From exploring outback caves to diving deep into local Indigenous culture, there’s endless opportunities for adventure in Tropical North Queensland.
While rainforest and reef might be the face of Tropical North Queensland, you’ll find there’s more than meets the eye as you venture away from the hubs of Cairns and Port Douglas. Dig a little deeper and trek a little further to come across outback adventures, ancient gorges, and Dreamtime stories brought to life.
Whether your adventure compass is set to chill or thrill, these experiences will take you on a quest to all four corners of the north.
1. Explore ancient lava tubes
Set out on the Savannah Way from Cairns – an epic road trip heading for the Northern Territory border – and go from coast to country during the 3.5hr trip to Undara. Book in to stay at Undara Experience for an outback adventure like no other, where you’ll discover the best-preserved and largest lava tubes system on earth.
With brand new homestead rooms and additional powered campsites – as well as unique rail carriage accommodation – you can sleep in style before exploring the cathedral-like caves carved by a volcano eruption over 190,000 years ago.
2. Delve deep into the heart of the savannah
Keep your bonnet pointed west and set off further along the Savannah Way to Forsayth to discover the snaking sandstone scarps and narrow waterways of Cobbold Gorge. Set off on foot with a tour to the gorge, then switch modes and glide through the towering archways with a boat cruise or serene SUP. Complete the experience with a scenic helicopter ride and peer down the cliffs into the deep crevices below.
Choose your own adventure with caravanning, camping, or cabins, and lap up the sunsets in the outback’s first swim-up bar at Cobbold Village.
3. Learn about the land
You’ve made it to the end of the Savannah Way, now what? Stay awhile and explore your surroundings with Indigenous-owned and operated Yagurli Tours to learn about the history and landscapes of Moungibi (Burketown).
Stargaze through the lens of the stories told by the Gangalidda-Garawa Traditional Custodians, or swap sky for streams and set off down the Gambumanda (Albert River) for a fishing trip to secret spots to catch a barramundi or king salmon. If you’d prefer to stay on dry land, jump in a 4WD for their tag-along tour and visit significant cultural sites and Australia’s largest salt pans.
4. Get off the grid
True or False – is it possible to find lush forest in the outback? You can find the answer about three hours south-west of Burketown at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. You have to see to believe this outback oasis, with its vivid green forest backed by striking red sandstone walls that fall into mirroring waterways.
Camp nearby at Lawn Hill Gorge camping area to rest between daily adventures of kayaking, fishing, hiking, and bird-watching.
5. Mix adventure with luxury
If your idea of exploring includes scenic helicopter rides and a sunset bar, then set your sights upon Mount Mulligan Lodge, a 28,000-hectare private property west of Cairns. Indulging up to 20 guests at a time, this private paradise has front-row seats to the 18 kilometre long sandstone escarpment (that’s ten times the size of Uluru) that towers over the lodge.
Begin your day with a guided nature walk, then turn up the adventure levels with their ATV (all-terrain vehicle) outback trail tour. Refuel afterwards with a seven-course degustation under the stars before slipping into slumber in your sanctuary overlooking the sparkling weir.
6. Embark on an expedition
Adventure doesn’t have to mean roughing it. Explore in style with a five-day premium glamping experience with Kinrara Expeditions, departing from Cairns and journeying to Kinrara National Park and MacEachern’s Camp, a 4hr drive from the coast.
There’s no need to sacrifice your creature comforts on this free-form bush adventure, with all food and beverages included, crisp linen and your own private deck for stargazing after days spent discovering the contrasting simplicity and diversity of country life at Kinrara. One day might involve a calming cuppa served with birdsong then the rush of chasing waterfalls and 4WD’ing across rugged terrain. The next, a helicopter ride over the Kinrara volcano crater followed up with a kayak across the lake to spot the local birdlife. With access to 70,000 acres of remote wilderness, you won’t be short of opportunity to appreciate this beautiful land.
7. Take adventuring to new heights
Taking off from Mareeba (one hour drive from Cairns), you’ll glide over lush fields and rainforest as the sun kisses the earth good morning. Make a day of it and indulge in some after-adventure treats on a food trail back to Cairns.
8. Chill out in Chillagoe
For an experience more akin to a Jurassic Park movie, steer your wheels 140 kilometres west of Mareeba and follow the Wheelbarrow Way to Chillagoe to discover its ancient landscapes dating back over 400 million years. Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park was once an ancient coral reef that’s transformed over time into over 500 limestone caves and you can explore a handful of them on a guided or self-guided tour.
Start your DIY expedition in The Archways, or dial up the difficulty with a visit to the Pompeii Cave or the Bauhinia Cave, where narrow crevices and steep climbs reveal dark cave passages. You’ll need to come prepared with torches to experience the caves safely. Or explore Donna, Trezkinn, and the Royal Arch caves with local rangers to learn about ancient fossils, calcite crystals, and the meaning behind the different cave formations.
Take the slow route and leave your car at the coast to jump on board the Savannahlander and window gaze as it takes you from the Wet Tropics to the west.
9. Journey to the tip of Australia
If you’ve been searching for the ultimate Queensland adventure, look no further than a once-in-a-lifetime 4WD journey to Cape York. Now, this won’t be like any normal road trip; it’s an off-grid (really, there’s very limited phone reception), rugged Aussie adventure that’s not for the faint-hearted. You can DIY, join a tag-along tour, or take the guided option with a company like Discovery Tours or Ellwood Motorcycle Adventures to get the adrenaline pumping.
Switch gears from the resorts of the tropical north and take the Old Telegraph Track to Cooktown, the launchpad into the untamed landscapes of the Cape York Peninsula, where towering termite mounds and crystal-clear waterholes co-exist with challenging corrugations, creek crossings and Aussie station stays. Budget around seven days to reach the tip, where you can stand at the edge of the continent gazing across at the islands of the Torres Strait.
Don’t have time to take the scenic route? Lucky for you there’s two, with Daintree Air Services offering a shortcut. Strap in for their scenic flight from Cairns or Cooktown to Cape York, and make it to the tip and back in just one day.
10. Connect with the culture of the Cape
It’s one thing to conquer the Cape, it’s another to connect with it. Join Balnggarrawarra Traditional Owners and set out on a full-day tour from Cooktown with Culture Connect. Their Indigenous ranger-led tour takes you 70 kilometres out to Normanby Station, where ancient rock walls serve as a gallery dedicated to telling the history of the land. For a personalised experience, curate your own itinerary and accommodation style, from wilderness camps and 4WD’ing to luxury hotels and art workshops. If you’ve only got the day, sign up for the fly-in tour from Cairns, and spend a few hours on a guided tour of the land, from above and up close.
For another cultural experience at the Cape, depart from Cairns to spend two days immersed in the land of the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners with Jarramali Rock Art Tours. Out here, Country speaks louder than words. You’ll see, hear and feel it as you venture deep into the wilderness, camp under the stars and discover why Quinkan rock art (located near the town of Laura) is regarded by UNESCO as one of the top 10 significant bodies of rock art in the world.