Hit the road with these four epic road trip routes in and around Cairns.
You don’t have to stray far from Cairns before adventure begins. Drive out of the city and you’ll find spectacular coastlines, national parks, rainforest-draped hills and even savannah and outback. Your only dilemma? Which direction to drive into adventure.
Great Barrier Reef Drive – where the rainforest meets the reef
Cairns to Cape Tribulation, 300 kms return, 5 hours’ drive time
You can’t beat a route that wiggles up beach-draped coastline between the Coral Sea and ancient rainforest and, with so many sights to take in, a few days on the Great Barrier Reef Drive is recommended. Stop for coffee 25 kilometres out of Cairns in Palm Cove, then continue north for a stroll along Ellis Beach. The kids will love Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures for its snake show, cassowary feeding and famous jumping crocodiles.
Port Douglas, with its chic shops, restaurants and golf courses, makes a good base and is just 40 minutes from the Great Barrier Reef by fast boat. Enjoy your first encounter with the Daintree Rainforest at Mossman Gorge by taking a dip in a beautifully clear pool or drift snorkelling down the river. A Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk reveals the importance of the rainforest to the Kuku Yalanji people.
Your sense of adventure will become heightened as you cross the Daintree River via a car ferry to magnificent Cape Tribulation. Boardwalks and tougher trails lead through the rainforest, and the Great Barrier Reef lies just offshore, accessible by Ocean Safari, which does half-day tours from Cape Tribulation.
In Port Douglas, luxury resorts include Sheraton Grand Mirage notable for its golf course, Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple with its indulgent spa, and Coconut Grove with its great location on the main street. Cape Tribulation makes for a great overnight at eco-friendly or boutique Mist at Cape Tribulation. The Daintree’s Silky Oaks Lodge has also reopened after a $20 million renovation.
Wheelbarrow Way – explore inland savannah country
Mareeba to Chillagoe, 286kms return, 3.5 hours’ drive time
Head west from Cairns on the Wheelbarrow Walk and you’ll experience very different landscapes from the tropical coast as soon as you climb towards Kuranda, flanked by verdant rainforest and beautiful waterfalls. Near Mareeba, dry bushland and rolling farmland planted with sugarcane, coffee trees and mango trees take over. Rummage through the fascinating Mareeba Heritage Museum, enjoy coffee at Coffee Works, and detour into Emerald Creek and Davies Creek National Park for a bushwalk or swim.
Trainspotters will love the Railway Station Museum in Dimbulah. By the time you reach Chillagoe the landscape has rusted to outback red and is dotted with giant termite mounds. Balancing Rock is the place for spectacular outback sunsets and stars. Stargazers should also head to Chillagoe Observatory for an up-close look at the night sky and its constellations and planets.
Chillagoe has a colourful mining history. Visit the photogenic ruins and abandoned machinery at Chillagoe Smelters, then head to Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. The ancient caves, three of which you can visit with a guide and three on self-guided tours, are encrusted with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites.
Chillagoe Cabins, set in leafy grounds with a BBQ area and swimming pool, has self-contained cabins with all the mod cons and décor inspired by colonial miners’ huts. You could also consider riverside Black Swan Farm in Dimbulah or cattle station Birds on Barron in Mareeba for a great experience of rural life.
Waterfall Circuit – soak up the scenic sights
Cairns to Atherton Tablelands, 200kms, 3.5 ’ drive time
In addition to being delightfully scenic and dotted with attractive heritage villages, the Waterfall Circuit Atherton Tablelands gush with rivers, creeks and waterfalls that tumble into rock pools and waterholes. Compact enough for leisurely driving, this is a region in which to relax, swim, snap photos and tuck into long lunches that showcase fresh Tablelands ingredients. Call in to Nerada Tea, Australia’s largest tea plantation, for a delightful high tea, and visit Mungalli Creek Bio-Dynamic Dairy to sample signature cheeses such as fetta and ricotta.
Your first stop is Lake Barrine Teahouse, overlooking a picturesque lake inside a worn-down volcanic crater that is part of Crater Lakes National Park. Yungaburra has fine heritage buildings and is a great spot for spotting platypus or – fingers crossed – even a rare tree kangaroo.
Millaa Millaa Falls, surrounded by gum trees and leaning tree ferns, and fluttering with butterflies, is a tropical cliché come true, inviting you for a swim and no doubt an Instagram moment. Other waterfalls on this circuit include the more rugged Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls, which braid their way over volcanic columns.
You can do the Waterfall Circuit in a day, but with so much to see and delightfully cool overnight temperatures, consider staying overnight. In Yungaburra, boutique Eden House Retreat has a restaurant and six self-contained cottages with private courtyard. Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat features a treehouse and villas in the rainforest, while Big 4 NRMA Atherton Tablelands Holiday Park is a popular, more casual option. Stay on the slopes of an extinct volcano at Mt Quincan Crater Retreat and spot tree kangaroos and rainforest birds from your balcony at Lumholtz Lodge.
Great Green Way – national parks and nature
Cairns to Cardwell, 375kms, 4.5 hours drive time
With 12 national parks and the Barrier Reef shimmering just offshore, the Great Green Way offers abundant natural wonders, so you’ll want to take several days. You haven’t driven far out of Cairns before you’re amid crumpled green landscapes that tempt you from the car, such as Behana Gorge or Josephine Falls in Wooroonooran National Park, where smooth, tiered rocks provide a slippery-dip of water-splashing fun.
Stop in Innisfail to admire its Art Deco architecture. Then take the short detour to Etty Bay, which isn’t just a choice beach for a swim, but where you might also spot cassowaries at dawn and dusk each day. Turn inland to Paronella Park, where a heritage-listed concrete “castle” sits amid stunning tress. It’s a remarkable sight.
Further south, Mission Beach is a place to linger, especially as beaches, rainforest walks and offshore islands invite exploration. Check out the sugar mill or go white-water rafting in Tully. Cardwell is the gateway to Hinchinbrook Island, and a great place for rugged adventure, while Cardwell Spa Pool is a vivid blue natural waterhole surrounded by rainforest.
Mission Beach is the perfect base for a few days of exploration. Fully self-contained Wongalinga Apartments is absolute beachfront and has a swimming pool. Castaways Resort & Spa has villas, apartments and rooms with an ultimate beachfront setting, as well as a restaurant and spa.