This post will take you on a self-drive itinerary from Cairns to Daintree in the tropical far north of Australia.
We will show you the resorts of Palm Cove and Port Douglas and tell you how to get to the magic jungle of Mossman Gorge.
Then, before getting across the Daintree River by ferry we will take it easy on the pristine sands of Wonga Beach and also spot wild crocodiles on a Daintree river cruise. Welcome on the journey!
Drive from Cairns to Daintree: the magic Mossman Gorge of Queensland
The winding Captain Cook Highway we are driving along must be one of the most scenic roads in Australia. On one side you have the Coral Sea and the pretty coastline and on the other side lush rainforest and mountains.
This blog post will show you the drive from Cairns to Daintree River and our journey through Australia’s wet tropics will continue in the next post Self Drive Trip to Daintree Rainforest.
Cairns, North Queensland Tourist Hub
Cairns is the biggest tourist hub of Northern Queensland.
All flights land here, and Cairns is where most cruises to the Great Barrier Reef sail from. Moreover, this is the starting point for bus tours to all tourist attractions in the area.
Drive from Cairns to Daintree: The Esplanade, Cairns
Most travelers choose to take an arranged bus tour for the itinerary of this post. Renting a car or a campervan, however, lets you spend a longer time than a single day exploring this beautiful area. So you will have more time and see a lot more. Recommend!
More about Cairns: the city has a rich choice of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and other things tourists need. But believe it or not, Cairns doesn’t have a beach. To fight that problem they have built a huge artificial pool that can be used both by the locals and the tourists.
The pool is located on the seafront and right in the middle of the city. A splendid idea, it’s such a lovely place!
We didn’t have much time for Cairns so I’m sure we missed many sights. The time was limited and our main purpose was to see the reef, the rainforest and all the wild nature north of Cairns.
To see Cairns right after landing we left all our luggage in the airport lockers, took a taxi, walked a few hours in Cairns and took a taxi back to the airport to get the campervan.
Cairns airport is only 6 km from the city, so you can easily do this way if your don’t get your campervan right away and have to wait.
To the Cook Highway
So we made our North Queensland road trip with a rental campervan.
If we have to choose between renting a car and booking hotels for each night, or renting a campervan and sleeping in it we definitely prefer the campervan, particularly when traveling in Australia or New Zealand.
To read about our other campervan adventures click here.
View from Cook Highway from Cairns to Daintree
So our campervan rental office was almost next to Cairns airport and the airport is north of Cairns. After getting the vehicle we just took the scenic Cook Highway north.
The Cook Highway is very well kept and easy to drive. As it was winter time, the weather was sunny and not too hot or humid at all, so no problems at all. Our first stop was at a big shopping mall where we filled our fridge with all food items we would need in the tropics.
We enjoyed the views of the tropical Coral Sea and all the rainforest mountains on the other side. This is what you can call freedom!
Map of Cairns to Daintree Driving Itinerary
Drive from Cairns to Daintree on the map
The map shows you the location of Palm Cove and Port Douglas where we stopped. In Port Douglas we spent the first night and took a reef cruise. Then there’s Mossman Gorge shortly after Port Douglas, and Wonga Beach, the place for our second night.
After Wonga beach the road turns away from the coast and you cross sugar cane fields to Daintree River.
How did the Journey Continue?
From Daintree River we drove on to Cape Tribulation, also called Cape Trib. There we stayed a longer time on the beaches, in the rainforest and in the hammocks.
Read about Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation in the post Self Drive Trip to Daintree Rainforest.
But back to the road, first stop Palm Grove:
Drive from Cairns to Daintree: Palm Cove
After many small white beaches and a number of lookouts we arrived at Palm Cove which turned out to be a very pretty little coastal resort.
As the name says Palm Cove has palms and its beach is lined with them. The resort itself is clean, pretty and nice. Houses are either white or painted in different tropical shades, a thing that makes me think about the Florida Keys and above all Key West.
Palm Cove, Queensland, in photos
We walked a long while up and down the beach promenade that looked like being the village center and found a long pier where a lot of people where standing and fishing.
Palm Cove lifeguards at work
It was Saturday afternoon and there was a big life-saving happening on the beach for school kids. The kids were running and had life saving competitions. while their parents were serving refreshments and making meals for them.
Dangers on Tropical Beaches
Then a surprise: we didn’t know we can’t swim on these lovely beaches as we would like!
No, yellow stinger warnings exist everywhere. The main stinger season is the summer time but even when it was winter now, people only stepped into the water in the marked area between flags. That particular area only was protected with stinger nets, not any other area.
Drive from Cairns to Daintree: Saturday afternoon on Port Douglas beach
And that’s not the whole truth – you also have to watch for crocodiles! There was not a word about this in our many travel books and brochures, neither on the websites we checked.
Otherwise we liked the place and would have preferred to stay longer in Palm Cove. Particularly when there was nice a holiday park for campervans and caravans right in the village and opposite to the beach. Maybe next time we will stay there.
But the road called…
Cairns to Daintree: Port Douglas
View of Port Douglas seaside
Port Douglas was the next stop, the main tourist resort north of Cairns. Port Douglas has a lot of choice in accommodation and holiday parks, from which we chose the Tropic Breeze Caravan Park. The park was centrally located in the town, at a short walking distance from the main street.
Port Douglas main street again is packed with restaurants, pubs and shops. A really great place to relax after the day’s activities. And if this is not enough, more restaurants exist in the harbour.
Photos from the road: Port Douglas, Queensland
Reef Cruise from Port Douglas
On a Great Barrier Reef cruise from Port Douglas
What else did we do in Port Douglas? We took a Great Barrier Reef Cruise with Quicksilver Ferries. It left from Port Douglas harbor and was very good cruise indeed.
As a reef cruise to the Great Barrier Reef is worth another story we wrote one. Read about our Great Barrier Reef Cruise from Port Douglas
Some beach photos from Port Douglas:
Port Douglas beach with crocodile warnings
This is the fine sandy beach of Port Douglas. The sand is white and soft and perfect for sunbathing, but there are many crocodile and stinger warnings. You are only allowed to swim between the flags in the middle area and under lifeguard supervision.
Moreover, Port Douglas has a zoo:
Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat
Drive from Cairns to Daintree: two Kookaburras sitting in a tree
Port Douglas has a zoo, or rather a wildlife habitat, where you can go and see native Australian animals at a close distance, in their natural surroundings.
Visiting Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat
On the habitat grounds they have created a nice small rainforest for local birds like cassowaries and kookaburras. Then there’s a river area for crocodiles and a dry, open grass field for kangaroos (that you can feed). In the last corner they have a tiny eucalyptus forest where koalas live.
Behind this link you will see more pictures of the animals and find the location of the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.
The clear waters of the magic Mossman Gorge, Queensland
Mossman Gorge is one of the most famous tourist attractions north of Cairns, and it’s really a must-see place if you travel in the area.
In all ads they recommend you to take an indigenous Dreamtime Walk to visit the gorge. You can well do that and you will learn fantastic things about the indigenous culture and habits in Mossman.
But you can also choose to visit the gorge without taking any organized tour. Just use the well-marked walking-paths and choose the ones you like.
However, you are not allowed to take your car all the way to the gorge. Instead you have to park at the visitor center from where there are frequent shuttle buses to the gorge. At the time we were visiting the bus fee was less than 10 dollars per person.
One more alternative is to walk all the way to the gorge (a few kilometres along a narrow road). We saw many people doing that.
Mossman Gorge Walk: River Circuit Pathway
Walking on Mossman Gorge boardwalks
From the place where the bus stops there is an easy, accessible, elevated boardwalk to a bend of Mossman River where you can take a dip. Bring your swimwear and towel if you’d you like to try that. we didint’ so we could not swim.
The River Circuit Pathway makes a loop walk to four or five different lookouts that are good spots to watch the magic river below. The walk is very short, only 400 metres.
Rainforest Circuit Track
Walking in Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park
After the last lookout comes a path that leads towards a suspension bridge. This is the start of another loop track and this one takes you into the real rainforest.
This path is not accessible, it’s steep in places and there are giant tree roots on the path you have to pass. Yet it’s easy enough to walk, and above all the forest is lovely. This walk is 2,7 km long.
Exploring the tropical Mossman Gorge in the Australian north
To begin with, you will follow on a high a ridge between Mossman River and another river Rex Creek, after which you it’s all the way lower down in the rainforest.
Wurrumbu Creek Walk
Moreover, from the longer path there is a short side walk with the sign Wurrumbu Creek. That little path is also worth taking.
These pictures are from Wurrumbu Creek:
The lovely Wurrumbu Creek in Mossman Gorge, Queensland
In the deep tropical rainforest
Watch the trees and their huge roots as you walk!
These trees have super high roots that look very different from what we have ever seen before. No wonder this corner of the forest is the favourite spot for the local indigenous people.
We read the signs and had some material with us, but if you join an arranged tour you will get things explained and will hear the stories. That’s what we missed when walking by our own.
Clas sitting on the giant tree roots of Mossman Gorge
Here are some more images of the big roots on the path:
Wonders of the wet tropics of Australia
Mossman Gorge really was a fantastic nature experience, glad we did it! The first 400 m is pretty touristic and you can’t avoid crowds, but on the second walk you can leave all crowds behind and walk in your own pace.
To learn more about the gorge check out the official Mossman Gorge website.
As you take the road from the gorge back to the Coral Sea coast you will soon reach two long sandy beaches. The first is Newell Beach and after that comes Wonga Beach. Both are as pretty as you see in the photos and both are worth a stop.
We had booked a powered site for our campervan at Wonga Beach Camping and stayed the night there.
Cairns to Daintree: Wonga Beach
From Cairns to Daintree: Wonga Beach
Wonga Beach is 7 km long and backed by palms and an incredible, thick rainforest. The place is very peaceful, hardly anybody around. Best of all, there is a camping area right on the beach with only a few palms between the beach and the camping site.
Touring Queensland in a campervan: Wonga Beach
The camping is a cozy place and the surrounding thick rainforest gives needed shelter from the tropical heat. As, in addition, a refreshing breeze blew from the sea it didn’t get too hot to sleep in the small campervan we had.
Even when we had booked in advance, the Wonga Beach camping staff had lost our reservation and the place was fully booked. Then they finally found a small site for us. I really don’t know what we would have done otherwise.
It looked like most campers were there for a longer time and they even had a long dinner table where they all gathered at night. We instead felt better using our own camping equipment that came with the van.
Towards the Daintree River
After Wonga Beach the road turns inland. This is a farming area with endless sugar cane fields on both sides, lots of cane everywhere. We saw farmers harvest cane and they even had a small railway line to transport the cane.
Daintree sugar cane and crocodile cruise sign
After a while we came to the Daintree River and there was a crocodile cruise sign (see above).
There is a huge crododile population in the area. So why no go and look at them.
Daintree River Croc Cruise
Clas buying our croc cruise tickets
What we took was took Bruce Belcher’s 1 hour river cruise. You can find the place right after the road turns towards Daintree Village (2856 Mossman-Daintree Road, Daintree), daintreerivercruises.com.au.
There was a tropical shop where we got tickets, around AUD 50 for two. The shop was filled with a huge collection of tropical souvenirs and art work of all kind. In addition there was a garden cafe where we took tea and sandwiches. That was included in the cruise price.
The tropical shop and the tropics
They told us that crocodiles are seen on 98 % of their trips but it’s not guaranteed. Let’s see… So we walked down to the pier through the tropical garden. Some photos from the tour:
From Cairns to Daintree: cruising the Daintree River
The boat was small and not many people came on our tour so we could ask questions any time we wanted to learn more. The guide was very professional and told us a lot about what we saw.
On a river cruise in the wet tropics
Daintree River Wildlife
So what did we see? Water-birds and lots of mangrove trees growing in the deep water. That’s the reason why mangroves have big air-roots, they reach above water level and the tree can breathe. The roots provide the trees with oxygen.
The other common plant here is hibiscus. It has yellow flowers.
A Daintree River crocodile
But the main thing here was, of course, the crocodiles that we saw many of. As all of them were lazing in the afternoon sun, none of them was eager to attack us.
Grown-up crocodiles eat at very long intervals, maybe only once a month or even less frequently. In the hot climate they need to save energy as much as they can, that’s why they only lie on the riverbanks. The females lay eggs in a nest they create in the spring.
From Cairns to Daintree: Daintree River wildlife
Despite the huge number of crocs in the area there have only been two fatal attacks by them ever, and only three times the animals have caused injury.
Cairns to Daintree: Daintree Village
Campervanning in Daintree: kangaroo sign
Driving a few kilometres inland from the Daintree River ferry crossing you will come to a tiny community, Daintree Village. The road to Daintree Village winds through hilly farmlands, a very pretty road.
Campervanning in Daintree, crocodile sign
There is a general store with a bottle shop (not many of them in this area), a tourist information office, a cafe and a simple campsite by the river.
But be careful. Crocodiles are hiding all around and Daintree Village has some more croc tour companies.
The village originally was a logger settlement and the floated logs of red cedar down the river to the Coral Sea and further.
Taking the Daintree River Ferry
Boarding the Daintree river ferry
To cross the Daintree River you have to take a ferry, there’s no other way. The ferry ride costs about AUD 20 return for a car, and you don’t have to pre-book your ticket.
The ferry leaves every 15 min, morning till evening. The ride itself takes ten minutes but reserve time for waiting. The Daintree ferry is an older one, it is one of the only cable ferries still in use in Australia.
After the ferry ride it changes and you really start getting a jungle feeling as nature gets wilder and the road narrower.
We are entering Daintree National Park, the end destination of our self-drive trip from Cairns to Daintree. What now? We are driving on and I will tell you about our Daintree National Park driving itinerary in the next post.
Daintree rainforest fan palms