Rainforest Meets Reef on This Epic Four-wheel-drive Road Trip Through Queensland
You’re high up and behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, built for adventure. A seemingly endless jungle is to your left, while on your right is a view out to the Coral Sea. Heading toward a forest that’s existed for more than 150 million years, the view ahead as you travel the Great Barrier Reef Drive makes this an Aussie road trip of a lifetime — it’s where the rainforest meets the reef.
From the Tropical North Queensland city of Cairns to stunning Cape Tribulation, here’s where you want to stop along the way.
While you’re technically not quite out of Cairns yet, this picturesque beachside ’burb deserves a pitstop. Grab a coffee and a spot of “brekkie” (that’s Australian for breakfast) along Williams Esplanade, which boasts a variety of cafes, including Espresso & Co. Walk it off along the palm-lined beach before hitting the Captain Cook Highway.
Next stop is Port Douglas, a sophisticated beach town, beloved for its stylish restaurants and shops as much as for its idyllic setting. Make your way to Island Point Lookout at the top of Flagstaff Hill — breathtaking views of Four Mile Beach and the Coral Sea await.
Barely 30 minutes along the road, you’ve reached the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Explore the area with Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk, where indigenous guides share forest stories dating back thousands of years and take visitors to culturally significant sites. Self-guided walks are also an option; choose a route that best suits your ability and mood, whether it’s to the lookout over the Mossman River or over the Rex Creek suspension bridge. Back at the Mossman Gorge Centre, find art by local Kuku Yalanji artists and refreshments for the journey ahead.
Continuing deeper into the rainforest, it’s time to veer slightly inland toward Daintree River Cruise Centre. See the forest from a new perspective, and keep an eye out for crocs. Operated by the Lafferty family since 1987, the company has an advanced ecotourism certification and its guides boast an encyclopedic knowledge of local flora and fauna. In addition to crocodiles, other critters who call this area home include green pythons, platypus, kangaroos, and 430 bird species.
Take the ferry over the Daintree River as you continue toward the Daintree Discovery Centre in Cow Bay. “You feel like you are entering an ancient world, a real living museum,” the Discovery Centre’s Abi Ralph told Travel + Leisure.
Take in the unspoilt view of the ancient forest at the top of the 75-foot canopy tower and experience the aerial walkway, 36 feet above the rainforest floor. Keep your eyes peeled for the endangered (and potentially dangerous) Cassowary bird, which is sometimes spotted along McLean’s Creek. “Cassowaries are territorial and the Discovery Centre is lucky to be part of many cassowaries habitat as they regularly wander through the property,” Ralph explained. “The key to spotting a cassowary is to spend some time in the rainforest, slow down and look hard. Cassowaries are extremely well camouflaged even though they are are large bird and do not make much noise.”
If you are lucky enough to spot a cassowary in the wild, Ralph advised to give it plenty of space and stay calm. “They will usually just wander through eating fruit as they go,” Ralph said.
Step into a postcard picture as you arrive at your final destination. For all its popularity, Cape Tribulation still feels secluded, and you may be surprised to be the only person walking its beaches — sometimes it may feel like you’re the first. A horseback ride through pristine waters is a perfect way to enjoy the scenery and a perfect conclusion to your tropical adventure. “With no buildings in sight, it truly feels as though you have traveled back in time,” Cape Trib Horse Rides’ Morgan Pettersson told T+L. “With the beach stretching out in front of you and the dramatic rainforest mountains as a backdrop, many people say that it feels as though you are on the set of the movie 'Jurassic Park.'"
Things to Know
Cape Tribulation is where the sealed road ends, and what lies beyond (Cooktown, about 65 miles north) is for experienced four-wheel-drivers only.
The 112-mile drive back to Cairns from Cape Tribulation — without stops — takes roughly 2.5 hours.
Some international routes fly directly into Cairns, but the nearest capital city on the east coast is Brisbane. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight from the Queensland capital, three hours from Sydney, and three-and-a-half hours from Melbourne.
When to Go
The road trip can be done at any time of year, but keep in mind that the region’s wet season (December through March) is particularly hot and humid, with potentially frequent torrential downpours. April through November may be a more manageable climate. The road between Cairns and Cape Tribulation can be driven with a regular car, if desired.
Particularly in remote areas, but also anywhere near water, be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for crocodile signs. Always check with local authorities before swimming.