The Best of Queensland, from Cairns to the Gold Coast

From the Daintree to the Outback, our insider George shares his tips on the best things to see and do in Queensland.

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Photo © Getty Images/Michael Szonyi

With national parks, dense rainforests, jutting mountain ranges, and sweeping valleys, Queensland is a diverse and enthralling state.

The Daintree

Located in the far north of the state, the Daintree National Park is a two-hour drive north of Cairns. Walk along the boardwalks, learn about the park at the visitor center, and check out the wildlife conservation areas. The Daintree Rainforest is thought to be 165 million years old, and holds the title of the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforest in the world.

Nearby, the Daintree River is home to a number of large saltwater crocodiles, which are a must-see (from afar). Another fascinating, and dangerous, inhabitant of northern Queensland is the Cassowary, a very large, shy but aggressive bird, found in the Paluma Range National Park. Nearby Cape Tribulation is known for its windswept beach reminiscent of a desert island. Always read the signs, and if it says not to swim, don’t swim.

Inland from Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands is an area of outstanding beauty. Visit the huge Cathedral and Curtain fig trees, and camp on the shores of Lake Tinaroo.

The clear water of Cape Tribulation, Far North Queensland. Photo credit: Getty Images/DarrenTierney

Day Trips from Cairns

Take a short day trip from Cairns to Kuranda, and check out the mighty waterfalls in Barron Gorge National Park. During the wet season, or after heavy rain, the waterfalls are very powerful. Jump on board the heritage railway to view the falls and surrounding forest, or walk along the short boardwalk from the car park to see them from afar. Two hours south of Cairns, see the iconic Millaa Millaa Falls. Surrounded by rainforest, the falls cascade into a waterhole where you can enjoy a refreshing dip.

Paluma Range National Park

Big and Little Crystal Creek, in Paluma Range National Park, are hidden gems of the far north. After following a steep, winding road into the hills, adventurers are rewarded with a series of swimmable waterfalls and deep pools at Little Crystal Creek. A historic bridge spans the creek, and just below it is a popular rock face used as a diving board, but always remember to check the water levels before diving in. Its big brother is home to natural rock slides, the swimming hole known as the Paradise Pool, and a number of small waterfalls.

Set up camp at Crystal Creek campsite, where large shaded areas give you the chance to relax beneath the rainforest or walk one of a number of short trails surrounding the site. Wake up early to take a morning dip in the nearby waterhole before cooking up some breakfast over your fire. On your way to the campsite, look out for roadside stalls run by locals where you can buy fresh, homegrown fruit and vegetables.

Make sure to stop by the town of Paluma before you get there. McClelland’s Lookout is a short walk from the picnic area in the village and provides great views toward the coast.

Finch Hatton Gorge

For those seeking a gentler side to Queensland, the forests and waterways surrounding Finch Hatton Gorge are popular with platypus spotters. These diminutive, and notoriously shy mammals are hard to spot, but for the lucky few who get to see them in the wild, the memory will last a lifetime. The aptly named Platypus Bush Camp is nearby if you want to camp in total wilderness. Check out the Wheel of Fire Walk, keeping an eye out for the large groups of fruit bats which call the forest home.

Springbrook National Park

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, Springbrook National Park is different from the far north, with forests of fungi, moss and thick foliage that flourish among the damp and often misty mountains. Hope for a clear day to appreciate the Best of All Lookout, just a short walk through beech forest from the road. Head to Canyon Lookout from where you can access several short and longer trails. Check out the natural bridge at Cave Creek before taking one of the trails nearby.

Waterfall in Springbrook National Park. Photo credit: Getty Images/UpDogDesigns

Lamington National Park

Lamington National Park is close to Springbrook, part of the Gondwana Rainforest, but the road connecting the two is a steep, windy but stunningly beautiful drive of around 90 minutes. The Green Mountains campsite is located inside the national park, making access to the Python Rock lookout, Moonlight Crag and the Morans Falls walk feel  easy after the long hairpin drive up. There are more than 93mi (150km) of walking tracks in the park, including the 33mi (54km) Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk, which can be started from the campsite.

The Glass House Mountains

For those looking for a more arduous hike, Mount Beerwah can be summited via a 1mi (2.6km) trail. The hike can be dangerous with steep banks and uneven ground, so take care on the way up. For those not keen on the climb, a fine lookout over the mountains can be found along the Glass House Woodford Road. 

Just outside of the park, Mount Ngungun can also be climbed via a similarly demanding track. There are a number of shorter walks and trails along with picnic spots to soak in the afternoon sun or spot lazy koalas. Another great spot to view the mountains is McCarthy’s Lookout, just south of Maleny.

Sunset from the top of Mt Ngungun, looking over the Glass House Mountains. Photo credit: Getty Images/Posnov

Outback Queensland

Queensland isn’t all beaches and rainforests. Travel southwest from Townsville toward Charters Towers, to Ravenswood, a small mining town in the Queensland Outback. For those interested in history, the Ravenswood Railway Hotel is a notable heritage landmark retaining original furniture, rooms, and fittings for those brave enough to stay the night – it’s said to be haunted. The hotel, along with the church and a number of shops featuring original facades, offers a glimpse into the gold mining rush of Australia’s past. If you don’t fancy a night in the hotel, there’s a campground nearby. On the bumpy, corrugated Ayr–Ravenswood Road, keep a sharp eye out for kangaroos and emus while enjoying great views of the Queensland bush.

Head further west along the Flinders Highway to Mount Isa, a notable mining town around 570mi (917km) from Townsville. Western fans should check out the annual Mount Isa Rodeo held in early August, or join a tour to learn about some of the mines in town. Also, of note is the WWII-era underground hospital.

Road Trip Itineraries

Deciding which route to take through Queensland can be difficult. Cairns to Brisbane? The same in reverse? How can you incorporate the interior, as well as the coast? Assuming Cairns is where you’ll begin, after taking in the Daintree and Cape York, head south, hugging the coast. Take the time to head inland, where you’ll find some of the best national parks in Australia. Inland spots such as Tully Falls, Atherton and Wallaman Falls make for worthwhile detours from the coast.

Townsville offers the chance to recuperate after roughing it beneath the stars in the campsites of Paluma and Girrigun National Parks and the shores of Lake Tinaroo.  If you choose to stick to the coast, you’ll find small and quiet spots to camp by the shore, such as Hull Heads, Bramston Beach or Agnes Water – the latter being close to the town of Seventeen Seventy, a good spot for coastal walks and day trips to Lady Musgrave Island.

Before you reach the Whitsundays, camp on the shores of Lake Proserpine keeping your toes out of the reach of the resident barramundi. On the drive to Mackay, head inland to explore Eungella National Park and Pelion State Forest, which are renowned for platypus spotting, hikes, and well-maintained boardwalks. While in Bundaberg, be sure to visit Mon Repos for beach walks, walking trails and a turtle hatchery. If you time your visit right, (between January and March), you may see turtle hatchlings dashing across the beach.

On the approach to the Sunshine Coast, explore Imbil State Forest and camp beside Borumba Dam. After catching some surf and sun on the coast, be sure to head to Maleny and Montville for a vibrant craft and art scene with Montville, in particular, being home to a number of art galleries, artisanal shops, and cafes.

Learn to surf or catch some waves on the Gold Coast and explore the vibrant city of Brisbane. For art and music festivals and events, check out the Brisbane Powerhouse. Take a scenic drive to Springbrook and Lamington National Parks for hiking and wildlife. One hour inland, Ipswich is a much quieter retreat from the big city and makes for a good spot to grab a coffee before heading for Mount Edwards, boasting a rewarding hike with views back across the surrounding landscape.

The Pacific Coast Way may be the big draw, but it is by no means the only way to see the state. If you want to drive to Western Australia, the Savannah Way is a daunting, 2,300mi (3,700km) journey across rainforests and desert. The Great Inland Way powers down to Sydney through Central NSW, showcasing Queensland’s Outback including the state’s highest pub in Ravenshoe. For a unique Queensland experience, mix and match coastal and inland routes along with popular and lesser-known spots to create your own, unforgettable adventure.

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