East Coast vs. West Coast: Which is the Best Australian Road Trip?

A wooden boardwalk leading out to a rocky headland on Phillip Island, Australia
A one-and-a-half kilometer-long boardwalk, follows the coast overlooking the Nobbies on Phillip Island. greenantphoto / Getty Images

There are few countries in the world that offer as many diverse landscapes and natural wonders as Australia. With over 22,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) of coastline hemming in the Outback, the sheer size of the continent can be daunting to first-time visitors. It's impossible to see it all in one go, so if you're thinking of taking a trip up and down the coast, you'll first need to ask yourself one key question: east or west?

Like the United States, Australia's two coasts offer two very different experiences. On the east, you'll find major cities like Sydney and Melbourne, but on the west, main cities like Perth, Albany, and Exmouth are much more spread out and the landscape is much wilder and more remote. Before you decide, take a look at some of the experiences each coast offers and think about how much driving you really want to do.

Australia is a huge country, so you need a lot of time to thoroughly see either coast. Technically, you could go around the whole country via Highway 1, but this would take weeks or even months to complete, depending on how often you stop. Even if you're only doing a small segment on either coast, you should still be prepared to spend the majority of your days behind the wheel, in order to cover these enormous distances.

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East Coast: The Great Ocean Road

The Twelve Apostles rock formation at sunset on the Great Ocean Road, Australia
Christopher Chan/Getty Images

Technically starting on Australia's southern coast near the town of Allansford (southeast of Melbourne), the Great Ocean Road (Highway B100) is 150 miles (243 kilometers) long and one of Australia's most iconic drives. The trip snakes along sheer limestone cliffs and past the Twelve Apostles, one of Australia's most photogenic beaches famous for its giant limestone rock stacks. Surfing fans should also stop to see the famous swells of Bells Beach, which is home to the Easter Surfing Classic. There are also quaint towns along the way, such as Lorne, Cape Otway, and Warrnambool, where you can stretch your legs and maybe get some lunch. This trip can be done in a single day since it only takes about five hours to complete, but if you want to take your time you can find accommodation along the way near Cape Otway or Apollo Bay.

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02 of 06

East Coast: Melbourne to Sydney

Sunrise over Wollongong Sea Cliff Bridge, New South Wales
Posnov / Getty Images

The M31 Highway is the fastest way to get from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia's two largest cities, but it still takes about 10 hours and is not very picturesque. The scenic route follows the coast, takes about 18 hours, and covers more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers), but it's a more beautiful drive.

On your way out of Melbourne, start by making a detour to Phillip Island, where you can not only see native penguins but will also find some incredible views of the Bass Strait. Then continue northeast through the Gippsland Lakes region, home to the Ninety Mile Beach, one of the longest beaches in the world, and keep going until you cross the border from Victoria into New South Wales.

Now, you're in the homestretch to Sydney. The rest of the way passes through small coastal towns like Bega, Batemans Bay, Ulladulla, and Kiama, each worth a stop to get a feel of the local life. Finally, you’ll come through the industrial city of Wollongong via the Grand Pacific Drive via the gravity-defying Sea Cliff Bridge and from there, Sydney is just 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.

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03 of 06

East Coast: Sydney to Brisbane

A boat on the Brisbane river

TripSavvy / Maria Ligaya

The distance from Sydney to Brisbane is about 560 miles (900 kilometers) and requires at least 10 hours of driving. Due to a number of bypasses, the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane isn’t especially scenic, but you can get off the main A1 highway to visit coastal towns like Forster, Tuncurry, and Port Macquarie. Along the way, you'll find beaches, lakes, and hiking trails with even better views of the coastline.

After Ballina, a lovely riverside town, the views will only get better as you pass through the laid-back Byron Bay before hitting the Gold Coast and officially entering the state of Queensland. This entire region is a major tourist hub with famous beaches and a rainforest-clad and mountainous hinterland. You can stop for hiking and camping here, or continue up the highway for another hour to get to Brisbane.

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04 of 06

West Coast: Albany to Perth and Shark Bay

Looking through Nature's Window in Kalbarri National Park, Australia

Andrew Bertuleit Photography/Getty Images

In Western Australia, there is plenty to see between the southern city of Albany and the state capital of Perth. You can take the more direct route between the two cities, or hug the coastline and go wine tasting in the Margaret River wine region. The drive will take you at least seven hours, 30 minutes as you cover a distance of approximately 400 miles (650 kilometers). Be sure to stop for a visit to Hamelin Bay Beach, where you'll find rock formations, gentle waves, and lots of stingrays. It's also a good place to spend the night if you want to break up this part of the trip into two days of driving.

After you arrive in Perth, give yourself a day or two to explore the city and then continue north to visit Kalbarri National Park, where you can hike to Nature's Window, an incredible rock arch that perfectly frames the river valley below. From Perth, this is a six-hour drive that covers a total distance of 354 miles (570 kilometers).

After you've seen Kalbarri, it's time to drive another four hours north—about 230 miles (375 kilometers)—to Shark Bay. Once here, settle somewhere near the main town of Denham and consider spending some time on the water. Protected by UNESCO, Shark Bay is home to a dense population of marine life, so you can keep your eyes peeled for the dugongs, whales, and bottlenose dolphins that are commonly spotted in this bay.

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05 of 06

West Coast: Ningaloo Reef to Exmouth

Aerial over the turquoise sea on the coast near Exmouth, Australia
Sellwell / Getty Images

Once you get north of Shark Bay by about 311 miles (500 kilometers), you'll be able to visit one of the longest fringing reefs, meaning it's very close to the shore, in the world. Sometimes as close as 1000 feet (300 meters) to the sandy beaches south of Exmouth, Ningaloo Reef is a major attraction for divers and snorkelers. Claimed by many travelers to be even more spectacular (and healthier) than the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of the country, this underwater world is home to hundreds of species of fish, coral, and other marine life like whale sharks. After you've snorkeled the reef to your heart's content, you can continue up the coast to Exmouth, which is located at the tip of Cape Range. Here, you'll find more clear turquoise water and huge beaches with sugar-like white sand.

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06 of 06

West Coast: Exmouth to Broome

Knox Gorge in Karajini National Park, Western Australia
Posnov / Getty Images

The Pilbara region of Australia extends from the coast north of Exmouth all the way west into the Great Sandy Desert. The region is sparsely populated but has some of the world's most untouched natural landscapes and wondrous vistas like the one at Knox Gorge in Karijini National Park.

It will take you about eight hours to drive from Exmouth to Port Headland if you follow Highway 1 along the coast. After getting a good night's sleep, you can start heading inland to the heart of the Pilbara region by taking Highway 95. After four hours of driving, about 185 miles (300 kilometers), you'll arrive at Karijini and can spend a day or two hiking or camping in this ancient and spiritual landscape.

To continue up the coast, you'll have to backtrack your way up Highway 95, and then from Port Headland, it's another six hours of driving 370 miles (600 kilometers) to Broome. A resort town, Broome is best known for turquoise waters and camel-riding on the beach. However, if your trip to Pilbara inspires you to seek out more of Australia's rugged interior, Broome is also the gateway to the Kimberley Region, which is full of canyons, gorges, and waterfalls you can swim in.