairns or turning around and driving back south, far too many people don’t make it any further north. If you can find a couple more days to squeeze in, there are a couple more places I recommend you visit.
Is there anything that says “tropical paradise” like palm trees on the beach? Palm Cove is a little town just north of Cairns that we fell in love with. There’s not much there except the stunning beach, a few cafes and bars, and a whole lotta palm trees.
We met some backpackers who had stopped there on their Queensland road trip and decided to stay. After talking with them we were seriously tempted to do the same. We could live out of Al Bundy, and we already had our hammock strung up between two palm trees. What else would we need?
The only thing that motivated us to keep moving was what was still to come further north.
The northernmost point of our Queensland road trip also happened to be one of my absolute favourites. Cape Tribulation is less than three hours north of Cairns, and there’s nowhere in the world like it. It’s the only place on earth where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
The Daintree is the oldest tropical rainforest on earth (over 100 million years old), and it extends right down to the coast. Standing on the beach and seeing a lush, green rainforest in the same place is kinda strange, but incredible to see.
Cape Tribulation is truly a tropical paradise. We stayed three nights, but easily could’ve made it a week or two. Noah Beach was one of the most secluded pieces of paradise I’ve ever seen. We literally had the whole beach to ourselves on more than one occasion. Cape Tribulation Camping also happened to be one of my favourite campgrounds on the whole Queensland road trip. Wood-fired pizzas tend to have that effect on me.
The Long Drive Back
The Brisbane to Cairns drive is a long one. Add the extra 150km to Cape Tribulation, and you’ve driven close to 2000km. If you’re flying out of Cairns or staying in North Queensland, count yourself lucky. We turned around and drove the whole way back down the coast.
If you’re driving back from Cairns to Brisbane, you could stop in to see the places you missed on the way up, or revisit the places you loved and wanted to explore some more. We did a bit of both.
However you choose to do your Queensland road trip, you will have one of the best experiences of your life. Now, go get some wheels, grab your camera, and create some incredible memories.