Buckle up your seatbelts as this guide shares all the must-see places, the best activities and practical advice for a North Queensland road trip.
The towns and cities in Tropical North Queensland are bucket list destinations for many, with the opportunity to witness lush rainforests, spectacular waterfalls, sublime beaches, and remarkable natural beauty in not one, but two World Heritage-listed sites.
As the second-largest state in Australia, there is a lot to discover in Queensland. Often the hardest decision when planning your North Queensland road trip itinerary is choosing the places to visit as many interlacing roads connect you with dreamy locations.
Within this guide, you will find places to stop from Townsville to Cooktown, practical information you will need on a road trip, sights to see and activities you won’t want to miss. I have also included a FREE map to help plan your trip.
Continue reading to find out all this and more.
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Featured Image: Great Barrier Reef Drive © Tourism and Events Queensland
Far North Queensland Itinerary
Townsville to Cooktown Distance: 649 km (one way)
How: Car or Van (4WD required in some areas)
Where: Townsville to Cooktown
Date: All year round
What to Expect
Driving from Townsville to Cooktown can be broken up into three road trips. The Great Green Way is between Townsville and Cairns and where you’ll discover many national parks, stunning beaches, incredible waterfalls (including the tallest in Queensland), natural rock pools, and fascinating tourist attractions, including a castle!
The next part of your journey is The Great Barrier Reef Drive, which covers 140 kilometres (one way) between Cairns and Cape Tribulation. One of the prettiest drives in Queensland, and where you will find popular beachside towns, including Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Explore the coastline, take a day trip to the outer reef, visit the Whitsundays Islands, or detour inland to explore the unspoilt countryside, and mountainous rainforests.
The final leg of the road trip is from Cape Tribulation to Cooktown on the Bloomfield Track. This scenic drive is nestled between ancient rainforest and a pristine coastline. It is also a stretch of road that won’t be for everyone as it requires a 4WD. I have been told the breathtaking scenery is worth the drive, but always check the road conditions before venturing out as it is subject to fallen trees, flooding, and potholes.
Note: The cities and towns along both these stretches of road are big on traveller experiences. To save you money and time I have included in this guide links to all the top-rated tours.
How Long Do I need for a Queensland Self-Drive Trip?
When looking at a map, the distance from Townsville to Cooktown can be quite deceiving, and this drive is not something you would want to accomplish in a few days. Savour the journey and soak up the very best of the region’s highlights.
The below North Queensland itinerary was created to offer insights into destinations that are situated along this part of the Queensland coast. A recommendation if you are returning on the same route is to stop at the places you missed when travelling north. Alternatively, take some of the detours I mention below or take another popular road trip through the Queensland Outback.
Far North Queensland Road Trip – Campervan or Car
If you don’t have a form of transportation for this trip, or if you want to experience a taste of the vanning life, hire a car or campervan. For car hire Inspire Family Travel recommends East Coast Car Rentals as they are one of the largest and leading independent car hire providers in Australia.
We have always had a positive experience using this provider for our travel adventures. They are a well-trusted brand and a Product Review award winner.
If you are hiring a campervan, download the Wikicamps Australia app to find caravan parks and camping locations along the route.
Pro Tip: Always book your car in advance as this is the best way to avoid disappointment, and save you time and money. Find the best deals for East Coast Car Rentals here.
Northern Queensland Road Trip Times
To appreciate the length of these road trips, the distance from Townsville to Cairns (alone) is 347 km’s and takes approximately 4.5 hours.
Those figures do not take into account activities, overnight stops, or sightseeing along the way. As I mentioned above I suggest breaking up the drive by exploring different destinations.
As a practical guide, I have mapped out the times and distances between each of the recommended places as a guide.
- Townsville to Ingham: 111 km | 1 hr 24 min
- Ingham to Mission Beach: 123 km | 1 hr 26 min
- Mission Beach to Innisfail: 52 km | 40 min
- Innisfail to Babinda: 30 km | 23 min
- Babinda to Cairns: 60 km | 50 min
- Cairns to Port Douglas: 67 km | 1 hr
- Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation: 84 km | 1 hr 46 min
- Cape Tribulation to Cooktown: 102 km | 2 hr
Tropical North Queensland Map
Map out your adventure along the three road journeys using the below resource that has been created if you are taking a QLD road trip.
Click this link to download a quick road trip guide and interactive map. Included in the Google map are highlights of what not to miss at the destinations, along with optional detours and day trips along the way.
When starting to plan things to do in far North Queensland, you will notice there are many places to visit, activities to enjoy and sights to see. If you have the flexibility to travel at a slower pace, you may choose to stop at many of the locations on this list. If you are short on time, use the information provided to assist in selecting the destinations that stand out the most, and add the others to your bucket list for a future far north Queensland holiday.
Tip: Always check the road conditions before embarking on your journey.
Stop 1: Townsville
The Great Green Way road trip starts in Townsville.
A place where the sun is shining most of the year Townsville is at the centre of North Queensland’s spectacular natural attractions – waterfalls, rainforests, islands and the Great Barrier Reef.
The 2.5-kilometre beachfront promenade known as The Strand was purpose-built with enjoyment in mind. Take advantage of the playgrounds, walking and bike paths, picnic areas and free water park. Enjoy a meal at a local café and finish off with gelato while sitting under the shady palm trees.
Depending on how adventurous you feel drive or hike up to Castle Hill lookout for a 360-degree view over Townsville and across to Magnetic Island. For a closer look at the beautiful Magnetic Island jump on a ferry and in just 20 minutes you can be exploring sublime beaches and eucalypt forests.
Stop 2: Ingham
If you are searching for some European culture on your road trip, then stop off in Ingham. Affectionately referred to as “Little Italy” due to more than half the population being of Italian descent. As the heart of the sugar cane industry, many Italian migrants came to work in Ingham, which now has one of the largest sugar mills in Australia.
Whilst in Ingham visit the unique 90-hectare natural TYTO Wetlands. Home to over 245 different bird species, native Australian wildlife and an abundance of tropical plants. The area is easy to explore on foot with four kilometres of walkways with lookouts to stop at along the way. Visit the wetlands at dusk to spot the endangered eastern grass owl, which the TYTO wetlands were named after.
An event that supports the economic diversity within the community which has been celebrated for over 25 years is the annual Australian Italian Festival. Italian food, world-class entertainment, market stalls, and free amusement rides are some of what you may discover at this authentic cultural event.
Just a short 52 kilometres drive southwest of Ingham inGirringun National Park is where you can find Australia’s highest permanent single drop waterfall at an extraordinary 268 metres – Wallaman Falls. The landscape changes from open farmland to tropical rainforest as you travel up the windy mountain road to the falls. Keep an eye out for the endangered southern cassowaries that wander the sides of the road. There are two vantage points to admire the falls from when you arrive. The main lookout is a hop skip and jump from Wallaman Falls car park and where you can gain that birds-eye perspective of this awe-inspiring spectacle. For a closer look hike through the open forest on the 3.2-kilometre track down to the base of the falls.
Tip: The hike down to the base of the falls is a steep 228-metre descent, and what goes down must come up!
A trip to Wallaman falls can easily be turned into a day outing by packing a picnic to have in the day-use area near the main lookout and there are also shorter walking tracks in the area to enjoy.
Where to Stay at Ingham
While 30 km’s up the road along the Cassowary Coast is Hinchinbrook Marine Cove Resort. The four-star motel offers waterfront accommodation and is highly popular with families.
Travelling north towards Cardwell you may want to consider visiting these wonders of nature:
If you love the outdoors and adventure, but not crowds then the pristine Hinchinbrook Island is the ideal place to visit with only 40 people permitted to stay at any one time to prevent damage to the island’s biodiversity. The island has four walking tracks from easy to the more adventurous, including the famous 32-kilometre Thorsborne Trail. Hinchinbrook Island is a nature lovers paradise with a plethora of plant and tree species, a variety of mangroves, and many bird and butterfly species, such as the brilliant blue Ulysses butterfly.
Practical Information: There is a ferry company in Cardwell that conducts day trips to Hinchinbrook Island.
The Cardwell Spa Pool
Social media can be thanked for this relatively unknown swimming location becoming one of the must-visit destinations in Tropical North Queensland. Another natural delight and a geological wonder around these parts. The pools are located in the town of Cardwell and are a magnificent blue colour due to the water running underground picking up minerals from the sedimentary rocks along the way before flowing into the creek.
Tip: As the pools depth changes depending on the season, it is best to check with the Cardwell Visitor and Heritage Centre to check the water levels. It is also important to note there are no toilet facilities or bins in the area. Enjoy the area, but only leave footprints.
Another top natural attraction (in fact the top thing to do in Cardwell per TripAdvisor) and sublime swimming area great for families is found 41 kilometres north-west of Cardwell. Murray Falls is located in the picturesque foothills of the Kirrama Range, where lush mountain ranges meet tropical lowlands. It is here where the waters of the Murray River flow over boulders into the pools below. There are two marked swimming zones, or just take in the beauty of the permanent waterfall via the viewing platforms.
Adjacent to the falls is a grassed camping area, public toilets and picnic tables.
Stop 3: Mission Beach
Travelling north of Townsville you will pass fruit plantations, sugar cane farms & coastal towns. Mission Beach is one of those coastal gems people visit to enjoy either some R&R or adventure activities surrounded by a pristine tropical paradise.
The jewel on the crown would be the golden beach that stretches for more than 14 kilometres linking the sleepy coastal villages in the area.
With Mission Beach being located between the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics there is natural beauty around every corner.
Treck the 4 kilometre round trip to Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park and be rewarded with incredible views at the summit lookout. If this is more energy than you want to exert take a stroll along Kennedy Walking Track. A 4 kilometre (one way) path where lush green rainforests meet beaches and rocky headlands. Take in the vistas of the Family Group of Islands and keep an eye out for cassowaries and wallabies on land and turtles, dolphins and dugongs swimming in the turquoise seas.
To see the sights on two wheels hire a bike from Mission Beach bike hire and opt for either a rainforest trail through licuala palm forests or venture down to South Mission Beach by either hitting the pavement or soft sand at low tide.
If you are ticking quintessential Queensland Islands off your bucket list then Mission Beach is the best hub for a day trip to Dunk Island. Catch the Mission Beach water taxi and enjoy the walking trails and impressive scenery.
Stay: There are many options for accommodation at Mission Beach. Click here to find the best deals and check reviews.
Stop 4: Innisfail
70 kilometres south of Cairns, sitting at the junction of the Johnstone and South Johnstone Rivers is the rural town of Innisfail. The agricultural township of Innisfail is the Cassowary Coast’s biggest town and the banana and sugar plantations are the major economic driver. Tourism is a growth industry due to the town’s proximity to the World Heritage Area’s and beautiful natural attractions.
Within Innisfail, it is worth taking a self-walking tour of the town. Full of history, Innisfail has one of the best collections of art deco buildings in Australia which were built after the devasting cyclone in 1918 destroyed most of the town.
For a wildlife experience along with an opportunity to learn more about the history and biodiversity of the Innisfail area, board a custom-built Catamaran and cruise along the Johnstone River with Snapping Tours. Enjoy beautiful scenery and spot crocodiles on the sandbanks or underneath the water.
Practical Information: Wildlife Tours operate on Thursday, Friday and Saturday only at 10:30 am from April to October
Only 20-minutes outside of Innisfail is the unique and breathtaking heritage-listed tourist attraction, Paronella Park. A Spanish immigrant from Catalonia named Jose Paronella was inspired by childhood memories and dreamt of building an impressive fantasy castle including a movie theatre and ballroom for the enjoyment of the public. Opening in 1935 this incredible structure has seen many natural disasters in its time, including floods, fires and cyclones. The new owners see the historic importance of the building and are preserving and maintaining the building and property which boasts over 7,000 plants. Spend the day wandering the grounds, learning about the fascinating history and pack a picnic or stop in at the on-site café for lunch, morning or afternoon tea.
Don’t miss out on visiting this enchanting place. Click here to buy your entry tickets
Another local attraction 30 minutes out of town isthe Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway in Wooroonooran National Park. This is a fabulous place to explore the wet tropics. There is just over one kilometre of walking tracks, a 350 metre long elevated walkway that hovers 15 metres above the ground, and a 37-metre observation tower that offers sweeping views over the homeland of the Mamu Aboriginal people.
Practical Information: Admission fees apply. Click here to purchase your tickets
Swapping green scenery for blue venture 12 minutes outside of Innisfail to the spectacular Etty Bay. Known as one of Tropical North Queensland’s most scenic and unspoilt beaches it is a stunning place where you can walk along a glorious stretch of golden beach with the rainforest on one side and the ocean on the other. Keep your eyes open for the southern cassowary who are well-known in this area.
Stay: There are several motels in Innisfail if you are searching for accommodation. Click here to find the best rates.
Don’t miss out on grabbing the free interactive map – the best North Queensland road trip planner
Before continuing onto Babinda, there are more magnificent attractions you may want to experience not far from Innisfail.
Milla Milla Falls
One of the most photographed waterfalls in all of Australia located 60 kilometres west of Innisfail
A spectacular waterfall in Tropical North Queensland and another place where you can enjoy a swim in the refreshing cool waters. Located 28 kilometres north-west of Innisfail.
Located 90 kilometres north-west of Innisfail in Crater Lakes National Park. Lake Eacham is a 65-metre deep lake that was once a volcanic crater that is now filled with water. The serene blue waters are now a popular swimming area. Other activities at Lake Eacham include bird watching, walking around the lake, kayaking and canoeing.
Stop 5: Babinda
Nestled about 65km south of Cairns is the little town of Babinda. You can’t pass on by Babinda without visiting the beautiful Babinda Boulders.
The cool, crystal clear waters flow down from Mt Bartle Frere, being Queensland’s tallest mountain. You’ll find different waterholes along the creek, which are spotted with huge boulders that have been shaped by the flowing waters. The main waterhole adjacent to the carpark is the best for kids as the water there is shallow and safe. Take an easy stroll along the boardwalk from the carpark to explore Devil’s Pools and the Aboriginal legend that goes along with it, further downstream.
Just 100 metres from the swimming hole is The Boulders Campground. There are fairly limited spots in this free camping area, with toilets and showers onsite. If you miss out on a campground there, just 10 minutes away on the other side of town is the Babinda Rotary Rest Area, where you can camp for up to three days for a donation. You’ll find lovely trees, a park, plus showers and toilets alongside a gorgeous running creek.
Tip: Beware that you’re in crocodile country, so swimming in the creek, although tempting, is not recommended! You are safe to swim further upstream at the Babinda Boulders though as there are no crocs up there.
Although Babinda is not huge, you could easily spend a few days in town relaxing and enjoying the natural surroundings and exploring the local gallery, eateries and other businesses. If you only have one day in Babinda, head straight to The Boulders, as that’s the main attraction not worth missing.
Contributed by Emma from MY RIG Adventures
Stop 6: Cairns
Cairns is the ultimate tropical holiday destination in North Queensland. It has an abundance of attractions and sights nearby making it perfect for a combined city and ocean break.
With everything from beaches to wildlife encounters, you will find plenty of things to do with kids in Cairns. From the world-class Cairns Aquarium, and Zoom Wildlife Dome, where you can soar over an indoor wildlife park on a zip line, to the free public swimming pool – Cairns Lagoon.
The Cairns Esplanade is always a hub of activity, with restaurants serving up the freshest seafood and tastiest cuisine from around the world.
Cairns is perfect for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors, with many options for day trips within an hour or two of the city. Having your own transport is the best way to experience this region and you’ll need at least four days!
A day trip to Green Island is a popular option to include in your Cairns itinerary, just 45 minutes by catamaran from Cairns Marina. It’s a great spot for taking kids snorkelling as the reef is right off the beach, with a lifeguard to supervise.
Catching the Kuranda Scenic Rail up the mountain is another experience you won’t want to miss when in Cairns. Take the cable car back down or in reverse so you can enjoy both on your visit to the rainforest village.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail is one of the most popular things to do in this area. Click here to book tickets as you will want to experience it for yourself!
Stay: The Shangri-La at the Marina is the perfect location, close to restaurants, The Esplanade, Lagoon, and of course, the Marina.
Contributed by Holly from Four Around The World
Stop 7: Port Douglas
Port Douglas sits in Northern Queensland beside the coral sea. Four Mile Beach is the most popular in the area and is considered one of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast of Australia. There are nets available in stinger season and the lifeguard patrolled area is towards the northern end of the beach.
For a fun way to spend an afternoon head to the Flagstaff Hill Trail. This quick 1.5-kilometre walk has stunning views of the Coral Sea and Low Isles. It also leads to Four Mile Beach so the two activities can be easily combined.
On Sunday mornings you should make a note to visit the Port Douglas Markets. Shop for local produce, souvenirs, and artisanal products. Kids will love exploring the different stalls and picking out things to buy.
Practical Information: The Port Douglas markets are open every Sunday from 8.00 am to 2.00 pm
Another fantastic activity to try in Port Douglas is river drift snorkelling on the Mossman River. Suitable for kids from 4 years this tour is a great family experience. See dozens of different species of fish, turtles and maybe a platypus if you’re lucky.
For an idyllic day trip head to Thala Beach Nature Reserve. They offer activities such as nature walks, star gazing tours, or experiences with local Aboriginal communities. You could even stay overnight at one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the world that are scattered throughout the rainforest canopies. They offer guests a magical opportunity to become well acquainted with the natural world of northern Queensland.
Contributed by Victoria from Guide Your Travel Blog
Have More Time?
While visiting Port Douglas add a trip to Daintree National Park and Mossman Gorge to your itinerary. With spell-binding natural beauty around every corner, you will leave with a new appreciation of mother nature. If you are searching for a tour to experience the Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation check out this one here!
Stop 8: Cape Tribulation
Known for its remote beaches, unique landscapes and the stunning rainforest in Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation is an amazing place to spend a couple of days. This is quite a remote part of the North Queensland coast and it is just under a 2-hour drive from Port Douglas, which includes crossing on the Daintree River Ferry. The road is sealed to Cape Tribulation but there is a 4-wheel drive track that continues to Cooktown.
Exploring the rainforests and beaches on one of the many short trails, like the Dubuji Boardwalk and Madja Botanical Walk, is one of the highlights of a trip here and can easily be done with kids. You can explore yourself or take a guided tour to learn about the diverse flora and fauna that exist in the area.
Several great swimming holes are safe to swim in, including Emmagen Creek and Mason’s Swimming Hole. You can also enjoy horseback rides, tours to the Great Barrier Reef, taste exotic tropical fruit on a farm tour at Cape Trib Farm.
Stay: An excellent place to stay is Cape Trib Beach House, surrounded by lush rainforest, which has large, air-conditioned rooms and a swimming pool to enjoy after a day out exploring with the family.
Cape Tribulation feels like a different world compared to many other places in Queensland, and the tropical rainforest is a fantastic place to explore for a couple of days.
Contributed by Luke from Wild About BC
Stop 9: Cooktown
Cooktown sits at the mouth of the beautiful Endeavour River. Both town and river are named for the historic moment when Captain James Cook beached his ship (the Endeavour) onto the beach for repairs in 1770.
With that being said, one of the very best things you can do in Cooktown is to visit the James Cook Museum. This wonderful old building is chock full of interesting facts and memorabilia from the past few hundred years, including a very fun treasure hunt for children – including a small prize at the end! $40 for a family ticket is money well spent.
The Botanical Gardens are well worth a visit – it’s a pretty walk through the gardens, with a nice café for an iced coffee at the end.
From here you can also access a short hike to stunning Finch Bay, or a slightly longer, harder hike to Cherry Tree Bay.
Finish your day with an epic sunset at Grassy Hill Lookout. This lookout offers you 360-degree views of Cooktown, the harbour, the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef out at sea. It truly is spectacular.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can day trip to Elim Beach, stopping in for a refreshing (and safe) swim at Isabella Falls on the way. Elim Beach is owned by a local Aboriginal man (entry fees apply) and boasts many fun 4WD tracks, coloured sand cliffs, turquoise waters. It is also home to a world-renowned kite surfing spot.
Contributed by Joanna Rogers from Dont Wanna Go Home
Stay Safe When Travelling in North Queensland
Marine stingers are prevalent in tropical waters of North Queensland generally from November to May. The tropical north is also crocodile country and they can live in the oceans, streams, rivers and lagoons.
Some safety tips:
- Always follow the warning signs and only swim where you know it is safe.
- Listen to the lifeguards and swim in the net enclosures during stinger season.
- There is magnificent wildlife in Queensland including everything from feathered to furry and scaled. Some wildlife can be aggressive, so remember this before getting too close.
I hope you enjoyed the above guide! If you need further assistance with planning your Queensland holiday, make sure to check out our other articles as well. Below are some of our travel guides for North Queensland.
- 9 Top Cairns Family Accommodation Options to Suit All Budgets
- The Perfect Cairns Itinerary (Ultimate Guide for 5 – 7 Days in Cairns)
- The Ultimate List of Things to do in Palm Cove with Kids
- The Top Planning Tips for a Kuranda Day Trip
- The Most Amazing Stops on a Brisbane to Townsville Road Trip
Do you have a question about Far North Queensland? Have I missed any places that should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
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