There’s nothing quite like taking the reins and seeing the sea, surf and deep Australian Outback on an epic road trip. Considering the country’s mammoth size, you often only need to drive two or three hours before catching sight of the next natural wonder. We’ve tallied up the best road trips in Australia for the ultimate self-drive bucket list.
The Great Ocean Road
This show-stopping oceanside stretch is Australia’s most famous road trip. It’s a coastal run that passes beautiful postcard scenery and staggering beaches like Loch Ard Gorge. The Great Ocean Road’s best known attraction is, undoubtedly, The Twelve Apostles, a collection of ancient limestone rocks once connected to the mainland that now stand independently against the crashing waves.
It’s doable in a day – part of what makes The Great Ocean Road so impressive is just how much you can see in the three-and-a-half hour drive from starting point Torquay to the end point of Port Campbell – but taking it slow over two to five days will give this route the time it deserves. Stay in friendly coastal towns like Lorne and Port Fairy, and spend a little extra time at spots like surfing mecca Bells Beach. A detour through the rugged Grampians National Park is perfect for a balance of driving and hiking and, if you’re keen on the quiet, continue through to Adelaide where you’ll notice the crowds disperse and you’ll get the roads almost all to yourself.
Australia’s Nature Coast
Take on the Nature Coast’s beaches where the sea almost licks your 4x4’s tyres on this challenging, nature-embracing adventure. UNESCO-protected reserves and beaches that are somehow more impressive than the last, this is a surprisingly small pocket of Australia that manages to flaunt some staggering natural diversity.
Begin in Brisbane, a city with a sub-tropical climate that makes it a dream for outdoorsy types. It even warrants a manmade beach in the city. Experience the surf and boutique vibes in polished beach resort Noosa, go kayaking in its swampy everglades, then take on the 100-mile Great Beach Drive to laid-back Rainbow Beach. This challenging off-road sand track is utterly surreal, like a video game brought to life, and there are excursions you can join if the idea of doing it on your own is a bit intimidating.
Then there’s Fraser Island, whose indigenous name, K’gari, means paradise. It’s the largest sandy island in the world and home to hundreds of different wildlife species, including acid frogs, swamp wallaby, dingo and over 350 birds. If you’re keen on whale watching, Hervey Bay back on the mainland is one of the best places to spot humpbacks who migrate here between July and November.
Great Barrier Reef Drive
From Cairns to Cape Tribulation, Great Barrier Drive packs a punch with natural wonders en route, not least because it runs in between Australia’s largest mountain range and the world’s most famous coral reef. Start in Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, and cover stunning roads that hug the North Queensland coastline. Savour some time in Port Douglas, where you can shop for souvenirs at local boutiques or stretch your legs with a stroll on Four Mile Beach. Here, it’s unbelievable to think that you’re encircled by amazing marine life on one side and the ancient trees of the oldest tropical rainforest on the other.
The UNESCO-listed Daintree Rainforest allegedly inspired the otherworldly scenes of Avatar and is definitely worth venturing into for rare tropical birds, croc-spotting on the river and Aboriginal sites like Mossman Gorge. End your journey in a somewhat poignant way at Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook ran aground when first discovering this mesmerising place.
Legendary Pacific Coast
Well-trodden with good reason, the route from Sydney to Brisbane is superb easy driving peppered with gorgeous coastal towns. You’ll have your pick of where to spend some downtime by the sea: there’s whale watching at Port Macquarie (May to November), national parks neighbouring Coffs Harbour and 20-mile sand dunes at Port Stephens.
The Gold Coast capital, Surfers Paradise, is a lively place to watch tanned surfers mount their boards to the backdrop of high rises, and no one should miss out the mandatory Byron Bay for its creative hippy vibes. This all follows a few nights ticking off iconic sights in Sydney – Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Manly Beach and Bondi Beach Icebergs Pool are all ripe Instagram material – and then it’s up to you whether you take a left for a sojourn in the wild and dramatic Blue Mountains or head straight up on the Pacific Highway to the ripe vineyards of Hunter Valley.
Maybe it’s the laid-back hipster feel or the fact that the crowds are firmly far away on the East Coast, but Perth and its surrounding areas are well-loved by almost everyone who ventures there. Direct flights from London to Perth have made it even easier to discover this part of the country and its blissfully quiet beaches.
This loop from Perth takes you three hours south into the Margaret River region (also the name of a town and river), where the vineyards produce over a fifth of Australia’s premium wine. Relish in the company of wild dolphins in Rockingham, walk among giant karri trees which can stand between 60 to 90 metres high and watch the sun set over the ocean at the end of the long and winding Busselton Jetty. A night or two in the wine region is perfect for tastings, cellar tours and some excellent dinners.
Stay longer in Perth at the start or end of your road trip, or both if you do happen to fall hard enough for its charms. Pick from stylish riverside resorts like Pan Pacific Perth and explore the city on foot, basking in some of its 3000-plus hours of sunshine a year and taking day trips. Fremantle is Perth’s quirky sibling, where artisanal bakeries and microbreweries are rife, while visitors are always keen to visit Rottnest Island to see its lovable marsupial residents, the quokka.
Sydney to Melbourne
Take the slow, scenic route between these two remarkable cities and you’ll see what most miss out on when they opt for the easy option of flying. This coastal way starts on the Grand Pacific Drive, a smooth road featuring the Sea Cliff Bridge, a particularly pleasing stop for drone users. Jervis Bay justifies a night’s stay if you have the time. Sleep in a safari-style eco camp in Jervis Bay where you can be free in the wild and while away a few hours on Hyams Beach, a gorgeous curve of white sand lapped by an ombre blue-green sea.
The aptly named Lakes Entrance is the gateway to an intricate ribbon of waterways, lakes and lagoons in and around the tanned Ninety Mile Beach and further along there’s Wilson’s Promontory. Known locally as ‘the Prom’, it’s a coastal wilderness that will give you the chance to spot every native animal you expect Australia to throw at you. Wallabies, koalas, wombats and kangaroo are seen all around the area and the walking trails are plentiful. Melbourne and its suburbs have more than enough to keep you occupied if you want to extend your trip here. Taste cool-climate wines in Yarra Valley, take a gourmet foodie trip to the Mornington Peninsula or watch the waddling Penguin Parade on Phillip Island.
Gibb River Road
If you want the rugged and unrefined Australia of canyons and gorges, the Gibb River Road is a sure way to do it. This is the kind of road trip that leaves those well-maintained coastal highways behind in favour of the bumpy, 4x4-required dirt variety. The road is only open in the dry season between April and October because of flooding during the rest of the year that would make it unrecognisable, and while this might not be the most accessible of routes, it’s rewarding in the way only an off-the-beaten-track adventure can be. Starting from Broome to Kununurra, this track takes you through the Kimberley, Northern Territory’s famed wilderness where there are campsites and rustic stays like working cattle stations dotted along the way. El Questro Wilderness Park is a highlight with thermal springs, ancient gorges and waterfalls and a choice of accommodation with meals included.
This is the ultimate Outback road trip of long drives, big skies overhead and untouched lands. It’s an epic journey from north to south (or vice versa) between Adelaide and Darwin for those with extra time and a thirst for the open road. In the Northern Territory, dry shrubs feebly try to compete with the raw, red landscape. See mighty rocks like Karlu Karlu, dubbed the Devils Marbles, and trace the area’s rich Aboriginal history through local stories and beautiful rock art. Katherine Gorge at the tip of Kakadu National Park is a spectacular sight of waterfalls rushing down jagged rocks. Go via the Red Centre to see the sacred Aboriginal monolith, Uluru (Ayers Rock), which is best seen at sunrise or sunset (an overnight stay at Longitude 131⁰ is the most lavish way to experience it with uninterrupted views from your luxury tent). Get involved in the arts culture in Alice Springs and, in South Australia, go down under in the odd town of Coober Pedy where more than half of the residents live underground. Once you arrive in Adelaide, unwind with fine wines in Barossa Valley and get to know the wildlife on Kangaroo Island.
Get in touch and tell us about the kind of Australia road trip you’re looking for and we’ll help plan every detail. We can arrange car and motorhome hire and the option of a personalised co-pilot kit that includes a GPS device, maps, visitor guides and discounts at local attractions.