10 AMAZING ROAD TRIPS IN QUEENSLAND
10 AMAZING ROAD TRIPS IN QUEENSLAND, A driving vacation offers opportunities for remarkable and intimate experiences, from a chat with the pub owner to taking in scenery that has been designated as a World Heritage Site. On these wonderful Queensland road trips, you’ll see everything from deserts to waterfalls, and along the way, you’ll learn a little about history as you settle into a leisurely pace on the road.
If you love driving holidays, Queensland has a fantastic selection of routes to choose from. So pull out your road trip packing list and plan your next Queensland road trip adventure.
1- OVERLANDER’S WAY
- Townsville to Tennant Creek
- Distance: 1550 km
- Highlights: Historic drovers route, cattle trucks, Townsville, Julia Creek.
The Overlander’s Way is a Queensland road trip through the outback.
From Townsville in Queensland’s tropical north on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, this Queensland road trip leads you west to Camooweal in outback Queensland, over the Northern Territory border to finish at Tennant Creek.
The 1550km Overlander’s Way is an iconic Queensland road trip named in honour of the drovers that herded huge mobs of cattle from the East Kimberley.
Today you’ll share the road with modern-day drovers and their long cattle trucks.
There is plenty of options for accommodation from camping to motel rooms and some B&B’s.
The towns of Townsville, Charters Towers (once known as ‘The World’ due to the gold discovered and still mined today), Hughenden, Richmond, Julia Creek, Cloncurry, Mount Isa and Camooweal are all covered along the fully sealed drive.
It’s worth stopping a couple of days to tick off these things to do in Townsville and things to do in Charters Towers.
It’s one of those typical outback Queensland road trips.
Festivals and rodeos such as the Mount Isa Rodeo and the Julia Creek Dirt n Dust Festival and fossil hunting for ancient dinosaur bones are just a few of the many attractions along this route.
Other things to do include exploring Dalrymple National Park, Porcupine Gorge and Kronosaurus Korner in Richmond.
The Outback at Isa Hard Times Mine is a tour underground in an Alimak cage.
It’s a brilliant experience and one of the most memorable Queensland road trips you could do.
Then there’s the Mount Isa lookout at night, which has a view of a city that never sleeps and the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre.
2- GREAT TROPICAL DRIVE
- Cairns to Cooktown
- Distance: 327km
- Highlights: Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas and Cairns.
Drive from Cairns in Tropical North Queensland and take in the reef and coastal townships along this remarkable coastal drive.
Localities include Palm Cove, Port Douglas, Daintree, Cape Tribulation and north to Cooktown.
From Cooktown, the trail heads west and winds its way down through the Atherton Tablelands to historic Charters Towers before finishing at Townsville back on the reef.
A side trip to Mackay and Eungella National Park is an option for extended touring on your north Queensland road trip.
I recommend this as a two-week drive, although sections can be done easily on their own.
As Queensland road trips go, the road is all bitumen and suitable for all road-worthy vehicles.
Other things to do include a photo stop at Rex Lookout, a visit to Cairns Aquarium, Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas and the view from the lookout in Cooktown.
Make sure you pop into the Lion’s Den Hotel for a beer.
3- GREAT GREEN WAY
- Townsville to Cairns
- Distance: 410km
- Highlights: Coastal scenery, Magnetic Island, Townsville, Cairns.
A favourite for any driver on a Queensland road trip, the Great Green Way hugs the coastline from Townsville to Cairns.
This drive between Cairns and Townsville is constantly rated in the top 10 in the world.
The scenery is breathtaking along the 410km fully sealed route suitable for all vehicles.
Allow at least two days to enjoy the sights.
There’s far too much to list here.
If you can allow the time to visit Magnetic Island, it’s well worth it.
Bungalow Bay Koala Village is a top spot to get up and close and personal with some of the island’s wildlife.
The experience offers fun for all ages and you are assured of seeing one of the islands very special koalas.
A really fun way to see the island is by hiring a moke (my last one was called Bambi) and driving yourself around.
Roads around the island lead to exciting activities from eco jet-skiing tours, horse riding on the beach to cruises on yachts, markets and cafes and vantage points to finish your day with a magnificent sunset watching the sun dip over mainland Australia.
4- CAIRNS TO CAPE YORK
- Cairns to Cape York
- Distance: 1200km
- Highlights: 4WD, Indigenous communities, Thursday and Horn Islands
Considered one of the last 4WD frontiers on Earth, this drive takes you to the northern-most point of Australia – Cape York.
Through untamed wilderness with creeks full of barramundi and saltwater crocodiles, the most ferocious of the species on the planet, this is an epic Queensland road trip that rewards those who are willing to do the forward planning and preparation.
This Queensland road trip is only suitable for experienced four-wheel drivers.
But if you don’t have the skills, there are independent tour operators that conduct regular tours to ‘The Tip’.
You’ll pass through indigenous communities where alcohol restrictions apply.
There is a range of accommodation options available from camping to resort style.
Other things to do include day tours to Thursday and Horn Islands.
The Daintree Discovery Centre is also worth visiting.
5- GREAT INLAND TOURING ROUTE
- Hebel to Cairns
- Distance: 1863km
- Highlights: Bushranger history, Great Dividing Range, Carnarvon Gorge.
This 1863km drive leads from the town of Hebel on the Queensland and New South Wales border to Cairns in the tropical north.
The Hebel Hotel is where the Kelly Gang used to drink.
The historic hotel still has a hitching rail for horses to be tethered but today modern vehicles are parked out the front.
The fully sealed drive traverses the Great Dividing Range.
It’s one of those Queensland road trips with plenty of national parks and towns.
Culgoa, Carnarvon Gorge and Lake Nuga Nuga are my favourites.
Add museums such as Cobb and Co Changing Station complex in Surat, country sale days at Roma.
Throw in brilliant fishing and camping along with eateries and accommodation that caters for the drive market and you have a big tick for your Queensland road trip.
Other things to do include exploring Charters Towers and Ravenshoe (the highest town in Queensland at 930m) and relaxing in Innot Springs
6- FRASER ISLAND
- Around Fraser Island
- Highlights: Beach driving, Eli Creek, Coloured Sands, Indian Head.
The world’s largest sand islan with 75 miles of beach designated as an official road makes Fraser Island on the top of most must-visit lists in Queensland.
You’ll cross Eli Creek, see the rusting hull of the Maheno wreck and coloured sands, experience the Champagne Rock Pools and amazing views from Indian Head.
For those new to driving on 75 Mile Beach, remember to give way to the airplanes that share the beach with you.
If you’re not sure about driving yourself, there are tour operators that offer drives around the island.
Fraser Island can be accessed from either Rainbow Beach or River Heads.
Time your drives with the tides.
There is a range of accommodation from basic camping sites to holiday homes and resorts.
Other things to do include visiting Pile Valley, Wanggoolba Creek and Lake McKenzie.
7- ADVENTURE WAY
- Brisbane to South Australia
- Distance: 1152km
- Highlights: Burke and Wills trail, Dig Tree, Dalby.
Leading from Brisbane’s city lights into the heart of the outback, the Adventure Way takes you along a route once frequented by swagman.
Innamincka in South Australia is the last town on this journey of 1152km.
It’s close to where explorers Bourke and Wills while making the first attempt to cross Australia, from south to north, lost their lives.
Camping is allowed along a designated section of Copper Creek on Nappa Merrie Station where the Dig Tree still stands and at Innaminka.
Allow at least four days to take in the towns and scenery along the way which include Dalby, St George, Cunnamulla, Thargomindah and Innamincka.
The road is sealed almost to the Dig Tree, which is an iconic Australian landmark.
If you do the alternative trip to Currawinya National Park we recommend a 4WD.
Other things to do include seeing the Face Tree, which is 30m downstream from the Dig Tree carved by John Dick in 1898, visiting the Artesian Hydro Power Plant at Thargomindah.
The plant is believed to be the oldest, working unit in Australia and possibly the world.
Visit Currawinya and Lake Bindegoley National Parks and attend Music in the Mulga at Wandilla.
8- RAINFOREST WAY
- Links NSW and Queensland
- Highlights: Queensland’s rainforest.
Exploring Queensland’s heritage-listed rainforests, just a short drive south of Brisbane via the Rainforest Way allows for spectacular scenery.
See remarkable views from cliff-tops and ancient volcano rims as it meanders through thick lush rainforested sections.
It’s one of those quintessential Queensland road trips that lead you to waterfalls, babbling creeks, rare and endangered wildlife and picturesque villages.
The drive can be accomplished as a day drive however I recommend a two-night stay.
There are plenty of accommodation options and the road is suitable for all vehicles with adequate clearance.
Day pass fees apply to sections on the Rainforest Way.
Other things to do include visiting Buck, the barefoot bush tucker man in Chillingham for the best fruit and vegetables, the Border Loop Lookout and Brindle Creek Walk
9- BIRDSVILLE TO BIG RED
- Birdsville to the Big Red
- Highlights: Simpson Desert, Birdsville.
Considered one of the top iconic Queensland road trips, the route from Birdsville to the top of Big Red (the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert) takes you to one of Australia’s most arid and isolated places.
This is an area rich in outback colours. Ochre-tinged sand dunes are interspersed with grey cracked clay pans and purple gibber plains provide a striking contrast.
Big Red stands around 90m above sea level, though this does change as its sands shift with the wind.
Of the 1,100 sand dunes that form the Simpson Desert, it is the tallest.
It’s definitely a four-wheel drivers’ bucket list experience.
The Simpson Desert is closed between December 1 and March 15.
Allow a minimum of four days to cross the Simpson Desert from Birdsville.
Camping permits are required and you need to be self-sufficient, carry enough water, food and fuel and be travelling in a sound vehicle with adequate communication for remote travel.
Other things to do include a stop at the Birdsville Hotel – a must for any visit.
Indulge in a pie from Rusty’s at the Birdsville Bakery – we can recommend the roo and red wine pie.
Visit the Visitor Information Centre and see the ruins of the Royal Mail Hotel (in town) and Carcory Ruins (approximately 80km north).
10- MATILDA HIGHWAY
- Karumba to Barrungin in NSW
- Distance: 1812km
- Highlights: Outback scenery, Charleville, Longreach, Gulf of Carpentaria.
The Matilda Highway, a fully sealed 1812km road, stretches from the New South Wales border town of Barrungin all the way to Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
It is one of the longest themed drives in Queensland.
Allow at least four days to complete the whole drive but you’ll most probably need a week or more to fully experience the sights along the way.
Many sections of the road are unfenced and I advise not to travel from sunset to dawn as wildlife and stock often share the road with you.
During the day, the kangaroos are usually resting in the shade but beware of emus.
Of all the Queensland road trips, this one is a classic drive through the outback to the barramundi filled waters of the Gulf where life takes on a slower and more relaxed pace.
It is suitable for all vehicles and there is a range of accommodation options along the way but it’s best to pre-book.
Other things to do include the Cosmos Experience and Bilby Show in Charleville, fishing for barramundi in The Gulf and enjoying a sunset cruise on the Wilson River at Longreach.
QUEENSLAND ROAD TRIP ITINERARY – 3000 KM
By Katharine Fletcher
Have road, will travel.
We’re keen roadies, so when it comes to understanding the heartbeat of a sprawling state like Queensland, we rent a camper van, gear up and head off on our road trip.
Not knowing quite what might be around the corner never daunts us.
We’re intrepid adventurers, perhaps like you?
All of the nearly 3,000 km circuit described here was suitable for our 2WD camper van.
Next time we’ll rent a 4WD to tackle most roads, flooded or clear, and gain access to more remote areas.
Here’s what we did on our last Queensland road trip.
BRISBANE TO CAIRNS
We rented our camper van in Brisbane (here are some tips on where to stay in Brisbane) and drove north along the Sunshine Coast to Cairns. From that coastal city, our back-of-beyond roadie adventure kicked in.
CAIRNS TO MAREEBA
Waving goodbye to the Pacific and our snorkelling experiences on the Great Barrier Reef, we headed off on our road trip inland, first passing through the Cairns Highlands, then entering the undulating hills of the Atherton Tablelands.
Dairy cattle grazed in lush grassy paddocks and almost at every turn, breathtaking views captured our fancy – a pastoral contrast from the coastal, ocean landscape of the Sunshine Coast.
Further on, we entered the java region of Oz, where more than 70 per cent of the nations’ coffee crop is grown.
So a stop in Mareeba’s Coffee Works may be necessary for the driver…
Plan to visit the superb Mareeba Heritage Museum – also home to the “i” (Australia’s Visitor Information Centres).
Exhibits are wide-ranging, affording a good overview of the history of Queensland.
Here we learned about Aboriginal life prior to European contact and settlement, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) involvement in Gallipoli, the waves of immigrants and types of agriculture, and much, much more – such as the ant-bed shovel.
Before roads and wifi, this region was “out back of nowhere”, so it’s fascinating to see the wireless station both made and used right here.
Communication was important as this and the telephone party line exhibit demonstrates. Many artefacts can be touched, a feature fascinating for more than youngsters.
GRANITE GORGE NATURE PARK
Birding and wildlife watching is superb around Mareeba, so we camped at Granite Gorge Nature Park, north of Mareeba to experience the northern savannah (grassland) wilderness.
The park’s rare, endangered Unadorned Rock Wallabies – cute smaller cousins of kangaroos – can be fed here (staff provide macropod pellets so you can feed them this specially formulated, appropriate food).
Walking tracks (paths) here are adventurous and some can be rugged because the boulders are immense: leaping from one to another can be awkward.
Happily, there are tracks designed for all levels of walker.
Be realistic about your capabilities – and have fun.
You’ll likely be awakened by the crazy “laughter” of kookaburras, but watch for birds like tawny owls at dusk, and during daytime koels, and many parrots and finches.
RAVENSHOE TO GEORGETOWN
From Mareeba, via Highway 1, we checked out Windy Hill Wind Farm – the first wind farm in Queensland, built in 1996.
Wind turbines are controversial all over the world, but as a renewable energy source, they’re likely here to stay.
This farm`s viewing area shows their sleek industrial design to full advantage.
FORTY MILE SCRUB NATIONAL PARK
West and southwest took us to Forty Mile Scrub National Park, on the McBride Plateau.
This is a landscape of volcanic flows, and the park was created to conserve a remnant of dry rainforest, grassy woodlands, and the headwaters of three creeks.
Bottle (baobab) trees grow here, as do other rare species such as white bean, white cedar, and fig trees.
We particularly appreciated seeing our first baobabs outside of a botanic garden: their chubby trunks lend them their common name.
Camping by the roadside is what we love to do, and out here, camping for free beneath a canopy of stars was awesome.
UNDARA LAVA TUBES
Nearby, Undara Lava Tubes – where lava once flowed from volcanic eruptions – make a fascinating stop.
We pressed on, travelling through Mount Surprise (a road stop with two petrol stations straddling the highway).
The settlement was a railway town and is the first Gulf Savannah town travellers from the east, like us, meet.
Although you need a permit, fossickers can search for gems: perhaps you will find topaz, quarts, cairngorm and others.
Next stop: Georgetown, a centre for the Etherton Goldfields located on the Etherton River – it was a dusty dry bed when we passed through on the Gulf Developmental Road.
In fact, throughout the outback, it’s astonishing to see road signs marking flood levels, because the landscape seems devoid of water.
While driving, we kept our eyes open for wildlife and here, despite the “seeming nothingness” as usual, there’s actually tons to see.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE ALONG THE WAY
Brolgas were roadside, with grown-up chicks.
These large crane-like birds are sacred to Aboriginal peoples, and many legends and artwork featuring of these birds exist.
Romantically perhaps, their name means “native companion.”
Another common sign alerts drivers to road trains.
These are large trucks, sometimes 53 (or more) metres long.
They travel at daunting speeds and we learned the protocols of driving off-shoulder (and sometimes stopping) while they pass.
NORMANTON TO KARUMBA
Now we’re seriously in the grasslands, destination Karumba on the Gulf of Carpenteria.
We’re conscious of the luxury of driving in the laborious footsteps of doomed explorers, Burke and Wills, who perished trying to reach the Gulf.
Their Camp 119 lies about 30 km southwest of Normantown, our next destination.
Normantown is a cattle town on the Norman River.
Exploring, we discover a statue of Krys.
At 8.5 metres long, it’s the largest saltwater crocodile ever seen – shot by Krystina Pawlowska in July 1957 in the river.
It’s a daunting size, and as we approach Karumba, a timely reminder to tourists who wish to swim, that Aussie crocs are both fresh- and saltwater.
Undaunted, we pressed on to Karumba.
The capital of Gulf Country, here we were astonished by sprawling camper van parks largely occupied by semi-permanent residents.
Aussies are inveterate roadies and retirees among the tribe are dubbed “Grey Nomads.”
The moniker is apt, because many retired folks sell their homes, buy a lux camper van, and escape winter by hunkering down in places like Karumba.
Here, they fish, play cards, jog, and generally enjoy a relaxed life.
Travellers like us seamlessly interweave into the rhythm, appreciating Karumba’s fabulous sunsets.
Anglers will want to try fishing for delicious barramundi in the Norman River which boasts the largest such fish ever caught, at 6 metres.
Via Normantown, we continued along the Savannah Way to Burketown.
Talking of Grey Nomads, we discovered they are a fount of knowledge – much the same as at International Hostels, they are serious travellers, not tourists.
Take time to strike up conversations, and like us, you may discover out-of-the-way but delightful non-touristy stops.
That’s how we found Leichhardt Falls, where veteran roadies not only welcomed us for supper but showed us how to dine on crabbies.
Resembling small lobsters, these crayfish were easily caught with inexpensive, small nets – and were delicious.
The Falls is astonishing: in June the broad river had shrunk, exposing a dramatic set of stepped waterfalls which we could only imagine as churning whitewater during wet season floods (November through April).
Our Grey Nomad pals also taught us to be wary of tranquil-looking “swimming holes.”
They showed us crocodile tracks and then, I gasped: “There’s one!”
Basking in the sunshine, a croc slowly opened and closed its jaws.
Although not a Krys in size, it was good enough warning for this keen swimmer to stay out of the water…
Now to Burketow… a town Wikipedia describes as “isolated”.
Its claims to fame are the annual Easter Barramundi fishing competition, celebrating the town being the barramundi capital of Oz.
Here too find the Burketown Pub, where fisher folks growl about “the ones that got away” – and compete regarding sizes and weights of ones which didn’t.
Don’t miss the Burketown “i” which has astonishing photos of the flooding of Musgrave and Burke streets.
GREGORY TO BOODJAMULLA
That’s Gregory, in a nutshell, so seemingly, it’s “just another back o’ beyond service stops” for petrol and supplies.
But of course, there’s a story: the town grew up as part of the Gregory Downs Station – “stations” being Aussie for ranches.
The homestead was located in town and this cattle station was one of the Gulf Country’s first pastoral properties.
Another important thing: the Gregory River is perennial, meaning it always has water.
That’s critical for wildlife, so we weren’t surprised to find all sorts of critters, such as wallabies and wallaroos through to a host of birds.
Boodjamulla – the Aboriginal name for Lawn Hill Gorge National Park – is testimony to how crucial water is to life.
After having travelled from Cairns to Karumba to this parkland oasis, roadies well know the vast stretches of dryland.
And, we’ve seen the flood signage marked on stretches of dried, baked riverbeds.
So, Boodjamulla is indeed a sanctuary, where the welcome of the Waanyi peoples serves to remind us that these are sacred, special lands deserving of our respect as we explore.
And explore we did.
We camped at forested sites where a boobook owl surveyed us from its lofty perch.
We canoed upriver to explore the gorge and yes, saw freshwater crocs basking along the shore.
Despite their presence, I couldn’t resist a dip – so in we both plunged, flirting with disaster.
Happily, the cooling waters soothed our souls and we clambered out on the docks, refreshed.
We hiked, we sketched, and we luxuriated, appreciating shaded serenity.
It was hard to leave: the contrasting colours of red rock, turquoise waters, green rushes and trees, and a blue sky spoke to our hearts.
BOODJAMULLA (LAWN HILL) TO CAIRNS
Leaving the park presented us with our first flooded road, forcing us to turn back and backtrack rather than risk getting bogged.
Backtrack we did to Gregory, then made our way south on the road more suited to 2WD vehicles.
At the Barkly Highway, we turned west, to the Northern Territories, and our final destination of Perth.
On a previous trip, we’d driven a station wagon east on the Barkly Highway through Mount Isa, then joined the Flinders Hwy beyond Cloncurry to bring us to Townsville – nearly 1,000 km of good road.
Townsville is fantastic, and a super way to return to ocean life.
Acquaint yourself with marine life at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or take the ferry to Magnetic Island.
We did just that, so we could first identify marine life before we snorkelled, off-island, to see the fish and coral.