Incredible Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip

How does embarking on a road trip to see the lush rainforests, pristine coastlines, and untamed wonders of Tropical North Queensland sound? 

The Cairns to Cape Tribulation route promises an unforgettable adventure through some of Australia‘s most jaw-dropping landscapes. As you traverse this iconic stretch of coastline, you will immerse yourself in a tapestry of diverse ecosystems, cultural heritage, and an endless array of natural marvels. 

From the vibrant cityscape of Cairns to the remote wilderness of Cape Tribulation, this road trip offers a kaleidoscope of experiences that will leave you spellbound. 

So, get your travel planning app ready to make some notes as we take you on an odyssey filled with discovery, wonder, and unbridled excitement. All set? Let’s go to Cape Tribulation from Cairns!

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  • Flooding caused by Tropical Cyclone Jasper in December 2023 may impact some of the suggested attractions and roads we have mentioned in this post. Please check the current situation with the Queensland Department of Traffic & Main Roads.

What is the Distance Between Cairns and Cape Tribulation?

Overall, the distance between the two destinations is approximately 140 km, and for most people, it involves traveling north along the Captain Cook Highway and Cape Tribulation Road. Doing this showcases incredible views of tropical beaches and the sparkling coastline.

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Cairns to Palm Cove25 kms (16 miles)25 minutesPalm Cove
Palm Cove to Port Douglas42 kms (28 miles)40 minutesPort Douglas
Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge22 kms (14 miles)20 minutes
Mossman Gorge to Daintree Ferry33 kms (20 miles)25 minutes
Daintree Ferry to Daintree Village35 kms (22 miles)17 minutesDaintree
Daintree Village to Cape Tribulation18 kms (11 miles)25 minutesCape Tribulation
Estimates only; times will vary based on traffic and road conditions

As an alternative, however, you might wish to detour inland along National Route 1. The journey will take you out past the Kuranda State Forest to Mareeba, up past Biboohra, Southedge, and Julatten towards Mowbray National Park, which will eventually take you out to Mossman. 

Doing it will add about an hour of transit time. But you will see some incredible hinterland scenery and be able to visit quaint small towns and significant indigenous sites.

How Long is the Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation?

The drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation on a Far North Queensland road trip will take about 2.5 hours without stopping.

When planning your Cape Tribulation itinerary, be aware you can easily visit it on a self-drive day trip from Cairns. However, if this is likely to be the only time you will see this part of Australia, we recommend you spend at least 2-3 days completing this drive and stay in the Daintree.

There is so much to see and do in this part of Tropical Far North Queensland; the best way is to take your time immersing yourself in it.

Ideally, the more time you can devote to doing it, the better, but if you can set aside 2 – 3 days to complete it, you will get an excellent insight into what makes the region so unique and special.

  • Be aware that to get to Cape Tribulation, you must catch a short 5-minute Daintree River Ferry across the water. The ferry can take 30 cars at a time and runs daily 6:00 AM to midnight. It’s important to note that the ferry cannot operate at extremely low tides or in extreme weather conditions, so factor in any potential delays for the ferry crossing when planning your trip into the Daintree.

Best Time of Year to Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation

The best time of year to engage in a Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip is during the dry season, typically from April to November. This period offers the most favourable weather conditions and the least chance of encountering heavy rainfall or cyclones, making it the ideal time for a comfortable and enjoyable road trip.

During the dry season, you can expect milder temperatures with warm, sunny days and cooler nights, creating pleasant driving conditions. The humidity is lower, relieving the oppressive heat and making outdoor activities more enjoyable. Additionally, the reduced rainfall means that roads from Cairns to Cape Trib are generally in better condition, making the journey smoother and safer.

Exploring the lush rainforests and pristine beaches of Cape Tribulation is more rewarding during the dry season, as the clear skies and drier weather allow for better visibility of the stunning landscapes and wildlife. The Great Barrier Reef, which you can access from Cairns, also offers exceptional diving and snorkeling opportunities during this time, with excellent underwater visibility.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Cape Tribulation

Remember that the period between June and August is considered the peak tourist season in this region. While this means more tourists and fellow travelers and potentially higher accommodation prices, it also indicates that the area is bustling with vibrant events, festivals, and an array of attractions to enhance your road trip experience.

If you want to avoid the crowds and secure more budget-friendly options, consider planning your road trip during the shoulder months of April – May and September – November. These months still offer pleasant weather and slightly fewer tourists.

In contrast, the wet season, from December to March, can be challenging for a road trip. Heavy rains, flooding, and the possibility of tropical cyclones can disrupt travel plans and make some roads impassable.

While the rainforest scenery is undoubtedly more lush during this time, it’s essential to exercise caution and check weather conditions and road closures before embarking on the journey during the wet season.

Places to Stay: Near Cape Trib

Best Stops on a Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip

Undertaking an unforgettable road trip from Cairns to Cape Tribulation opens a world of natural wonders. As you traverse this iconic route along the northeastern coast of Australia, a myriad of captivating stops await you. 

From the vibrant city of Cairns to the remote beauty of Cape Tribulation, the journey throws up some fabulous areas of outstanding natural beauty and fascinating attractions.

Here are some of the best places to pencil in on your Cairns to Cape Tribulation self-drive itinerary.

Palm Cove 

Palm Cove is a dreamy beachside village about a 30-minute drive from Cairns.

Once there, the kids will enjoy swimming in the gentle, palm-fringed waves of the Coral Sea or building sandcastles on the soft, golden sands. The calm, patrolled beach ensures a safe environment for swimming and splashing.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Palm Cove

Alternatively, stroll along the picturesque esplanade, lined with top-notch cafes and restaurants, including the award-winning Nu Nu’s and the popular Portofino. You can even treat the family to a night or two at one of the upscale resorts like the Pullman or Peppers Beach Club.

Take a Great Barrier Reef Drive to embark on a snorkeling or glass-bottom boat tour to see vibrant marine life for a thrilling adventure.

Port Douglas 

As you drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas, you’ll be amazed by the breathtaking views of the turquoise sea and the emerald rainforest. The 40-minute drive is sure to be a highlight of your road trip, arguably one of the most beautiful coastal stretches in Australia.

Remember to stop and take photos at the picture-perfect beaches and visit Rex Lookout for panoramic views of the coastline and Double Island.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Port Douglas

Once you arrive in Port Douglas, prepare to be enchanted by its stunning beaches. For a bird’s-eye view of Four Mile Beach and Cairns, head to Flagstaff Hill. You can reach the lookout by car or take the Flagstaff Hill Trail, which winds along the craggy coastline through the verdant jungle canopy.

If your visit falls on a Sunday, you can explore the Port Douglas Markets in ANZAC Park by the ocean. Alternatively, rent some bikes and ride along Four Mile Beach, taking in the salty sea air.

Port Douglas offers plenty of family-friendly accommodations with excellent amenities. There are also several restaurants and cafes catering to various cuisines and budgets. Staying in Port Douglas makes an excellent alternative to Cairns for many Far North Queensland visitors who love this small town’s relaxed pace.

Mossman Gorge

Without making any stops, the drive from Cairns to the gateway to the Daintree Forest takes a little over an hour. Once there, one of the first things you should do is visit the Mossman Gorge.

Its granite boulders and sandy banks make it the perfect place to cool off. And after your swim, why not go on a fascinating Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk with the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners?

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Daintree National Park

This fantastic tour is a terrific way for kids to learn about lore and stories relating to Creation. You’ll visit important cultural sites, picturesque rainforest streams, and humpies  – traditional shelters made of bark or branches.

In the indigenous Kuku Yalanji language, the word Ngadiku translates to ‘stories and legends from a long time ago’. This is exactly what you’ll experience on these tours.

Into the Daintree

The Daintree Rainforest is hundreds of millions of years old and is the oldest living tropical rainforest in the world. Take a fascinating Daintree Forest self-drive tour to see the best of what the region has to offer. Nature lovers, in particular, will enjoy seeing gorgeous Ulysses butterflies, Boyd’s Rainforest Dragons, and stunning spurwood trees. 

Stop in at the Daintree Discovery Centre to learn more about the world’s oldest rainforest, from forest floor to canopy top. With a guided audio tour, you will follow a series of boardwalks and aerial walkways leading to the Rainforest Canopy Tower for a bird’s eye view of the rainforest.

children walking on the aerial walkway at the Daintree discovery Centre in far north queensland

For those looking for even more adventure, head to the Daintree River. Just 39 kilometers from Mossman Gorge, you can take an hour-long Wildlife and Crocodile Cruise. Keep your eyes peeled for giant saltwater crocodiles, birds, frogs, and green tree snakes in their natural habitat

(NB, the town of Daintree sees you south of the river; a good option for Cairns day trippers who do not want to travel as far as Cape Tribulation and cross on the ferry.)

A crocodile found on a Daintree river cruise in Queensland

Cape Tribulation Tours

Although the roads are largely sealed and well marked if you’d prefer to have someone else do the driving and get some first-hand commentary as you go, many tour companies are operating out of Cairns that can provide not only guided tours but extreme adventure trips into the Daintree.

Driving Beyond Cape Tribulation

Driving beyond Cape Tribulation to Cooktown and further is a remarkable extension of your adventure, taking you through some of Australia’s most remote and pristine landscapes. Here’s what you can expect on this scenic journey:

  • If you are renting a car for this trip, check how far north you are permitted to drive; some rental companies will not cover your journey on the unsealed roads beyond Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation to Cooktown

After leaving Cape Tribulation, the road becomes more rugged and adventurous as you head northward along the famous Bloomfield Track. This off-road track winds its way through the heart of the Daintree Rainforest, offering breathtaking views of dense jungle, river crossings, and occasional glimpses of the Coral Sea.

The track requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and checking the road conditions before attempting this route is essential. Upon reaching Cooktown, you’ll find a charming small town with a rich history dating back to Captain James Cook’s visit in 1770.

Cooktown

Take some time to explore Cooktown’s historical sites, including the James Cook Museum, which houses a collection of artifacts from the famous explorer’s time here. The town is also surrounded by natural beauty, with nearby national parks, waterfalls, and the scenic Endeavour River.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Endeavour River

Battle Camp Road

For those seeking an even more adventurous route, consider taking the Battle Camp Road from Cooktown to Laura. This rugged track cuts through remote wilderness, crossing rivers and providing access to some stunning camping spots. Again, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential for this route, and it’s recommended only for experienced off-road drivers.

Laura and Quinkan Country

If you take the Battle Camp Road, you’ll arrive in Laura, renowned for its Quinkan rock art sites. These ancient Aboriginal rock art galleries provide a glimpse into Indigenous history and culture, dating back thousands of years.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Laura

From Cooktown or Laura, you can continue your journey further north along the Cape York Peninsula. This area is remote and rugged, with limited services and facilities, so being well-prepared and self-sufficient for an extended outback adventure is crucial.

Cape York Peninsula

The Cape York Peninsula offers an authentic Australian outback experience, with vast savannahs, unique wildlife, and cultural encounters with Indigenous communities. Attractions like the iconic Tip of Australia (Cape York), the remote Pajinka Wilderness Lodge, and the unforgettable Old Telegraph Track await the intrepid traveler.

AU Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip - Tip of Australia

Return Journey

Remember that the return journey from Cape York to Cairns is a considerable distance of around 680 km, which will take about 3-4 days to complete. Planning accordingly with enough time and resources for the drive back is advisable.

More Tips for Road Tripping Cairns to Cape Tribulation

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  • Take plenty of water and hydrolates on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip, especially in summer. Temperatures often exceed 35°C (95°F), making it very easy to dehydrate.
  • While driving to Cape Tribulation from Cairns, wear sunscreen at all times, even in the car. The sun’s rays are so intense you can get sunburnt through your windscreen or side windows.
  • Be sure to check the service times of the Daintree River Ferry over to Cape Tribulation. It varies depending on the weather and season, so be mindful not to get caught out (heading north, avoid mid-morning through midday, and heading south, avoid mid-afternoon to around 5:00 pm when queues are longest)
  • Once you cross over the Daintree River into Cape Tribulation, petrol stations can be few and far between. So fill up your tank before leaving Cairns and top up before Port Douglas or Mossman if necessary.
  • Mobile phone reception is also patchy in the Daintree once you cross the river. You will get a little in Daintree Village and along the Cape Trib road until Thorntons Beach; beyond that, expect no signal from Telstra or Optus.
  • DO NOT swim in any of the tropical beaches or pristine waterways unless lifeguards patrol them. Far North Queensland is full of saltwater crocodiles, so swimming on unpatrolled beaches is not advisable, especially if you go into the water alone with no one else around. 
  • You should ALWAYS only swim on beaches with designated stinger nets that lifeguards patrol. Marine stingers like box jellyfish and Irukandji are in the waters for much of the year and can kill you.
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Further Aussie Driving Itineraries

If you’d like to extend your trip either along the east coast or top end of Australia, you may also like to read next:

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