Cairns to Brisbane: the perfect East Coast road trip in Australia
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Queensland is located on the East Coast of Australia and it is the second-largest state in the country. The state’s beauty lies in its tropical rainforest, enormous outback, stunning waterfalls, white sandy beaches, and of course the Great Barrier Reef.
My road trip around Australia took me from the Northern Territory through the outback of Queensland towards Townsville, where I started this road trip from Cairns to Brisbane. 6 weeks later, I arrived in the South of Queensland and started working in a hotel near Bundaberg.
However, If you have only 2-3 weeks ( I recommend not less than 2 weeks) or you are planning to make a road trip in the opposite direction from Brisbane to Cairns, you can use this itinerary and adapt it to your travel plan.
How to get to Queensland?
Either Cairns or Brisbane are international airports and are easy to access from many major cities around the world. However, depending on where you come from the flight tickets will cost between AU$ 1500 – AU$ 4000 (€1000 – 2500).
If you are already traveling or working in Australia, you might find great flight deals with Jetstar from AU$ 90 or travel by car from the Northern Territory along the Flinders Hwy to Townsville just like I did.
Do you come from New South Wales, then you can easily reach Brisbane along the Pacific Hwy.
How to travel around Queensland?
The best way to travel around the East Coast of Australia in Queensland is by car and if you don’t have one, I highly recommend you to rent a campervan in Cairns if you stay for a few weeks as this will save you lots of money on places to visit and food as you can quickly cook yourself along the way.
Besides renting a campervan is the cheapest option, you also have much more freedom to explore the hidden gems and most beautiful locations in Queensland.
Renting a campervan is possible from AU$ 50 per day and there are even options to relocate a campervan for free. Jucy, Travellers Autobahn and Maui are the most popular companies for renting a camper in Australia and New Zealand.
When you plan to visit Australia for the long term, I advise buying a car, campervan, or 4WD like I did as this is the most convenient way to explore Australia.
Best time to visit Queensland
The Tropical North of Queensland has more rainfall in summers than in the southern region and the temperatures are slightly different. The temperature in summers ranges from 24 to 36 ˚C while in winters it is about 17-26 ˚C.
The best time to start in Cairns is around September/October or May/June and travel down to the South
Keep a hoodie or light jacket along with you and also insect repellent as there are many mosquitos and sandflies. Make sure you check the weather update before traveling.
Map of Queensland Australia – Cairns to Brisbane
This East Coast road trip is one of the most epic and most popular road trips in Australia as there are so many incredible places to visit along the way. Sailing in the Whitsundays, Diving at Great Barrier Reef, and driving with a 4WD on Fraser Island are just a few of the many adventures you can do in Queensland.
As this itinerary of the East Coast of Australia contains a lot of places that you need to visit along the way between two stops, I made this map of Queensland, so you can visualize better where all the highlights are and it can also help you to plan your trip
TIP: Make a list of the places and locations you want to visit between 2 major cities and go from there to plan how many days you’ll need to go from A to B
My Queensland road trip itinerary overview
WHERE DID I START: Cairns
WHERE I ENDED: Brisbane
HOW LONG DID I TRAVELLED: 40 days
WHEN DID I GO: October
BEST TIME TO VISIT: September/October – May/June
Cairns to Brisbane – Queensland Road trip Itinerary
My road trip in Queensland started in Townsville as I drove from the Northern Territory along the Flinders Hwy to Queensland but to keep it simple as many travelers arrive in Cairns, I’ll start my trip from here.
The city is the gateway to many amazing and unique places in Australia and the most popular one is The Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling, diving, or taking a scenic flight at the Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list and I am happy I did all these activities.
Cape Tribulation & The Daintree Forest
Travel distance: 140 km – 2h 45min (including Ferry transfer)
Visit Northern Queensland first on this trip, where you can take the ferry to the Daintree National Park and drive through the massive trees and ferns to reach Cape Tribulation, which is the next camping stop.
The Daintree Forest is very famous as it’s David Attenborough’s favorite place in the world due to its huge diversity in flora and fauna.
There are so many reasons to visit this unique place as it is the oldest rainforest in the world, the largest rainforest in Australia, and also the place where 2 UNESCO Heritage sites meet each other.
My friend Tyler, who lives in Townsville, joined me for 3 days at Daintree National Park and we stopped at some amazing places such as Port Douglas for coffee, Mosman Gorge for a swim, and camped at Cape Tribulation.
Along the way in the National Park, you can stop at Mount Alexandra Lookout for amazing views, the Daintree Ice Cream Company for delicious ice cream, or jump on a crocodile cruise at the Daintree River.
TIP: Drive up to Daintree NP along the Captain Cook Hwy and stop at Ellis Beach and Thala National Reserve for epic photos.
Travel distance: 220 km – 3h 30min.
Campground: Tolga Caravan Park A$30 per night for camping
The Atherton Tablelands is a region in North Queensland that you can’t miss on your East Coast road trip as there are so many beautiful waterfalls and stunning views along this way as you will find the highest road in Queensland in the Atherton Tablelands. Although it’s a bit of a detour, I bet you won’t regret it.
There is even a waterfall drive where you can find the most beautiful waterfalls such as the Millaa Millaa Falls, Ellinjaa Falls and the Zillie Falls. Besides these places, there are at least a dozen waterfalls more to discover and one of my favorites is the Nandroya falls.
Make sure you bring insect repellent and some walking shoes as the Nandroya Falls trail is a 6km walk.
Travel distance: 105 km – 1h40
If you wanna do something full of adrenaline then head over to Mission Beach for sky diving or just relax at the beach and watch the skydivers landing on the beach.
During your journey from Cairns to Mission beach, stop at the Babinda Boulders for a swim, have some fun sliding down at the Josephine Falls or head over to Etty Bay where you can spot cassowaries which is the third largest bird on the earth.
And if you plan to camp at the beach, Mission Beach Camping & Caravan Park is a good option if you can get a spot otherwise I recommend staying at Bali Hai Holiday Park.
Travel distance: 240 km – 2h50
Although, there are not enough days to explore the beauty of Northern Queensland as many other beautiful destinations are waiting on the way to the South.
The first place you have to stop is the Cardwell Spa Pool where you can relax and have a swim in the rockpool before heading to another must-see waterfall in Australia, The Wallaman Falls.
With 268m this is the highest single drop waterfall in Australia that is easily reached with a scenic drive of about an hour from Ingham. I went in the afternoon and stayed until sunset so I had enough time to hike down, explore the base of the Wallaman Falls (you can even swim), and hike back up.
The hike is about 3km return with a 270m elevation but rewarding once you see the falls from the bottom. However, if you are not fancy to hike down, there are view platforms at the top next to the car park where you can enjoy the waterfall in its full glory.
Towards Townsville is another beautiful waterfall, The Jourama Falls, that you can visit if you have more time on your trip from Cairns to Brisbane as Townsville offers also some great spots to visit.
Go to Castle Hill in Townsville for the best sunset views over Townsville, walk along the Strand promenade and head over to Kissing Point for amazing views on Magnetic Island.
A 20-minute ferry ride will take you from Townsville to Magnetic Island where you can explore the natural beauty of this place. Expect to see koalas, lorikeets, stunning beaches, and breathtaking views on this small island.
Most people rent a car or a bike to explore the island but you can also take a day pass for the bus (which is the cheapest option) that runs across Magnetic Island.
For the best sunset spots go to Hawkings Point Lookout and Horseshoe Bay, while the best beaches to relax on Magnetic Island are Radical Bay and Florence Bay
Travel distance: 275 km – 3h10
Maybe my favorite stop on this East Coast of Australia road trip is Airlie Beach as it is very famous to access the Whitsundays and along the way to Airlie beach you can stop in Bowen at the Big Mango to break the long distance.
Airlie beach is a small vibrant town as many tourists and backpackers come here every year to visit the Whitsundays or just relax at the free beautiful public lagoon in the center of the town.
I joined a 3-day sailing cruise to the Whitsundays from Airlie Beach and it was one of the best adventures I did during my road trip in Australia. However, make sure you book in advance as the cruises book out fast.
Whitsundays tour: True Blue Sailing Whitsundays A$400 / 3-day tour
Sailing in the Whitsundays can’t be missed on this itinerary as Whitehaven Beach is the highlight and a bucket list place for many tourists. The beach has the purest white sand in the world and it is multiple times chosen as the best beach in the world.
During an overnight Whitsundays tour, you will explore Whitehaven Beach, see the famous Hill Inlet, and enjoy amazing sunsets. There is even the option to dive at Blue Pearl Bay.
I joined 3 days sailing in the Whitsundays with True Blue Sailing and their New Horizon sailing boat together with a group of 20 people and it was an amazing experience. as we shared stories, played games, and drank some beers while watching the sun going down at the horizon, unforgettable!
Travel distance: 500km – 5h20
This is the longest part of the trip so on the way from Airlie Beach to Yeppoon you can stop at Mackay as it is a good place for lunch and relaxation at the free public lagoon (Blue Lagoon). The Blue Lagoon in Mackay has a few pools and small water slides for kids to enjoy.
Once you arrive in Yeppoon, you will feel the relaxed atmosphere. It is a coastal town with beautiful beaches, a beautiful public lagoon ( I would say the second most beautiful one after Airlie Beach), and many amazing restaurants.
It is a great place to relax at the Yeppoon Lagoon or hike to Turtle Lookout in the Capricorn Coast National Park but it’s also the getaway to visit the stunning Keppel Islands.
TIP: Visit the Keppel Islands in a small group with Keppel Explorers as the owner is so passionate about his company that you instantly fall in love with the Islands.
Travel distance: 330km – 3h 40m
Hotel: Takalvan Motel A$150 per night
Just before you get to Bundaberg, make a stop in Agnes Water and the town of Seventy-Seven (1770) as this is the second place where Captain Cook made land in Australia.
Mon Repos Beach is the most visited place in this region and people usually visit this place as it is famous for the turtles that come to the beach for nestling and hatch their eggs.
Rangers take the tourists to the place where turtles lay eggs and then the baby turtle makes their way to the sea. You can see only one phase of the turtle’s life cycle during the visit, yet it is an amazing experience.
Bundaberg Rum Distillery is also an important place in the region as the rum is famous over the world and is the number one rum in Australia. The distillery supports regions that are hit by floods and sell bottles with the names of the impacted regions to raise money.
Other places you have to visit are the beaches of Elliot Heads and the Gin Distillery of Kalki Moon.
Travel distance: 205 km – 2h 30m to Rainbow Beach – Ferry to Fraser Island takes 15min.
Hotel: Fraser Island Retreat A$210 per night
Camping: Fraser Island Camping A$6,5 per night
The next stop is also one that should be on everyone’s road trip in Queensland, Fraser Island! The island is worth visiting as it’s known as the largest sand island in the world and the only place where a rainforest grows on sand.
Drive to Rainbow Beach and start your adventure from there instead of Hervey Bay as the ferry crossing is much easier and you will enter Fraser Island on the right side. (from Hervey Bay, You have to drive half the Island to get to Eurong)
I did a 3-day adventure with my 4WD on Fraser Island and wrote an article with everything you need to know and the best places to see on the island such as Lake McKenzie, Lake Wabby and the shipwreck of SS Maheno.
TIP: Fraser Island is only accessible with a 4WD and in Rainbow Beach are many rental agencies if you don’t have a 4×4.
Travel distance: 120 km – 1h 30m
When you come back from Fraser Island and you want to drive from Rainbow Beach to Noosa, you have 2 options. The easiest is along the Tin Can Bay Rd, but you can also drive along the beach through Great Cape Sandy National Park, which I recommend if you have a 4WD.
Noosa is another great place in Queensland which is famous for surfing, Noosa National Park and its the getaway to Great Sandy National Park if you want to visit Fraser Island from here.
Noosa National Park contains many hiking trails, rock pools, amazing surf beaches, and stunning viewpoints, so make sure you go here before sunset. Dolphin Point Lookout is the best spot to spot dolphins and turtles while Tea Tree Bay Beach is great for surfing.
However, kayaking and paddling are the best at Sandy Cove near the Noosa Woods and for those who like markets, the Eumundi Markets are just 20 minutes away.
I had a great time in Noosa, although it was not easy to find a camping spot near the center, so I stayed at Ingenia Holidays Noosa.
TIP: If you make a road trip in the opposite direction, you can take the Tewantin Ferry from Noosa to Great Sandy NP to reach Rainbow Beach but stop at the QPWS center first to buy a permit.
Travel distance: 140 km – 1h 55m
On the way to Brisbane, you can stop for incredible views at the Glasshouse Mountains or hit the beach at the Sunshine Coast.
Once you arrive in the city, there are many awesome places to visit such as the West-End neighborhood for great food and the Streets Beach when it is a sunny day. For the best sunset views, I recommend going to the Mount Coot-tha Lookout.
Make sure you wander around the city at night as the illuminated buildings and skyline are worth seeing from the Brisbane Wheel.
As said before this is one of the most popular road trips in Australia and hope you are inspired to explore Queensland after reading this article. To see all the places in this Queensland itinerary it is recommended to have at least 3 to 4 weeks. However, In 2 weeks you can discover most of the highlights of the East Coast.
Let me know if you have any suggestions or questions.
READ ALSO: The Best NSW Road trip itinerary in 2 weeks
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Plan your Queensland Road Trip Itinerary with my favorite travel apps
To plan my adventures, I use these FREE websites and apps as they provide the best information, the best deals, and they are user-friendly.
- Trip – Flight deals
- Booking.com – Hotels and accommodation
- TourRadar – Group trips
- TripAdvisor – Reviews and activities
- HostelWorld – Hostels
- GetYourGuide – Activities and excursions
- RentalCars – Car rental
- Omio – Transport
- iVisa – Travel documents
- Wise – Money transfer
- InsuredNomads – Travel Insurance
PICTURES AND EDITING
All the pictures on this page are made and owned by me. If you are interested in some pictures to use for your magazine, website, blog, or any other purpose, just send me an email and we’ll figure it out.
Do you like the edits? My Presets will be online soon so you can edit your pictures in just one click!
The camera gear I used for this trip
I never go out without my camera and many people ask me which gear I use. So to make it quite easy, I listed all the gear I used for this trip below.
Most of the time, I travel with the Sony A7III and the Sony 24-105mm/f4 as my primary lens but depending on the location, I change to another setup. However, I love the Tamron 17-28 to shoot in the big cities.