Tropical North Queensland is one of my favorite parts of Australia. Especially after driving through the outback, this part of the state is lush and full of life, with spectacular vistas of the green rainforest meeting blue seas by the Great Barrier Reef.
Visitors to this area of the country can enjoy exploring the world’s oldest rainforest, exploring the bountiful hinterland, passing through quirky towns, and seeing spectacular natural sights, including the dramatic waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands.
Let’s get started! This North Queensland road trip, one of the top 10 road trips in Australia, begins and ends in Cairns. Cars can be rented from Cairns airport and the city center; or of course, this journey can be added onto an east coast road trip or a journey traveling eastwards from Darwin.
If you don’t have or don’t want to rent a 4WD vehicle, you’ll have to miss out on the Bloomfield Track from the Daintree National Park to Cooktown – but you can easily loop back around, drive back through the rainforest (the main road is bitumen) and enter the hinterland from the bottom of the Daintree. If you do have a good 4WD vehicle, you could even consider traversing the ‘tip’ of Australia to the top of Cape York – but that’s a whole other adventure in itself!
You could also use Cairns as a base and enjoy all of these destinations as separate trips from Cairns, depending on your time and commitments. Cairns is conveniently situated in the middle of these road trip stops, making them all reachable from the tropical city.
Tropical North Queensland Road Trip Itinerary
Cairns – 2-3 days
Begin your adventure in Cairns. The city of Cairns looks out over the ocean – however, there’s no beach and the sea is rife with lethal stingers in the summer, so swimming is not recommended!
Cairns is a backpacker town and the start of many travelers’ east coast road trips. So, if you enjoy the nightlife, you’ll love the bars and clubs here. There are also plenty of places to grab a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The main hang-out spot of Cairns is its lagoon. While swimming or chilling in the pool, you can look out over the ocean and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere of Cairns town around you. It’s a fantastic place to go cool down in the heat of the town!
But Cairns’ main feature is, of course, its reef. Head out on a snorkeling or diving tour with one of the many operators; whether you’re a diving expert of first-timer, the Great Barrier Reef is an amazing spot to dive on.
True, it’s not quite what it used to be due to over-tourism, but it’s one to check off your bucket list. If you don’t have a diving certification, there are plenty of beginner diving opportunities that you can do with no experience. A recommended tour operator is Ocean Freedom, who do snorkeling, certified and non-certified dives.
Port Douglas – 1 day
As you drive north from Cairns, you’ll see the spectacular views of the green rainforest against the blue ocean – it’s Queensland’s answer to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road! Take plenty of stops to see the best of this oceanic scenery.
Port Douglas is a fun little town with a holiday atmosphere. Some of the best things to do in the area include its markets, viewpoints, various artsy shops, quirky cafes and bars, and watersports on the coastline. Remember to wear a stinger suit if you’re visiting in the summer.
Port Douglas is about half an hour from the start of Daintree National Park. There are lots of hotels and hostels in the area, as well as campsites further out of town.
Daintree Rainforest National Park – 2 days
The Daintree Rainforest National Park is an awe-inspiring place to visit. It is the world’s oldest rainforest and is completely accessible for visitors, meaning that you can get lost in a tranquil world of green tree canopies and birdsong… even though the park is very well adapted for tourism, it rarely feels overcrowded and is a great place to find some zen.
Following the road up from Port Douglas, you will first pass the village of Daintree – where you can go on a crocodile cruise to spot Australia’s most deadly animal, the saltwater croc. After crossing the Daintree River ($14 one way or $26 return) the bitumen road traverses northwards, with various points to turn off for lookouts, boardwalks through the jungle, information centers, beaches, and a tea plantation!
Cape Tribulation is situated towards the northern end of the rainforest, and here is your only chance to purchase food and fill up on petrol. There is also a campsite here.
When you reach Emmagen Creek, the bitumen track turns into gravel and the road becomes unsuitable for 2WD vehicles. If you don’t have a 4WD turn back now and stay at either the campsite at Cape Tribulation or drive back to the Daintree River, cross and stay in Daintree Village – of course, you could also drive back to Port Douglas or Cairns and stay there.
The Bloomfield Track – 1 day
The Bloomfield Track traverses the Daintree rainforest up to Cooktown. This is where the road gets very rough and bumpy, with creek crossings and plenty of bumps in the road! Watch out with any creeks – saltwater crocodiles do inhabit these areas and they aren’t animals you want to be messing with.
This area of the rainforest is serene and peaceful, with virtually no other tourists and lots of tranquil camping spots. Keep your eye out for the huge and elusive cassowary bird, native to this area of Far North Queensland (but just so you know, this animal doesn’t like messing with either!).
You’ll go past Aboriginal settlements on the way; remember to be respectful of these areas – don’t venture off the path, don’t drink alcohol in dry communities, and treat any local you see with the respect they deserve.
Atherton Tablelands – 2 days
Venturing away from the coast and into Far North Queensland’s beautiful hinterland, the Atherton Tablelands is a stark difference to the Daintree; yet both are impossibly beautiful. Set at an altitude, the tablelands are farming pastures. This area is home to some of Australia’s best waterfalls, amazing trees and other fauna, quirky townships, and great food and wine.
The Millaa Millaa Falls are renowned for being both the setting of Peter Andre’s 90s single ‘Mysterious Girl’ and a Herbal Essences advert – however, they seem to be more well known to the British than the Australians! Other waterfalls on the circuit include Zillie Falls, Ellinjaa Falls and Dinner Falls – a short drive can encompass all of them.
Or drive a little further afield and enjoy Millstream Falls which is near Queensland’s highest pub and Nandroya Falls in Wooroonooran National Park.
If you don’t fancy a dip or are all waterfall-ed out, check out the Hypipamee Crater which has a picturesque lake at the bottom and is home to local cassowaries, the curtain fig tree which is an enormous and unique piece of flora and Lake Eacham, which can be enjoyed with a walk around its circuit.
There are also great towns to enjoy, such as Yungaburra and Kurunda. These tranquil spots have a great local atmosphere, and there are attractions in each – such as the memorial to Afghan war soldiers in Yungaburra and the markets and Skyrail – which looks over the jungle and all the way back to Cairns – in Kurunda.
When you’re tired from all the sightseeing, take a food tour around the area to sample some of the best cheese, chocolate, and wine that the region has to offer.
Mission Beach – 2 days
A couple of hours south of Cairns is one of my favorite hidden gems in Queensland, Mission Beach. While gaining in popularity, Mission Beach – for now – remains quiet and unspoiled. You can hike around the rainforest, up Bicton Hill to a spectacular viewpoint and search for cassowaries – they’re present in this area as well.
If you’re hiked out, there are safe-for-swimming nets around the area and a few charismatic bars and cafes – I loved Bingil Bay Café, which is open from early until night for great coffee, good food, alcohol, and excellent vibes.
Many people skydive over Mission Beach, and I can see why – it’s a pretty spectacular place to do so. Others take a day trip over to Dunk Island where there are walking tracks and unspoiled rainforest.
If you have a few extra days, you can also add Airlie Beach, a bit further south, to the itinerary.
Innisfail – 1 day
The area around Innisfail is nothing short of beautiful – dotted with sugarcane fields, with the jungle standing as a proud backdrop, driving into the town is a picturesque experience. While many backpackers come here to complete their farm work (88 days of regional work gains many backpackers a second working holiday year in Australia) – there’s plenty more that the town offers. It’s well worth a stopover on your circuit drive back to Cairns.
It’s a little-known fact that Innisfail is the art deco capital of Australia; much of its architecture was rebuilt after a devastating cyclone in 1918, during the heyday of the art deco style. A free tour can be taken of Johnstone Shire Hall every Tuesday to learn about this architectural history. If you’re visiting on any other day, just take some time to enjoy the architecture from outside!
Etty Bay is one of Tropical North Queensland’s best beaches and is relatively secluded. Watch out for cassowaries, but make sure to not provoke any. The beach is just 15 minutes away from Innisfail.
The Mamu Tropical Skywalk, situated an hour out of town, is an elevated walkway above the jungle; ideal for those who haven’t quite had enough rainforest during their Tropical North Queensland road trip! There are a 37-meter high observation tower and 1200 meters of walking tracks.
Josephine Falls is located close to Innisfail; it’s a beautiful, photogenic waterfall and natural swimming hole that is perfect for a refreshing dip!
Being eco-friendly in Tropical North Queensland
This area is Australia is delicate and unique; so special steps need to be taken to preserve the environment. When visiting the rainforest, be sure not to leave any rubbish – and go a step further and pick any up that you find.
Don’t provoke, feed or get to close to any wildlife, and don’t disrupt their homes. Doing so will alter their perceptions of humans – it will start to see them as either a threat or a food source – which can significantly disrupt the animals’ life and thus the natural ecosystem.
Special eco-travel care must be taken when diving. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on this planet – but it is on the verge of being no longer living, due to bleaching and over-tourism. Take care to not stand on or touch any coral and do not provoke marine life.
If you’re camping in far north Queensland, make sure you do not leave a trace of your stay by taking all rubbish with you. If you are staying in a hotel, don’t leave lights and air-conditioning on while you’re not in the room; not only will this rack up a bill for the hotel owners (which could cause them to inflate their prices for customers in times to come), but excessive electricity consumption is directly linked to the rising temperatures of the seas and subsequently the loss of the reef.
Lastly, keep on spreading the message about this beautiful, diverse, vivacious area of Australia – and emphasize how, while it welcomes tourists, it needs protection, and should be cherished and respected by all of its visitors.