Cruise The East Coast: Sydney To Cairns Road Trip Itinerary

A Sydney to Cairns road trip is an epic adventure taking you through Australia’s most beautiful and diverse landscapes. 

Via a scenic coastal route, you can take in the stunning coastlines of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, the world-class city of Brisbane, the gorgeous tropical palm trees at Airlie Beach, and the natural wonder of the Great Barrier Reef.

Alternatively, you can detour inland to run a course through the rural heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland that showcases historic towns and fantastic stretches of scenic countryside.

Whichever route you take, you’ll find plenty of family-friendly activities and attractions along the way, including beaches, national parks, and historical and cultural icons. This enables families to explore Australia’s natural beauty and create unforgettable memories together. 

However, to make the most of this adventure, careful planning and preparation of where to go are crucial. So, this article will guide you through the best destinations you need to put on your family-friendly Sydney to Cairns itinerary.

Plan an Australian road trip graphic

What is the Distance Sydney to Cairns?

The drive from Sydney to Cairns is between 2,400 to 2,600 kilometres, depending on which way you go, making it a significant road trip for families travelling with kids.

Depending on the route, the journey can take anywhere from 24 to 30 hours of driving, spread across several days of travel. Therefore, it’s essential to plan it carefully, considering rest stops, food breaks, site seeing opportunities, and activities to keep the kids entertained

The Cairns road trip can be done in one of two ways – the coastal or inland routes.

The coastal route is more popular as it showcases the magnificent beaches and scenery all along the eastern seaboard. It also features plenty of services, amenities, and major tourist sites. However, for this reason, traffic between Sydney and Gympie on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland can often be quite heavy.

Also, hotels, petrol, and other provisions may be more expensive and overall, the coastal route is slightly longer.

Sydney to Cairns via the A1 Coastal Route

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Sydney to Newcastle170 kms (106 miles) 2 hours 2 minutesNewcastle
Newcastle to Coffs Harbour385 kms (239 miles)3 hours 57 minutesCoffs Harbour
Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay233 kms (145 miles) 2 hours 21 minutesByron Bay
Byron Bay to Gold Coast/Brisbane164 kms (102 miles) 1 hour 46 minutesGold Coast/Brisbane
Gold Coast/Brisbane to Mooloolaba 101 kms (63 miles)1 hour 15 minutesMooloolaba
Mooloolaba to Hervey Bay209 kms (130 miles) 2 hours 24 minutesHervey Bay
Hervey Bay to Yeppoon 426 kms (265 miles) 5 hours 1 minuteYeppoon
Yeppoon to Airlie Beach504 kms (313 miles)5 hours 31 minutesAirlie Beach
Airlie Beach to Townsville 272 kms (169 miles) 3 hours 11 minutesTownsville
Townsville to Mission Beach235 kms (146 miles) 2 hours 46 minutesMission Beach
Mission Beach to Cairns139 kms (86 miles) 1 hour 45 minutesCairns

Sydney to Cairns via the New England Highway/Capricorn Highway

The inland route showcases parts of country New South Wales and Queensland that many tourists do not see. It also boasts tremendous scenery that is free of commercialization and provides a fantastic opportunity to meet ‘real’ Australians and try foods made from fresh produce grown in those regions.

Overall, you’ll take 3-4 hours off your journey by driving inland and avoiding the major coastal cities.

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Sydney to Tamworth414 kms (257 miles) 4 hours 46 minutesTamworth
Tamworth to Emerald 1,070 kms (664 miles) 11 hours 53 minutesEmerald
Emerald to Cairns611 kms (380 miles) 6 hours 30 minutesTownsville
Townsville to Cairns347 kms (316 miles)4 hours 5 minutesCairns
Estimates only; times will vary based on traffic and road conditions

On the downside, some of the scenery on this route can be repetitive and remote. You could also struggle to navigate the roads at night if you don’t have a suitable GPS device; You’ll want some seriously good family games to play in the car or some good audiobooks to get you through the long driving days.

How Long Do I Need Driving from Sydney to Cairns?

You must factor in at least three days to complete the Sydney to Cairns drive. However, if you have the time, you should set aside at least a week to complete the journey.

With so much to see and do along the way, that time will allow you to qualitatively experience the best of east coast Australia.

Best Time of Year to Drive from Sydney to Cairns

The best time of year to embark on this epic east coast Australia road trip from Sydney to Cairns is during the Australian winter months – June to August.

During this time, the weather is mild – especially the further up north in Queensland you go – with comfortable temperatures ranging from 15-25 degrees Celsius. It’s also the driest time of year, so you’re less likely to encounter heavy rainfall or extreme weather conditions that could impact your travel plans during other times.

Should you plan to go in the height of the summer (Dec to Feb), temperatures in parts of Queensland can top 38 degrees Celsius with a humidity of over 70%. Be aware that you may find this uncomfortable if you don’t have an excellent air-conditioning system.

Also, it is best if you only spend a little time in the sun while sightseeing, and make sure you wear a hat and drink plenty of water when you do so.

The shoulder seasons of March to May and September to November are also decent times to go. Whilst it is often still busy on the road, the crowds are generally smaller at most of the destinations and attractions you will visit.

Best Stops on a Sydney to Cairns Drive

Embarking on a road trip of this magnitude enables holidaying families to witness some of the many incredible sights that define Australia’s east coast.

Presenting unspoiled beaches, charming historic towns, breathtaking scenery, and significant cultural landmarks, you can visit many points of interest.

To help plan your journey, here are a few Sydney to Cairns road trip stops to consider.

Sydney to Cairns Coastal Route

If driving the more direct coastal route, these places are well worth stopping at:

(NB we cover a few more of the smaller towns between Sydney and Byron Bay in much more detail in this east coast itinerary, and Sydney to Brisbane stops here)

Newcastle (1 night)

Newcastle is only a 2.5-hour drive up the road from Sydney, but it is worth making this your first stop with kids.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Newcastle

As well as plenty of cafes, restaurants and eateries, the main beach offers a beautiful stretch of coastline where kids can enjoy swimming, building sandcastles, and playing beach games. It is also patrolled, so you can swim knowing that you are being watched over.

For those who want to stretch their legs, the Newcastle Memorial Walk runs alongside the beach, providing a stunning coastal path with panoramic ocean views. 

If you would prefer exploring some of nature inland, the Blackbutt Reserve is a beautiful spot for families to visit. It offers bushwalking trails, picnic areas, and wildlife encounters that enable kids to see kangaroos, emus, and other native Australian animals in their natural habitat.

One of the most interesting places in the city for children is the Newcastle Museum. Featuring interactive exhibits that engage children in learning about the region’s history, science, and culture, kids can explore the hands-on activities, including a replica coal mine, and learn about the significance of the local area.

Fort Scratchley is another attraction that offers a dose of history and culture. A historic site, kids can learn about the city’s maritime heritage and even witness the firing of the fort’s cannons on selected days if they go on a guided tour. They can also see military artefacts.

Coffs Harbour (1 night)

Coffs Harbour is a terrific place to stop when driving to Cairns from Sydney, especially with children.

It is best known for its legendary Big Banana, an iconic photo opportunity everyone should take. Make sure you have brought your swimming costume as there is also a water park and activities like mini-golf and ice skating there.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Coffs Harbour

If you’re interested in marine life, the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park is a great stop. It is home to bottlenose dolphins, seals and turtles and offers thrilling interactive animal encounters.

Families can also visit the Coffs Harbour Butterfly House to join educational programs and interact with exotic butterflies.

Byron Bay (1-2 nights)

There is no place in Australia quite like Byron Bay!

Known for its incredible beaches, top-notch music festivals, excellent dining and shopping options and infectious, coastal sense of community spirit, the region also offers plenty of family-friendly activities and attractions.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Byron Bay

One of the top things to do is visit the beach, where you can enjoy surfing lessons, build sandcastles, and swim in crystal-clear waters. Another is to head to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, where you can take a guided tour and enjoy spectacular coastline vistas, especially at sunrise. 

For an educational experience, the kids will love the Macadamia Castle and Animal Park, where you can see and interact with kangaroos, koalas, and reptiles. They should also revel in a visit to the Circus Arts Byron Bay, where they can learn circus skills such as trapeze, juggling, and acrobatics.

Gold Coast/Brisbane (2-4 nights)

About an hour’s drive separates the Gold Coast and Brisbane. So, it doesn’t really matter which one you base yourself on, as plenty of family-friendly activities and attractions are easy to get to from either destination. In fact, you could easily extend this stop to a week if time permits.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Gold Coast

On the Gold Coast, some of the top attractions for kids include the major theme parks of Dreamworld, Movie World, and Wet’n’Wild, which offer a range of thrilling rides and water activities.

For a more laid-back experience, families can visit Surfers Paradise Beach, where they can swim, sunbathe and play in the sand. Alternatively, they can pop into the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where kids can interact with koalas, kangaroos and baby crocodiles.

In Brisbane, you can have your photo taken when cuddling a koala at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. After doing that, South Bank Parklands is another destination you’ll want to head to.

There you can play in playgrounds, swim at an artificial beach, walk through the beautiful City Botanic Gardens and take in the sensational, panoramic views of the city and river from a lofty vantage point on the Wheel of Brisbane.

Additionally, The Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Museum displays fascinating exhibits and offer educational and interactive experiences that are both fun and engaging for children.

  • For more inspiration on how to spend your time around Brissy and the Gold Coast, check out this guide to Brisbane scenic drives and day trips, all easy to reach, basing yourself at one of these coastal cities.
Australian City Guides

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

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

Mooloolaba (1-2 nights)

The Sunshine Coast is home to some incredible family-friendly beaches, with Mooloolaba being considered the best of them.

Known for its stunning sweep of sand and crystal-clear waters , its no wonder its such a popular holiday destination in Australia. Kids can splash in the waves, build sandcastles, and enjoy beach activities such as beach volleyball and frisbee.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Mooloolaba

Mooloolaba is also a good base for exploring the world-famous Australia Zoo, which is located in nearby Beerwah. There you will find all manner of animals from crocs and snakes to wallabies and cheetahs. You’ll also be able to enjoy several interactive encounters as well.

If you are more fascinated by creatures that reside under the sea, be sure to check out SEA LIFE Sunshine Coast in the Mooloolaba Wharf. This popular aquarium offers an immersive experience where kids can observe and learn about various marine creatures, including sharks, turtles, stingrays, and tropical fish. The interactive touch tanks and educational presentations provide a hands-on experience for children.

For something a little different, your kids are sure to enjoy fossicking for gems at Opals Down Under or navigating the Bellingham Maze, where they can navigate through intricate hedge mazes, solve puzzles, and play mini-golf.

Hervey Bay (1-2 nights)

If you are doing the Sydney to Cairns road trip between mid-July and November, you should pencil in a visit to Hervey Bay.

Located about 2.5 hours north of Mooloolaba, it is the place for whale-watching tours. Families can embark on thrilling boat tours to witness the majestic humpback whales up close as they migrate along the coast. It’s a unique opportunity for kids to learn about these incredible creatures and marvel at their acrobatic displays.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Hervey Bay

Hervey Bay is also home to the Reefworld Aquarium, where kids can explore an underwater world filled with vibrant marine life. They can observe tropical fish and rays and even hold marine creatures in the interactive touch tanks. The informative exhibits also provide insights into the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and its conservation efforts.

Alternatively, visiting Wetside Water Park is a must for families seeking aquatic thrills. The park has several water slides, splash zones, and a large play area with fountains and water cannons (can be seasonally closed).

With extra time in your itinerary you could also side trip out to K’gari (formerly known as Fraser Island), the world’s largest sand island.

K’gari is home to some of the country’s most stunning beaches where 4x4ing is the only way to get around. Well worth joining a tour if you’re not travelling with your own off road vehicle to get the most out of your visit.

Yeppoon (1 night)

Located about a seven-hour drive north of Brisbane, your next stop is the coastal town of Yeppoon, a perfect place to stop with the kids.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Yeppoon

One of the main attractions is the beautiful Yeppoon Main Beach, which has calm waters perfect for swimming and water sports. If you don’t fancy venturing into the ocean, there is a man-made lagoon swimming pool on the main shore where you can enjoy a dip.

Yeppoon is also the main departure point for Great Keppel Island, known for its 17 spectacular beaches and coral reefs. You can stay overnight there or visit it on a day trip on a glass-bottom boat tour.  If you didn’t stop at K’gari, Great Keppel is another excellent choice if you have enough time.

More adventurous families might want to go spelunking at the Capricorn Caves. An expert guide will take you on a tour through the limestone caves to see unique formations and glow worms.

Airlie Beach (2-4 nights)

Airlie Beach is a vibrant coastal town renowned as the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. You could easily spend a week sailing around the islands, of which there are 74, including Hamilton Island, Daydream Island, Hayman Island and Hook Island. Not to mention visiting Whitehaven Beach, which TripAdvisor voted as the Number 1 beach in the world in 2021.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Airlie Beach

All these islands feature stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters and offer plenty of opportunities for snorkelling, scuba diving, or a glass-bottom boat tour to see the colorful marine life.

Before heading to them, take a dip in the Airlie Beach Lagoon, a free outdoor swimming pool that overlooks the ocean. You should also go on a crocodile safari, hike in the beautiful Conway National Park, or take a scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef to see the iconic Heart Reef.

Townsville (1-2 nights)

Townsville is the last major city before Cairns, so stopping here before completing the four-hour journey is worth stopping here.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Townsville

Whilst here, a great place to head to is The Strand, a picturesque waterfront promenade that stretches along the coast. Families can enjoy a leisurely walk or bike ride along the palm-lined pathway, taking in the stunning views of Magnetic Island. The Strand also offers a water park with slides, water features, and a large swimming enclosure, perfect for kids to cool off and have fun.

The city is also home to the Museum of Tropical Queensland, which showcases the region’s unique natural and cultural history. While there, kids should enjoy walking through a replica of the HMS Pandora, an 18th-century British shipwreck.

Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium is another must-visit destination, providing a fascinating underwater adventure for children. The aquarium features the world’s largest living coral reef exhibit, allowing kids to marvel at the vibrant marine life, including tropical fish, turtles, and even sharks. Interactive displays and informative presentations offer a deeper understanding of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

Townsville also boasts family-friendly beaches, such as Pallarenda Beach and Rowes Bay, while the nearby Magnetic Island is just a short ferry ride away. Home to other beautiful beaches, walking trails, and wildlife encounters, your kids will love spotting koalas in their natural habitat and snorkelling in the clear waters to discover colourful coral and marine creatures there.

Mission Beach (1 night)

Nestled between lush rainforest and the sparkling waters of the Coral Sea, Mission Beach offers a perfect blend of adventure, relaxation, and exploration.

Whilst at Mission Beach, families can embark on Great Barrier Reef tours to go snorkelling or diving in its vibrant underwater world. Kids will be amazed by the colourful coral formations and the chance to spot tropical fish, turtles, and dolphins.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Mission Beach

If you would prefer to stay on the beach, it features a vast stretch of golden sandy beaches to sunbathe, play sports, or walk on. Safety nets are also installed during the stinger season to give people a safe swimming space.

Over at the Mission Beach Visitor Information Centre, kids will love the opportunity to visit the Butterfly House. Kids can witness butterflies’ fascinating life cycle in a tropical rainforest sanctuary and learn about the conservation’s importance. 

Adventure-seeking families can head into the nearby rainforests of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The lush tropical vegetation, cascading waterfalls, and walking trails offer an excellent opportunity to immerse in nature and spot native wildlife. The Mamu Tropical Skywalk is a popular attraction, providing elevated walkways through the rainforest canopy, offering panoramic views and educational exhibits.

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Sydney to Cairns Inland Detour

To drive the inland route to Cairns from Sydney, you will have to veer off the M1 at Newcastle and rejoin the A1 at Townsville. Should you do this, consider popping into these places to make overnight stops:

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Sydney to Tamworth414 kms (257 miles) 4 hours 45 minutesTamworth
Tamworth to Emerald 1,070 kms (664 miles) 11 hours 55 minutesEmerald
Emerald to Cairns611 kms (380 miles) 6 hours 30 minutesTownsville
Townsville to Cairns347 kms (316 miles)4 hours 5 minutesCairns
Estimates only; times will vary based on traffic and road conditions

Tamworth (1-2 nights)

If you decide to take the inland route, from Newcastle in NSW to Townsville in Qld, make sure you stop in at Tamworth. This charming city is one of the best travel destinations in New South Wales for families with children.

One of its main drawcards is the Tamworth Regional Playground, a huge play area with various activities suitable for kids of all ages. It includes a water play area, a maze and a flying fox for them to enjoy.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Tamworth Marsupial Park

Animal lovers should head to Tamworth Marsupial Park and Adventure Playground. It houses many native Australian animals, such as wallabies, kangaroos, and emus. Additionally, it offers children the opportunity to feed Indian peacocks and has an excellent adventure playground to entertain them.

If you are a country music family, pop into the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. This museum celebrates Australia’s rich history of country music, featuring a range of exhibits, interactive displays, and classic tunes to enjoy.

Emerald (1 night)

Situated about a 12-hour drive north of Tamworth and about 6 hours from Townsville, Emerald makes an excellent place to stop for the night after a long journey.

For children, it is a destination that offers plenty of family-friendly activities to keep them entertained and engaged whilst they are there.

You’ll definitely want to head to the Emerald Botanic Gardens, as it has a playground, walking trails, and picnic areas perfectly set up for a fun family day.

AU Sydney to Cairns Road Trip - Fairbairn Dam

It is also worth visiting the Fairbairn Dam, where you can take a scenic boat tour or go fishing for barramundi and other freshwater fish.

Over at the Emerald Agricultural College, you can learn about farming and rural life in Australia. While the kids will want to stay in the Central Highlands Fun Park, which has go-karts, mini-golf, and a jumping castle, for as long as they possibly can!

Pro tip: If the idea of spending 11 hours+ in the car with the kids in a single day doesn’t appeal, you could easily make overnight stops in Goondiwindi or Roma to break up the journey through southern Queensland.

Emerald to Cairns via Townsville (1 Night)

We’d suggest breaking up the final leg of your Cairns road trip itinerary with an overnight stop in Townsville after rejoining the A1. From there, you’ll be left with just 4 hours of drive time along the coast and can make a stop in at Mission Beach along the way!

Where to Stay in Cairns

Cairns has many great accommodation options in the city centre, though our favourite place to stay with kids is to head just a little further north to Trinity Beach or Palm Cove for the ultimate tropical Queensland beach holiday.

Australian City Guides

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

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

More Tips for Road Tripping Sydney to Cairns

  • Daylight savings is not observed in Queensland. So, New South Wales is an hour ahead of the Sunshine State from 2 a.m. on the first Sunday in October until 3 a.m. on the first Sunday in April. Therefore, 7 p.m. in Sydney is 6 p.m. in Brisbane, Mackay and Cairns.
  • Once you get past Bowen in Far North Queensland, the main towns and services can be separated by distances of 100 km and more. Therefore, it is wise to top up on fuel and supplies at these places. Otherwise, you could find yourself stuck!
  • Past Bowen, especially after Townsville, the toilets on the roadside outside the cities and towns tend to be rustic and compost facilities. Sometimes inconsiderate people can leave them messy. So, it is best to take advantage of regularly cleaned toilets in petrol stations whenever you see one – even if you’re not desperate to go.
  • Get more tips on road tripping Australia here, including when to time your trip, how long to allow, and where to pick up your road-tripping supplies from.
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