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

An east coast road trip is a rite of passage when visiting Australia. The best way to see it? Backpack Brisbane to Cairns for a front row seat to the country’s most famous stretch of landscape.

Where else can you travel the entire length of one of the world’s seven natural wonders?

Explore world heritage landscapes by day, then by night feast on seafood with your toes in the sand in quiet coastal towns, where the beach stretches further than you can see. Sit on top of your 4WD with a beer to watch the sunset on the world’s largest sand island. Step deep into ancient rainforests to swim under a waterfall, and party deep into the night.

Whether you’re here for a good time or a long time; new friends, epic adventures, and a lifetime of memories await.

Brisbane

South Bank Brisbane Queensland

Photo by @visitbrisbane

Welcome to the River City. Vibrant, fun and warm, you should experience it as the locals do: outside. From alfresco cafes and riverside walks to outdoor movies and giant amphitheaters hosting concerts. Life in Brisbane revolves around the river – and the sun. So head outside and soak it up.

It won’t cost you all your savings either, with plenty of free or cheap experiences up for grabs. Jump on the free ferry that takes you across the Brisbane river, cool off at the man-made beach in the centre of the city, check out the Gallery of Modern Art and explore botanic gardens.

Picnic at Kangaroo Point for the best vantage point over the skyline, join the locals on the lawn at Felon’s Brewing for a pint by the water, or feast your way through world cuisines at EatStreet.

Queensland’s capital, it’s the biggest city experience you’ll get on this backpacking trip. So make the most of the nightlife and live music in Fortitude Valley before you head north!

Check out this backpacker guide on where to stay, where to find cheap eats and everything you need to do while you’re here.

Kayaking at Tangalooma Wrecks Moreton Island

We’ll let you in on a secret: you’ll find some of Brisbane’s best adventures lay offshore.

Jump on the ferry to Moreton Island for a side trip that many backpackers miss. Home to Tangalooma Island Resort, shipwrecks, sandboarding, wild dolphin feeding and more – it’s equal parts exhilarating and breathtakingly beautiful.

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.

North Stradbroke Island is another popular local spot to explore, with beach camping and glamping available. Check out this guide if you’re bringing a campervan.

Fraser Island

Sunset Party on Fraser Island Queensland | backpack Brisbane to Cairns

Make your way to the world’s largest sand island for a quintessential Queensland experience: beach camping.

Known to its traditional Indigenous owners as K’gari – which means paradise – you’ll soon see why. It’s also home to some pretty special swimming spots just beckoning you to jump in. Lake McKenzie, Lake Wabby and Champagne Pools shouldn’t be missed.

Most backpackers head here to drive around in 4x4s, through the trees on dirt tracks and along the beaches before stopping off at one of the campsites for a good old fashioned BBQ and a couple of nights in a tent. Tag Along Safaris are a cost effective way to explore Fraser. Trips depart from Noosa, Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay and include everything you need: cooking and camping facilities, 4WD vehicle, tents and food.

Fraser Island Escape, Fraser Island Discovery, Sunrover Expeditions and Cool Dingo Tours are great options to explore the island.

Need more convincing? Here’s a few reasons Fraser should be on the top of your road trip list.

1770 & Agnes Water

Agnes Water | backpack Brisbane to Cairns Queensland

Head north to Gladstone and stumble upon the serene seaside communities of Agnes Water and 1770. This under-the-radar coastal spot has become a backpacker favourite, and not just because it’s home to one of the best hostels in Queensland.

Southern Cross Backpackers is set on 16 acres of land complete with a lake, and feels more like a resort than a hostel. Relax in the hammocks, or get out and explore with your new mates.

Watch the sky turn orange on a sunset kayak tour where you’ll explore the inlets and spot wildlife, or put peddle to the metal on a motorcycle ride through the countryside (which leaves from the hostel). If that’s not enough, Agnes Water boasts the northern-most surf beach in Queensland. It’s a perfect spot for beginners to take lessons.

The Whitsundays

Manta Ray Bay The Whitsundays | backpack Brisbane to Cairns Queensland

Welcome to the untouched island paradise you’ve always dreamed of.

74 tropical island jewels make up the archipelago known as The Whitsundays. And while they’re dotted with luxury all-inclusives and eco-resorts, there’s plenty of ways to experience it on a budget too.

Airlie Beach on the mainland is a backpacker haven, and a great launching pad for day trips out to the islands and iconic spots like Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet.

If you have the chance, spend at least one night out in the Whitsundays. The backpacker resorts here offer overnight Whitsundays sailing tours, or get a group together for a bareboating trip. Paddle your own way through the islands with a kayak-camping trip, or see sunrise over the reef from the comfort of your own swag with ReefSleep.

Check out this backpacker guide to The Whitsundays and Airlie Beach for all the information you’ll need.

Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island | Backpack Brisbane to Cairns

Jump on the bus to Townsville to explore another gem of Queensland’s north: Magnetic Island. Or Maggie as she’s known in these parts.

Base yourself at Base, the backpackers that looks more like a Bali resort than a hostel. Think beachfront bungalows and camping facilities, plus an Island Bar perfect for sinking into as you watch the sun sink into the horizon each evening. It’s also home to Australia’s full moon party, so time your visit right for a wild night.

That’s not the only wild thing on this island. Wildlife encounters greet you at every turn here. Spot koalas on the Forts Walk, rock wallabies at Arcadia Bay and marine life in the surrounding waters (rent snorkel gear from the dive shops on the island or sign up for a scuba dive).

From topless car tours to jet ski safaris, you’ll find plenty to fill your time here.

Mission Beach

Mission Beach | Backpack Brisbane to Cairns Queensland

Where else will you get the chance to hurtle yourself towards two world-heritage listed wonders?

A popular spot on the backpacker trail for skydiving, this is an adrenalin-pumping adventure you’ll relive (and retell) for a lifetime. Climb to 15,000 feet, overlooking the Great Barrier Reef and rainforest, then free fall for a full minute before cruising down to land on Mission Beach.

Time up your sleeve? Spend a few days here breathing in the relaxed tropical air and spotting cassowaries. Or get in on all the action this area offers: mountain biking, white water rafting, and a day trip to Dunk Island.

Atherton Tablelands

Windin Falls Atherton Tablelands Queensland

Photo by @fourfeetandasuntan

Lush greenery and rolling hills as far as your eye can see.

Approaching Cairns by bus is a pretty special experience. And Atherton Tablelands offers the best introduction – so head out to explore the hills, swim under waterfalls and leap into lakes you’ll have all to yourself.

Windin Falls is a popular spot to soak, but here are five more you’ll want to dip your toes into.

Discover everything to do here with this backpackers guide.

Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling on Great Barrier Reef Queensland

Your final stop on your Brisbane to Cairns adventure saves the most famous part of the coast for last: the Great Barrier Reef.

Check into your hostel (Gilligans and Northern Greenhouse are great options) and then hit the town. Cairns Night Market is a great spot to get a cheap feast before making your way to the backpacker bars that line the streets.

But you’re here to see the reef. Whether you want to dive or snorkel, the options are endless, and your hostel will have some great deals available. Head out with Sunlover for a little bit of everything on their eco-certified four hour reef tour. You’ll arrive at Moore Reef for snorkeling, kayaking and swimming among an abundance of colourful coral, fish, turtles and more.

From reef to rainforest, a visit to Cairns isn’t complete without seeing the Daintree up close. After all, it’s the world’s oldest surviving rainforest.

Walkabout Cultural Tours Tropical North Queensland

Explore on these rainforest walks, or see it through the eyes of those who know it best: with the guidance of the Kuku Yalanji people at Walkabout Cultural Adventures. Tropical North Queensland is the only place in Australia where both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cultures reside. And there are lots of indigenous experiences here for those who want to connect with this ancient culture.

Want to volunteer while you’re here? Rainforestation’s Rainforest and Wildlife International Volunteer Program in Kuranda will get you all up close and personal with the local culture and wildlife of the region. Find out more in this guide.

HOW TO BACKPACK BRISBANE TO CAIRNS

No car? No worries. Greyhound offers 90 day hop-on-hop-off bus passes from Brisbane to Cairns.

Planning to tackle the road trip in a campervan instead? Follow this guide to find all the cheapest spots to camp.