The Best Road Trip Spots Along Australia’s Southern Coast!
In collaboration with Backcountry
I adore Australia. I always have. Even before I ever visited, I had a persistent infatuation with the land down under. Growing up, I thought of Australia as a funhouse version of the United States. At first glance, the warped reflection in the mirror looked like the US, but it had a funny accent, was shockingly empty, and the animals were all either hopping around on two feet or trying to kill you. It goes without saying that when I finally got the chance to live there for a few months as a student, I jumped at the opportunity. And it changed my life.
There were twenty-four of us living in little huts in the middle of Tropical North Queensland. I remember being so nervous about going, I almost bailed on the whole idea at the airport! But when the school van finally rounded the last turn on the long dirt road to campus, I looked out over the most beautiful forest I’d ever seen. I was home. I’ll never forget that feeling.
I should have known this trip was going to be different as soon as we stumbled into the car rental kiosk at Perth’s International Airport. Dazed and confused after the long journey, we explained to the lady behind the Hertz counter that we needed a car to drive to Melbourne. We had 12 days to drive across the continent. She stared at us for a long moment, and then said, without any irony in her voice, “you should just fly.”
I’m not prepared to say that she was all together correct. But in hindsight, given our time limitation, she made a fair point. The road trip between Perth and Melbourne across the southern coast of Australia spans approximately 2,500 miles. Given three weeks - or even months. . . I’m fairly certain it would be a trip for the books. As it was, the trip was a race across the continent with no buffer to accommodate for unfavorable conditions, rest days, or Plan Bs. We did get the chance to visit some beautiful places though, and even checked a few experiences off our bucket list. If you ever get the opportunity to drive from Perth to Melbourne, take it! Just make sure you have the time. Below are my favorite destinations from our cross-country adventure.
Wave Rock is huge. Fifteen meters high and 110 meters long to be exact! It’s hard to really capture the scale in photos. Even though it has nothing to do with the ocean, water was still the major factor in its formation. Millions of years ago ground level was way up there at the top of the wave. When erosion finally lowered the surface level of the surrounding soil, it exposed the unmistakably wave shaped slope we see today!
There’s no getting around the fact that The Wave is located in the middle of nowhere. Not really on the way to anything else. But if you are traveling through Western Australia then you should be pretty comfortable with the idea of large expanses of nothing punctuated by moments of sheer awe.
Denmark & Elephant Rocks
Denmark is a cute coastal town nestled on the southern cost of Western Australia. We happened to stop there simply because it was the closest town on the map to William Bay National Park - home to Elephant Rocks and Greens Pool. We arrived in the middle of the night, but the morning sun revealed a charming atmosphere with a lively mix of dread-headed backpacker types and retirees living out their golden years in coffee shops and holistic bakeries.
Famous for its large, elephant sized, rocks that appear to be cooling off in the shallow cove waters, Elephant Rocks, is beautiful. We spent the morning clamoring around on the boulders, strolling along the boardwalk, and photographing the wild ocean views. As the sun got higher we made the short walk over to Greens Pool. This stunning white sand beach is sheltered from the Great Southern Ocean by large boulders, and the result is a protected paradise perfect for sun worshiping, long beach walks, and some excellent snorkeling as well. You can get to Greens Pool from the same parking lot used for Elephant Rocks.
Where To Stay: 31 On The Terrace is a fun kitchy spot in the heart of Denmark, close to cafes and places to eat. Perry Beach Campground is also a good option if you are doing the van life thing.
Esperance & Cape Le Grand National Park
I’d always wanted to travel through Western Australia. Something about the extreme remoteness, long stretches of empty road, and pristine beaches has always appealed to me. But it wasn’t until I recently stumbled across some photographs taken near Esperance that I became determined to make the trip a reality. I was particularly captivated by a photo of the wild kangaroos at Lucky Bay Beach. I mean, does it get anymore Australian than that!
We spent two days exploring the beaches around Esperance and Cape Le Grand National Park, and it wasn’t nearly long enough! Of course that was kind of the story of the entire road trip. You could easily spend a week exploring Cape Le Grand National Park. There are endless stretches of empty white sand beaches, quiet, picturesque coves, and enough solitude to make you wonder which century you are in. I couldn’t get enough!
Some of my favorite beaches other than Lucky included, Thistle Cove, Duke of Orleans Bay, and Blue Haven (actually in the town of Esperance). But there were sooo many other gems too! You just have to give yourself time to find your own little slice of paradise!
While in Esperance, you can also catch a flight over Lake Hillier - one of Australia’s super famous pink lakes. Unfortunately the pilot at GM Helicopters was off helping with a brush fire the day we were there, so we didn’t get to check it out this time around.
Where To Stay: Esperance Chalet Village is pretty hard to beat. This idilic little beach enclave features picturesque A-frame cabins and beach cruisers. There’s also a ton of awesome camping options in Cape Le Grand National Park. Use the WA National Parks & Wildlife Service website to book!
Nullarbor & The Great Australian Bight
The outback is a strange and unfathomable place. There is something about all that emptiness that exerts a strange hold on people. It is an environment as inhospitable as any you will find on earth, yet it has a magnetic force that has beckoned people into its unforgiving depths for generations.
There is perhaps no better way to experience the hypnotizing emptiness of Australia than to drive across the Nullarbor. The Nullarbor is one of the most forbidding expanses on earth. No deviation. No respite from the monotonous black top, save for the decaying kangaroo carcasses that you’ll find yourself dodging every few hundred meters. Please avoid driving before sunrise or after sunset!
The few towns you will find could more accurately be called rest stops, and seem to exist solely for water and refueling. And yet, I found the experience surprisingly enjoyable. Therapeutic even. In fact, standing on the edge of the Nullarbor, looking out over The Great Australian Bight, with hundreds of miles of nothingness in every directions was one of the more memorable experiences of the trip.
Where To Stay: Options are few and far between - literally. Eucla Motor Hotel is located at a nice half way spot just before you cross out of Western Australia into South Australia and the Nullarbor National Park.
The Eyre Peninsula is a spectacularly beautiful place bordered on the east by Spencer Gulf, the west by the Great Australian Bight, and the north by the Gawler Ranges. There are three reasons that the Eyre Peninsula was on our bucket list for this trip: 1) explore the rock pools, 2) swim with Australia’s endangered Sea Lions, and 3) cage dive with Great White Sharks. To our pretty huge disappointment, a stretch of bad weather and high surf that hit just as we arrived made all but 1 of these activities impossible. Next time!
Our original plan had been to stay in Baird Bay and swim with the Sea Lions there because we had heard that it was the best. Unfortunately all the Sea Lion tours were canceled that week in Baird Bay, so we decided to drive further south to Port Lincoln and try our luck there. In Port Lincoln we were able to find one company that was still running tours despite the weather- Calypso Star Charters. We booked with them, and never looked back. Snorkeling with Seal Lions was probably THE highlight of the trip. They are so curious, and the goofier you are with them, the friendlier they get.
Before we left Eyre we tried our luck with the rock pools at Whalers Way (you need to pick up a permit and key at the visitors center), and Greenly Beach, but the surf was too high and there were no pools to be found at either location. Both areas were beautiful though!
Where To Stay: If I could afford to stay anywhere on the Eyre Peninsula for a few days it would probably be Camel Beach House. Otherwise, I’d try for Baird Bay again, and then pray for better weather before heading to Whalers Way to spend a couple days camping.
The Great Ocean Road
Twisting and turning its way along the southwest coast of Victoria for 151 miles, The Great Ocean Road is one of the worlds most iconic stretches of coastline. Every pullout offers a new breathtaking ocean view, often with an interesting arch or sea stack jetting out of the water into the horizon. It doesn’t matter how many photos you have seen of The Great Ocean Road - nothing can really prepare you for its beauty. That being said, unlike the vast majority of destinations proceeding this one, you will not be alone. Not even close. Depending on the time of day, you might be sharing the views with hundreds of other people! The best way to avoid the crowds is to arrive at the most popular lookouts for sunrise - before all the tour buses arrive from Melbourne.
If you want to take photos of the more iconic landmasses along The Great Ocean Road you will need more than one day. If you only have one day, focus on Port Campbell National Park. My favorite stops were:
The Twelve Apostles - The most famous of all The Great Ocean Road landmarks, The Twelve Apostles are made up of 8 (don’t ask) giant limestone stacks off the shore of Port Campbell National Park. For an extra treat, book a flight with 12 Apostles Helicopters right in the visitors parking lot.
Gibson Steps - Many of the beaches that line the most popular stretch of The Great Ocean Road are either not accessible, or are off limits due to protected penguin colonies. Gibson Steps was one of the few location we found where you could actually get down to the beach and enjoy the coast from ground level.
Loch Ard Gorge - This was my favorite stop! The picturesque gorge is flanked by two cliff faces that are separated by a calm bay of bright blue water. You can enjoy the view from above, or wander down to the beach below.
London Arch (London Bridge) - This landmass reminded me of something you would see off the Oregon coast, only much larger in scale! It used to form two natural arches with the closer one connecting the entire formation to the mainland, but in 1990 the inner arch collapsed, and thus the London Bridge as it was known, became the London Arch!
Where To Stay: My two favorite little towns along The Great Ocean Road were Lorne and Port Campbell. Both have some cute accommodations. Apollo Bay Eco Hostel is a good budget option.
The road trip across Australia from Perth to Melbourne is nothing short of epic. You’ll experience Australia’s longest stretch of unrelentingly straight road, stand at the edge of the earth, and enjoy a degree of solitude that would be difficult to achieve in any other developed country. In short, there’s no where quite like it. Happy driving!
Photographs with Quin Schrock
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