348km (one way)
Car or Camper
Townsville to Cairns
All year round
It’s an area with two World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforests, more than 12 National Parks and is the closest mainland access to the Great Barrier Reef – Yet it’s possible that even well-seasoned travellers haven’t done this drive.
Stretching between Townsville and Cairns, this under-the-radar route can be completed in four hours, but is best enjoyed over a couple of days so you can soak up the region’s spectacular natural assets and relaxed friendly vibe. You’ll see beautiful beaches, sugar towns, a castle (yes, really) and, because it wouldn’t be an Australian road trip without seeing at least one “big thing”, a giant Golden Gumboot.
Townsville to Cardwell
As the largest city in northern Queensland, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Townsville … everything from the Museum of Tropical Queensland to the Castle Hill Lookout and its fabulous panoramas. If you’ve got time, make a day-trip to nearby Magnetic Island – “Maggie” to locals – home to coastal walking trails, colonies of koalas and 23 bays and beaches. The ferry, which departs from Breakwater Terminal, takes about 20 minutes.
Stop one, about 90km north of Townsville, is Jourama Falls in the Paluma Range National Park. Make the effort to work off breakfast with the 3km return walk (it starts 700m past the main camping area) and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over the falls and surrounding rainforest.
Then, past Ingham, arrive at Lucinda, home to the longest service jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. Stretching almost 6km into the sea, it’s a sight in itself – but it’s also a great place to drop in a line and try your hand at catching a Spanish mackerel, giant trevally, queenfish or northern bluefin tuna. No luck? Don’t worry, you can still catch fish and chips from the Lucinda Jetty Store and Take Away.
After lunch it’s on to Cardwell, the gateway to Hinchinbrook Island. Spend the afternoon doing a short cruise around Hinchinbrook Channel to spot native wildlife or, if you have an extra day to spare, be sure to organise a day-trip to the island to experience one of the many walking trails.
Settle in for the night at Cardwell Beachcomber Motel and Tourist Park in a three-bedroom Ocean View Villa or a Poolside Cabin.
Cardwell to Mission Beach
First up today is a 30-minute drive to Tully, centre of the region’s sugar-cane plantations. In harvesting season, some two million tonnes of cane are processed through the Tully Sugar Mill – you can tour the facility between June and November. Tully is also known as one of the wettest places in Australia, a tightly contested title that prompted the construction of the big Golden Gumboot. The recently renovated boot is 7.9m tall (reflecting the highest annual rainfall recorded in the town) and features a rain gauge, a viewing platform, photos of past floods and, on its exterior, a giant green treefrog.
From Tully, detour off the highway through national park to Mission Beach. The four villages of Mission Beach are linked by 14km of palm-fringed golden paradise beaches. There is plenty to keep you active here, including kayaking, sky diving and rainforest walks, where you might be lucky enough to spot a notoriously shy cassowary. A day-trip to Dunk Island or a scuba diving trip to the reef are not-to-be-missed experiences.
Opt for a Rainforest Hut, set in the rainforest canopy, at the eco-minded Sanctuary Retreat. The alfresco ensuites add to the retreat’s natural ambience.
Optional Detour – Etty Bay
If you missed seeing a cassowary in the rainforests of Mission Beach, take a detour to Etty Bay, 15 minutes south of Innisfail. Known as one of North Queensland’s most scenic beaches, Etty Bay is often patrolled by cassowaries and their chicks in the late afternoon and early morning. The beach is also patrolled by surf lifesavers and is a lovely spot for a swim or fish.
Mission Beach to Cairns
Take the scenic route out of town along Alexander Drive and Bingil Bay Road before rejoining the highway, then take another short detour to Paronella Park at Mena Creek. Here you’ll find a heritage-listed concrete “castle”, built by a Spanish cane farmer in 1935, and surrounded by 5ha of rainforest. Take the 45-minute guided tour to learn the full fascinating history, and don’t miss seeing the stunning avenue of kauri trees.
Stop for a snack and a refuel in Innisfail: the rolls at Oliveri’s Continental Deli on Edith Street are legendary. Then drive another 30 minutes to Babinda, a cute little town sitting in the shadow of Mt Bartle Frere. If it’s warm, the Babinda Boulders – a freshwater swimming hole dotted with huge, smooth granite rocks – is a beautiful spot for a refreshing afternoon dip before driving the final leg (about an hour) north to Cairns.
Take a little longer...
Spend some time and explore the beautiful attractions off the Cassowary Coast
Guide to the natural attractions around Mission Beach
Snuggly tucked along the Cassowary Coast, Mission Beach and its 14 kms of golden beaches are one of Australia’s best-kept secrets. Here are all the reasons why.
Secret Beaches & Coves of Mission Beach
Mission Beach would be better referred to as Mission Beaches with its 14km stretch of sand interlinking three beaches and four villages. Lesser known are the smaller beaches and coves that make up a huge part of its charming appeal.
Cardwell Spa Pool – How to get there & what they look like right now
Cardwell Spa Pool is a naturally-fed, seasonal creek that shot to stardom on social media in 2016. Ever since, people have been adding it to their holiday itinerary but there are a few things you might not know about this idyllic swimming spot.
12 other things to do when visiting the Cardwell Spa Pool
Whether you’re out to catch a barra, hike Australia’s largest island National Park or adventure your way through a scenic 4WD track, Cardwell is the perfect launch pad for an outdoorsy weekend with a friendly local twist.