Self driving: How to tackle the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Running from the New South Wales border all the way up to Cooktown – the Great Inland Way is one history-fuelled stretch of self driving bitumen, linking Queensland’s southern corner to its most northern adventure, Cape York.

When you’ve been there, done that and seen the coastline, take a left turn. Detour over the Great Dividing Range and discover the Great Inland Way.

It’s two-wheel friendly even though it offers the ying to the Pacific Coast Way’s yang – by swapping award-winning beaches for award-winning bushland.

Take a different route to the top this year, and buckle up to discover the Great Inland Way.

Or, find 12 more Great Queensland Drives in this free eBook.

Self driving the Great Inland Way

Day 1: Hebel to St George (200km / 2hr 30m)

From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Your self driving adventure starts at the border of maroon and blue – discovering the tiny town of Hebel.

Hebel is a dictionary definition of a quaint country town. It’s packed with wide streets and pubs made of tin and timber. There’s even urban legends telling of the Kelly brothers (of Ned Kelly infamy) living here.

Heading north, you’ll see one of Queensland’s most famous pubs, Nindigully, an establishment that’s as famous for food as it is for holding the title of Queensland’s longest-running liquor licence.

Nindigully Pub | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

If you haven’t heard of the road hog burger, step over here, before preparing your taste buds and at least four friends to tackle their iconic 14kg burger.

Fuelled with enough carbs to power the New York Marathon several times over, visit the inland fishing capital of Queensland, St George, also home to Riversands, the state’s most western winery.  

To sleep under a blanket of Outback Queensland stars, check into Pelican Rest Tourist Park. They offer everything from caravan sites to cabins – complete with a heated therapeutic mineral pool. Any road trip back soreness will meet its match.

Day 2: St George to Roma (200km / 2hr 30m)

Roma | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Today’s drive takes in 200km of historic landscape – heading north from St George to Roma.

Break up the self driving journey by pulling into the tiny town of Surat, made famous by the Cobb & Co. coach service during the wool boom.

While many towns lay claim to making Cobb & Co. a household name (ahem, Charleville), Surat still has the station and coach to prove it.

At the Cobb & Co. Changing Station, you’ll find the original site of the Cobb & Co. Store and drop-off point for coach travellers, and a 14-seater Cobb & Co. coach in original nick.

Beyond Surat, discover why all roads lead to Roma, pulling up for the night at the intersection of the Warrego Way and Great Inland Way.

Roma | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Spend the afternoon exploring leafy Roma with its avenues of bottle trees. Did you know there’s over 100-plus trees, all planted as a memorial to the local soldiers who died in WWI?

A visit to Roma’s pièce de résistance, the Big Rig, will reveal why being gassy isn’t such a bad thing. Roma was the first spot natural gas was discovered in Australia – and the big rig forms part of this Queensland Big Things trail.

If you’re in town on a Tuesday or Thursday, don’t miss the cattle sales. They make your average Saturday morning house auction seem tame. It’s the largest cattle selling facility in the southern hemisphere and over 400,000 cattle are traded here each year.

Spend the night at the Roma Central Motel at Roma’s newest accommodation. If your trip coincides with the Roma Races or Easter in the Country, you’ll want to book in early as this town can fill up, fast.

Day 3 & 4: Roma to Carnarvon Gorge (245km / 3-4hr)

Carnarvon Gorge | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Just north of Roma you’ll swap a mining town for a geological masterpiece, aka Queensland’s own Noah’s Ark, Carnarvon Gorge.

Carnarvon Gorge is a true outback oasis where you’ll find hanging gardens of ferns and moss and ancient rock art galleries deep inside a spectacular canyon.

There are 21km of walking tracks inside the gorge following Carnarvon Creek, to suit walkers of all adventure appetites. Check out all the short walks on offer over here.

We recommend spending at least two nights here so you can have a full day exploring the gorge. Be sure to watch the sunrise from Boolimba Bluff – you won’t regret the early morning. 

To sleep, choose between cabins, caravanning or camping at Takarakka Bush Resort – a bush camp that’s in the thick of the action.

Day 5: Carnarvon Gorge to Clermont (350km / 4-5hr)

Sapphire, Emerald | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

From one geological marvel to another, continue the self driving adventure from Carnarvon Gorge to the Emerald gem fields.

Make a stop in Emerald to stretch your legs. Take a stroll through the Emerald Botanic Gardens and snap a photo of the elaborate iron lacework at the heritage-listed railway station.

Fossickers should try their luck searching for sapphires in the nearby gem fields – 900km2 of gem fields to be precise.

Don’t rule this out as a needle in a haystack kind of opportunity – people have struck gold in recent years. One of the most famous Sapphire stories is the 753-carat sapphire. Because it was found in 2014 by a man just scanning the ground. If you’re keen to kick on for more fossicking fun, then check out this 48-hour guide to Emerald.

Let’s hope you leave Emerald hundreds of thousands of dollars richer. If not then continue heading north because the prospecting doesn’t stop here.

A visit to Clermont will reveal a small agriculture centre and Australia’s first inland town above the Tropic of Capricorn.  

Stroll the boardwalk around Hoods Lagoon, which is the site of one of Queensland’s first gold rushes, putting this town on the map back in 1861.

For the night, stay close to all the action at the Peppercorn Motel. Alternatively, the Clermont Caravan Park has you covered if you’re looking for a leafy, lush van sites.

Day 6: Clermont to Charters Towers (375km / 4-5hr)

Tower Hill, Charters Towers | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

From one prospecting town to another, head north from Clermont to Charters Towers.

You’ll want to get an early start today to spend a few hours exploring the ghosts, gold and grandeur in Charters Towers.

Stroll through the area called One Square Mile and admire the elegant streetscape. Stop by the grand Stock Exchange Arcade where fortunes were made in minutes due to the gold rush. Interpretive signs and interactive exhibitions share what would’ve almost been a stock trade to rival Wall Street.

Just outside of town, The Venus Gold Battery shares insights into how the gold was extracted from the ore, while sound and lights transport you back to the 19th-century gold rush.

For history buffs who want to know why this is one of Queensland’s most historical towns, be sure to catch the sunset from the top of Tower Hill and check out the outdoor “Ghosts After Dark” show.

For convenience and comfort, check into Big 4 Aussie Oasis Caravan Park in Charters Towers which offers everything from camping through to family cabins. Sitting just 3km out of town, you’ll be on a perfect launchpad to discover Charters Tower’s main attractions.

Day 7: Charters Towers to Undara (380km/4-5hr)

Undara | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Sleep in and have a slower start in Charters Towers this morning – you just need to time your arrival at Undara Experience to join the Wildlife at Sunset tour, which is a natural show of David Attenborough proportions.

The tour includes wine and cheese and a journey into a lava tube. Almost as incredible as the lava tubes themselves is the chance to spot thousands of micro-bats and the snakes who feed on them.

It’s not just the flora and fauna that’s so remarkable here, but the geology which makes it so special.

Undara Lava Tube | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

The Undara Lava Tubes – which extend for more than 160km – were formed about 190,000 years ago when a large volcano erupted and the top layer of lava cooled, forming a crust, while the molten lava below drained outwards, leaving behind a series of hollow tubes.

There’re a variety of tours available, from easy strolls on boardwalks and fairly level ground, to more challenging scrambles.

Stay onsite at Undara Lodge and choose from a restored railway carriage, pioneer hut, caravan/campsite or swag tent village. With all accommodation set amongst bushland, your alarm clock will be rendered redundant thanks to an orchestra of kookaburras. 

If you’re looking to make your way back to Undara, we’ve got you covered with this itinerary over here.

Day 8: Undara to Mareeba (230km / 3hr)

Atherton Tableland | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

You could say this road trip leaves the best to last and today you’re in for one helluva scenic drive, worthy of a place in this scenic drives list.

Hit the road to the Atherton Tablelands, stopping in at Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town.

This former logging town is is a good spot for lunch. Queensland’s tallest pub (by altitude) the Ravenshoe Hotel makes brag-worthy schnitzels.

Fueled with pub grub, you’ll be primed for chasing waterfalls (finally!) – just make sure you check out Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall, Millstream Falls, on the way down.  

For those more interested in chasing flavour sensations, the rich soils of the Atherton Tablelands grow just about anything. A couple of wineries and distilleries, such as The Golden Drop, use locally grown tropical fruits including mangoes. For more self driving foodie fare, check out this itinerary for grazing your way across the tablelands.

Coffee is the main crop around Mareeba and a visit to Coffee Works and Skybury Tropical Plantation will get your heart started and serve your brew with a view. Coffee-fiends can see why it makes our top 10 coffees in Cairns over here.

For the night, curl up at the Mareeba Motor Inn. The manicured gardens will make you want to race back home and tidy your overgrown garden.

Day 9: Mareeba to Cooktown (265km / 3-4hr)

Lyons Den Hotel | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

Swap grazing farmland (packed with fresh produce) for early Australian history as you continue self driving the Great Inland Way from Mareeba to Cooktown.

From Mareeba, head north towards Cooktown on the Mulligan Highway through the township of Mount Molloy, whose success story was built on the back of the copper industry.

As you drive onto Cooktown, pay a visit to the Lions Den Hotel for lunch at one of the most iconic pubs in the country. Inside, you’ll find a wall that has barely any space left as thousands of visitors have left their mark.

In town, get a dose of James Cook history by following this itinerary. If there is one thing you must do, it’s visit the James Cook Historical Museum, to learn how Captain Cook almost came to grief on the reef in 1770, the historic cemetery and the Cooktown Botanic Gardens.

Check into The Sovereign Resort Hotel to finish your self driving road trip in style. There’s a swimming pool, room service and on-site restaurant and bar. This resort knows how to reign supreme in Cooktown.

Where to from here?

Atherton Tableland | From St George to Cooktown: Self driving the Great Inland Way in 9 days

If nine days on the road has got you wanting more, why not:

  • Head further north from Cooktown and tackle epic Cape York
  • Go west, and find your way across the Savannah Way to Western Australia
  • Turn around and do the coastal road from Cairns to Brisbane
  • Double the trip trouble and do the Great Inland Way all again

Or, why not try the 12 other self-driving itineraries in this ebook:

Have you driven the Great Inland Way? What did you think?