Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip | The perfect Great Barrier Reef Drive

The Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip also known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive runs along the coast from Cairns to Cape Tribulation on the Captain Cook Highway.

The coastal Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, located in Tropical North Queensland, has often been touted as one of the most beautiful drives in Australia.

Cairns is the capital of Adventure in Far North Queensland and Cape Trib is a unique place where two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the famous Great Barrier Reef and the wild Daintree Rainforest.

This article contains information on how to complete a Cairns to Cape Tribulation self-drive, including what to see along the way, the top highlights that cannot be missed, important information on driving from Cairns to Cape Tribulation as well as some fantastic tours from Cairns to Cape Tribulation incase you would rather someone else do the driving while you sit back and enjoy the stunning views.

If you are looking for a Great Australian Adventure that is still easily accessible by everyone then driving from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is the adventure for you.

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Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive: The Essentials

As with all good road trips there are few things you need to know before you hit the road. How long the trip will take, where to hire a car, when to go and which direction offers the best views.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered below! If you have any questions that aren’t covered here let me know in the comments below or feel free to send me an email.

The best time to Visit Cape Tribulation

Far North Queensland is located on at the tip of the East Coast of Australia and has a very tropical climate. This means in the summer months, it is very hot, wet and humid …. think getting out of the shower and feeling as though you need another shower straight away.

Summer is Australia is between December and March, and most Aussies head south for this time to avoid the tropic climate. However, in the winter months (June/July/August) Tropical North Queensland is a very popular place as the weather is still warm and the sun is out most days but it is not as humid in the summer.

If you want to avoid the humid weather and the hoards of tourists that flock to Cairns and Cape Trib, I suggest planning a trip in May or September.

Hiring a car in Cairns

One of the best ways to see the Great Barrier Reef Drive is to self-drive and hire your own car. During peak season (May-September) cars are hot property and are hired well in advance. Whilst, you can hire a car on the day they tend to be quite expensive and you might not be able to hire you want.

As with most capital cities there are plenty of options when it comes to hiring a car there are plenty of options.

If you would like the option to compare prices among a different range of companies check out price comparison sites such as Kayak, Europcars and Rentalcars.com. Depending on are already staying in Cairns City Center or you are picking up a car from the airport you will be able to bring up hire options for both.

Keep in mind, the cheaper car hire options are usually a little further out of the city or from the airport so it is worth enquiring if they have a shuttle bus.

We decided to hire our car from Jucy as we were travelling on a budget and it is worth keeping in mind you get what you pay for. We were quite happy with our hire experience but we were required to clean the car before returning it and I suggest you to take a Bluetooth speaker to ensure you have access to music on your road trip.

Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive Time

The drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is relatively easy (until you cross the Daintree River) and is not overly long. Without stopping you will be able to travel from Cairns to Cape Trib in around 2 hours and 40 minutes.

However, like with most road trips the Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip has many spots to stop along the way. It took us most of the day and we still didn’t see everything we wanted to see on the way and we needed to stop on the way back to make sure we had ticked all of our items off our Tropical North Queensland bucket list.

A day trip or Overnight?

If you are short on time you can easily do the drive in a day. If you limit your stops you can make it to Cape Tribulation and back in day. If you plan on staying in Cape Tribulation, you will comfortably be able to fit most things on this road trip itinerary in one full day assuming you leave from Cairns around 8am.

However, if you would like to take your time at each spot and see everything on the list below, I suggest staying along the away and taking two days to complete the trip.

As you go through the itinerary below you will find some of my top recommendations of places to stay.

Cairns to Cape Tribulation Itinerary

Finally, we have made it to the part you have all come here for, the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive Itinerary, or if you’d prefer the highlights of the Great Barrier Reef Drive. You are in for a treat with this drive and I don’t think any Australian Bucket list would complete without this drive.

Let’s jump into it

Palm Cove

A path running through two rows of palm trees next to a beach

Palm Cove has a real beach town feel about it but it is actually a suburb of Cairns. There are plenty of things to do in Palm Cove and you could easily spend half a day here but I recommend stopping in for a walk along the beach and breakfast at Espresso & Co. If you get a table at the front you will have a beautiful view of the beach as you eat your breakfast.

If you are planning on swimming at Palm Cove, make sure you do so between the flags as there are nets in the water to keep you safe from Jelly Fish.

Palm Cove also has some amazing Boutique shopping, a gorgeous rainforest walk to Clifton Beach and some amazing restaurants.

If you would like to stay in Palm Cove I recommend the following:

The Reef House is a luxury boutique hotel that looks over the Coral Sea. It is the perfect place to unwind and treat yourself for a night or two. You can relax in the adult’s only pool, participate in yoga and aqua aerobics or join in a cocktail making class. The Reef House also has a day spa where you can really treat yourself. Each guest is invited into the Brigadier’s lounge to enjoy complimentary drinks and canapés.

Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda

Paradise on the beach is a mid range hotel with sea view rooms. The room was equipped with a microwave, small fridge, crockery and some basic cooking utensils. However, to wash up after preparing food you need to use the sink in the bathroom.

The hotel has a beautiful pool and spa area which features an undercover BBQ area complete with all the utensils you will need to cook on the BBQ. If you are choosing to cook meals, I recommend meals that can be cooked on the BBQ as this is a much easier option than cooking in your room.

Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda

Ellis Beach

Not long after leaving Palm Cove you will come across Ellis Beach. The beach consists of 5km of golden sand and is absolutely stunning, it is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Cairns region.

I highly recommend a stop at Ellis Beach, even if its only for 5 minutes to enjoy the views. If you happen to have left Cairns very early in the morning you might even be able to enjoy sunrise, it is truly something to admire.

If you would like to stay the night you can stay at Ellis Beachfront Bungalows, the bungalows are located 1 minute from the beach and include a kitchenette and plenty of space for you to relax. (Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda)

Ellis beach also has an amazing bar/restaurant, patrolled beaches and stinger nets in the water during the dry season.

The Balancing Rocks

The Balancing Rocks are easy to miss but if you have the time, I suggest a quick pit stop to admire the piles of rocks that have been placed here by many travellers before you.

It is anybody’s guess as to how these rocks came to be here, who started or why it was started. There is no cultural or historical reasoning (that we know of) for the rocks but none-the-less it has made a pretty cool stop.

Jump out of the car and build your own Balancing pile or take some unique photos of other peoples rocks.

Wangetti Beach

Wangetti Beach is more of a local secret and a fairly remote beach. The beach runs four kilometers from Slip Cliff Point to Red Cliff Point. There are no facilities at the beach and the car parks are located at either end of the beach.

Pull off the highway and stop to take in the views of the almost straight coastline. If you have a little more time it is the perfect spot to stretch your legs and take a walk along the sand. The beach is stunning and practically untouched but has been naturally eroded which means you can enjoy the pebble stones that cover a section of the beach. For the best views of the beach stop by the lookout at the Northern end of the beach.

The Thala Resort Palm Tree Road

Whether you choose to stay at the Thala Beach Nature Reserve or not, you must make a stop here. I’m sure you’ve seen the stunning photographs on Instagram of the Palm Tree Road.

The Palm Trees are pretty spectacular as they are very symmetrical, whilst photos from the ground are lovely, if you have a drone you will want to get it out for some amazing shots above the trees.

There are big signs on the highway and the plantation is located just off the highway, so it is hard to miss.

If you have made it this far and you are looking for a place to stay to break up the drive, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is the perfect place. Who doesn’t love accommodation with a private beach?

Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda

Rex Lookout

A view over the ocean and rainforest at Rex Lookout, Far North Queensland

For one of the best views on the Great Barrier Reef Drive you must stop at Rex Lookout. There are plenty of signs that point to parking on both sides of the road, if you park on the opposite side of the road be careful crossing the highway.

Be prepared for one of those draw dropping moments, on a perfectly clear day the view is breathtaking. Looking out over the blue ocean and towards the rainforest. It truly is a moment to appreciate all that nature has to offer.

There is a large grassy area you can sit and enjoy the view and perhaps a picnic if you plan ahead.

We enjoyed the view so much that we stopped again our way back from Cape Tribulation to Cairns.

This spot is not a local secret so expect to find plenty of other people enjoying the views too.

Crocodile Lookout Point at The Mowbray River Footbridge

If you are looking for a reliable place to spot some crocs in the wild then the newly constructed Mowbray River Footbridge is one of your best bets along the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive.

For your best chance to spot a crocodile resting on the banks of the river, try to time your visit with the low tide. If you’re really lucky, you might even seem them swimming under the bridge.

Stick to the foot bridge for your own safety and do not approach the crocodiles.

Port Douglas

St Mary's Chapel in Port Douglas

The gorgeous resort town of Port Douglas is the perfect place to stop for lunch (or even a few days) on your Cairns to Cape Tribulation Road Trip, there are plenty of cute places to shop and eat. Port Douglas is famous for it 4-mile beach, so there is plenty of beach to stroll along.

If you are passing through town on a Sunday you must head to the Port Douglas Markets for some local shopping, great coffee and amazing crepes.

For some where nice to stay without breaking the bank, check out the The Newport Resort. You will be located a 5 minute walk from the 4-mile beach and the Marina, as well as many of the shops.

Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda

Looking for something a little fancier? You can’t go past the Shantara Resort. The Adults Only retreat is 400 meters from the 4-mile beach and each boutique style room offers private balconies to spend an evening relaxing. Choose a room with pool access to make cooling off at the end of the day so much easier.

Compare prices on Booking.com | Agoda

Mossman Gorge

Your next stop on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive is Mossman Gorge. Mossman Gorge is locate just 20 minutes north of Port Douglas and at the end of the Captain Cook Highway.

Mossman Gorge is a fabulous place to experience the Daintree rainforest. You can park you car at the visitors centre and embark on the 45-minute rainforest circuit. Along the circuit you will find huge rainforest fig trees, birds and animals that are unique to the rainforest and you will be able to swim in the rainforest creeks. These creeks are crocodile free so you can can cool down without worrying about the crocodiles.

It is also the perfect place to learn about the indigenous culture in the area and of course, spend your entire afternoon swimming in the creeks and watering holes.

Daintree Village

The General Store in Daintree Village

To get a real taste of what rural Far North Queensland is like, take a short detour and visit the Daintree Village. The village is very small and only has a couple of cafes/restaurants, a general store and a camp ground. Despite the size of the village it is well worth a quick stop and a great place to grab something to eat.

The Daintree River Crossing

Next along the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive is the Daintree River. The only way to access Cape Tribulation is to cross the river on the ferry. The ferry only takes about 5-minutes but the wait for the ferry can 30 – 60 minutes.

The Daintree River Ferry costs $23 for a one way ticket per car and can be paid when you arrive at the river crossing. You can also purchase a flexible return ticket for $39 and it can be used for any return trip.

The Cape Tribulation Ferry runs from 5am until midnight every day and departs roughly every hour depending on the season. For a more in-depth information check out the Cape Tribulation Ferry timetable here.

Mount Alexandra Lookout

Once you disembark the ferry the road will continue on for another 50 minutes (approximately) towards Cape Tribulation.

The road becomes quite steep and as you climb up the road you will find the Mount Alexandra Lookout. There is a big sign for the lookout and there is plenty of parking for your quick stop. The lookout provides great views over the Daintree river.

After stopping at Rex Lookout earlier on in the drive we were not as blown away by the Mount Alexandra Lookout but it is still beautiful and well worth a five minute stop.

Daintree Discovery Center

the board walk through the rainforest at the Daintree discovery centre

Cape Tribulation is quite remote and does not offer many of the traditional touristy things to do. But, if you want to do something a little touristy then I highly recommend the Daintree Discovery Center.

Once you enter the center you will find boardwalks that wind around the Daintree rainforest. You will be provided with an audio guide and the number along the boardwalk will guide you through the rainforest.

During your walk you will learn about the history of the rainforest, the animals and plants that live in the rainforest as well how the indigenous people used the forest for education, food, medication and protection. As well as the dinosaurs that used to roam the rainforest many moons ago.

Daintree Ice Cream Company

A cup with three scoops of ice cream surrounded by rainforest

The Daintree Ice Cream Company grow all of their own fruit and make 4 – 5 flavours daily depending on the fruit in season.

You can buy a cup with a single flavour such as mango, coconut, vanilla, soursop and milk chocolate. A cup with a single flavour costs $6. If you feel like being a little adventurous I recommend trying the Signature cup for $7.50.

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation beach, where one world heritage listed site meets another, or in other words, the Daintree rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

There is no better place to see the Daintree meet the Great Barrier Reef than Cape Tribulation Beach. As you walk through the rainforest and out onto the pristine beach, be prepared for some incredible beauty.

There are no words to describe the first time you step onto Cape Tribulation Beach. The grand Daintree rainforest stands as a border for the sand, where it has stood for 180 million years. The sand is white and the water is blue, it is almost as though you have entered the set for Castaway or Survivor.

Your foot prints will be the first on the beach and you will have this incredible moment to yourself.

The quiet and calmness of the moment will only be interrupted by the sounds of the trees rustling and the waves lapping the shores.

Enjoy a walk along this remote and deserted beach. Although the temptation to see the moment through your camera will be strong, make sure you take in the atmosphere.

The beach is easy to find and there is plenty of parking. In the carpark you will find a toilet which is very clean and flushes (many toilets in the area are drop toilets).

DO NOT SWIM AT CAPE TRIBULATION BEACH. Although the beach is beautiful and the sparkling water will be calling you in, please follow the signs and do not swim at the beach.

Cape Tribulation to Cairns

The drive from Cape Tribulation to Cairns is more or less the same drive and you are able to stop at the same spots as you did on the way to the Daintree Rainforest. However, we used some of the trip back to stop at a few of the stops we missed on the way up.

However, if you hit all of the stops on the way up you might want consider stopping at the Kuranda Skyrail for a trip in a gondola up into the trees of the rainforest to the rainforest village of Kuranda.

Cairns to Cape Tribulation Tours

If you are unsure about driving, or the river crossing makes your nervous or you would just prefer for someone else to do the driving for you so you can relax and enjoy the stunning views, there are plenty of tours you can do from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Most of the tours offer pick up and drop off to city center hotels in Cairns.

Here are some of the best tours for days trips from Cairns to Cape Tribulation:

Final thoughts on the Great Barrier Reef Drive

The drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is one of the most beautiful drives on the East Coast of Australia. The landscape differs drastically from the stunning blue ocean and white sandy beaches to the UNESCO World Heritage Daintree Rainforest.

It is a drive that must be on your Australian Bucket list at least once. So pack your bags for the beach, turn on the radio and prepare for the most amazing few days of your life.

If you have any questions about the road trip let me know in the comments below!

Fiona xoxo

Here are my favourite travel resources for planning travel like a pro:

Flights: To find the best flights I always search on Google Flights or Skyscanner. For even cheaper flights, fly mid week and pack in a carry on!

Accommodation: I always use booking.com (I love their price match and flexible cancellation policies) or Airbnb (if I want a little more space) to book trip. If you prefer hostels, I suggest Hostelworld.

If you are new to Airbnb you can get an awesome discount using this link

Tours: While I prefer to travel independently, I do love doing some tours once I’m in a destination. It is a great way to find out history, hidden gems, taste local food and get a local insight into your destination. I always use Viator to book my tours.

Train Travel: If you are planning on taking the train in Europe, I cannot recommend the Eurail enough! Check out The Ultimate Guide to the Eurail Pass to find out why

Car Hire: Planning an epic road trip across the US or through Europe, or anywhere! Check out DiscoverCar, they are my go to for car hire all over the world!

Luggage Storage: Some times when we are travelling our check in and check out times don’t match with our departure times so we have to put our luggage into storage. Stasher Luggage Storage is the biggest Luggage Storage Network across the UK, France and Germany

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My BEST Travel Resources

Here are my favourite travel resources for planning travel like a pro

Flights: To find the best flights I always search on Google Flights or Skyscanner. For even cheaper flights, fly mid week and pack in a carry on!

Accommodation: I always use booking.com (I love their price match and flexible cancellation policies) or Airbnb (if I want a little more space) to book trip. If you prefer hostels, I suggest Hostelworld.

If you are new to Airbnb you can get an awesome discount using this link

Travel Insurance: After a few hairy moments on my travels, I ALWAYS purchase travel insurance. It may seem like a big cost now, but if the worst happens, it will save you a lot of money and heartache. I personally use World Nomads (and love them!), but I recommend that you do some research to find the insurance company that suits your needs.

Tours: While I prefer to travel independently, I do love doing some tours once I’m in a destination. It is a great way to find out history, hidden gems, taste local food and get a local insight into your destination. I always use Viator to book my tours.

Train Travel: If you are planning on taking the train in Europe, I cannot recommend the Eurail enough! Check out The Ultimate Guide to the Eurail Pass to find out why

Car Hire: Planning an epic road trip across the US or through Europe, or anywhere! Check out Europcar, they are my go to for car hire all over the world!

Luggage Storage: Some times when we are travelling our check in and check out times don’t match with our departure times so we have to put our luggage into storage. Stasher Luggage Storage is the biggest Luggage Storage Network across the UK, France and Germany

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