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Top 10 best road trips in Australia

Road trips are back - here are the best ones.

The sad truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of overly spoilt children in this country - maybe even millions - who have never properly discovered the joys of an Aussie road trip.

Thanks to relatively cheap domestic airfares and increasingly time-poor parents, these kids have never experienced the seemingly endless joy of a properly epic road journey - from Sydney to Cairns, say, Canberra to Coffs Harbour or Melbourne to Brisbane.

Australia’s vast size means the road trips many of us took when we were young were multi-day affairs, unleavened by the invention of iPads, or even portable DVD players. 

But as long as they can be, these road journeys are also spectacular and eye-widening, thanks to our incredibly varied scenery, from coastline to desert to rain forest.

One unforeseen side effect of the global pandemic is that the Great Australian Road Trip is making a comeback, as people are either unwilling or unable to fly interstate, and the good news is, those who are going have plenty of choice. 

Here, helpfully, are our Top 10 Road Trips for the Summer Holidays.

01. The Great Ocean Road, Victoria

The Twelve Apostles - Great Ocean Road, Victoria.

There’s a reason the epic Great Ocean Road drive along the southern coast of Australia is always included in any discussion of our greatest drives, and that’s because it’s actually one of the very best in the world. The scenery, from its starting point just after ballistic Bells Beach, outside Torquay, to Allansford, is diverse, distracting and delectable. The way that so much of the road’s 243km length runs right along the ocean, often with towering cliffs on the other side, makes it a visual feast, while the way it’s constructed, with one fabulous corner after another, means it’s a fantastic drive for the enthusiast.

You really need to try this road at least twice in your life, once to take in the view, and once to keep your eyes focused entirely on the black top. It’s a good idea to take a co-driver for this reason

Sure, you have to access it via one of the most boring highways in the world, the Geelong freeway, but the pay-off makes it absolutely worth it, even more so if it’s the end point of your Sydney to Melbourne road trip.

02. Old Pacific Highway, NSW, Sydney to Gosford

This beautiful ribbon of road is perfect for a road trip out of Sydney. (image credit: The Drivers' Vault)

Sure, often old roads - the winding, single-laned wonders that used to be our national highways - are broken down or blocked off, but what’s known to locals, and enthusiastic motorcyclists in particular as THE Old Road, is an exceptional exception.

This beautiful ribbon of road is perfect for a road trip out of Sydney and is kept in tip-top condition and some of it has both the smooth surface, and savage selection of corners, you'd find on a race track. 

The fun part starts at a fantastic cafe called Pie In the Sky near Cowan, which is an absolute must. 

From there it’s just one smile after another as you climb and spin down through almost rain-forest-like scenery at some points, all the way to Gosford, which is your gateway to the NSW Central Coast.

03. Arnhem Way, Northern Territory

The Arnhem Way begins in Katherine in the Northern Territory, where you’ll want to stock up on plenty of water, before you head east. (image credit: Northern Territory)

This is the Australia far-too-few Aussies actually see. Red dust, searing heat, horizons that seem too far away for your eyes to believe. It could be Mars, it’s certainly not Sydney or Melbourne. 

The Arnhem Way begins in Katherine in the Northern Territory, where you’ll want to stock up on plenty of water, before you head east to Mainoru Store, some 250km in the distance (frankly it can be so flat out there it’s a wonder you can’t see it from Katherine). 

Home of the only shops anywhere on the East Arnhem Way, the campground is where you’ll spend your first amazing night under a brilliant-bright starry sky. 

The next day you’ll tackle a properly Northern Territory-sized 480km blast that will carry you from the red of the desert to the turquoise waters off the coast of Nhulunbuy. Be advised that this is a rugged and dangerous landscape, and preparation, and a well-serviced 4WD, are a must before you set off. The experience will be absolutely worth the investment.

04. Perth to Meelup Beach, Western Australia

Meelup Beach isn’t just the best beach in WA, it could just be the best in the world. (image credit: Margaret River Region)

Many of the roads in WA are somewhat mystifying and suggest that the locals are so bounteously supplied with beaches that they get bored of looking at them. That might explain why the first part of the main road south from Perth, the enticingly titled State Route 2, is strangely absent of the spectacular sea views you can see from your satnav are not far away. 

Fortunately, things get far more scenic the further south you go, and a full tour of the Margaret River area is clearly called for, but the winding bit of National Park road you want to aim for is the back track that takes you to one of the most perfectly picturesque strips of sand and garnet-green ocean you’ll ever be delighted to see.

Meelup Beach, just outside Dunsborough and its incredible bakery, isn’t just a reasonable shout to be the best beach in WA, it could just be the best in the world, and the drive to get there, through eucalypti-scented forests, is a joy. 

05. Otway Ranges, Victoria

The Redwoods of Victoria’s Otway Ranges were planted in the 1930s by loggers. (image credit: Visit Victoria)

Sure, back in the day, you could fly to California to drive amongst some sky-touching Redwood trees, but that’s not really an option at present. Fortunately, we’ve got something just as awe-inspiring and neck stretching right here in Victoria. 

The Redwoods of Victoria’s Otway Ranges are a whole lot closer to home yet no less awesome. Planted in the 1930s by loggers looking for new types of trees to chop down, these giants were then left alone to grow, which is exactly what they’ve done for the past 80-odd years. Towering above the gum trees, the tallest Redwoods measure some 60 metres in height and to drive amongst them is to feel completely dwarfed.

The road-trip fun begins when you hit the Forrest-Apollo Bay road, which winds from the village of Forrest to the stunning waters of Apollo Bay, part of the Great Ocean Road. 

06. The Rainforest Way, Queensland

The Rainforest Way, which somehow squeezes an incredible 14 National Parks and one World Heritage Listed area into just 650km of Attenborough-worthy driving. (image credit: Tourism Australia)

There can be few places in the world that manage to cram so much incredible wildness into one stretch of road as the Rainforest Way, which somehow squeezes an incredible 14 National Parks and one World Heritage Listed area into just 650km of Attenborough-worthy driving. Perhaps even more incredibly, it all sits just an hour’s easy drive from Coolangatta. 

The Rainforest Way dances across the border between NSW and Queensland, dipping and soaring with the landscape, the view out the car windows a constant patchwork of verdant wildness.

Picking highlights is like choosing your favourite child, but the Green Mountains in Lamington National Park are not to be missed. 

The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, spread out across southern Queensland and northern NSW were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, with experts citing their “unique landforms, spectacular diversity of species, and what they tell us about the development of life on Earth,” and you can see their majesty without leaving your car.

07. The Oberon to Goulburn Road, NSW

The most recent upgrade, in 2019, saw a two-lane bridge built over the Abercrombie River. (image credit: Upper Lachlan Shire Council)

There have long been some special stretches of back road that are only available to, and known about by, people who don’t mind a bit of gravel rash on their cars. 

Fortunately, sometimes, a benevolent government official decides to pave them, for the greater good, and that’s what happened to the incredible Oberon to Goulburn Road just over a decade ago now. A secret wonder is now everyone’s to enjoy.

Doing this drive also allows you to link up the Jenolan and Wombeyan caves in a single day, if you fancy some time hiding underground at present.

The most recent upgrade, in 2019, saw a two-lane bridge built over the Abercrombie River, replacing a slightly more charming single-lane timber one from the 1950s.

There are a fabulous corkscrew of corners in the first section from Jenolan to Oberon, but the views and vistas really stack up from there, before the road dives down into forested greenery.

Perhaps best of all, there’s hardly any traffic on this stretch, also known as the Tablelands Way, making it a secret gem.

08. The 99 Bends - Tasmania

The 99 Bends is, also a favourite Targa stage. (image credit: Lap of Tasmania)

If you’re going to plan a road trip in Australia, and you love driving, you really want to head for Tasmania, because the whole state is a feast of fantastic, empty roads that resemble race tracks.

That’s why the Targa Tasmania road rally is so famous and so enjoyable. Among the Tasmania road trip highlights would be the famous climb up St Mary’s Pass, but the absolute pinnacle of driving enjoyment is definitely the 99 Bends, on the Lyell Highway out of Queenstown.

I have actually made myself sick driving this road, and it really does just feel like an endless succession of corners stuck to each other with barely a straight in between. Indeed, it feels like a lot more than 99 of them, but you’d definitely get ill if you tried to count them, and you’ll be too busy concentrating to do so anyway.

The 99 Bends is, of course, also a favourite Targa stage.

09. Adelaide to Victor Harbor

Victor Harbor offers excellent vistas of the ocean and windswept fields. (image credit: Viator)

The great thing about a Melbourne to Adelaide road trip is that you can start it by doing the Great Ocean Road, our top-trip tip, but there’s plenty more to see once you cross the border into South Australia, including the lobster-fishing idyll of Robe and then the incredible, marshland stretch of the Coorong.

Once you’re in Adelaide, though, you’re spoilt for choice for road trips, because there are so many great options, all within an hour of the city, which is so small it’s very easy to blast in and out of.

Our tip, though, is the very lovely drive to Victor Harbor, which takes you through the stunning Coromandel Valley, Morphett Vale and McLaren Vale, where you’ll surely want to stop and taste some wine. 

Victor Harbor itself offers excellent vistas of the ocean and windswept fields and is a fine place to stop and stay, before making your way back to Adelaide on a different track, through Strathalbyn and Mount Barker. These are some fine road-rally stages often seen in the Classic Adelaide event. Enjoy.

10. Cairns to Cape Tribulation

The Brisbane to Cairns drive is epic in distance and variation, but once you get there you’re in for a real treat. (image credit: Cairns Post)

If you’ve got the time - ie you’re a Grey Nomad - it really is worth planning an entire east coast of Australia road trip, going from Melbourne to Sydney the long way, followed by a Sydney to Brisbane road trip (great road trips from Brisbane must include the blast up Mt Glorious - the name says it all), or at very least the Sydney to Byron Bay road trip, which is more green and gorgeous the further north you get. 

The Brisbane to Cairns drive is epic in distance and variation, but once you get there you’re in for a real treat, with the tropical coast-hugging road from there to Port Douglas, one of the most special little towns in all of Australia. 

After spoiling yourself there for a day or more you should get your adventuring pants on and head across the croc-filled Daintree River (the car ferry is very safe) into the Daintree itself. One of the very few places in the world where a rainforest grows all the way to the edge of the ocean, this place is World Heritage listed, and with very good reason.

You can do the drive in a day, keeping a careful eye out for the rare and slightly deadly Dino-birds, the Cassowaries, but you’ll want to linger longer. It’s a drive that challenges even the Great Ocean one for sheer beauty and unforgettable-ness.