Brisbane to Cairns is a classic east coast road trip that takes you through the best of Queensland’s most spectacular sights and attractions.
From the state capital of Brisbane in the south to the city of Cairns and the gateway to the tropics and reefs of Far North Queensland, an epic road trip across one of Australia’s most beautiful sections of coastline is awaiting the adventurous.
It’s no simple drive, however, and the distance from Brisbane to Cairns leaves over 1,000 miles to be covered, and that’s before you add in any spontaneous detours or unexpected stops.
Although you could cover the long distance in just over a week, we would recommend taking at least two weeks to fully enjoy the road trip. If you have even longer, then simply take your time and spend more days in each of Queensland’s fantastic destinations.
To help you to plan your trip along Australia’s east coast, here’s our Brisbane to Cairns road trip itinerary.
Recommendation: If you are renting a car for this Brisbane to Cairns road trip, make sure to check out Rentalcars.com. They search and compare rental prices from all major rental companies in Australia, so you can rest assured that you’re getting the best possible price on your rental car.
Best Time to Road Trip from Brisbane to Cairns
A road trip from Brisbane to Cairns is best undertaken during the dry season. Although southern areas in Queensland, such as Brisbane and Noosa, can be visited year round, Far North Queensland is extremely tropical and experiences massive rainfall and even dangerous cyclones during the wet season. The weather can close roads and completely flood towns and cities in the north, including Cairns, while trips out onto the Great Barrier Reef are unlikely to be running during adverse periods of bad weather.
The dry season runs from May through October and the wet season from November through April. Generally you can get away with traveling in the shoulder months such as March or November, as long as you stay informed about weather conditions and cyclones.
Things to Know About Driving from Brisbane to Cairns
Driving long distances in Australia can be challenging but it’s certainly doable. After all, thousands of people road trip around Australia every year. Here are few things to keep in mind when driving from Cairns to Brisbane or vise versa.
1. Don’t Underestimate Driving Times
The drive from Brisbane to Cairns really is a long journey to make, but it’s easy to underestimate the time needed for an enjoyable road trip. The distances involved are vast, and for visitors not used to driving such long distances between each destination, it can be daunting when you get on the road.
2. Stock Up on Water and Gas
The biggest thing to remember is to always stock up on water and to be mindful of your gas tank. There will be long distances between some gas stations, so always make sure you fill the tank up when you have the opportunity.
3. Get Roadside Assistance
Ensure that you also have adequate roadside assistance. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, it’s good to know that you can get help. If you have your own vehicle, then it’s easy to arrange coverage through Australia’s RAC. If you are renting, make sure you get this added on before you depart.
4. Avoid Driving at Night
Try to avoid driving at night in rural areas. Once the sun begins to set, Australia’s wildlife, most of which is nocturnal, begins to appear. Kangaroos will bound across the road without a care in the world and can cause damage and injury to cars and passengers in collisions.
5. Consider Camping
While there are plenty of accommodation options along the road between Cairns to Brisbane, you will also find that there are plenty of free and cheap camping options too, which can add a new element to your road trip. You can pick up cheap camping equipment in Brisbane, or you could even rent a campervan to function as both your transport and accommodation when on the road.
If you are not into camping, don’t worry, we have listed the best places to stay for each stop on this Brisbane to Cairns road trip itinerary for you below.
For more information on road safety in Australia check out this article.
The Ultimate Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip Itinerary
Our itinerary will take you through the most iconic towns and cities, the laid-back surfing community of Noosa, sandy Fraser Island, the colorful Whitsundays, the oldest rainforest in the world, and onto the largest barrier reef in the ocean.
However, before we get to our itinerary, we just wanted to remind you to purchase travel insurance. You never know what will happen and, trust us, you do not want to get stuck with thousands of dollars in medical bills. As a wise man once said, “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.” So don’t leave home without it.
We personally use and recommend SafetyWing. For only around $10 a week, it’s really a no-brainer. You can get a quick, non-binding quote below:
Now with that out of the way, let’s get this Brisbane to Cairns itinerary on the road already (pun intended)!
Start your Brisbane to Cairns road trip by spending some time in Queensland’s capital. Whether you’ve just flown in before the journey or if you’ve travelled north from New South Wales, there’s plenty of history, culture, and entertainment in Brisbane to keep you occupied while you prepare for the road trip to Cairns.
With beautifully warm weather all year round, take in the charming, sunny atmosphere found along the South Bank where you can enjoy great cafes, restaurants, and the refreshing open-air lagoon complete with its artificial beach which is open for swimming and bathing.
Take a cruise to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which is found along the river, and enjoy the tropical climates of the botanical gardens before taking off on the first section of your road trip from Brisbane to Cairns.
For more information check out our detailed Brisbane itinerary.
The Glasshouse Mountains
Just an hour north of Brisbane is one of Queensland’s most untouched national parks. Despite its proximity to the state capital, few visitors stop at the Glasshouse Mountains National Park. However, for those looking for spectacular scenery without crowds of tourists, it makes for the perfect first destination.
The national park includes a huge area of wilderness and farmland that’s punctuated by the dramatic sight of enormous volcanic plugs that rise abruptly from the ground. You can hike to the top of many of these unusual mountain peaks for incredible vistas over the rest of the surrounding Glasshouse Mountains.
Next, carry on north to the laid-back surfing community of Noosa. At the far end of the Sunshine Coast, Noosa is a lovely, relaxing town to visit.
For surfers, there are fantastic waves. Even if you aren’t into surfing, the beaches are white and sandy, and the surrounding coastline has some impressive hiking trails. There are some great cafes and bars by the beaches, and you can easily end up spending more time than you intended doing nothing at all.
Hervey Bay and Fraser Island
A two-hour drive north of Noosa will bring you to the town of Hervey Bay, which is the gateway to Fraser Island. This is the world’s largest sand island, and it’s an utterly unmissable destination when driving from Brisbane to Cairns by car.
The island is home to a unique ecosystem where rainforest is found growing from the sandy foundations alongside crystal clear, freshwater lakes that are perfect for swimming. If you have a four by four to tackle the sands – there are no roads on Fraser Island, except for the beach – then you can take the ferry from Hervey Bay. If not, then the only option is to join a tour, for example this amazing tour comes highly recommended. It’s certainly worth the expense to spend the day on Fraser Island.
5 Essential Packing Items for Australia
#1 Good Camera – Chances are you will be snapping pictures pretty much non-stop in Australia, so you really need a good camera to do its beauty justice. We highly recommend the Sony RX100 III. It’s super lightweight, compact, and the image quality is amazing.
#2 Good Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking around in Australia, so a good pair of shoes is really essential. Our go to shoes are Nike Free 5.0. They are comfortable, lightweight and sturdy. We pretty wear them all the time. We even hiked up multiple mountains/volcanoes with them.
#3 Good Guidebook – Lonely Planet guidebooks are still our favorites and their Australia edition is very thorough and a must for anybody traveling around Australia.
#4 Good Water Bottle – The sun can be brutal in Australia, so make sure to always carry a refillable water bottle with you. After all, tap water is drinkable in Australia, plus it’s free. Our favorite is the Klean Kanteen Classic Stainless Steel Water Bottle.
#5 Good Reef-Safe Sunscreen – Conventional sunscreen damages the reefs, so please make sure to get a good reef-safe sunscreen instead. The Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen works just as well as a regular sunscreen but without all the harmful chemicals.
Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Waters
Another three-hour drive along the coast and you will arrive at the small, coastal towns of Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Water. These communities are built where Captain Cook, in his voyage along the east coast of Australia, moored the Endeavour in 1770.
These charming places to visit have beautiful beaches that are long and almost always devoid of visitors. There are some wonderful mangroves to explore along the coast, while just over an hour away by boat is Lady Musgrave Island. This coral cay really marks the start of the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for many more hundreds of miles to Cairns.
Next up on the Brisbane to Cairns itinerary is the popular town of Airlie Beach, which is the jumping off point for the mesmerizing Whitsunday Islands. This is where the distances between destinations begin to increase. The drive from Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Waters to Airlie Beach will take the whole day, as you cover around 400 miles. By now, you will be almost two-thirds of the way to Cairns though.
From Airlie Beach, a bustling tourist town in the high season, you can join boat tours which go out into the nearby archipelago. There are day trips and overnight stays to the many islands, but the most iconic location is Whitehaven Beach, where pure white sand mixes with shallow, clear water to produce an almost unreal sight.
Recommendation: Experience the wonders of the Whitsundays on this full-day catamaran cruise from Airlie Beach. Sail azure waters, visit the famous Whitehaven Beach, walk to Hill Inlet, and snorkel the inner reef. A delicious BBQ lunch, beer and wine are all included.
Townsville is the largest city in Far North Queensland, and being located roughly halfway between Airlie Beach and Cairns makes it a great stopover. The city itself has a few interesting museums, however, the real attraction lies offshore.
From Townsville, catch the ferry across to Magnetic Island, a wildlife haven that’s surrounded by excellent scenery. You can find koalas on land and a great array of marine life in the waters. With lots of accommodation on the island, you may find yourself staying for a while.
After well over a thousand miles of driving, you will reach Cairns after one last four-hour stint on the road from Townsville. Cairns is Far North Queensland’s tourist hub, so settle in and be prepared to stay for at least a few days to explore everything there is to see.
There are some great things to do in Cairns, and while the city itself has some intriguing art galleries, museums, and some bustling night markets to enjoy, travelers make the long journey here to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
In peak season, boats leave daily for the reef. Depending on your destination, the ride can be as little as 45 minutes. You can snorkel, scuba dive, spend time on the tropical islands within the reef, or even spend the night on a pontoon under the stars.
Recommendation: Set sail to two exclusive, outer reef locations on a luxury, high-performance catamaran on this premium Great Barrier Reef cruise from Cairns. Spot turtles, colorful fish, exotic corals and more. The friendly crew are dedicated to making your trip memorable.
The Daintree Rainforest is found to the north of Cairns and can claim to be the oldest rainforest ecosystem in the world. This ancient place is beautiful but humid, and you can walk through mangrove boardwalks near the coast and search for crocodiles along the wide Daintree River. You can book a full-day tour to the Daintree Rainforest here.
And there you have it – the ultimate road trip itinerary. It’s a beautiful drive from Brisbane to Cairns by car and we are confident you will love it as much as we did.
Note: This itinerary is part of a much longer Melbourne to Darwin road trip. If you intend to road trip more of Australia’s east coast, make sure to also check out our other itineraries: Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Brisbane, Brisbane to Cairns, and Cairns to Darwin.