The ultimate Cairns to Cooktown 5-day road trip
The road from Cairns to Cooktown reads like a highlight reel of Tropical North Queensland, featuring wind-sculpted beaches, a colourful reef and a rolling landscape of rainforest.
By Carla Grossetti
While it’s easy to be won over by the compact city of Cairns in Queensland’s north – which is renowned for its reef and rainforest, and tropical gardens where palm leaves bow down to the ground – you’d be remiss to rest here and forego all of the delights between Cairns and the northern coastal town of Cooktown.
There are two main routes for getting from Cairns to Cooktown: the 331-kilometre (206-mile) inland route, which takes about four hours to complete and is suitable for caravans and cars, and the 234-kilometre (145-mile) coastal route, which requires a 4WD, takes about six hours to complete and yields great views around each bend.
This itinerary follows the latter route across five days, taking the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, then tracing the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown.
Great Barrier Reef Drive
Day 1: Cairns to Port Douglas
- Drive time: about one hour
If you get the chance to arrive in Cairns a few days before heading off on your road trip north, make the most of being in the city and spend a night or two at Crystalbrook Collection’s new Bailey hotel. Mingle with Cairns’ creative community at CC’s Bar and Grill and Pachamama at the Bailey, or ask bar manager Dan Kelly to swizzle up a cocktail at the Whisky & Wine Bar at sister hotel, Flynn. Once you’ve enjoyed Cairns, it’s time to hit the road.
The Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Port Douglas is a leisurely drive. At around halfway, pull in at Palm Cove for brunch at Nu Nu's, then walk off your coconut and banana hotcakes with a stroll along the esplanade to the pier where resident osprey Scruffy makes regular cameos.Show more
Day 2: Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation
- Drive time: about 2 hours on the coastal route
Although the drive time to Cape Tribulation from Port Douglas is only around two hours on the coastal route, there is a lot to see and do along the way, so plan to take your time. Considered one of Australia’s greatest road trips, the Great Barrier Reef Drive runs parallel to the coast as the Tropical North Queensland scenery unfolds: there’s white sand and glittering seas on one side, and a patchwork quilt of rich, fertile farmland and emerald-green rainforest on the other.
Stop for a walk at the 56,000-hectare (216-square-mile) Mossman Gorge, inside the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. Wander past giant strangler figs and through curtains of fan palms until you get to the swimming hole where torrents of fresh water pour in and around great granite boulders.Show more
Day 3: Cape Tribulation to Cooktown
- Drive time: about 2 hours
It’s roughly five kilometres (three miles) from Cape Tribulation to Emmagen Creek, which can be driven in a 2WD; from there you will need a 4WD to continue north to Cooktown along the Bloomfield Track. Roughly halfway along the 33-kilometre (20-mile) track, stop for lunch at The Lion’s Den Hotel – a frozen-in-time testament to the pioneering Australians who arrived here as part of the gold rush in the late 19th century.
Keep going past Cooktown towards Hopevale to the Nugal-warra rock art sites where local elder Willie Gordon will share the stories behind the art on the Guurrbi Tour. Those with 4WDs who find themselves staying in the area longer should head to the coloured sands at Elim Beach that resemble a fallen rainbow, run by Thiithaarr-warra elder Eddie Deemal.Show more
Days 4 and 5: Cooktown to Mount Mulligan, then back to Cairns
- Drive time: 3 hours to Mount Mulligan, 2.5 hours to Cairns
Your return journey to Cairns will end with a dash of luxury if you take the time to spend the night at Mount Mulligan Lodge. Instead of retracing your steps down the coast, this drive will take you inland, passing through Lakeland, before eventually arriving into the working cattle station.
Accommodating just sixteen guests at a time, the five-star luxury lodge is embroidered into the open savannah, sitting in the shadow of the 18-kilometre-long (11-mile) Mount Mulligan. All meals are included, and you can even try your hand at cattle mustering.
Enjoy breakfast at Mount Mulligan before heading back to Cairns, rounding up a wonderful road trip in Queensland’s north.