Queensland by car: Road trip adventures in the Sunshine State
Gold Coast to Brisbane
Image: Tourism and Events Queensland/Jason Charles Hill
Begin your drive on Queensland’s buzzing Gold Coast. Ride the swells in Surfers Paradise, lounge on powder-soft sands, or get an adrenaline rush with indoor skydiving. Once the sun sets, you can enjoy some of the Gold Coast’s best nightlife around Orchid and Cavill Avenues.
The next day, take a day trip 80 kilometres west to the Scenic Rim. You’ll feel like you’re on the set of Jurassic Park amid the ancient rainforest and dramatic peaks of Lamington and Springbrook National Parks. The parks are a hiker’s paradise, with scenic trails ranging from the one-hour Natural Bridge Circuit to the three-day Gold Coast Great Walk. Foodies will also be happy here – farm-fresh produce, artisan foods, and local wines grace the region’s mouthwatering menus.
On your way up to Brisbane, be sure to stop at the immersive and interactive Aboriginal storytelling experience, Spirit of The Red Sands.
Where to stay: YHA Coolangatta
Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast
Stop in Brisbane for your big-city fix. Dine around the world at Eat Street Northshore, where you’ll find affordable food at more than 180 stalls in shipping containers, plus live entertainment. Explore South Bank Parklands, climb the Story Bridge, and admire Australian and international masterpieces at the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art - known as GOMA by the locals.
Take advantage of islands in touching distance of the CBD with a day tour to Moreton Island for exhilarating wilderness adventures. This is the planet’s third largest sand island, where you can sandboard down soaring dunes; snorkel or dive the Tangalooma wrecks; or go whale watching (seasonal), or sea kayaking.
Also jump on the vehicle ferry from Cleveland to explore Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). Take walking tours along the Goompi Trail with local Indigenous guides, spot whales, dolphins, turtles, and maybe even a dugong from the shore. You can also dive or snorkel with friendly manta rays and turtles at Manta Bommie.
Where to stay: YHA Brisbane City, YHA Stradbroke Island
Sunshine Coast to Hervey Bay
Next on the itinerary are the golden beaches of the Sunshine Coast. You can soak up some rays strolling along the Mooloolaba Boardwalk or surfing the breaks at Coolum Beach. Farther north, take a dip in the crystal-clear ocean at Little Cove, and hike through Noosa National Park for spectacular views of the coast.
Craving a shopping fix? The Original Eumundi Markets (about a 20-minute drive away from Noosa) offers Australia’s biggest selection of local arts and crafts, and delicious local produce every Wednesday and Saturday.
From Noosa, take a scenic day trip into the hinterland on the 110-kilometre Blackall Range Tourist Drive. See jaw-dropping views of the Glass House Mountains, and visit charming villages like Mapleton, Montville and Maleny. Here, you’ll find art galleries, boutiques and tasty treats like creamy cheeses and Maleny’s famous chocolate. Stretch your legs at Kondalilla National Park on a scenic waterfall hike, or look for pademelons at Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve.
25 minutes north of Noosa lies the Noosa Everglades, a wetland wonderland home to one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Australia. Here you can navigate its network of waterways via kayak or canoe, or take one of the many walking trails to explore on foot.
If you have access to a 4WD and an appetite for adventure, take the five-day, 380-kilometre Great Beach Drive through two UNESCO biospheres along the sand highways from Noosa to Hervey Bay.
Where to stay: YHA Noosa Heads | YHA Noosa Everglades Kangarooms
Hervey Bay to Bundaberg
Your next stop is the K’gari Coast. Base yourself in the friendly beachside town of Hervey Bay while you explore the region’s highlights. Top of the list is a whale watching cruise. Hervey Bay is the world’s first official Whale Heritage Site, with humpback whales using the bay as a nursery during their migration. Book a cruise to see these gentle giants.
Next on the list is the world’s largest sand island, K’Gari. It’s just a 50-minute ride away on the car ferry. Here, you can four-wheel-drive for days along the sweeping sands, and spot a spectacular array of wildlife, from kangaroos and dingos to dolphins and dugongs. If four-wheel-driving isn't your thing, jump on an all-inclusive multi-day tour.
If you have time, take a day trip to the charming town of Maryborough, one of Queensland’s oldest towns. Soak up the town’s rich history at the local museums and memorials, and visit the former home of Mary Poppins creator P.L Travers.
Where to stay: YHA Hervey Bay
Bundaberg to Seventeen Seventy & Agnes Water
Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
From Hervey Bay head north to Bundaberg. Be sure to visit some of the local distilleries and taste some of the region’s famous Bundaberg Rum and ginger beer you can even try your your hand at blending your own rum. Between November and March, look for turtles nesting at Mon Repos Conservation Park, with tours led by park rangers.
Seventeen Seventy to Rockhampton
In Seventeen Seventy (also known as the Town of 1770) and Agnes Water, you’ll find pristine beaches, wildlife-rich forests and fantastic surf. Enjoy a dip at Agnes Water Beach, fish for coral trout and Spanish mackerel along the shore or catch a fiery sunset over the bay at the Headlands lookout. Looking for a hike? Try the Red Rock Trail for gorgeous views of the beaches, or take the Paperbark Forest Walk to spot flying foxes, lorikeets and butterflies.
Take an easy day trip to the secluded coral cay of Lady Musgrave Island to see the unspoiled beauty of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Here, you can snorkel with sea turtles and tropical fish in the turquoise-tinged lagoon, or admire the coral from a glass-bottom boat.
Where to stay: YHA 1770
Rockhampton to Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays
Next stop is Rockhampton (“Rocky”), the cattle capital of Australia. Looking for free things to do while you’re in town? Check out the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens next door. Also, just 30 minutes north of Rockhampton are the ancient Capricorn Caves, where you can tour striking rock formations dating back over 390 million years.
As you drive up to Airlie Beach, consider veering inland to soak up the misty mountain vistas of Eungella National Park. Keep an eye out for some of the park’s diverse wildlife — including the elusive platypus and nocturnal sugar gliders. Also on the way to Airlie Beach is Cape Hillsborough Beach. Stop here to capture iconic Aussie images of kangaroos hopping across the picturesque beach.
Where to stay: YHA Rockhampton
Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays to Mission Beach
Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Dreaming of a tropical island paradise? Explore the idyllic Whitsunday Islands from the mainland hub of Airlie Beach. Cruise out to the sparkling silica sands of world-famous Whitehaven Beach, or take a guided snorkelling tour along the reefs. Meanwhile, thrill-seekers can take their pick of adrenaline-infused adventures: Try tandem skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef, or touring the islands at high speed on a jet ski.
Airlie Beach itself also offers plenty of things to do, with famous nightlife, Saturday morning markets and a sparkling lagoon-style pool near the beach.
Continuing north along the coast to Mission Beach, consider a stop in Townsville, Australia’s largest tropical town. From here, you can take the car ferry over to Magnetic Island, one of the best places in Australia to see koalas in the wild.
Mission Beach to Cairns
Enjoy a tranquil getaway in Mission Beach before you head onward up to the tourist hot spot of Cairns. Relax along 14 kilometres of peaceful palm-fringed beach, or shop it up for some handmade souvenirs and tasty tropical fruit at the Mission Beach Markets. You can also look for cassowaries at Djiru National Park.
Feeling the need for an adrenalin hit? Mission Beach is famous for its beach landing Skydive.
Cairns to Cape York
Linger in Cairns and explore the region’s natural treasures. Fill your days with trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Green and Fitzroy Islands, and the lush rainforests of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to the artsy village of Kuranda, and when the sun sets, enjoy Cairns’ vibrant nightlife.
As you continue north from Cairns, the 12-day, 2,000-kilometre Great Tropical Drive will take you on an epic journey to explore Tropical North Queensland. Heading past peaceful Port Douglas and ravishing Cape Tribulation on an epic 4WD adventure to the tip of Cape York is the perfect way to cap off your Queensland odyssey.
Where to stay: YHA Cairns Central
Words: K. Hastings
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