Brisbane to Cairns Drive Itinerary

This Brisbane to Cairns drive is a beautiful trip, starting in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, and travelling along the Pacific Highway through sub-tropical and beachside towns to the tropical North Queensland city of Cairns.

To put this drive in context, it is further to drive from Brisbane to Cairns than it is from Melbourne to Brisbane. While this is a long drive, it is one of the best trips you will ever embark upon.

Brisbane to Cairns Itinerary 
Length: 21 days, 20 nights
Distance: 1950 kms

brisbane to cairns driving

Day 1 – 3

Brisbane → Noosa

  • Travel time: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Distance: 141 kms
  • Nights: 3 nights

The sub tropical Brisbane climate lends itself to a lot of outdoor activities and they can be wide and varied – from eating al fresco on the Eagle Street Pier to climbing the Story Bridge and abseiling back down.

Other great activities include:

  • Cycling up the Brisbane River, then catching the CityCat back into town;
  • Walking through the City Botanic Gardens;
  • Running the 107 steps at the Kangaroo Point Cliffs;
  • Relaxing at Australia’s only inner-city riverside beach;
  • Exploring the museums and art galleries of the Cultural Precinct – the Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery or Queensland Museum;
  • Exploring independent dance, theatre and comedy in Fortitude Valley’s eclectic performance spaces; and
  • Shopping in boutique-filled inner-city boroughs.

Click here for the Brisbane Visitors Guide April to August 2016.

A good tip for this stage of your journey is to leave fairly early in the morning, you will be travelling against the city bound traffic. While everyone else is heading into work, you will be heading off on the first stage of your holiday. And of course, you will get more time in Noosa!

visiting noosa on brisbane to cairns drive

This is an easy drive – just follow the road out of Brisbane where the street signs direct you to the Sunshine Coast. Fortunately, our depot is north of the city, near the airport so this will make the start of your trip easier.

Our advice is to head straight for Noosa and stop here for a few days. However, if you want to see some things on the way, consider stopping at Moreton Island or North Stradbroke Island. For some more energetic activities, you can try snorkelling around some of the islands in Moreton Bay, go surfing or sandboarding or hike to the Scenic Rim.

Noosa is aboriginal for “shade” a reference to the shade provided by the trees along the coastline. We recommend that you spend two to three days here at least, although people have been known to come here for a holiday and never leave!

Spend the first day exploring – take a stroll down Hastings Street, enjoy a latte or three on the Boardwalk, lunch at a bistro and then walk it all off through Noosa National Park, at the east end of Hastings Street.

The second day should be a beach day. It won’t be hard to fill the day soaking up the sun on the pure white sand and in the large but generally gentle surf. You could extend to a third day or more – let’s face it, this is as idyllic as it gets. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in paradise – but believe it or not there is plenty more to come.

Day 4

Noosa → Rainbow Beach

  • Travel time: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Distance: 137 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

The trip to Rainbow Beach takes you inland, through the regional Queensland town of Gympie, the “Town That Saved Queensland”. Gympie was previously a thriving gold mining township, the discovery of gold saved the state from bankruptcy back in 1867. Now, thanks to the abundance of beautiful natural features, is the gateway to a magnificent tourist hub. Make sure you stop on the way through.

Beyond Gympie, you will be treated to some of the finest sub-tropical coastal landscapes to be found anywhere in the world. This is where you could easily while away a few weeks surfing, prawning and crabbing. We’ll give you a day.

You can also spend time exploring the Cooloola National Park. And watch out for the wild brumbies running along the vast expanses of Cooloola Beach hotrses still live here in their natural environment.

Some other great activities to include are:

  • Riding on horseback (not the brumbies!) along the sandy Cooloola coastline to Rainbow Beach to witness the Carlo Sandblow and Australia’s longest wave or admire the coloured mineral sands;
  • Challenge yourself on the 102-kilometre Cooloola Great Walk;
  • Try paragliding and take in the aerial views of Fraser Island; and
  • Hand-feed the gentle humpback dolphins at Tin Can Bay.

rainbow beach

Day 5 – 6

Rainbow Beach → Hervey Bay

  • Travel time: 1 hour 35 minutes
  • Distance: 126 kms
  • Nights: 2 nights

This drive will also take you inland through the town of Maryborough and into Hervey Bay. This is one of Queensland’s best natural holiday destinations and the absolute “must see” is the whale watching. This is the closest you will ever get to humpback whales in nature – you will be blown away.

As a holiday destination, there are the usual cafes and shops along the Hervey Bay Esplanade and there are also plenty of water sports to enjoy from kayaking and jet skiing to wind surfing, diving and snorkelling.

Your second day of this stay needs to be spent visiting the World Heritage Listed Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. The waters around Fraser Island are safe and sheltered, making for an ideal haven for aquatic activities. Have a look at this infographic for more detailed information about Fraser Island.

You may want to extend your stay here; make sure you call us to let us know so we can block out your motorhome for a few more days.

Day 7

Hervey Bay → Bundaberg

  • Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Distance: 119 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

Known as the Southern Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Bundaberg is probably equally famous for its Rum. It is well worth doing a tour of the rum distillery and checking out the sugar cane railway.

You should also check out the Mystery Craters – 35 water filled holes in the ground.

Day 8

Bundaberg → Gladstone

  • Travel time: 2 hours 10 minutes
  • Distance: 185 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

Like most of the towns along the Pacific Highway, they have a unique blend of coastal paradises and amazing hinterlands. Gladstone is no different. The tip here is to take the walk up Auckland Hill to catch the panoramic view to Port Curtis and over the town, then make your way to the harbour and buy your lunch fresh off the fishing boat.

Then, while you are barbequing your prawns, crabs, scallops and other delicious seafoods, open a bottle of Mitchelton’s red and let it breathe until lunch is ready. Grab a spot by the water, pull out the annexe and settle in for the afternoon. You’ll sleep well.

gladstone cbd

Day 9

Gladstone → Rockhampton

  • Travel time: 2 hours
  • Distance: 184 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

So you had your fill of freshly caught seafood at Gladstone? Good because Rockhampton is the Beef Capital of Australia. You can stroll through town, soaking up the historical city of Rocky and in particular the Steam Tram Museum. Let’s be clear, you are just building your appetite because you can then go and catch a barramundi in the Fitzroy River and buy a steak from the local butcher. Throw them on the BBQ together and you have just created the great Australian dish known as Surf and Turf. We recommend the Mitchelton’s Print Shiraz with that, then a mid afternoon siesta by the beach.

Day 10

Rockhampton → St Lawrence

  • Travel time: 2 hours
  • Distance: 184 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

St Lawrence is one of the oldest towns on the coast of Queensland. The real attraction here is that is still a traditional Australian country town and progress has been slow to visit. When you ask anyone from Sydney what time it is in Queensland, they will usually reply “1986” Queenslanders make the same joke about St Lawrence but the answer is usually 1976. There is some great fishing and crabbing spots nearby, but let’s face it, you are probably still a bit full from the last couple of days and the gout is just starting to improve.

Day 11

St Lawrence → Mackay

  • Travel time: 1 hour 50 minutes
  • Distance: 158 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

Let’s be honest, the trip has been great so fare, but it has really only been a prelude to the Big Show – the Great Barrier Reef. From here to Airlie Beach and beyond, the water is teeming with a veritable rainbow of colourful fish and coral. The lush tropical rainforest glides its way down to the golden beaches and magnificent blue seas. This is an explosion in a paint factory and you have found paradise.

Day 12 – 15

Mackay → Airlie Beach

  • Travel time: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Distance: 150 kms
  • Nights: 4 nights

Find a parking spot, plug in the motorhome and pull out the annexe. You’re not driving anywhere for a while. Airlie Beach is the perfect base for the next stage of your trip. Known as the Whitsundays, you are going to spend the next four days soaking up the sun and cavorting in the water – generally enjoying this tropical paradise.

Of course, we could have told you just to drive here on day 1 and spend 21 days here, but you can do that on your next trip.

airlie beach

Day 16 – 17

Airlie Beach → Townsville

  • Travel time: 3 hours 15 minutes
  • Distance: 273 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

This is the longest single stage of your so far. If you do want to take a stop along the way, try snorkelling at Bowen, at the northern end of the Whitsundays with amazing fringing reefs just a few metres off shore. And don’t miss the Big Mango as you enter Bowen. Actually, do miss it. Cringeworthy.

As you make your way to Ayr, you will cross the Burdekin River across the Silver Link – a 1km long bridge and one of the longest in the country.

When you get to Townsville, find a caravan park and then head straight to Magnetic Island. There are some amazing wrecks dotted throughout this part of the Reef and you can easily spend a couple of days snorkelling and swimming in crystal clear waters teeming with sea life. Spend one and then get going to Ingham, you will be glad you did.

Day 18

Townsville → Ingham

  • Travel time: 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Distance: 111 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

Ingham is located in the heart of the tropics, the winterless North Queensland. It is the southern gateway to the World Heritage Listed Rainforests of Tropical North Queensland.

South of Ingham, are the Tyto Wetlands; go west and you will find the Wallaman Falls, at 305 metres they are the largest sheer drop waterfall in the land and northwest you will discover Hinchinbrook Island. There are six National parks, State Forests and Island Reserves in this area. That’s plenty of adverturing for anyone!

If you come through in July, time it coincide with the Australian Italian Festival.

Day 19

Ingham → Mission Beach

  • Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Distance: 123 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

This is where two amazing natural features connect – the World Heritage Listed Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. You can spoil yourself a bit here and try a beach front day spa then just lie on the golden sands.

Day 20 – 21

Mission Beach → Cairns

  • Travel time: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Distance: 139 kms
  • Nights: 1 night

Cairns will be a change of pace from what you have been used to. Now is the time to try bungy jumping. Or not. White water rafting is great though and the diving and snorkelling as good as you will have seen anywhere so far.

Then you hit the bars and restaurants, starting with a couple of cocktails under the palm trees, a gourmet dinner and then the last sleep in your Let’s Go Motorhome.

brisbane to cairns

Excited about this Brisbane to Cairns holiday and haven’t booked your motorhome yet? View our available motorhomes for hire and contact us if you have any questions!

Photo Credits

Image of Noosa via Tourism Australia
Image of Rainbow Beach via Australian Traveller
Image of Gladstone CBD via Queensland Australia
Image of Airlie Beach via Culture Trip