Sydney Skyline
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Road Trips

Road Trip from Cairns to Sydney

By Dianne Titos | Updated on 19 October 2022

If you're dreaming of seeing the Sydney Opera House and Bondi Beach - or you're simply yearning for that big city buzz - then a road trip from Cairns to Sydney combines this with a cross-country journey of epic proportions. Depending on which route you take, this trip can be an ultimate coastal itinerary or a classic outback adventure.

The 2,800 km road trip from Cairns to Sydney takes at least 28 hours to drive. Key coastal stops include Rockhampton, Yeppoon, Brisbane, Byron Bay and Port Macquarie; or Dubbo, Emerald and Blue Mountains National Park if you take our Inland Route.

This awesome road trip will let you follow some of Australia's most beautiful coastline or, alternatively, its hidden rural inland treasures. Keep reading to find out the best routes, places to visit and time of year to make this fantastic journey.

How far is Sydney from Cairns, and how long will the road trip take?

Comparison of road trip route options between Cairns and Sydney
RouteDistanceDriving Time
The Coastal Route2,800 km32 hours
The Inland Route2,510 km28 hours

When it comes to charting a path between Cairns and Sydney, two great route options stand out as head and shoulders above the rest.

The shorter of our two recommended routes follows the beautiful coastline between Cairns and Sydney and covers a distance of 2,800 kilometres. This route will take 32 hours to drive, not accounting for stops along the way.

On the Coastal Route there are plenty of beachside towns and cities where you can stop and refresh yourself with views of the ocean or even a quick paddle. The route itself is incredibly straightforward, giving you plenty of opportunity to make short detours as your schedule allows.

We suggest that you take your time to explore some of the less-visited coastal areas on this fantastic route. There are simply too many to list here, but often some of the best memories come from just turning off the highway to see what views await you!

Aerial view of the Mooney Mooney Bridge approaching Sydney, sweeping through the trees
Take to the road and wind your way from Cairns to Sydney on the M1
Harley Kingston/

For a more rugged, inland adventure, you might prefer to take our Inland Route, which comes in at 2,510 kilometres and can be completed in 28 hours.

Neither of these road trip routes can be completed quickly: this is more of a scenic and outdoor adventure trip which needs at least six days dedicated to it. As a guide, we'd suggest spending seven on the trip, but you could easily spend more and discover more of the region.

Best road trip route from Cairns to Sydney

There's no particular 'best' route for this trip, instead, you should definitely pick the option that appeals most to you.

The Coastal Route can be as relaxed or as active as you make it. But whichever pace you choose, you are guaranteed stunning ocean views, white sand beaches, and some laid back cities and towns where you can sit back and relax.

The Inland Route lets you discover Aboriginal heritage and to get a feel for the realities faced by the first European settlers when they built a new life here all those years ago.

The Coastal Route

This route hugs the east coast of Australia for over 2,000 kilometres, so you'll have plenty of beaches to explore along the way.

When it comes to navigation, this route couldn't be much more straightforward, as it follows the Pacific Highway (otherwise known as the A1) along the coast for the entirety of the trip.

You will begin your journey from Cairns by taking the A1 south out of the city, passing Bentley Park and Edmonton as you leave the suburban area.

Continue south, following the Pacific Highway past Innisfail, until you reach Mission Beach. Here, you can enjoy some of the most pristine sands around and plenty of beachside dining options. At a couple of hours into your trip, this is a perfect place to stop for a bite to eat.

Almost three hours further down the Pacific Highway is Townsville, where you can enjoy the popular Strand esplanade and stretch your legs before returning to your car.

If you're looking for an overnight stop, however, we'd recommend waiting until you reach Airlie Beach, which is known as the Gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Stop at Airlie Beach (taking State Route 59) to enjoy a huge variety of Reef activities while recharging yourselves for the journey ahead.

Nambucca Heads, NSW, with mountains in the background
Enjoy spectacular coastline, mountains and more at Nambucca Heads
Olga Kashubin/

From Airlie Beach, rejoin the Pacific Highway, continuing for just over 500 kilometres to Rockhamtpon, with an optional detour to the coastal town and sheltered enclave of Yeppoon.

A great alternative to Yeppoon - 45 minutes off the Pacific Highway, past Miriam Vale - is the town of Seventeen Seventy. Park up here for unspoilt beaches and great fishing.

Two other short detours from the main route (before you hit Brisbane and its metropolitan buzz) take you to Hervey Bay and Noosa Heads. Make sure you take a look at our list of "Things to see" below to identify which of these coastal hotspots you want to prioritise on your trip.

After spending some time in Brisbane, make your way further along the Pacific Highway, moving past the Gold Coast and on to world-famous Byron Bay.

Just over 100 kilometres south of Byron Bay, you'll pass Bundjalung National Park, which is a natural place to stop and enjoy a quieter, more relaxed pace after busy Byron Bay.

From here, resume your A1 journey for another hour and a half to Coffs Harbour where, if the season is right, you can enjoy whale-watching as you recharge for your onward travels to Nambucca Heads and Port Macquarie.

At just over 4 hours from Sydney, historic Port Macquarie is a great option for a final stop before you reach Sydney. On this last leg of your journey, return to the Pacific Highway once more, passing Myall Lakes National Park and Newcastle before enjoying some well-earned downtime at your destination.

Unless you dislike the feel of sand beneath your feet, it's hard to highlight a drawback except that this is the longer of the two routes.

The Inland Route

This route starts out on the Queensland coast, before swinging inland from Townsville. You'll spend most of the route driving through wide open farmland, small towns and stunning outback landscapes, passing near some national parks too.

Life feels really different here compared to the cities, and you'll get a real sense of that on your drive. You'll finish the route through Australia's Mudgee Wine region before entering Sydney.

This route starts in the same way as the Coastal Route, until you reach Townsville. Once there, take the A6 southwest towards Woodstock, then following the road a further 100 kilometres to Charters Towers City and Mosman Park.

Upon exiting Mosman Park, join the A7 heading south towards Emerald. On your way, you'll pass Nairana National Park Homestead and Blair Athol State Forest.

As you'll see below, we recommend Emerald as a great stopover point on your road trip to Sydney on the Inland Route. On leaving the town, you'll want to take the Gregory Highway towards Springsure, before navigating towards Rolleston on the Dawson Highway.

At Rolleston, take the Carnarvon Highway south, past the beautiful Carnarvon National Park: a lush wilderness, full of amazing opportunities for hiking and camping adventures..

An hour south of Injune (our recommended access point to Carnarvon National Park) on the Carnarvon Highway, you'll arrive at Roma. Here, take the A55 towards St George. Once you pass St George and cross from Queensland into New South Wales, the A55 becomes the B55, and you will remain on this road for around 370 kilometres until you reach Gilgandra.

At Gilgandra, take the Newell Highway (A39) to the town of Dubbo. Dubbo, known for its outstanding Western Plains Zoo and rich historical heritage, is a great place to stop and break up this long journey. Consider taking the City Heritage Walk to get a great feel for the place.

Once you leave Dubbo, continue on the B55 for around 245 kilometres until you reach signs for Bathurst and the Great Western Way (A32). From this point onwards, you are on the final stretch of your trip.

Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains near Sydney at dusk
The final stretch of the Inland Route takes you past the stunning Blue Mountains
Visual Collective/

The Great Western Way loops around the Blue Mountains National Park, passing through Katoomba on the approach to Sydney. You'll find that the road merges into M4 as you make your way into the Sydney metropolitan area and ready yourself for a well-earned break in the city.

Although this is the quicker route, you'll find fewer stellar attractions on this drive, and you'll need to be prepared for some long stretches of driving, so factor in some rest stops to help keep you focused on the road. Keep stocked up on fuel, drinks and snacks when you get the opportunity, too.

Best places to stop between Cairns and Sydney

Due the driving distances, you'll definitely need to make at least three overnight stops on your road trip from Cairns to Sydney. We recommend taking at least a week to do this trip justice, and we've chosen two of our favourite stops - one on either route - to help you begin planning this trip of a lifetime.

And whilst the views between Cairns and Sydney are second to none, some carefully chosen accommodation will really elevate your trip to another level.

Overnight stop in Airlie Beach

Located on our Coastal Route, around 7 hours 30 minutes from Cairns, Airlie Beach is an excellent choice for a stopover en route to Sydney.

As well as being a stunning beachside stopover, Airlie Beach is known as Gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands.

From here, you can take a sailing trip out to the stunning Whitsunday Islands, snorkel or scuba dive along the Great Barrier Reef - or simply cool off in the pools at Airlie Beach Lagoon, which is free to enter and offers beautiful views out to sea

For the slightly more energetic traveller, this is also a fantastic spot for some gentle hiking. Hike up to Honeyeater Lookout, a moderate 8 kilometre walk with amazing views.

Aerial View of the Whitsunday Islands off the Australian Coast with white sands and clear turquoise waters
Airlie Beach is the perfect place to base yourself if you want to explore the Whitsunday Islands
Tanya Puntti/

While here, we recommend the Airlie Beach Hotel, with its beachfront location with fabulous views. Grab your morning coffee and watch the sun rise over the ocean if you're an early bird. There's no better place for it!

The hotel's staff can arrange tours to help you make the most of Airlie Beach's gateway location. Alternatively, head to nearby Abel Point Marina for trips out on the ocean.

With a great choice of cafes, restaurants and bars in walking distance - and free parking on site - this hotel is hard to beat in terms of convenience, amenities and location.

Overnight stop in Emerald, Queensland

Located in Queensland's Central Highlands Region, Emerald is 950 kilometres (10 hour 30 minutes) from Cairns, via the Inland Route.

Emerald is famed for its agricultural heritage, and most notably its sunflower production. Be sure to check out the world's biggest Van Gogh Sunflower painting (located in the town's Moreton Park) which is a testament to this legacy.

Emerald is also home to Central Queensland Highlands Visitor Information Center, so it's a great place to stop and find out more if you're planning on exploring this region in more depth. As its name suggests, Emerald was historically a coal and gem mining town.

History aside, Emerald also boasts plenty of natural scenery to enjoy as you take a break from the road. The Nogoa River runs through Emerald Botanic Gardens, which is a perfect place to spend a peaceful afternoon. Nearby Lake Maraboon is also popular for swimming, fishing and watersports.

And for those happy to venture a little further afield, you can take the Gemfields Interpretive Trail through the surrounding countryside. There's also the International Coal Centre at Blackwater as well as Capella Pioneer Village to awaken your inner history buff.

Historic train station building in Emerald, Queensland, Australia