Adelaide to Cairns Drive Itinerary – via the Great Inland Way

The Adelaide to Cairns drive is not your obvious Australian road trip. When I told people that I’d decided to drive 3,000 kilometres through the Australian outback on my own, 98% of them thought, to put it politely, that I’d lost the plot. I thought I’d lost it a long time ago, but admittedly driving from Adelaide to Cairns alone was certainly one of my more hairbrained schemes.

The main reason for my Adelaide to Cairns drive was to do the staple ‘backpacker in Australia’ thing – chase the sun. Arriving in temperamental Adelaide after so long in the tropics was a shock, and rather than travel to Melbourne and up the east coast, ending my Australia trip in Cairns, I wanted to fast track straight to the heat and drive straight up to Tropical North Queensland.

The world’s most pointless traffic light – there were no crossroads or roadworks, and at this point I hadn’t seen a car for about 2 hours. The things you find in the outback…

Then I started researching the stops on an Adelaide to Cairns road trip, and it turns out there’s some pretty cool places. They’re nearly all Australian outback towns, with town dwellers who have an intriguing way of life, fascinating desert landscapes and unusual things to do. I didn’t travel to Australia planning to go on an Adelaide to Cairns road trip, but I’m glad my determination to flee to hot weather made me make a ridiculous decision – it was a fantastic experience.

So what are the stops on an Adelaide to Cairns road trip? Read on to discover some of the best!

Adelaide – 3+ days

Your journey will start in the beautiful city of Adelaide. The capital of South Australia gets quite a lot of stick from people who think it’s dullsville; but it did nothing but delight me.  The street planners of Adelaide did a fantastic job, the CBD and suburbs have a lot of green spaces, there’s nearby vineyards and beautiful beaches, plenty of bars and restaurants and the library is stunning. What more could you need?

My favourite things to do in Adelaide were:

  • Tour the Barossa Valley and drink as much wine as humanely possible
  • Pretend I was Hermione Granger in the Hogwarts-esque State Library of South Australia (there’s a great politics section there too)
  • Learn about Aboriginal, social and natural history at the (free!) Museum of South Australia
  • Laze back on Glenelg Beach or any of the other Adelaide beaches
  • Tour Adelaide’s great coffee scene and breakfast in all the city’s best cafes

Where to stay in Adelaide

If you’re on a budget, Backpack Oz is a great, social hostel with lots of facilities. Included is use of a communal kitchen, clean dorms, a big social area with pool tables, a tv and sofas, good free wifi and nights at the on-site bar. For rates and to book, click here.

If you fancy something a bit more lavish before heading out on your Adelaide to Cairns road trip adventure, check out this deals finder for today’s best offers and book now!

Broken Hill – 1 – 2 days

Once you’ve had enough time to soak in all of Adelaide’s attractions, head into the outback – north east to Broken Hill. Named ‘The Silver City’, Broken Hill just over the New South Wales border, and really surprised me in terms of size – it’s huge. Some people call it ‘The Capital of the Outback’, although I think Alice Springs deserves the title more.

Still, Broken Hill has all of the amenities you’d need in a sizable town (although I was told that some people still head to Adelaide to go clothes shopping, just a mere five hours down the road), including a Coles and a Woolworths, cafes, restaurants and hotels.

Exploring the abandoned buildings of Silverton
Exploring the abandoned buildings of Silverton

There’s also lots to see and do in Broken Hill and the surrounding areas. I was only in the city for an afternoon, but managed to pack quite a lot in!

Some of the best things to do in Broken Hill are:

Very friendly donkeys in Silverton!
Very friendly horses in Silverton!
  • Drive up to the Line of Lode Lookout and Miners Memorial
  • Drive over to Silverton to see the abandoned buildings, arty cars and check out their outback pub – and go to the Mad Max Museum!
  • See the sunset at the Desert and Sculpture Park
  • Go on a Broken Hill Heritage Walk Tour and learn how the city was built on silver
  • Explore the Aboriginal history of Mutawintji National Park
  • Drive 112 kilometers to Menindee and visit the Kinchega National Park and the Menindee Lakes, which are dubbed ‘the Blue Heart of the Outback’

Cobar – 1 day

The next town of any size is Cobar (spoiler – it is pretty small – make sure you get groceries before you leave Broken Hill), some 450 kilometers to the east – once you reach this town, you’ll understand what everyone means about the barrenness and remoteness of the outback. Like many outback towns, it was founded on mining, and many of the best Cobar attractions involve exploring the mining culture.

Some of the best things to do in this New South Wales outback town are:

  • Look inside a working gold mine at Fort Bourke Hill Lookout
  • Visit the Cobar Miner’s Heritage Park
  • Do the self guided Cobar Heritage Walk
  • Visit the Mount Grenfell historic site, which is home to ancient Aboriginal rock art drawn by the Wongaibon people, the traditional owners of the area

Where to stay in Cobar

I stayed in a great wikicamp site by a beautiful lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise in the morning. Best of all – it was free. You can find the location by downloading the Wikicamp app – and check out my guide to free camping in Australia for tips and tricks.

Lightning Ridge – 2-3 days

Lightning Ridge is up with Coober Pedy in the funkiest outback towns I’ve ever visited. It’s another mining town – Australia’s capital of the black opal – and as many outback towns do, has become an eccentric artistic hub, right in the middle of the desert.

Everything about Lightning Ridge, from its intriguing name to its unique way of guiding guests around, compelled me. I stayed in the town for two days, but the woman at the tourist information centre told me ‘we could keep you here for a week’ and I don’t think she was exaggerating.

Great things to do in Lightning Ridge include:

          • Going on a car door tour – there’s four routes you can take, and you follow the car doors around to see some of Lightning Ridge’s best attractions. They’re normally quite short, and take you through the back areas of Lightning Ridge so you can see what mine life is really like.
          • Visit Amigo’s Castle. This place is fascinating – it’s the product of an Italian guy who decided to build his own ‘castle’. Once you’ve been in outback Australia for a while, this kind of thing becomes normal. Anyway, for five dollars you can explore the castle (where he no longer lives) and hear a bit about why he decided to randomly construct a castle out of rocks he’d found around the town. It may have been the best five dollars I spent on my Adelaide to Cairns drive.
          • Browse the town’s many art galleries.
          • Visit the opal centre to learn all about the mining history.
          • Soak in the hot bore baths, which are naturally heated. They weren’t exaggerating when they called them hot – to enjoy them best, avoid visiting in the middle of the day. They’re wonderfully relaxing and meant to have purifying qualities. So go, soak and feel pampered!

Roma – 1 day

Image via Flickr by equineocean

Take a drive over the border to Outback Queensland! Roma is around three hours from the Queensland/ New South Wales border. One thing I noticed as soon as I got into Queensland was that there were a lot more towns of a fair size – probably one every 100 km or so, compared to one every 400 kms in New South Wales – and Roma is the second one you’ll pass.

Roma is a vibrant country town, with a rich history of the oil and gas industries.

Some of the best things to do in Roma include:

        • Visit the memorial avenue which commemorates the local soldiers who lost their lives in WWI
        • Visit the beautiful St Paul’s Anglican Church, with intricate stained glass windows
        • Learn about the history of the town with a Historical Interpretive Walk of Hospital Hill, which will teach you all about the oil and gas explorative history
        • Visit the beautiful heritage listed courthouse

Emerald – 1 day (more if you visit Canarvon Gorge)

Image via Flickr by CHRC Libraries 

After a long drive through the Central Highlands, which although a dynamic and scenic journey is very bereft of towns, cars and people, Emerald feels like a huge metropolis. There’s all you need for a good feed and a night’s rest in the town, but there’s also plenty of attractions within Emerald to keep you busy.

Image via Flickr by Chris Fithall

The best things to do in Emerald include:

      • Visit the beautiful Emerald Botanical Gardens
      • Tour around the limestone Cathedral and Capricorn caves, which are set in a gorgeous lush forest
      • Visit the nearby sapphire fields to find out the history of this precious gemstone
      • Take a detour to Carnarvon Gorge, one of inner Queensland’s most spectacular national parks

Charters Towers – 1-2 days

Photo via Flickr by Rob and Stephanie Levy

About four hours’ drive north of Emerald is the charismatic town of Charters Towers, which is a welcome fuel and food stop. But provided it’s not bucketing it down with rain (it was when I was there – and by bucketing I mean after a two minute walk I could wring my jacket out), there’s a few things to pass some time in Charters Towers – and it’s worth soaking in the country atmosphere (pardon the unfunny pun) of this town, as you’ll soon be out of the outback!

The best things to do in Charters Towers include:

      • Learn about the history of the town in a Charters Towers walking tour
      • Watch the sunset on top of Towers Hill
      • Get spooky with a ghost tour
      • Visit the Miners Cottage and pan for gold
      • Watch a movie at one of Queensland’s oldest open air cinemas.

The Atherton Tablelands 2 -3 days

If you’re looking for the quickest way to drive from Adelaide to Cairns, the sat nav will send you eastwards at Charters Towers – out to Townsville and then north, up the coast to Cairns. But if you want to enjoy some more of the country’s inner beauty, head north towards Ravenshoe, which is home of the highest pub in Queensland. If you fancy a detour, the Undara Volcanic National Park has the world’s largest system of lava tubes and is a unique spot to visit in Queensland.


Heading further north, you’ll soon enter the Atherton Tablelands. The scenery of this region is out of this world, with breathtaking waterfalls, showstopping lakes and beautiful rainforest all reaching out to be explored. There’s lots of wildlife spotting opportunities, with birds and mammals unique to this region. The Atherton Tablelands will blow you away, trust me – and it’s well worth at least two days on your Adelaide to Cairns drive.

The best things to do in the Atherton Tablelands are:

      • Drive the Waterfall Circuit and check out some of the best falls that this part of the world is famous for.
      • Recreate the hair flick picture of the Herbal Essences advert at Millaa Millaa falls (essential).
      • Walk around the perimeter of Lake Eacham, through tranquil rainforest.
      • Sample some wine at Golden Pride Cellar Door.
      • Visit the ghost town of Mt Mulligan Escarpment – where Queensland’s worst mining disaster occurred in 1921.
      • Visit the quirky and charming township of Yungaburra.
      • Snap some photos of the Curtain Fig Tree and the Cathedral Strangler Fig Tree.

Cairns – 3-5 days

The drive into Cairns is one of my favourite stretches of the country – the rainforest spanning over mountains and the sugar cane plants give the area a vibrant look. Especially compared to the outback, everything is so full of life! Take your time driving between the two, it’s your last day of the journey and it’s worth absorbing as much as possible between the stops.

Once you reach Cairns, locate the lagoon, pull up a sun lounger and flop down on it – you deserve it after that colossal drive! But of course, once you’re over the journey you’ll probably want to check out some of Cairns’ best attractions – that’s what you drove 3000 miles through the outback for, right?

Here’s the run down of some of my favourite things to do in and around Cairns:

      • Hang around at the lagoon – I loved it but it’s really just an elaborate outdoor swimming pool, made because you can’t swim in the sea in Cairns – but it’s ideal for a day of R&R!
      • Drive an hour north to the Daintree National Park and spend some time exploring the world’s oldest rainforest.
      • Go on a scuba diving tour of the Great Barrier Reef – even though it’s been declared dead, I still think it’s worth diving, especially if you haven’t dived much/ at all before.
      • Visit Fitzroy Island for a slice of pure paradise.
      • Explore the quirky and vibrant towns around Cairns, such as Port Douglas and Kuranda.

Where to stay in Cairns

Cairns is a traveller hotspot, and there’s accomodation options for all types of backpackers.  I stayed at City Centre Backpackers, which was great value for money and offered decent wifi, a tropical setting and a pretty chilled out atmosphere. Click here for more details, rates and to book.

If you want to party, Gilligans is the answer. The hostel is rather (in)famous for its raucous nightlife – but one thing that it definitely is is a great place to have a few drinks and meet other travellers. It’s also very clean and has great facilities, and is pretty cheap to boot. Click here for more details, rates and to book.

If you’d rather private accomodation, there’s a huge range of hotels in Cairns. Check out this deals finder for today’s best deals.

Tips for the Adelaide to Cairns drive

  • In outback New South Wales, the distances are long and arduous. Make sure that you’re well prepared for outback driving, especially if you haven’t done it before.
  • Don’t underestimate the need for a great road trip playlist. Here are some great road trip songs.
  • Be prepared for freezing temperatures at night and sweltering conditions in the day – the outback is extreme!
  • Make sure that your car is well equipped with everything it needs and has had a recent service before taking it to the outback.
  • Have a phone with a Telstra plan for the best service.
  • Don’t drive at night on outback roads – kangaroos and other wildlife are all over the shop, driver fatigue will be maximised and road trains really come out of nowhere after dark.

    Adelaide to Cairns Road Trip Packing List

Don’t venture into the outback without basic car equipment – this includes a jack, coolant, engine oil, jump leads and a spare tyre. There’s probably more you should have too (I’m sure someone somewhere is thinking “only a fool would venture into the New South Wales outback without car part XYZ”) but at least these items were essential.

If you’re camping, you’ll need the following:

Would you do the Adelaide to Cairns drive? What’s the best road trip you’ve ever done? Let me know in the comments below or over on FacebookIf you're visiting Australia and want to road trip through New South Wales' outback and Queensland's hinterland, visiting outback towns such as Broken Hill and Lightning Ridge, national parks like Canarvon Gorge and breathtaking waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands, check out this Adelaide to Cairns drive itinerary.

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