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8 mini road trips in Tropical North Queensland

TNQ Writer

Discover local specialties and hidden gems on a mini road trip through Tropical North Queensland with these one day wonders. Here are eight itineraries to get you out and about.

Ask anyone who’s gone on a family holiday and they’ll tell you the best memories don’t come from the confines of a hotel room, they’re created outdoors. 

With reef, rainforest, gourmet food trails, and geological wonders on your doorstep, Tropical North Queensland provides memorable moments in all directions, with so many of its best adventures within a day’s (return) driving distance of the Cairns CBD. 

See where the road will take you on one of these day trips.  

1. Port Douglas to Daintree and Cape Tribulation

Take a refreshing dip in the Daintree at Emmagen Creek

Cross the Daintree River on the Daintree River Ferry

Cape Tribulation– where the rainforest meets the reef

If you can tear yourself away from your book and beverage by the pool of your Port Douglas accommodation, there’s a day trip to Cape Tribulation with your name on it.

Even if you never leave the comfort of the car, the scenery out your window is worth the two-hour drive as you drive through the most famous precinct of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the Daintree Rainforest.

That said, do hop out, because the moment you cross the Daintree River by vehicle ferry, you’ll be transported to a wonderland that’s 180 million years old.

Break up your road trip with stops at signed lookouts, bays and beaches along the way – Mount Alexandra, Cow Bay, Thornton Beach and Myall Beach – before you reach the most iconic attraction, Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the reef.

For tour ideas when you get there, step over to this guide.

Distance: 84km (one way)

2. Cairns to Etty Bay

Spot a cassowary at Etty Bay

Swim in the rainforest at Babinda Boulders

Slide down a natural waterslide at Josephine Falls

Swapping Cairns for the Cassowary Coast takes just shy of 90 minutes if you go direct, but this is a journey worth allocating a whole day to explore. You won’t be sitting in the car for long when you have some of Mother Nature’s best water parks along the way.

Pack your togs and soak in the emerald-green water at the Babinda Boulders or slide down the smooth rockslide at Josephine Falls. Or, if you feel like more of a hike, head to Behana Gorge en-route and take a 45 minute walk to the stunning Clamshell Falls.

Either way, you’ll want to fuel your adventure with a stop at the Babinda Bakery whose cream buns have earned them a near-perfect five-star global review online. Dust off the icing sugar and continue south to Etty Bay for a good chance of seeing a cassowary in the wild, strolling the sands of the bay.

Psst – Brush up on everything there is to know about cassowaries to increase your chance of spotting Australia’s longest surviving dinosaurs.

Distance: 99km (one way)

3. Mission Beach to the Cardwell Spa Pool

Enjoy the best kind of blues at the Cardwell Spa Pool

See the iconic giant gumboot in Tully

Visit Attie Creek Falls on the Cardwell Forest Drive

If you have time, take a detour to Murray Falls

You don’t need to travel to Iceland to find an Insta-worthy blue pool, just south of Mission Beach you’ll find Queensland’s own version, the Cardwell Spa Pool.

To make a day out of it, start your adventure in Mission Beach before heading south via the wettest town in Queensland, Tully, for a photo stop with the giant gumboot that immortalises Tully’s title in fibreglass, or take a detour to the beautiful Murray Falls.

The Cardwell Spa Pool is the headliner of the Cardwell Forest Drive, which also features various scenic lookouts and the beautiful Attie Creek Falls. Coloured by nature, this swimming hole is a striking shade of blue that varies depending on water levels and rainfall.

Make the most of the one-hour journey to get here by ticking off these other things to do in Cardwell.

Distance: 71km (one way) 

4. Cairns to Paronella Park and Mamu Tropical Skywalk

It doesn't get more magical than a Spanish castle in the rainforest

Mena Creek Falls is straight out of a fairytale

Explore the levels of the rainforest at Mamu Canopy Skywalk

There might only be 110 kilometres between Cairns and Paronella Park, but they feel worlds apart.

From the minute you cross the threshold of Paronella Park, you step into Jose Paronella’s dream of building a castle and five hectares of gardens for his wife in the 1930s; a mystical wonderland where lush rainforest and a thundering waterfall shoulder the castle ruins.

Work up an appetite best sated by quintessential Queenslander pub, The Mena Creek Hotel, only 200m away.

Then, fuelled by their classic pub menu, which, by their own admission doesn’t scrimp on the chips, explore the Wet Tropics rainforest from new heights at Mamu Tropical Skywalk.

Mamu Tropical Skywalk transports you from the forest floor to the canopy over a series of elevated walkways, including a cantilevered platform jutting out over the iconic rainforest landscape.

Proving no two trips to the Wet Tropics are ever the same, from the safety of the elevated platform you’ll see one of the largest-remaining continuous stands of complex vine forest on basalt soils in the Wet Tropics – a totally different Daintree experience on this list.

5. Cairns to Yungaburra and Lake Eacham

Enjoy a Devonshire Tea with a view at Lake Barrine Teahouse

Drive the scenic Gillies Range Road with 263 corners

Visit quaint Yungaburra for beautiful buildings, art, food & markets

Brace yourself for a spot of scenic driving, today’s destinations are best explored via the Gillies Range, the famous stretch of tarmac packing 263 corners and 800m of elevation change into 19km of rainforest-hugging road.

At the end, you’ll be met by Yungaburra, an old town with a young heart, and the central point for this tablelands adventure.

Start by visiting the Curtain Fig Free, a strangler fig which has worked hard for 500 years to suffocate its host and create an intricate jumble of Avatar-esque vines.

From there, explore the volcanic crater lakes, Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, which have been 420 million years in the making. Read more about the ancient marvels as you wander the 3km return Lake Eacham circuit track, finishing with a refreshing dip in the lake; or at Lake Barrine Teahouse, with the entrance full of historical displays and information. Jump aboard a scenic boat cruise at Lake Barrine and take the short walk to the twin Kauris, believed to be over 1000 years old.

Not quite ready to make the 70km trip back to Cairns just yet? Fire up your taste buds with this tour of the Tablelands.

Distance: 67km one way 

6. Cairns to Waterfall Circuit

Millaa Millaa falls is Australia's most photographed waterfall

Zillie Falls delivers breathtaking views

Enjoy nature's best shower at Ellinjaa Falls

What do you get when you have high altitude, mountains and rocky outcrops? Find your answer on the aptly-named Waterfall Circuit that lures bikini and boardshort-clad travellers inland.

From Cairns, follow this itinerary which can be tackled in either direction along the Gillies Highway or the Palmerston Highway.

Once you reach the Atherton Tablelands, simply follow the brown Waterfall Circuit signs which lead you to these top drops.

The only packing essentials are togs, a towel and closed-in shoes – and don’t worry, this otherwise fashion faux pas is the uniform of every traveller up here.

Distance: 98km (one way) to Millaa Millaa

7. Cairns to Herberton

Take a trip back in time at Herberton Historic Village

Marvel at the Mt Hypipamee Crater

Cool off in Dinner Falls

Head to the hills for this day trip, swapping the Cairns CBD for historical Herberton.

To make a day of it, take the Kuranda Range Road, stopping into the rainforest village of Kuranda on the way, or bolt your day trip onto the Waterfall Circuit or Yungaburra trip (listed above) via the Gillies Highway.

Aim to arrive in Herberton by midday to give yourself enough time to explore its pinnacle attraction – the Herberton Historic Village – along with its Mining Museum and Spy & Camera Museum.

For a dose of geological history, return to Cairns via the Mount Hypipamee Crater, the site of what’s thought to have been a massive gas explosion 15,000 years ago, leaving a jaw-dropping divot behind. Finish with a refreshing dip in the the nearby Dinner Falls.

Distance: 96km (one way)

8. Cairns to Port Douglas

Hit the road for the stunning Great Barrier Reef Drive

See the mighty Estaurine Crocodile in action at Hartley's

Wander the palm-fringed sands of Ellis Beach

Road trips rarely come as scenic as the one that rolls from Cairns to Port Douglas, with the sparkling coral sea flanking one side and the Wet Tropics Rainforest the other.

It might only be 67km long, but there’s plenty of opportunities to break up the Great Barrier Reef Drive journey and soak in the views – whether its Rex Lookout for its vista over Trinity Inlet and back to Cairns, or Ellis Beach for a moment of pristine beach exploration.

If travelling with little ones, stifle any “are we there yet” moans with a visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. The wildlife sanctuary serves as the perfect halfway marker and promises a snapping good time.

Distance: 67km (one way)

Ready to Explore?

These one-day wonders are just a taste of the hidden gems you can find in Tropical North Queensland

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