The Pacific Coast Way: road-tripping from Cairns to Brisbane
With reef-fringed beaches and islands on one side, and lush rainforest and national park on the other, the Pacific Coast Way is one of the best ways to experience Queensland’s spectacular and diverse east coast.
Read on for everything you need to know to plan eight days of bucket-list-worthy adventure. (Or if you prefer to start out from Brisbane, here’s how to do the Pacific Coast Way in reverse.)
Day 1: Reconnect with nature in Cairns
You’ve got a lot of miles ahead of you – but before you start your long journey south, spend a day exploring Cairns and its surrounding rainforest, beaches and reefs.
If time is on your side, hop aboard a half or full day boat trip and snorkel or dive your way around the Great Barrier Reef. Prefer to stay on dry land? Learn about the Aboriginal people’s connection to nature on a tour of the Daintree Rainforest with an Indigenous guide.
At the end of an action-packed day, fall asleep to the sound of waves gently lapping the shore from your beachfront suite at the Alamanda Palm Cove.
Day 2: Chase waterfalls en route to Townsville
Start your day right with breakfast on the picturesque Palm Cove esplanade. NuNu’s famous coconut and banana hotcakes with coconut sugar caramel and coconut sorbet come highly recommended.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can be at the spectacular Nandroya Falls in Wooroonooran National Park in less than two hours. Take the 6km circuit track which winds along the upper valley of Douglas Creek to reach the falls: an uninterrupted 50m wall of water that descends from the basalt parapet above into the base of the falls below.
From there, it’s back on the road ‘til you reach home for the night: the stylish Rambutan boutique hotel in Townsville.
Day 3: Spend the night on a tropical Whitsunday island
See for yourself what makes sunrise at Townsville’s Castle Hill so special. Wake up early and hike to the summit of this giant pink monolith to be rewarded with 360 degree views. If time (or your energy reserves) are limited, driving to the top is also an option.
From here, it’s a 3 hour drive to Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. No visit to the Whitsunday Coast is complete without a spot of island-hopping, so set sail for Daydream Island for an overnighter at the Daydream Island Resort and Spa.
Watch the sun set with a drink in hand, then take your pick from the resort’s three restaurants – Graze, Infinity, and Inkstone Kitchen & Bar.
Day 4: Trek through national park in the Mackay region
Back on the mainland, set off on your 2.5-hour drive to the sub-tropical oasis of Eungella National Park. Stop for lunch along the way at the Pinnacle Family Hotel: part pub, part bakery and birthplace of the award-winning Pinnacle pie.
Check-in to your rainforest eco-retreat at Broken River, then head back out to explore the lush national park. Keep a lookout for the elusive duck-billed platypus – the riverbank around the property is home to a significant platypus community.
Take the short yet scenic walking track up to the aptly-named Sky Window Lookout for sunset. As night falls, return to your cabin and warm up by the log-burning stove.
Day 5: Journey from the mountains to the Capricorn Coast
Get up and out in time to enjoy sunrise and views over the Pioneer Valley at local landmark Eungella Chalet. From here, it’s a mammoth 420 km journey to the seaside town of Yeppoon, just north of Rockhampton.
Head to Yeppoon harbour for dinner and sundowners overlooking the Pacific Ocean, then rest your head for the night at Oshen Apartments.
If you fancy a break from driving, pause your road trip for a day or two and get back to nature on nearby Great Keppel Island.
Day 6: Witness the life cycle of the sea turtle in Bundaberg
Get your heart racing with a 2.3km return hike to Bluff Point at the southern end of town. Part of the Capricorn Coast National Park, this spot is a favourite with walkers thanks to its impressive views over to the Keppel Islands.
Wave goodbye to Yeppoon and hit the road to Bundaberg, a historic sugar cane city and home to Mon Repos Beach, the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland. Visit between November and March to witness the rare sight of mama loggerhead turtles nesting and, later in the season, hatchlings scuttling down to the sea.
Just south of Mon Repos are the waterfront apartments of Manta Bargara Resort where you’ll be spending the night.
Day 7: Forage for farm-fresh produce on the way to Rainbow Beach
Don’t leave town without tucking into breakfast at Bundaberg’s hippest eatery, Indulge Café. From Bundaberg limes to locally caught Spanish mackerel, their seasonal menu makes the most of the home-grown produce this region is famous for.
You’ll have even more opportunities to sample locally-harvested fruit and veggies on route from Bundaberg to Rainbow Beach. Keep a lookout for ‘farm gates’ (roadside produce stalls based on the honesty box system) and stock up on strawberries, macadamias, and mangoes (some farms even make ice cream made from the fresh fruit).
On arrival at Rainbow Beach, head off-road to explore Inskip Point Peninsula, a narrow, sandy finger of land built up by wind and waves to form a natural breakwater. Some parts of the beach can be accessed by 2WD but make sure you check conditions here before you set off.
Spend your final night on the road in comfort at Rainbow Ocean Palms Resort.
DAY 8: Go beach horse-riding and climb a giant sand dune
End your journey on a high with a sunrise hike to the top of Carlo Sand Blow – a sprawling, 15-hectare sand dune just south of Rainbow Beach. From the carpark, take the 600m winding bush track to reach the top of the dune where you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of Cooloola Cove and Tin Can Bay.
After breakfast, saddle up for one last adventure: a horse ride along the beach. Then, it’s time to brush off the sand and get ready for the final leg of your Cairns to Brisbane road trip.
Just a 2.5 hour drive later, you’ll arrive in Queensland’s capital city Brisbane. Not quite ready for it all to end? Hang out in Brisbane a little longer, or get straight back on the road. Here’s some more Queensland road trip inspiration to keep you going.