The Pacific Coast way is a scenic route linking Far North Queensland with the state’s capital, Brisbane. The route is extremely popular among tourists, both local and international, driving from Cairns to Brisbane or vice versa. And this is with good reason.
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane, you can witness some of the east coast’s most spectacular landscapes stretching over 1700km. From the Great Barrier Reef, inland rock pools and waterfalls to rainforests and gorges, the natural attractions are plentiful and it can be easy to miss some if you don’t plan carefully. So, if you are driving from Cairns to Brisbane, use this helpful guide to maximise your experience and make sure you don’t miss a thing!
This itinerary can be done in reverse, as well, starting from Brisbane. We’ve given a rough estimate of how long we think you should spend in each spot, so just adjust that according to your own time constraints. Happy Travelling!
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Cairns 3 – 4 Days
Cairns is in and of itself a popular destination in Australia and deserves at least 3 or 4 days of your time. During your Cairns to Brisbane road trip, make sure you check out the suburbs of Port Douglas and Palm Cove for stunning beaches. For a more inland experience, check out Kuranda, a mountain village with access to the impressive Barron Falls and the Atherton Tablelands where the rolling green hills will mesmerize you.
Cairns is also one of the gateways to the Great Barrier Reef which a World Heritage Site and a must-see if you’re visiting Australia. You can take a half-day, full-day or overnight trip out onto the reef, where there are over 600 different types of coral. This should be followed by a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Daintree Rainforest, where the tropical wilderness meets the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean. The rainforest can be explored by car, by foot or by zipline! You might even spot a cassowary!
As each one of these places takes at least a day to fully appreciate, you can see why 4 days in Cairns during your Cairns to Brisbane roadtrip is only just enough to scrape the surface of what Far North Queensland has to offer.
Where To Stay In Cairns When Driving from Cairns to Brisbane
The most popular place to stay in Cairns is Gilligan’s Backpacker’s Resort (from $18 per night). There is a restaurant, bar, pool and great prices on food and drinks for guests. They can also organize all your tour needs.
Rusty’s Market, operating from Thursday to Sunday, is located right beside Gilligan’s (Gillies) and is a great place for trying exotic fruit and local delicacies.
If you have extra time, consider checking out these wonderful spots in Cairns and the surrounding area:
– Millaa Milaa Falls Circuit (including Millaa Millaa, Zillie, Ellinjaa, Pepina and Mungali Falls)
– Undara Lava Tubes (camping from $20 per night and tours from $60)
– Granite Gorge Nature Park ($13 for day admission)
– The Pyramid Mountain Climb (free)
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Cairns to Townsville ( 1 – 2 days)
Townsville is located approximately 350km south of Cairns, about 4 hours’ drive. However, there is lots to see and do on the way so we would recommend spreading the trip over at least two days. This way, you’ll be able to make the most of your trip driving from Cairns to Brisbane without regretting any missed opportunities!
Just south of Cairns are some great places to check out; Babinda Boulders (free entry) and Josephine Falls (free entry). Both spots have crystal clear swimming holes and lovely walking paths through the rainforest. Babinda Boulders offers stunning views over some ancient rock formations. Allow at least 30 minutes for each area, more if you’ll be swimming. Don’t forget to check out Babinda Bakery for some delicious treats.
Further south of Cairns you will find hidden gems such as Paronella Park, Etty Bay, Mission Beach and Cardwell.
Paronella Park is a huge complex of historical buildings that were built by a Spanish migrant in the area. It boasts some beautifully restored structures and shaded pathways that wind between giant Kauri trees. Just gorgeous. Entry costs $46 and includes a 24-month pass.
Etty Bay is a hidden paradise about 105km (90 minutes) south of Cairns. The small beach is peaceful, secluded and home to the Southern Cassowary. You can literally see them strolling along the side of the road here. There are some lovely cabins right on the seaside that would make for a perfect stopover.
Mission Beach is a similar spot slightly more south (140km) of Cairns. It also offers great beaches, cassowaries and camping.
Whether you choose Etty Bay or Mission Beach, do be sure to check out Murdering Point Winery. It’s just off the highway and offers delicious wines, ports and liqueurs made from locally grown exotic fruits.
Last but not least is Cardwell. A small, sleepy town that has lots to offer. You could check out Attie Creek with its impressive waterfall and Cardwell Spa Pool that is a natural jacuzzi. Bird lovers will enjoy TYTO Wetlands where many native and rare bird species can be spotted.
South of Innisfail is an interesting 6km circuit to Nandroya Falls and back. As part of the 3-hour hike, you’ll explore Wooroonoonan National Park and will be rewarded with a lovely swim under the falls.
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane, or vice versa, can’t be done without stopping at a mango farm! If you are a fruit lover, then it might be worth pulling into Frosty Mango, a small café-type set up that offers a lot of mango-based products and ice-creams of all tropical flavours!
If You Have Extra Time
If you have extra time when driving from Cairns to Townsville, consider checking out these wonderful spots:
– Mamu Canopy Walk ($25)
– Paragliding or Skydiving are popular in these areas
– Wallaman Falls (286m)
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Townsville – 3 days
Townsville is a smaller version of Cairns but it still offers a nice esplanade, access to the reef and there is plenty to see and do. That’s why we recommend you spend at least two days in Townsville when driving from Cairns to Brisbane.
Make sure you get to ‘The Strand’ for some great picnic stops. A walk (or drive if you’re too tired) up Castle Hill is a must do for anyone visiting The Ville as well. The sunrise and sunset shots from here are especially good.
The big draw-card for Townsville is its close proximity to Magnetic Island. Only 25 minutes off the mainland, the island is home to full moon parties and general festivities. But it also boasts 23 bays and beaches and some unique Australian wildlife with plenty of walking trails. Day trips and overnight stays can be organized from as little as $56. It’s well worth it.
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Townsville – Airlie Beach – 1 day
When driving form Cairns to Brisbane, you absolutely must stop at Airlie Beach. It is 275km (about 3 hours) south of Townsville and an absolute mecca for tourists. Airlie Beach is your main access point for Australia’s renowned Whitsunday Islands.
The drive to Airlie Beach can be broken up with a stop in Bowen, a quiet oceanside town with very few tourists. Check out Horseshoe Bay and conquer the Rotary Lookout to stretch your legs.
However, if you’re looking for a real treat, then just before Airlie Beach, turn off to Dingo Beach and Cape Gloucester. This is a gorgeous and surprisingly underdeveloped part of Queensland. The coastal scenery and some great spots for lunch make it the perfect place to stop before Airlie Beach.
Airlie Beach 3 days
Airlie Beach is a small piece of heaven on the coast of Queensland. You could easily spend a few weeks here, or even a lifetime. Whatever your plans are, make sure you allocate a few days to exploring the beauty of the 74 Whitsundays. You can book a one-hour scenic flight over the Whitsunday Islands or explore the reef via snorkel. You might even see manta rays and whales!
Whitehaven Beach, found on Whitsunday island itself, is a spectacular mix of white sand, turquoise water and dense forest. It can be reached by ferry on a day trip from Airlie Beach. Just north of this beach you will find Hill Inlet, the perfect spot for gazing out over the Whitsundays.
Another exceptional area to check out is Coral Beach. A short drive from Airlie Beach itself, this area offers lots of walking tracks, one of which leads you right out onto a beach made entirely of coral. These spots are way quieter than the main beaches found in town, so grab your togs and sunscreen and get ready to enjoy the Queensland sun!
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Airlie Beach to Cape Hillsborough – 1 day + 1 night
Once you’ve had your fill of surf and sand, you can continue your journey south to the wonderful place of Cape Hillsborough. The trip is about 126km and takes 1.5 hours.
What’s so special about Cape Hillsborough? Well, not much. Just the chance to see a local ranger feeding kangaroos on the beach every morning. Yep, you read right. Watching the sun rise over the beach with these friendly little guys is about as good as it gets! There isn’t much else to do at Cape Hillsborough, so switch off your phone and enjoy the serenity this pocket has to offer.
If you’re keen to get out and about, Cape Hillsborough National Park offers some great short walks through dense native bushland.
Staying at Cape Hillsborough will ensure you get to thoroughly enjoy what the place has to offer. You can camp at Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park from $25 or get one of their more luxurious rooms starting from $60.
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Cape Hillsborough to Mackay – 1 day
On your way to Mackay, it’s worth doing a little detour to explore Eungella National Park. The park itself is located quite high on a misty mountain clad with forest. It offers spectacular views over the surrounding plains and is also one of Queensland’s most ecologically diverse parks; lots of birds, frogs and trees to keep an eye out for.
This is also one of the best places to spot a platypus! You can take a 30-minute stroll or venture out for the full day depending on how much time you have. If you’re a keen walker, you can try the 56km Mackay Highlands Great Walk. A great place to watch the sunset is Sky Window.
Driving from Cairns to Brisbane: Mackay – 2 days
You have made it! Half-way through your trip driving from Cairns to Brisbane. The beautiful seaside town of Mackay marks the half-way point. Mackay itself is in the centre of sugar-cane-growing country so expect lots of scenic views from the car seat.
In addition to being another great spot from which to access the Whitsundays (Think Heron Island and Hamilton Island), Mackay city has a lot to offer.
First and foremost, it’s time to try what the area is famous for. Sugar! Sarina Sugar Shed will give you an informative tour on the history of production in the area and you’ll also be able to try a huge range of products made using the sweet stuff. Think liqueurs, schnapps, ginger beer, gourmet sauces and fairy floss!
Make sure you don’t miss out on Mackay’s gorgeous scenery. If you missed Eugnella National Park on the way to Mackay, you can make a day-trip out of it and visit Pioneer Valley. There are also a tonne of walking tracks in the National Park which will take to to Araluen waterfall and Wheel of Fire Cascades where there are rockpools spread throughout the lush rainforest.
So, you are halfway through your road trip and have already experienced so much! But it’s not over yet. Time to hit the road and complete the second leg of your Cairns to Brisbane road trip! Buckle up and check out the second part of this article for great tips on how to make the most of the second leg.
Check out Part 2 of the drive HERE.
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