An East Coast Australia road trip is one of the most popular and iconic road trips in this enormous, diverse country.
The Queensland and New South Wales coastline offer incredible beaches, thrilling adrenaline activities and world famous sights such as the Great Barrier Reef.
In contrast, the inland region offers amazing wildlife encounters and beautiful landscapes ranging from rainforests to the dusty red outback.
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Why do an East Coast Australia road trip?
Road tripping gives you the freedom to go where you want when you want to.
You live and experience the landscapes and the people and wildlife that live in them and will not get the same experiences flying over large swathes of Australia!
Travelling around Australia by road means you shop, stay and eat local thereby spreading the tourist dollar.
People in rural areas will be keen to talk to you and you will get an insight into their lives and culture – more than you would passing through by train.
Australia has a ‘road trip infrastructure’ making driving around Australia much easier.
For example, petrol stations have cheap hot showers available.
Rest stops, laybys and picnic areas are frequent and usually contain barbecue stands and toilets.
There are also ‘Driver Revive’ stops where local volunteers offer tea, coffee and a chat to long distance drivers. We loved stopping at these spots and always enjoyed our chats with the friendly locals who were as interested in us as we were in them!
There is so much to see and do on the East Coast of Australia that a road trip is the only way to appreciate and explore this diverse country.
Planning a road trip in Australia
When to go?
Whenever you can!
But if you have the freedom to choose, avoid the peak summer holidays of mid-December to early February.
The Spring months of October to December are ideal as accommodation prices will be cheaper and sights less busy.
December to April is the wet season in northern Queensland and though the rain tends to be in short bursts and not constant, it can be very humid.
Winter is Sydney may bring cooler temperatures but the days are generally sunny.
How long will the road trip take?
As long as you can allocate!
A Sydney to Cairns road trip is a long journey! Driving non-stop on the main highways (the A1 Bruce Highway and the Pacific Highway) will take you around 30 hours and you will cover in excess of 2, 600 kilometres!
Work out a framework for your road trip – decide your trip duration, your list of ‘must sees’ and how long you would like to spend at them.
From this outline, you can plan other options.
Try to vary coast and inland locations, cities and small towns, busy days with quieter, more relaxing days.
Road tripping and moving regularly can get tiring so mix up your itinerary to keep it fresh and interesting!
Car versus campervan?
How you travel depends on how you like to travel!
If you like hot showers every day, somewhere to relax at night and a comfortable bed then hire a car and stay in hotels, hostels or campground lodges.
If you want to have the freedom to stay anywhere you like, hire a campervan.
Travelling Australia in a campervan or motorhome will enable you to access rural locations for overnight stays though your vehicle may not be able to travel off-road.
If possible, hire a self contained campervan (one with a toilet) as this enables you to access freedom camping sites.
In addition to freedom camping or paid campgrounds, you can also pay a nominal fee to stay in basic showground sites or in the parking area for hostels.
Campervan travel in Australia is easy and fun; we wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
Where to go on an East Coast Australia road trip
Cairns to Mackay (northern Queensland)
Cairns is a busy tourist hotspot all year round.
It has lovely parks and playgrounds, an excellent lido and bustling markets and shops.
Most visitors come to Cairns to access the world-famous Great Barrier Reef. Countless tours offer trips to different parts of the reef which lies around a one hour journey by boat offshore.
Even non-swimmers can access parts of the reef in glass bottom boats or semi-submersibles.
The Great Barrier Reef will bust your budget and takes effort to get to but it is worth it. It is one of the best things to do in Australia.
Try to include a visit further north to pretty Kuranda and charming Port Douglas.
If the Daintree National Park is too far, take a trip west to stunning Mossman Gorge.
The Atherton Tablelands
Often overlooked on an East Coast Australia road trip, the rolling green hills of the Atherton Tablelands are well worth visiting. The Atherton Tablelands is small town Australia at its best.
Stop for a cup of tea at the tea plantation in Malanda (who knew Australia produced tea?!) and watch for tree kangaroos in the nearby trees.
Explore the charming small towns of the region such as historic Yungaburra where we spotted platypus in the local river.
There are challenging (as well as easy) hiking and bike trails to choose from around Yungaburra including routes to some of the areas many beautiful waterfalls such as the famous Millaa Millaa Falls.
Squeeze in a visit to little known Curtain Fig National Park to see the enormous fig tree. The bird song here is unforgettable!
Return to the coast via Tully Gorge for a white knuckle white water rafting trip.
Continue down the coastal Bruce Highway to the popular tourist towns of Mission Beach, Townsville and Airlie Beach which is the principal departure point for trips to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands.
Make a stop at the charming small town of Bowen, famous for growing mangoes, street art and the location of the premiere of the Baz Luhrman film ‘Australia’.
We had an unexpected treat at the vintage cinema in Bowen!
Before arriving at Mackay, take a detour inland to one of several forest state parks or try a spot a platypus at Eungella.
On the other side of the Bruce Highway, the beaches of remote Cape Hillsborough are famous for the kangaroos who visit the beach at dawn.
Mackay to Brisbane
On the coast
Visit lovely Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Water, both of which are popular locations for surfing lessons.
If you have a four-wheel drive for your road trip you could visit the mangroves and swamps of rural Cape Palmerston.
Make a detour to Hervey Bay between July and November for excellent whale watching opportunities; August and September are the best months for spotting whales.
Humpback whales and their calves gather in the waters around Hervey Bay to rest and refuel during their migration south and the bay is reputed to be one of the best locations in the world to see humpback whales.
Enjoy the myriad of colours at pretty Rainbow Beach which (with Hervey Bay) is a stopping off point for trips to World Heritage listed Fraser Island.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world but also boasts lakes and pockets of rainforests. You can only visit with a four-wheel drive but 1-2 day tours are available from Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach.
Don’t miss nearby Tin Can Bay, a lovely small town on the banks of an enormous estuary and a bird watcher’s paradise.
Visit the towns’ Barnacles Dolphin Centre early in the morning to feed wild estuarine dolphins, a controlled practise which has been occurring for over 50 years. This was one of our children’s favourite activities from our East Coast road trip.
I would also recommend making a stop at pretty Maryborough.
We stopped off for lunch in Maryborough and were lucky enough to coincide with the quirky Mary Poppins festival – ‘Mary Poppins’ author Pamela Travers was born here.
The festival – held annually in July – was a lot of fun and our kids loved Maryborough’s quirky touches!
Back on the coast, you can beach hop down the gorgeous Sunshine Coast starting at the popular resort of Noosa.
We learned to surf at Coolum Beach!
Consider a detour to the dusty outback towns of Emerald and Sapphire.
The landscape changes almost as soon as you leave the coast and we saw lots of wildlife inland including kookaburras, wombats and kangaroos.
Plus, the clear night skies of the outback are incredible.
Join a guided fossicking trip into the bush.
We spent a muddy, dusty, back-breaking day searching for sapphires. Our daughter was the only person in our family to find any!
Heading back towards the coast, spend a day at Eumundi markets. The markets are undoubtedly a tourist magnet but are a great venue to pick up souvenirs of your road trip. We had a fun day seeing all the crafts, sampling the food and drink and enjoying the live music on offer.
Finally, our kids loved their trip to Australia Zoo at Beerwah.
We are not usually zoo people but enjoyed this impressive zoo. The majority of the park has large, sympathetic enclosures and controlled animal encounters.
Our kids loved hand feeding kangaroos and wallabies but my highlight was tickling the chin of a giant tortoise.
If you are travelling with kids, make sure you stop here!
Brisbane is a lively, cosmopolitan city. There are excellent museums and lovely city centre parks including the pretty Botanic Gardens.
Take a boat trip on the Brisbane River or spend a day at the lido, parks and esplanade of the South Bank. Fall in love with the koalas at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.
We really liked Brisbane – it was easy to get around, had an interesting mix of architecture, and loads to see and do with or without kids.
It is an ideal location to recharge on a long East Coast Australia road trip.
Brisbane to Sydney
There are a number of route options on this section and all routes will become busier the closer you get to Sydney.
The Gold Coast
The Gold Coast is a popular holiday destination and subsequently is very busy and built up. The beaches, however, are gorgeous!
The Gold coast is where you will find Australia’s premier theme parks such as Wet n Wild, Sea World and Warner Bros Movie World.
It will be fun but not budget friendly!
Popular with domestic and international tourists, bohemian Byron Bay is always worth a stop.
Enjoy the lively town, hike the coastal paths, visit the picture-perfect lighthouse and savour the miles of glorious sandy beaches!
Don’t forget to bring your binoculars to Byron Bay beach – we saw humpback whales breaching in the sea from the beach.
Take a short detour inland to tour a macadamia nut farm or enjoy the tropical fruit plantations further south around Coffs Harbour.
Head inland to hike one of the stunning trails through the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests at the beautiful Dorrigo National Park with its impressive elevated walkway.
Continuing south along the Pacific Coast, we enjoyed Port Stephens which is dubbed Australia’s ‘dolphin capital.’
We took a fantastic whale watching trip to see migrating humpback whales.
Plus, we saw some of the areas resident 150 dolphins. You can also swim with wild dolphins here between September and May.
Our kids enjoyed an exhausting sand boarding trip on Australia’s largest sand dune system at Stockton Sand Dunes. Whizzing down the sand is worth the hard slog up the dunes!
Further south, we spent time at the enormous Lake Macquarie, Australia’s largest saltwater lake.
The tranquil lake is ideal for kayaking or trying out stand up paddle boarding. Don’t miss some of the family-friendly scenic hikes in the surrounding bush.
Sydney is just 90 minutes from Lake Macquarie but make a detour to approach Sydney from the west via the stunning Blue Mountains.
There are hikes to suit all ages and abilities in the Blue Mountains or non-hikers can visit one of the 11 Jenolan Caves.
My East Coast Australia road trips.
The list above is an eclectic one as I have completed two East Coast Australia road trips!
My first trip in 1996, in my beloved VW Campervan (called Bruce, of course!) lasted several months.
My second trip was completed over twenty years later, with a husband and three kids in tow!
Our family trip lasted six weeks and we drove the route in sections using relocation campervans and motorhomes.
Both trips were flexibly planned and predominantly used freedom campsites, something I would highly recommend!
How the trips differed…
Some locations I revisited as I wanted to show them to my children and to see how locations had changed.
Roads were busier and there was more choice for tours, trips and accommodation.
Cairns had exploded in size!
Sadly, the Great Barrier Reef – though still an incredible sight to witness – had changed noticeably.
Other locations – such as the Whitsundays and Fraser Island – I did not revisit due to the prohibitive cost for a family of five!
We challenged the children with rainforest hikes, snorkelling out of their depth and camping in the open outback.
They challenged us with trips to Australia Zoo and Stockton Sand Dunes, both of which turned out to be great fun!
Furthermore, many of the places we visited and loved came from other travellers recommendations, not from guide books. Tin Can Bay, Emerald and Bowen being prime examples.
East Coast Australia road trip tips
Listen to locals and other travellers. Follow their recommendations and tips and allow for flexibility in your plans.
Do not plan to the last second – when relaxing on an idyllic beach you will only find yourself clock watching.
However, be aware of your overall time frame so you don’t spend the last few days of your trip zooming through wonderful places!
Vary your itinerary; don’t just do more of the same or what you are interested in. Try something new.
Don’t drink and drive and don’t drive tired. Avoid driving at night. Check the car seats you are using adhere to Australian regulations.
Heed all wildlife signs; they are put up for a reason.
Be respectful of local regulations. Do not freedom camp unless signs permit it.
Don’t leave it too late in the day to find somewhere to stay. Distances between accommodation options can be huge!
Always carry enough fuel, food and water.
Read more tips for travelling in a camper van here.
Above all, get out, explore and engage. Have a wonderful road trip!
Recommended reading for your East Coast Australia road trip.