brisbane to cairns

Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip Itinerary: Essential Stops

Last updated:

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure

Plan the ultimate Brisbane to Cairns road trip itinerary with these essential stops for your Brisbane to Cairns drive. Stop at each of them or just a few, and experience some of the most beautiful places along the Queensland coast.

Brisbane to Cairns is a must-do Australian road trip itinerary, with something to love for all ages. Whether you are kicking off your road trip with kids, with friends or going solo, the hardest part will be deciding how long to spend at each stop!

brisbane to cairns road trip stops

Driving Brisbane To Cairns or Cairns To Brisbane

You can do this road trip in either direction, or do a complete loop from Brisbane to Cairns and back, or vice versa.

If you are doing a return trip between the two cites, you can easily plan your road trip stops to see some of these places on the way there and others on the way back.

How long do I need for a Brisbane to Cairns road trip?

A minimum of 2 weeks is recommended to travel between Brisbane and Cairns if you wish to stop at several places along the way. For a perfect itinerary, 3 weeks will allow you to take your time and stay longer at each stop.

Choosing Your Transport

To drive from Brisbane to Cairns, you can choose either car or campervan. There are perks with each and both are great options.

If you have your own transport, taking the car is an easy option. Load it up with your luggage, summer gear and some road trip meals, and away you go.

If you don’t have your own car, you can easily hire one to drive Brisbane to Cairns return. Or if short on time, take a hire car one way and fly home from Cairns instead!

Alternatively, a campervan means you’ve got your mode of transport and your accommodation in one! This can be a budget friendly alternative to finding hotels at each stop.

Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip Itinerary

Distance Between Brisbane To Cairns Stops

If you were to drive from Brisbane to Cairns direct, without stops, it will take more than 19 hours of driving. But where’s the fun in that!

These are the approximate distances between each of the main stops we will be covering in this Brisbane to Cairns driving itinerary to help you plan your stops.

Please note these times may differ depending on road conditions, road works, and other unexpected occurrences that may cause delays.

  • Brisbane to Sunshine Coast: 109 km | 1 hour 22 minutes
  • Sunshine Coast to Hervey Bay: 200km | 2 hours 13 minutes                        
  • Hervey Bay to Bundaberg: 110 km | 1 hour 20 minutes                         
  • Bundaberg to Agnes Waters: 122 km | 1 hour 25 minutes                    
  • Agnes Waters to Yeppoon: 265 km | 3 hours 8 minutes                         
  • Yeppoon to Mackay: 354 km | 3 hours 46 minutes                                     
  • Mackay to Airlie Beach: 150 km | 1 hour 46 minutes                               
  • Airlie Beach to Bowen: 79 km | 1 hour                                
  • Bowen to Townsville: 203 km | 2 hours 25 minutes
  • Townsville to Mission Beach: 235 km | 2 hours 50 minutes   
  • Mission Beach to Cairns: 139 km | 1 hour 50 minutes

Where to Stop On Your Queensland Road Trip

These recommended stops for your Queensland road trip are some of the best sights, scenery and attractions along the Queensland coast. Each offers something unique and each is well worth a visit if you have time for them all.

If not, we’ve helped you decide on your essential stops between Cairns and Brisbane, so you can plan your perfect itinerary:

Brisbane

southbank brisbane

Distance from Cairns 1684 KM

If you are visiting Brisbane for the first time. Or simply looking to spend a few days in the city before kicking off your road trip, you will find plenty of fun things to do.

Brisbane is a laid back city that is fairly easy to get around, with public transport getting you between the major attractions.

Enjoy a family day out at Southbank Parklands, pictured above, to swim in the Lagoon or man-made beach, right alongside the Brisbane River.

Or ride the Wheel of Brisbane for city views.

On weekends, take the Citycat ferry to Eat Street Markets for delicious international food and entertainment. Or head to one of Brisbane’s many microbreweries.

For Australian wildlife encounters, head to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, not too far out of the city, for a fun day trip from Brisbane.

For the ultimate views, climb the Brisbane Story Bridge on dusk so you can experience it both by daylight and as the city lights come alive.

WHERE TO STAY: For central accommodation, try Meriton Suites Hershel Street Street or Stamford Plaza Brisbane. Or stay at one of these top 10 Brisbane Airbnb rentals.

WHERE TO EAT: For cheap eats, check out Cafe O-Mai for Asian inspired meals. For mid-price dining, check out MADO Cafe & Restaurant, or Betty’s Burgers.

Sunshine Coast

noosa road trip stop between brisbane and cairns

Distance from Brisbane 109 KM | Distance from Cairns 1594 KM

For stunning postcard-perfect beaches, lush tropical hinterland and a range of fun-filled attractions, a few days on the Sunshine Coast is a must for your Brisbane to Cairns road trip. 

Spend your days swimming in the warm ocean, exploring spectacular national parks and visiting numerous family-friendly attractions and markets.

When coming to the Sunshine Coast, most people tend to base themselves in one of the many coastal towns. 

Some favourites include Caloundra, Coolum and Noosa.  Choose from stunning resorts filled with first-class facilities. Or pitch a tent in one of the best camping Sunshine Coast spots

Whether you’re after a surf or calm waters, there is something for everyone on the Sunshine Coast.

Once you’ve had your fill of basking in the sun, head inland to explore some of the stunning Sunshine Coast National Parks. 

Some favourites include the Glass House Mountains, Kondalilla and Conondale National Parks

In fact, you don’t even need to leave the beach to explore a national park as arguably one of the best is the Noosa National Park, which combines stunning tropical rainforest with some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches.

The Sunshine Coast is also filled with some great attractions.  This is home to the world-famous Australia Zoo, where you will see Australian native animals, including some of the state’s biggest crocodiles. 

Other attractions on the Sunshine Coast include Sea Life, The Ginger Factory, Aussie World and the super cool Eumundi Markets.

The only problem with a stop over on the Sunshine Coast on your way from Brisbane to Cairns is you may well never want to leave!

WHERE TO STAY:  Stay in Noosa at Peppers Noosa Resort & Villas or RACV Noosa Resort.

WHERE TO EAT:  Fish and Chips on one of the many stunning beaches in the area.

-Melissa from Camping Essentials

Hervey Bay

whale watching in hervey bay

Distance from Brisbane 289 KM | Distance from Cairns 1449 KM

The best place to see humpback whales on a road trip between Brisbane and Cairns is in Hervey Bay, which is only about a 3.5-hour drive from Brisbane. 

Hervey Bay is where pods of humpback whales stop to rest and play while on their return journey from Queensland’s north, back to Antarctica.

From late July to October, humpback whales arrive in the waters of the Great Sandy Straits and Hervey Bay whale watching is an incredible experience.

Some whale pods stay for a few days while others swim and play in this region for up to two weeks. There are several whale-watching boats to choose from and the industry is well-organised.

Adventure seekers and wildlife lovers will want to experience swimming with humpback whales is a new experience recently introduced by several boat operators in Hervey Bay.

If you’re not able to visit during whale watching season, it’s still worth stopping in Hervey Bay.

Wander around Urangan marina and soak up the views, enjoy a fresh seafood meal or take a detour to historic Maryborough.

Maryborough is about a 30-minute drive from Hervey Bay and is worth visiting for its museums and street art. 

WHERE TO STAY: If you love boats, Urangan Marina is the best place to stay. Booking an apartment with a view of the marina is a great way to watch the whale watching all boats coming and going.

Mantra Hervey Bay and Breakfree Great Sandy Straits are our top picks.

WHERE TO EAT:  The Dock at Hervey Bay is an excellent spot for seafood by the seaside and convenient if you’re staying at Urangan Marina. Bayswater Bar & Grill is an excellent place to go for a bistro meal.

-Christina from Travel2Next

Bundaberg

bundaberg gardens

Distance from Brisbane 362 KM | Distance from Cairns 1354 KM

Bundaberg is a surprising stop that is great for visiting with kids. It’s essentially a big country town with some really beautiful places and fun attractions.

The best thing about Bundaberg is how much you can do on a budget. There are plenty of free or cheap things to do in Bundaberg, including a free zoo and a petting farm at Alexandra Park.

The Bundaberg Brewed Drinks factory tour is a load of fun, sampling all their ginger beer flavours. Or for grown-ups, the Bundaberg Rum distillery tour.

Woodgate Beach is a beautiful stretch of coastline. For gardens, eel and turtle spotting, a visit to the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens is a must.

And during turtle season, between November and March, you can see the Mon Repos turtles hatching.

WHERE TO STAY: BIG 4 Cane Village Holiday Park is great for families.

WHERE TO EAT: Try White China Chinese Restaurant or find a variety of options at The Waves Sports Club.

Agnes Water & Town of 1770

agnes water beach

Distance from Brisbane 480 KM | Distance from Cairns 1292 KM

Agnes Water and Town of 1770 are popular tourist spots, known for their breathtaking scenery and stunning coastline.

If you love hiking, there are some incredible walking tracks, such as the 3-kilometre Red Rock Trail coastal hike, ending with rock pools and a chance to have a swim.

Learn about local history on an iconic pink LARC amphibious tour bus. It will take you across land and water while you sit back and enjoy the ride.

Or get out on the water and go kayaking, or enjoy any of the other water activities on offer.

WHERE TO STAY: Book an Airbnb rental for a home away from home.

WHERE TO EAT: Try Cafe Discovery At Agnes or Getaway Garden Cafe.

Yeppoon & Byfield National Park

byfield national park near yeppoon
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Distance from Brisbane 657 KM | Distance from Cairns 1088 KM

If you want a day for swimming, fishing, exploring, or maybe camping, then check out this spot. 

Byfield National park is situated about 30 mins north of Yeppoon along the coast of Queensland.

It’s easy enough to head into the park for the day. Or choose a number of different spots for some cheap camping.

If you’re heading in for the day, Yeppoon is a quiet little beachside town, perfect for all your restaurant and accommodation needs.

For Byfield itself, you will need to take all your own food and drinks for the time spent there.

The main draw card for this location will be taking a dip in the beautiful Upper Stony Creek. Set amongst some natural bushland surrounded by a pine eucalypt bushland, this freshwater swimming hole is sure to impress.

The creek is slow running and perfect for families, with a day-use area equip with barbeques, tables and bathroom facilities.

There is also a short walk through the forest, along the creek, where you can watch out for wallabies and other local wildlife.

Most of Byfield National Park can be accessed by a normal 2 wheel drive vehicle but taking a 4 wheel drive will open up the number of different spots you can visit and things to do. 

This includes Sandy Point, where you can go for beach swimming with the perfect white sand and fishing right offshore.

Keep your eye out along the beach too, as there is a number of large sea birds living in the area and you can often see them flying by.

WHERE TO STAY: Stay at Echelon Apartments in Yeppoon or Ferns Hideaway Resort in Byfield.

WHERE TO EAT: Megalomania Bar & Bistro

-Chris from Aquarius Traveller

Mackay

mackay beaches

Distance from Brisbane 953 KM | Distance from Cairns 735 KM

Mackay is a perfect gateway to the Whitsundays, which is often what makes it a popular place to stop.

While there aren’t a lot of attractions in Mackay itself, it is a beautiful town with stunning coastline and plenty of great eats and drinks for a bit of chill out time.

Kids will love the free water park and pools – The Bluewater Lagoon. There are also plenty of walkways and playgrounds to enjoy in the area.

Lambert’s Beach is a beautiful spot to enjoy the scenery and have a swim in the ocean. Or just take a stroll.

For longer stays, take a day trip to Eungella National Park where you may be lucky enough to spot a platypus in the wild.

WHERE TO STAY: BIG 4 Mackay Marine Tourist Park

WHERE TO EAT: The Dispensary or grab yourself a Byrne’s Pie for a quick meal on the go. Or grab fish and chips at the Lighthouse Seafood Restaurant.

Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays

Whitehaven beach

Distance from Brisbane 1098 KM | Distance from Cairns 621 KM

Airlie Beach is a must-see on a road trip from Cairns to Brisbane. This little coastal town is famous for being the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. 

There is no shortage of things to do in Airlie Beach. You will find a plethora of Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef tours and some fun activities in town.

If you want to relax and shop for a day, head to Airlie lagoon and walk around the streets in town. You will find all sorts of beach shops, restaurants and bars. Food is delicious in Airlie. If you love seafood, you are in for a treat! 

No matter what, you must visit the Whitsundays and the reef during your stay in Airlie.

The best way to explore the Whitsunday islands is by boat. You can go on a sailing cruise during which you will get to discover Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet, go snorkelling on the Outer reef or even kayaking near Hook Island.

Another great way to see how beautiful and the huge size of the reef is to go on a scenic flight. You will be flying above Airlie, Whitehaven, Hamilton Island, the Great Barrier Reef and even get to see the stunning heart reef!

Of course, who says Great Barrier Reef says scuba diving. If you have your PADI, you can hop on one of the boats from Airlie to the Outer reef. If you are not certified, you can also opt for a snorkelling trip with a scuba diving introduction in the Whitsundays.

Finally, Airlie Beach is one of the best places in Australia to go skydiving!

You will get to enjoy the beautiful views over the islands while experiencing the thrill of a 30-second freefall!

WHERE TO STAY: Airlie Beach Hotel

WHERE TO EAT: Fat Frog Cafe

-Pauline from Beloved City

Bowen

brisbane to cairns road trip itinerary

Distance from Brisbane 1141 KM | Distance from Cairns 549 KM

If you are searching for stunning Whitsunday beach locations then Bowen is the perfect destination for your holiday, and with eight beautiful beaches to choose from you are bound to find something to suit your budget.

The most beautiful beach of them all is Horseshoe Bay, which regularly makes it on to the best beaches in Australia list.

The small cove is protected on both sides by granite outcrops. This makes it perfect for young families to swim.

Also, a perfect location for snorkelling and diving as the outcrops provide a safe haven for fish and coral.

Horseshoe Bay is also the starting point of the Cape Edgecumbe Walking Trail. It takes about an hour to complete and goes via the beaches of Murray Bay and Rose Bay.

As well as swimming, snorkelling and diving, other popular water sports in Bowen are fishing and jet skiing.

Grays Bay is a popular location with boaties as it has a two-lane boat ramp. 

If you plan to do some shore fishing then there are plenty of options: the rocks at the southern end of Kings Beach, the rocky outcrops at Horseshoe, Grays Bay and Rose Bay as well as the Bowen Jetty.

Swimming in North Queensland can often be dangerous. If you plan to visit between November and May, you should wear a full-body stinger suit, to avoid being stung by the Box Jellyfish or Irukandji jellyfish, both of which can be deadly.

Before you leave Bowen, make sure you taste a delicious Bowen Mango.

Fans of ‘Big Things’ should head over to Bowen Visitor Information Centre for a selfie with the Big Mango.

WHERE TO STAY: Horseshoe Bay Resort, Coral Cove Apartments or Whitsunday Sands Resort are great places to stay in Bowen.

WHERE TO EAT: Le Sorelle Coffee House, The Cove Restaurant and Grand View Hotel all offer great meals.

-Susan from Thrifty After 50

Townsville

magnetic island road trip stop

Distance from Brisbane 1338 KM | Distance from Cairns 347 KM

If you are looking for road trip stops between Brisbane to Cairns, Townsville is a natural choice.

The largest city after you leave the Sunshine Coast, Townsville has a country town feel while still having access to plenty of services and is a cheaper place to hang out than its northern cousin in Cairns.

Townsville somewhat feels like you are at the start of the Outback. There is far less vegetation here, big rocky mountains and orange-red rocks.

These rocks look stunning next to the aqua water and great beaches. It’s a very pretty spot.

There’s also plenty to do here. Some must-dos are a trip up Castle Hill for views over Townsville.

Castle hill townsville brisbane to cairns road trip itinerary

You’ll also want to spend some time on The Strand which is a walkway by the beach which runs by a pool, water playground, parks, jetty and cafes.

The Strand is also home to a regular night market. It’s the perfect place to hang out and enjoy Townsville. 

Other places worth visiting are the Museum of Tropical Queensland to learn about life in the tropics and the Great Barrier Reef and Reef HQ, the world’s largest living reef aquarium.

If you haven’t visited the Great Barrier Reef yet, you can do so from Townsville.

A day trip to Magnetic Island is also worth the time.

WHERE TO STAY: Park Regis Anchorage. This hotel is in a great spot, walking distance to many attractions. There are two pools and the choice of apartment-style accommodation or townhouses.

WHERE TO EAT: Longboard Bar & Grill. This surf-themed bar right on the headland at the Strand is in a great spot and has a menu of fusion Australian, American and Mexican food.

-Sharon from Dive Into Tasmania

Mission Beach

mission beach

Distance from Brisbane 1572 KM | Distance from Cairns 139 KM

Mission Beach is the ultimate place for a relaxed and chilled-out vibe. The locals are equally as chilled as you will be greeted with smiles and welcoming nature.

If you have had a hectic few days on the road and just want to be stress-free, there aren’t many places which can provide as much tranquillity as Mission Beach.

It is a relatively small town but there many things to do there.

The beach stretches far and wide covered in palm trees, it is like you are in the Caribbean. It is a common occurrence to find fresh coconuts scattered on the ground for you to break into and taste the fresh coconut water.

Another popular thing to do, if you dare, is to skydive. Or go white water rafting.

It is very popular as you can land on the beach after you’ve just feasted your eyes on beautiful tropical Queensland from a birds-eye view.

Mission Beach is great to stop over for 1-2 days and is perfect to wind down and relax. Be sure to not skip this town.

WHERE TO STAY: If you are a backpacker then look no further than Scotty’s Mission Beach YHA. It’s a great place to meet fellow travellers with reasonable prices for dorms and private rooms.

Alternatively, Airbnb’s are great for families and probably more cost-effective.

WHERE TO EAT: A popular place to eat is Bingil Bay Café. It has a nice hippy vibe with colourful and 1970’s art décor bringing customers back in time. The family-run business has delicious food as well, with big servings so you’ll never leave hungry.

-Kerrie & Woody from Just Go Travelling

Cairns

brisbane to cairns

Distance from Brisbane 1684 KM

Cairns is the largest city in North Queensland and one that you will easily fill several days or more, enjoying the many things to do in Cairns itself and beyond. Check out our 1 week Cairns itinerary to help you get started.

For free things to do in Cairns, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a great place to take the kids for a swim, without having to worry about sea creatures! Or take them for a play at Muddy’s Playground.

The Cairns Botanic Gardens takes you on a rainforest walk, with plenty to see and do.

Head to the Cairns Aquarium to learn about animals, see shark feedings and experience the touch pools.

For an essential Cairns day trip, catch the historic Kuranda scenic railway train and spend a few hours exploring this artsy village up the mountain, where you will find many things to do.

Head back down when you’re finished on the Kuranda Skyrail, with incredible views.

cairns kuranda train

And of course, get out and experience the Great Barrier Reef with a day cruise with snorkelling.

Green Island is a popular choice, although there are plenty of other options available, with glass bottom boat experiences or full scuba diving opportunities too. You can read our Green Island guide for the best things to do during your day trip.

WHERE TO STAY: Pullman Reef Hotel Casino or Shangri-La Hotel at The Marina. There are also some incredible Airbnb properties, perfect for family stays.

WHERE TO EAT: Ochre Restaurant or enjoy fresh seafood at The Raw Prawn.

Find more top Cairns restaurants and dining experiences for your trip.

Got More Time? Add These Stops

If you have 3 or more weeks to spend on your road trip between Brisbane and Cairns, there are so many more beautiful places to fill those extra days!

Go beyond Cairns and experience Port Douglas, or go to the very top of Queensland to Cape York Peninsula. Although Cape York is best experienced with a 4 wheel drive vehicle.

These incredible day trips from Cairns will ensure you have plenty to see and do while in the far north!

For other stops during your road trip, Fraser Island near Harvey Bay can be accessed only by ferry. Or visit one of the other Whitsundays Islands.

Rockhampton and Gladstone are two of the larger cities along the way also.

Or why not extend your road trip – Sydney to Cairns perhaps? Check out our Brisbane to Sydney road trip stops. Or discover Australia’s South-West with a Perth to Adelaide road trip.

You will have no shortage of inspiration for your road trip between Brisbane and Cairns, no matter which direction you are travelling!

Road Trip Meal Planner

Check out our road trip meal planning tips, meal ideas & grab the free printable meal plan and food list.

For more ideas on planning the perfect Queensland road trip, check out these articles: