With outback plains to the west, numerous national parks and brightly coloured reef islands, Central Queensland is a diverse series of landscapes with plenty of hidden gems in between.
Start at Gladstone for an unforgettable weekend away on a Southern Great Barrier Reef resort island, hop onto a ferry at Yeppoon for a family camping trip on the white sandy beaches of Great Keppel Island, or be exclusive and book out the pristine Pumpkin Island.
You don’t have to take to the sea to disconnect. The coastal towns of 1770 and Agnes Waters have secluded beaches and tranquil bushwalking trails aplenty, and you can lose yourself for an afternoon gazing upon priceless Australian art at Rockhampton.
Venture inland to Carnarvon Gorge, and be dwarfed by soaring cliffs of sandstone and ancient Aboriginal engravings. Click your heels and head west to find yourself in the Emerald City: the gateway to the Queensland gemfields and the yawning outback.
This coastal area is often overshadowed by the nearby Great Barrier Reef or the Fraser Coast to its south, but we think being off the main tourist circuit adds to its already significant charms. Snorkel with rays at Heron Island, have a Castaway experience on Lady Musgrave Island and head to the sleepy towns of Agnes Water and 1770 for fishing and surfing.
Northeast of Rockhampton, Yeppoon is your gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Depart from the Capricorn Coast town to make your way to the tropical Great Keppel Island, with its 17 beaches to pick between for your sunbathing times. Nearby, the private eco-retreat of Pumpkin Island is available to privately book out for you and your closest friends.
A riverside country town with a rich cultural scene, Rockhampton is a cattle capital with a colonial-era past. Don’t miss a trip to the famous Rockhampton Art Gallery (reopening 2022 as the Rockhampton Museum of Art), which houses works from Australian artists like Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, and take a picnic to the 130-year old Rockhampton Botanic Gardens.
With enormous sandstone cliffs, thousands of examples of Aboriginal rock art and a landscape that is over 200 million years old, Carnarvon National Park is an epic outback oasis worth strapping your rucksack on for.
This Central Highlands small town is known not for green precious stones, but its nearby sapphire gemfields. Emerald is located on the banks of the Nogoa River and will be one of the last stops on your way out to outback Queensland.
Head out from the coast on a diving day trip on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, or snorkel for multiple days from Great Keppel, Heron, or Pumpkin Island. Out here, other natural wonders to add to that island to-do list include the sea caves of the Keppel Bay Islands, and hiking the islands’ picturesque walking trails.
For gorgeous natural swimming holes, head to Byfield National Park near Yeppoon. Picnic and swim in the clear, turquoise waters of Stoney Creek, pitch a tent at Waterpark Creek, camp out at Five Rocks Beach (accessible by 4WD only), check out parabolic sand dunes and 4WD over Nine Mile Beach.
Try your hand at unearthing an expensive souvenir, and go on a local gem tour at the Sapphire Gemfields. At the Mount Hay Gemstone Tourist Park, look for gorgeously patterned thundereggs while fossicking at an extinct ancient volcano.
Make a snap(py) decision and book yourself onto a tour of the Koorana Crocodile Farm. Educational and thrilling for kids and adults alike, at this commercial crocodile organisation you’ll be able to get up close (but not too up close) to the shining smiles of some of the farm’s 3000 toothy residents.
Take a tour of the ancient limestone Capricorn Caves. It is an accessible entry by a tour to the stunning Cathedral Cave, giving you a chance to experience the incredible cave acoustics. Go caving in Mount Etna Caves National Park, keeping one eye out for rare bent-wing and ghost bats.
Whether you’re after a quick stretch of the legs or awe-inspiring multi-day hikes, Carnarvon National Park has it all. Take the 87km Carnarvon Gorge Great Walk or break it down, with smaller treks that go via sites like the majestic Amphitheatre, Moss Garden and Art Gallery.
Rise to new heights at the sandstone plateaus of Blackdown Tableland National Park, where the art of the Ghungalu people can be seen on the rock faces of their traditional lands. Take the Gudda Gumoo Lookout and Gorge walk to admire the sparkling Rainbow Falls.
On the largest of the Keppel Islands, the Great Keppel Island Holiday Village has options ranging from camping and glamping sites to cottages and cabins. Set sail to one of the other islands of the group for a secluded, back-to-basics stay. (Just make sure you apply for a permit first.) Book ahead for the low-cost Lady Musgrave Island campground.
On the mainland, there are rudimentary – but beautiful – low-cost camping sites at Byfield National Park, the Capricorn Coast National Park and Munall camping area at Blackdown Tableland National Park. For creature comforts, the NRMA Capricorn Yeppoon Holiday Park has facilities like cabins and caravan sites.
At the Capricorn Caves, there are onsite cabins, powered and unpowered caravan sites, as well as showers, barbecues and communal campfires.
Spend the night in the self-contained cabins at Takarakka Bush Resort and Caravan Park, just five minutes from Carnarvon Gorge. Near Emerald, Lake Maraboon Holiday Village has cabins and tent sites, as well as serving up a mean red claw crayfish pizza.
Chic and affordable, the beachfront Yeppoon Surfside isn’t your average motel. The boutique rooms and private pool area are Instagram fodder, and the beach is a hop, skip and a jump away.
Book in for a private island escape on Pumpkin Island. The eco-friendly stay has self-contained units for 34 guests, as well as communal eating areas, and a hut where you can borrow seafaring equipment for free.
The subtropical, adults-only Wilson Island Resort is an eco-resort with just nine glamping tents to book. It’s all-inclusive, with meals, drinks and snacks provided. So grab a picnic hamper and get exploring!
When it comes to eating on the Southern Great Barrier Reef islands, unless you are staying at a resort where meals can be bought, you need to be self-sufficient and bring food and fresh water. Stock up well before you arrive.
On the coast, start the day off with riverside dining on the deck at Boathouse Rockhampton. Overlooking the Fitzroy River, Boathouse has an extensive breakfast menu, as well as locally-inspired lunch and dinner choices like barramundi tacos. At Agnes Waters, sit among the stunning tropical gardens of the 1770 Getaway Cafe as you sip peacefully on your morning espresso and tuck into an Acai Bowl.
In this part of the world, seafood is ubiquitous. At Yeppoon, the Waterfront Seafood Bar & Grill is a local favourite, dishing up diverse delicacies like crab arancini, poke bowls, mud crab and seafood linguine. Go straight to the source when you pick out lunch at the Gladstone Fish Markets. Get a cooked-to-order serving of grilled mackerel, or order up some banana prawns to barbecue back at camp.
If you’re after a boisterous good time, look no further than the iconic Great Western Hotel at Rockhampton for some bullish entertainment – literally. Order a bucket of prawns before settling in for a night of watching a rodeo at this cowboy-themed pub.
Arrive here by plane, with flights coming into Rockhampton from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. From there you’ll want to rent a car to embark on your Capricorn Way road trip.
If you feel like road-tripping with your own set of wheels, it’s a seven-hour drive from Brisbane or an eight-hour drive from Townsville. On arrival, it is three hours west to Emerald.
Autumn to spring is the best time to visit both inland and the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Not only do temperatures rest around that pitch-perfect mid-twenties point, but you also avoid the heat of summer and stinger season.
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