Road Trip from Cairns to Sydney: Top Destinations that Aren’t Beaches

I wrote this post originally for CamperMate. Check out their blog and website for traveling in Australia and New Zealand! It is the ultimate TOTALLY FREE resource for camping and driving around Australia. I personally use it more than WikiCamps.


Cairns to Sydney road trip

Most people envision pristine waters and surfers under the sun when imagining an Australian holiday. True, Australia is blessed with spectacular beaches; it’s no wonder that 85% of the population lives near the coast. When planning an East Coast road trip, most guides are unsurprisingly inundated with beach recommendations.

stationwagon australia holden commodore

Not everyone, however, is into sandy stretches of coast. Australia’s intense sunrays can do a number on the skin and there’s only so much to do if you’re not up for a swim. Even if you want to bathe in saltwater, sea conditions can be rough and unsafe for swimmers. And truthfully, all of those perfect beach views tend to blur together after a while.

When planning your driving itinerary, switch it up by exploring the other gems of Australia’s coast. Here are six not-so-obvious recommendations on your Cairns-Sydney road trip.

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Road trip east coast australia

Great open road in Australia!

Daintree Rainforest

The estimated 180 million-year-old rainforest is a botanical and historical treasure; UNESCO agrees as the Daintree was listed as a World Heritage site in 1988. After picking up your campervan from Cairns, take your wheels for a test run by driving two hours north. Catch the ferry over the river ($26 roundtrip for vehicles) and get excited! The scenery becomes dense with colors as you navigate the narrow roads. Don’t forget to take breaks at one of the many walking paths to admire ancient flora and fauna. The Marrdja Botanic Boardwalk is one of the better trails not to be missed; you’ll be mesmerized by the mangroves and intricate root networks popping out of swamps. It’s also an ideal location to spot an elusive cassowary if you’re lucky! We saw one in the Daintree and one at Etty Bay!

Photo credit to Adam Greenberg.


Atherton Tablelands

Head inland to experience cooler weather in the mountainous region. Get intimate with animals at one of the many wildlife sanctuaries or take a scenic Skyrail cableway in Kuranda. It’s impossible to explore the Tablelands without running into a handful of waterfalls. Millaa Millaa Falls is the first of many along with the waterfall circuit. The 18-metre falls majestically plunge into a pool perfect for swimming.

Photo credit to Adam Greenberg.


Castle Hill, Townsville

Take a pit stop from loading up on goods by climbing up Castle Hill. Walking trails allow for a heart-pumping workout to the top, but there’s also a paved, narrow road for vehicles. The lookout boasts epic views of the coast hugging the Pacific.

There are several tourist parks in Townsville as well as free campsites. Thanks to CamperMate, I enjoyed staying at the BP just south of Townsville where there were hot showers, a treat when on the road!

castlehilltownville

Windy on top of Castle Hill!


Finch Hatton Gorge & Eungella National Park

Peel off the Bruce Highway and escape into a lush oasis. Park at the picnic area and take a 30-minute medium-intensity trail to two breathtaking waterfalls: Araleun Cascades and Wheel of Fire. Don’t be shy to take a dip in the impossibly blue and refreshing waters.

Once you’ve had your waterfall fix, continue the scenic drive inland toward Broken River. Peek into the Tourist Information Centre before wandering toward the Platypus Lookout. Patiently observe the river for the shy creatures to float atop the water. The best times for viewing these egg-laying mammals are dawn and dusk.


Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

The Koala Hospital is a non-profit organization that rescues injured or sick koalas and rehabilitates them until they are fit to go back into the wild. There are free educational tours at 15:00 daily where you can learn about this vulnerable species and witness feeding time. Although it may be sad to know some these marsupials have been hit by cars, it is heartwarming to see such a caring organization protect and nurture them.

Koala hospital port macquarie


Blue Mountains

From the iconic Sydney Harbour, an 80km drive west leads you to the World Heritage-listed wonderland: the Blue Mountains. Whether you’re into caves, abseiling, bushwalks, waterfalls, or theme parks, there’s plenty for everyone within the national park spanning 247,000 hectares. Viewing the Three Sisters rock formation from Echo Point is a given, but branch out to the trails of Wentworth Falls and the Grand Canyon or take a dip at the Leura Cascades. At the end of the day, rest your tired legs by dining in one of the many charming towns like Katoomba, Leura, and Blackheath.

Bulls Reserve is an excellent free campground with ample space, toilets, and free showers. To stay closer to the attractions, book your spot at the Katoomba Tourist Park or the Katoomba Christian Convention for low-cost camping sites.


Australia has diverse natural wonders that are sometimes overlooked by wave-chasers. Breaking up the beach stops with mountains, animal sanctuaries, and cultural activities will help make your campervan travels even more memorable.

What are some of your top destinations on Australia’s East Coast? Share below!

 

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