Cairns - Cooktown - Mareeba - Undara - Charters Towers - Townsville - Ingham - Tully/Mission Beach - Innisfail - Cairns
Drive from Cairns to Townsville, through World Heritage-listed reef and rainforests to golden outback savannah. On this journey you won't miss an inch of Queensland's tropical splendour. Cruise the Great Barrier Reef and trek the ancient Daintree Rainforest. Connect with Aboriginal culture as you travel north to the remote frontier of Cape Tribulation. Explore historic gold mining towns and the lush orchards and plantations of the Tropical Tablelands. Day trip to Magnetic, Dunk and Hinchinbrook Islands and relax in resort towns like Port Douglas and Mission Beach. This journey has a short 4WD section, with an alternative road for conventional vehicles.
At a glance:
Meander along the golden chain of beaches stretching north from Cairns. Surf at Machans Beach and swim at Holloways and palm-fringed Yorkey’s Knob. Picnic beneath sea almond trees in Trinity Beach or lunch in the tropical village. Hang out with the locals on secluded Kewarra Beach and check out the wildlife attractions of Clifton Beach. Dine out in Palm Cove’s five-star restaurants, then climb over a rocky outcrop to tranquil Ellis Beach. Continue along the Cook Highway, stopping at Rex Lookout for magical views over the Coral Sea beaches. Drive into the sophisticated tropical oasis Port Douglas, which sits between World Heritage-listed rainforest and reef. Walk along the white sands of Four Mile Beach and climb Flagstaff Hill for striking views over Port Douglas. View a vibrant array of local bird life in the rainforest wildlife sanctuary. Browse the chic galleries and art galleries and enjoy the balmy breeze at an alfresco dinner on Macrossan Street.
Spend an extra day cruising the Great Barrier Reef. Or head to Cooktown, immersing yourself in unique Aboriginal experiences along the Bama Way. Travel through Mossman to magical Mossman Gorge in Daintree National Park. Walk along Cooya Beach with traditional Kuku Yalanji owners, then head north to the World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforest. Cruise the Daintree River past tropical birds and primeval crocodiles, then cross it on a vehicle ferry and continue driving to Cape Tribulation. Spend an extra night in a campsite or 4WD the Bloomfield Track into the remote wilderness of the Cape York Peninsula. Visit Bloomfield Falls with a Wujal Wujal guide and explore the dense tropical rainforest of Cedar Bay National Park. Pass the craggy form of Black Mountain and spy on thousands of noisy waterbirds in Keating's Lagoon. Arrive in Cooktown in time for a night walk amongst ancestral rock art sites with a Nugal-warra elder and story-teller.
Browse the historic sites in Cooktown, Australia’s first European settlement and site of a wild 19th century gold rush. Climb to the top of Grassy Hill for a good view of the reefs where Captain Cook’s boat struck trouble in 1770. Drive south-west to Black Mountain National Park, for a closer look at the glossy black boulders which make up the mountain. Then head into Lakeland on the tranquil Laura River Valley, where you can taste coffee brewed from local plantations. Four wheel drive 45km (28 miles) north to Laura to see the world’s largest collection of prehistoric rock art. South of Lakeland lies the Palmer River Roadhouse, where the mining memorabilia inside is all that remains of the 1870s gold rush. See the grave of James Mulligan, the man who founded the Palmer River goldfields in the Mt Molloy cemetery. Continue south to Mareeba, amidst the orchards, coffee plantations, wineries and sugar cane fields of the Tropical Tablelands.
Learn why Mareeba is known as Queensland’s ‘Tropical Fruit Bowl’ on a tasting tour of the cafes, roadside stalls, orchards and plantations. Spot water birds in Mareeba Wetlands, just out of town. Further east, see Aboriginal rock art galleries in Davies Creek National Park or swim beneath Emerald Creek Falls. For an off-the-track adventure, drive 140 km (87 miles) west to the limestone Chillagoe Caves. It’s only an hour and half along the Highway to Atherton, in the heart of the lush Tropical Tablelands. Walk through rainforest and past miniature waterfalls for a top-of-the-tablelands view from the extinct volcano of Halloran’s Hill. Picnic in Platypus Park, visit the century-old Chinese temple and listen to a sweet cacophony of birds in Hasties Swamp. Take a steam train to the old tin mining town of Herberton or drive there along the Kennedy Highway. Marvel at the deep Mount Hypipamee crater on the way to Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town.
Have a beer in Queensland’s highest pub or check out the huge wind farm. Follow the Tully Falls Road south to see Tully Falls tumble almost 300m over rainforest and glistening rock. Visit Little Millstream Falls on your return to Ravenshoe. Drive along the highway to Millstream Falls, Australia’s widest waterfall and Innot Hot Springs. Relax in the therapeutic mineral waters, then drive the Savannah Way to Mount Garnet and Forty Mile Scrub National Park. Wind through the vine thickets and giant fig trees, past Australian brush-turkeys and red-legged pademelons. Drive west to Undara Volcanic National Park, home to the remnants of the world’s longest lava flow from a single volcano. Walk around Kalkani Crater, along the path of pioneers to Rosella Plains or to Atkinsons lookout. Gaze out over the lava plains and explore once-volcanic caves that are now fertile rainforest pockets. Spend the night in nearby camping grounds or budget accommodation.
Drive along the Kennedy Highway to The Lynd or take a more rugged route along the unsealed Gregory Developmental Road. Head west through Mount Surprise, then south to the old copper mining town of Einasleigh, on the banks of the Copperfield River. Walk the deep chasms and quiet beaches of Copperfield Gorge, carved by an ancient lava flow. Then drive to Lynd Junction, where you can meet one of the three people who live there in the Oasis Roadhouse, reputedly Queensland’s smallest bar. Follow bushwalking trails around the old nickel mining town of Greenvale. Travel south to Dalrymple National Park, where rough trails lead you across the Burdekin River and ancient lava flows of the Toomba Basalt. Head into Charters Towers, where the heritage streetscapes hark back to the golden boom days of the 1800s. Follow the Ghosts of Gold Heritage Trail and visit attractions such as Zara Clark Museum, the Civic Club and the World Theatre.
Follow the Flinders Highway east, stopping to see waders and other waterbirds at the Mingela Wetlands. Before Townsville, detour into Bowling Green Bay National Park, home to rugged mountains, wetlands, saltpans and mangrove forests. A day hike leads you over Mount Elliot past the deep pools and waterfalls of Alligator Creek. Look out for brushtail possums, sugar gliders, northern brown bandicoots, wallabies, and rufous bettongs feeding early morning and late afternoon. In Townsville, wander the scenic beach promenade of The Strand and visit the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. Dine alfresco on fresh local seafood on Palmers Street and explore the balmy nightlife on Flinders Street East. If you have an extra day, take a 25-minute catamaran to Magnetic Island, where you can swim, snorkel, horse ride and hike through the national park. Dive the Moltke wreck and the huge SS Yongala shipwreck, which sank in 1911.
Head north along the Great Green Way, stopping to hike through the rich rainforest of Paluma Range National Park. Swim at Big or Little Crystal Creek, where a historic stone art bridge arches over the water. Walk to McClellands Lookout for dizzying views over the islands and coastline. Before reaching Ingham, detour along the unsealed road to Jourama Falls, where you can picnic with birds and butterflies alongside the cascades of Waterview Creek. Drive into Ingham, a sugar cane town with a distinctly Mediterranean flair thanks to the Italians Spaniards, and Basques who migrated here. Check out the town’s elegant historic buildings on the Hinchinbrook Heritage Walk between Ingham and neighbouring Halifax. Visit the birdwatching paradise of Tyoto Wetlands, home to 200 species of birds, tropical plants and native wildlife such as wallabies and crocodiles. Spend the night in Ingham or one of the nearby picturesque beach towns, such as Lucinda, Halifax, Taylors Beach or Forrest Beach.
Drive west to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia's highest single drop waterfall. Follow the Banggurru walk along the banks of Stony Creek or do the short Jinda walk into the gorge for a closer view. Head to the coast to see Lucinda’s sugar loading jetty – it’s the longest in the Southern Hemisphere and actually curves with the earth. Take a ferry to Hinchinbrook Island from here or nearby Cardwell. Hinchinbrook is Australia’s largest island national park, home to cloud-covered mountains, fragile heathland vegetation, lush rainforest, eucalypt forest and mangrove fringes. Wind along the wide bays and rocky headlands of the east coast on sections of Thorsborne Trail. You can camp over three nights and walk the entire 32km (19.9 mile) stretch from Ramsay Bay to George Point. Snorkel with turtles and dugongs, over vivid fringing reefs and seagrass beds in the island’s marine park waters. Spend the night in a pre-booked campsite here or a historic Cardwell bed and breakfast.
Explore Cardwell’s historic buildings and modern marina before heading north through Kennedy. Detour east off the highway to Edmund Kennedy National Park for a beach picnic or west to breathtaking Murray Falls. An unsealed road leads you north from here to Tully Gorge National Park. Walk through World Heritage-listed rainforest, past traditional healing ponds and along the banks of Echo Creek with a local Aboriginal guide. Swim beneath waterfalls in crystal clear swimming holes or have a white water rafting adventure down the Tully River. If you’d prefer relaxation, picnic alongside the river and follow the 20-minute Rainforest Butterfly Walk to the gorge. You can watch rafters tackle a tricky set of rapids from the Flip Wilson Lookout every day at 1pm. Hike to Elizabeth Grant Falls, Cannabullen Falls and other beauty spots on short walks within the Misty Mountains Trails. Head to Tully or the vibrant village of Mission Beach for the night.
You can’t miss Tully’s Giant Golden Gumboot, an 8m high trophy to match its title of Australia’s wettest town. From the viewing platform you can look over the town and Tully Sugar Mill. Wind through lowland rainforest and over delicate creeks on the Lacey Creek Walking Trails around town. Watch for cassowaries, with their blue necks and regal head gear. Drive to Mission Beach, where the golden sand is fringed by a green tangle of rainforest. Follow the Ulysses Link Walking Track along the Mission Beach foreshore, past artworks depicting the area’s Aboriginal and European history. Extend your stay with a day trip to tropical Dunk Island. Otherwise, keep driving to Innisfail, stopping to visit the historic soldier settlement of El Arish. Detour off the highway to Mena Creek and Paronella Park, a Spanish castle surrounded by waterfalls and butterfly-fringed gardens. Drive into the bustling sugar town of Innisfail for the night.
Wander past Innisfail’s elegant art deco buildings, visit the Chinese temple and sugar museum and tour a tea plantation. Then drive north to Eubenangee Swamp National Park, where rare plants and native wildlife flourish in the wetlands. Peer at birds, butterflies, turtles and crocodiles as you wind along the edge of Alice River to the top of a grassy hill. Walk the beach in nearby Ella Bay National Park and past waterfalls, wild rivers and 500 types of rainforest trees in Wooroonooran National Park. The park is home to a fascinating array of wildlife – from double-eyed fig-parrots to musky rat-kangaroos. Climb Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain, picnic by Josephine Falls or white water raft down the Johnstone River. Visit a lavender oil farm in Aloomba and drive down the charming main street of Gordonvale. Pass through Edmonton on your way back into Cairns, gateway to the islands, rainforest and reef of Tropical North Queensland.