Nothing beats a good old-fashioned road trip. Whether it’s a leisurely Sunday drive or an extended journey to places without postcards, hitting the road offers unbridled freedom. So fasten your seatbelt low and tight, shuffle your favourite playlist and settle back as we take you on a journey through Tropical North Queensland.
1. Great Barrier Reef Drive
If Tropical North Queensland were to claim a ‘signature scenic route’, the Great Barrier Reef Drive is it. Officially the Capt Cook Highway between Cairns and Cape Tribulation, this drive’s main claim to fame is its two famous World Heritage-titled neighbors either side of the asphalt. With the Great Barrier Reef to the right (heading north) and Wet Tropics rainforest to the left, the Great Barrier Reef Drive is the lip-smacking wagyu beef in a drool-inducing steak sandwich.
Why we love it: Palm Cove, Rex Lookout, Port Douglas & the Daintree are all highlights, as well as numerous unnamed bays, coves, and headlands to pull over at and soak up long stretches of unbroken beach sand. You could get from one end to the other in just a couple of hours but we recommend a day or three to see the sights. It’s likely the only footsteps you’ll spot are those left behind by birds and nesting turtles. Triathletes adore this road during the annual Cairns Ironman (annually in June) when it is partially closed to traffic.
Where: Cairns to Cape Tribulation via Port Douglas
How far: 140 kms
2. Old Telegraph Track
One for 4WD fans, conquering the Old Telegraph Track on the way to the tip of Australia comes with a ute full of bragging rights. Nervous drivers on their first off-road expedition might do well to take the much easier bypass road. But for those with the right vehicle, the OTT offers countless challenges laced with scenic river crossings and bush campsites with front row seats to watch others forging creeks. Gunshot Creek crossing is known for its near vertical tyre-hugging descent into a cavity mere inches wider than most 4WD’s. Alternatively, leave your courage safely stashed in the glove box and take the easier Chicken Track crossing.
Why we love it: It’s rough and ready and the undisputed highlight for many on a Cape York driving adventure and the ultimate adventure for authentic Australian camping, four wheel-driving and an outback experience like no other. You’ll be talking about this epic 4WD route for years to come.
Where: The southern section runs between Bramwell Junction and Bypass Road Junction
How far: 64 kms
3. Gillies Highway
Ascending from a junction 35km south of Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands, the Gillies Highway ducks, winds and weaves (reputedly with 263 corners) over an elevation of almost 1,000 misty metres. You’ll likely feel your ears pop and you’ll definitely feel the temperature drop as you ascend through the mountain range. Stop off at Heales Lookout for the mandatory photo across the Goldsborough Valley and Walsh’s Pyramid.
Why we love it: The landscape changes from sugar plantations on the valley floor through eucalypt woodlands and dense rainforest before popping out in dairy farmlands of the Atherton Tablelands. At the top of the Gillies, we recommend taking time to explore the quaint town of Yungaburra or the Curtain Fig Tree, a jurassic like tree towering towards the canopy of the rainforest.
Where: Gordonvale to Atherton
How far: Approx 60 kms
4. Kirrama Range Road
Closed for eight years and recently reopened, thanks in part to passionate local campaigners, the Kirrama Range Road’s original purpose was to service the timber industry. These days, campers and freshwater fishermen are its biggest fans. North-bound adventurous tourists too are using it as an alternative route into the southern Tablelands as it winds upwards through Kirrama National Park.
Why we love it: Firstly it’s dirt. Secondly, you don’t need a 4WD to access it (during the dry season). Bereft of bitumen, the Kirrama Range Road weaves in and out of the Girringun National Park and is dotted with beautiful camping spots and one of the most impressive waterfalls in the region, Blencoe Falls.
Where: Kennedy (near Cardwell) to Society Flat
How far: 30 kms
5. Savannah Way
OK, first up let’s be clear, the Savannah Way is no Sunday drive. Rather, it’s an epic adventure traversing some of Australia’s most remote country from coast to coast across three states and territories. Get the picture? If you’re looking to find the ‘real Australia’ you’re on the right track. We’d highly recommend you concoct a cunning plan that will allow you the necessary weeks to savour the Savannah Way. There’ll be no turning back the second time!
Why we love it: Focusing on just the Tropical North Queensland section of the Savannah Way, you’ll be mesmerised by the spectacular limestone caves, small galleries of Aboriginal rock art, jagged limestone outcrops and an historically significant mining site of Chillagoe. Continue on the road but make sure you stop for a couple of nights in the beautiful outback surrounds of the Undara Experience where daily tours run through the 190,000 year old lava tubes of the Undara Volcanic National Park.
Where: Cairns to Broome
How far: Approx 3,700 kms
6. Canecutter Way
Discover the heritage of the sugar cane industry in the tropics along the historical route of the Canecutter Way. Once a part of the Bruce Highway, and the main highway into Cairns, this scenic drive is famous for its combination of history, charm and spectacular North Queensland scenery. The story of the region is best told through the tale of José Paronella, the original owner and creator of the famous castle in the rainforest, Paronella Park which is a must visit land mark along the Canecutter Way.
Why we love it: 95% of Australia’s sugarcane is grown in Queensland and the Canecutter Way takes you right through the heart of sugar cane country. The Mena Creek Pub is famous for it’s large, country counter meals so stop off for lunch before you explore Paronella Park.
Where: Kurramine Beach to Innisfail
How far: 52 kms
7. Mission Beach Coast Road
So little known it doesn’t even rate a ‘scenic road’ title, waterfront roads rarely come more pretty than Alexander Drive on Mission Beach’s waterfront. Locals would prefer to keep this little treasure to themselves. But the secret is out! Bookended by Clump Mountain National Park in the north and Clump Point in the south with Dunk Island lying offshore, there’s little chance of keeping quiet about this drive.
Beachwalkers this is your moment of glory. Ditch the car, abandon your shoes and sink your toes into a few kilometres of delightfully firm beach sand all the way to South Mission Beach
Why we love it: There’s rarely any traffic and there’s a really good chance of spotting the rare and endangered cassowary. Throw in the obligatory beach walk and a road trip swiftly morphs into a beach combing expedition. Hot tip, Bingil Bay Cafe is THE spot for an awesome lunch when you can eventually pull yourself away from the beach.
Where: Mission Beach
How far: A handful of kilometres
Driving to all corners of Tropical North Queensland is the best way to explore. Here are some things you might like to do along the way.
Take a road trip on the Great Barrier Reef Drive
The strip of bitumen between Cairns and Cape Tribulation, now known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive, is 140 km of jaw-dropping beauty. The road winds between two world heritage icons that Tropical North Queensland is famous for: the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
12 other things to do when visiting the Cardwell Spa Pool
Whether you’re out to catch a barra, hike Australia’s largest island National Park or adventure your way through a scenic 4WD track, Cardwell is the perfect launch pad for an outdoorsy weekend with a friendly local twist.
48 Hours on the Atherton Tablelands
Two days to refresh, revive and take in the sights and sounds of the lush countryside.