I’m a huge fan of road trips. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to see and explore a large area than by hitting the road. I consider myself extremely lucky to have driven through some breathtaking places, but few can compare to my epic East Coast Australia Road Trip. Both the Pacific Coast Highway and the Canadian Rockies are up there, but neither comes close in terms of distance or variety.
The Ultimate East Coast Australia Road Trip
When I say variety I mean one of the most diverse places on earth. Where else in the world can you visit perfect white-sand beaches, ancient rain-forests, tropical islands, coral reefs, world heritage sites, waterfall-laden mountains, and vibrant cities? Not to mention some of the planet’s most weird, wonderful, and terrifying wildlife.
If you haven’t been to Australia or explored much, it’s easy to underestimate how monstrous this country is. It takes forever to get where you’re going, so you’re gonna want to do some serious planning. Fortunately for you, I spent over three months driving and exploring the east coast of Australia, so I’ve done a ton of research for you.
How you choose to plan your own east coast Australia road trip will depend on a few things. How much time do you have? What kind of vehicle will you be driving? What type of accommodation do you want to use? Who will you be traveling with? What do you want to do with your time (other than driving)? What time of year do you plan to go?
There are far too many variables here for me to cover all the options, but I’ll make a few suggestions that will set you in the right direction.
Firstly, as I mentioned above, Australia is massive, and this road trip is well over 4000km from end to end. You don’t want to get to the end of your epic East Coast Australia Road Trip and just remember sitting in your car seat. Be realistic about how much time you have and plan accordingly. You’ll be much happier seeing less of the country but actually having the time to enjoy and explore it, not just drive.
When selecting a vehicle, your first choice should be a 4WD vehicle, as there are a TON of places where you can drive and even camp on the beach. If a 4WD isn’t an option I would suggest a campervan. Traditional camping in tents is also an option, although setting up and packing down camp daily can get old very quickly.
Your choice of vehicle will also help decide on your accommodation. A rooftop tent on a 4WD is a great option. I can personally testify to how great these things are. Set up in 5 minutes, sleep wherever you can park, and gets you off the ground and away from things that want to kill you (this is Australia don’t forget). Whatever you decide on, make sure you can sleep in, on, or near your vehicle. If you rely on hotels/motels/hostels, you’ll miss out on a bunch of awesome places due to lack of options. Not to mention spend a fortune.
The last thing I’ll mention in terms of early planning is that you should discuss with your travel buddies what your priorities are for your road trip. Do you have visions of long days sunbathing on the beach, hiking the hinterland, getting up at sunrise to take photos, reading a pile of books, or staying up late and partying in every town? However you plan to spend your time, make sure you’re all on the same page.
Where To Start And Finish
Your starting point will depend on a number of things. Will you already be in Australia, or are you flying in? Starting in one of the cities at either end – Melbourne or Cairns – will have a few advantages. You’ll have more choice of flights, and they’ll be cheaper.
You’ll also find it easier to pick up a vehicle from one of these cities if you don’t have one already. There are a lot of rental companies to choose from. These are also great places to pick up a bargain on a second-hand vehicle from somebody who’s just finishing up their own East Coast Australia Road Trip. You’ll often get a bunch of extra gear thrown in with the sale if you’re lucky.
Bear in mind that you can start your road trip wherever you want. Don’t feel like you need to do it all in one go either. I was based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, so broke it up into two chunks. I went north for an incredible Queensland road trip, then returned and headed south a couple months later to explore New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania.
Where you choose to start and finish your East Coast Australia Road Trip is really up to you. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You may also decide that you don’t have the time to drive the whole coast, so you might only drive Sydney to Cairns or Melbourne to Brisbane.
Whatever you decide, let me say again that Australia is HUGE, and if you’re tight on time you’re better off covering less distance and trying to avoid doubling back on yourself.
When To Go
Something that many people don’t consider about Australia is that the climate can change dramatically as you travel. If you don’t plan it well, the weather could easily ruin your trip.
I highly recommend avoiding Tropical North Queensland in the summer. It’s wet, hot, and humid, and you can’t swim in the ocean due to the deadly box jellyfish. Winter is perfect in Queensland. It’s warm and dry every day. The roads and campgrounds do get overrun with hordes of retirees (grey nomads), who migrate north to escape the southern winter. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The southern half of the east coast can get a lot colder in winter, so I recommend waiting for the warmer months to visit New South Wales and Victoria. It can be insanely hot in summer anywhere in Australia, in case you weren’t aware, so if you can’t handle the heat, maybe avoid summer.
I may have given you the impression that there’s no good time to do an East Coast Australia Road Trip. If I had three months to do it again, I would consider two options.
- Start at the southern end (Melbourne or Sydney) in late summer or early autumn and head north so you’re getting to Tropical North Queensland when the weather is cooler and dryer.
- Start at the northern end (Cairns) in spring and head south so that you’re getting to the end of your road trip early in summer before you start to melt onto the road.
Of course, you may be a sucker for punishment and want to spend your nights lying awake in a pool of your own sweat wishing for death. In that case, spend the whole summer driving the coast and find out why Australians live at the beach. Just don’t forget your sunscreen.
My initial plan was to give you a day-by-day breakdown of a three or four-month East Coast Australia Road Trip itinerary. That would be far too much information, and it wouldn’t help you if it doesn’t fit your plans.
Instead, I’m gonna tell you the places that you absolutely must see. These are all locations that I personally visited when I did this, so they come personally recommended. Don’t feel like you absolutely must visit them all. Your road trip will look different from mine for many reasons. I would at least consider each of these spots, because they’re all amazing.
I’ll also skip over the cities and major locations. I’m sure you don’t need to hear about Cairns, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, or Melbourne.
Cape Tribulation, QLD
Starting at the very top is one of my absolute favourite places in all of Australia. If you’re starting in Cairns, you’ll actually need to head north to get to Cape Tribulation. It’s only about a 2.5 hour drive, and trust me, it’s worth it.
Cape Tribulation is unbelievably beautiful. The ancient, lush green Daintree Rainforest comes right down to the beach. As you’re getting pretty far north, there isn’t a lot here, but that’s part of the attraction. There are some incredible hikes in the area, and some awesome campgrounds. If you’re lucky, you may even see a Cassowary. The only let-down is that you can’t swim in the ocean thanks to the bastard saltwater crocodiles.
Palm Cove, QLD
Also just north of Cairns is another of my favourite places, Palm Cove. It’s just a small beach town, but can get pretty busy on weekends and during the winter. The aptly-named town has a gorgeous palm tree-lined beach and a whole lot of great restaurants and cafes to choose from.
This was one of the most tempting places to unpack the 4WD and call home for a while. I highly recommend getting up early and heading down to the beach for sunrise. The palm trees on the beach make for some stunning photos.
Atherton Tablelands, QLD
There were few places that tempted me inland on our East Coast Australia Road Trip, but the Atherton Tablelands was one that I’m glad I didn’t miss. If you like waterfalls, prepare to be impressed.
There are a ton of waterfalls within a short drive, but you can see the best of them just off the main loop. Be sure to visit Milla Milla Falls, Ellinjaa Falls, and Mungalli Falls. They’re just south of Cairns, and you don’t miss a lot on the coast by taking the inland route.
Magnetic Island, QLD
When it comes to islands, you’re spoilt for choice in Australia. Magnetic Island hadn’t really been high on my list, but my travel buddy was dead-set on going. It’s a short ferry ride from Townsville, which you can take your car on if you want.
Magnetic Island is a lot bigger than I expected, so you’ll want to either take a car, bike, or use the buses to get around. Every part of the island is completely different. It has some stunning beaches, awesome hikes, and really interesting history. It’s also a great place to see wildlife like koalas!
Cape Hillsborough, QLD
Best known for its resident kangaroos that visit the beach each morning to eat seed pods that wash up overnight, Cape Hillsborough has more to it than wildlife. The landscape is breathtaking, the beaches are wonderful, and the campgrounds are some of my favourites from the whole east coast Australia road trip.
I recommend skipping the very disappointing experience of hundreds of tourists photographing park rangers feeding the kangaroos on the beach. Drive out to Haliday Bay Campground and stay on the beach for a couple nights. You won’t be disappointed.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands is an area I’ve wanted to visit and explore for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s the quintessential Australian tropical holiday location for good reason. The Whitsundays are a collection of stunning islands just off the coast where you can do almost anything you can imagine. Whether it’s a romantic island resort, camping, diving, fishing, or partying, there’s something for you.
We were lucky enough to get a visit from a very curious and friendly humpback whale while heading out to dive the Great Barrier Reef and visit the famous white sands of Whitehaven Beach. Airlie Beach is also a pretty cool little town, especially if you like to get a little rowdy. You could easily spend a week or two exploring this area.
Fraser Island, QLD
If I could revisit anywhere in Australia just once, it would be Fraser Island. There is nowhere in the world quite like it. Think perfect white-sand beaches, crystal-clear lakes, wild dingoes, tons of whales, awesome 4WD tracks, massive sand dunes, shipwrecks, more stars than you’ve ever seen, and virtually no civilisation.
You get to Fraser Island by ferry, and you need a 4WD because there are no roads. Just a whole lotta sand. This is where having a 4WD comes in handy. If you can explore Fraser Island in your own vehicle, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If not, at least do a day tour from Hervey Bay. Either way, don’t miss it. Fraser Island is a photographer’s dream.
I’m probably a little biased here because Noosa was home for a while. It’s a popular holiday spot in Australia, and for good reason. The weather is amazing, the beaches are perfect, and there’s something for everyone.
Noosa’s surf beaches, rivers, shopping, restaurants, night-life, hikes, and close proximity to the hinterland mean everyone will find something to keep them interested. I highly recommend exploring Noosa National Park. There are some beautiful walks around the coast and through the bush, and it’s another good place to see koalas.
Byron Bay, NSW
I almost left it off this list because who wouldn’t visit Byron Bay on an East Coast Australia Road Trip? I decided to add it for those of you who may consider skipping it because of its hippy reputation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super-funky little hippy town, but in all the right ways.
Byron Bay has come a long way in the last decade or so, and it’s grown from an adolescent hippy into a mature, grown up hippy. It still has a super laid-back vibe, and you’ll still see plenty of dread-locks and bare feet, but it has everything you could want in a little beach town. Be sure to get up to the Byron Bay Lighthouse for sunrise. It’s beautiful.
Trial Bay, NSW
Trial Bay was another spot that wasn’t really on my radar, but seemed like a good place to stop for a night. It turned out to be one of my favourite locations in New South Wales. There’s not a lot there other than a really interesting old prison and a million kangaroos.
Seriously, if you want your fix of kangaroos, this is the place to go. They’re everywhere, just hanging out in the campground and surrounding parks. Just be careful not to bump into one when you get up to pee in the night.
Booti Booti National Park, NSW
Other than being one of Australia’s many hilarious place-names, Booti Booti National Park is on a tiny sliver of land on the New South Wales coast. It would be easy to drive straight through and miss it, but it’s well worth a stop. The landscape here is gorgeous, with the ocean on one side and lakes and mountains on the other. It’s the perfect location for some aerial photography if you have a drone.
Port Stephens, NSW
Set on the Karuah River, which is really more of a harbour, Port Stephens is a lovely little town with sheltered beaches, great food, and a lot to do. At the mouth of the river is the impressive Tomaree Mountain, which is an essential climb at sunset. If you’re obsessed like me, go back in the morning to photograph the mountain from Zenith Beach at sunrise.
Port Stephens is also a great base to explore Stockton Beach and the Worimi National Park Sand Dunes. You’ll definitely need a 4WD for this, and make sure you check where you can and can’t go. Large parts of the dunes were closed during my visit.
Bouddhi National Park, NSW
If you’re into hiking, the Bouddhi Coastal Walk is a must-do. It’s an 8.5km hike each way, which follows the coast along cliffs, beaches, and board-walk. You’ll see some incredible rock formations and bird life. You can camp at Putty Beach, where the walk starts, so you can start early before the billion resident flies wake up.
Blue Mountains National Park, NSW
I had heard a lot about the Blue Mountains and seen lots of photos, but no way was I prepared for how incredible they are. Photos just don’t do any justice to how huge the canyons are. Blue Mountains National Park is one of the only other places that lured us inland. It’s a couple hours drive west from Sydney, and you’re gonna want to spend a few days there.
There are hikes and lookouts all over the place, so do your research. Some of the them are right off the main road, others you’ll have to hike to. Whatever your style, be prepared to be blown away. And bring your camera.
I had been drawn to Bermagui to photograph the famous Horse Head Rock, but was pleasantly surprised to find there’s more to Bermagui. I did get the shot I wanted, nearly breaking a leg in the process, but it was Wallaga Lake that I really loved. We got a camping spot right on the lake and spent a couple of days just enjoying the peace and quiet. I also discovered some pretty cool landscape on the far side of the lake with my drone.
Phillip Island, VIC
A couple hours southeast of Melbourne is Phillip Island, which is best known for the MotoGP race. Unless you’re into motorcycle racing, I would avoid it at all costs. Any other time, Phillip Island is a great place to visit. It’s also well known as a place to see penguins in the wild.
Phillip Island’s best attraction for me was the Pinnacles out at Cape Woolamai. The Pinnacles are a dramatic collection of rocks on the west side of the cape that jut straight up out of the beach. Head there for sunset and you won’t be disappointed. You need to walk out along the beach and cliffs, so be careful and check the tides.
Great Ocean Road, VIC
If you thought Melbourne was going to be your end point, think again. You’re gonna want to go a little further. The Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s best drives. Heading west from Melbourne and following along the south coast, you’ll see some stunning natural attractions.
Be sure to visit Bells Beach, Lock Ard Gorge, London Arch, The Grotto, and of course, the famous Twelve Apostles. You can do it in a day, but I would recommend staying somewhere along the way and taking a couple of days to explore and enjoy the drive.
Start Planning Your Next Road Trip
Once you get the road trip bug, there’s no cure. What’s next after your East Coast Australia Road Trip? You could do what I did and head to Tasmania, which I highly recommend. Whatever you do, be sure to let me know. What was your favourite spot? Are there any must-see locations you think I should add? Let me know in the comments.