This post was first published in 2018 but has been updated in 2020 with the most recent information about – Brisbane to Cairns Drive Itinerary

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The stretch from Brisbane to Cairns is quintessentially Australian. On our Brisbane to Cairns road trip, we found the coastline dotted with beautiful beaches flanked only by palms trees and outstanding natural parks. Kangaroos, koalas, and wallabies were never too far off and neither was the Great Barrier Reef which is located just offshore.

brisbane to cairns
Noah Beach, Daintree National Park. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

The colorful cities and towns that stretch between Brisbane to Cairns never failed to offer us unique experiences, beautiful views, and a feeling of being truly connected to nature. 

However, when brainstorming east coast road trip ideas most people think of a Sydney to Brisbane drive as the only road trip you need to do in Australia. And while that road trip is fantastic we think a Brisbane to Cairns road trip is a must-do too! If there is a road trip to add to your list of things to do in Australia, then the drive from Brisbane to Cairns is it.

Places to Stop From Brisbane to Cairns 

Brisbane: 1-2 days

Brisbane may not be as hot and trendy as Sydney or Melbourne, but it used to be our home and we found a fair few spots worth checking out. Spend a few days in Brisbane before embarking on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip. 

Brisbane, Australia
View of the Brisbane CBD across the river
where to stay in Brisbane australia
South Bank Parklands, the heart and soul of Brisbane. Australia
Streets Beach, Southbank Parklands, Brisbane
Streets Beach, Southbank Parklands, Brisbane
Lone Pine Sanctuary which is one of the best day trips from Brisbane Queensland Australia
Feeding kangaroo at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

Things to Do in Brisbane:

  • Explore Brisbane’s Vibrant Neighbourhoods: Simply mingle with the locals at the South Bank Parklands or in the hippy neighbourhood of West End.
  • Get Active Around Brisbane: Explore Brisbane River, check out the Kangaroo Point Cliffs Park, go on a hike around Mt Coot-tha and cool off at the man-made beach.
  • Visit the Queensland Museum and Queensland Art Gallery: They offer a hearty dose of culture and are located a short walk away from each other in Brisbane’s Cultural Centre. 
  • Take a Stradbroke Island Day Tour: Take a day trip to the world’s second-largest sand island and its national park, controlled almost entirely by Aboriginal people.
  • Go on a Dolphin and Snorkel Cruise: It will be a busy day, packed full of whale- and dolphin-watching, a visit to the Moreton Bay Marine Park, and a snorkeling tour of the 14 ships that make up the Tangalooma Wrecks.
  • Take a Brisbane River Cruise and Koala Sanctuary Visit: Cruise your way along Brisbane’s waterfront and explore the marsupial sanctuary.
  • See the Best of Brisbane with a Segway Tour: If you are fed up with touring by 4 wheels, then hop on two wheels with a segway tour.

Where to Stay in Brisbane

  • Ovolo The Valley: This luxurious hotel is located in Fortitude Valley and should be added to your itinerary, Brisbane to Cairns for its environmental policy. They have a functional herb garden and beehive on the roof that acts as a food source for dishes and cocktails!

Noosa: 2-3 days

Brisbane to Noosa Drive: 144 kilometres // 1 hour 48 minutes

On the gorgeous Sunshine Coast on your Cairns to Brisbane road trip you’ll find the little town of Noosa Heads and neighboring Noosa National Park. You’ll find the streets of Noosa Heads lined with cute cafes, outstanding restaurants and original boutiques for the gangs of holidaymakers that head to the area.

Winch Cove, Noosa National Park
Winch Cove, Noosa National Park

But just like many of Australia’s coastal towns on a Brisbane to Cairns drive itinerary, the real reason visitors come to Noosa is not for the town itself (although it is great) but for its incredible natural surroundings. 

In the Noosa Region, you can expect to find great beaches with crystal clear blue waters, plenty of nature walks, and a chance to spot some of Australia’s iconic animals like koalas and kangaroos.

Start of the Coastal Walk in Noosa National Park
Start of the Coastal Walk in Noosa National Park
Things to do in Noosa, Queensland, Australia
Alexandria Bay Beach, Noosa National Park
On our way to Noosa Recreational Reserve for some sunset shots
On our way to Noosa Recreational Reserve for some sunset shots

Things to Do in Noosa:

  • Visit the Noosa Farmers Market: If you are there on a Sunday it is a must-do on any Brisbane to Cairns road trip.
  • Explore Noosa National Park: There are over 15 km of walking trails to explore within Noosa National Park and countless other beaches ripe for discovery so give yourself at least a few days to explore.
  • Go Kayaking in Sandy National Park: Paddle across Lake Cootharaba to Kinaba and go swimming in the Upper Noosa River. 
  • Take a Guided Tour of Noosa: If you are short on time, this is the perfect way to take in the top sights.
  • Go on Craft Brew Tour: Noosa has some of the best craft beer on the drive – Cairns to Brisbane. Sample local brews at 4 breweries and go behind the scenes to see how they are made.
  • Go Stand Up Paddleboarding: Learn a new skill and spot marine life around Double Island lagoons.

Where to Stay in Noosa

  • Peppers Noosa Resort & Villas: This 5 star resort is located steps from the beach. They implement solar energy and rainwater irrigation throughout the property.

Fraser Island (via Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay): 2-3 days

Noosa to Hervey Bay Drive: 159 kilometres // 2 hour
Noosa to Rainbow Beach Drive: 102 kilometres // 1 hour 20 minutes

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world and the only place in the world where the rainforest grows right out of the sand dunes. Plus we think it’s an experience that makes it into the top 10 things to do in Australia and a must-see on your Brisbane to Cairns self drive itinerary.

brisbane to cairns
Indian Head Lookout Fraser Island.

Hervey Bay is the most popular jumping-off point for trips to Fraser Island. However, you can leave your car at Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay and take the ferry to Fraser Island early in the morning. 

You can arrange a tour beforehand or explore the top attractions on your own. If you do decide to book a tour ensure that it is with a sustainable tour operator! Learn how to choose one here

We like this one day tour of Fraser Island. It will take you to some of the island’s most remote attractions. You’ll hike, snorkel, kayak and look out for whales!

Camping on Fraser Island: Lake Mackenzie, Fraser Island, Australia
Lake Mackenzie, Fraser Island

For something a little longer, this two day tour includes accommodation and will take you to explore the top sights on this leg of your travel from Brisbane to Cairns. Over the course of two days, you’ll see native wildlife including dingos, see 75 Mile Beach and more.

If you have even more time then consider this three day tour of Fraser Island. You’ll explore the top sights and stay at Kingfisher Resort – Fraser Island’s most eco-friendly resort

Camping on Fraser island: Champagne Pools, Fraser Island
Champagne Pools, Fraser Island

When you return to Hervey Bay, Hervey Bay to Cairns is will still take over 16 hours driving- you’re still at the beginning of your Brisbane to Cairns road trip!

Things to Do in Fraser Island

  • Explore 75 Mile Beach: This incredible sight serves as the island’s National Highway and is best explored in a 4WD. Keep your eyes out for dingoes as they frequently roam the beach!
  • Visit Lake Mackenzie: This large rainwater lake has a gorgeous white silica sandy beach
  • Climb up Indian Head: Expect beautiful views of 75 Miles beach and a chance to spot some wildlife. Sharks, dolphins, and turtles can be easily seen from the top.
  • Go Sailing: Lounge in the waters around Fraser Island and spot dolphins and other marine life along the way.
  • Go Whale Watching: Spot humpback whales up close on a whale watching catamaran and be treated to tea, coffee, and snacks.
  • Combine Sailing, Beach, and BBQ: Experience a classic Aussie BBQ and explore Fraser Island’s western beaches on a cruise atop a low carbon footprint vessel from Hervey Bay.

Where to Stay on Fraser Island

  • Kingfisher Bay Resort: this luxurious eco-resort is beachside and surrounded by nature. They offer a huge range of amenities and experiences plus they have won a number of prestigious ecotourism awards for their efforts.

Bundaberg: 1-2 days

Hervey Bay to Bundaberg Drive: 110 kilometres // 1 hour 15 minutes
Rainbow Beach to Bundaberg Drive: 204 kilometres // 2 hour 20 minutes

This small city is the next stop on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip. Bundaberg is located in close proximity to some of Australia’s most fertile farmlands so don’t miss out on sampling the in-season produce. All around the Bundaberg region you will find roadside produce stalls. Most of which operate on a heart-warming honesty box system.

Bundaberg Rum. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Brisbane to Bundaberg drive takes you slightly inland along the Burnett River and is about a 4-hour drive from Brisbane.

Bundaberg is perhaps most well-known for Bundaberg Brewed Drinks (Ginger beer!) and the Bundaberg Rum Distillery. In 2015, the latter was awarded the best rum in the world. 

Turtle hatchling in Mon Repos beach. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Things to Do in Bundaberg:

  • Tour Bundaberg Brewed Drinks or Bundaberg Rum Distillery: Both facilities offer fantastic tours complete with tastings.
  • Explore the Botanical Gardens: Over 10,000 trees and shrubs reside within the park. It is also the home of historical tourist attractions like the Hinkler Hall of Aviation, Fairymead House Sugar Museum, and the District Historical Museum so you’ll need at least one day to explore. 
  • Stroll by the Burnett River: There are a number of trails that run alongside the river.
  • Visit Mon Repos Conservation Park: During the summer months, hoards of turtles come to nest and hatch in Mon Repos Conservation Park but you’ll need to accompany a park ranger on a turtle encounter tour to see this incredible sight.

Where to Stay in Bundaberg

  • Kellys Beach Resort: This family-friendly eco-resort is eco-certified and offers 40 self-contained units. They have a comprehensive environmental policy and are located next to a nature reserve.

Agnes Water & 1770: 1-2 days

Bundaberg to Agnes Water Drive: 122 kilometres // 1 hour 20 minutes

70 km north of Bundaberg on your Cairns to Brisbane road trip, you’ll find the sweet little town of Agnes Water. This town and neighboring 1770 (yes, that’s the real town name) don’t experience the influx of tourists that other coastal towns in the area do, which only adds to their small-town charm. 

Agnes Water. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Things to do in Agnes Water and 1700: 

  • Watch the Sunset in 1700: It is one of the few places along your east coast road trip itinerary where you can watch the sunset dip below the water.
  • Relax on Anges Beach: You could spend days at Anges Beach sunbathing, swimming, or learning to surf.
  • Take a Hike: The natural surroundings are pristine and the beaches are just as incredible! There is an 8km trail which will take you along Agnes Main Beach to the 1770 Headland.
  • Visit the Agnes Water Museum: Spend a couple of hours here learning the history of Captain Cook’s visit to the area.

Where to Stay in Agnes Water

  • Sunrise at 1700: It was built on the concept of protecting future resources through ecologically sustainable development. All their units are self-contained and nestled in nature. This is the ultimate place to stay if you are looking for peace and tranquillity on your Brisbane to Townsville drive.

Cape Hillsborough: 1-2 days

Agnes Water to Cape Hillsborough Drive: 605 kilometres // 6 hours 50 minutes

If you haven’t yet spotted a roo or a wallaby on your Cairns to Brisbane road trip, then this is the place to do it. Every morning the local populations descend onto beautiful Casuarina Beach in Cape Hillsborough National Park to scour the beach for salty seafare. 

brisbane to cairns
Kangaroos on beach at sunrise, Cape Hillsborough. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

But once the sun has risen don’t rush back to your car to continue your trip. There are some interesting things to do on this leg of your Brisbane to Cairns itinerary.

Things to do in Cape Hillsborough:

  • Explore the trails at Cape Hillsborough National Park: There are 4 scenic trails which weave their way around the national park.
  • Visit Wedge Island: At low tide, you can walk from the mainland to Wedge Island. However, many people choose to kayak there instead. There are some great snorkel spots around the island. 
  • Stop by the Old Station Tea House: This tea house features prominently in the history of the town. Stop by to learn why.
  • Spend the day at Casuarina Beach: You have to see the roo’s at sunset or sunrise. But Casuarina Beach is also a great place to spend the day sunbathing and swimming.

Keep in mind it’s about a 7-hour drive from Agnes Water to Cape Hillsborough on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip so plan accordingly.

Where to Stay in Cape Hillsborough

The Feathered Nest: Located about 30 minutes from Cape Hillsborough National Park deep within the bush, the Feathered Nest offers one or two bedroom units. Sustainable practices are at the core of everything they do and they even have a black cockatoo breeding program on site.

Whitsundays (via Airlie Beach): 3-5 days

Cape Hillsborough to Airlie Beach Drive: 126 kilometres // 1 hours 30 minutes

Ditch your car at Airlie Beach and get your sea legs ready for a sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands. It is one of the most sustainable ways to see the Whitsunday islands and the ultimate stop on your east coast Australia road trip.

Ultimate guide for a Whitsundays tour!
Whitehaven Beach from above
romantic getaways australia that you should experience
Oksana and Max at Whitsundays

Snorkel the southern Great Barrier reef, visit iconic Whitehaven Beach, and appreciate the fact that someone else is driving for once. The whole area is heaven for sunbathing, swimming, and (perhaps unexpectedly) stargazing.

The Feathered Nest: Located about 30 minutes from Cape Hillsborough National Park deep within the bush, the Feathered Nest offers one or two bedroom units. Sustainable practices are at the core of everything they do and they even have a black cockatoo breeding program on site.

Whitsundays tour with Cruise Whitsundays
Snorkeling on the Whitsundays

Things to Do in the Whitsundays:

  • Go on a Guided Bushwalking tour: Learn about the local flora and fauna and experience incredible views of the Whitsunday Islands Passage.
  • Spend a Couple of Days at Sea: We spent a night on the Great Barrier Reef  and think its the best way to experience the reef without the crowds. Sleep under the stars, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and dine on gourmet food.  
  • Take a Scenic Flight: Experience the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from above. You’ll pass over heart reef and Whitehaven Beach.
  • Go on a Whitsundays Ocean Rafting Tour: This Advanced Eco-Certified tour takes guests on a speedboat ride to Whitehaven Beach, snorkelling, and is the only tour in the Whitsundays to have direct access to Hill Inlet beaches.
  • Go Sailing: This sailing tour of the Whitsundays includes all food and drinks including beer and wine. You’ll partake in a guided hike to Hill Inlet lookout, stop at Whitehaven beach, and go snorkelling.

Where to Stay in Airlie Beach

  • Airlie Beach YHA: Located in the heart of Airlie Beach, close to shops, restaurants and the beach. They offer both private and dorm rooms. Plus they are committed to reducing their environmental impact through a number of conservation initiatives.

Townsville (and Magnetic Island): 2-3 days

Airlie Beach to Townsville Drive: 275 kilometres // 3 hours 10 minutes

There is lots to do in and around Townsville. Nature, shopping, diving, and native animals – Townsville as it all!

It is only a 20-minute ferry ride to get to Magnetic Island from Townsville but if you want to save time on this leg of your Brisbane to Cairns trip then buy your roundtrip ferry ticket in advance.

The Brisbane to Townsville distance is undeniably long. The Townsville distance from Brisbane is nearly 15 hours but the distance Cairns to Townsville is just over 4 hours so you are well on your way to Cairns by now. 

Spend at least 2-3 days of your Brisbane to Cairns drive itinerary off the road in Townsville.

Magnetic Island Race Week. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Things to do in Townsville and Magnetic Island:

  • Walk up Castle Hill: Located in Townsville, Castle Hill offers great views of the city and the sea beyond
  • Go Diving: Explore diving at world-class shipwrecks around Townsville
  • Take the Forts Walk on Magnetic Island: This popular track takes you past incredible views and to explore World War 2 Fortifications. Koalas live in the trees along the way, so keep your eyes peeled for these cuddly creatures.
  • Visit Geoffrey Bay on Magnetic Island: Here you can spot the rock wallabies and just generally soak in the rocky coastline, beautiful beaches, and dry tropics.
  • Go Snorkelling: Visit secluded beaches around Magnetic Island and learn about marine life in the area.
  • Check out the North Queensland Army Museum: Learn about the Townsville’s unique military history at this interactive museum 
  • Go Shopping at the Stand: It is known for its great shops and dining establishments in Townsville.

Where to Stay on Magnetic Island

  • Bungalow Bay Koala Village: This hotel has received Advanced Accreditation with the Australian Eco-Tourism Association for their far-reaching environmental conservation practices. They are located 5 minutes from Horseshoe Bay and offer both private rooms and dorms. Plus they set up and continue to sponsor the wildlife rescue program on Magnetic Island!

Optional Lunch Stop: Wallaman Falls 

Townsville to Wallaman Falls Drive: 162 kilometres // 2 hours 20 minutes

It’ll add an extra 2 hours to your drive to Cairns from Brisbane but we think it’s worth it. Wallaman Falls is Australia’s awe-inspiring, highest single drop waterfall.

Wallaman Falls. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Mission Beach 2-3 days

DETOUR: Wallaman Falls to Mission Beach Drive: 174 kilometres // 2 hours 22 minutes
Townsville to Mission Beach Drive: 235 kilometres // 2 hours 45 minutes

Not only is the 14 km of sandy beaches at Mission Beach impressive but it is also the closest mainland landmass to the Great Barrier Reef. Make time for a stop at Mission Beach on your Brisbane to Cairns campervan itinerary. 

Mission Beach has become a haven for adrenaline junkies, heading on a Brisbane to Cairns tour, and now offers skydiving, white water rafting, and mountain biking for those thrill-seekers. 

Cycling on Mission Beach. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Things to Do in Mission Beach:

  • Walk the tropical Ulysses Track: This short 1.5 km track has been named after the pretty blue Ulysses butterflies which frequent the trail.
  • Hike to Bicton Hill: This 4km hike has impressive reef views
  • Spot Cassowary birds: These dinosaur looking birds frequent the Mission Beach
  • Spend the day at Dunk Island: Located just 4 km offshore, take a water taxi there, and spend the day exploring the lush rainforest and coral reef fringing the island. 
  • Go Snorkeling or Diving at the Great Barrier Reef: You’ll visit two dive sites away from the crowds to discover why the Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO site.
  • Go Skydiving: Get your heart pumping with a tandem skydive from 15,000 ft and land on the beautiful Mission Beach
  • Hit the Town: Surely you’ll have worked up an appetite after a big day out so you are in luck. Mission Beach has a great gastronomy scene and lots of places to party afterward.
Views from helicopter. Great Barrier Reef. Photo credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Where to Stay in Mission Beach

  • Sanctuary: It is part eco-lodge, part yoga retreat, and all awesome. Sanctuary is located on 50 acres of pristine, beachfront, rainforest. It was designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding rainforest and is a registered Nature Refuge which is frequented by native animals. They offer adults-only cabins and specialise in locally sourced dishes.

Cairns: 2-3 days

Mission Beach to Cairns Drive: 139 kilometres // 1 hour 45 minutes

You’ve made it to your final stop on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip but there is still lots to explore. First get your caffeine fix from Blackbird Espresso which has been awarded the third best cafe in Australia by Beanhunter. 

Reefsleep, the most sustainable great barrier reef tours
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Things To Do in Port Douglas
Explore the Great barrier Reef in Port Douglas by boat

Then book one of the tours leaving Cairns daily to see the Great Barrier Reef– if you haven’t already seen it from Airlie Beach or want to see it again (and again and again). 

Explore the Daintree National Park inland, chow down on fresh local seafood and verse yourself on Aboriginal culture. 

Things to Do in Cairns:

Where to Stay in Cairns

  • Villa Marine: They are Cairns only platinum green leader hotel and were Cairns’s first solar-powered hotel. They offer a wide range of eco-apartments and great facilities. Villa Marine backs onto tropical gardens, and a nature reserve, and is located just 50 meters from the beach.

Brisbane to Cairns Distance and Drive Time

Cairns to Brisbane Distance:

The distance from Brisbane to Cairns is 1,915 km if you follow the coastline. However, if you drive straight, the distance – Brisbane to Cairns – is 1,684 km but you will miss some of the top attractions that make road trips from Brisbane so special.  

Distance from Brisbane to Cairns Driving Time:

Our Cairns to Brisbane drive time was just over 23 hrs. As mentioned, the Cairns to Brisbane distance is shorter if you don’t follow the coast and would result in your road trip averaging around 19 hours. However that distance, Cairns to Brisbane, misses the top Brisbane to Cairns road trip attractions!

Short on Time for Your Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip?

We understand the driving distance Brisbane to Cairns is long but don’t fret. You can still experience the Brisbane to Cairns drive even if you don’t have the luxury of 3+ weeks. Here is our advice:

  • Pick and choose the stops that interest you the most on your Brisbane to Cairns road trip. If you only have 2 weeks, cut your number of stops. Don’t try to squeeze in everything. It’s not an episode of the Amazing Race.
  • You can split your Brisbane to Cairns road trip into two by doing the Brisbane to Agnes Water section or the Cape Hillsborough to Cairns section separately. 
  • Reduce the number of days you spend in each town
  • Consider driving in early mornings to cover the distance from Cairns to Brisbane while avoiding wasting the day on the road

FAQ’s

Are there spots to camp when we campervan Brisbane to Cairns? 

Yes, there are lots of camping spots along this stretch of coastline. For low cost and free campsites along your Brisbane to Cairns road trip visit the Queensland Government’s Parks & Forests resource page. Or for camping in your campervan Brisbane to Cairns on Fraser Island, read everything you need to know about Fraser Island camping.

How long is the Brisbane to Whitsundays drive? What is the Drive Time from Brisbane to Airlie Beach?

The Whitsundays are one of the most iconic tourist destinations in Australia and a popular stop on a Brisbane to Cairns road trip. Airlie Beach is the gateway to Whitsundays. The Brisbane to Airlie Beach drive time is about 12 and a half hours. A Brisbane to Airlie Beach road trip is 1098 km long. Many people consider a Brisbane to Airlie Beach road trip one of the best road trips from Brisbane. 

Can you suggest any more town to add to a Brisbane to Cairns road trip?

If you have more time we would suggest you add Mackay to your trip. It is located just before Cape Hillsborough. You can take a trip to see the Great Barrier reef, explore the coastline or head inland to Eungella National Park which has a thriving population of rare frogs and platypus.

The distance from Brisbane to Mackay is almost 1050 km and covering the Brisbane to Mackay distance will take just over 12 hours. Along the Brisbane to Mackay drive, you’ll pass Rockhampton

Rockhampton is a small town with country charm. If you have more days to add to your Brisbane to Cairns drive time then add Rockhampton to your Brisbane to Cairns self drive itinerary as well. 

The town is known for its antique cars and Dreamtime Cultural Centre which features aboriginal cultural displays, plus replica sandstone caves. The Brisbane to Rockhampton drive is about 7 hours.

Is there a Brisbane to Cairns train? How long is the train trip from Brisbane to Cairns?

Yes, the Spirit of Queensland is a 24-hour train that takes you from Brisbane to Cairns. The Brisbane to Cairns train is a sustainable alternative to a Brisbane to Cairns road trip. It takes away the hassle of driving and allows you to stop in many of the same places when compared to a Brisbane to Cairns self drive itinerary.

A Brisbane to Cairns road trip is filled with national parks, beautiful reefs and friendly people. If you have time for it, we can’t recommend a Brisbane to Cairns road trip enough!

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