Best Road Trips in Australia — from the South Coast to Tropical Top End
Best road trips in Australia range from epic coastal cruises in Western Australia to adventurous drives through the country’s red centre and spiritual heart. These are our picks of Australia’s best road trips, from the tropical top end to the dramatic south coast.
Australia is home to the world’s best road trips, in our opinion, and in our many years of travelling — whether it was summer caravanning holidays as kids, my five year-long epic road trip around Australia with my family, and the road trips Terence and I have completed together researching guidebooks — we have done a heap of them.
Following our recent post on tips for road trips in Australia, readers asked us to recommend some of the best road trips in Australia that they can do, along with our favourite food and wine themed road trips.
Australia is a colossal country to drive, making a road trip as exhausting as it is extraordinary. There’s a whopping 18,000 kilometres (11,180 miles) of coastline skirted by the world’s most beautiful sandy beaches and some of its wildest surf — punctuated by majestic cliffs, sheltered harbours, serene estuaries, unassuming inlets to mighty rivers, colourful coral reefs, and crocodile-infested marshes.
Then there’s the vast interior of the country, which offers infinite variety when it comes to landscapes — gently undulating emerald-green hills, golden pancake-flat wheat plains, copper-coloured sand dunes, and eucalyptus-scented bushland. Along with our famous fauna and flora, impressive ancient Aboriginal sites, and friendly, laidback people. Not to mention great food and even finer wine.
These are the best road trips in Australia as far as we’re concerned, and we’ve tested each out during guidebook research at least twice over the years.
Best Road Trips in Australia
Australia’s Spiritual Heart — Alice Springs to Uluru via Glen Helen Gorge and Kings Canyon
This is definitely one of the best road trips in Australia for us. It’s the drive we mentioned in our recent post on road trip tips (link above) and it’s one of the country’s most rewarding. You could do it in a few very hurried days or you could take a week to ten days including time in Alice and Uluru.
We recommend you start out in quirky Alice Springs, then drive through the arid outback landscapes of the East MacDonnell Ranges, then backtrack to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges, before driving south-west to Kings Canyon and end ending the trip at the colossal rock of Uluru and enchanting Kata Tjuta.
Australia’s remote ‘Red Centre’, as it’s called, is the country’s geographical and spiritual heartland and so it deserves some solid time exploring. Its rugged beauty will continually take your breath away.
The landscapes are distinguished by dramatic gorges sliced through mountain ranges that go on forever. There are monumental canyons formed by meteorites and, surprisingly to a lot of travellers, verdant valleys filled with palms, along with serene swimming holes.
Tropical Top End — from Darwin to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks
If you know us it’s not surprising that we’d include two Northern Territory drives, as we are absolutely smitten with the Northern Territory. I can easily imagine us living there one day. This is easily one of the best road trips in Australia.
The ‘Top End’ as Aussies call it — yes, we love giving everything another name, don’t we? — is characterised by tropical mangroves teeming with wildlife, sticky monsoon forests, and stupendous stone escarpments.
It’s remote and rugged, and — if that weren’t enough — it’s home to many of Australia’s incredible indigenous peoples who have lived here for 40,000 years and have hundreds of different languages and laws, so this is a spiritually rich place bursting with magical stories of the Dreamtime that you’ll see told in ancient paintings on red rock walls.
You begin this drive in multicultural, tropical Darwin, from where you make a beeline for Kakadu National Park and its abundant Aboriginal art, birdlife, wildlife, and wetlands, before doing a loop and making your way north again to explore Litchfield National Park for its wonderful waterfalls, serene swimming holes, and fantastic fields of magnetic termite mounds.
The Red Centre — from Katherine to Alice Springs
This is another of the best road trips in Australia and a favourite journey of ours. The route is distinguished by the magnificent sandstone escarpments and golden gorges near Katherine, the steaming natural spa pools of Mataranka and Elsey National Park that are set within sub-tropical palm forest, and a remote highway that transports you through the arid centre of Australia to Alice Springs.
If you have time, this is a trip that can connect the two above to create one very long road trip, but you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time in the seats of your vehicle.
You can punctuate the drive with scenic river cruises in Katherine, along with bush walks to see the aboriginal rock art in Nitmiluk National Park, and perhaps take in some of the pioneering heritage and World War II history around Katherine and Mataranka.
You need to prepare yourself to meet some eccentric characters along the way at the outback pubs that dot the Stuart Highway, but for many this is a highlight of the trip — along with the spooky rock formations that are the Devil’s Marbles.
The West Coast — from Perth to Exmouth
You could do this trip — which also ranks as one of the best road trips in Australia — in a week, though it’s worth taking longer to explore this truly stunning coast, Australia’s most spectacular, in our minds. Splendid white-sand beaches extend right along the coast, punctuated by sleepy holiday towns and fishing villages, and really special sights that deserve a day or two, like the strange Pinnacles.
What makes this stretch of coast so magical is its isolation. Unlike the east coast, from Melbourne to Cairns, that is urbanized, this part of Australia is sparsely inhabited. The landscapes are empty and pristine. Every night you will see skies exploding with stars, making you want to camp out or simply lie down and gave at the heavens.
On the downside, that means the driving distances are long and challenging, and the terrain is difficult, requiring a lot of planning if you want to go off-road, but the rewards are massive.
We recommend you begin in Perth, Western Australia’s laidback capital, then make stops of 1-2 nights at the Pinnacles (one night), Geraldton (one), Carnarvon (1-2 nights), Kalbarri (at least 2 nights if you want to go bushwalking), and spectacular Shark Bay and Ningaloo (could easily spend 2-3 nights at each if you want to swim, snorkel, bush-walk, and go off-road).
The Southwest — from Perth to Augusta
This drive isn’t as demanding as the one above but it’s still rewarding as it offers much more variety in many ways. The last of the best road trips in Australia for us, you could do the route in five days if you had to, but it’s much more enjoyable over a week to ten days.
You’d begin in Perth then drive along the coastline for most of the route to Augusta, stopping in holiday towns along the way like charming Bunbury and Busselton, the stunning surfing beaches of Geographe Bay, dramatic Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leewin, and the famous surfing spots in between of Yallingup, Prevelly Park and Margaret River.
At Margaret River, you need to detour to explore the fabulous Margaret River wine region, one of Australia’s finest, before continuing on to the beautiful little laidback town of Augusta, where you can do some whale-watching at the right time of year.
You’ll take in scenic vineyards where you can sip impressive wines, swim in crystal-clear water in pretty white-sand coves, do easy walks through gently undulating bushland, and, if you’re up for it, more challenging hikes along wild, windswept coastal paths watched over by lonely lighthouses. Magic.
Our Top Australian Road Trip Tips
- You can do most of these drives in 2WD or (preferably) AWD vehicles. We’ve used almost every car rental company in Australia, from Budget and Avis to no-name budget rental companies. Budget is one of the biggest and one of the best value, cars can be booked online, and you can arrange to drop the vehicle off at a different location to where you picked it up (for an additional fee).
- The route you need a 4WD is the Alice Springs to Uluru one and while you can also rent a vehicle (ensure it’s sturdy) from the main rental companies, you might want to consider a fully equipped 4WD campervan from a company such as Britz or Maui if you’re planning on going off-road and camping out.
- Most major car rental companies also loan out Global Positioning Sensor (GPS) units with their vehicles. It’s worth renting one.
- Don’t be too spontaneous. These are trips that you really need to plan out, calculating how many kilometres you’ll need to drive each day, deciding in advance what you’re willing to do, figuring out how much fuel you’ll need (always have a full spare jerry can of fuel), and booking accommodation in advance.
- Be aware that it’s not uncommon to have to drive up to 700 kms a day on these sorts of trips. Australians are used to driving long distances but Europeans and Asians from smaller countries are not and will need to plan well.
- Always start out at sunrise, take a thermos of coffee, plenty of water, lots of snacks and sandwiches, interesting music or podcasts to keep you engaged and alert, and make lots of stops to stretch your legs and nap if you need to.
- Driving before sunrise and after sunset is dangerous in the outback, so plan your day so that you have stopped driving by the time the sun goes down.
- If you’re going off the main roads, be aware that driving on corrugated dirt roads, tracks with loose bull dust, and sandy trails will slow you down considerably, as you won’t want to be doing much more than 60 kilometres an hour, so you’ll need to take that into account when planning your driving days.
- If you break down, stay with the vehicle, as it offers the best protection from the elements, especially the scorching heat. Deaths generally occur when people wander off and get lost. Phone the National Roadside Assistance, the Australia-wide breakdown service: 131 111
- In the Northern Territory and Western Australia many roads are subject to flooding and closure during the wet season so always check conditions ahead at the tourist office or police station. In the NT check www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport/
- Note that in small towns cafés, takeaway joints, and shops might only open Monday to Friday from 9am-5pm, although bakeries will open earlier, and on Saturday until noon only.
- Wineries will often shut by 5pm or earlier and their restaurants are generally only open for lunch, which is why you’ll need a couple of nights in wine regions so you’re not drinking and driving.
- People eat dinner early in small towns, often around 6.30-7pm and it’s not unusual to find that last orders must be in by 9pm.
- The best Australian road trip maps are Hema Maps www.hemamaps.com.au. You’ll also need a road atlas and 4WD guide. We like Gregory’s Australian Road Atlas, Explore Australia’s The Complete 4WD Guide, Discover Australia by 4WD by Ron Moon, and Around Australia Guide from Steve Parish Publishing.
UPDATED: January 2017