Backpack Brisbane to Cairns: The must-do Queensland road trip

I came to Australia with the aim of exploring this massive country, having dreamed of living here since my ’round-the-world trip began back in 2007. Coming from Brazil, Australia always seemed so far away so I knew when I eventually arrived Down Under I would need to stay a while to be able to see everything!

Living in Byron Bay at first, I couldn’t stop looking at photos of everything that lay waiting for me in Queensland. So, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to pack my backpack and head north: I had to do my East Coast Queensland road trip NOW!

Packing for adventure | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Gold Coast road trip

Before arriving in Australia I didn’t really know many names of the places I wanted to visit, but during my first three months, I met many people, all of whom had somewhere to recommend. So, when it came to planning my Queensland road trip it seemed so easy.

The stops along Queensland’s East Coast jumped out of the map at me, having heard a story about many of the places that I would go to. That being said, many surprises were waiting as I travelled, so I’m glad I kept my plans flexible enough to add in extra activities along the way.

And so it began, my month-long Queensland road trip north from Brisbane to Cairns…


Moreton Island | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

My East Coast Queensland trip started with a stop off that many backpackers miss: Tangalooma Island Resort, home to shipwrecks, sandboarding, wild dolphin feeding and more!

There’s a direct ferry from Brisbane to Moreton Island leaving every morning that will even bring you back the same evening if you don’t want to fork out for a night in the resort.

Football match at Suncorp Stadium | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Brisbane is the largest city in Queensland so make the most of it, as you won’t get that ‘big city feeling’ again as you travel north! There’s a free ferry that takes you across the river, a man-made beach in the centre of town and even soccer games to be seen at Suncorp Stadium. As a big soccer fan, I was pleased my stay coincided with a Brisbane Roar match!

Fraser Island

Fraser Island Lake McKenzie | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Maheno Shipwreck | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

4WDing Fraser Island | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Fraser is the biggest sand island in the world and is home to some of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. Most backpackers head there to drive around in 4x4s, through the trees on dirt tracks and along the beaches before stopping off at one of the many campsites for a good old fashioned BBQ and a couple of nights in a tent.

My highlights were Lake McKenzie and Lake Wabby!

1770 & Agnes Water

Agnes Water | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

This place was a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t know much about it, but it seemed like a cool spot to chill for a few days and Southern Cross Backpackers absolutely delivered on that! Set in 16 acres of land complete with a lake, this hostel felt like more of a resort!

Scooteroo tour | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

This was also the place that I became a bad-ass biker for the day on the Scooter Roo tour, riding around with fake tattoos and leather jackets complete with flames!

Kayaking in 1770 | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

What made my stay especially memorable was the sunset kayak tour I did with 1770 Liquid Adventures.

We had a leisurely cruise around the beautiful inlets, which was amazing in itself, but what made it one of the highlights of my East Coast trip was Simon, our tour guide. He told us everything we could possibly wish to know about the surrounding areas and did his best to find as much wildlife as possible to show us as the sun turned orange in the sky.

If that’s not enough for you, Agnes Water is also home to the cheapest surf lessons along the coast at $17 each – perfect for beginners!

The Whitsundays

Airlie Beach | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Sailing in the Whitsundays | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Snorkelling in the Whitsundays | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

This is one of the more well known and popular trips along the East Coast with good reason. I sailed around these 74 tropical islands situated between the Australian mainland and the Great Barrier Reef for three days and loved every minute!

With the chance to visit Whitehaven Beach, one of the most beautiful in the world; Hill Inlet, an incredible lookout point; and various snorkelling spots, there’s little chance of anybody going back to land disappointed!

Magnetic Island

Koalas on Magnetic Island | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

This place is all about the wildlife, and that’s exactly why I was there! On my first day, I headed up to the Forts Walk in the hills and after a short 10-minute stroll came face to face with one of the cuddly locals!

This cute koala was sat in a tree, chilling out just metres from the hiking trail and seemed completely unfazed as I snapped a picture.

Roack wallaby on Magnetic Island | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

From there, I headed to Arcadia Bay to visit the rock wallabies who live there. They were very inquisitive and happy to come and say hi as soon as I arrived!

Magnetic Island | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Getting around the island is pretty easy by bus, but it’s even more fun if you can find a group of people to rent a car with and cruise around. After a busy day I went back to Base Backpackers, which offered views over the water like no other hostel I’ve been to and also has the cheapest PADI Scuba Diving course in Australia.

Mission Beach

Skydiving Mission Beach | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

I arrived here with one thing on my mind: Skydiving. I’d heard a lot about the feeling you get jumping out of a plane from friends, and had always thought about it but never plucked up the courage to do it myself. All that changed when I heard that Mission Beach offers skydives from 14,000 feet overlooking the Great Barrier Reef and the forested mainland, free-falling for a full minute before cruising down to land on the beach!

I watched the people in front of me disappear one by one until it was my turn… We jumped, and I screamed! Falling, falling, falling I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I took in the incredible and unique view offered up to me. My natural reaction upon safely landing on the beach was, “I want to do that again!”.

Atherton Tablelands

Lake Eacham | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Millaa Millaa Falls | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

Approaching Cairns by bus was pretty special – lush greenery and rolling hills as far as the eye could see! I headed out to explore the hills, waterfalls and lakes of Atherton Tablelands with Barefoot Tours and their smiley, music-loving, story-telling guide Brett (who was an absolute legend).

Sliding down rocks, swimming under waterfalls and leaping into the lakes was even more fun that I expected and not to be missed!

Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef | Backpacking 101: Brisbane to Cairns road trip

I saved the most famous part of the coast for last: the world renowned Great Barrier Reef! Having become a certified SCUBA diver in Central America last year, I decided to head out to see what the underwater world looks like on this side of the world and I wasn’t disappointed!

I completed my first night dive and met an extremely cool green turtle as I glided over and through the brightly coloured coral. If you’re not yet qualified, you can even do your certification onboard one of the many liveaboard boats that depart from Cairns every day.

Have you done the Brisbane to Cairns road trip? What were your highlights?