A road trip from Perth to Exmouth takes in a lot of what makes Western Australia beautiful. And importantly, you can cover it all in a week.
In 2009 I travelled between Perth and Exmouth on a bus tour over five days. I’d written about it at the time and the company I travelled with – WesternXposure Bus Tours – no longer provides this trip. They do however have a trip with the same first five days but instead of returning to Perth on days 6 and 7, it continues to Broome via Karijini National Park. This post covers the summary of the trip and a list of many of the sights between Perth and Exmouth. To read more about the tour and the company, click here.
This post has been updated to include information as of April 2021 and includes my experiences from subsequent trips to Exmouth and Coral Bay.
A brief introduction to driving in Western Australia
If you haven’t driven long distances in Western Australia, one thing you need to know before you do. Very few places are close to each other! What might look close on a map can be deceiving because Western Australia (or WA as we locals call it) it HUGE. From bottom to top it’s about 3,500km. In terms of land area, about 75% of Europe could fit into WA.
So plan carefully, don’t try to drive too far in any given day, and break up the trip as much as your time allows.
Now with that out of the way, here are my suggestions for how to visit the region between Perth and Exmouth.
Top sights between Perth and Exmouth
Over a trip of five days, you can make (quick) stops at pretty much every major attraction between Perth and Exmouth. The distance, without making any stops, is about 1,250km and takes about 12 to 13 hours. Assuming you have the time, it’s worth taking a few days to allow for the plentiful sights as you make your way up to the Coral and Ningaloo Coasts.
While I originally did this trip in an organised tour, by driving yourself you’ll have more flexibility to visit more than the ‘big sites’ typically covered by a group tour. So to give you an idea of the highlights, I’m including the stops included in a typical tour, along with some bonus stops you may want to add if you have more time.
Keeping in mind taking a tour means you don’t need to drive and won’t get lost! I’d recommend, the minimum amount of time to cover the sights below is five days, or four days to reach Exmouth. Once you’re in Exmouth and the Ningaloo Coast, it’s very likely you’ll want several days to explore the area.
The highlights between Perth and Exmouth:
- Day 1: Leave Perth early in the morning with a stopover at the Pinnacles near Cervantes, passing through Geraldton with a night in Kalbarri
- Day 2: Kalbarri National Park and Shell Beach, stay in Denham or Monkey Mia
- Day 3: Monkey Mia and the Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, stay in Coral Bay
- Day 4: Full day exploring Coral Bay
- Day 5: Arrival in Exmouth and visit to Turquoise Bay
If you’re doing a round-trip, you could easily break up the trip north and south, picking and choosing your stops along the way. On my first trip to Exmouth, I drove there on the bus trip but then spent a few extra days in Exmouth and flew back to Perth. The direct flight takes about two hours, with the Learmonth Airport located about 30 minutes outside of Exmouth.
Day 1 – Perth to Kalbarri
Roughly 575km, or about 6 hours of non-stop driving
Following the coastal route north from Perth, the first ‘mandatory’ stop is the Pinnacles at Nambung National Park near the town of Cervantes. The Pinnacles are located about 200km north of Perth and really are a sight to behold if it’s your first time passing through the area.
Within the national park you’ll find the Pinnacles Desert, a huge collection of limestone pillars, some of which are almost 3.5 meters tall. Having seen it for myself, I would suggest it’s worth it for the obligatory photo next to rocks, some that are somewhat phallic in appearance 🙂
Given the vast area covered in the Pinnacles, there is an unsealed 4km road called the Pinnacles Loop that can be driven by car or walked (plan for about an hour walk).
Besides the Pinnacles, Nambung National Park also has couple of beaches, mainly Kangaroo Point and Hangover Bay, the latter which deserves a photo next to the sign.
For more information on the services in the park, check out the Namburg National Park’s Department of Parks and Wildlife’s website.
Jurien Bay, located 40km or about 30 minutes driving north of Namburg National Park, makes for an ideal lunch stop. If you’re self-catering, there are BBQs along the waterfront or there are cafes in the small town. Remember, you’re in regional WA, where the towns are small and the options are fairly limited. It’s about this time into the journey, you should reset your expectations if you’re looking for fancy places to eat! However when you have epic ocean views with your lunch, it’s hard to complain!
After a further 200km or so, you’ll reach Geraldton, a town of about 40,000, which is the biggest town you’ll have come across on this drive. If you forgot to pack something important, or need any supplies, this would be a good place to do some shopping.
Geraldton has a number of water based activities available that you would expect, given it’s located near the coast. Beside the usual suspects (swimming, stand up paddle board and kayaks, wind surfing, normal surfing), Geraldton is also known as the jumping off point for trips further afield for fishing charters and trips to the Abrolhos Islands.
The Abrolhos Islands is a chain of 122 islands located approximately 60km west of Geraldton and stretches for about 100km. It’s known as an excellent spot for diving, snorkelling, bird watching and fishing. It’s about now that I should also mention that this is a popular spot for one of WA’s top exports – the West Australian Rock Lobster.
The islands were granted national park status in July 2019 by the Western Australia government and is gaining in popularity with nature lovers and fishing enthusiasts. So visit before the secret gets out!
There are a few ways to reach the Abrolhos Islands from Geraldton, with the best option depending on the amount of time (and money) you have available.
- Scenic flight with one of a handful of operators
- Day trip by fast ferry
- Multi-day liveaboard (popular with divers and fishing charters)
For more information on the Abrolhos Islands, check out the City of Geraldton’s website here.
Kalbarri was our first overnight stop, which is about 150km north of Geraldton. If you continue all the way to Kalbarri in one day, you’ll have been on the road for about six hours and covered roughly 600km (without counting any detours for the stops above).
Regardless of how many days it takes to reach Kalbarri, I recommend spending the night here so you’re close to the Kalbarri National Park early the next morning.
Like most other regional resort towns, there are lots of accommodation options available to suit your needs and budget. The city of Kalbarri has an excellent website that you can access here.
Hutt Lagoon (Pink Lake)
A sight very popular with Instagrammers is Hutt Lagoon, also known as Pink Lake. It’s located near the small fishing town of Port Gregory, about a half hour drive from Kalbarri. Access to the lake is via Port Gregory Road, with parking available.
Hutt Lagoon’s pink colour is due the presence of an algae in the water. The vividness of the pink coloured water can be impacted by a number of things, including the amount of sunshine reflecting off its surface. If you’re in the area and want to check out its condition (including water level) before making the journey, search for “Pink Lake – Hutt Lagoon” on Instragram as there’s likely to be a recent photo posted that will show the conditions!
Day 2 – Kalbarri National Park and Shell Beach to Monkey Mia
If you’ve stayed overnight in or around Kalbarri, aim to reach the park by 8 – 9am, and earlier if you’re planning on doing any hiking. The national park covers an area of 186,000 hectares, but you can focus your time on a few main sights: the Skywalks, the Z Bend Gorge and the Loop Trail which includes Nature’s Window.
N.B. – there is no drinking water at any sites in the national park so you must carry your own supply and if doing any longer hikes you will need 3 to 4 litres per person.
The national park had an upgrade in 2019/2020, with one of the main projects including two newly-built ‘Skywalks” set on the cliff-top about 100m off the ground, projecting 25m and 17m beyond the rim of the Murchison Gorge. The Skywalks were open edto the public in June 2020 along with upgrades to several facilities in the park. While I haven’t visited since they were open, they seem to be a very popular attraction and must-see if in the area.
Z Bend Gorge
During our trip, we first headed down the 2.4 km return trail to the bottom of Z Bend Gorge. Early in the morning there were no other people on the hike down to the swimming spot at the bottom. The hike down wasn’t too difficult but did involve climbing over rocks and using a couple ladders.
At the base of the gorge, there is a place to swim but the water level will be highly dependent on the time of year you visit. So if you’re keen for a dip, you might want to check with the local tourist information office to avoid disappointment. During my visit in July, the water was about waist deep.
Loop Walk and Nature’s Window
After leaving the Z Bend Gorge, you’ll need to drive over to the Loop Walk. There are a few hiking trails, with one about 8km return. If you’re not keen on a hike, Nature’s Window is much more accessible for the obligatory picture in the ‘window’. While you may or may not see some local wildlife (we saw a kangaroo ), the view from Nature’s Window, with the gorge below, is pretty spectacular scenery.
On the way to Denham, you’ll pass by the Billabong Roadhouse, in the town of Billabong. I use the term town lightly as it consists of petrol station, a hotel and a restaurant. When you’re in this part of the country, it doesn’t take much to be called a town!
Shell Beach (near Denham / Shark Bay)
The next recommended stop is the beach entirely made out of shells, that is called, wait for it, Shell Beach. While not very kind to the feet, it’s a very unique sight and well, it’s nice to be at a beach and not leave covered in sand!
In this part of the area, you’re closest accommodation options are in Denham and Monkey Mia. Denham has a number of caravan parks and budget accommodation whereas Monkey Mia’s options are limited to the RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort which includes a caravan park and more up-scale accommodation.
Day 3 – Monkey Mia / Shark Bay to Coral Bay
Besides the gorgeous coast line, beaches and hot, sunny weather, the main attractions of Monkey Mia are the local dolphins.
The Dolphins of Monkey Mia
The amazing thing about the dolphins in the area is that they are wild but they show up at the same spot every day. I like to think that they show up, not for the food, but because they love of putting on a show. The animal lover in me wonders about the ethics of this kind of tourism. I was able to get around any negative thoughts about potential exploitation because the dolphins are free to go where ever they want (there are no cages, netting or restrictions of any kind) but they have become dependent on those feeding them. Alas, it is pretty cool to see these friendly dolphins up close.
On the morning I visited, there were already about 40 people lined up along the beach in knee deep water by 8am. The dolphins were swimming near the crowd and doing some jumps and splashing their tails (and no beach ball balancing on their noses). Altogether there were about 8 or 9 dolphins, being females with their young off spring.
After a talk about the dolphins by the ranger, a few volunteers came down with fish in buckets. Each dolphin has a bucket and for whatever reason, they have to be fed from their bucket. Why, I’m not sure. I was too busy taking pictures to listen to the “talk”. The other cool thing about the dolphins is that they each have their “spot”. So along the beach there’s the volunteers with a dolphin floating right next to them. Next, they pick someone out of the crowd to feed the dolphin. For feed time #1, each dolphin was fed three fish and there were three of them.
Over the course of the morning, they feed them three times. The time between the feeds can vary, depending on when the dolphins come back. We were lucky because we saw all three feeds by 9:30am. The ranger told us this can take until lunch time.
Our visit was really limited to a place to stay the night and a visit to see the dolphins. The trip up to Monkey Mia is a ‘dead-end’ so to continue north, you have to re-trace your steps back to the main highway.
The Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool
Back towards the main highway, you’ll pass by the Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. It’s tough to explain what they are. All we were told is that they are rock “structures” that are in different parts of the world and are incredibly important. Because of something that happened a long time ago, they were able to produce oxygen and increase the oxygen level in the atmosphere to enable organisms like me and you who need oxygen to be able to live on earth. It sounds impressive but I think we were a bit underwhelmed by them. The massive amounts of flies didn’t help either. Hopefully you’ll do better with lower fly numbers than I did!
To learn more about the Stromatolites from the Department of Parks and Wildlife, click here.
During my trip, we had lunch at the caravan park next to the Stromatolites, which was a pretty creepy looking place that I wouldn’t want to be visiting at night time alone. There were a few shanty type buildings and they each had old post office signs from different random towns on them. There was also a shop that had the most random stuff in it. It had lots of alcohol and other drinks, but also had $45 silk ties with kangaroos on them, stubby holders that said “I associate with the lowest level of life form”, Indian scarfs and miniature buddha statues. Name something random and it was probably there.
If you have visited this area recently, please let me know if this creepy place still exists or if it’s been replaced by something a bit more modern! Post a comment below.
Day 4 – Monkey Mia / Shark Bay to Carnarvon and Coral Bay
The next major town on the way north is Carnarvon, conveniently located between Shark Bay and Coral Bay. By this time you’re close to 10 hours of driving away from Perth.
Carnarvon and the surrounding area is well-known for its production of fruit and vegetables. One of its most famous produce is bananas, with Canarvon being the first place in Australia where bananas were grown (take that, Queensland!). Depending on the time of year, the produce in season will change. So plan ahead if there’s something in particular you’re looking for.
PSA – There is lots of wildlife between Perth and Exmouth, so be careful when driving!
During two evenings of driving, we encountered the following wildlife. They were either running across the road, standing on the road or on the side of the road and looked like they were about to walk in front of the bus:
- one emu
- one kangaroo
- 2 sets of 3 cows
- 4 sheep
- 1 rabbit
- 1 fox
Death toll: 0
Always be careful driving in the evening as this is when a lot of animals are active and can venture near roads.
What can I say about this place other than it’s a fantastic place to park yourself for a few nights and slow down. The term ‘town’, which I use loosely, is pretty much solely geared towards providing services for tourists. To give you an idea of the size of the town, the permanent population is about 200.
As the name suggests, Coral Bay is a township located on a protected bay, fringed with reef. If you want a protected area to swim, particularly useful if you have small children with you, it doesn’t get much better than this.
As for activities, there are plenty involving water, including diving and snorkelling (with or without Manta Rays), glass bottom boat tours along the reef to see turtles, dugongs and sharks. Alternatively, there are plenty of land based activities as well.
By the time you’ve made it to Coral Bay, you may be content with a simple day of laying on the beach. Or at the very least, being no where near your car or bus!
If you have your own gear (or you need to rent some), a self-guided snorkelling adventure is very easy from the beach. Depending on the tide, the swim out could be about 50m. Once you’re out to the reef, there are plenty of different types of fish and limited current so you could swim around as you pleased pretty easily.
Similar to other towns on this trip, Coral Bay has a range of accommodation types to suit your budget. I’ve stayed at the backpackers and in the caravan park. Also similar to other towns, don’t expect a bunch of high end dining options when visiting Coral Bay. This rustic, relaxing and sun and less fancy and high end!
The Ningaloo Coral Bay Shopping Arcade is open seven days and week and has everything you’ll need for a comfortable stay.
Day 5 – Coral Bay to Exmouth and Turquoise Bay
About an hour and a half north of Coral Bay, you’ll finally reach Exmouth! Approximately 1,250km from Perth, the drive to Exmouth (without any stops) takes about 12 to 13 hours.
Exmouth found its way properly on the map when the US Navy set up shop near the town. The “Navy Pier” is no longer in use, but it can be visited and is an epic dive spot. Diving there is like dropping into a 10m deep fish tank and is easily in my top 10 dive spots.
Nowadays, Exmouth is better known as the gateway to the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area including the Cape Range National Park (on land) and Ningaloo Marine Park (under water).
In Exmouth Town you’ll find your non-camping accommodation options, restaurants, pubs, grocery stores and anything else you’d expect in a town of about 2,500 people (which increases to about 6,000 during high season).
Exmouth is located about 45 minutes driving to the entrance to Cape Range National Park. The two parks are on the other side of the cape, and the road follows the water. So to go to the amazing swimming spots like Turquoise Bay, it’s a bit of a drive! Plan accordingly and make sure you have everything you need before you head off!
What to do in Exmouth
All the tour operators are run out of Exmouth town, so it’s worth having a chat with a few to see what’s on offer. You’ll be spoiled for choice, but here are some ideas:
- Full day trip to see the Whale Sharks (highly recommended)
- Half/Full day trip to Turquoise Bay (lots more on this below)
- Half/Full day trip to Yardie Creek to see the red limestone cliffs during the Yardie Nature Walk and/or Yardie Gorge Trail
- Diving trip (either out on the reef or at the Navy Pier)
- Check out one of the two breweries in town: Froth Craft Brewery or Whalebone Brewing Company
Visiting Turquoise Bay
I’ll start this by saying in the 12 years of living in Western Australia, the turquoise water and white, sandy beaches of Turquoise Bay are still impressive. And this is saying something because we really are spoiled for choice over here!
Turquoise Bay is located on the western side of the peninsula and doesn’t have a lot in terms of facilities. There’s a change room and BBQ facilities but on the beach itself, there is nothing but sand. This may or may not be ideal for you, depending on what kind of experience you’re after!
So in short, you need to be prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, preferably a beach umbrella or some kind of shade, and whatever else you like to use at the beach. And don’t forget your mask and snorkel for plently of snorkelling!
After many, many days or looking at turquoise coloured water and white sand beaches along the drive to Exmouth, it is tempting to wonder if another white sandy beach is worth the hype. I’m hear to tell you it really is. Turquoise Beach is quite special, with the Ningaloo Reef is just a few metres off shore.
This is how you spend your day in Turquoise Bay: Walk down the beach about 200m, float over top of the reef, let the current take you back to where your towel is waiting for you (for some much needed sunbathing after all that “hard” work), repeat.
If you’re not into snorkelling, laying on the gorgeous beach looking at the turquoise water isn’t a bad way to spend a day either. Because of the reef, there are no ‘dumpy’ waves, so the water is very nice and inviting.
On one trip to Turquoise Bay, we arrived at the beach around 10:30am and left around 4pm. Here’s how the day went:
- walked to our towel spot, grabbed snorkel gear, walked down the beach to start snorkelling
- swam out about 20m to the reef, floated aimlessly
- saw 4 turtles (two swimming, one laying on the bottom, one eating in the corals)
- saw pretty much every kind of fish I saw on the Great Barrier Reef
- floated back to the towels, laid on the beach, got some sun, listened to some tunes, almost fell asleep
- ate lunch
- walked 150m to the snorkelling spot, floated aimlessly
- saw a turtle missing his right front leg and with a non-working back left leg (probably so he wouldn’t swim in circles)
- saw a black tip reef shark! (only on a reef do you want to hear your swimming partner yell “SHARK!!”)
- saw about 300 yellow and black fish all in a school, all swimming together almost like they were on a road. The hundreds of fish only spread out about a metre. It really looked like a bunch of fish on a freeway.
- laid back on the beach
- discovered where the shore goes from ankle deep to shoulder deep water after about 2 feet. Jumped off the side like I was in a swimming pool. And yes the water was 25 degrees and the air was about 34 so it felt like a big, saltwater swimming pool 🙂
- hopped back on the bus and sadly say goodbye to Turquoise Bay
Vlaming Head Lighthouse
On the way back to Exmouth, check out Vlaming Head Lighthouse for a cute lighthouse. I highly recommend timing your visit at sunset for some spectacular sunset photos. Remember, the sun sets over the ocean in Western Australia.
Differences between Turquoise Bay and Coral Bay
In my humble opinion, the major differences between the two are as follows:
- Coral Bay has a giant caravan park, shops, hostel, another caravan park (I think) and the beach is about a 5 minute walk from these places. It’s nice to be able to leave the beach and grab some food, ice cream, water, etc.
- Turquiose Bay is in a national park and has no services besides toilet facilities and a shaded area to eat. The benefit of Turquiose Bay, if you’re into that sort of thing, is the fact that there were hardly anyone there. Had a cruise ship not have docked in Exmouth with day trippers on a bus tour, there would have been pretty much no one there other than the eight of us.
- The water in Coral Bay was nice and by no means cold, but the water in Turquoise Bay felt like bath water.
- There’s plenty of turquoise water in both places, but the water in Turquoise Bay was so clear it looked like it was from a tap and that was in two metres of water.
- When I first walked down to the beach in Coral Bay the tide was high and there was practically no beach. I literally had to walk through ankle to half knee deep water because there was no beach in some spots. Although the beach did appear later in the day, Turquiose Bay had a gorgeous white sand beach with heaps of room.
- There are way more fish at Turquiose Bay, not to mention turtles and sharks!
- Lots of kids at Coral Bay because of the camping facilities and easy access to the beach. Turquiose Bay will have way less people on any given day since it isn’t as closely located to the tourist facilities and accommodation.
All in all, my day in Coral Bay was absolutely fantastic, only to be topped by a day in Turquoise Bay.
Now you’re in Exmouth, you have a few options:
- Stay in Exmouth for a few days and make your way back to Perth
- Head East and visit Karijini National Park (approximately 8 hours) and onto Port Hedland and onto Broome and beyond
- Head North and continue along the coast to Onslow, Karratha, Port Hedland and onto Broome
I hope this guide to the top sights between Perth and Exmouth is helpful in planning your next trip to the area. If I’ve missed any of your favourite spots, please leave me a comment below. Also if you have any questions, feel free to leave any questions below in the comments section.