“Roads were made for journeys not destinations” – Confucius
Where To Swim And Sleep From Sydney To Cairns
Are you looking for a guide to the best beaches and campsites for the ultimate east coast of Australia road trip? We’ll help you discover the best spots to lay your head and the best places to dip your toes, with a splash of history, heaps of wildlife and no crowds in sight.
If multiple places on the east coast look desirable to you, consider doing the journey this way to enjoy real Australia. Sure, you can fly into most of the main towns and cities and spend short amounts of time cramming in the so-called ‘best bits’ before flying off again, but the real way to enjoy a country as big as this one, is to drive between the airports, hug the coast with camping gear and sleep under southern stars. This is the way we chose to enjoy our east coast of Australia road trip and it’s no surprise that it got us totally hooked on travelling this way.
Read on to discover:
- The best paid and free campgrounds along the east coast of Australia.
- Our ‘don’t miss’ towns, activities and national parks in NSW and QLD.
- Driving times between campgrounds and points of interest.
- Useful information on how long to allow for an east coast of Australia road trip.
- The realistic costs of taking to the east coast by road.
The Sydney to Cairns Itinerary
As far as Australia road trips go, Sydney to Cairns is a great one to do first because you’re never too far away from civilisation, but far enough away to experience the natural wonders of this mysterious land. This style of travel requires time and how much of it you want to spend in each area will vary based on your personal tastes, your bucket list agenda and of course how long you have to travel. We spent 6 weeks travelling from Sydney to Cairns, including a detour up to Cooktown and Port Douglas. And that’s not the entire east coast!
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t have anywhere near as long as 6 weeks to play with. Spending a small amount of time doing a section of this coastline via the road is far more rewarding than flying in and out of its major cities and returning home having missed out on an authentic Australia experience. So grab a vehicle and a map and let our east coast of Australia road trip guide help you to plot out your own east coast itinerary from Sydney to Cairns.
Please Note: All driving times are approximate and are based on roads suitable for 2WD vehicles. Camping fees can vary due to season, party size and pitch type required.
Start: Sydney and Blue Mountains National Park
Sydney is a great pick up point for your vehicle and a fantastic city for many reasons, some of which are highlighted in Getting Outside in Sydney. The Blue Mountains National Park is an excellent east coast of Australia road trip starting point, easing you in gently to life on the road, camping in Australia and finding your route.
Find out more information about the Blue Mountains campsites we chose and the things to do in this wonderful National Park. Here, we recommend an unpowered site, costing around 30 AUD, so that you can request to be on a large grassed area, where sometimes you can watch locals play cricket in the afternoon. After many walks enjoying views of the famous Blue Mountains, head back to site, get out the camping chairs and relax with a cold drink. Your east coast of Australia road trip has begun!
Sydney to Katoomba: 1 hour 30 minutes
Lunch Stop: Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park
After the unmissable Blue Mountains, head to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, worthy of at least a lunch stop. Follow the Mangrove Boardwalk which is a short and easy stroll that is accessible for all. The track winds over mangroves and Cockle Creek with an elevated bridge. See if you can spot red crabs darting in and out of the mud. I ventured a little further along the track as it becomes the Gibberagong Track. It was here, completely alone and surrounded by eucalyptus trees and sandstone rocks, that I encountered my first ever wild kangaroo.
This was day three of our east coast of Australia road trip and this was definitely the moment that I went ‘THIS is why you do it this way’. How many visitors get to see a kangaroo in its natural habitat? How incredible is it to enjoy iconic wildlife in such a way as they let you see them if they want to but are free to leave whenever they like? This is a wonderful NSW National Park near Sydney, traditional land of the Guringai people, that can offer you anything from a couple of hours pleasure or a whole weekend of fun. Plan long walks or short tracks and enjoy a BBQ on one of the communal cooking areas.
Katoomba to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park: 1 hour 30 minutes
A Free Campsite: Buladelah
From here, head to Buladelah North Golf Club Rest Area which offers free camping for price conscious travellers. There is an outdoor toilet and water but other than that, it’s just you, green grass and a family of local kangaroos. They play on the golf course at sunset and sunrise.
Most free sites are near the highway so are not suitable if you want complete peace and quiet. However, if you don’t mind a little road noise, they are a godsend when you are still driving late afternoon, unsure where you will park for the night and not wanting to invest in facilities you won’t have time to use. Our best advice with free sites and is to remember … they are free. It sounds obvious but you wouldn’t believe how many free sites get negative reviews because people compare them to paid campgrounds. Come with everything you may need and remember that anything the free spot offers is an added bonus.
What’s the added bonus at Buladelah Rest Area? Wild kangaroos.
Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park to Buladelah: 2 hours 20 minutes
Ocean Pool: Forster and Black Head Beach
Continue north along the east coast to Forster where we recommend a stay at Discovery Parks. We paid 25 AUD per night for a powered pitch for 2 people. We liked to treat ourselves to a site like this with facilities after a free night roadside, in order to feel refreshed and charge the camper, whilst keeping the cost of our overall trip down. This park has a bouncing pillow, a large camp kitchen and ample birdlife. Backing onto Wallamba River, there are also plenty of mosquitos here so take repellant for overcast or rainy days, as well as for after the sun goes down. The area might draw mosquitos but mother nature certainly makes up for this by offering spell-binding sunsets with birds dancing across the water.
This area, referred to as the Great Lakes, offers multiple choices of beaches and national parks. You really are spoilt for choice and we were overwhelmed by the options for water activities and things to enjoy. As we soon learnt with the whole of Australia, this area alone can be a holiday in its own right, instead of just a passing stop. You would need an awful long time to fully appreciate the whole country properly and everything it has to offer, that’s for sure. With one full day in the area, we chose to relax at Black Head Beach for our first swim in an ocean pool, sandy walks along the surf and a pretty spot for lunch. Spend at least 2 nights in this area to enjoy other nearby beaches.
Buladelah to Discovery Parks Forster: 40 minutes
Koalas: Port Macquarie
Drive on towards Port Macquarie, stopping for lunch at Flinns beach where you can watch surfers tackle the east coast waves. Then head to the volunteer-run Koala Hospital and learn about the threats to these beautiful animals and what can be done to help them and their habitat. The hospital rescues koalas who have been hit by cars amongst other injuries and illnesses, aiming to release all patients back to the local area and offering a safe haven for any who are too ill to survive alone after their treatment. A free guided walk runs at 3pm daily. Make a small donation here instead of paying high prices for access to zoos and parks that don’t always have the animals’ best interests at heart.
Close to Port Macquarie, we chose Wauchope Showground for a night of camping for only 10 AUD unpowered where the outdoor showers were fantastic value for money. This stop allows you to head in and out of Port Macquarie and the local area for less money than more popular sights.
Discovery Parks Forster to Port Macquarie: 1 hour
Port Macquarie to Wauchope Showground: 20 minutes
Next Up: Coffs Harbour
The following day, on your way out of the area surrounding Port Macquarie, head to Ricardoes Tomatoes and Strawberries for great locally grown and homemade tomato pastes and fruit jams. We enjoyed strawberry picking in the summer, before grabbing a bite to eat, stocking up on some essentials, then getting back on the road.
Drive through Coffs Harbour where Forest Sky Pier affords the best views of the town and on the way up you can purchase local bananas and avocados (in season) by the side of the road. We simply passed through Coffs Harbour, wanting to get nearer to our next destination in order to make more of our time there, but you could certainly find plenty to do here if you wanted to add extra days in this area.
Just north of Coffs Harbour, Grafton Greyhound Racing Club offers reasonably priced camping at 23 AUD for a powered site. The outdoor showers are powerful and kept spotlessly clean.
Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour: 1 hour 40 minutes
Coffs Harbour to Grafton Greyhound Racing Club: 1 hour
Beach Camping: Woodyhead
At this point in our trip, we were looking for a campsite on the beach, something we had not yet found without the need to drive on unsealed tracks. If you are hiring a camper van, most companies do not cover you for any damages encountered on unsealed tracks, although the exception is often short tracks that lead to recognised camp grounds, but this is often not well advertised. Avoiding unsealed roads led us to choose Woody Head Campground which was accessible via sealed roads.
This is a wonderful site by the beach although not a cheap option once you pay for the site and the park entrance. We feel the 34 AUD per night we paid, plus the 8 AUD entry, is well worth it for the location and the wildlife though. This site does not offer power and is a fantastic eco friendly option. Cook a dinner on one of the many communal BBQs or fire pits and watch out for the local kangaroos who hop amongst the campers. Spend the day sat by the beach before walking the stones and rocks looking for pelicans. There is a stretch of beach you can walk to the left of the shower block which is mesmerising at sunset, especially if, like us, you are lucky enough to enjoy it alone.
Grafton Greyhound Racing Club to Woodyhead Campground: 1 hour
Surfing: Byron Bay
Before spending time in popular Byron Bay, we were looking for a low cost or free site to help keep the overall costs of our trip down and New Italy Rest Area provided this for a gold coin donation. Unlike most simple rest areas off the A1, this one has a small cafe selling drinks and a small art store to wander, but other than this you are in a road side stop just off the highway.
Byron Bay itself is an incredible, hippie, simply unmissable east coast town. We loved camping and exploring the Byron area, well known for surfing, markets and excellent vegan food. Read more about Byron Bay and our chosen campsite in Spirit and Surf.
Woodyhead Campground to New Italy Rest Area: 40 minutes
New Italy rest Area to Byron Bay: 1 hour
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Waterfalls: Springbrook National Park
From Byron, we headed to Springbrook National Park for lunch and walks, waterfalls and camping. Wow, what a gem! If you can squeeze this in, we can’t recommend it highly enough. Enjoy the walks in the morning so that you get to the falls around the hottest part of the day, starting with the short return walk to Best of All Lookout before finding the Twin Falls Circuit for a much needed cool off in the multiple falls and pools.
After all the walking, treat yourself to a drink at Dancing Waters Cafe, sitting outside on the decking amongst the trees. We can highly recommend the turmeric latte and the carrot cake and loved this menu for its multiple vegan options.
Springbrook has one area for camping, Settlement Campground, which you must pre-purchase a pass for online. We paid 12 AUD per night unpowered for 2 people. This is an eco-friendly site being based in the national park where you will find composting toilets and must not wash any chemicals into the ground. It’s a great spot for those who love nature and want to help invest in its protection whilst enjoying it. Springbrook National Park was one of our favourite east coast days.
Byron Bay to Springbrook National Park: 1 hour 40 minutes
Photo Stop: Surfers Paradise and Brisbane
At this point in your east coast of Australia road trip, the time has come to cross the New South Wales border into Queensland, gaining an extra hour to your day. Bonus! Head to Surfers Paradise because, I guess, it has to be seen. We chose to make this area a lunch stop only and I recommend you do the same if you prefer wild and natural Australia.
Parking on the seafront in Surfers Paradise is approximately 7 AUD for 2 hours. This is enough time to walk the beach, grab photos of the famous sign and tuck into some lunch. The area is unlike what you will have enjoyed so far on your trip and for us, not worth staying any longer. Enjoy a picnic in the camper overlooking the ocean, maybe wander round the shops, but then head out of the city and keep going north. As we approached Brisbane, we had set our sights on a full day out to nearby Stradbroke Island. Get to know the best day trip tips for ‘North Straddie’ in the first part of Island Inspiration.
Springbrook National Park to Surfers Paradise: 50 minutes
Surfers Paradise to Brisbane: 1 hour
Turquoise Waters: Noosa Heads and Hervey Bay
As you leave Brisbane heading north, most people have one particular east coast island on their mind; Fraser Island. We cannot recommend highly enough visiting Noosa Heads before this. We actually found Noosa to be a better base for accessing Fraser Island for many wonderful reasons, which you can read about separately in A Fraser Island Day Tour.
After some big days out and some lovely campgrounds with excellent facilities, we were well rested, squeaky clean and the van was fully powered. So we headed to two free sites in a row for the first time to see how we fared. First, head for Gunalda Rest Area which is a very green location for a roadside stop where we were treated to a wonderful sunset by parking up overlooking the countryside.
The next morning, drive to Hervey Bay to enjoy lunch overlooking Urangan Pier. We walked the sand and stretched our legs, snapped some cool photos and then drove on, spending our next night at Apple Tree Creek Rest Area for a freebie with picnic benches and BBQs. Both sites provide toilets only but for roadside stops they were pretty great.
If your visit occurs in whale season, consider adding on some time in Hervey Bay for a whale watching tour.
Brisbane to Noosa Heads: 1 hour 40 minutes
Noosa Heads to Gunalda Rest Area: 1 hour 10 minutes
Gunalda Rest Area to Hervey Bay: 1 hour
Hervey Bay to Apple Tree Creek Rest Area: 45 minutes
Cheap Scuba: Bundaberg
Our next stop was Bundaberg, which is a great spot for scuba divers who are keen to do qualifications in Australia without paying the extortionate fees of more popular areas. Sitting at the very southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, it is still a place full of interesting marine life but is much quieter and enjoyable than more well known spots. Book with local business Bundaberg Aqua Scuba for reasonable prices but excellent quality and service.
We stayed at AAOK Riverdale Caravan Park where we recommend you pick a pitch overlooking the Burnett River. We paid 30 AUD per night for a powered pitch for 2 people. The Bundaberg Barrel is worth a stop for local soft drinks with a twist and to meet some very friendly and charming locals. Also, drive to Mon Repos for a little beach time and in the right season, turtles lay their eggs here and when the babies hatch they can be seen making their way back to the ocean. With this stretch of coastline, there are multiple places to park up the camper van and rustle up some lunch.
Apple Tree Creek Rest Area to Bundaberg: 40 minutes
Bundaberg to Mon Repos: 15 minutes
Isolated Beauty: 1770 (Agnes Water)
After a few days in Bundaberg completing a scuba diving course, we drove to the little town of 1770 which although slightly out of the way, is well worth at least a picnic stop. Also known as Agnes Water, 1770 is the only town in the world to have a number for a name. Park up along the waters edge, enjoy strolling the boardwalk, crack open some refreshing and well known Bundaberg drinks and tuck into a picnic.
After some time spent on powered hook-up in Bundaberg, we headed for a free site from here, choosing BP Marmor road side stop. The following day was mainly a driving day that involved a stumbled upon beach spot for lunch called Clairview. It was like finding gold! We had started to drive into a region of Queensland with even clearer water yet again and whiter, softer sand.
For another free stop, seeing as we were now quite happy to go more than 2 nights in a row without power for the van, and just about 2 nights in a row without showers for us, we camped at Wundaru Puma which was also a no-frills road site. Even a lay-by at the side of an Aussie highway can be the perfect spot for snapping photos of sunset through the tall grasses though.
Mon Repos to 1770: 1 hour 30 minutes
1770 to BP Marmour: 2 hours
BP Marmour to Clairview: 3 hours
Clairview to Wundaru Puma: 1 hour 30 minutes
World Famous: The Whitsundays and Ayr
The Whitsundays are an unmissable part of an east coast road trip experience for so many reasons, the most obvious of which is the breathtaking colours you’ll find from the beaches. Next month, we will be sharing with you some great overland fun as well as our campsite preferences for the Whitsunday region. In the meantime, if you like the idea of a little indulgence, really making all those nights in free roadside sites worthwhile, then you must see the Whitsundays By Air.
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After enjoying the Whitsundays region, we stopped at Alva Beach Tourist Park in Ayr. This is a remote little town with nothing much going on at all, but if you are into your scuba diving, it’s a vital spot in order to dive the Yongala shipwreck. Yongala Dive offer fantastic days from 242 AUD, exploring the shipwreck that is known worldwide and on most scuba divers’ bucket lists.
Alva Beach Tourist Park has fantastic facilities, with an outdoor kitchen, indoor showers, toilets that were kept spotless and a large pool. Costing 28 AUD for an unpowered pitch this setting is beautiful and if you have time you could relax here happily for longer than one day.
Wundaru Puma to Airlie Beach: 1 hour 30 minutes
Airlie Beach to Bowen: 1 hour
Bowen to Ayr: 1 hour 20 minutes
Safe Swimming: Townsville, Magnetic Island and Mission Beach
After Ayr, head to Townsville in order to enjoy another incredible east coast of Australia island, Magnetic island. Read all about a day trip here in the second part of Island Inspiration.
Before leaving, see a little of Townsville, grab some lunch and stock up on any supplies you need here. Then, drive on to Bilyana Rest Area for a free stop, where we found a small table set up with local pineapples for sale and an honesty box.
The following day, drive to Mission Beach to enjoy a swim in the safety nets, a refreshing drink and a spot of lunch at Cowley Beach. You can also see bananas growing in this area if you go for a little local drive. For your second free stop, tonight head to Rifle Creek Rest Area which is a 2 AUD donation lay-by that has ample space and is well maintained for a free site.
Ayr to Townsville: 1 hour
Townsville to Bilyana Rest Area: 2 hours 20 minutes
Bilyana Rest Area to Mission Beach: 40 minutes
Mission Beach to Rifle Creek Rest Area: 2 hours 40 minutes
Most rented vehicles will need to be dropped off in Cairns, but we feel it’s important to try to get further than Cairns before returning your vehicle. I was very keen to get to Cooktown for a little history. We loved Orchid Travellers Park for the warm hospitality we received and spent our New Years day here relaxing and playing in the pool. At 36 AUD per night for power, it’s a little dear, but a stay we recommend all the same. The outdoor camp kitchen has giant fans which are wonderful for cooking in the humidity of the north.
Head to the Milbi Wall on the seafront and read about the interaction of native aboriginals and white Australians, then and now. The seafront is dotted with aboriginal art and stories but this wall was my favourite for the tales it tells in both pictures and words. Also, drive up to Grassy Hill Lookout for views of the reefs and more historical stories.
Rifle Creek Rest Area to Cooktown: 2 hours 30 minutes
Ancient Wildlife: The Daintree, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can head further north to Cape York from Cooktown to reach the northern most tip of Australia, however with a 2WD vehicle like us, this is the furthest north you can safely venture, especially if rainy season is looming ahead of you. Drive the same road back down south to Mount Molloy, then make a detour north into the Daintree Rainforest to enjoy your final few road trip days in mother nature’s paradise. Read all about this fascinating area in A Daintree Rainforest Road Trip.
Cooktown to Cape Tribulation: 4 hours 30 minutes (2WD road)
Cape Tribulation to Mossman Gorge: 1 hour 40 minutes
Coastal Drive: Port Douglas and Cairns
On the final day of your east coast of Australia road trip, leave Mossman Gorge for Port Douglas. We drove to 4 Mile Beach Lookout where we ate our last campervan picnic looking out over the wonderfully clear water. The sun dial looking compass featured here will show you how far you’ve come with the distance in kms to Sydney, although if you’ve done all the things in this east coast itinerary, you’re likely to have driven more like 5500 kms.
Grab an iced tea in one of the many quaint cafes on the high street before leaving Port Douglas for Cairns Holiday Park, costing approximately 30 AUD for an unpowered pitch. This facility is ideal for early morning camper van drop offs in Cairns. It has a great pool, a large outdoor camp kitchen and a herb garden which you can help yourself too. It provided us with the perfect final night sleeping outside before returning our home on wheels and entering some sort of normality again.
You may also like Vegan Cairns.
Mossman Gorge to Port Douglas: 20 minutes
Port Douglas to Cairns: 1 hour
How long should you allow to drive the east coast of Australia?
We enjoyed this east coast of Australia road trip at leisure and allowed ample time in order to not have to plan every day or drive certain kms before dark. We met many travellers who did it in half the time that we did, 2-3 weeks, but there are many reasons why we don’t recommend you rush it.
To give you an example, we wanted to stay longer in Byron because we fell in love with it. It is highly likely that you will stumble across somewhere you want to take longer in too, so make sure you allow yourself the leniency to do so. Another great reason for spending a little longer on Australia’s east coast is so that you can enjoy the local wildlife in the wild. Avoiding the city zoos and wildlife parks was a priceless part of our journey but this means staying in more remote areas, which we loved, but obviously will mean taking some less direct routes. Most importantly, the camper van lifestyle cannot be fully appreciated in a rush. The easy-going nature of a road trip requires a lack of clocks and a slower rhythm. It’s a time to enjoy sunset and sunrise walks away from the crowds and campsites by the sea with hardly anyone around.
How much does an east coast of Australia road trip cost?
We spent approximately 35 AUD per person per day inclusive of fuel, food, campsites and camper rental. When you first look at campervan rental quotes, it might seem dear compared to bus prices or flights, but actually the value for money this holiday affords is priceless.
We found the most expensive part of of an Australia trip to be food. For that reason, we will choose campers as a way of travelling Australia time and time again because it helps to keep this particular cost to a minimum. By having your own cooking facilities with you in a campervan at all times, no matter where you stop, you take away the necessity to buy more expensive meals and eating out becomes a luxury, not a staple. You can prepare picnic lunches and BBQ dinners, costing a fraction of what you would need to spend in cafes and restaurants every day for 6 weeks.
If you are keen to find out more about what kind of meals we rustled up in the campervan, continue the road trip experience with Meals on Campervan Wheels.
Your Sydney to Cairns Road Trip
There’s no denying that whether you do this road trip in a camper or a car, a rental or your own vehicle, there is no better way to enjoy the east coast of Australia than to sleep under the stars and swim from as many beaches as possible. We visited thirty beaches in this one road trip and are still remembering sandy spots we’d forgotten about today.
You may also like our favourite Beach Camping spots in Australia.
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If now you need more, check out the other Australian Travel Diaries.
Need a place to stay in Cairns at the end of your
East Coast of Australia Road Trip?
1. Choose Cairns Sharehouse for longer stays
2. Choose Queens Court Motel for shorter stays