Hit the road in North Queensland

By Helen Hayes March 5, 2024
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With unique locations, jaw-dropping experiences and dinky-di Aussie characters, North Queensland is the place for your next road trip.

This article is brought to you by Drive North Queensland.

Nothing shouts ‘road trip’ more than singing along to your favourite tunes as you head down the highway in your rig. This one is a classic: “Ridin’ down the highway, goin’ to a show, stop in all the byways, playin’ rock ‘n’ roll…” It’s a long way to the you-know-what.

Stopping in the byways is the best thing about a driving holiday. The tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-towns, the truck stops, the sleepy villages, the pubs. Nothing beats a country pub, and North Queensland has a bunch of ‘em –, full of stories, chockers with characters and good cheer, along with good beer of course. And no matter whether you are a grey nomad, adventure lover, beach bum or a backpacker, a cold one after a dusty drive tastes heavenly. 

So if you’ve got your gear ready – your caravan, camper trailer, campervan, motorhome or just your tent or new-fangled swag – start planning your next road trip exploring the wonders of North Queensland. Good on ya, mates! 

Tropical North Queensland

All roads lead to Cairns – well, these four beaut drives do. With a kaleidoscope of colours from that blinding blue of the sea to the velvety green of the rainforest and the ochre red of the outback, nature is front and centre on these itineraries.

The Savannah Way is a true-blue humdinger of a drive, stretching through three Aussie states and territories, on a mind-blowing 3699km of outback. Don’t panic if you don’t want to do it all, just do the best bit – the Queensland section! This part of this legendary road bumps you from Hell’s Gate to Cairns, and there are plenty of bonza places to check out, including Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, and Riversleigh Fossil Fields.

Clockwise from left – Driving through the ruggered landscape in Boodjamulla National Park; Driving along the Savannah Way; Kayaking through the gorge in Boodjamulla National Park. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland; Tourism Tropical North Queensland

The Great Green Way runs between Townsville to Cairns, and the name is spot on because you’ll go through 12 national parks along the way. Think waterfalls, magical waterholes and cool seaside towns. Oh, and get a selfie at the giant gumboot – complete with frog – in Tully. We do love our big things in ‘Straya, don’t we!

Babinda Boulders on the Great Green Way road trip

Babinda Boulders, a must-see stop on the Great Green Way road trip. Image credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Exploring Cape York and the Daintree are true bucket-list adventures, absolute gold for those who like to drive to the back of beyond and then some. Cape York is normally accessible through winter and spring, but it is so popular you’ll often need to book at least 6 months ahead. While the weather had been a little rough last year, parts of the Daintree are back up and running, opening up the wondrous Heritage-Listed Rainforest with its ancient ferns and tangled canopies, fringed by the Great Barrier Reef. You can check the latest travel advice here. The Great Barrier Reef Drive is AOK from Cairns to Port Douglas, with those drop-dead gorgeous ocean views woven into canopies of green just as divine as ever. Chill out in Palm Cove, and linger longer in Port Douglas where you can get snappy on a croc tour, or get wet out on the Great Barrier Reef.

Enjoy the spectacular coastline by car on the way to Port Douglas and the Daintree Rainforest. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Outback Queensland

You won’t have a more Aussie experience than on one of four brilliant road trip options in Outback Queensland. Even the names are awesome: Overlanders Way, The Matilda Way, Dinos, Crocs and Gold, and the Australian Dinosaur Trail. The Overlanders Way is a tad over 1,000 clicks and takes you from Townsville’s idyllic beaches to Camooweal… without leaving the bitumen! Say g’day to locals in cracker towns like Charters Towers, Julia Creek, Cloncurry and Mount Isa, with a whole rodeo of dinosaurs, fossils, and cowboys along the way. Don’t forget your Akubra so you look the part!

Clockwise from left: Wiliyan-ngurru National Park (Camooweal Caves National Park); Directional signage for Overlander’s and Matilda Way; Julia Creek from above. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Matilda Way is another fully-sealed highway, stretching from Cunnamulla on the New South Wales border to Karumba, on the Gulf of Carpentaria – a hefty distance of 1812 km. Go stargazing in Charleville, watch the chicken racing at the Royal Carrangarra Hotel, head to the Black Stump at Blackall, marvel at ‘Machinery Mile’ in Ilfracombe, get your pioneering hat on in Longreach and ‘Waltz Matilda’ in Winton.

Clockwise from left: Exterior of the historic Royal Carrangarra Hotel; Stargazing at the Cosmos Centre in Charleville. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

If you know your Stegosaurus from your T-Rex, venture out along the Australian Dinosaur Trail, which is a 735km doddle in prime fossil country encompassing Richmond, Winton and Hughenden. In Winton, visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs and learn about the ‘dinosaur stampede’ at the Lark Quarry Conservation Park. Say g’day to Hughie, a Muttaburrasaurus, at the Flinders Discovery Centre in Hughenden, and soak up some amazing country by camping at Porcupine Gorge National Park.

Australia Age of Dinosaurs in Winton, North Queensland

Australian Age of Dinosaurs, Winton. Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

For a great combination, Dinos, Crocs and Gold is a round trip from Townsville covering an epic 2934km. Spot freshwater crocodiles on a Cobbold Gorge cruise, be totally wowed at the Undara Experience, and head from Hughenden to Richmond and Kronosaurus Korner – Australia’s premier marine fossil museum.

Guests onboard the Cobbold Gorge cruise; Kronosauras Korner, Richmond. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

Townsville North Queensland

Get some Ayr (see what I did there) on one of these beaut drives in the Townsville region. Check out the North Queensland Highlights route through the Burdekin from Ayr to Ingham. It’s sweet in more ways than one, with the Burdekin Art Trail, a shipwreck to scuba dive on, the gorgeous Magnetic Island to explore, a host of critter experiences in Townsville, and for something different, check out the largest herd of Texas Longhorn cattle in Australia, at Charters Towers.

Ayr is also the starting point for the North Queensland Island Hopper experience. An hour’s drive north in Townsville, you can embrace your inner aquaman at Magnetic Island. Test out each of its 23 beaches and see koalas in the wild. Flit away from Maggie on a helicopter to Orpheus Island, then head to Hinchinbrook, after a sojourn back in terrific Townsville.

Clockwise from left: Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island; Forts walk on Magnetic Island; Snorkelling on Magnetic Island. Image credits: Tourism and Events Queensland

If you love animals, the North Queensland Wildlife Tracker could be spot on for you. From Ayr to Hinchinbrook Island, you’ll see a raft of feathered, furred and scaled critters at places like Cromarty Wetlands north of Ayr, and diving with sealife on the SS Yongala. In Townsville, get your wild on at the Town Common Conservation Park or the Billabong Sanctuary. On ‘Maggie’, visit between May and August and experience the butterfly walk at Horseshoe Bay.

A blue tiger butterfly on Horseshoe Island. Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Whitsundays

Ah, The Whitsundays. The Heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Such a beautiful part of the world, with its 74 islands and many mainland wonders as well. It’s so easy to explore The Whitsundays – either drive your rig up here or fly in and hire a car or campervan. Easy peasy. As to which drive to take, the Adventures in The Whitsundays drive runs from Cedar Creek Falls to Bowen, and you can swim and paddle your heart out in blissful waterholes like the one at the base of the Cedar Creek Falls. Laze at postcard-perfect Hydeaway Bay north of Airlie Beach and knock back a bevvy or two at one of the beachfront resorts there, and in Airlie, jump in for a swim at the massive lagoon or take a dip at Boathaven Beach. Head north to Bowen, where it’s all about mangoes – you can eat ‘em, and tick off another ‘big thing’ – the Big Mango – before washing off those juices at the stunning fringing reefs just off the shore of Horseshoe Bay. While in town, savour the best seafood around – grab some fish and chips at Birds Fish Bar at Bowen Fishermans Wharf. Is there anything better than fish ‘n’ chips by the water? Nah.

Cedar Creek Falls; Airlie Beach from above. Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

For more Whitsundays goodness, check out the Cairns to Whitsundays drive. If you’re travelling from the south, try the Ultimate Guide to Driving the Great Barrier Reef from Bundaberg – hello Bundy Rum! – to Cairns, or strap in for the what-the-heck-let’s-do-it drive from Brisbane to the Whitsundays, taking you along 1268km of tropical coastline to North Queensland.

So you should be all revved up now to drive those highways and byways and dirt tracks, whether in your own rig or in a hired vehicle. Whichever drive you take, it will be a fair dinkum ripper! Cue AC/DC……

Cromarty Wetlands North Queensland

Cromarty Wetlands, Burdiken. Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Find your ultimate North Queensland road trip at drivenorthqueensland.com.au

Best to be totally prepared, so remember to always check road and weather conditions before you travel.

This article is brought to you by Drive North Queensland.