457km (one way)
Car or Camper
Cairns to Townsville
Spanning 457km down Australia’s East Coast, the drive from Cairns to Townsville takes you on a journey infused with exhilarating natural experiences and breath-taking beauty, with highlights from two world heritage listed areas, the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
Encompassing waterfalls, wetlands, mountains, and plenty of friendly country towns, this itinerary includes the unmissable hot spots, so that you can begin your East Coast adventure in the best possible way.
Cairns to Babinda
Now that you’ve finished exploring the bustling, vibrant city of Cairns and have the faded stamps from The Woolshed and Gilligans on your hand to prove it, it’s time to start your East Coast adventure.
Heading south, it’s not long until you’ll notice the distinctive silhouette of Walshs Pyramid rising steeply above the historic sugar-milling town of Gordonvale. For the keen hikers, there is a 6km return walking track that climbs up to the summit. Although a difficult hike, the 360 degree Instagrammable views at the top are worth every sweaty second.
Another 30 minutes behind the wheel will bring you to Babinda. Pop into Babinda Bakery to stock up on some tasty treats, before heading to Babinda Boulders. Appropriately named, you won’t be surprised to discover a series of smooth granite boulders at this freshwater swimming hole. What may come as a surprise is that the spectacular waterfalls and crystal-clear pools tucked away in this lush green paradise are so easily accessible, despite feeling worlds away from the hustle and bustle of nearby city life.
Babinda to Etty Bay
You’ll pass Queensland’s highest mountain, Mount Bartle Frere standing tall at 1622m as you head towards the Art-Deco inspired town of Innisfail. Take a step back in time as you stretch your legs to marvel the colourful architectural beauty of the town.
Pitch your tent, park your campervan or stay in a cosy cabin just metres away from the beach at Etty Bay Caravan Park. Etty Bay is known as one of the region’s most scenic beaches, but what really makes this little cove so special is its inhabitants… home to the magnificent Southern Cassowary, you’re very likely to see these notoriously hard to spot birds roaming the beachfront in the late afternoon or early morning.
If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these fascinating ancient birds, make sure you are “cass-o-wary” and keep a safe distance, especially if their chicks are nearby.
Etty Bay to Kurrimine Beach
Known as ‘the greatest detour in the North’, opt for the scenic route by deviating onto the Canecutter Way. Pass through sugarcane fields and forests full of history and charm before stopping at the magical ruins of a former grandiose Spanish Castle at Paronella Park. Feel inspired by the extraordinary story of José Paronella’s ingenuity and determination as he turned his dreams into a reality. Lose yourself in one of the castle’s many hideaways, marvel at the rumbling Mena Creek Falls, and feel dwarfed as you take a stroll down the magnificent ‘Kauri Avenue’.
The Canecutter Way officially finishes up at Kurrimine Beach, one of the closest beaches to the Great Barrier Reef… so close that you can actually walk out to explore King Reef on very low tides. You also have the option of cutting the Canecutter Way short and joining back onto the Bruce Highway after you’ve passed Silkwood to resume your adventure.
Kurrimine Beach to Cardwell
Considered one of Australia’s favourite skydiving destinations, Mission Beach is made up of four small towns spread along a 14km stretch of palm-fringed beach. Take the ten-minute water taxi out to Dunk Island; situated only 4km off of the mainland. This picturesque island boasts tropical rainforest, secluded beaches and spectacular walking trails.
And, if you didn’t manage to spot a cassowary at Etty Bay – good news, you may find that you’re second time lucky; Mission Beach supports the highest density of the endangered birds. And, if all else fails, you can visit the ‘Big Cassowary’ statue at Wongaling Beach for a guaranteed sighting…
You’ve made it to the beautiful coastal town of Cardwell; head straight to the Cardwell Beachcomber to set up camp or settle into one of their motel rooms, villas or cabins before refuelling at their beachfront restaurant – it’s just the spot to catch the sea breeze and savour the ocean views. Take a stroll along the beachfront to the jetty as the sun sets and keep an eye out for turtles and dugongs, which are often seen from the jetty.
Optional Detour – Tully Gorge National Park
One of the wettest areas of Australia, Tully is nestled between Mount Mackay and the thickly forested margins of Mount Tyson (it even has a giant Golden Gumboot to celebrate the record-breaking rains of 1950, which you can climb to the top of.) All of that glorious rainfall makes Tully River an awesome place for white water rafting, with rapids ranging from grade three to the more challenging grade four. And, if you’re feeling ultra-adventurous, go big with ‘Xtreme rafting’ for the wildest ride possible. There are even daily transfers available from Mission Beach so that you can take a break from driving for the day.
Cardwell to Townsville
Start your final leg of the drive with another scenic detour on the Cardwell State Forest Drive. As you pass through the lush pine forest plantations, watch out for the lookout point, which provides uninterrupted views out to Hinchinbrook Island, before continuing along the forest drive until you reach Attie Creek. A 15-minute walk will lead you to an impressive 25m waterfall; you can swim at the base of the falls, so make sure you bring your swimmers. Continue your waterhole hopping at the Cardwell Spa Pool. A vivid turquoise colour, the spa itself is a natural depression in the creek bed that causes the water to bubble and swirl like a Jacuzzi.
Next stop, Ingham. With over 240 species of birds, TYTO Wetlands is the perfect spot for some bird-watching. The area is named after the endangered Eastern Grass Owl (TYTO Capensis) and is one of the few places in the world where you may be fortunate enough to spot one. While you’re there, take a wander round TYTO Regional Art Gallery and the Mini Military Museum at Hinchinbrook Shire library, too.
Keep an eye out for the Frosty Mango along the Bruce Highway before you reach your final destination of Townsville. Serving everything from pancakes and freshly made wraps to fresh fruit sorbet and ice-cream, there’s no chance you’ll drive away hungry.
Your journey may draw to an end in Townsville, but there are plenty of things to do in this historic town before continuing your East Coast adventure. Take the short ferry ride across to Magnetic Island, home to Northern Australia’s largest colony of koalas living in the wild. Explore the island’s 23 bays and beaches via extensive walking tracks or rent a ‘Barbie car’ and cruise around in style.