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10 Must Stops on the East Coast of Australia

In September 2023 after months of saving money, my boyfriend and I decided to fly up to Cairns, rent a van, and start exploring the east coast of Australia! We had limited money and about 2 months to see as much as we could. Before flying to Cairns we had done some general planning and research but still left most of the trip wide open so see what we’d find and see where we’d end up! We saw big cities and small towns, slept in parking lots, dirt patches in the mountains and even on a boat. I had the time of my life and replay all of the memories in my head daily. That being said, if you see me starring off into space, I guarantee you I’m thinking about the next time I get to live out of a van and choose a new adventure everyday. After living in Melbourne for months, we decided to just travel from Cairns to Sydney so as much as I love Victoria, I didn’t include include that part of the east coast on this list. I will disclaim certain things we didn’t love so we just sped through those to try new things instead and we had a few nights that we skipped the coastal beach destination and headed inland for the mountain retreat!

Cape Tribulation, QLD

About 3 hours drive and one ferry ride away from Cairns is Cape Tribulation, the perfect place to start an east coast roadtrip! My very first time driving in Australia was in Cape Tribulation, and the narrow, winding roads were definitely a fun way to start. For days we enjoyed star gazing without light pollution, near empty beaches, wandering through the rain forest and delicious homemade ice cream. We realized once we got there there’s barely any cell reception so if you need any maps make sure you download them before you leave. I wrote a separate post with everything we did while traveling there so click here if you want to read more about it.

Magnetic Island, QLD

Magnetic Island is the perfect stop for those who just want to relax or those who want to wake up early and do as much as they can in a day! There’s plenty of beaches to relax on or you can grab a snorkel and swim out to the reefs. You can rent a top down car and cruise around the island seeing koalas, rock wallabies and the beautiful coastline around every corner. Magnetic Island is just one ferry ride away from Townsville so you can easily go for the day or the whole weekend, like I’ve written about here!

Whitsunday Islands, QLD

Although Airlie Beach is full of life and absolutely beautiful, what I truly preferred was cruising around the Whitsundays. You can book a day trip to Whitehaven Beach or you can book a multi-day trip where you sleep on a boat in different spots around the islands. We did a three night boat trip and we got to spend our days snorkeling, hiking and watching out for dolphins and turtles. There’s multiple different types of boats that do overnight cruises so make sure you do your research before booking; we went for a more relaxed boat trip over a party boat and it was perfect for us! Day trip or multi-day trip, definitely make time to experience the Whitsundays!

Finch Hatton, QLD

I had never heard of Finch Hatton until someone on our Whitsundays cruise suggested it and we decided to take a detour and go for the night. The drive inland to get here was absolutely beautiful, we left the main road along the coast and ended up on dirt roads deep in the woods. We stayed at Platypus Bush Camp for the night and they had an area to go swimming and a nice quiet area to try and spot some platypus; unfortunately we didn’t see any while we were there. The best part about coming to Finch Hatton was definitely hiking to Finch Hatton Gorge. There are two beautiful waterfalls on the trail and we barely saw anyone else while we were here so we had plenty of space to spread out and enjoy lunch! Make sure to bring a bathing suit and be warned, the waterfalls are freezing!

Noosa Heads, QLD

On the opposite end of the spectrum to Finch Hatton is Noosa Heads, a busy beach town full of people enjoying their holiday. Noosa has markets, beautiful beaches, the everglades and a great national park with so much to explore. I had pretty poor timing and accidentally ended up in Noosa with every family there on school holidays but despite the extra people I feel in love with Noosa. Click here to read about everything we did while in Noosa!

Mount Barney, QLD

After spending so much time on the coast and in the city experiencing the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, we decided to switch it up and head for the mountains. We went hiking in Mount Barney and then drove over the border into NSW and found a place to free camp for the night. One of the most scenic drives from the whole trip was definitely driving from the Gold Coast to Mount Barney and then to Byron Bay. It was miles and miles of small towns, rolling hills and farms and I was completely blown away with how beautiful it was.

Byron Bay, NSW

I know Byron Bay isn’t off the beaten path, it’s popular and full of people but I think it’s for very good reason! The coastline is absolutely beautiful and the town is full of locally run cafes and shops to peruse. You can find early morning surfers, whales migrating and dolphins playing in the waves. We had a great time running into other backpackers traveling the east coast, relaxing on the beach and hiking Cape Byron. Click here to read about everything that made me fall in love with Byron Bay!

Elands, NSW

I’m guessing most people haven’t heard of Elands and couldn’t find it on a map and before going neither could I. Ross and I had some free time before we had to get to Sydney to return the van so we decided to head inland! We looked up some waterfalls and ended up at Rawson Falls before heading onto Ellenborough Falls. There were barely any other people at either waterfall so we had them both all to ourselves. We hiked to the bottom of Ellenborough Falls and it was one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen! In NSW you can sleep in your car as long as there’s no signage against it so we spent the night at the falls and go to enjoy it again while having breakfast. Just like Mount Barney this was another beautiful drive so if you have the time definitely drive around and see what you can find.

Blue Mountains, NSW

I will admit that I am not the most athletic person but once we got to the Blue Mountains we were hiking nearly all day for multiple days and I absolutely loved it! The views, the hikes, the waterfalls, everything about the Blue Mountains was absolutely stunning and we had a great time exploring. We were only there a few days but there’s so much to do we definitely could’ve stayed longer; click here to read about everything we got up while we were there.

Manly, NSW

Although Manly is a very well known destination I’ve been three times and absolutely loved it every time! Manly has a more of a relaxed beach town vibe while still being accessible to the city. You can relax on the beach, play volley ball, go for a walk on the coast or go shopping on The Corso. You can get to Manly in approximately 30 minutes on a ferry directly from Sydney Harbor. If you’re going on a hot, sunny day definitely take public transit because the beach parking fills up very quickly.

2 thoughts on “10 Must Stops on the East Coast of Australia”

  1. The pictures r incredible, especially the waterfalls. Did u take video of the waterfalls? Iā€™m just curious, why was the waterfall water so cold? Take care.

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