I’m assuming it’s not every day that you drive up and/or down the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Brisbane.
I mean, I hadn’t planned on doing the drive myself initially. However, a couple of things didn’t quite go as planned and instead of flying to and from Townsville, I had to drive.
As it turns out it ended up be a fantastic experience and an opportunity to see a large part of Australia that I hadn’t had the chance to see before.
I definitely learnt a lot during that trip and I am planning on doing it again over a few more days in the not too distant future to take in much more of what this part of Queensland has to offer.
Fortunately for you I can take all the guess work out of the planning with another iconic Australian road trip blog post.
Without any detours off the Bruce Highway, it’s a little over 1300km. However, the route I recommend will add another 100km to the overall trip but you’ll see some of the best sights that Queensland has to offer.
In reality, it is going to take you at least two really long days (both will be over 10 hours) in the car to drive between Townsville and Brisbane with one overnight stop if you are in a rush. However to make the most of the trip I would recommend breaking the trip up over three or four days as a minimum.
The closer you get to Brisbane the easier the drive gets. The northern sections of the Bruce Highway closest to Townsville are often just regular roads and un-divided highway with periodic overtaking lanes.
Once you get to Gympie the Bruce Highway becomes a multi-lane highway for the rest of the trip down to Brisbane making it a much easier trip where you are less likely to be held up by slow-moving traffic.
Obviously, all of the towns outlined in this post make for a great place to stop and refuel. There are sections of the Bruce Highway where petrol stations and other conveniences are quite limited, well over 100kms between stops.
Again the closer you get to Brisbane the more frequent service stations become. So you don’t need to plan ahead quite as much the further south you travel.
Honestly would be a stretch. Maybe with multiple drivers and limited stops. I would strongly recommend completing the trip over two days as an absolute minimum. Realistically there are so many interesting things to see along the route it would be worth making the trip over a week or so if you have the time.
Without any diversions, from the heart of Townsville to Brisbane CBD it’s 1335 kilometres.
The Bruce Highway actually starts in the heart of Cairns, connecting the national A1 route with Captain Cook Highway in Far North Queensland, until it divides off with Gateway Motorway (M1) and Gympie Arterial Road (M3) on the outskirts of Brisbane in the town of Bald Hill.
If you are looking at starting your road trip along the Bruce Highway in Cairns? I’ve also completed that part of the trip, a couple of times, so please check out this blog post as well.
I’ve also done the inland drive from Sydney all the way up Townsville, and I will, at some point, put together a blog post about that route as well. Although I’ll give you the hot tip, the coastal road (this way) offers the most to see and do.
Let’s start with Townsville. If you’re not already based in the city or have already spent a bunch of time there, I’ve put together a comprehensive blog post that will help you make the most of your time when you arrive there.
On the drive south out of Townsville, towns can be pretty infrequent. So it is worth making sure you are well stocked up and fuelled up before leaving the city.
It’s also worth noting these small towns don’t offer 24-hour services. So if your plans include driving late at night or very early in the morning, you might find that service stations and other conveniences aren’t open when you need them. Especially in the smaller townships.
Keep in mind that if you follow Google Maps directions, you might also inadvertently miss some of these smaller towns like Ayr upon leaving Townsville.
Pro Tip: Try to follow the A1 route number for the best quality of roads. Some of the “shortcuts” Google Maps and other GPS maps services use can be, well… let’s say adventurous.
“Big Things” are an iconic part of any Australian road trip, and the first one you will come across on the trip down the Bruce Highway is roughly two and half hours drive south of Townsville, in the town of Bowen.
Just to the south of Bowen, you’ll discover the Big Mango, part of the visitor information centre in the rest area is just off the Bruce Highway.
Pro tip: There are actually two Big Mangoes in Bowen. The first one, and the one that the town is known for that is located on the Bruce Highway, while there is a slightly smaller one along the town’s waterfront as part of the foreshore precinct. The smaller one was donated by restaurant chain Nando’s after a publicity stunt in 2014, while the original was built in 2002.
The Bruce Highway bypasses Bowen for the most part, but it is well worth stopping into the town if you have the time.
Bowen is also precisely 20 degrees south of the equator and marks the top end of the Whitsundays. If you are taking a really casual approach to the trip, then there are plenty of magnificent beaches and islands in and around Bowen to discover. The stunning Horseshoe Bay is the most iconic beach in the region.
Airlie Beach, Queensland
If you are looking to explore more of the Whitsundays, then the detour off the Bruce Highway to Airlie Beach is definitely going to be worth your while.
Airlie Beach is an extremely popular tourist and backpacker destination, on the Australian mainland but right next to Hamilton Island and the rest of the island chain that makes up the Whitsundays.
This iconic spot is certainly a destination all on its own. Honestly, I would suggest making this one at least an overnight stay, but really you are going to want to spend a few days in this stunning part of Queensland.
The natural wonders of this part of the world are famous around the world. So while you are in the area, make sure you take the opportunity to do a boat tour out to one of the islands and explore the world-famous Great Barrier Reef and iconic Whitehaven Beach. Scenic helicopter tours as also a very popular option.
Arlie Beach and the surrounding towns also have plenty to offer, so make sure you drop in and see the new Boardwalk and Airlie Beach Lagoon precinct and embrace the laid back beach atmosphere.
The town’s restaurants, bars and nightlife are also famous.
If you are looking for recommendations of places to stay in Airlie Beach, I would suggest:
- Coral Sea Marina Resort – Fancy, fun, and right on the water, everything you want while exploring a tropical beach town.
- Sunlit Waters Studio Apartments – A cheaper more self-contained option, if you are planning on making it a longer stay.
- Blue Horizon Resort Apartments – Another good option for longer stays in Airlie Beach.
- Island Gateway Holiday Park – Ideal option when travelling as a family or in a larger group.
- Base Backpackers Airlie Beach – If you are looking to embrace the backpacker lifestyle in the heart of the town.
Two hours south of Bowen (a bit longer if you choose to stop in and visit Airlie Beach) the next major stop along the Bruce Highway is the city of Mackay.
Right in the centre of sugar cane country, Mackay is in fact known as the “sugar capital” of Australia.
While not typically a tourist destination in the same sense as some of the other stops along the way, Mackay is famous for its art-deco inspired architecture within the city, while the stunning landscapes that surround it are also well worth exploring, in particular the beaches of Cape Hillsborough National Park, where you can often spot a kangaroo or wallaby.
Away from the coast, if you are looking to mix things up, the waterfall, lush flora and volcanic boulder formations of Finch Hatton Gorge are also worth exploring while you are in the area if you have the time
It’s also worth noting that Mackay the last major stop before continuing the trip south to Rockhampton, another 350km or so down the Bruce Highway.
With that in mind, plan your trip so that you stop in the city to refuel yourself and your car and get ready for the next long stint on the road. There is a bypass road around Mackay; stick to the A1 route so you don’t miss the city or anything else you might need before continuing the rest of the way.
There are some smaller towns along this section of the Bruce Highway, but they are few and far between and don’t necessarily have all of the facilities that you might expect. So make sure you stock up and refresh before you leave Mackay.
Rockhampton marks, roughly, the halfway point between Townsville and Brisbane along the Bruce Highway.
The city of Rockhampton in Central Queensland is one of the oldest cities in Queensland and in Northern Australia, formed during the gold rush, making it an interesting place to stop on the road trip.
Being the halfway point on this particular route, Rockhampton also makes for a good overnight stopping point regardless of whether you are in a hurry and trying to complete the trip along the Bruce Highway in just two days or if you have a bit of extra time.
If you do have the time Rockhampton’s colonial history makes the city interesting to explore, in particular the Victorian-style buildings along the banks of the Fitzroy River which also happens to be the second-largest river system in Australia.
One key historic building is now the Archer Park Rail Museum. Once Rockhampton’s main train station along the rail line that linked the major Queensland cities and towns, it’s now an exciting look back into that part of the history of the region.
I’d also recommend visiting Capricorn Caves for something else unique. Alternatively, if you haven’t already explored the Great Barrier Reef, Rockhampton is another great place to base yourself to explore the Keppel Islands.
Also, should you choose to stay in Rockhampton overnight, then I’d recommend avoiding accommodation too close to the Bruce Highway which wides its way through the centre of the city. Given the nature of the route, trucks tend to use the road at all hours so it can tend to be quite noisy.
I would suggest you look at these options of places to stay in Rockhampton:
- Mercure Rockhampton – Formerly a Travelodge, this is a good middle of the range hotel option in the heart of the city.
- Heritage Hotel Rockhampton – Embrace some of the history of Rockhampton with a stay in this heritage hotel.
- Fitzroy Motor Inn – Ideal for a quick overnight stopover if you are planning on getting back on the road as quickly as possible.
At this point in the drive south, the Bruce Highway starts to bypass the major stops along the way.
So in order to make the most of the trip, and break up the driving, you are going to need to make a couple of detours. Otherwise, it’s a reasonably solid four and half hour stint behind the wheel to get from Rockhampton to Maryborough.
The first detour being about an hour and a half drive south from Rockhampton, in Gladstone.
Gladstone pretty much marks the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, but it is another great place to base yourself if you would like to explore some more of the many islands that make the region. Heron Island and Lady Musgrave Island, in particular, are quite popular with tourists in this part of Queensland.
As for the city itself, Gladstone is another historic town in Central Queensland. However these days it is known for its shipping port which is one of the largest and most diverse in Australia.
Gladstone mixes the modern with its history with some amazing heritage-listed buildings that you should check out while you are in the area. If you have the time there are also some stunning beaches to explore.
While you are in town make sure you check out William Golding Memorial Lookout for some stunning views to take in all that Gladstone has to offer.
Take advantage of stopping into Gladstone refuel both yourself and your car and get ready for another couple of hours in the car.
As I made mention of before, stops are few and far between on this section of the Bruce Highway, so another one that’s a bit of a detour, but well worth it is Bundaberg. About 2 and half hours further south of Gladstone.
Probably best known for its Rum distillery, Bundaberg and the surrounding area also offers plenty of other things to see and do.
Bundaberg also makes a great option for an overnight stay if you are really looking to break up the trip over a few days.
If you are planning on staying overnight in Bundaberg then I would strongly recommend visiting Mons Repos Beach to see the Sea Turtles. From November to January, they can be seen laying their eggs on the protected beach, while from January to March you can see the hatchlings make their way out to sea for the first time. If you haven’t witnessed anything like that before, then it’s well worthwhile.
Australian Sugar Cane Railway, Hinkler Hall of Aviation and Fairymead House Sugar Museum all within the Bundaberg Botanical Gardens are also worth exploring while you are in the city.
Something else unique to Bundaberg is the Mystery Craters, to really mix things up.
Again, this section of the Bruce Highway doesn’t have a lot in the way of major towns so if you are looking to break up the trip; these detours are well worth it.
If you are looking for recommendations of places to stay in Bundaberg, I would suggest:
- Alexandra Apartments – A great self-contained option if you are planning on spending a couple of days in Bundaberg.
- Sugar Country Motor Inn – The best of the quick overnight stopover options with its own restaurant attached.
- BIG4 Cane Village Holiday Park – A holiday park option with cabins ideal for families or larger groups.
A little over an hour’s drive south of Bundaberg is the town of Maryborough.
Self-appointed as the “Heritage City of Queensland”, Maryborough is home to a number of historic buildings, 36 of which are heritage listed.
Maryborough is most famous for being the birthplace of Mary Poppins writer, P. L. Travers. This history is celebrated at The Story Bank; a former bank now turned museum that takes you on a journey through the storytelling process that went into creating the famous Mary Poppins books.
While you are in the area, also check out a couple of the other museums including Maryborough Military & Colonial Museum, Brennan & Geraghtys Store Museum and Maryborough District Family History Society Inc.
Maryborough is also where you would detour off the Bruce Highway again if you were looking to head to Hervey Bay or the world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island.
Fraser Island extremely popular destination with offloading and four-wheel-driving enthusiasts and I’ll write another post dedicated to that separately.
Gympie is where the Bruce Highway returns to civilisation, of sorts.
After a long stint of mixed road conditions, once you arrive in Gympie the Bruce Highway fans out into a proper divided multilane motorway. Making the rest of the trip much more cruisy, especially if you’ve found yourself held up but trucks and caravaners to this point.
Gympie is famous for two things. It was the location of Queensland’s first gold rush, an event that single-handedly saved the entire state from bankruptcy back in 1867. You can discover more about this gold mining heritage in some more historic and heritage-listed buildings around the town. It’s also worth visiting the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum.
These days however, Gympie is better known for its annual country music festival, the Gympie Muster.
You can also get to Fraser Island by turning off at Gympie and heading towards the infamous Inskip Point.
Gympie also marks the northern end of the popular Sunshine Coast region of Queensland which is the final stint on the Bruce Highway before arriving in Brisbane.
Towns also become much more frequent along this section of the Bruce Highway so you can relax and not have the plan so far ahead for fuel and meal stops etc.
Sunshine Coast, Queensland
The funny thing about the Bruce Highway is it goes from very sparsely populated small regional towns to a whole lot of things to see and do in a very short section of the trip.
While you could drive the two hours from Gympie to Brisbane without stopping again. Should you be getting fed up with being stuck in the car (and at this point of the long trip no one would blame you either), there are plenty of places to stop and break up this final section of the drive.
After stopping in at Bowen at the start of the road trip, if you’d like to tick off another one of the “Big Things Around Australia”, then the Big Pineapple is only a very short detour off the Bruce Highway at Woombye.
Much like the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, this once Pineapple plantation has been redeveloped to be a tourist destination in its own right with a train, zoo and a treetop adventure park and a few other things to really keep you entertained if you were staying on the Sunshine Coast.
Continuing along the Bruce Highway (no more than another 10 minutes drive) you’ll also find a small theme park Aussie World and the former “Ettamogah Pub”, which is still open but it’s just run under a different name now.
If you’ve had the kids stuck in the car for the last few days, then either Big Pineapple or Aussie World is a good place to stop for an hour or so to burn off some energy. While if you are travelling by yourself or with friends, then the pub is probably a better option to see off the end of the trip.
However, if you’ve split the trip up over several days and you happen to be passing by around lunchtime, my personal recommendation is to drop into Beefy’s Pies (in the same complex) for a local treat.
At this point in the road trip down the Bruce Highway, it becomes a very cruisy drive with a little over an hour’s drive down the motorway into the heart of Brisbane.
If you are looking for more information about what there is to do in Brisbane once you get there, as well as advice on where to stay, eat and a few other tips. Check out this blog post I put together.
In the meantime, if you are planning on continuing your drive down to Sydney, or even to Adelaide or Melbourne? Make sure you check out my blog posts about the Pacific Highway, Hume Highway and Sturt Highway.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.