Brisbane to Cairns: A Queensland coast road trip

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.

A view from the air of a cove edged by rocky points. In the cove, a sandy beach. People on the beach and also in the water.
Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island.

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.

Text: Brisbane to Cairns: Queensland Coast, Australia. Things to see and itineraries (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Images: above, sunrise seen from a beach; below, also a sunrise from a beach, but this time with two kangaroos silhouetted in front of it.
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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.

Bird's eye view of a long, deserted white sand beach, with a few buildings and campgrounds next to it. The water is a deep green-turquoise. In the distance a stream crosses the beach to the sea.
Elliott Heads Beach near Bundaberg, Queensland.

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!

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Places to visit on your Brisbane to Cairns journey

Brisbane

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.

View of Brisbane city. Foreground: brightly painted letters spell out the word "Brisbane". Behind, lots of tall buildings of various shapes and sizes.
Brisbane, Australia

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.

Accommodations in Brisbane

Sunshine Coast

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.

View of a small white-sand beach on the Queensland coast, completely empty, and the blue sea.
Noosa National Park on the Sunshine Coast.

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.

Rainbow Beach

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.

Seen from a hill behind the beach, looking over the beach to a sunset. Waves on the ocean and only a few people on the beach.
View from Rainbow 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.

Accommodations in Rainbow Beach

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.

Looking down on a curve of beach, mostly empty, with scrubby dunes beyond it. The water here has bigger waves.
View from Indian Head on Fraser Island.

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.

Accommodations on Fraser Island

Hervey Bay

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.

Taken from the air: Turquoise water and a curve of shore. No beach, but a road and a walking path edge the water. On the inland side of the road, many buildings of various sorts and heights. A stop on the way from Brisbane to Cairns.
Hervey Bay

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.

Accommodations in Hervey Bay

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.

A wall of rock on the far edge of a pool. A small waterfall falls over the edge of the rock into the pool.
Utopia Rock Pools

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.

Bundaberg

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.

Looking from beneath the branches of a tree (across the top of the photo) across a strip of white-sand beach to the turquoise sea. Small waves. Woodgate Beach on the Queensland coast Brisbane-Cairns road trip route.
Woodgate Beach near Bundaberg.

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.

Accommodations in Bundaberg

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.

Bird's-eye view of the island, surrounded by light green water where it's shallow. The island is oblong, with a cluster of buildings on one side and a dirt airstrip down the middle.
Lady Elliot 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.

View from the sky of a long almost-straight beach lined with scrubby dunes. The land here is relatively flat. Behind the dunes are houses.
Agnes Water Beach.

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

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.

Accommodations in Yeppoon

A still body of water with milky green water in it: a woman swims in the middle, forming ripples. Eucalyptus and other trees shade the water on both sides.
Stoney Creek in Byfield National Park near Yeppoon.

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.

Accommodations in Mackay

Looking down on a deep gorge filled with water and surrounded by greenery. On the opposite side, water runs in a waterfall over rocks into the gorge.
Finch Hatton Gorge.

Cape Hillsborough

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.

Two kangaroos silhouetted against an orange sunset with fluffy clouds also silhouetted on the sky.
Sunrise at Cape Hillsborough National Park.

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.

Airlie Beach

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. Alternative options could have you visiting resort-facilitated locations like Hamilton Island and Day Dream Island. Jump on a helicopter ride to witness the magnitude of coral bommies (coral reef columns) and perfect textured patterns in the ocean.

A view along a curved beach with still water. Two people walk on the beach in the distance, trees edge the beach. In the distance, behind the trees, are three tall apartment or hotel towers.
Hamilton Island.

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.

Magnetic Island

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.

A view from the land above the beach looking down on a smooth sandy beach forming a curved bay and turquoise water, very calm. On the Brisbane to Cairns route.
Arthur Bay on Magnetic Island.

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.

Accommodations in Townsville

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.

A man sits, back to camera, on a huge tree stump on the left. A woman sits on a right to the right. Between them a pool of very blue water reflects the sky and the trees surrounding the pool.
Cardwell Spa Pools.

Cairns

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.

Taken from one end of the Kuranda Scenic train, looking along the train as it takes a curving bridge over a river or gorge, through a forest. The cars are all painted white with either green or red below the windows.
Kuranda Scenic Rail.

Accommodations in Cairns

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.
two orange fish with a white stripe behind the eyes nestle into a green anemone.
Anemonefish in the Great Barrier Reef.

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.

Text: A Queensland coast itinerary: Brisbane to Cairns. So many beautiful places to see on the way! (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Image: a bird's-eye view of tiny Lady Elliot Island, mostly covered in scrub, but with a few buildings and an airstrip across the middle.
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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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