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 Point Hotel Motel Restaurant.
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.
Optional Detour – Cardwell Spa Pool
Cool off in the vibrant blue waters of the Insta-famous Cardwell Spa Pool. This seasonal creek is located along the Cardwell Forest Drive, a short 26km scenic route with entrances by the foreshore in Cardwell and just north of the township. Along the drive, you’ll also find other highlights like Attie Creek Falls or Cardwell Lookout with stunning views over Rockingham Bay and to Hinchinbrook Island.
Please note, the Cardwell Spa Pool levels fluctuate across the year so it’s best to check the pool is full before venturing to it. Between May and September is typically the best time to visit.
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.
If you’ve got a taste for adventure, take to the waters of the Tully River with RNR White Water Rafting. You’ll tackle Grade 3 and 4 rapids and pass highlights such as Ponytail Falls (pictured). If you’re more of the relaxed adventure, take a scenic drive down Tully Gorge Road which follows the river through World Heritage Rainforest. To find Ponytail Falls, follow the river downstream from Cardstone Weir and look out for the number 11 painted on the road.
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 – Murray Falls
If you’d like to add more waterfalls to your adventure, take a short detour to the beautiful Murray Falls. This cascade waterfall is tucked in the foothills of the Kirrama Range between Cardwell and Tully and can be reached by a 20km road off the Bruce Highway. Take a short walk to admire the base of the falls, or trek 1.8km through rainforest to view stunning views over the waterfall and the Murray Valley.Learn More
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.
Admire the view from above the canopy at Mamu Tropical Skywalk, located in Wooroonoon National Park, about 30 minutes from Paronella Park. Wander along the 350m-long elevated walkway through the rainforest canopy, and take in the view of the North Johnstone River Gorge from the 37m-high observation tower.
If you’re planning on visiting both Paronella Park and Mamu Tropical Skywalk, be sure to get the two-park discount pass.
Stop for a snack and a refuel in Innisfail: the rolls at Oliveri’s Continental Deli on Edith Street are legendary. On the corner of Edith and Glady Streets, you can pick up interpretive maps of the Innisfail Town Walk from the Innisfail Information Centre in ANZAC Memorial Park. The town is full of beautiful art deco buildings, many recently restored, coining the town as the “art deco capital of Australia”. The jewel of the crown is the Innisfail Shire Hall with geometrically-patterned Terrazzo floor tiles, sunburst mouldings and hexagonal lights in the ceiling and geometric balustrading.
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.
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.
Optional Detour – Behana Gorge & Walshs Pyramid
You know you’re getting close to Cairns when you see the pointed peak of Walshs Pyramid approaching. “The Pyramid” as locals call it, marks the entrance to Behana Gorge Road which leads you to the trailhead for Behana Gorge, a 7.4km return walk to a beautiful waterfall and pristine swimming hole.
For those not so active or shorter on time, Behana Gorge Road offers some of the best vistas of the 922m natural pyramid.
Take a little longer...
Spend some time and explore the beautiful attractions off the Cassowary Coast
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