Australia is enormous. A vast and varied continent, travellers are taken from rainforests to desert plains, snowy mountains to pristine beaches. Each of these road trips marks the most iconic route in their respective state, each different and each uniquely Australian.

All of these trips are better in the summer (Nov-April). Heavy rainfall in the winter leads to many routes being shut down completely in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where roads are scarce year-round, and the bogs caused by wet sands can be dangerous for travellers. The Great Ocean Road route can be taken any time of year, but it will be significantly colder and wetter in the winter.

Australia Road Trips

There are a few tools that are essential for a smooth road trip in Australia. The Wikicamps app maps out all the campsites available along your route, including details of their price and access to facilities. Free camping is illegal in most of Australia, and campsite prices average only around $10 a night per vehicle.

It is also important to map out gas stations available along the route. The characteristic long desert drives don’t allow for frequent stops, and you don’t want to get stuck out in the Outback. Travellers taking detours into quieter territory typically carry an extra jerry can or have multiple tanks.

Renting a vehicle is very straight-forward, and many companies offer cars suitable for camping. Campervans, with back seats that convert to bed space, are common. If you’re interested in seeing everything the country has to offer, you can opt for the Australian favourite and get a 4WD. These often come equipped with rooftop tents that can fit 1-4 campers depending on size, saving you the hassle of a tent. Most roads are easily navigable in a regular car, just make sure to get your camping kit in advance.

Each state sells passes that will grant you access to all of the national parks in that state, for a one time fee. These can be bought at the entrance to any park, and are bought per car rather than per passenger. If you’re planning to visit all the parks on your route, these work out as far better value

Aus road Magnetic Island

Road on Magnetic Island, Australia

Northern Territories road trip

Australia's barren outback

There’s nowhere more quintessentially Australian than the Northern Territory. The sands are rust red, the skies are empty, the animals look like they crawled out of a sci-fi movie. Aboriginal culture and history are preserved better than anywhere else in the country and the landscapes are dramatic and desolate. It’s the ideal place to immerse yourself in the ‘real’ Australia.

Staying safe in the Outback is crucial. If your car breaks down, do not leave it. Rangers will find a car, but they will not find a lone straggler who has gone for help. Carry more water than you think you’ll ever need, with 1 litre per hour recommended for hikers, to stay hydrated in the sweltering deserts. Check your car and camping space for spiders, and learn which ones are harmless in advance. If you see a snake, stay perfectly still and let them pass you by, and never wander through the bushes they may call home.

It can seem intimidating, but that’s what makes a Territory trip such an adventure.

Aus road sign for kangaroos near Uluru in Northern Territory

Kangaroo road sign, near Uluru

Route and driving time

Darwin to Jabiru, Kakadu – 3 hours
Kakadu to Gunbalaya – 1.5 hours
Gunbalaya to Katherine – 5.5 hours
Katherine to Tennant Creek – 6 hours
Tennant Creek to Alice Springs – 4.5 hours
Alice Springs to Uluru National Park – 4 hours

You should spend at least one week travelling this route.

Kakadu National Park

Glinting eyes between the river reeds in Kakadu track travellers to the park, where Australia’s most intimidating predators reign. Gigantic crocodiles, towering gorges, and sweeping rivers, everything in Kakadu is supersized. The park itself, spanning 20,000 sq/km could be explored on end. With thick rainforests hiding hidden pools and waterfalls,

Opt for a trip along the East Alligator or South Alligator rivers. Not far from the town of Jabiru and the campsites, they offer the best spot to spy some of the 10,000 crocodiles that roam the park. Follow the safety protocol strictly when travelling in Kakadu and never swim anywhere that isn’t marked as safe. If you can, take a river cruise through the Jim Jim Creek, travelling out into the South Alligator River. These tours are led by Aboriginal guides, experts on the land, it’s flora and it’s deadly fauna.

To reach highlights like the Jim Jim Falls or the Maguk Gorge, you need to have access to a 4WD.

Explore the Arnhem Lands

The majority of tourists skip Australia’s heritage hub in favour of the more accessible sites in Alice Springs. They’re missing out on a unique opportunity to connect with Aboriginal communities in their ancestral homes, and to learn about the country’s history.

The area is restricted to protect the indigenous communities of the Arnhem Land, so you’ll need to file for a free permit online. Applications should be made 10 working days in advance. An off-roading vehicle is recommended, and visitors are asked to remember that each inch of the land they’re covering holds cultural and spiritual significance.

Start only 15km from the border of Kakadu National Park, at Gunbalanya. The community sits in the foreground of the Stone Country, where rough-hewn gorges, crocodile-filled waters and the shadow of Injalak Hill define quintessential Australia. Injalak is an ancient Aboriginal site, covered in rock drawings which date back up to 8,000 years.

If you’re visiting the area in August, add a couple of extra days to your itinerary and take the day’s drive up to Nhulunbuy. Here, you can attend the annual Garma Festival, Australia’s largest indigenous cultural gathering, which showcases Aboriginal art, dance, music and storytelling.

Paddle through Nitmiluk National Park

Stop for fuel at Katherine, then head 30 minutes north to Nitmiluk National Park. The 13 gorges that wind through the park cut limestone figures that stretch out to the skyline, easy to explore on foot, by boat, or by helicopter.

A favourite for adventurous travellers, the park rents out canoes. Take up a paddle and navigate your way to waterfalls, secluded swimming spots and caves painted with ancient Aboriginal art. The fourth, sixth and ninth gorges are accessible by canoe, with camping spots available there if you want to spend a night in the wild. There are also campsites available at the park entrance and accommodation in Katherine if you prefer to spend one day in the park.

Walking, you can travel through the park completely free, and have access to a wide range of lookouts, waterfalls, and natural pools. And, for the intrepid, there’s the full Jatbula Trail. Taking the five-day hike, you’ll be following an ancient songline, clambering over volcanic rock and night swimming mirrored pools that catch the cloudless, starry skies. Pre-booking and moderate fitness are essential for this route.

If you’d prefer a more relaxing route through Nitmiluk, cruises run at sunrise and sunset. These cruises are led by guides from the traditional owners of the land, the Jawoyn. Alternatively, you can catch a helicopter, flying you out to almost inaccessible pools and giving you a birds-eye view of the gorges.

Cross the great red desert

The small town of Tennant Creek makes for a convenient waypoint on your way down to Alice Springs. Take an opportunity to stock up on gas and food, and use one of the town’s many accommodation options for the night.

The stark red sands of the Tanami Desert can feel like a mirage on the long road to Alice. Flat, dusty plains are marked by spirals of sand that rise like tornados in the wind, disrupting the wispy tips of the native plant life. Unique and hostile, an environment like this is home to some of Australia’s most interesting wildlife.

Pay careful attention to the road, because giant monitor lizards will saunter across your path with no regard for speeding cars. Look to the shadows for sheltering echidnas and thorny devils, or to the skies for swooping peregrine falcons.

When you reach Alice Springs, you’ll find yourself amongst far more people than you’ve seen since Darwin. The only major town in the country’s centre, Alice caters to tourists and you’ll find plenty of options for accommodation, gas and food.

Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park

Australia’s most iconic skyline wraps around the giant standing rock Uluru. Though it’s one of the country’s most recognisable sights, no picture prepares you for the shifting shades of the oranges and reds and the vastness of the rock.

At around 550 million years old, the monolith has guarded over the landscape since before the dinosaurs and is an unsurprisingly significant figure in Aboriginal spiritualism and creationism. To learn about the rock’s role in the Dreamtime, walk around the base of Uluru with a local Anangu guide. They will teach you about the flora and fauna, and about the caves that provided shelter in the harsh desert for thousands of years.

Close the road trip with one of Australia’s most spectacular sights. The sunset over Uluru is one of the most dramatic on earth, cut with shades of red and orange against the blackening sands, a living mimicry of the red, black and yellow of the Aboriginal flag.

The Great Ocean Road, Victoria

Victoria's coastal highlights

Driving the Great Ocean Road is one of the most popular trips in Australia. Snaking Australia’s southern coast, the route includes the highlights of Victorian diversity.

You’ll encounter some of the country’s most unique local wildlife, from koalas and kangaroos to bushtails and bandicoots, in grasslands, rainforests, volcanic pits and dramatic cliffs.

You can cover the whole route in a high-paced day tour from Melbourne, but if you have the time take a few days to explore.

Aus Sunset over the Sea cliff bridge along Australian Pacific ocean coast nr Sydney

Sunset over the Great Ocean Road

Route and driving times

Melbourne to Apollo Bay town – 2.5 hours
Apollo Bay town to Cape Otway – 30 mins
Cape Otway to Aire River beach – 25 mins
Aire River beach to Great Otway National Park – 20 mins
Great Otway to Twelve Apostles – 1 hour
Twelve Apostles to Port Campbell National Park - 15 mins
Port Campbell to Tower Hill – 1.5 hours
Tower Hill to Melbourne – 3.5 hours

Some travellers take this trip in one very busy day, but the recommended length is 2-3 days.

Curve the coastline via Apollo Bay

The Great Ocean Road officially starts at the town of Apollo Bay. Following the road around the bay, you’ll find your route littered with captivating coastal views.

But, these aren’t home to the picturesque white sands and gentle waves that are often associated with Australian shores. Stopping off by the side of the road, you’ll find tall grasses tickling your knees and sharp winds whipping round the coastal bends.

Skilful surfers navigate the lashing waves and families gather for walks along the rocky cliff sides. Watching them from the shelter at the foot of the Otway Lighthouse, you may catch a glimpse of the southern right whale migration around Australia’s south coast (May-October) or penguins heading home after a day fishing.

Following the road from Apollo Bay, you should stop off at Blanket Bay, Parker Inlet, Crayfish Bay, Castle Cove and the Aire River beach. Each one offers a welcome break from driving, an opportunity to enjoy the most beautiful beaches in Victoria, and quaint hamlets shaped by their laid back surfing culture.

Explore the treetops of Great Otway National Park

Lost in the dense interior of the Victorian bush, you’ll find yourself half an hour and a world away from the wind-swept sea. The tips of mana trees are lost to the clouds and the bridges that cross them make for the perfect vantage to spot some of Australia’s most unique critters. Set 47 metres above ground, the treetop walk offers a peek into life at the forest ceiling, with snoozing koalas wedging themselves between eucalyptus branches and kookaburras fluttering around the rails. If you’re up for a thrill, there are also opportunities to take a zip-line through the ancient forest.

Back at ground level, trails through the thickest patches of the forest open to cold waterfalls, tumbling from the bush. Choose from the many treks available throughout the park to find which best suits your abilities and your schedule, with highlights including Triplet Falls (2km, moderate difficulty), Hopetoun Falls (1km, easy), Beauchamp Falls (3km, strenuous), Stevenson Falls (500m, easy) and Sabine Falls (3.6km, moderate).

Spot almost Twelve Apostles on the Shipwreck Coast, Port Campbell

Contrary to their famous name, there are actually eight apostles. Naturally eroding over time, the rough-hewn limestone pillars that are still standing are no less impressive. Stretching out in a haze of distant sunset, the scale of the landscape is astonishing even from a high vantage.

Take a trip down the Gibson Steps route, carved into the cliffs, to see the statues from their best angle. At sea level, you’ll find yourself dwarfed by the Apostles. One of the most dramatic and memorable sites on the Great Ocean Road, the view from the bottom of the steps is not accessible at all times. You should be aware of tide time and ocean swells before heading down, locals advise never turning your back to the sea because out here conditions change drastically. Allow for 60-80 minutes climbing time.

The imposing rock face of nearby Loch Ard Gorge gave the Shipwreck Coast its name. The wreck of Loch Ard, one of eight famous wrecks in the bay, still sits south of Mutton Bird Island. Marooned there in 1878, the ship held only two survivors. The grizzly tale is marked along the trail between the beach and the hillside graveyard that houses the victims of the wreck. If you’d prefer to focus on the area’s natural beauty, hike the Geology Trail and spot Loch Ard’s blowholes and unique offshore stacks.

Just up the road, you’ll find yourself at London Bridge. A rustic companion to the UK landmark, the offshore arches were connected to the mainland until 1990. Though a natural marvel in itself, most visitors are a little preoccupied watching the waddles of the 100-odd penguins living near the London Bridge lookout.

Finish up your time in Port Campbell at Martyr’s Bay. Many believe that the name refers to the stone stacks standing sentinel, guarding Australia along the edge of the Great Ocean Road, which is the world’s largest war memorial. Others think it memorialises the deaths of a large group of Karrae-Wurrong Aboriginal men, herded off the cliff’s edge by early settlers. Whichever you believe, the views over the unique coastal landscape are undeniably spectacular.

Tower Hill National Park

Most tours finish at Port Campbell National Park, but it’s worth driving the extra hour to Tower Hill, home to an extinct volcano. The fertile land that fills the volcanic park makes the perfect habitat for all kinds of curious creatures, and it’s easy to spot echidnas, emus, possums, and kangaroos.

The landscape in Victoria’s oldest national park is defined by the tranquil lake, pooled at the foot of the 30,000-year-old volcano. In the springtime, wildflowers fill the grassy slopes of the crater, and the micro-ecosystem supports more than 200 animal species.

The original owners of the land, the Koroitgundidj Aboriginal community, operate tours, offering opportunities to learn about indigenous Australian culture in Tower Hill. Worn Gundidj teach visitors about the re-vegetation process undertaken in the park, necessary after settler communities stripped the area of its natural resources and introduced European-style agriculture. Their expert guides allow visitors the opportunity to experience the park with a local and discover the site’s natural beauty.

The Coral Coast, Western Australia

Australia's lesser-visited coastal drive

Western Australia is virtually empty of people. Long stretches of white sand beaches, hiking paths through cavernous gorges and vast coral reefs alike. Driving the Coral Coast route from Perth to Exmouth, you’ll see the best coastlines Australia has to offer with virtually no other visitors there to block the view.

Australia perth

Perth skyline, Australia

Route and driving times

Perth to Lancelin – 2 hours
Lancelin to the Pinnacles – 1 hour
The Pinnacles to Hutt Lagoon – 3.5 hours
Hutt Lagoon to Kalbarri – 0.5 hours
Kalbarri to Shark Bay – 4 hours
Shark Bay to Coral Bay– 6 hours
Coral Bay to Exmouth – 1.5 hours

You should spend at least 5-6 days travelling this route.

The Turquoise Coast, Perth to Kalbarri

Setting out from Perth, it takes only a couple of hours before you’ll find yourself in absolute isolation. Lancelin is one of the first towns you’ll hit, a place to refuel, grab a coffee or, if you’re feeling adventurous, throw yourself down a sand dune. Renting a board in town, crowds regularly travel up from Perth to sandboard down the Lancelin dunes.

Nearby, the Pinnacles National Park is home to one of WA’s most bizarre geographic landforms. Stacked for miles along the golden desert, the 20,000-year-old remnants of the former seafloor still stand. Take an hour or to wander between the thousands of statues, to drive the scenic road between the dunes, and to take a look at the local wildlife displays on site. These will give you an idea of which critters to look for, and which to avoid, for the rest of your trip.

Further north, near the small town of Gregory, sits one of many strange lakes in Western Australia. You can spot the bright pink Hutt Lagoon before you even see the water, as the clouds above it tinted rosy in the reflection. The lake is pretty and unusual but doesn’t need a long stop to see.

The highlight of this first stretch of western coast is, undoubtedly, Kalbarri National Park. Veer off the highway when you spot the viewpoint markers dotted along the roadside, particularly at Red Bluff or Mushroom Gorge, where you’ll meet panoramic views over dramatic rocky cliffs and thrashing waves. Keep an eye out for humpback whales (May-Dec) and the dolphins that routinely jump alongside the surfers.

Inland, start out taking the short walk up to Nature’s Window lookout. The walk takes only 15-20 minutes, leading visitors out to panoramic views across the river gorge at the park’s most iconic spot. The other hikes through the park require a moderate level of fitness, and take significantly longer, where you’ll shimmy down ladder between towering rocks, skip across rivers filled with fish and fossils, and dodge spiderwebs clinging to ancient caves. If you’re interested, try the Loop or the Z bend.

Shark Bay

Shark Bay lives up to its name. Just sit and watch the water and you’ll see tiger sharks, manta rays, dolphins and turtles. Further out to sea, you’ll find dugongs -- manatee-like mammals native only to Australia’s west coast. Head for Denham, the largest town in the area. Here, a campsite with facilities and barbecues, a gas station, pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and a museum make it an exciting change from the au natural beach campsites found along the road.

Monkey Mia is the most tourist-friendly spot on Australia’s west coast. There are luxury hotels, nice restaurants, and crowds. The visitors are driven by the park’s main attraction, playful, shallow-dwelling dolphins. Each morning the park run ‘meet & greets’, where staff will feed the dolphins that have lived along the coast for years, and visitors will have an opportunity to join it.

To get away from the crowds, set out to sea. Weaving around the families of emus that hang out on the beaches, you organise tours to watch rays, sharks, dolphins, turtles and dugongs. Provided you aren’t there on a very busy day, if you’re taking a midday snorkelling tour, you can typically ask to join the sunset excursion for free.

Between Monkey Mia and Denham roll the red sand dunes of Francois Peron National Park. Accessing the park requires a 4WD, and the entrance and exit are marked by spots to let down your tires. Once you have, you’re in for a wild off-road ride out to Big Lagoon, where bright blue water, stark orange shores, and the occasional dusty kangaroo stand in contrast.

Back at the coast, you should head to Shell Beach. From a distance, the beach looks like it’s lined by eerily pristine white sand. Up close, you’ll find that it’s made up of millions of minuscule shells. This curious phenomenon is neighboured by another of Australia’s oldest and strangest sites, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. A collection of the oldest and largest living fossils on earth, you’ll get a glimpse into what the planet’s waters looked like 3.7 billion years ago when stromatolites grew widespread across the world. Only four places in the world have similar fossils, with these being by far the largest.

The Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay to Exmouth

As the Great Barrier Reef falls prey to climate change, industrial over-fishing and overtourism, the Ningaloo is considered by many the greatest coral reef in Australia today. It’s the world’s largest fringing reef, home to hundreds of species of fish, mammals and coral.

When stepping into the sea at Coral Bay, you have to be careful. From the shallowest tides, the seabed is filled with healthy and vibrant coral. Inches from the shore you can find yourself swimming with giant tropical fish, rays and turtles, all living harmoniously in the expansive reef.

Attracting many visitors, there are plenty of accommodation options close to the beach in the small town at Coral Bay.

Exmouth, a relatively large town surrounded by national parks and empty beaches, is an ideal base from which to explore more of the Ningaloo. From October to February, you’ll have a chance to see giant sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, or even a chance to watch the babies hatching. Travel to regulated stretches of coastline late at night, and wait as more and more turtles clamber ashore. The process is slow, and visitors are asked to avoid shining lights or making too much noise, but being present is an incredible experience.

Exmouth is right next to Cape Range national park, where you can re-familiarise yourself with the marine life, and even ride a rip-tide in a safe and controlled environment. Further from shore, joining one of the deeper sea snorkel or diving trips, you can swim with manta rays, reef sharks and gentle, giant whale sharks (March-July).

A surprising star of the show, far away from the famed beauty of the national parks, sits just outside the town of Carnarvon. You’ll pass the town on your way to Exmouth, but don’t write it off as a quick fuel stop.

Ferocious waves push through battered rocks along the coastal cliffs, bringing enormous and forceful bursts of sea through the coastal blowholes. Very few visitors venture out to the blowholes, but they’re a popular sight amongst locals. You can only see them at high tide, so search the tidal times in advance for the day you plan to travel.

A few minutes drive uphill from the blowholes, the Carnarvon lighthouse offers a scenic spot to stop and watch the sunset. Clear skies and dramatic colours show off the western title of ‘the Sunset Coast’.

Australia's best road trips

David Whitley

David Whitley spent five years in Australia editing backpacker magazines and has visited twice a year since coming back to the UK. He works for major magazines and newspapers both at home and in Oz.

Australia's best road trips

Sara Jane Armstrong

SJ Armstrong is a travel writer and infrequent blogger from London. She specialises in slow and budget travel across 6 continents, including 6 months travelling around Australia. Her writing has appeared in various online outlets and magazines, and more of her published work can be found here.

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