Guest post and photographs by Chris Fry
Traveling Brisbane to Cairns, along the Queensland coast, is one of the most popular routes to explore in Australia. It offers a huge amount of variety and suits every kind of traveler. Whether you’re a family, solo, traveling with a group of friends, or with your partner, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
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One of the hardest parts of organizing this route is trying to decide on the stops you want to make in your given amount of time. This is why we have most of the highlights mentioned below, but also two sample itineraries, depending on how much time you have available.
If you were to drive directly from Brisbane to Cairns, it would be about 1700 kilometers (1056 miles) and take roughly 20 hours. Most of the amazing places to visit are within 50 kilometers (31 miles) on either side of the highway. Obviously, these extra detours add time and distance to your journey, making it difficult to fit everything in. But rest assured: whatever time you have available, you’re sure to see some incredible sites on your Brisbane to Cairns vacation.
Highlights of your Brisbane to Cairns trip
Is traveling from Brisbane to Cairns the trip for you? This is known for being the Sunshine State and Queensland has some of the best beaches you can find in Australia. One of the biggest highlights would be the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical destinations throughout the Whitsunday Islands. There are small hiking opportunities to find waterfalls and rock pools for swimming, along with mountainous locations for views.
Animal interactions are some of the best in Australia, with loggerhead turtles laying eggs or watching their hatchlings make their way into the water. Kangaroos and wallabies can be spotted throughout the rainforests or National Parks and also in sunrise beach interactions. Wake up to the laughing sounds of the kookaburras or the loud chirpings of the cockatoos. If you’re not convinced yet, then please read below to find out more.
The map below includes all the places mentioned in this article:
Camping, accommodation and road conditions
The most popular way to travel the Brisbane to Cairns route is by camping, but that’s not to say that motels and cheap accommodations can’t be utilized as well. Along with cars, renting a camper or caravan can add a substantial cost to your journey, not to mention carrying around extra gear like cooking equipment.
The roads are all paved and very convenient for both standard two-wheel-drive and larger vehicles. Both caravan parks and camping spots are in abundance, and you won’t fall short of finding somewhere to stay. On the other hand, if you are just packing up the car and using fixed accommodation, then you have plenty of motels, hotels, and hostels along here as well.
Also note that road conditions, maintenance, and other occurrences can affect the traveling time. The roads between Brisbane and Cairns are very busy, with millions of tourists each year. Therefore, you should plan your journey out and leave plenty of time for delays.
Click on the banner below to find your rental car. A word of advice: if you are driving the route one-way, make sure to check what extra charges there might be for returning the car to a different location than where you picked it up!
Places to visit on your Brisbane to Cairns journey
The city of Brisbane is the capital of Queensland, your major international gateway, and has a population of over two million people. If you have a flexible time schedule, then spending a few days exploring Brisbane or heading to the Gold Coast for day trips would be a great start to your vacation.
You can enjoy things like riding the Wheel of Brisbane, going on a whale-watching cruise, or hiking up Mount Coot-Tha for the views over the entire area. Additionally, you could go swimming on man-made beaches or shopping in the Queen Street Mall.
Brisbane is lucky enough to have the second-largest sand island in the world, only a day trip away on North Stradbroke Island, with many beaches and resort accommodations. Nearby is the third-largest sand island, Moreton Island, where the Tangalooma Resort is popular for an interactive wild dolphin experience. Both are a short ferry ride away and your first taste of Queensland island life.
The Sunshine Coast is known for its beaches and stretches 50 kilometers (31 miles) along the coast, just north of Brisbane. The beaches are lined with holiday accommodations and apartments, but fewer skyscrapers than the Gold Coast. Most will spend a vacation here in a relaxed mode while exploring the small shopping communities.
If you visit further inland, then you come to the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, National Parks, and amazing rainforests. It’s here you can go hiking to the top of mountains like Mount Ngungun, or find waterfalls to swim under at Kondalilla. Enjoy the great outdoors, fresh air, and keep yourself active in this area of the Brisbane to Cairns route.
The small town of Rainbow Beach is your first gateway port to the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island, but Rainbow Beach deserves a visit as well. There are over 70,000 visitors each year looking for a small beachside town with camping, fishing, and four-wheel driving on the beach.
There are a few highlights to your visit to Rainbow Beach, with sand dunes at the Carlo Sand Blow, colored sand rock formations along the coast, and freshwater swimming at Poona Lake. Alternatively, you can have yourself a good ol’ Aussie pub meal at the Rainbow Beach Hotel.
Fraser Island / K’gari
As mentioned before, Fraser Island (K’gari) is the largest sand island in the world and visited by over 380,000 tourists each year. There are two different resorts available on each side of the island, along with beach camping, holiday homes, and units.
You will need a four-wheel-drive to explore the island; however, day or overnight tours are available from Brisbane, Rainbow Beach, and Hervey Bay. Get the opportunity to swim in the Champagne rock pools beside the beach, learn the history of the Maheno Shipwreck or take in the views off Indian Head. Lake McKenzie is listed as one of Queensland’s best beaches, with pearly white sands and clear blue waters. You won’t be disappointed visiting this wonderful location.
Hervey Bay has a population of 50,000 people and is popular for day trips to see the migrating humpback whales. If you’re traveling between June and November, then a boat tour is a definite must-do activity here. The whales can put on quite a show for the tourists with their breaching acrobatics.
Apart from that, water activities are always in the cards in the seaside city of Hervey Bay. Enjoy some paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, or just lazing your days away on the beach.
Utopia Rock Pools
One of the best secret locations for rock pool swimming is located in the Mount Walsh National Park. The locals have been using it for years and it is growing increasingly popular for tourists. The pools are amazing for a day trip from Biggenden or Bundaberg, or on your way past, you can stop for a swim.
The hike will only take about 30 minutes, and you end up at three to four cascading rock pools for taking a cool refreshing dip. These are best visited during the summertime from December to March and especially after plenty of rain.
Your next stop at Bundaberg will have you overwhelmed with many different things to see and do. It’s also your gateway to the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef and visiting Lady Musgrave Island or Lady Elliot Island. Over 90,000 people live in the coastal town, and you’ll find some amazing beaches like Woodgate and Elliott Heads. This is where you’ll find the world-famous Bundaberg Rum and be able to tour the facility where they make it. Additionally, learn how to make ginger beer at Bundaberg Brewed Drinks or be surprised at the mystery craters.
From November to March each year, loggerhead turtles will lay eggs on Mon Repos Beach and eight weeks later the hatchlings will scurry down to the water’s edge. Bundaberg is the only place in Australia you can witness a turtle hatching and release on the mainland, so make sure you don’t miss it.
Lady Elliot Island
The only way to get to Lady Elliot Island is by boarding a flight in either Brisbane, Hervey Bay, or Bundaberg, and it’s a great way to see the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Bundaberg is the closest with only a 20-minute flight time – a perfect day trip – and means you can enjoy a lot more time on the island.
Lady Elliot Island is based around water activities and especially snorkeling. This is one spot to enjoy swimming with several different turtles or maybe encounter a reef shark, octopus, or a manta ray. The Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is available for overnight stays, but the resort facilities, like the pool and restaurant, are also available to day-trippers.
Agnes Water & 1770
About an hour north of Bundaberg, you come to the small community of Agnes Water and 1770 (Seventeen Seventy). It’s known for its surfing lifestyle and large accommodations beside the beach. Around the 1770 side, you will find low-key waterways, great for boating, fishing, and best for finding a fresh seafood meal overlooking the water.
This is also your closest gateway to Lady Musgrave Island, the famous LARC amphibious boat tours, or the Instagram-worthy Paperbark Forest hiking trail. Imagine watching the sunrise or sunset over the horizon or walking along the beach with that special someone.
Lady Musgrave Island
Lady Musgrave is very similar to Lady Elliot and therefore recommended to see one or the other. The difference is that Lady Musgrave is accessible by boat and is sometimes a cheaper option.
Both will have you snorkeling some beautiful reef systems and swimming with turtles. However, a unique experience here would be glamping on a reef pontoon and waking up watching the ocean.
Yeppoon is a highlight for locals, but also a hidden gem for tourists. It’s a small town of 6000 people and a way to enjoy the serenity or laid-back atmosphere, with small-town hospitality. Some of the highlights here would be beach camping and four-wheel driving or visiting local wild swimming locations in the Byfield National Park. Furthermore, the Great Keppel Islands can be seen from Yeppoon. They’re a brilliant, short day trip from the mainland.
Finch Hatton Gorge
The Finch Hatton Gorge can be visited on a day trip from Mackay, or while you’re passing to your next destination. The hike is about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) to get to Araluen Falls and an unbelievable swimming location under a waterfall. You can choose to hike further into the “Wheels of Fire” waterhole, but easier just to visit the first one if you’re limited for time.
About 45 minutes north of Mackay you will come to Cape Hillsborough National Park and a unique wild kangaroo experience. Every morning before sunrise, the kangaroos will venture down to the beach to feed off the seaweed and pods left behind after high tide. These are a staple food for the kangaroos and wallabies, and the experience is now controlled by the Mackay Tourist Rangers.
You need to get an early start for this one. It will require 2-3 hours of your journey time if you’re not staying. Alternatively, the Cape Hillsborough Caravan Park has cabins and camping options if you want accommodation.
This would have to be one of your “must-do” stops and one of the biggest highlights on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip. Airlie Beach welcomes over 750,000 tourists each year, mainly for the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands.
You have half or full-day tours leaving daily to pristine silica sand shores like Whitehaven Beach or stunning lookout points like Hill Inlet. Jump on a helicopter ride to witness the magnitude of coral bommies (coral reef columns) and perfect textured patterns in the ocean.
Accommodations in Airlie Beach range from hostels, camping, and motels to high-end luxury hotels or resorts. You’re sure to find something to suit your style or budget.
Accessing Magnetic Island can be done through the largest major city in North Queensland: Townsville. It’s an easy day trip from the mainland or there are plenty of opportunities to stay longer. The island has day hires for unique topless vehicles, which is a perfect way to zip around the island seeing the many different sites.
Some of the highlights include hiking the Forts Walk and learning about the island’s involvement in World War II. You can also try walking through bushland to see wild koalas, snorkeling for sting rays and fish in the coves, or seeing the rare allied rock-wallabies jumping over boulders.
Cardwell Spa Pools
The Cardwell Spa pools have been a local swimming spot for years, but in 2016, a viral Instagram post added this spot to everyone’s list. After rain, the water flows down the creek, over the rocks, and creates a natural spa effect. It ends up in a waterhole that has the most amazing blue color. The colour has to be seen to be believed. It’s created by phytoplankton, light refraction in the water, and bicarbonates binding to clay. Take a quick stop-off on your way north for a cool refreshing dip in these waters.
This is our last stop on our Brisbane to Cairns journey and our second international gateway. This means you can travel in either direction, and that it’s convenient to fly in or out of either city. Cairns is your closest spot to explore the Kuranda Rail into the mountains, the Skyrail gondola over the rainforest, or the Great Barrier Reef, or to venture on a day trip into the famous Daintree National Park.
North Queensland is known for its rainfall and abundance of waterfalls, which you can also take advantage of on the Waterfall Circuit. Within a 20-kilometer (12 miles) loop road, you can find one of the most photographed waterfalls in Australia, Millaa Millaa Falls. It’s a great spot for swimming, taking a picnic for the day on a bus tour that leaves from Cairns every day. If you have your own vehicle, though, then Ellinjaa Falls and Zillie Falls should also be on your list for this loop track.
Tips for Driving Brisbane to Cairns
- Summertime in Australia runs from December to March and so does the rainy monsoon season in North Queensland. Winter is May to July, with fewer rainy days to enjoy all the activities.
- This is a popular route with millions on the road each year. It’s better to book a camping spot or accommodation ahead of time.
- All the main roads are paved and suitable for a small two-wheel-drive vehicle. Four-wheel-drive vehicles will open more options and places to visit.
- Maintenance and road works are common, so allow extra time to travel.
- Service stations with fuel and supplies can be found nearly every 100 kilometers (62 miles) and in every town. However, it helps to be prepared: fill up and get supplies ahead of time.
- Expect higher costs in the bigger tourist towns like Brisbane, Cairns or any of the islands.
Sample Brisbane-Cairns itineraries
10 days from Brisbane to Cairns
Day 1 – Explore Brisbane
Day 2 – Brisbane to Sunshine Coast | 105km/65mi | 1 hour 30 minutes
Day 3 – Sunshine Coast to Hervey Bay | 200km/124mi | 2 hours 30 minutes
Day 4 – Hervey Bay to Bundaberg | 110km/68mi | 1 hour 20 minutes
Day 5 – Bundaberg to Agnes Water | 120km/75mi | 1 hour 30 mins
Day 6 – Agnes Water to Yeppoon | 270km/168mi | 3 hours 30 minutes
Day 7 – Yeppoon to Cape Hillsborough | 405km/252mi | 4 hours 30 minutes
Day 8 – Cape Hillsborough to Airlie Beach | 130km/81mi | 1 Hour 40 minutes
Day 9 – Airlie Beach to Townsville | 270 km/168mi | 3 hours 30 minutes
Day 10 – Townsville to Cairns | 350km/217mi | 4 hours 30 minutes
15 days from Brisbane to Cairns
Day 1 – Explore Brisbane
Day 2 – Brisbane to Sunshine Coast | 105km/65mi | 1 hour 30 minutes
Day 3 – Sunshine Coast to Rainbow Beach | 150km/93mi | 2 hours
Day 4 – Fraser Island day tour
Day 5 – Rainbow Beach to Bundaberg | 200km/124mi | 2 hours 30 minutes
Day 6 – Hervey Bay to Bundaberg | 110km/68mi | 1 hour 20 minutes
Day 7 – Bundaberg to Agnes Water | 120km/75mi | 1 hour 30 mins
Day 8 – Lady Musgrave day trip
Day 9 – Agnes Water to Yeppoon | 270km/168mi | 3 hours 30 minutes
Day 10 – Yeppoon to Mackay | 360km/224mi | 4 hours
Day 11 – Mackay to Airlie Beach | 150km/93mi | 2 hours
Day 12 – Whitsunday Islands
Day 13 – Airlie Beach to Townsville | 270 km/168mi | 3 hours 30 minutes
Day 14 – Townsville to Cairns | 350km/217mi | 4 hours 30 minutes
Day 15 – Explore Cairns
Chris Fry is the writer and photographer behind Aquarius Traveller, where she shares her journeys, provides valuable information and offers inspiration for your land and underwater travels. Since 2007, she has travelled to 36 countries and extensively throughout her home country, Australia.