Driving the Coral Coast Highway from Perth to Exmouth is a wonderful way to experience Australia’s Coral Coast.
The 1,250km route hugs the Indian Ocean coastline and takes you to two of Western Australia’s three World Heritage Areas — Shark Bay and Ningaloo. Expect to find pristine beaches, colourful reefs, rugged gorges, world-class snorkelling, an abundance of wildlife and marine life, heritage, history and culture, and a landscape filled with colour. Here are some of the key sights and experiences along the way.
1. The Pinnacles Desert, Nambung National Park
At the southern gateway to Australia’s Coral Coast, around two hours’ drive north of Perth in Nambung National Park, the Pinnacles Desert is one of the major natural attractions in the region. The incredible limestone structures formed around 25,000 to 30,000 years ago after the sea receded and left deposits of shells. Over time, coastal winds removed the surrounding sand, leaving the pillars exposed to the elements. The Pinnacles vary in height and dimension, with some standing as tall as 3.5m. There are many other great places to visit nearby. Seafood lovers mustn’t miss the Lobster Shack in town of Cervantes, where you can also do a behind-the-scenes tour of the working factory. You can also encounter sea lions at Jurien Bay, check out the gorgeous beaches at Green Head and Leeman, and the charming twin towns of Dongara-Port Denison.
2. Wildflower Country
During wildflower season, from late July to October, witness an abundance of colour along the Brand Highway or Midlands Route. The inland farming towns of Dandaragan, Badgingarra, Eneabba, Carnamah, Coorow, Three Springs, Mingenew and Mullewa come to life with a range of nature trails and heritage-focused activities. Between Mingenew and Mullewa, the Coalseam Conservation Park is one of Western Australia’s top wildflower hotspots. Try to time your trip for a Thursday and stop off at Mingenew Bakery when they create extravagant and delicious donuts.
3. Houtman Abrolhos Islands
Book a day tour via fast ferry or a scenic flight to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, more commonly referred to as the Abrolhos Islands, where you can spend the day swimming, snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding, beachcombing and exploring. Described as ‘the Galapagos Islands of the Indian Ocean’, the 122 Islands lie about 60km west of Geraldton and stretch across 100km. While you’re there, make sure you check out the Museum of Geraldton and the foreshore, which has a great water playground for young kids.
4. Kalbarri Skywalk
Opened in 2020, the Kalbarri Skywalk offers unprecedented views over Murchison River Gorge in the Kalbarri National Park. Located 1.5km from the popular Nature’s Window site, it features two 100m-high skywalks with a connecting boardwalk between them that takes visitors beyond the rim of the gorge at one of its highest points. The Z Bend Lookout is another must visit attraction in the park, while the Kalbarri Coastal Cliffs offer spectacular views. Other attractions in the area include the Rainbow Jungle, which has a parrot aviary, maze and outdoor cinema, Big River Ranch for horse riding, and Pink Lake at Hutt Lagoon. You can also hire paddle boats, kayaks and canoes to explore the Murchison River.
5. Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool
The oldest and largest living fossils on earth, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool give budding scientists an idea of what the earth may have looked like about 3.5 billion years ago, when they were widespread across the water.
6. Shell Beach
Formed from billions of tiny shells from the Shark Bay cockle, the aptly named Shell Beach is located 45km south east of Denham. On a still day, the ocean transforms into a palette of intense greens and blues, and the water is very salty, making it easy to float for those who aren’t strong swimmers — similar to the Dead Sea in Jordan.
7. Monkey Mia
Best known as the home of the Monkey Mia Dolphins, famous for their almost daily ritual of swimming to shore to interact with humans, Monkey Mia is also a great base to explore the wonders of the surrounding area. Cruises and scenic flights offer opportunities to see sharks, rays and turtles, perhaps even humpback whales and dugongs.
8. Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures
The Shark Bay World Heritage-listed area is a place of immense ecological and cultural significance to the region’s first people, the Nhanda and Malgana Aboriginal people. Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures offers a range of ‘on country’ tours exploring the ancient cultural ties to the place they call Gutharraguda, including kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, 4WD bush tucker tours and overnight escapes on secluded beaches.
9. Carnarvon Space & Technology Museum
The Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum celebrates the little-known history of the role Carnarvon played in the manned space program and the Australian satellite communications industry. In 1966, the Casshorn antenna, locally known as the ‘Sugar Scoop’, was used for the first television broadcast from Australia to the BBC in London. In 1969, it relayed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon from NASA’s Honey Suckle Creek Tracking Station to Perth’s TV audience via Moree earth station – the first live telecast into Western Australia. Phase one of the museum was officially opened by retired NASA astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, in 2012, phase two by Australian-born astronaut, Andy Thomas, in 2014, and phase three by the last astronaut to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan, in 2016. The Carnarvon Heritage Precinct, encompassing the One Mile Jetty Interpretive Centre and the Railway Museum, is also worth a visit, along with the Gwoonwardu Mia Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage & Cultural Centre.
10. Ningaloo Reef
Unlike most reefs, Australia’s largest fringing reef is easy to access just by stepping off the beach. A snorkel and mask are all you’ll need to experience this colourful and pristine reef. The area is famous for swimming with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world, which visit between March and July each year after the annual coral spawn to feed on krill and plankton. You can book tours from Coral Bay and Exmouth for the once in a lifetime experience, and swim with manta rays and migrating humpback whales, see rare turtles, pods of dolphins and vibrant tropical fish. You can also explore the reef on a glass-bottom boat tour. Pop into Ningaloo Centre to find out more about what’s offered in the area and nearby Cape Range National Park, where you can discover the gorges and cliffs of Yardie Creek on a boat tour.