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The East Coast of Australia is the most visited part of Australia and with a reason. The weather in the Northern part is good all year-round, most highlights of Australia can be found here and the roads along the coast are very scenic.
The route from Brisbane to Cairns will take you through several picturesque places where you can explore a lot of Australia and do many excursions and tours. This complete guide will tell you everything to see and to do, so you can choose yourself where you want to spend your days.
Brisbane to Cairns: The complete route guide
- Prepare your road trip
- Tips for driving in Australia
- Places to stop on your route from Brisbane to Cairns
Prepare your road trip
Roadtripping is another kind of activity than spending your holiday on the beach with a cocktail in your hand. On such a holiday, the only thing you have to worry about it protecting yourself from the sun and eating enough icecreams to keep your head cool!
A road trip requires a bit more preparation, but it is absolutely worth it! Especially for a road trip between Brisbane and Cairns, as there is so much to see and to do! It would be a pity to spend your days only in one place.
For a road trip, you obviously need a vehicle to drive in. Or a bicycle to cycle on, but that is another type of trip. You can either rent a car or buy a car. Which one you choose depends on the number of days you want to spend in Australia.
TIP: For trips up to three months, it is probably better to rent a car. This will save you valuable time and no stress to sell it by the end of your trip. For trips longer than 3 months, it might be worth buying your own car.
Before you rent or buy a car, think about what you want from the car. Do you just want it to bring you from A to B, or do you also want to sleep in it, to save on accommodation costs? No matter what car or Van you like to rent, check out RentalCars for the best deals.
Want to buy a car or a Van? Check out our blog post 9 things you need to know as a backpacker when you buy a car in Australia.
Accommodation is another thing you have to think about while road tripping. Do you want to plan ahead, or do you like to leave things open and see where you stand at the end of the day?
Most of the stops on your route from Brisbane to Cairns will have plenty of accommodations to book last-minute. The only time when you might get in trouble is during high season, which runs from December to February.
Another good thing about this road trip is that there are many free camps on the route between Brisbane and Cairns. So, if you have a car where you can sleep in, make sure you check out our ultimate backpackers guide for free camping in Australia.
TIP: Book your next accommodation with 10% discount via this link on booking.com!
Tips for driving in Australia
In Australia the distances between cities and places are big. The highest percentage of unnatural deaths is car crashes because people fall asleep behind the wheel. Don’t let this scare you, there are many rest areas along the roads. Be smart and use them!
Here are some more tips for driving in Australia:
- Avoid driving in the dark: There are no road lights and no nearby cities that light up the sky. So dark, really means dark in Australia. And with all the wildlife that wakes up during sunset, and appears out of nowhere, it’s wiser to end your day before.
- Fill up your tank on time: You wouldn’t be the first one who thinks: ‘oooh, I still have a quarter of a tank, I’ll make it to the next gas station.’ And then when you are running out of gas, you see a sign that the next gas station is 300km away from you.
So, fill up your tank on time and pack an extra jerry can, just in case.
- Check your spare tire: It seems obvious, but make sure your spare tire is in good condition. When you air your tires, also air your spare one. Australia is dry and the roads are hot. A blowout can happen at any time.
TIP: Download the FREE app fuel map Australia. This app shows you where you can find gas stations and the price they charge per liter.
Places to stop on your route from Brisbane to Cairns
Have you seen the bustling city center of Brisbane, did you explore all the highlights on a segway, and did you plunge in the lagoon? Then you are ready to step in the car, leave Brisbane and start your road trip to Cairns!
Brisbane – Sunshine Coast: 106km – 1.5 hours driving time
Glass House Mountains
On your way from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast, you can take a little detour (+10 km – 20 minutes extra driving time) to see the Glass House Mountains. These mountains are characterized by steep and sharp peaks. From the Glass House Mountains lookout point, you have a beautiful view on these mountains and the surroundings of the Sunshine Coast.
10 km further on the same route as you have to take for the Glass House Mountains, you’ll find the Australia Zoo. This is the biggest and best wildlife conservation facility in the entire world. There really is no other zoo like the Australia Zoo!
Sunshine Coast is a nice stop to visit one of the many beaches or to stroll around in the city parks. There are many free bbq facilities available to prepare a lovely lunch or dinner. Are you here on Sunday? Check out the local markets!
Noosa & Rainbow beach
Sunshine Coast – Noosa Heads – Rainbow Beach: 169km – 2.25 hours driving time
From Sunshine Coast to Noosa it is only a 30-minute drive. Leave the busy city life behind and explore the pristine beaches of Noosa heads. The Laguna Lookout will give you a scenic view over the coastline. Are you a fan of culinary food? Noosa is the place to have dinner!
Driving from the Sunshine Coast to Noosa on a 1st or 3rd Monday of the month? Don’t skip the beachfront markets in Peregian. Find some beautifully handcrafted souvenirs and enjoy some local delicacies.
Want to learn surfing? Noosa is the place to be! It is one of the cheapest places in Australia to take surfing lessons. Find some more water activities to do in Noosa below:
If you prefer to stay on the mainland, the coastal track in the Noosa National Park is a beautiful walking or cycling trail. The trail takes you along the coastline and offers several viewpoints to take some pictures for in your photo album or to post on Instagram.
NOTE: The length of the trail is around 7km one way. It takes about 1,5 hours to complete the trail by foot.
Tea Tree Bay
In Noosa Heads, don’t forget to stroll through Tea Tree Bay, a place where wild koalas can be spotted!
To drive from Noosa Heads to Rainbow Beach you can either take the scenic route through the mountains or the highway via route 6, M1 and route 15. It will both take you about 100 minutes to get there, but the highway is some more kilometers to drive.
Rainbow beach is a famous place for sea kayaking and wild dolphins are often spotted while out there on the ocean. The beaches are beautiful and worth a visit if you want some time to relax.
Hervey bay & Frasers island
Rainbow Beach – Hervey Bay: 123 km – 1.5 hours driving time
After 95 kilometers driving from Rainbow Beach, the route will lead you through Maryborough. An Australian town like we know it from the cowboy movies. walk through the city center to take in the old buildings and imagine yourself back in the cowboy time.
From Maryborough, it is only another 30 kilometers to Hervey Bay, the center of many coastal excursions and known for the beautiful, quiet, untouristic beaches.
Hervey Bay is the whale watching capital of the world! Watch humpback whales jumping out of the water and listen to their songs from an open boat while they migrate from Antartica to the sub-tropical waters of Eastern Australia and up to Fiji. Each year around 1.200 humpback whales migrate about 5.000 kilometers!
TIP: Whale watching tours run from August till October in Hervey Bay.
Frasers island is the largest sand island in the world and is 120 km long. As it is a sand island, this island is only accessible with a 4WD. You can either rent a 4WD with RentalCars, or you can take a tour which leads you to the highlights of the island.
There are many different Fraser Island tours available, which will take you from Hervey Bay to Frasers Island for 1, 2, 3 or even more days.
TIP: If you have the time and the budget, take a multiple-day tour to Frasers Island. We did a 1-day tour and spent most of the time on the bus. Nevertheless, we have seen all the highlights, like Lake McKenzie, the Ships wreck and Mangroves and it was absolutely worth it!
Below are some of the highlighted tours in Hervey Bay. But there is way more to do!
Hervey Bay – Bundaberg: 113km – 1.25 hours driving time
Halfway between Hervey Bay and Bundaberg you’ll pass Childers. A town where time stood still. Besides going back in time, you can visit the Snakes Downunder Reptile Park. The friendly staff will teach you everything about all the reptiles you will find in this beautiful zoo.
Bundaberg is well known for the backpacker-working-hostels. Picking bananas, strawberries, pineapples, zucchinis, tomatoes and many more fruits and vegetables. It all grows here on farmers’ land. But Bundaberg has more to offer than a place to work.
The Bundy distillery is the most awarded rum distillery in Australia. It is open since 1888 and tours will lead you around to learn about the process of making rum during different times throughout history. Of course, you will also get the chance to taste the rum!
Furthermore, you can do a day trip to the island Lady Elliot. A lesser-known location to explore the great barrier reef while snorkeling or diving.
Between November and March, it is turtle season in Bundaberg. From November the turtles will come to the beach to lay their eggs. 6 to 8 weeks later, the little turtles escape their shields and crawl through the sand towards the ocean. An absolute must-see if you are around during this time of the year!
TIP: Visit the Mon Repos Turtle Centre, which is open all year round, to learn about the special journey from turtles.
UPDATE: Currently, the Centre is closed, but it will reopen before the turtle season takes off.
Agnes Water & Town of 1770
Bundaberg – Agnes Water – Town of 1770: 131km – 1.75 hours driving time
Driving from Bundaberg to Agnes Water, you’ll pass some small settlements. After 122 kilometers you arrive at Agnes Water and only 9 kilometers further down the road you’ll find Town of 1770.
Agnes Water Beach is Queensland’s northern-most surf beach and you can get the cheapest surfing lessons here compared to the rest of Australia. A perfect spot to learn surfing!
Town of 1770
Town of 1770, or Seventeen Seventy, is the first place where James Cook stepped on land in Queensland. It won’t be a surprise for you that this was back in 1770!
On your way to the Wave Lookout, you’ll pass a statue of James Cook. The lookout gives you an incredible view over the bay, especially with low tides, when the sandbanks are visible.
Both places have beautiful and relaxed beaches. It is a surfers paradise and you’ll see surfers and kitesurfers all over the place. The atmosphere is really good.
Town of 1770 – Gladstone: 131 km – 1.75 hours driving time
Mount Colosseum National Park
After 60 km, just before you pass Miriam Vale, on your left-hand sie you see the Mount Colosseum National Park. They are volcanic mountains and they stand out in the skyline of the area. There are no walking tracks or picknick areas, but just take it in when you pass by.
Gladstone is an export town. Especially for coals from the mines. If you are interested in boats and harbors, make a pit-stop at the Auckland point lookout, which gives you a view over the wharves of Gladstone.
Gladstone is also your starting point if you want to go to a hidden gem to explore the Great Barrier Reef: Heron Island. You can get there by boat, water plane or helicopter.
There are no day tours available, so if you want to go to Heron Island, you have to stay here for at least one night, but believe me, it is absolutely worth it!
Step off the beach with your mask on and explore an untouched part of the great barrier reef. Swim 700 meters off the pier to see Manta Rays, sharks and turtles near a ship’s wreck.
We have been here for 3 days and it was definitely the best thing we have done! The serenity, the white coral beaches, the peace and exploring the reef by yourself when you stumble out of bed is a never-to-forget experience.
Rockhampton & Yeppoon
Gladstone – Rockhampton – Yeppoon: 151km – 2 hours driving time
Mount Archer National Park
On the route between Gladstone and Rockhampton, there isn’t much to see or to do. But once you arrive in Rockhampton, after 110 kilometers, you can visit the Mount Archer National Park. It is a cozy national park, with many picknick areas and a lot of walking tracks.
Park your car at Fraser Car Park and enjoy two easy walking tracks (total of 2km) to enjoy several views over Rockhampton, the coast and mountain peaks.
There are also longer walking tracks if you wish to explore deeper into the park. The Zamia walk is a 14 kilometer, difficult walk and only one way. Allow up to 5 hours to complete the hike.
In Rockhampton, you can visit the Rockhampton Zoo, which is FREE to visit. Still, the zoo houses over 70 species of animals and a visit can be an amazing addition to your road trip to learn more about Australian wildlife.
If gemstones have your interest, it might be worth to go a bit more inland. The Gemfields cover 900 square kilometers and are situated around 300 kilometers West of Rockhampton. You can explore underground mines, or dig gemstones yourself. There are guided tours, but also self-drive tours available.
Once there, don’t forget to visit the gemstone shops, where you can find photo galleries and locally crafted jewelery.
From Rockhampton, drive 45 kilometers on the Yeppoon road and get out of the car to plunge in the wonderful lagoon. This lagoon isn’t very unknown for tourists, so you probably only have to share it with some locals that have the day off. Look over the ocean from the infinity pool and refresh yourself in the free, warm showers.
More in for an island exploration? Head 10 kilometers down the road to Keppel Bay, where several tours will show you around on the Keppel Islands. Enjoy the white sand, that crackles between your toes and the clear blue ocean that almost hurt your eyes.
Mackay & Cape Hillsborough
Yeppoon – Mackay – Cape Hillsborough: 408 km – 4.75 hours driving time
Mount Etna Caves National Park
From Yeppoon head back to the main road, route A1. After 40 kilometers you’ll find Mount Etna Caves National Park. The caves in this park are home to 80% of the Australian population of the little bent-wing bats. And it is one of the few places in Australia where the vulnerable ghost bats are still alive.
You can explore the park on foot and in summer (Dec-Feb) you can take a guided tour to see the bats. Besides bats, you can see limestone formations that are formed from ancient coral reefs.
There are free bbq facilities available on the day-use area, which makes it a nice stop for a lunch break.
Marlborough & Clairview & Sarina
Mackay is another 314 kilometers drive. You’ll pass some small settlements, like Marlborough, Clairview, and Sarina. If you need a break from driving along the route, follow one of the many beach roads, that guide you to some beaches off the beaten track.
Just before you arrive in Mackay, you’ll pass Sarina, where you can visit the Sarina Sugar Shed. This is a miniature sugar mill distillery where they produce sugar shed rum.
With a 24 kilometer detour, you can also visit Hay Point, which is home to the 3.8 km long coal loading jetty. It is the largest in the entire world.
In Mackay, it is time to relax. The blue water lagoon is a perfect spot for that. If you still have some energy left, visit the lamberts lookout. You can see the ocean, with lots of ships on the horizon, waiting to be loaded with coal. If you are lucky, you might spot a whale from here!
From Mackay it is a 50 kilometer drive to Cape Hillsborough. This place is famous for one thing: Wild kangaroos on the beach! Every day, just before sunrise, kangaroos and wallabies gather on the beach. So, get up early and take this perfect moment to spot them and take some photographs.
You can see them on the beach, right in front of the Hillsborough tourist park. Keep in mind that they are wild animals, looking for food. Don’t approach them and don’t disturb them. Just watch and enjoy.
Arlie Beach & Whitsundays
Cape Hillsborough – Airlie Beach: 128 km – 1.5 hours driving time
Airly beach is the capital city for watersports. Jet skiing, water scooter, rafting, sailing, snorkeling, supping and many more water activities can be booked from the beach.
Not in for a saltwater taste? Sit back and relax at the lagoon, which is situated next to the ocean.
Conway National park
From Airlie Beach, you can visit the Conway National Park. A hilly park covered by the rainforest. There are many walking and mountain bike trails throughout the park that lead you to empty beaches and stunning viewpoints over Whitsunday passage and islands.
Airlie beach is the starting location of every tour to Whitsundays, the most popular attraction of Australia. And with a reason, because Withsundays is absolutely stunning! It is an island group of 74 islands right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.
Panoramic views on stunning natural landscapes are what characterizes Whitsundays. You can only visit the islands on a tour, but even if you decide to stay onshore, you’ll love the views on the islands!
Below are some tours that can be booked from Airlie beach, but there is way more to explore!
Airlie Beach – Townsville: 275km – 3.25 hours driving time
Driving from Airlie Beach to Townsville, you’ll pass Bowen and Ayr. Two towns that are famous for their backpacker job opportunities.
Townsville itself is a bustling little city where you can easily spend a couple of days. Have dinner at the Pier and check out all the wonderfull street art.
TIP: Get a free flyer from the information centre and walk the street art route. In the flyer you can find the story behind the painting, told by the artist.
Townsville is home to one of the largest army facilities of Australia. Take a military history tour and learn about the history of the Army in North Queensland, as well as the position of Australia during WW2.
Research center Great Barrier Reef
If you travel the route from Brisbane to Cairns between April and November, the AIMS (Australian Institute of Marine Science) research center at Cape Ferguson is a must-visit. Every Friday at 9.30 am they lead people around to inform them about the Great Barrier Reef.
This tour includes presentations on AIMS’ current research and a guided walk around the facilities, including a tour of the ‘world’s smartest aquarium’!
They teach you about coral bleaching, how they investigate the coral, how they protect it and how they keep it as healthy as they can. You will also find several water animal species and at the end, you will do a little workshop.
TIP: The tour is free of charge. Book your spot for the Great Barrier Reef tour here. Numbers are limited. Bookings are essential and close at 4 pm on the Wednesday before the tour.
Magnetic Island is a 20-minute ferry ride away from Townsville. More and more people started living there and over time it became a suburb. There live over 2.000 permanent inhabitants on the 52 square kilometers mountainous surface.
White sand beaches with palm trees, lots of sunshine and many snorkeling opportunities characterize Magnetic Island. Hire a top-less barbie car to explore the island, or take a flight and explore the island from above.
Magnetic Island is also a very good place to spot wild Koalas in their natural environment.
Townsville – Lucinda (ferry departs from here to Hinchinbrook Island): 139km – 1.75 hours driving time
Hinchinbrook Island is a ferry ride away from Lucinda or Cardwell. But this island can’t be visited by everyone. Only 40 people are allowed to spend their day on Hinchinbrook Island. There is no car-accessibility, no shops and no accommodation, except designated areas where you can set up your own tent.
That for Hinchinbrook is only a destination for multiple-day hikers. The Thorsborn trail, which will lead you from one to the other side of the island is internationally voted as one of the 10 best hikes in the world! The trail is 32 kilometers long (start at Lucinda, return at Cardwell). The track is not hardened and in some areas rough and difficult to traverse. You’ll also walk a lot on the beach, which isn’t the easiest!
If you want to do a multiple-day hike on a stunning location in Australia, the Thorsborn Trail on Hinchinbrook Island is the one to do. It will take you 3 to 7 days to complete.
Not such a hiker, but you want to explore the island? Hinchinbrook Island is also voted in the top 10 as one of the best places to see in Australia by kayak! Kayak tours will lead you around the island is 7 – 10 days.
TIP: If you want to hike the Thorsborn Trail, make sure you book your ferry ride in advance. Camping fees also need to be paid in advance. So, try to plan a bit ahead.
Tully & Mission Beach
Lucinda – Tully – Mission Beach: 133 km – 1.75 hours driving time
Hinchinbrook Lookout Points
From Lucinda, head back to the route A1 and make sure you stop at the Hinchinbrook Lookout, Bemerside. This gives you a beautiful and panoramic view over Island, which you’ll love if you like mountains, forests and islands!
Just before you enter Cardwell, there is another lookout point, the Hinchinbrook Channel Lookout. Even if you have stopped at the other viewpoint, a quick stop and a view on the other side of the Hinchinbrook island will please your eyes.
After 60 kilometers you’ll arrive in Cardwell. Besides a beautiful beach park, you can visit the Cardwell Spa Pool. You won’t believe your own eyes when you see the crystal blue water, flowing through some picturesque waterways. It is believed that the color is the result of a chemical reaction between the water and the rocks.
NOTE: Water levels fluctuate throughout the year. You can visit the Spa Pool all year round, but May-Sep is generally the best time to visit.
Continue your way to Tully and after 25 kilometers you’ll pass Bilyana. From here take a detour (50 km roundtrip) to the Murray Falls. These falls are situated in the Girramay National Park and are said to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls of North Queensland. Strong water flows thunder down along naturally auctioned rock formations.
The Girramay National Park offers many swimming opportunities and there is a very basic campsite if you want to spend more time in the park. For example to stroll around on one of the hiking tracks to explore the rainforested mountains and tropical lowlands.
Head back to Bilyana and 25 km more North you’ll arrive in Tully. This place is famous for the white water rafting on the Tully River. The river is voted as the best place for river rafting in Australia. Do you dare to take the challenge?
If you want to explore the Tully Gorge National Park beyond the Tully Rafting River, there are many walking tracks that take you along the gorges. At the tablelands site of the park, there are viewpoints that allow you to see the river plunging into the deep gorge.
On the coastal part of the park, you can hike the challenging trail to the summit of Mount Tyson for a beautiful view on the coastline. There’s also a more easy butterfly walk, where most butterflies will be seen between September and February.
From Tully, it is only another 25 kilometers drive to Mission Beach, which characterizes itself with the stunning beaches where the jungle meets the ocean. The only border between them is a little stroke of white-sanded beaches.
Explore the many beaches and find an empty one to light a campfire at night. If you want to have an overview of all the beaches around, climb up Bicton Hill with a 4 kilometers round track. It will take you about 1.5 to 2 hours to complete and the view will amaze you!
When around in Mission Beach, keep your eyes open for Cassowaries! These huge birds live in this area and can be found everywhere. Are you staying at Jackaroo Treehouse? Hang out in one of the hammocks in the garden and just wait until one passes by!
More in for island hopping? Visit Dunk island with a day tour, or spend there a night while camping. The Mission Beach water taxi will get you there in about 15 minutes, leaving from Wongaling Beach.
Mission Beach – Babinda Boulders – Cairns: 139km – 1.75 hours driving time
Mission Beach – Milla Milla falls – Cairns: 202km – 3 hours driving time
From Mission Beach, you’ll reach Innisfail after 50 kilometers. It is a cozy town where you’ll find lots of buildings built in the style we know from cowboy movies.
Just passed Innisfail there is a junction. On route goes to Cairns via the Milla Milla falls and the waterfall route. The other route goes via Babinda Boulders to Cairns.
Milla Milla falls
60 kilometers past Innisfail, you’ll reach the Milla Milla falls. Known for the picturesque surroundings. The falls are surrounded by wild rainforest and the waterfall flows perfectly even into a waterhole where you can swim to cool off.
From the Milla Milla falls you can do the 17km roundtrip on the waterfalls route. This route will lead you to two more waterfalls: The Zillie falls and the Elinjaa falls.
If you’ve seen all the falls, you can either continue North, which will be another 100 kilometers drive to Cairns. Mostly over secondary roads. You can also choose to head back to Innisfail and drive to Cairns via Babinda Boulders.
From Innisfail, it is a 36 kilometers drive to Babinda Boulders. A natural swimming pool in a unique atmosphere. The natural smoothed boulders that protrude above the water are very characteristic.
There is a nice walking track around the pool, which allows you to see it from different points of view. You can also plunge into the ice-cold water to cool off. Keep in mind that the current is strong, so make sure you keep your feet on the ground if you are not a good swimmer.
From Babinda Boulders it will take an hour to cover the 65 kilometers that are left to reach Cairns.
Arriving in Cairns after this road trip through all these small settlements will make you feel like you reached a really big city! Although you can find here everything you need, Cairns isn’t a big city with only 150.000 inhabitants.
The city is known for the many excursions and tours to explore the Great Barrier reef. Every Friday you can stroll over Rusty’s Market. And every evening the night market opens where you can find all diverse kinds of foods and small shops with handcrafted items.
Time to relax? Head towards the city lagoon to dive into the scenic swimming pool, situated along the coastline.
Do you have time left for an excursion in Cairns, check out what Cairns have to offer:
Do you have more time to spend in Australia? Get back in the car and head North towards Cape Tribulation. A stunning part of Australia where the rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.
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This is the complete route guide for the route from Brisbane to Cairns. I hope it is a helpful guide for you to plan your road trip. Do you have any additions or do you have a question about this route guide? Please leave a comment below.