1,432km (One Way)
Cairns to Cape York
May to October
Got a heightened sense of adventure and want to take it all the way to the top (of Australia)? Jump into a 4WD and head off on an unforgettable journey from Cairns to Cape York. Along the way, you’ll be challenged with creek crossings and crocs, find culture in Cooktown and Indigenous communities, and come across memorials to terrifying wartime and weather incidents. It’s a journey that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Cairns to Cooktown
When driving to Cooktown from Cairns, there are two equally alluring options (flip a coin if you can’t decide). The first route travels through scenic Kuranda. Check out the famous markets or have a bite at a cool outdoor cafe. If you’re interested in knowing more about the local Djabugay people, drop into the Visitor Information Centre that holds Indigenous artefacts and sells local artists’ works and books on the region (including some on the Djabugay language).
Mareeba is the largest town on the Atherton Tablelands and boasts that it enjoys 300 sunny days a year. The region grows 70% of Australia’s coffee crop – you can admire coffee and tea antiquities at the Coffee World Experience at Coffee Works. Alternatively, follow the coastal Captain Cook Highway from Cairns to detour into the coastal resort town of Port Douglas and the stunning rainforest-enveloped Mossman Gorge before joining the Mulligan Highway at Mount Molloy and continuing to Cooktown.
Spend a day exploring Cooktown’s multitude of charms. The heritage buildings, museums and monuments form a fascinating streetscape that reflects the town’s rich and colourful history. That past includes Captain James Cook’s running aground of the HMB Endeavour on offshore reefs, forcing him and his crew to spend seven weeks in the area. See the cannon and anchor, jettisoned from the ship in 1770 but retrieved from the reef only in the 1970s, at the National Trust’s James Cook Museum.
Then find the Visitor Information Centre at the Nature’s Powerhouse complex within Cooktown Botanic Gardens. It features the Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery, home to a collection of regional botanical illustrations, exhibition spaces and a cafe.
Finish the day by watching a Tropical North Queensland sunset (they’re pretty spectacular) from Grassy Hill. You’ll be following in the footsteps of esteemed company: Captain James Cook and crew from the Endeavour climbed the hill in 1770 to assess safe passage through the reef.
Cooktown to Cape Melville
Conquer rugged tracks, creek crossings and beach driving to reach the spectacularly beautiful coastline of Cape Melville National Park. After leaving Cooktown, pass Endeavour Falls and continue to Isabella Falls, where you can cool off in the inviting water.
After reaching the national park, explore Bathurst Bay: camp at Bathurst Heads and try a spot of fishing for cod, flathead, grunter or barramundi. For all the beauty of the massive tumbled granite boulders of the Melville Range, sandy beaches, sandstone escarpments, endemic foxtail palms and inland dunes, the area’s complex history is never far from the surface. A monument 2km from the rocky headlands of Cape Melville and another 200m inland commemorate the 300-plus lives lost when a cyclone wiped out a pearling fleet in 1899.
Cape Melville to Coen
It’s a big day of driving: so leave nice and early. After reaching the Peninsula Developmental Road (PDR), hang a right and head to Coen, the largest town in the area after Weipa. Stay in town or continue on a few kilometres to reach The Bend, a free bush campsite. There’s also free camping at the Gold Mine on the way into town.
To get rid of the day’s dust, jump into the shallow waters of the Coen River.
Coen to Bramwell Station
It’s another long day’s drive on to Bramwell Station, but first head north Archer River. Stop at the roadhouse for a very hearty breakfast. After leaving Archer River, cross the Wenlock River to find the Moreton Telegraph Station. Take a stroll and perhaps spot an agile wallaby, palm cockatoo or magnificent riflebird. Push on to Bramwell Station’s Bramwell Junction Roadhouse, the last fuel stop before reaching Bamaga near The Tip (as Cape York’s pointy end is affectionately known). The property also houses a tourist park with accommodation and camping grounds, as well as a bar with live entertainment during the busy months.
Bramwell Station to The Tip
The Old Telegraph Track forms the western boundary of Heathlands Resources Reserve and Jardine River National Park. While you could take the bypass roads that skirt around water crossings between the Junction and the Jardine, why would you? That’s the fun part – even though the Gunshot Creek crossing is considered extremely challenging.
Drop in at Seisia (pronounced “say see ya”) near Bamaga to check out what locals reckon is Australia’s best fishing jetty, or continue to Punsand Bay. This spot is just 6km west of The Tip. Still, it can take up to 45 minutes to drive this final stretch to mainland Australia’s northernmost point. Once you’re there, you’ll need to take the iconic photo with the “You Are Standing at the Northernmost Point of the Australian Continent” sign. Try and arrive at low tide, as the walk to the sign only takes 10 minutes across the sand (it’s about 30 minutes over rocks at high tide).
The beachside Cape York Camping Punsand Bay offers every level of comfort, from beachfront cabins with ensuites to unpowered bush camping sites.
Optional Detour – Jardine River National Park
The Jardine River National Park has some great camping spots if you want to extend your time here. Eliot Falls campground has drinking water, picnic tables and fire-pits, set in pretty woodland between two creeks.
What to expect on your trip to The Tip
Cape York is calling: Planning a trip to The Tip
Ready to tackle one of Australia’s most remote landscapes, Cape York? Just you, a car and 1,200km of untamed, World Heritage-listed, 180 million year-old rugged rainforest beauty – aka The Tip.
Cape York’s big three national parks
If you’re looking for the ultimate national park experience, there’s no better place in the world than the tip of Australia. With ten national or regional parks to choose from, here’s a closer look at three of the most popular.
Fishing from Cairns to Cape York
Cairns to Cape York is an angler’s Nirvana: a pristine environment that is both challenging and inspiring. With the largest diversity of fish species in Australia and the ability to fish all year round, a visit to Tropical North Queensland should be on everyone’s bucket-list.
Escape to the cape
The drive to Cape York is an iconic Australian adventure. Craig Tansley ticks this epic journey off his bucket list on a tag-a-long tour with Adventure Trek and Tours.