When it comes to Australian road trips there are plenty of options to explore stunning natural beauty found all over this amazing continent.
When you visit the region of Tropical North Queensland in the northeast of Australia, you will no doubt have to include Cairns in your plans. Cairns road trips is a natural follow-on from that given the immense natural beauty in the region.
Cairns is pretty much the epicenter of tourism in this part of the continent and the most popular starting point for any North Queensland road trip itinerary. There are quite a few easy day trips from Cairns that offer some beautiful driving experiences and Cairns day trips self drive options are plentiful.
Here I share the 5 adventure road trips we researched and experienced when we visited. Each of these road trips from Cairns was quite different from one another but all offered insights into natural and cultural beauty found in this stunning region.
Basing yourself in Cairns
Cairns in Australia is the major center for Far North Queensland and is recognized as a prime vacation spot, attracting both international and domestic tourism all year round due to its tropical climate.
This small yet cosmopolitan city is the gateway to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef as well as the world heritage rainforest close by. Aside from the reef, surrounding islands, and the rainforest, there are also beaches, inland lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and the ‘outback’. There is also an incredible amount of unique fauna and flora to see. So, if you love exploring nature in the tropics, Cairns is definitely an ideal place to base yourself.
The ambiance of Cairns is extremely laid-back and relaxed with lots of shopping and dining options, especially good for enjoying alfresco dining by the water at sunset as you gaze out to the Coral Sea.
Cairns trips are so easy to arrange, whether you hire your own car as we did, or decide to pick from over 600 different tours that head out to the many attractions that surround the city. When we visited we did a combination of tours as well as car hire.
Tours are a great way to get a feel for the place and having your own car then gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and focus on your own interests more.
Do you need a 4WD for Cairns?
As always, choosing the best cars for road trips depends on the conditions you are expected to encounter on your journey.
Cairns road trips for the most part can be comfortably undertaken with a conventional sedan with some notable exceptions. For example, if you are traveling along the coastline toward Cooktown north of Cape Tribulation, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is highly advisable – as is the case for some of the outback areas that are somewhat ‘off-grid’.
However, for the vast majority of places that most visitors would find of interest, these can be reached with a standard hire car. We would have hired a 4WD if there really was anything we wanted to see which required it, but this was not the case. So, the best road trips in the region known for being the most popular (including the 5 covered in this article) do not need a 4WD.
The Top 5 Cairns Road Trips
Creating the perfect Cairns road trip itinerary again comes down to what really interests you. You could literally spend years living here and still not see everything of interest.
We identified the top 5 Cairns road trips which offer the very best experiences of Tropical North Queensland as:
- Cairns to Mossman (including Port Douglas)
- Atherton Tablelands
- Mission Beach and Tully
I share some detail of each of these fabulous trips below.
Cairns to Mossman and Port Douglas
In my opinion, this is one of the best road trips you can possibly take in this region.
The road trip from Cairns to Mossman is also well regarded by Lonely Planet who featured it in the top 50 list of the planet’s most thrilling road trips in their ‘Epic Drives of the World’ book.
Only some 75 km long, the route follows the Great Barrier Reef Drive portion of the Captain Cook Highway which hugs the edge of the coast for most of the way.
Cairns great barrier reef road trips are the most popular of Cairns road trips for obvious reasons. The scenery along this route is just stunning all the way.
The Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Port Douglas, Mossman, and then onto Cape Tribulation is a long spectacular coastline separating the two world heritage areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics (Daintree) Rainforest. We thoroughly enjoyed the entire trip along the coast and please do read the Daintree Rainforest post for more information on Cape Tribulation, Daintree River and Mossman Gorge.
While enjoying Cairns road trips you just can’t go past Port Douglas. This is a picturesque seaside village that has an atmosphere of tropical sophistication. It is an intimate, relaxed town where locals appreciate good food, wine, arts, and culture. There are some very upmarket boutiques as well as local markets where you can pick up locally made products.
Port Douglas also has some seriously beautiful beaches and is home to the fabulous Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina with many tours offered to visit the Great Barrier Reef, not to mention many great restaurants and cafes.
I highly recommend any itinerary to Tropical North Queensland include some time exploring and enjoying the beautiful town of Port Douglas.
Seaside Beach Communities
The thing about Cairns road trips is that you have to allow quite a bit of time to stop along whatever route you are on to take in the beauty of so many locations you would otherwise miss if you just followed the map.
In the case of the Cairns to Port Douglas and Mossman route, you will be passing so many stunning beachside communities.
For example, Palm Cove is a gorgeous spot that overlooks a glorious beach and Double Island. Just about halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas, Palm Cove has some very modern accommodation for tourists and many tour companies cater to visitors staying here.
Even between Palm Cove and Cairns, there are multiple other seaside communities you can visit such as Trinity Beach, Holloways Beach, and Yorkeys Knob. If you are not in a hurry, each of these places is worth the detour from the main highway to check out.
What is the road like from Cairns to Port Douglas?
The road may only be a single lane for a lot of the way but it is sealed for the whole distance and in very good shape. Heading in either direction, you need to focus on driving as there are numerous turns as the road follows the beautiful coast. On one side you have rainforest and the other is the Coral Sea, home to the Great Barrier Reef. The speed limit for most of the way is 80km/h.
Port Douglas to Mossman is a short distance of 16 km and the famous Mossman Gorge within Daintree Rainforest is only 10 mins (if that) from Mossman. Mossman itself is a charming inland town with lots of places to stop, refresh and enjoy a bite to eat.
You can then head further north to visit Cape Tribulation and enjoy exploring different parts of the Daintree (the world’s oldest rainforest) on the route.
Picture lush rolling hills, abundant wildlife, rugged bushland, tropical waterfalls, impressive lakes, gourmet foods, and friendly people and you will be getting close to the Atherton Tablelands.
Easiest of the Cairns road trips to reach, there is fishing, water skiing, bird watching, swimming, mountain biking, and stunning landscapes to suit all ages. There are also some great camping spots and lodges surrounded by beautiful natural scenery.
The Cairns waterfalls self-drive map is really popular with people who visit the Atherton Tablelands as there is an actual ‘waterfall circuit’ that is easy to follow and plenty of room to stop off at each waterfall on the circuit.
You can reach the Atherton Tablelands in a scenic and relaxed 1 hour and 25-minute drive via the Kuranda Range or Gillies Range.
In our case, we planned our Cairns road trips to ensure we entered the Tablelands from Mission Beach (south) and returned to Cairns via the Gillies Range.
Beautiful lakes are another wonderful feature of the Atherton Tablelands within Crater Lakes National Park.
If inland natural beauty is something that appeals to you in this region of Australia, then do check out the dedicated article written on the Atherton Tablelands
Adventurous road trips are always the most memorable, especially where there is an element or possibility of danger involved.
Of all the Cairns road trips, the Gillies Range linking Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands is probably the most unforgettable driving experience.
We are talking about a stretch of road 35 kilometers south of Cairns at Gordonvale where you will start your gradual climb up the Gillies Range, famous for its 263 corners, and 800m elevation change in only 19 km of road.
In our case, we drove the Gillies Range descending from the Tablelands to Cairns. It was a ride that reminded us of the drive we did at Trollstigen in Norway for the sharp turns and sheer drops. This is a section of road where you really have to slow down and concentrate to ensure you don’t become another traffic statistic here. Fortunately, there are also lots of warning signs for motorists who haven’t heard of this range or these road conditions.
This road is known as the windiest road in Australia but also has spectacular views along with its sheer drops as you make your way up or down.
Known as the ‘Village in the Rainforest’, Kuranda is the shortest of the Cairns Road Trips, only being some 25 kms away from the Cairns city limits.
You head north from Cairns, turning off at Smithfield to head up to the top of Kuranda Range some 1000 feet above Cairns. On the way up the range, you will also catch sight of the Skyrail cable cars that travel above the rainforest taking passengers to Kuranda, in addition to seeing glimpses of the Coral Sea through the rainforest.
Before reaching Kuranda, you can also stop off at Henry Ross Lookout to admire the coastline and look out to the Great Barrier Reef and Green Island.
Surrounded by Tropical Rainforest, nestled beside the Kuranda River, Kuranda village is a delightful experience.
Here you can take a cruise on the river, visit Birdworld, Koala Gardens, and Butterfly Sanctuary, go on a self-guided walk on the rainforest village walk circuit, visit many art and craft galleries and go shopping at their well-known markets.
We loved Kuranda so much we visited twice. The first time we went there was taking the Kuranda Scenic Railway up and then returning via the Skyrail.
The second time we had to include the village as part of the Cairns road trips we planned, wanting to drive up the Kuranda range.
Whether traveling to Kuranda by rail, Skyrail or car, don’t miss seeing this lovely part of Tropical North Queensland.
Mission Beach and Tully
Situated well south of Cairns, Mission Beach and Tully are on the radar of Cairns road trips even if not as popular as those already mentioned above.
Tully is a quiet, lovely, inland town. It is also the gateway to the heritage-listed Tully Gorge, is home to the 7.9m Golden Gumboot and holds the Australian record for the highest annual rainfall (7.9m in 1950). This is no doubt the reason why it is renowned for being one of the country’s most popular white-water rafting destinations.
The Tully River plunges through Tully Gorge National Park which has a camping area. The rainforest here is known for its colorful butterflies. As you approach Tully you also see Mt Tyson rising 687m behind the town.
Mission Beach is not far away from Tully and encompasses four seaside communities. Namely South Mission Beach, Wongaling Beach, Mission Beach Village, and Bingil Bay.
Mission Beach has long sandy, palm-lined beaches and the impressive Dunk Island sitting just off the coast. It is the perfect place to unwind and relax although it does offer some exhilarating activities such as sky diving over the coastline.
Accommodation options here include beachside cabins, a motel, and a caravan park. It is a calming and beautiful spot to spend some time.
As it is the longest distance of the options here, some wouldn’t include Cooktown as one of Cairns road trips but perhaps as part of a Cape York trip instead.
Getting to Cooktown
There are two main routes for getting from Cairns to Cooktown. The first is the 331-kilometer (206-mile) inland route, which takes about four hours to complete and is suitable for caravans and cars.
The second option is to take the 234-kilometer (145-mile) shorter coastal route, which requires a 4WD, takes much longer (about six hours) to complete. This is taking the Bloomfield track which is unsealed from Cape Tribulation to Wujal Wujal (approx. 40km) and is recommended for 4WD only. From about Emmagen Creek north of Cape Tribulation, a 4WD is required for getting to Cooktown the rest of the way as there are a number of potentially deep creek crossings as well as some particularly steep descents on the Cowie and Donovan Ranges.
This second option is said to be a very scenic drive through the Daintree Coast, passing through the Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal and villages of Ayton, Rossville, and rural Helenvale to Cooktown.
We took the inland route option traveling through dry savannah landscape and being fairly flat and easy to drive. This is apart from Bob’s Lookout, a 6-7kms of a steep incline, which can be a bit of a strain on the car if you are towing a lot of weight (which we weren’t). The route from Cairns takes you over the range and away from the coast via Hwy 1, the Kennedy Highway, to Mareeba where you strike north on Hwy 81, the Mulligan Highway, which you follow all the way to Cooktown.
Cooktown is the perfect base to start or end your Cape York adventure. With its rich history, must-do Aboriginal tours, world-class fishing, and loads to see and do, many visitors plan for a minimum of three nights with others staying much longer.
Situated on the eastern side of the mouth of the Endeavour River, Cooktown was named after James Cook who explored the east coast of Australia in 1770.
Cook was compelled to careen and repair his vessel, Endeavour, after holing it on reef coral.
This seaside town today is very historic and beautiful, with a laid-back charm, and attractions that include Grassy Hill, James Cook Museum, Cooktown Botanic Gardens, Top Pub Cooktown, and Cooktown Post Office.
It was a lot of fun exploring the town, heading to the lookout, checking out the seafront area and main street of Charlotte as well as enjoying dining and meeting with the locals.
A part of Far North Queensland that is well worth a visit and a great point to begin exploring the broader Cape York area. This will take you a distance well beyond typical Cairns road trips.
Things to note about visiting Cairns
What is the best month to visit and do Cairns road trips?
Winter in Cairns brings slightly cooler temperatures and lower humidity, making it the peak tourist season. Average temperatures range from 17.5 – 26°C (63.5 – 78.8°F) and there is low rainfall.
If you are keen on saving some money, the best time to visit Cairns is during the months of April and May or September and October. At this time, tourist crowds are low and flights and accommodation rates are less expensive, but you may encounter some wet weather.
Where can I stay?
Accommodation options in Cairns are many and varied, ranging from backpacker hostels and local pubs right up to the Hilton, the Reef Hotel and Casino, and other world-class properties.
If you would like to stay in a smaller center than Cairns but still have the 5-star experience with great access to stunning scenery, then head north to Port Douglas.
The Douglas Shire Council website also contains comprehensive information on nearby campsites and caravan options.
In Australia driving is on the left-hand side of the road, unlike in the USA or mainland Europe.
All the major routes in any direction are on well-maintained, sealed roads, and these are shown on free maps provided at rental car companies as well as tourist information centers. There are some roads that have long stretches of gravel and some that are better suited to 4WD vehicles and these are marked on maps so you don’t get any nasty surprises on your journey.
How many days do you need for Cairns?
This is so difficult to say as it depends on what your interests are. At the very least I would recommend nothing short of a week. This would allow you the opportunity to get out to all of the sites covered here via Cairns road trips and get some rest and relaxation at the same time.
For the sheer variety and natural beauty, there is no doubt that Cairns road trips offer some of the best places for road trips anywhere in Australia. In particular, if you are planning an east coast of Australia road trip, you should ensure Cairns features in your itinerary.
Your ideas of the best Cairns road trips
What did you think of my top Cairns road trips choices covered in this article? Please do let me know your thoughts in the comments below.