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13-day road trip from Brisbane to Cairns

Discover the best of Queensland with a journey along the state’s main road: the Bruce Highway. Begin your journey at the capital city of Brisbane then head north through beautiful coastal towns, fabulous island beaches, unique hinterland and lush rainforests. To get your journey off to the best start, begin by comparing rental cars at VroomVroomVroom to find the perfect vehicle for your road trip adventure.

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Brisbane to Cairns Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Brisbane
  • Day 2: Brisbane to Glasshouse Mountains
  • Day 3: Glasshouse Mountains to Sunshine Coast
  • Day 4: Sunshine Coast to Hervey Bay
  • Day 5: Hervey Bay to K’gari (previously Fraser Island)
  • Day 6: K‘gari to Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy
  • Day 7: Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy to Rockhampton then Mackay
  • Day 8: Mackay to Airlie Beach
  • Day 9: Airlie Beach to Whitsunday Islands
  • Day 10: Whitsunday Islands to Townsville
  • Day 11: Townsville to Mission Beach
  • Day 12: Mission Beach to Atherton Tablelands
  • Day 13: Atherton Tablelands to Cairns

Travel time and distance: 18 hours and 51 minutes / 1,680.7 km

Day 1: Spend the day exploring Brisbane

The Brisbane waterfront.
The Brisbane waterfront.

Brisbane highlights

  • Start your road trip adventure in Brisbane, Queensland’s ever-changing capital city. With new buildings constantly being added to the skyline, and travelling exhibitions and shows frequently stopping by, there is always something new to see and enjoy.
  • For newcomers to Brisbane, a walk along the Southbank Parklands should be your first port of call. It is on this side of the city that you can stop by the Gallery of Modern Art and the Queensland Museum.
  • With a rental car, you can also travel to the top of Mount Coot-tha for a fantastic panoramic view of the city.

Day 2: Be amazed by the dramatic Glasshouse Mountains

The spectacular Glasshouse Mountains.
The spectacular Glasshouse Mountains.

Glasshouse Mountains highlights

  • Your first day on the road will take you north toward the Sunshine Coast. On the way, exit the Bruce Highway for Australia Zoo. There are plenty of activities to do here that lets you get up close to the wildlife and learn more about conservation.
  • The drive to Australia Zoo will take you past the stunning Glasshouse Mountains. One of the best places to view them is from the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve just outside of Maleny.
  • Spend some time exploring Maleny and its neighbour Montville. These towns are a great examples of the beauty and quirkiness of the hinterland. Sample some delicious local foods or explore the vintage shops while you are in the area.

Day 3: Enjoy a taste of the Sunshine Coast

A sunny view of Shelly Beach at Caloundra.
A sunny view of Shelly Beach at Caloundra.

Sunshine Coast highlights

  • You could easily spend weeks exploring the many sights and beaches of the Sunshine Coast region, but if you’re just passing through, there are a few spots you shouldn’t miss. Be sure to make a stop at Maroochydore, and explore the esplanade at Cotton Tree.
  • If you’re feeling energetic, you can make the two hour hike to the summit of Mount Coolum for some fabulous views of the coast.
  • Spend the night in the popular village of Noosa. Along with a strip of some of the best restaurants and shops in the Sunshine Coast, you can also visit the Noosa Heads National Park. The busy park offers stunning beaches and beautiful nature hikes. It is a great place to spot koalas in their natural environment.

Day 4: Head for Hervey Bay

A whale hams it up for the cameras at Hervey Bay.
A whale hams it up for the cameras at Hervey Bay.

Hervey Bay highlights

  • Make your way north on the Bruce Highway toward the idyllic oceanside town of Hervey Bay. There are plenty of activities to fill your day here. Whale-watching is a particular favourite.
  • Take a walk on the beautiful Urangan Pier, or visit the Hervey Bay Historical Village and Museum.
  • Finish your day with a meal at the popular Hervey Bay Boat Club.

Day 5: Experience stunning K’gari

The crystal waters of Lake McKenzie.
The crystal waters of Lake McKenzie.

K’gari highlights

  • If you’re visiting Hervey Bay, you can’t pass up the chance to visit the magnificent, World Heritage-listed K’gari. As the largest sand island in the world, there are plenty of stunning sights to see.
  • Explore the rainforests and enjoy the beautiful blue waters of Lake Mckenzie — one of more than 100 freshwater lakes on the island. It is unusual for being a “perched” lake, meaning it contains only rainwater — no groundwater — and it doesn’t flow to the sea.

Day 6: Visit Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy

Catching a sunset wave on a Queensland beach.
Catching a sunset wave on a Queensland beach.

Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy highlights

  • Continue north on the Bruce Highway, stopping in to visit some of the small towns lining the coast. The joined towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy are particularly popular spot for locals.
  • The foreshore is a beautiful place for a walk, and a great spot to watch the sun setting. In Agnes Water consider a visit to the Agnes Water Museum.
  • Located at the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, there are plenty of water activities to enjoy in the area. These include both kayaking tours, and trips out to go snorkelling on the reef.

Day 7: Continue north to Rockhampton and Mackay

A coastal drive by the sea.
A coastal drive by the sea

Mackay and Rockhampton highlights

  • Before driving north to Mackay, stop in to explore Rockhampton. As one of the oldest cities in Queensland, it has a lot of impressive heritage buildings to explore, along with Rockhampton Botanic Gardens which were established in 1869.
  • Another worthwhile stop on your journey is the Dreamtime Cultural Centre. Through guided tours and hands on cultural activities, it works to promote greater awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture.
  • On your way out of Rockhampton, you can explore the Capricorn Caves.
  • When you reach Mackay you will find even more interesting architecture, including the city’s art deco centre.

Day 8: Relax at Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach from the air.
Airlie Beach from the air.

Airlie Beach highlights

  • Colourful Airlie Beach is the perfect base to explore the fantastic Whitsundays from. The town has all the restaurants, cafes, shops and markets that you need — in a beautiful coastal setting with warm tropical weather.
  • Spend your spare time exploring some of the surrounds. Attractions include the rainforest-clad hills of Conway National Park, or a trip out onto the turquoise waters of the Coral Sea.

Day 9: Take a day trip to the Whitsunday Islands

There really is a Heart Island in the Whitsundays.
There really is a Heart Island in the Whitsundays.

Whitsunday Islands highlights

  • Take the day to visit one of the famous islands off the Whitsunday coast. No matter which you choose, you will see why the islands have become so well-known around the world.
  • For many travellers, a visit to the iconic Whitehaven Beach and its powder white sand, is at the top of the list.

Day 10: Get some great views in Townsville

The outlook from Castle Hill lookout, Townsville.
The outlook from Castle Hill lookout, Townsville.

Townsville highlights

  • After the long drive from Airlie Beach, you will be looking forward to relaxing and enjoying a meal in Townsville. Luckily, the city’s esplanade, known locally as The Strand, has plenty of restaurants to cater to everyone’s tastes.
  • You can also pay a visit to the Townsville Botanic Gardens.
  • For the best view in the city, hike to the top of Castle Hill. The large monolith is impressive in itself, but it also provides a fantastic view over the entire city.

Day 11: Welcome to Far North Queensland

Wild weather at Mission Beach.
Wild weather at Mission Beach.

Mission Beach highlights

  • Now that you’re in Far North Queensland, keep an eye out for the region’s unique wildlife. From the bright blue Ulysees butterfly, to the small tree kangaroos, and the beautiful cassowaries, there is plenty to discover.
  • Although elusive, one of the best places to spot cassowaries is at Mission Beach. Spend some time exploring the nature trails and walking along the long and sandy beaches.
  • There are plenty of scenic stops en route from Townsville to Mission Beach. One of the standouts is a little town on the Cassowary Coast called Cardwell. After it was destroyed by Cyclone Yasi, the foreshore was re-built. It is now a vibrant area with incredible views to Hinchinbrook Island.

Day 12: Take the scenic route through the Tablelands

A beautiful hilltop outlook near Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Highlands.
A beautiful hilltop outlook near Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Highlands.

Atherton Tablelands highlights

  • Head into the magnificent Atherton Tablelands for a more scenic route to Cairns. Look for tree kangaroos at Malanda, and visit a local waterfall while you are there.
  • Drop by the beautiful town of Yungaburra for lunch. Located on the shore of Lake Tinaroo, the town boasts many old fashioned eateries and interesting vintage shops.
  • See the photogenic Curtain Fig Tree just outside of Yungaburra, and make sure to swing by Gallo Dairyland to try some of their famous chocolates, yoghurts and cheese.
  • Spend the afternoon in Kuranda, the Village in the Rainforest. The town is home to waterfalls, scenic hiking trails and wildlife parks.

Day 13: Arrive at Cairns

Next stop after Cairns? The Daintree!
Next stop after Cairns? The Daintree!

Cairns highlights

  • Drive down the winding Kuranda Range to the city of Cairns, which has plenty of exciting sights to explore.
  • From the idyllic Northern Beaches of Palm Cove and Clifton Beach to the lively esplanade, you will find something to keep you busy.
  • The city is also a great base to explore sights such as the Great Barrier Reef and the then onwards to the Daintree Rainforest!

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