From swimming in wild waterfalls, to exploring hidden coves and outback tracks, it’s time to hit the road to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime on these road trips from Cairns.
As a city flanked by two World Heritage sites, it should come as no surprise that Cairns is just a stone’s throw away from an abundance of natural and cultural attractions. Venture outside Cairns city and gear up your holiday with one of these road trips. All you have to do is choose is which direction to drive….
Cairns to Port Douglas
Distance: 67km (one way)
Highlights: Wildlife, beaches & dining
Those looking for the road to paradise can find it in its dictionary definition form on the Great Barrier Reef Drive. Starting in Cairns, this picturesque drive winds its way through a scenic coastal stretch peppered with secret coves and sleepy seaside hamlets. From Cairns, head north to Palm Cove and stroll down the iconic palm tree avenue before fuelling up for your adventure at one of the many cafes and restaurants. If you’re still craving the feeling of sand between your toes stop off at Ellis Beach, or find your own personal stretch of sand at one of the many beaches between Cairns and Port Douglas.
Take a walk on the wild side at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, or if jumping crocodiles isn’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping, try tandem hang gliding at the scenic Rex Lookout. If you’re feeling less thrill more chill head to nearby Thala Beach Nature Reserve and enjoy lunch with stunning coastal views at Osprey’s Restaurant.
Pull into paradise at Port Douglas, a high-end resort hub with a barefoot edge. With so many things to do in Port Douglas, it’s worth putting aside multiple days to explore. Venture 20 minutes north to the edge of the ancient Daintree Rainforest and visit Mossman Gorge. Take a refreshing dip in the crystal clear rainforest pools or join a local Kuku Yalanji guide for a Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk.
Cairns to Chillagoe
Distance: 204km (one way)
Highlights: Markets, caves, outback
Head from the coastal city of Cairns to the dry bushlands near Mareeba, to the rocky outcrops of Chillagoe, for a drive adventure that offers a smorgasbord of landscapes. A road trip this colourful deserves a rainbow-hued start, which you is exactly what you will find in Kuranda. Step back into the groovy 70s and get your shopping fix at the Original Rainforest and Heritage Markets. Soothe your decaffeinated soul at Skybury Coffee near Mareeba, or if you’d like a natural cold bath to wake you up, take a detour to the invigorating Emerald Creek Falls or Davies Creek Falls.
As the landscape transforms from grassy farmlands to red dirt, keep your eyes peeled for giant termite nests. The pièce de résistance of the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park are the caves themselves, which are best seen on a ranger-guided tour. Join a guide to explore three majestic caves, then bring a torch and live out your Indiana Jones dreams exploring three more self-guided caves on your own.
Step back into the turn of the 20th century with a visit to the historic Chillagoe Smelters. As the sun begins to set, make your way to Balancing Rock and watch as the sun sets the sky ablaze against the rocky landscape of the outback.
Cairns to the Cardwell Spa Pool
Distance: 183km (one way)
Highlights: Beaches, freshwater swimming holes, wildlife
Pick up some local produce from Rusty’s Markets then immerse yourself in the unique flora of Tropical North Queensland at the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Continue your quest for nature and drive south to the aptly named Cassowary Coast, where you may just end up spotting one of these iconic birds yourself.
Waterhole hop your way from Cairns to Mission Beach, beginning with a hike at Behana Gorge to the beautiful Clamshell Falls in the southern Cairns region. Cool off in a crystal-clear rainforest pool at Babinda Boulders, then slide down a rainforest waterslide at Josephine Falls and marvel at this triple-tiered wonder from the various viewpoints. Take a well-worth 9km detour off the main road to Etty Bay, where you may spot one of the local cassowaries wandering along the beach.
If you’re too dry for your liking by the time you reach Mission Beach, drive via the El Arish Mission Beach Road and soak yourself in Lacey Creek. Or if you feel more like just wetting your whistle, pop by Murdering Point Winery to taste an assortment of wines, ports and liqueurs. With 3 beaches, 4 villages and Dunk Island just a stone’s throw from the shore, it’s well worth putting a few days aside to explore Mission Beach.
If the en route rainforest swims have you craving more, head further south to the bright blue queen of all swimming holes, the Cardwell Spa Pool. Whilst you drive your way to the ultimate gem, it’s well worth stopping at other points along the Cardwell Forest Drive, including the beautiful Attie Creek Falls.
Cairns to Atherton Tablelands
Distance: 176km (one way) – via the Palmerston Highway
Highlights: Castle, waterfalls, rainforest
It may come as a surprise that one area can encompass Wet Tropics Rainforest, volcanic crater lakes and historic villages, but you can see all of this and more in the Atherton Tablelands. There are several routes to access the tablelands, however if you wish to add visiting a Spanish castle and exploring the rainforest canopy to your trip, you’ll need to head from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands via Paronella Park and the Palmerston Highway.
Live out your childhood fairytale dream with a 1.5 hour trip south to Paronella Park, a Spanish castle amidst the lush rainforest. Take your rainforest adventure higher at Mamu Tropical Skywalk and wander amongst the tree tops on raised boardwalks. Continue to climb to higher altitudes as you drive along the stunning Palmerston Highway, which has a number of waterfall walks that are well worth pulling over for. Celebrate your arrival on the tablelands with a fuel-up at Mungali Creek Dairy, which serves up biodynamic dairy products and locally sourced organic produce by the plate.
Once you’ve satisfied your appetite, satisfy your hunger for nature by driving along the iconic waterfall circuit, stopping at each of its residents for a swim. Make way from Millaa Millaa to Historic Village Herberton for a spot of time travelling. Jump into a volcanic crater lake at Lake Eacham or simply gaze at one whilst you tuck into a Devonshire Tea at Lake Barrine. If you are craving more volcanoes, stay at Mt Quincan Crater Retreat, a private slice of paradise on the slopes of an extinct volcano.
Cairns to Cooktown
Distance: 242km (one way)
Highlights: Museums, pubs, off-road driving
If you’re looking for a drive that is literally off the beaten track, veer north to Cooktown via the Bloomfield Track. Although the 242km drive is beautiful itself, the stunning coastal stretch is home to a myriad of natural wonders that will see you pulling over for an adventure every few kilometres. Cairns to Cape Tribulation, the Great Barrier Reef Drive, is one of Australia’s most beautiful drives and is home to world heritage rainforest, Daintree Rainforest boardwalks, scenic lookouts and more
Cool off in Emmagen Creek just north of Cape Tribulation Village and kiss farewell to the sealed road as you head onto the rocky Bloomfield Track for the ultimate 4WD adventure. Marvel at the stunning Wujal Wujal (Bloomfield) Falls and take a tour with the Walker Family to learn about the Indigenous significance of the area. Stop by at the iconic Lions Den Hotel for an Aussie pub feed before washing off the red dirt at nearby Trevathan Falls.
Cooktown itself offers an array of attractions and activities for every kind of traveller. Discover the town’s rich history at the Cooktown History Centre and James Cook Museum and wander through the botanic gardens, Queensland’s oldest regional botanic gardens. Watch the sunset from Grassy Hill or hit the Endeavour River for a sunset cruise.
Don’t have a 4WD? You can still explore Cooktown from Cairns via the Mulligan Highway.
Cairns to Cape Tribulation
Distance: 140km (one way)
Highlights: Freshwater swimming, rainforest, Great Barrier Reef
When it comes to road trips, the drive itself is often a highlight and this can certainly be said of the Great Barrier Reef Drive, which stretches 140km from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. From Cairns, hit this iconic coastal stretch and watch nature’s greatest picture show through your car window, starring sandy deserted beaches and palm-fringed shores. Head to Thala Beach Nature Reserve and for a pit stop at the famous palm plantation, or stay a little longer to enjoy lunch amongst the treetops at Osprey’s Restaurant.
Continue north past the turn offs to Port Douglas and Mossman to the mighty Daintree River and hop aboard Solar Whisper Wildlife and Crocodile Cruises to search for these iconic apex predators in the wild. After you’re tested your croc-o-dial, cross the Daintree on the Daintree River Ferry and continue onto the winding road deep into the Daintree Rainforest. Immerse all of your senses in this ancient rainforest with a 1.2km walk on the Madja boardwalk, which traverses through rainforest and mangrove habitats.
Refresh your taste buds with homemade tropical fruit ice cream at Daintree Ice Cream Company, then refresh yourself with a dip at Mason’s swimming hole, which can be reached via Mason’s Cafe. Stay overnight at Daintree Wilderness Lodge. Rest your head in the world’s continually surviving oldest rainforest at Daintree Wilderness Lodge.
Head to Cape Tribulation beach for sunrise and watch as the first light appears over the only place in the world where two world heritage areas meet. Skip the coffee and opt for nature’s heart starter by jumping into the crystal clear Emmagen Creek, which is located at the start of the Bloomfield Track. Swap the rainforest for the reef and head out to the Great Barrier Reef with Ocean Safari. Pull into a private paradise at Mackay Cay and snorkel alongside turtles, tropical fish and an abundance of colourful corals.