SUV car driving through a rover crossing in the daintree forest far north queensland

Unmissable Cairns Road Trips To Enjoy the Best of Far North Queensland

Nestled in the heart of Far North Queensland, Cairns is a tropical paradise with a warm climate, many natural wonders, and a vibrant atmosphere.

You will no doubt spend much of your time strolling along the Cairns Esplanade, visiting sites like the Cairns Aquarium and botanical gardens, or exploring the Great Barrier Reef on day trips. But at some point, you should also take the opportunity to venture further afield.

From pristine beaches and lush hinterlands to ancient rainforests and vibrant cities, Cairns offers an abundance of road trip destinations for you to visit. Some are short drives you can complete in half an hour, whilst others might involve an overnight stay. But they all showcase a unique part of the region that many tourists don’t get to see.

So jump in your car, fasten your seatbelts, and join us as we reveal the best Far North Queensland road trips from Cairns.

Hiring a Car in Cairns

Before we jump into the details, though, you’ll need a car! Unless you’ve driven, say, Brisbane to Cairns, you’ve likely flown in or taken the train to Cairns to begin your far North Queensland adventure.

Hiring a car in Cairns will allow you the flexibility to embark on self-drive day trips from Cairns at your own pace and not rely on public transport, taxis, or expensive day tours.

Thankfully, several car rental companies operate in Cairns, including the major ones such as Avis, Hertz, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, and Thrifty.

Most of these car rental companies have branches at the Cairns Airport, allowing you to conveniently pick up and drop off your vehicle upon arrival and departure.

You can search available options here with our trusted partners Discover Cars.

When renting a car, you will need a valid driver’s license from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP), if required. It’s essential to review the rental agreement’s terms and conditions, including insurance coverage, fuel policy, mileage limits, and any additional fees.

Remember that driving in Cairns and Australia follows the left-hand side of the road, and speed limits and other road rules must be followed. Cairns has well-maintained roads, which are ideally suited for regular vehicles. However, if you plan on going off-roading, you might want to pick up an SUV or 4×4.

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10 Best Road Trips From Cairns

1. Port Douglas & The Daintree

(One hour drive via Captain Cook Highway/State Route 44)

  • Distance: 66 km
  • Time Needed: 3 – 6 hours

Port Douglas is a charming seaside town that is the gateway to the iconic Daintree Rainforest.

One of the best short drives from Cairns, the drive up there showcases the natural beauty of Far North Queensland, taking you along the breathtaking Captain Cook Highway that hugs the picturesque coastline.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Daintree Rainforest

Leaving Cairns, you’ll be treated to stunning ocean views and glimpses of palm-fringed beaches as you wind your way north. The road is well-maintained, making for a comfortable drive, and there are plenty of lookout points along the way to stop and capture memorable photos.

When you reach Port Douglas, you’ll find a laid-back atmosphere with palm-lined streets, boutique shops, and a vibrant dining scene. Its stunning Four Mile Beach, fringed by swaying coconut trees, invites visitors to relax, soak up the sun or go for a leisurely stroll. A stinger net there offers safe swimming.

From Port Douglas, you can visit the nearby Daintree Rainforest, the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. To get there, Cross the Daintree River on a scenic ferry and enter a world where ancient trees tower above and exotic wildlife thrives.

If you don’t want to make the river crossing (adverse weather and low tides can frequently affect crossing), you can still enjoy an introduction to the Daintree at Mossman Gorge. There are plenty of self-guided trails to enjoy or join a Dreamtime Walk conducted by the local Ngadiku (Nar-di-gul) Indigenous people (pre-booking essential).

Pro Tip: Be mindful of visiting Daintree during the wet season of November to April, as heavy rain makes the area susceptible to flash flooding. Always check the road conditions there before you go; the ferry cannot be pre-booked and may have long queues, particularly following any closures.

2. Kuranda

(35-minute drive from Cairns via National Route 1)

  • Distance: 30 km
  • Time Needed: 3 – 6 hours

One of the best road trips from Cairns is the drive up to Kuranda, the quintessential Aussie small town in the mountains.

The route there offers breathtaking views as you ascend into the rainforest-clad mountains. You’ll travel along the Kuranda Range Road, a winding and picturesque route that provides glimpses of cascading waterfalls, dense vegetation, and panoramic vistas of the surrounding region.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Kuranda Railway

Kuranda is renowned for its arts and crafts markets, offering unique souvenirs and local products – the perfect place to stock up on authentic Aussie souvenirs. You can explore the village’s vibrant shops, arts and crafts galleries, and cafes while there.

For an even more immersive experience, you can also ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway or the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Providing you with a welcome respite from the tourist hustle and bustle of Cairns, Koala Gardens, and Birdworld are other points of interest for animal lovers. In contrast, nature lovers can explore several picturesque walking trails.

  • NB – this is one day trip from Cairns where you may want to leave the car at home – although the drive is exceptionally pretty, taking the Skyrail or Scenic Railway are also sensational experiences not to miss.

There are advantages of having your own car, though. Once the day trippers have left, you will have Kuranda almost to yourselves and can take in the many attractions at your own pace. There are definitely too many things to see in Kuranda, particularly with the kids, to hit in one day.

3. Atherton Tablelands

(One hour and 20 minutes drive from Cairns, via State Route 52)

  • Distance: 93 km
  • Time Needed: All Day

One of the best places to visit on a day trip from Cairns is the Atherton Tablelands.

Located just inland from Cairns, this picturesque region offers a refreshing escape into lush rainforests, rolling hills, and pristine waterfalls. On the way there, the road winds through scenic countryside, offering breathtaking views of rolling hills, fertile farmland, and dramatic waterfalls.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands is known for its stunning crater lakes, including Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham. These ancient volcanic lakes provide opportunities for swimming, kayaking, or simply enjoying a picnic by the tranquil waters.

If you love nature, you will be captivated by the region’s diverse wildlife and vibrant rainforest, particularly the opportunity to explore the Wooroonooran National Park. There, you will be able to hike through dense foliage, spot unique bird species, and even encounter elusive tree kangaroos.

The Atherton Tablelands also boast a rich agricultural heritage. So, why not take the time to visit local farm gates and indulge in a farm-to-table experience, sampling delicious tropical fruits, dairy products, and gourmet delicacies? 

4. Barron Falls

(40 minutes drive from Cairns via National Route 1)

  • Distance: 31 km
  • Time Needed: 2 -3 hours

Located within the Barron Gorge National Park, just a short drive from Cairns, Barron Falls is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Australia.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Barron Falls

You will hear a thunderous roar of cascading water plunging down a steep granite gorge well before you see it; such is its incredible power.

The falls are awe-inspiring during the wet season when the surrounding rainforest is lush and vibrant. The sight of the water tumbling over the rugged cliffs will take your breath away.

Several viewing platforms and walking trails allow you to admire the falls from different angles. Be sure to head to The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway for some of the most spectacular perspectives of it.

Beyond the falls, the Barron Gorge National Park offers opportunities for exploration and discovery. You can hike along the walking trails to immerse yourself in the ancient rainforest, home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. While doing this, watch for colourful birds, butterflies, and even the elusive cassowary.

5. Kirrama Range Road

(3 hour drive away via Bruce Highway/A1)

  • Distance: 204 km
  • Time Needed: 1 day/overnight

For a real off-the-beaten-path road trip Queensland experience, head to the Kirrama Range Road.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Blencoe Falls

It will take you three hours to drive there, and you’ll need a 4×4 because the road is mainly unsealed. But once you reach it, you will be treated to a scenic drive that winds through the Kirrama Range, offering breathtaking views, diverse ecosystems, and the chance to connect with nature.

The drive is renowned for its rugged beauty, with sections of rainforest, towering mountains, and cascading waterfalls dotting the landscape. Watch for wildlife such as wallabies, cassowaries, and several bird species.

One of the highlights of Kirrama Range Road is Blencoe Falls, a spectacular waterfall that plunges over 90 metres into a gorge below. A short hike from the road leads to viewing platforms where you can admire the sheer power and beauty of the falls.

As you continue along the road, you’ll pass through the Kirrama National Park, which offers bushwalking, camping, and birdwatching opportunities, with several trails leading to stunning lookouts and natural swimming holes.

6. Palm Cove

(25-minute drive from Cairns via Captain Cook Highway/Route 44)

  • Distance: 25 km 
  • Time Needed: 2 – 4 hours

A visit to Palm Cove should be on any Cairns itinerary.

Just a short drive up the road, the main attraction of this picturesque beachside village is its stunning palm-fringed beach, boasting pristine white sand and crystal-clear waters.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Palm Cove

It’s the ideal place to unwind, soak up the sun, and take refreshing dips in the ocean. The palm-lined esplanade offers a delightful promenade for leisurely walks, lined with boutique shops, cafes, and award-winning restaurants.

Nu Nu’s provides a lush beachfront setting with an outside deck that looks directly out to the palm trees and the ocean. Illuminated by fairy lights at night, it is a beautiful place to dine.

For those seeking relaxation and rejuvenation, Palm Cove is renowned for its luxurious day spas and wellness retreats, where you can indulge in rejuvenating treatments and therapies inspired by the natural surroundings.

There is also a lovely jetty you can fish off and several interesting boutique shops to peruse.

Pro Tip: The Palm Cove markets run on the first Sunday every month. It has an eclectic mix of arts, crafts, and food stalls and is a great way to mingle with locals.

7. Townsville

(4-hour drive from Cairns via Bruce Highway/A1)

  • Distance: 347 km
  • Time Needed: 1 – 2 Days

The longest of day trips from Cairns on this list, Townsville, is known as the ‘Capital of North Queensland.’ 

It is a vibrant coastal city, nestled between the Great Barrier Reef and the rugged Outback, and is somewhere you should ideally spend a couple of nights.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - The Strand

One of the main highlights of Townsville is The Strand, a beautiful waterfront promenade that stretches along the coastline. Here, you can enjoy a pleasant walk, relax on the golden beaches, and savour delicious meals at any of the several restaurants and cafes that line it.

Townsville is also home to fascinating cultural attractions, including the Museum of Tropical Queensland and the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium. These attractions provide insight into the region’s rich history, marine life, and indigenous heritage.

For history enthusiasts, visiting iconic Castle Hill is a must. This massive pink granite monolith offers panoramic views of the city, Magnetic Island, and the Coral Sea. You can reach its summit by foot or by car.

Pro Tip: Hotels in Townsville can be quite expensive. So consider staying somewhere a few kms out of the city, where the prices should be significantly cheaper.

8. Yungaburra

(70-minute drive from Cairns via Bruce Highway/A1)

  • Distance: 67 km 
  • Time Needed: 3 – 6 hours

Visiting Yungaburra is undoubtedly one of the best things to do near Cairns.

Located on the Atherton Tablelands, this charming village is surrounded by lush rainforest and serene lakes, making it a pleasant place to spend a few hours. 

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Lake Tinaroo

One of the main drawcards of Yungaburra is its heritage-listed buildings, many of which house fascinating local galleries or funky cafes. The historic Yungaburra Hotel is also popular for drinks, a meal and live entertainment.

Not far from the town centre, Lake Tinaroo is a large man-made lake that offers opportunities for fishing, boating, and picnicking amidst breathtaking scenery. The nearby Curtain Fig Tree is also a must-visit site, showcasing a fascinating example of nature’s architecture.

For a really cool experience, head to Peterson Creek, where you can spot a platypus in the wetlands of Hasties Swamp.

9. Etty Bay

(80-minute drive from Cairns via Bruce Highway/A1)

  • Distance: 100 km
  • Time Needed: All Day

Tucked away along the Cassowary Coast, Etty Bay is a secluded beach known for its pristine beauty and calm waters.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Etty Bay

Etty Bay is famous for its resident cassowaries, often spotted roaming freely along the shoreline. It offers a unique opportunity to observe these magnificent birds up close in their natural habitat. (However, it’s important to maintain a respectful distance and not feed or approach them).

The beach is a tropical haven with soft golden sands, clear turquoise waters, and lush rainforest fringes. It’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, or simply relaxing under the shade of palm trees.

Part of the stunning Wooroonooran National Park, you can also venture along the walking trails whilst here to explore the rich rainforest biodiversity. 

Etty Bay also has picnic areas and a caravan park, making it an excellent spot for a family day out or a peaceful camping retreat, should you want to stop overnight.

Pro Tip: If you plan to camp here, make a reservation in advance of your visit. It can be a popular destination for campers, especially in summer. So you will want to avoid inconvenience and disappointment.

10. Herberton

(90 minutes via State Route 52)

  • Distance: 96 km
  • Time Needed: 3 – 6 hours

Also in the Atherton Tablelands, Herberton is a quaint historic town that is known for its well-preserved streetscape, incorporating over 50 heritage-listed buildings.

AU Best Cairns Road Trips - Dinner Falls

You’ll be captivated by them as you stroll along the town’s beautiful, tree-lined main street. Be sure to visit the Herberton Historic Village, a living museum that provides a fascinating insight into the area’s pioneering history, with restored buildings, vintage machinery, and several interactive exhibits.

A visit to Herberton wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the famous Herberton Roadhouse. If you are hungry, you can indulge in homemade pies, treats, and hearty country meals that satisfy any appetite.

Slightly out of town, the nearby Herberton Range National Park offers picturesque walking trails and scenic lookouts. There you can explore the rainforest, spot wildlife, and enjoy the serenity of this natural oasis.

At Dinner Falls, you’ll be able to cool off from the intense heat and humidity with a swim in its plunge pool.

We hope you’ve found some inspiration amongst this selection of great road trips in far North Queensland to keep you busy during a family trip to Cairns and Far North Queensland, truly one of the world’s most beautiful and captivating destinations.

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