Ultimate Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip Itinerary

There’s nothing quite like a family road trip to bring loved ones closer together, create lifelong memories, and embark on a shared adventure. And when it comes to unforgettable journeys, the Brisbane to Cairns road trip along Australia’s captivating east coast offers a perfect blend of excitement, exploration, and quality time for the whole family.

Stretching across more than 1,700 kilometres of Queensland’s stunning coastline, this road trip is a treasure trove of experiences that cater to all ages and interests. From the vibrant cityscape of Brisbane, where kids can enjoy interactive museums, parks, and river cruises, to the fascinating encounters with sea turtles and colourful coral reefs at the Great Barrier Reef, it offers something for everyone. 

Let your children’s imaginations run wild as you sunbathe on remote beaches, visit enchanting coastal towns, embark on thrilling outdoor adventures, and uncover the rich Indigenous heritage that permeates the region.

This article will guide you through the highlights and family-friendly destinations that await along the Brisbane to Cairns family road trip. We’ll share tips on the best places to visit, recommend exciting activities and attractions whilst there, and provide insights on creating an itinerary that caters to the interests and needs of your loved ones.

So, get ready to create unforgettable memories, forge stronger bonds, and experience the wonders of Australia’s east coast on this extraordinary family road trip.

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What is the Distance Between Brisbane and Cairns?

The driving distance between Brisbane and Cairns is approximately 1,700 kilometres if you take the most direct route along the Bruce Highway (National Highway 1).

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Brisbane to Noosa151 kms (94 miles)2 hours 16 minutesNoosa
Noosa to Bargara250 kms (155 miles)3 hours 7 minutesBargara
Bargara to 1770142 kms (88 miles)1 hour 46 minutes1770
1770/Agnes Waters to Gladstone131 kms (81 miles)1 hour 37 minutesGladstone
Gladstone to Rockhampton108 kms (67 miles)1 hours 15 minutesRockhampton
Rockhampton to Yeppoon43 kms (27 miles)41 minutesYeppoon
Yeppoon to Sarina322 kms (200 miles)3 hours 25 minutesSarina
Sarina to Cape Hillsborough81 kms (50 miles)59 minutesCape Hillsborough
Cape Hillsborough to Airlie Beach128 kms (80 miles)1 hour 32 minutesAirlie Beach
Airlie Beach to Bowen78 kms (48 miles)1 hourBowen
Bowen to Cardwell365 kms (227 miles)4 hours 10 minutesCardwell
Cardwell to Townsville165 kms (103 miles)1 hour 58 minutesTownsville
Townsville to Mission Beach235 kms (146 miles)2 hours 50 minutesMission Beach
Mission Beach to Babinda81 kms (50 miles)1 hours 1 minuteBabinda
Babinda to Cairns59 kms (37 miles)51 minutesCairns
Estimates only; times will vary based on traffic and road conditions

Overall, if you were to drive from Brisbane to Cairns non-stop, it would take you about 20 hours of driving. Most cars would also need to fill up with petrol at least twice on the journey there.

Alternatively, you can take other routes, such as the Dawson Highway, that lead to inland regions like Monto, Biloela, Blackwater and Moranbah. Doing this will add an extra hour to your driving time, at least, but it will showcase what life in rural Queensland is like – which is fascinating.

How Long is the Drive from Brisbane to Cairns?

If you intend to drive from Brisbane to Cairns, you must factor in at least one overnight stop. For most people, this is usually at Sarina, Mackay or Airlie Beach, roughly representing the halfway point between the two cities.

However, as there is such a wealth of sites and attractions to see on the journey, the more time you can devote to doing it, the better. Ideally, a week is a good amount of time as this will enable you to spend quality time every day at a different destination to appreciate and soak in its ambience.

If you do not have that time, try to set aside 3 to 4 days for the journey. This timeframe provides ample time to enjoy the diverse landscapes, visit charming coastal towns, indulge in outdoor activities, and experience the unique highlights of the region.

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Don’t miss our complete collection of Aussie city guides for families:

ADELAIDE | BRISBANE | CAIRNS | CANBERRA | DARWIN | GOLD COAST | MELBOURNE | PERTH | SYDNEY

Best Time of Year to Drive from Brisbane to Cairns

The best time of year for a family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns is during the dry season, which typically extends from April to October. This period offers favourable weather conditions, with milder temperatures, lower humidity levels, and minimal rainfall, making it ideal for a road trip.

Starting in April, the weather begins to cool down after the hot and humid summer months, creating pleasant driving conditions. May and June are particularly popular months as they offer comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds along the route. July and August are also decent times to go, with mild temperatures and clear skies, but they can be busier due to the school holidays.

It’s worth noting that September and October mark the transition into the warmer and more humid period leading up to the wet season. While these months can still be enjoyable for a road trip, there is a higher chance of encountering occasional showers and increased humidity.

The wet season, typically from November to March, is characterised by heavy rainfall, tropical storms, and higher humidity levels. Road conditions can become challenging, with the possibility of flooding in certain areas if the heavens open up. Subsequently, driving during this time may require extra caution. Due to the weather conditions, your access to certain natural attractions and activities may be limited.

All things considered, planning your road trip during the dry season, specifically from April to October, will offer you the best weather conditions and a more enjoyable experience driving from Brisbane to Cairns.

Best Stops on a Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip

Brisbane to Cairns driving is a long-old endeavour. Thankfully, there is plenty to see and do to pique your interest.

  • Hanging around Brisbane for a bit before you start your journey? Grab our complete family guide to Brisbane with accommodation ideas and all our favourite things to do.

For those taking the Bruce Highway/National Highway 1 route, below are some of the best places you should stop at.

Noosa (1 – 3 Nights)

Noosa, nestled along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, is a perfect stop on a family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns. 

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip -  Noosa Main Beach

One of Australia’s premier holiday destinations, this coastal paradise offers a delightful blend of natural beauty, family-friendly attractions, and a relaxed atmosphere. With its pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and stunning national parks, Noosa provides a picturesque playground for families.

Take a dip in the calm waters of Noosa Main Beach, perfect for kids of all ages, or explore the picturesque Noosa National Park with its scenic coastal trails and the chance to spot koalas in their natural habitat. 

Noosa also boasts an excellent shopping and dining scene on the world-famous Hastings Street, which runs parallel to the main beach. But for an unforgettable experience, embark on a river cruise along the Noosa River, where you can spot dolphins, go fishing, or just kick back and enjoy the serene surroundings.

Bargara (1 – 2 Nights)

Bargara is a lovely coastal town in the Bundaberg region of Queensland. 

While it is often overlooked on most people’s Cairns road trip itinerary, it is worth coming to Bargara for its stunning beaches, relaxed atmosphere, and family-friendly attractions.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Bargara Beach

The town’s main highlight is Bargara Beach, a pristine stretch of golden sand perfect for swimming, building sandcastles, and enjoying beachside picnics. Families can also explore the fascinating Mon Repos Turtle Centre, where you can witness nesting and hatching turtles during the breeding season, which runs from November to March.

Nature lovers can visit the nearby Barolin Rocks dive site. Renowned for its vibrant coral and marine life, it is ideal for those with older children wanting to go on snorkelling or diving adventures.

For those interested in local history, visiting the Bundaberg Rum Distillery and the Hinkler Hall of Aviation provides an educational and entertaining experience. They are also good indoor options for escaping the heat.

1770/Agnes Waters (1 – 2 Nights)

Located about a four-hour drive from Brisbane, The town of 1770 and neighbouring Agnes Waters are ideal stops on a family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Agnes Waters

These twin towns offer a harmonious blend of natural beauty, outdoor adventures, and family-friendly attractions that will entertain the family for hours (or days!).

Known for being the site of Captain Cook’s second landing in Australia, 1770 provides a rich historical backdrop. Families can explore the Captain Cook Monument and enjoy scenic walks along the headland, offering breathtaking coastal views.

Just a stone’s throw away, Agnes Waters boasts pristine beaches perfect for swimming, surfing, and building sandcastles. Families can also embark on aquatic activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, or even taking a family surf lesson.

For those who’d prefer to explore nature, the nearby Deepwater National Park is home to diverse wildlife and stunning hiking trails. 

Gladstone (Few Hours)

It would be worth stopping by Gladstone during your family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns. This vibrant city offers an excellent opportunity to stretch your legs, refuel and take in some sights.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Tannum Sands

To start, families can explore the beautiful beaches of Gladstone, including Tannum Sands and Boyne Island, where kids can swim in calm waters. Alternatively, to explore nature, the nearby Kroombit Tops National Park allows you to hike through lush rainforests and spot unique wildlife.

For those after an educational experience, the Gladstone Maritime Museum provides a fascinating insight into the region’s maritime history through interactive exhibits and displays. Additionally, Gladstone Marina offers the chance to indulge in a family-friendly cruise or fishing excursion. Or simply observe some impressive boats.

Rockhampton (Few Hours – 1 Night)

Rockhampton, known as the ‘Beef Capital of Australia’, is a fascinating destination to pop into for a while.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Rockhampton

As its nickname suggests, this vibrant city in Central Queensland is a terrific place to get a good steak meal (try 400g rump at The Bush Inn Bar & Grill Steak House in The Criterion Hotel Motel). But it is also a beautiful place to visit with many heritage-listed buildings.

Stroll along East Street or visit the impressive Rockhampton Heritage Village, a living museum showcasing the region’s rich past. For animal lovers, a visit to the Rockhampton Zoo is a must. It features a diverse range of native and exotic species, including the iconic Australian kangaroos. 

Families can also enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens, with its vast green spaces, playgrounds, and picnic areas. At the same time, the nearby Mount Archer National Park offers stunning views, bushwalking trails, and even a treetop adventure course the kids will love.

Yeppoon (1 – 2 Nights)

If you’re planning a family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns, include Yeppoon on your itinerary. This charming coastal town along the Capricorn Coast is the perfect destination for families seeking sun, sand, and adventure.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Yeppoon Main Beach

One of the main attractions in Yeppoon is the stunning Yeppoon Main Beach. Kids can play in the gentle waves, build sandcastles, or run around until their heart’s content on this beautiful beach. 

Alternatively, the Yeppoon Lagoon is a large, man-made swimming pool overlooking the ocean where they can cool off. Plenty of cafes and restaurants are over the road from both when you are hungry.

Families can also explore the picturesque Keppel Bay Islands, including Great Keppel Island, by taking a short ferry ride. There, you can enjoy snorkelling, swimming on any of its 17 fantastic beaches, and bushwalking in a tropical paradise. For a very cool experience, check out the Keppel Kraken, an underwater artwork and snorkelling trail that provides a unique opportunity to learn about the region’s marine life.

Sarina (Few Hours – 1 Night)

Sarina is convenient for an overnight stop on a family road trip from Brisbane to Cairns. It roughly marks the halfway point between the two cities, and with many hotels and accommodation providers lining this section of the National Highway, you will immediately be on the road to Cairns when you check out of them.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Sarina Beach

The historic town is renowned for its sugar cane industry, which you can learn more about by visiting the Sarina Sugar Shed. There you can enjoy sugar tasting and even try crushing sugar cane. Animal lovers will also appreciate visiting the Sarina Sugar Shed’s miniature animal farm, where kids can interact with friendly farm animals.

For a fun-filled day in the sun, the nearby Sarina Beach provides a picturesque setting for swimming, beachcombing, and building sandcastles. Families can also explore the natural beauty of the Sarina area by visiting the secluded Cape Palmerston National Park, which features stunning coastal landscapes, bushwalking trails, and abundant birdlife.

Cape Hillsborough (Few Hours – 1 Night)

Cape Hillsborough is a captivating destination you should visit when driving from Brisbane to Cairns. You will need to get there at sunrise to make the most of your time there. But we promise you it would be worth the effect of waking up early.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Cape Hillsborough National Park

Known for its unique wildlife encounters and stunning natural beauty, Cape Hillsborough offers an unforgettable experience for the entire family. The main highlight of this area is the opportunity to witness kangaroos and wallabies on the beach at dawn. 

Families can wake up early and head to the shore to watch these iconic Australian animals hopping along the sandy beach, creating a magical and memorable experience. You will be able to take incredible photos of them up close whilst they fossick along the shoreline.

Beyond the wildlife encounters, Cape Hillsborough National Park also offers picturesque walking trails that wind through lush rainforests, leading to breathtaking lookout points with panoramic ocean views. Families can enjoy picnics in the park, explore the rock pools, and spot marine life, such as turtles and dolphins. Cape Hillsborough is one destination you won’t want to miss!

Airlie Beach (1 – 2 Nights)

Known as the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, Airlie Beach is a terrific base for those wanting to visit places like Whitehaven Beach (Once voted by TripAdvisor as the best beach in the world!), Hamilton Island, Daydream Island or Hayman Island. Regular ferries run throughout the day to take you to them.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Airlie Beach

However, the town has plenty of its own drawcards, including the Airlie Beach Lagoon, a man-made swimming area perfect for kids of all ages. The lagoon features shallow areas for young children and deeper sections for older kids to enjoy. 

Additionally, the coastal town offers a range of restaurants, shops, galleries and parks for families.

Bowen (Few Hours – 1 Night)

Sitting precisely 20 degrees south of the equator, Bowen is another fantastic place to visit.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Horseshoe Bay

It is home to the iconic Big Mango (which recently celebrated its 21st birthday), where families can take memorable photos next to the giant fruit sculpture and learn about the region’s thriving mango industry. 

Bowen is also known for its idyllic beaches and natural beauty, including the magnificent Horseshoe Bay, a crescent-shaped beach renowned for its calm waters and sandy shores. Kids can enjoy swimming, building sandcastles, and exploring the tidal pools. 

The Mullers Lagoon offers a tranquil spot for a family picnic, bird-watching, or a relaxing stroll around the lake. Additionally, families can explore the walking trails at the Bowen Nature Trail to further immerse themselves in the region’s natural beauty.

Cardwell (Few Hours)

Cardwell is a picturesque coastal town in North Queensland that most people drive through on their way up to Cairns from Brisbane.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Hinchinbrook Island

However, those who stop there experience a charming place with rich character. Nestled between the Coral Sea’s pristine waters and the Hinchinbrook region’s lush rainforests, Cardwell has a stunning foreshore. It features a beautiful beachfront park with playgrounds, BBQ facilities, and walking paths along the water’s edge, which is a beautiful place to spend some time. 

Taking a scenic boat tour to nearby Hinchinbrook Island is recommended. There you can discover secluded beaches, hike through pristine rainforests, and marvel at cascading waterfalls. Cardwell also offers a chance to enjoy the mesmerising Cardwell Spa Pools. These natural rock formations create small pools with cascading water, perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot, sunny day.

Townsville (Few Hours – 1 Night)

Townsville is the last city you’ll reach before Cairns. So it would be worth topping up on your supplies here. 

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Magnetic Island

It is also worth stopping here to explore The Strand, a waterfront promenade boasting a water park, playgrounds, and a rock pool for swimming. At the same time, The Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium is a must-visit, offering an immersive experience where families can learn about the wonders of the reef and interact with marine life.

For an adventure in nature, families can head off to Magnetic Island, just a short ferry ride away, where they can hike through national parks, snorkel in clear waters, and even spot wild koalas.

Townsville also offers the chance to visit the impressive Museum of Tropical Queensland, which showcases the region’s history and natural heritage. You will also find some terrific restaurants and excellent shopping here.

Mission Beach (Few Hours)

Nestled between the rainforest and the Coral Sea, Mission Beach is a tropical paradise you won’t want to miss.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Josephine Falls

Comprising pristine sand, lush natural surroundings, and a laid-back atmosphere, it offers an ideal setting for families needing to take a break from Brisbane to Cairns driving. 

For a unique wildlife experience, a visit to the nearby Cassowary Coast offers the chance to spot the endangered Cassowary, a large and impressive bird native to the region. Families can also explore Dunk Island, accessible by a short ferry ride, where they can enjoy scenic walking trails, snorkelling, and picnicking in this tropical oasis.

The Tully River is also perfect for families seeking a thrilling white-water rafting adventure.

Babinda (Few Hours)

Just an hour before Cairns, in the rainforest region of North Queensland, lies the beautiful town of Babinda.

AU Brisbane to Cairns Family Road Trip - Babinda Boulders

Surrounded by lush greenery, Babinda offers a peaceful and picturesque setting for families to explore and connect with nature. Start by visiting the Babinda Boulders, a natural swimming hole surrounded by striking granite boulders and rainforests. Kids can splash in the refreshing water, and slide down the smooth rock formations, and you can all enjoy picnics in the shaded areas.

Babinda also boasts beautiful walking trails, such as the Josephine Falls Circuit, where families can embark on an adventure through the rainforest, encountering stunning waterfalls and enjoying invigorating swims in crystal-clear pools.

For a more educational experience, visiting the Babinda Sugar Museum provides insights into the region’s sugar industry and rich history. While the town also has several stunning art deco buildings to observe.

Cairns

Well done, you’ve made it! Whether you choose to stay in central Cairns or one of the northern beach towns, Cairns makes a superb place to base yourself for exploring Far North Queensland. There are numerous easy day trips from Cairns, including iconic Kuranda, sailing to the Great Barrier Reef and visiting the Daintree.

If you plan to keep heading north from Cairns, don’t miss our guide to Cairns to Cape Tribulation, which has plenty more handy tips for navigating Far North Queensland.

You can catch our complete family guide to Cairns here!

More Tips for Road Tripping Brisbane to Cairns

  • Once you pass Gladstone, all the way up to Cairns and beyond, you are in known Croc-Country. So when you go to the beach, look out for signs advising of crocodile sightings, and do not enter the water if you are the only person there.
  • When driving at sunrise or night, be extra vigilant for kangaroos. They will bound across the road without warning or regard for their own safety. As well as potentially killing them, if you collide with them, it could do a lot of damage to your car.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with Australian roads, be sure to check out our beginners’ guide to road Tripping Australia, where we share planning tips and driving advice.
  • One-way car hires are possible from Brisbane to Cairns – or vice versa – if you do not wish to repeat the 20-hour drive in the opposite direction.
  • Continue your road trip from Cairns, cross Australia’s top end with these fascinating itinerary stops between Cairns and Darwin
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