Hit the road: 8 scenic drives in Queensland you need to experience
When you’re at the wheel, the journey (and the soundtrack) is totally your control.
And when you’re in Queensland, the best way to travel is to get off the highway and off-the-beaten track. It’s where you’ll find Australia’s tallest waterfall, rugged landscapes, tiny outback pubs with big reputations, and secret beaches that only the locals know about.
There’s good reason that 5.4 million people take a drive-holiday here in the Sunshine State each year.
The freedom of the open road in front of you, and the ‘every day’ in your rear-view mirror. Whether you’ve got a day or a week up your sleeve, these are the scenic drives in Queensland that you need to experience.
1. Drive from the sea to the sky
A scenic drive packed with verdant sugar cane country, hairpin bends, waterfalls and elevation giving way to 360-degree farming vistas.
Feel your ears pop on the way to this landmark: Wallaman Falls wears the title of Australia’s tallest single drop waterfall, at an impressive 268 metres.
Being tall isn’t Wallaman’s only claim to fame, though. It’s nestled into Girringun National Park, which is also the gateway to the Wet Tropics, one of the oldest forests in the planet. Don’t just see the rainforest, drive right through it with this scenic drive that comes with its own World Heritage-listed backdrop.
Pack snacks: there are plenty of picnic spots on this scenic drive.
2. Travel into the clouds
The 85km drive to Eungella couldn’t be more different from the sugarcane capital. The landscape transforms before your eyes, as you wind your way into Mackay’s fairytale-like mountains.
Sections of the road are covered by streams. In the wet season, you’ll have waterfalls cascading to the left and gorges to your right. So lush is this drive, at times you’ll need to keep the windows up to keep the moisture out.
If you’re lucky enough to time your drive with a clear day (a tough feat, given the destination’s reputation), you’ll be rewarded with views over Mackay’s farming plains. It looks like a patchwork quilt, with small fences the stitching to the sugarcane’s fabric.
For more information on ways to extend your stay, read this guide to hikes and drives around Mackay.
3. Clock up the odometer from Cairns to Cooktown
Ancient rainforest on one side, and the world’s most famous reef on the other. The drive between Cairns and Cooktown is a dynamic duo of famous bitumen. And the Great Barrier Reef Drive and Bloomfield Track are household names in Australia for a reason.
This journey is a true kaleidoscope of colour. From the bright blue reef, to the deep green rainforest and bright red dirt as you head further north.
From Cairns, take the Captain Cook Highway past Port Douglas, Mossman, Cape Tribulation and across the Daintree River vehicle ferry. Then you’ll swap tarmac for red dirt, travelling north onto Cooktown.
What makes this drive so special is not just the scenery, but that there are viewing platforms and rest bays along the way to ensure you can get out of the car to actually soak it all in.
Be sure to stop at Rex Smeal Park in Port Douglas, and Cow Bay to see where the rainforest meets the reef. Hungry? Reward your efforts with a burger and beer at the Lion’s Den Hotel, located just shy of Cooktown.
4. Explore the sandy highway of Fraser Island
From the mainland, take your 4WD on the Kingfisher Bay Resort vehicle ferry before taking off to the east coast of the island, where the off-road adventure really begins.
Crossing from west coast to east coast, you’ll be in the driver’s seat to discover Central Station. Make sure to stop at inland lakes like McKenzie and Wabby for a quick dip: these waters are as inviting as they come.
This scenic drive is the most fun you’ll ever have driving at 30km/hr on the inland tracks and absolute exhilaration as you hit up to 80km/hr along the beach highway. You can expect to share your road with dingos, fishermen and planes – the road doubles as a tarmac here.
Serious off-roader? The real tough stuff begins in the secluded northern end of the island, past Indian Head.
Here’s a few beach driving tips before you head off.
5. Get off (or on) the beaten track
To get completely off-the-beaten-track, get on the Birdsville Track.
This desert drive is off-roading nirvana for 4WD enthusiasts. And it travels from Thargomindah through to Birdsville, via South Australia’s Innamincka. The Birdsville Track runs over 500kms from Marree to the western corner of Queensland and is a highly coveted journey in 4WD communities.
What makes this drive so special is this is not bitumen or dirt. You’ll be driving across broken sandstone called gibber, as you traverse the Sturt Stony Desert.
Desert flags are a must, as is an appetite for adventure (and dust). Be sure to stop in for a beer at the Birdsville Hotel too.
6. Taste your way through the three M’s
Had your fill of the beach? It’s time to fill your stomach. So point your GPS toward the Sunshine Coast Hinterland to meet the three M’s.
Introducing the 55km Blackall Range Tourist Drive, which incorporates Maleny, Montville and Mapleton and all their walks, waterfalls and windy roads. The Tourist Drive is quite literally the high road, 370m above sea level connecting these villages in the mountains.
Wind your way between the townships and rolling hills, with glimpses back to the coastline on those hairpin bends.
Let your road trip become a progressive day of dining as you hop between the villages. Some of the Sunshine Coast’s best restaurants and breweries call these hills home. Maleny and Montville both have quaint high-streets lined with cafes, delis, cellar doors and sweet shops.
7. Discover the green behind the Gold Coast
The sun’s afternoon golden glow bounces off rocks onto the lush green rainforest around you. This is one scenic drive where you should turn your radio down. Today’s soundtrack? Native birds and rushing waterfalls of the Gold Coast Hinterland.
Unleash your Sunday driver on the Nerang-Murwillumbah Rd, driving from Binna Burra to the New South Wales border through the leafy Numinbah Valley.
The pièce de résistance en route is Natural Arch, one of the Gold Coast’s most photographed falls. There’s an easy walking track to the waterfalls to see the bridge-like rock formation, carved out by water plummeting through the ceiling of this basalt cave over millions of years.
Pack your camera – it’s too beautiful not to share.
Be careful on blind corners as motorbike riders use the windy roads as their weekend run.
8. Make tracks to the world’s longest lava tubes
Packing more landscapes into 300kms than most people would only see if they travelled to three countries, the drive between Cairns and Undara packs a potent punch of rainforest, reef and outback.
Arguably Queensland’s most accessible outback, this scenic drive will give you a taste of central Australia without the long commute.
This road trip travels south-west of Cairns, and takes four hours if you travel via Kuranda – the village in the rainforest. Make a quick pit stop at the Kuranda markets, before continuing onto the Atherton Tablelands where the rainforest is swapped for farmland.
From there, a taste of the outback kicks in along the Kennedy Highway past the Innot Hot Springs, before arriving at Undara Volcanic National Park. The lava tubes here developed underneath a once-active volcano more than 190,000 years ago. While you’re here, explore the caves left behind with Undara Experience.