The Pacific Coast Way links sleepy surfing towns and major cities along the east coast of Australia from the Gold Coast to Cairns.
Beginning in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, the route follows Motorway 1 along the east coast of Australia.
Driving through southeast Queensland, the road passes along the stunning coastline through fishing towns and coastal communities. Many of Queensland’s best attractions are off of the coast of the Pacific Coast Way and can only be reached by boat.
As you make your way into tropical north Queensland, the landscape begins to change as you weave through lush farming regions. Surrounding the roads are endless fields of banana and mango farms making way to sugar cane fields. Depending on the season, you may encounter a sugar cane train hauling loads of cut cane to be processed.
The trip can be done in as little as a one week to several weeks exploring the UNESCO World Heritage landscape and natural attractions along the Pacific Coast Way and along the Great Barrier Reef.
Here are our recommendations for where to stop along the way from Brisbane to Cairns.
Brisbane to Cairns Best Drive Stops
Brisbane – 2 Days
Brisbane is a bustling city perched on the coast of tropical Queensland. Although often overlooked for Sydney, Brisbane holds its own with several arts and culture venues and many diverse restaurants and bars. Allow at least two days to explore everything there is to do in Brisbane, from the Queensland Museum to the South Bank Parklands.
Noosa Heads – 1 Day
Noosa Heads is a tiny resort town, first populated by surfers who wait along the coast for the perfect wave.
At the end of the cape is Noosa National Park. Walk the trail around the cliffs to watch the surfers below and the rocky outcrop at the northern end.
Fraser Island – 1-2 Days
If you are feeling adventurous, take a detour to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, stretching 120 kilometers end to end. Exploring the island can only be done by 4 wheel drive or by foot.
Mackay – 1 Day
As you pass Mackay, you’ll be entering the white sandy beaches of the Great Barrier Reef. Navigate along the coast to discover some of the most pristine beachfronts.
Cape Hillsborough National Park – 1 Day
Located less than an hour north of Mackay, Cape Hillsborough National Park is known for its untouched beaches, which are visited by kangaroos each morning.
Whitsunday Islands – 1-3 Days
For something more laid back, hop aboard a catamaran and sail over to the Whitsunday Islands, a group of idyllic islands near the coast. Set sail from Airlie Beach.
Great Barrier Reef – 1 Day
Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living structure AND can be seen from space? It’s not every day that you can experience one of nature’s most complex ecosystems up close, and you can do so by joining a day sail from to the inner or outer reefs. Book a tour to snorkel or scuba dive at the outer reef to catch a glimpse of the tropical fish, turtles and stingrays that inhabit the warm waters here.
Cairns – 2-3 Days
Once you reach Cairns, you’ll have reached the gateway to experiencing the Great Barrier Reef. In addition to exploring the reefs, you can also explore the city by land. If you’d rather not venture out into the sea, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a free public swimming pool overlooking the beach.
Spend a few days exploring the many attractions Cairns has to offer like the Cairns Art Gallery and Rusty’s Market.
Many people choose to end their tour of the east coast in Cairns, but why not continue up to Port Douglas, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest?
Things to Know
- Driving distance from Brisbane to Cairns (without detours): 1700 kilometers
- Recommended duration: 8-14 Days