If you’re looking for the road trip of a lifetime, pack your bags and head for the east coast of Australia, because the Pacific Coast Way that connects Cairns to Brisbane will fulfil all your travel wishes. We spent two weeks exploring the Australian East Coast, driving from Cairns to Brisbane and exploring everything in between; from tropical rainforests to pristine white sand beaches, and from chill surfer towns to big cities. If you’re planning a road trip from Cairns to Brisbane (or vice versa) this 2-week self drive itinerary will give you an idea of the best things to do and best places to stop along the way. I hope you will find it useful in planning your own Cairns to Brisbane road trip!
- 1 Some info for your Cairns to Brisbane road trip
- 2 Cairns to Brisbane 14-days itinerary with map (or viceversa!)
- 2.1 Day 1: Arrive in Cairns
- 2.2 Day 2: Scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef
- 2.3 Day 3: Day trip to the Daintree Rainforest
- 2.4 Day 4: Cairns to Townsville (347km)
- 2.5 Day 5: Townsville to Airlie Beach (275km)
- 2.6 Day 6: Day trip to the Whitsundays
- 2.7 Day 7: Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay (860km)
- 2.8 Day 8: Do a Fraser Island tour
- 2.9 Day 9: Explore Fraser Island
- 2.10 Day 10: Leave Fraser Island & return to Hervey Bay
- 2.11 Day 11: Hervey Bay to Noosa Heads (180km)
- 2.12 Day 12: Noosa Heads to Brisbane (141km)
- 2.13 Day 13: Explore Brisbane & Gold Coast
- 2.14 Day 14: Depart from Brisbane
Some info for your Cairns to Brisbane road trip
The East Coast of Australia is one of the most popular backpacking destinations. Thanks to Australia’s working holiday visa plenty of high school graduates, university graduates and twenty-somethings take the opportunity to live and explore the land down under. The route from Brisbane to Cairns (or viceversa) is one of those itineraries that feature on everyone’s Australian travel bucket list, so you can be sure to find plenty of other travellers on the road! Before we jump straight into my recommended Cairns to Brisbane day-by-day itinerary I wanted to cover some general information that you might need to know.
Driving in Australia
When I first started planning my Australia trip I could already see my friends and I getting lost like in the second Inbetweeners movie where they run out of petrol and get stranded in the middle of the Australian outback. The East Coast of Australia is very different from the Red Centre however the distances between towns and cities can be very far, so make sure to have a spare tank of petrol in the booth, hopefully you’ll never need it but better safe than sorry! Also, make sure you refuel whenever you find a gas station; you never know when the next one might be. For more information on planning a perfect Australia road trip, check out my Australia road trip planner.
The currency in Australia is the Australian Dollar (AUD). At the time of my trip the exchange rate was 1 GBP to 1.80 AUD, you can check out the latest official rate here.
With such a convenient exchange rate you might be wondering how much an Australian east coast road trip will cost you. We found accommodation to be generally quite expensive, with hostels charging around 40 AUD or more for a bed in a 6-bed or more dorm. Food shopping at a grocery store or eating out on the other hand was roughly similar to back home, with prices ranging from 10 AUD for a sandwich from Subway to 40 AUD for a proper dinner out in a nice restaurant. With accommodation and food it obviously depends on you and how fancy you want to go.
Another big expense when it comes to a road trip is car rental and fuel. Car rentals are usually more expensive if your drop off point is different from the pick up. We started and ended our road trip at Brisbane airport and a comfortable 5-seat car for two weeks cost us around 100 GBP each. It cost us around 60 – 70 AUD every time we filled up the tank of our car.
Be ready for a blissful beach vacation, because the weather on the east coast of Australia (the part you will visit on this road trip anyway) is what I would call perfect weather. Cairns is further north and a bit more tropical so you can expect more rain in the summer months, with temperatures ranging from 17°C to 26°C in winter and from 24°C to 34°C in summer. Brisbane is more temperate, with less rainfall and temperatures ranging from 10°C to 21°C in winter and from 22°C to 30°C in summer. Whatever time of year you’re visiting you can be sure you’ll get to enjoy some time outdoors and on the beach.
Australian road trip essentials
Once you know what the weather forecast is like, the next step is planning what to pack. Since I trust that you all know how many pairs of socks, underwear, and t-shirts you need for a 2-week trip, here I wanted to cover some more general road trip essentials and things you might normally forget to pack.
Fast drying towel: I’m a personal fan of fast-drying microfiber towels. They take up very little space when you fold them up and dry really quick, meaning you don’t need to worry about getting the rest of your bag wet. Whether you need it for a shower in the hostel if they don’t provide towels, to lie on the beach after surfing or dry off if you get caught in the rain, you’ll be glad you have one on you.
My top Amazon picks:
Sunscreen: Australia is one of those places where the sun is very dangerous; so make sure to have a high factor SPF to protect you.
Reusable water bottle: Tap water is drinkable in Australia so bringing a water bottle with you can save you some cash during the trip. We also found a lot of cities had water fountains out and about in public places, especially close to beaches, so that you can refill while you’re out doing fun things.
Light waterproof jacket: I carry one of these pretty much everywhere I go regardless of the weather. Especially if you’re visiting during Australian winter you might find that in Cairns and the other more tropical locations in this itinerary you can find a lot of rain. They’re light and take up little space when folded, so better to be safe than wet!
My top Amazon picks:
Cairns to Brisbane 14-days itinerary with map (or viceversa!)
The itinerary I have outlined in this post isn’t the exact itinerary I followed during my Australia trip. I found out last minute that I would participate in Kerala Blog Express and that the dates for that trip would overlap with this road trip, so I missed the start of the trip and joined my friends half way in Mackay. I was still able to visit what I missed later during my time in Australia. I also changed this itinerary from our own since my friends drove from Brisbane to Cairns and back. In hindsight this is not ideal as you spend too much time on the road and waste a lot of time driving. Regardless of which side of the road trip you decide to start I would recommend only driving in one direction, and then flying back to your starting point.
Day 1: Arrive in Cairns
The first day of your epic Australia East Coast road trip is finally here! Whether you’re coming from a long-haul international flight or just from a different part of Australia, you should take the first day to settle in and explore Cairns. Depending on what time you arrive you can explore the city centre, or if you arrive in the evening just head to the Esplanade to check out the bars, shops, restaurants and nightlife of Cairns.
Day 2: Scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef
You can’t visit Cairns and not pay the Great Barrier Reef a visit. The GBR (that’s what cool kids in Australia call it) is a 2,300km long ecosystem composed by thousands of barrier reefs and hundreds of islands, which make it the largest living being on Earth. The reefs are made up of over 600 types of hard and soft coral and it’s home to countless species of fish, molluscs, turtles, dolphins and sharks. Cairns is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and there are lots of different types of GBR tours that you can do.
I did a standard snorkelling day trip, which set off around 8AM and returned around 6PM. We did two stops that lasted about 1 hour each and had a tasty barbeque lunch on board. They also had scuba diving gear and instructors on board for people that changed their mind last minute and decided to scuba dive instead of snorkel. I have scuba dived before in Kenya and Thailand however I’m not a huge fan, so I decided this time to save some extra cash and stick to snorkelling. There were quite big waves so snorkelling proved to be quite a workout but we were still able to see lots of corals and fish.
Day 3: Day trip to the Daintree Rainforest
Another must-see in Cairns is the Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest rainforest in the world and with its surface of 1,200km squared, one of the largest areas of tropical rainforest in the Australian continent and richest natural environments in the world. We did a day trip to the Daintree Rainforest with Billy Tea Safaris, who picked us up from our hotel at 7:20AM and took us crocodile spotting on a river cruise, swimming in creeks, walking in the rainforest, feeding wallabies and much more! Our guide was very knowledgeable about the rainforest and taught us both about the local flora and fauna, but also about the aboriginal stories of the area.
Day 4: Cairns to Townsville (347km)
After a few days spent exploring Cairns and its surroundings (there are plenty of opportunities for cool days trips from Cairns!) it’s finally time to hit the road and head to the first stop on your road trip; Townsville. The drive from Cairns to Townsville is 347km, a long drive but not unbearable in a day with regular stops. On the road between Cairns and Townsville you can do a detour to Wallaman Falls, the tallest free falling waterfall in Australia. The road takes you to a viewing platform, but if you feel like going on a bit of an adventure you can do the 1-hour hike down to the base of the fall. We set off early in the morning with the intention of doing the hike to break up the all the driving but unfortunately we didn’t even make it to Wallaman Falls since the road was closed due to landslides caused by a recent cyclone. We ended up doing stops at small towns on the road and then just spending longer in Townsville, but if you enjoy hiking and epic natural wonders, definitely add a stop at Wallaman Falls on your itinerary.
Day 5: Townsville to Airlie Beach (275km)
Depending at what time you reach Townsville the day before you can decide how early you want to set off the following morning. I personally really liked the vibe when we went out in the evening for dinner and drinks in Townsville, but found it didn’t offer much during the day so we set off early in the morning. The drive to Airlie Beach is only 275km so you have time to enjoy the road and do some stops along the way if you want to. We visited the Billabong Animal Sanctuary just outside Townsville. I’m strongly against zoos however I chose to visit the Billabong Animal Sanctuary as it’s advertised, as the name implies, as a sanctuary and they outline their conservation efforts in preserving Australian wildlife. It’s an interesting place to learn about Australian flora and fauna although it felt too much like a zoo to me, with crocodile feeding shows and the opportunity to hold koalas or wombats. When you get to Airlie Beach make sure to head out in the evening and explore the town. It’s very small but we loved the chilled out beach town vibe. Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands so you’ll find a lot of backpackers there to liven up the bars and pubs.
Day 6: Day trip to the Whitsundays
The Whitsundays are a group of islands off the coast of Eastern Australia and one of the most famous destinations in Australia. With their white sand beaches and turquoise water they fulfil every tropical beach dream you could have. I’d seen photos of Whitehaven Beach online before, ranked as the second best beach in the world, and knew I had to visit it in person. We did a day trip to the Whitsundays but if you want to spend longer at the islands there are also overnight cruises available.
We did a more snorkelling-focused tour with Ocean Rafting that took us to two snorkelling stops first on Hook Island and then to Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. At Whitehaven Beach we had lunch and climbed up to Hill Inlet Lookout to see the iconic white and blue stripes of the beach. Speed boats are the only ones that can go directly below the lookout, since the water is very shallow and bigger boats can’t sail there. We were able to snorkel with some huge fish called Maori Wrasse, which are famous for being very friendly and swimming up to boats and snorkelers. We set off pretty soon after lunch since the cruise back to Airlie Beach was a fair bit longer than the one there in the morning (or it felt like it anyway!) although it’s not without excitement. Combine a powerful speedboat with big oceanic waves and you’re in for an exhilarating ride home. After an intense day of snorkelling, swimming and being at sea we cooked a barbecue at our hotel and went to bed early, in preparation for a long drive the following day.
Day 7: Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay (860km)
Time for the longest drive on this road trip, a good 860km from Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay that will take around 10 hours of driving. Since you’ll have to wake up early to fit all that driving in one day, why not get up before dawn so you can then go see the sunrise on the beach? A short 1-hour drive away from Airlie Beach you will find Cape Hillsborough National Park, where kangaroos and wallabies go every morning to eat on the beach as the sun rises. There is a camping area right next to the beach and the owner is the one to feed the kangaroos every morning, setting small cones behind which the other sunrise tourists like yourself should stay behind. Even if somewhat artificial (we were originally told the kangaroos just so happened to naturally visit the beach every morning to feed on the algae when the tide went down) it is still an incredible experience and you’ll be glad you woke up before sunrise to see it. After sunrise you can drive around Cape Hillsborough National Park for a bit and stop in the bigger towns on the road like Rockhampton and Bundaberg for food, however most of the rest of your day will be taken by driving to Hervey Bay.
Day 8: Do a Fraser Island tour
It’s time to take a break from driving and explore the world’s largest sand island; Fraser Island. We decided to do a tour of Fraser Island as opposed to driving ourselves since the vast majority of driving on the island is on sand with a 4WD, and considering I struggle to park a Smart car I knew I wouldn’t be able to drive a 4WD. We did a “Tag Along Tour” with Nomads, meaning that the guide would be driving the first 4WD, and other tour participants would be driving the other jeeps and following his lead. There are plenty of ferries that go from Hervey Bay across to Fraser Island. (Note: We booked our tour on Happy Travels Australia. The one we personally did started from Noosa Heads instead of Hervey Bay since we didn’t visit Fraser Island during our Australia East Coast road trip but came back at a later date. In terms of this itinerary I recommend starting from Hervey Bay as it saves you driving back and forth).
After taking the ferry across to Fraser Island we drove to the hostel to drop off our bags and then headed straight to Lake McKenzie. Lake McKenzie is one of the main attractions on Fraser Island; a huge freshwater lake with clear turquoise water surrounded by fine white sand. Our tour companions were all young backpackers like us so we had a fun time splashing around playing volleyball in the clear water of the lake. We did a bit of sightseeing around the island driving on the beach and through the dirt roads in the forests of Fraser Island, then went back to the hostel for dinner all together. The hostel also had a bar where everyone happily spent their drinks tokens and socialised.
Day 9: Explore Fraser Island
On the second day in Fraser Island we drove to the famous champagne pools, where you can swim in the ocean while being protected by the rock pools. We also visited Eli Creek, a small freshwater creek with a strong current. We parked the jeeps on the beach and after a short 5-minute walk reached the start of the creek, where you can just chill on a lilo and let yourself be carried back to the beach. We also visited two iconic landmarks on Fraser Island; the SS Maheno ship wreck and Indian Heads; a rock formation along the coast and popular viewpoint, which is also a historical aboriginal site.
Day 10: Leave Fraser Island & return to Hervey Bay
Before heading back to Noosa Heads and mainland Australia we spent the morning exploring more of Fraser Island. We drove to Lake Wabby, another popular swimming spot. I personal liked Lake McKenzie more as the water was turquoise and clear, whilst at Lake Wabby it was darker and seemed a bit murky. However reaching Lake Wabby is more adventurous, since from where you park the jeeps on the beach to the actual lake it’s a 45-minute walk surrounded by trees and shrubs. The final part of the walk is on a huge downhill sand slope that heads straight into the lake. The temptation to run and dive into Lake Wabby is strong, but we were advised not to do it as the water is very shallow and you can risk getting injured. Of course some of the boys did it anyway and as predicted, one of them sprained an ankle and we then had to carry him back for 45 minutes. Moral of the story, follow the instructions of your tour guide, they know better. After visiting Lake Wabby we had lunch back at the hostel and then headed back to mainland Australia.
Day 11: Hervey Bay to Noosa Heads (180km)
The next stop of this Australian east coast road trip was my personal favourite. We took our time leaving Hervey Bay, since for once we had to drive only 180km, which took us a brief two hours to reach Noosa Heads. Noosa Heads is a lovely surfers town with a relaxed and friendly vibe. We went on a small adventure to Noosa National Park and in search of the famous fairy pools. These are rock formations where the sea waves come crashing in but at reduced strength, forming small pools where you can swim sheltered from the power of the ocean. The walk from the main beach of Noosa Heads to the fairy pools is around half an hour, all along beautiful beaches and views. We spent the day swimming around and diving in the fairy pools, walking along the coast and watching the surfers catch waves. With its chill vibe and beautiful coast Noosa Heads is one of those places I could personally live in.
Day 12: Noosa Heads to Brisbane (141km)
It’s time for the last stretch of driving of your Cairns to Brisbane road trip! As you can imagine, your next destination is Brisbane. From Noosa Heads it’s a short 141km that should take you around 2 hours tops. You can do a stop along the way at Sunshine Coast to try some surfing there, or alternatively at Australia Zoo, the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. If you’re not a fan of zoos, I would give this a miss. We went as we were all childhood fans of Steve Irwin and Australia Zoo does a lot in terms of wildlife conservation, however if you don’t like seeing animals in captivity you’re better off stopping in Sunshine Coast or heading straight to Brisbane. I personally really liked Brisbane in the evening, we went out for the dinner along the esplanade where there was also an evening street market that sold all kinds of jewellery, souvenirs and cute dresses.
Day 13: Explore Brisbane & Gold Coast
As your road trip comes to a near end I thought you might like a day to chill out and without too much driving. From Brisbane you can drive to Gold Coast and the famous Surfer’s Paradise in less than an hour (what are 77km compared to the 1,700km you’ve already driven in the past two weeks)? Both cities have a fun vibe, with plenty of shops, bars, restaurants that you can explore. They’re also popular spots for surfing if you want to try your hand at it and spend some time relaxing on the beaches after all the driving and early mornings of this road trip.
Day 14: Depart from Brisbane
Your Australian east coast road trip time has sadly come to an end and it’s time to set off, whether you’re going back home or travelling onwards in Australia. Depending on the time of your flight if you have some time to kill in Brisbane I recommend visiting the city centre, it has a lively vibe and cool shops to explore, where you can buy those last minute souvenirs for friends and family back home. They also do free tours of the City Hall clock tower, from which you can get pretty awesome views of the Brisbane skyline.
Have you been to the East Coast of Australia before? How did you find it? Let me know in the comments below! As I said at the start of this post this isn’t the exact Cairns to Brisbane 2-week itinerary that I followed, but if I were to go back this is how I would do it as the itinerary we followed wasn’t very time efficient. After this Cairns to Brisbane road trip I travelled onwards to Uluru and Sydney and the Great Ocean Road, make sure to check out those posts for more Australia travel inspiration!
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