5 Essential stops on a Queensland Road Trip: Gold Coast to Cairns

Not-to-miss destinations on a Queensland road trip for families

As I am excitedly researching our next summer holiday to Queensland, Australia I’ve been reaching out to fellow family travellers for their suggestions and came across the amazingly helpful and detailed guides from Melissa at Thrifty Family Travels.

There’s so much to see when it comes to Queensland so I have asked Melissa to share with us her thoughts on the top destinations that you can cover on a Brisbane to Cairns drive.   She includes a lot of detail about distances and stops along the way so get that inspiration notepad read!!!

This post is part of our series Discover Australia  – pop over to see more great road trip and city guides to our favourite places in our home country!

Queensland Road Trip for Families

The northern Australian state of Queensland has a coastline stretching nearly 7,000km, with so much to offer- from the Great Barrier Reef to the bright lights of the Gold Coast; not forgetting the many national parks and pristine beaches in between.  There is a piece of paradise for everyone making it a great destination for a family road trip.

How Best to Get Around Queensland

The best way to explore Queensland is to hire a car and start at either the northern end in Cairns or the Brisbane end in the south and drive between the two cities making various stops along the way.   An ideal road trip would be at least 2 weeks longs, but you could do it in as little as a week or as long as two months!

You can, of course, fly between the major airports on the route, hire a car at each and explore the surrounding areas. The main Queensland airports starting from the south would be, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns.  There are a few smaller airports in between as well.

Queensland Weather – When is it best to visit?

Queensland typically has four seasons being Summer (December to February), Autumn (March to May), Winter (June to August) and Spring (September to November). However, as Queensland covers such a vast area, you can imagine the weather at the top end of Queensland does not mirror the weather at the southern end.

Tropical North Queensland is hot and humid year-round with temperatures averaging around 31°C. Rainy season is from November to April; with near- daily rainfall.

With the Airlie Beach/Whitsunday region and surrounds, the wet season generally matches that of the North.  However, the added concern here are jellyfish.  Stinger season runs approximately between October and March every year and during this time a stinger suit must be worn when swimming in the Whitsundays and surrounds.

South East Queensland (from the Sunshine Coast to the south) receives less rain than the north and is, therefore, more suited to year-round travel. As stingers don’t come this far south, there is no concern when getting in the water.   Weather during the Summer months is hot and humid with temperatures reaching the mid 30’s °C.  During the cooler months, the humidity is less intense and temperatures sit around the low 20’s °C during the day, dropping below 10°C at night.

Must See Queensland Destinations

There are so many fantastic destinations in Queensland, that it is impossible to list them all, so here are 5 of the more popular Queensland destinations with a few tips on places you may stop to explore in between.

1. Brisbane

Being Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane is a great gateway to the gorgeous beaches and national parks of the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast and of course their famous family theme parks and attractions.

In Brisbane City itself, there isn’t a lot to see and do, but luckily the attractions that do exist are mostly free! You can visit museums, art galleries, cruise the river, swim, take guided tours as well as get around the city completely free of charge.

Brisbane - Thrifty Family Travels guide to Queensland

The most popular attraction in Brisbane is the South Bank Parklands.  The kids will absolutely love the Streets Beach which is a man-made beach with lagoon-style swimming pools and rock pools with the Brisbane River as a backdrop.

On the streets of Southbank, there are many cafes, restaurants and bars. Another great attraction to Southbank every Friday to Monday are the Collective Markets that are set up in the centre of the vibrant Southbank streets, showcasing locally handmade, art, crafts, jewelry, candles, clothes and much more.

Click here for a more detailed guide on everything to do in Brisbane with kids

 2. Gold Coast

The Gold Coast is Queensland’s largest second city and 6th largest city in Australia, stretching 66kms south of Brisbane to the northern border of New South Wales. Comprising of several different suburbs and long sandy beautiful beaches, inland canals/waterways, surfing spots, theme parks, hiking trails and national parks. Not to mention its nightlife, shopping centres, boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, and sporting events.

There are 17 different beaches to choose from stretching the length of the Gold Coast, however, there are plenty of other things to do on the Gold Coast – it’s a city that really has the lot!.

Gold Coast -Thrifty Family Travel guide to Queensland

If you are looking for some fun while visiting the Gold Coast, why not head to one or all the famous Gold Coast theme parks such as DreamworldParadise Country, Sea World, Warner Brothers Movie World, Wet n Wild Water World and Whitewater World. If you would like to visit all of them, buy a multiday pass which will save you money.

For the outdoor family spend a day or two at one of the national parks, such as:

  • Springbrook National Park, with breathtaking views, lush rainforest, and waterfalls. Capture the flowing water stream at the Natural Bridge or enjoy a stroll through the Springbrook Plateau. Home to native wildlife and 4 sections of walking trails with stunning lookouts.
  • Lamington National Park, enjoy over 160 kilometres of walking trails scattered with waterfalls, ancient fauna and flora.

Check out this guest post on the best of the Gold Coast with Kids

3. Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast is situated north of Brisbane, stretching from Caloundra to north of Cooloola and includes a variety of little beach suburbs like Caloundra, Mooloolaba, Coolum and Noosa.  Just over 100km from Brisbane, the drive to the Sunshine Coast will take approximately 1hr 30 mins via the M1 motorway.

Located between Caloundra and Maroochydore are the beautiful calm waters of Currimundi Lake.  Here you can enjoy a picnic, have a BBQ or grab some fish and chips nearby whilst soaking up the rays and enjoying the shallow calm waters.

The Eumundi Markets 20kms west of Noosa Heads is one of the largest artisan markets in Australia and is held every Wednesday and Saturday. At the markets, you can purchase all sorts of goodies and not to mention some delicious food.

Noosa - Thrifty Family Travels Guide to Queensland

The Great Beach drive is a 380 km beach route, only suitable for 4WD; which starts at the Noosa North Shore and goes all the way up to the world heritage listed Fraser Island.  Along the route you will drive along some of the world’s most stunning beaches and through gorgeous National Parks.  The area is home to stacks of wildlife including kangaroos, whales, turtles, dingos, dugongs, platypus and birds. If you don’t have your own 4WD drive, there are plenty of tour groups which you can join to experience this beautiful drive.

The Noosa National Park offers both picturesque coastline as well as a variety of walking tracks from easy to moderate, through the rainforest and along the coastline. Some of the best Noosa beaches can be found in the Noosa National Park, such as Tea Tree Bay, Winch Cove and Granite Bay. 

Just outside the park you will find my favourite Noosa beach – Little Cove.  The calm crystal-clear waters of the Noosa River are ideal for getting out and exploring in a kayak or SUP.  There are also several pathways around the area perfect for biking, walking and running.

For more on where to see Australian Wildlife, make sure you read our Ultimate Guide to Australian Animal Encounters

4. Bundaberg

Around 275km from the Sunshine Coast, the drive to Bundaberg will be approximately 3 hours via the Bruce/A1 Highway. You could stop at 1770, Agnes Waters and Hervey Bay on Route.

Whilst Bundaberg is not usually on most peoples to do list when visiting Queensland – if you like quiet little beach towns with amazingly friendly people than it should be.

Bundaberg is famous for a few things – Bundaberg Rum, the Mon Repos turtles and being the start of the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Visit Bundaberg during the turtle season which is from November to March, as you will have the opportunity to witness Loggerhead turtles come to the beach and lay their eggs as well as see the baby turtles hatch and scamper down to the ocean.  The area of Mon Repos is in fact the largest Loggerhead turtle conversation rookery in the southern hemisphere!

Also, take a trip out to see the Great Barrier Reef via a day trip to Lady Musgrave Island.  Here as well as getting up close and personal with the reef, you will get the opportunity to see fish, turtles, dolphins and manta rays.

Bundaberg also has some stunning beaches, such as Bargara Beach and the stunning Elliot Heads. Bargara has plenty of accommodation and cafes, so is the ideal spot to base yourself. Elliott Heads is a little isolated though with no accommodation or shops, so best for a day trip.

Important Reading: How to stay safe on Australia’s Beaches

5. Cairns

Around 1352km from the Sunshine coast, this drive will be approximately 15 hours via the Bruce/A1 Highway. I would recommend doing over at least a few days. You could stop off at the following destinations on route Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Airlie Beach (gateway to Whitsundays), Townsville (gateway to Magnetic Island).

Cairns is the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef; with a variety of options here to explore this famous attraction.  You can just spend the day snorkelling the reef, or take a tour some will take you to a pontoon stationed out in the reef where you can join glass-bottom boat rides.  Other options are to join a tour which combines a snorkelling trip with some time on one of the stunning islands.

The City of Cairns itself has an esplanade lined with bars and restaurants and nightlife and there is also a large man-made lagoon. With kids, you may prefer to stay at one of the quieter Northern Beaches such as Palm Cove or Trinity Beach.

Whilst in Cairns I highly recommend taking the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway up to the picturesque mountain village of Kuranda.  There are a variety of attractions to visit here including the Butterfly Sanctuary, the Rain Forestation Nature Park, the Australian Venom Zoo, Kuranda River Cruises as well as simply to explore the quaint little village.

Cairns is also the perfect place to base yourself to explore the Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation. I recommend at least a day or two to explore the area called the Daintree which covers almost 900,000 hectares of tropical north Queensland. The World Heritage listed Daintree National Park has lush dense rainforest, crocodile infested waters, cool freshwater streams, pristine beaches as well as the Great Barrier Reef.

Whilst here you must also visit the Mossman Gorge, take a Daintree River Cruise to see crocodiles and other wildlife, go to the Daintree Discovery Centre and one of the gorgeous Daintree Rainforest Beaches.

North of Cairns is Cape Tribulation a must-see in the region.  This is a remote headland coastal area of the Daintree, offering a combination of beaches and rainforest. The rainforest can be explored by guided walks, horse rides self-guided trails and even a flying fox.

Click here for a more detailed guide to everything to do in Cairns with Kids

Thanks so much to Melissa for sharing this detailed guide, it’s really helped us plan out our itinerary and I hope it will help you too.

Do you have any other mustn’t miss destinations you think we should see in Queensland? 

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Melissa is the creator and writer of the Thrifty Family Travels website; which details her family’s travels both within Australia and across the globe. Together they look for new adventures, experience new cultures and indulge in local delicacies whilst exploring every corner of our beautiful world. Thrifty Family Travels hope to inspire other families to travel, by showing their followers fantastic new destinations as well as providing detailed itineraries, tips on where to stay and recommendations for the best travel gear.  You can also follow along with Melissa’s adventures here:

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4 thoughts on “5 Essential stops on a Queensland Road Trip: Gold Coast to Cairns

  1. Pingback: How to plan a Kuranda Day Trip from Cairns • Our Globetrotters

  2. Bryan Fisher says:

    I plan to visit Queensland next year, or more precisely I plan to visit Australia. But as it is a long journey I will be spending at least a month there. So, lots of time for snorkeling in queensland and lots of time for bush walking and seeing the other unspoiled side of the country

  3. Shea says:

    Ahhh home sweet home ???? If you have children who love exploring in nature the Tambourine Mountains (Gold Coast Hinterland) is full of gorgeous rainforest walks and the wineries are a great place to for Parents to wind down and watch the sunset. The Sunshine Coast Hinterland has gorgeous little towns worth exploring with loads of local produce and handicrafts to sample. X

    • Keri Hedrick says:

      Now I’ve got no excuse not to get this itinerary into place!! We’ll let you know when to put us in the diary!!!

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