Driving from Brisbane to Cairns is over 1700 kilometres! You’ll see beautiful coastal towns, lush rainforest havens and plenty of beaches along the way. I’ve road tripped up the Queensland coast many times and each time I discover something new along the way.
So, to help you plan your journey and enjoy my favourite places, here’s my perfect 21 day itinerary for driving from Brisbane to Cairns.
Start your holiday in Brisbane
Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland is your starting point and, as with most capitals there is plenty to see and do.
Start your adventure by hanging out at Southbank, ride on the Wheel of Brisbane, swim at the city beach, take a cruise down the Brisbane river or dine at one of the fabulous restaurants. Into the arts? The Queensland Museum, Art Gallery and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre are close-by too, so check out ‘what’s on in Brisbane’ in Brisbane’.
South Brisbane has some of the best eateries in town so I suggest you head towards Fish Lane for a flavour that suits. Discover more about the fabulous Fish Lane precinct here.
Interested in a day trip? Cruise out to beautiful Morton or North Stradbroke Islands. Snorkel around the Tangalooma shipwrecks, swim and surf on the stunning beaches, slide down giant sand dunes and explore the lighthouse. Or head into the Scenic Rim or Queen Mary Falls for some of the region’s magnificent walks and back-to-nature experiences in south east Queensland.
Queensland’s famous Gold Coast is a hotspot for visitors and just over an hour from the city. Glorious sunshine, golden beaches and surf! One of my favourite beaches is Burleigh so if you’re going to extend your stay, this is the place to do it!
Get up close and personal with the wildlife at Currumbin Sanctuary, head into Springbook National Park to swim in freshwater waterfalls or spend the day soaking up the sun at your favourite Gold Coast beach. You have choices!
There really is plenty to do in south east Queensland before you start driving from Brisbane to Cairns!
Day 2 & 3: Sunshine Coast
The highway north from Brisbane will take you past Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo at Beerwah. I’m a big zoo fan Australia Zoo is one of my favourites! They have an awesome display of Australian birds, koala’s, kangaroos and other Aussie birds and animals. Not to mention meercats, lemurs, Galapagos turtles and other animals from around the world. Crikey, there’s even a crocodile or two!
The Sunshine Coast boasts some of the best beaches in Queensland. Starting at Caloundra you will find a string of beaches all the way to Noosa. Get yourself some (more) sunshine and enjoy the surf beaches along the way. Learn to paddleboard, swim at the beach, take surf lessons, soak up some of the sunshine. If you want an awesome view of the Glasshouse Mountains, Wildhorse Mountain is a great short walk and not too far away, albeit a little steep!
Maleny and Montville are villages in the hinterlands. A popular day trip and only 30 minutes from the coast. This region is well-known for it’s local arts and crafts as well as their popular cafes, restaurants and Bed ‘n Breakfast venues.
Noosa has plenty of things to see and do, so is a great place to stop on your way north. Walks through the National Parks, koala’s in the wild, the infamous Eumundi Markets, great restaurants and stunning beaches, its no wonder it’s known as Australia’s favourite holiday spot!
Day 4 & 5: Hervey Bay and Fraser Island
Just four hours north of Brisbane, is the place to go whale watching! From June to November every year, humpback whales journey from Antarctica to the warmer waters along Queensland’s coastline around Hervey Bay and Fraser Island.
Fraser Island, and the largest sand island in the world and has long been regarded as one of the best destinations for whale watching in Australia.
Hervey Bay is a beautiful calm bay sheltered by Fraser Island and if you love fishing, this is the best place to catch whiting and flathead.
Named the world’s first whale heritage site, Hervey Bay is the home of whale watching in Queensland. There are a number of Whale Watching companies who provide tours customised to suit your needs. Check them out for a tour to suit you!
Want to stay longer? Take the ferry across from Urangan Harbour in Hervey Bay, to the eco-friendly Kingfisher Bay Resort to explore this amazing island. There’s a ton of things to do on Fraser Island starting with floating in crystal clear rock pools, swim in Lake McKenzie and spotting dingoes in the wild as well as photographing the Maheno Shipwreck. It’s simply magical.
Day 6: Heron Island
As a stunning coral cay in Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is world famous for its coral reef and a sanctuary for an extraordinary variety of marine life.
Heron Island is a natural coral cay within the Great Barrier Reef and is one of the few places that you can swim with turtles year-round.
From late October to early March, endangered Loggerhead sea turtles return to nest in the dunes. Then from December to April, the hatchlings begin to emerge from their nests to start their circle of life. It’s a wonderful sight to see.
The ancient Pisonia Forest on the island is a sanctuary for marine birds and nearby, the crystal-clear waters teem with colourful fish, turtles, rays, reef sharks and more. Take a guided nature walk, a star-gazing tour, or simply enjoy the views of the coral reef. A fabulous opportunity for marine enthusiasts to go diving within minutes of the jetty.
Catch a 2.5 hour boat ride or take the seaplane from Gladstone to Heron Island.
Choose your accommodation in Gladstone.
Day 7: Eungella National Park
Driving north from Brisbane to Cairns offers plenty of choices. Visit the Eungella National Park, one of Queensland’s most ecologically diverse parks.
Inland from Mackay, high above the sugar can fields, this mist-shrouded mountain is home to many kinds of wildlife… and quite a few happy campers!
Follow the walking tracks and enjoy spectacular views down the Pioneer Valley, along with rainforest gullies and river pools. Enjoy a picnic at Broken River and then wander along the banks watching the platypus in the gently-flowing water.
The highlight of your trip will be finding a platypus! Eungella is one of the few places where you can see these elusive, cute creatures with their duck bills, webbed feet and sleek fur coats.
Camp overnight in a tranquil riverside camping area or check into one of the low cost cabins at Broken River Mountain Resort. It’s a place to enjoy the peace and quiet of the rainforest, enjoy the birds and soak up the solitude.
Day 8: Cape Hillsborough
Cape Hillsborough National Park is an absolute ‘must-do’ when driving from Brisbane to Cairns.
Just 50km north of Mackay, this national park is most famous for it’s kangaroos that come to the beach at dawn. Every morning as the sun rises over the horizon, kangaroos and wallabies come down to the beach to feast on the mangrove seed pods washed up by the tide. It’s a spectacular sight to see and if you’re lucky, makes for fabulous photography.
Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park is the place to stay so if you have a caravan, camper or tent you’ll fit in nicely – or give them a call to see if they have any cabins available.
Days 9 – 13: Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
Airlie Beach is gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. There are plenty of fun things to do in Airlie Beach.
Relax at the Lagoon and enjoy the idyllic views of some of Australia’s most famous islands before you head out to the Whitsundays!
Driving from Brisbane to Cairns would not be complete without a few days soaking up the sunshine in one of the most amazing places world-wide. Book yourself on a last minute deal for a Whitsunday sailing trip and prepare to have the time of your life!
From snorkelling and diving these tropical waters, to visiting some of the world’s best beaches, taking a 2 day sailing adventure in the Whitsundays is bound to be an experience you won’t forget!
Day 14 – 15: Townsville & Magnetic Island
The largest city in tropical north Queensland, Townville is definitely worth a look-in if you’re driving from Brisbane to Cairns.
One of the most incredible hostels I’ve ever stayed in is in Townsville. Book yourself in for a night at least at Rambutan Resort or feel like poshing it up a little? Perhaps a couple of nights at the Hotel Grand Chancellor will do the trick.
Townsville is loaded with free things to do so take note that the Friday night markets on the Strand were a fave. For some great Mexican food – try Cactus Jacks! A long-time favourite of mine!
For something different, day trip to Magnetic Island. Take the passenger ferry over to the island and spend the day exploring.
The best way to explore Maggie Island is to rent a car on the island and head off around the beaches. Back in the day Mini Moke’s were the rage but they’re becoming more difficult to find nowadays.
Check out the Forts Walk, spot koalas in the wild, snorkel Florence and Radical Bays before heading over to West Point for one of the most stunning sunsets on the east coast!
Day 16: Mission Beach
Yea! You’ve hit the tropics. Mission Beach is close to my heart as my relatives settled there when it was nothing but a store on the beachfront. Some of them are still there so I stop in whenever I pass by.
Without doubt, Mission has one of the best beaches in Queensland … and plenty of great cafes to visit too. There is nothing quite so tranquil as sitting on the grass, looking across the water to Dunk Island.
If you’re feeling more active, then why not hop on a kayak tour to Dunk Island, or try a spot of snorkelling around the heads instead. Does that convince you to stop in at Mission Beach if you’re driving from Brisbane to Cairns?
Day 17 – 21: Cairns in Far North Queensland
You’ve arrived! After 21 days of driving from Brisbane to Cairns, your adventure hasn’t finished yet! Cairns is a bustling tropical city with plenty to see and do so jump in and have the time of your life. These are some of the day trips that are available.
The Esplanade is a great place to hang out if you feel like lazing around in the balmy evenings. There are some fabulous restaurants on the waterfront like The Raw Prawn and Tha Fish that are worth stepping out for if you love seafood.
- Fitzroy Island – This day trip to Fitzroy Island is a fun day. Go snorkelling on the surrounding coral reef and soak up the sunshine.
- Tully White Water Rafting – White Water Rafting on the Tully River is the perfect day trip for an extreme adrenalin rush.
- Kuranda Railway and Sky-Rail – Take the old railway up to Kuranda and back. Explore the Kuranda Butterfly House, the Kuranda Markets and do some sight-seeing.
- Daintree Rainforest – Marvel at the heritage-listed Daintree rainforest, learn about the rare wildlife and species of plants that have been here from ancient times.
- Port Douglas – There are many points when you’re driving from Brisbane to Cairns where you can take a day trip to the islands and snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, but Port Douglas is one with a ton of options.
- Low Isles – Do the cruise to Low Isles. The Great Barrier Reef stretches along the coast, running parallel to the Queensland coastline. It’s one of the best places to snorkel and swim around this coral cay in idyllic conditions.
Whatever you choose to do, it will be the perfect ending to your road trip of a lifetime!
5 Essential Items for travelling throughout Queensland
- Good Camera – For travelling throughout Australia I recommend the Sony a6000 Mirrorless Camera Package – Light & compact and takes great photos! Most of the photos on AussieMob.com are taken with my Sony!
- Comfy Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking to be done throughout Queensland! Make sure your feet are comfortable – try these New Balance Women’s Trainer. I love mine!
- Loney Planet Guidebook – Even as an Aussie, I’m a fan of the Lonely Planet Guidebooks and rely on the Australian edition. Take one with you!
- Good Water Bottle – Keep hydrated! Travelling in the tropics can be thirsty work, so make sure you have a Yeti Drink Bottle and refill as you go. Tap water is drinkable everywhere!
- Good Sun Hat – You’ll need a good sun hat when travelling in Australia. This Oz Smart Wide Brim Sun Hat looks stylish and is ideal for keeping you cool.
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Driving from Brisbane to Cairns will show you some of the best coastline in this great state!