Queensland’s must-do road trip: The Pacific Coast Way
For epic views and travel memories that will last a lifetime, put the keys in the ignition and hit the highway with this epic Queensland road trip itinerary.
The Pacific Coast Way – which links Cairns to Brisbane – is 1700km on the speedo but it’s far from boring and I can promise you, no two days are the same when you’re discovering it by road.
This road trip is an Australian east coast odyssey, where cocktail hour includes a backdrop of the Great Barrier Reef and lush farmland, through to undiscovered rainforests filled with waterfalls, rock pools and gorges.
Buckle up for 8 days of bucket-list-worthy adventure (but don’t worry if you stretch it out even longer). This big daddy of a drive should be taken slow as the real journey hides off the beaten path. (Psst. Looking to do the trip in reverse? Try this itinerary on for size.)
DAY 1: CAIRNS
If time is on your side then there’s nothing like starting a week on the road with a few days of relaxation in paradise.
Before you hit the highway, back up your memory cards from all the #waterfallporn and #turtleselfies, stock up on plenty of snacks and water, but most importantly prep a killer playlist of tunes. Ok I’ll shut up now, and let you drive! *Cue Rihanna*
Overnight: Palm Cove.
DAY 2: CAIRNS TO TOWNSVILLE
It won’t be hard to wake up at the crack of dawn when the Great Barrier Reef is literally on your doorstep. Capture first light from your beachside digs then saunter down the quaint Palm Cove esplanade.
Taste the tropics with NuNu’s coconut and banana hotcakes with a helping of coconut sugar caramel and a coconut sorbet, sure to satisfy any sugar cravings AND fuel you up for the drive.
With Townsville the end destination in mind for today, decide whether you explore the coastal havens that link Cairns to ‘The Ville’ or slip off the main highway to discover a chunk of the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics.
For the adventure seekers, you won’t want to miss Nandroya Falls in Wooroonoonan National Park. Get your hike on for approximately 2-3 hours (that’s for the full 6km circuit), including time for a sneaky dip, of course.
Now that you’ve had your TLC fix, pump those beats and head south for just over 3 hours (288km) until you reach Townsville.
If you’re still running on adrenalin, we know the best vantage point for 360-degree views over the glittering city – a drive up to Mt Stuart is well worth it!
DAY 3: TOWNSVILLE TO AIRLIE BEACH
You’re going to want to catch the glorious sunrise that makes this city shine bright 320 days a year. We’d usually recommend taking one of the walking tracks up to Castle Hill, but if you hit the hay late last night, this giant pink monolith offers vehicle access as well.
Head over to Beet Bar in City Lane for your caffeine fix before you make tracks. If you’ve got time, take your smoothies and acai bowls down to The Strand, Townsville’s scenic beach promenade for the money shot #breakfastgoals.
Drive just over 3 hours to Airlie Beach, the gateway to the 74 Whitsunday Islands. You can either power it like P Diddy with this 48-hour guide to Airlie, or make like castaway and set sail over to Daydream Island, the closest in the archipelago.
Overnight: Daydream Island Resort and Spa.
DAY 4: AIRLIE BEACH TO MACKAY
Set off on your 2.5-hour drive from Airlie Beach to the sub-tropical oasis of Eungella National Park. On the way through I’d recommend grabbing lunch at the Pinnacle Pub and tasting one of their finger-lickin’-good pies – they’re worth every km!
Now, remember those views as you drove up the winding range? Well imagine that from the top! Head back out to explore the lush national park and watch sunset from Sky Window (a short 5-10 minute circuit).
If you’re thinking of imposing a digital detox at all throughout this trip, now’s your chance! Tuck in to a home-cooked meal, whip out the board games and mosey on up to the fire with your glass of red.
Overnight: Broken River Mountain Resort.
Want more of a natural high? Put your cardio to the test in the Mackay Highlands Great Walk.
DAY 5: MACKAY TO YEPPOON
Leave your blanket behind and set off into the misty mountains to enjoy sunrise from Eungella Chalet. It’s these moments captured on the road that will make you appreciate the journey rather than the destination.
If you’re passing through in October, the annual Yeppoon Tropical Pinefest celebrates, yep you guessed it, the juicy tropical fruit itself. Yeppoon has a strong reputation as a producer of tropical and exotic produce (mangos, pineapples, lychees) and is home to some of the largest pineapple farms in the state.
Enjoy sundowners at one of Yeppoon’s waterside restaurants overlooking the nearby islands and azure sea.
Overnight: Oshen Apartments.
Want some Great Barrier Reef action? Here’s how to do Great Keppel Island.
DAY 6: YEPPOON TO BUNDABERG
If you live by the motto ‘the early bird catches the worm’ then my bet is you’re up for another sunrise! Look no further than the Capricorn Coast National Park.
Take the 2.3km walk to the peak for unimaginable views over the Keppel Group of islands.
Continue your journey to Bundaberg (you’ve got a four-hour drive ahead of you today) a historic sugar cane city and home to the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland.
If you time your trip right (between November and March) you’ll get to tick this natural phenomenon off your bucket list when big mumma turtles heave their way up the beach to nest and just months later baby hatchlings make their desperate dash to shore.
Overnight: Charm City Motel.
Want more rum? I mean fun? Kick on with this 48-hour Bundaberg itinerary.
DAY 7: BUNDABERG TO RAINBOW BEACH
Believe it or not, paddock to plate is the name of the game here. Don’t leave town without chowing down on breakfast at Indulge Café – their seasonal menu, pumped full of delicious local produce will have you salivating for days.
I’ve always loved the stretch between Bundaberg to Rainbow Beach, maybe because it usually involves grazing at the honesty boxes and farm gates along the way, from strawberries to macadamias and a cheeky vino (for all except the DD) along the 330km stretch of road.
Still hungry? Scoff your way through the North Burnett with this food trail.
While the food offering in Bundy is tempting you’ll want to make tracks for a relaxing afternoon at Rainbow Beach. Pack a picnic and head off-road (some parts of the beach can be accessed by 2WD but best to check here before you set off) to Inskip Point Peninsula and soak up your second-last day on the road.
DAY 8: RAINBOW BEACH TO BRISBANE
This aptly-named town gets its title from the rainbow-coloured cliffs that loom above the beach, painted in 72 different shades of red, yellow, orange, ochre and rust.
To end your trip on a high, walk up to the Carlo Sand Blow to watch the sunrise. This unique ‘moonscape’ sand mass covers over 15 hectares and overlooks the towering coloured sands.
After grabbing some brekkie on the main street of Rainbow Beach, saddle up for one last adventure. Swap your motorised wheels for the four-legged variety on a horse ride along the water’s edge.
Brush off the sand and head down the highway for 2.5 hours to Brisbane, your final destination, to return your car and sadly make your way to the airport.
(Or you could turn around and keep the road trip going with a whole bunch of new stops along the way!)
HAVE YOU DRIVEN THE PACIFIC COAST WAY? TELL US YOUR MUST-DO EXPERIENCES ALONG QUEENSLAND’S EAST COAST.
If you’re up for more driving adventures, check out these Great Queensland Drives.