From the reef to the outback to the rainforest, visiting Far North Queensland is an unforgettable experience whichever direction you take
You may not know this, but about two-and-a-half years, ago we packed up our house, sold everything and hit the road to do a big lap of Australia. We were going to take our time – 2-3 years – and live “that travelling lifestyle”. And then COVID hit and we had only made it as far as Cairns, in Far North Queensland.
By the time the state opened up again, we’d set up Destination4WD – making Australia’s next generation of freestanding awnings and accessories and got ready to launch the business at the Cairns Expo 2021.
So Cairns became our new home and that meant exploring and doing as many trips as we could find around far north Queensland.
One of the things we love so much about Cairns and FNQ is how much there is to do up here, so in this blog, we’ll share a few things you can do when you next visit, including some of our favourite 4×4 tracks.
What’s there to do in Cairns, Far North Queensland?
Not only is Far North Queensland home to the Great Barrier Reef, it also offers a wide variety of things to do outside of the Cairns hub – and there are plenty of outdoor activities and 4×4 tracks to drive.
TO THE NORTH
Let’s start with the northern beaches. There are 10, but as a tourist, you’ll want to check out Palm Cove and Trinity Beach – that’s where the Insta-pretty palm tree pictures are!
Just remember. if you are going to swim in Far North Queensland, swim in the enclosures (when they are out) and between the flags – and be croc-wise always.
For some 4WD action, there’s a 4×4 track up and around Taylor Point at Trinity Beach. It’s worth it if you can get in, it has been “closed” to vehicles but there are many dugout tracks to get around.
- Mossman Gorge: North of Cairns, in Far North Queensland, you’ll find Mossman Gorge, in the Daintree National Park. The gorge has walking tracks and swimming holes and is only minutes from the town of Mossman. You have to pay to see this one. It’s about 90km north of Cairns.
- Daintree: Then there is the spectacular Daintree region. The Daintree Village sits on the banks of the Daintree River that many crocs call home. You’re bound to spot crocs on a river cruise and the area is known for its wildlife and bird-watching.
- Cape Trib: One of the true sensations of FNQ is Cape Tribulation. This is where the rainforest meets the reef and there’s everything from exotic fruit tasting, guided walks, horse riding, four-wheel driving and kayaking. You’ll have to pay the barge to get across the Daintree River to Cape Trib. Daintree Village is an hour and a half from Cairns and Cape Trib is a short drive from there.
- The Creb Track: And who can forget this little gem? For serious 4WDers, the Creb Track is one of Australia’s best 4×4 tracks and is only a short drive from the Daintree Village. Take your 4×4 through the mountainous and steep terrain and enjoy the pristine creek crossings. Best done in dry conditions as the track is subject to close during wet season and it gets pretty tough when there’s been some rain. Watch for croc signs at the creek crossings and as you get into Wujal Wujal. There are places to camp on the Creb Track, and be sure to stop in the iconic Lion’s Den Hotel, where you can also camp. There’s also some great camping spots at Bloomfield.
- Cooktown region: We love Cooktown and have had wonderful experiences there, from getting quick help when car’s indicators wouldn’t work, to having delicious food at the pub and Thai place, to the hospitality at the caravan park.
On the way to Cooktown, checkout Palmer River campground for some rugged 4×4 tracks and a look at Maytown and the old gold fields. There are free and paid campsites here. The turn off is before Lakefield.
About 20km south of Cooktown is Archer Point, a great (but very windy) place to visit. Note, there’s free camping there too.
TO THE SOUTH
The south of Cairns is as pretty as the north, with just as much to take in and lots of beautiful fresh water to splash about in and rainforest, mountainous beauty.
Harvey Creek: This is a popular swimming hole and spot with locals, so if you can it’s best to go during the week, or very early on the weeks so you can get a good spot. It will get overrun quickly because it’s so awesome! Located about 40 minutes south of Cairns, before Babinda. Definitely worth a visit.
Walsh’s Pyramid: Just outside Gordonvale, south of Cairns, is the “highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world”. It’s a tough and long walk, but worth it for the view of the sugar farms and the picturesque town of Gordonvale, which is also worth a look.
Ross and Locke: A very popular 4×4 track and camping spot along the Mulgrave River. While people do swim here, always be croc wise. There’s also a great paid camping area at Goldsborough Valley – and it’s a nice drive through the mountains to get there too.
Babinda: A small tropical town, Babinda is close to Mount Bartle Frere and Mount Bellenden Ker – which both have great walking tracks. There’s a great free camp across the highway from the town (Babinda Rotary Park Free Camping Area), kayaking on Babinda Creek and the bakery is famous for its cream buns – do yourself a favour and get one or 10!
Babinda Boulders: Boulders line the creek as pristine cool water meanders down into swimming holes at Babinda Boulders. This spiritual place of significance for Aboriginal people, is a shady, grassy place for a picnic, and there’s also a free camp nearby (at the end of Boulders Road). The march flies can be a bit annoying here.
Josephine Falls: Be sure to check out Josephine Falls while you’re in the area. A beautiful waterfall fed by Queensland’s highest peak, Bartle Frere. It’s about 1.2km walk into the falls, but the upside is a fun natural slide to slide down once you get there. Keep an eye out for wildlife on your walk in.
Bramston Beach: A top spot to chill, fish and explore. You can stay at the Bramston Beach Council Camping Area. There’s not much in Bramston Beach, except a shop with a cafe of sorts. But there is a great offroad track up to the Pineapples, where you can also camp and take in the serenity.
Etty Bay: If you’re up a drive a bit past Innisfail (about an hour and a half out of Cairns), checkout Etty Bay, the home of the cassowary. One of the most beautiful beaches for a barbecue and chill out – and hopefully you get to see a cassowary as well. Keep watch out for them on the side of the road on your way in too.
TO THE EAST
Take a trip out on the water to one of these Far North Queensland island hot spots.
Green Island: A small coral cay off Cairns, it is right on the reef’s doorstep making it ideal for divers. There is also a 2km walk that takes about 50 minutes or take guided tours around the island. Day trippers can take in reef snorkelling, a trip on the glass-bottom boat and have access to a pool, showers and picnic areas. Getting there is about 45 minutes by ferry.
Fitzroy Island: Popular with day trippers for an off-shore experience, this is the local’s island. There is an area for day trippers at the Fitzroy Island Resort where all the activity is. There is paddle boat hire, kayaking, glass-bottom boat tours and a water trampoline, plus the island is surrounded by a coral cay so there is much to see when snorkelling and swimming.
There are plenty of walking tracks or just head down to the beach for a fish. Be sure to check out the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre too. There’s a great bar, often with live music, and you can camp on the island too. It’s 45 minutes by ferry.
The reefs: Being on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a mecca for diving and snorkelling trips.
- Arlington Reef, Michaelmas Reef, Hastings Reef, Batt Reef, Norman Reef, Lowe Isle and Agincourt Reef are all good diving hot spots.
- Hastings is a shallow reef and good for trainees, while there are caves to swim through at Norman Reef. The list of tours to get you to these reefs is endless.
- Low Isles is a marine park close to Port Douglas and it is easily accessed by boat for a day trip and worth a visit if you like snorkelling.
TO THE WEST
Go west! You won’t be disappointed with this day trip that takes in Kuranda, Atherton, Mareeba and all the places on the tablelands. If you get up early you may be able to fit Chillagoe in too – or you can overnight at the caravan park or any number of campsites along the way.
Once you’ve settled into the laid-back lifestyle, take a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll come under Kuranda’s spell.
To do: Barron Falls are a sight to see when in full flood, plus there are many falls and walks to do around Kuranda, so wear reasonable walking shoes. There are easier tracks too around the village and at Davies Creek.
Books, locally made or grown produce, Aboriginal art, jewellery, homewares, music – the famous markets have it all and are bound to find a souvenir to take home. Tempt your tastebuds with a long list of tasty treats, from superb restaurants and cafes to ice cream, nuts and honey.
Getting to Kuranda:
Skyrail: It will take about 90 minutes one way and seats six to a cabin, so enjoy the scenery and serenity.
Train: If you opt for the Kuranda Scenic Railway, you’ll need to set aside an hour and 45 minutes each way. The train leaves Cairns Station at 9.30am every day and returns at 3.30pm (at time of publishing).
Buses, tours and shuttle buses: There are plenty of options to suit your needs.
Atherton and the Tablelands
So much to do it’s not funny!
Crystal Caves & Fascinating Facets in Atherton has a collection of natural crystals, fossils and 3m amethyst or have a cuppa and high tea at the Nerada Tea Estates at Malanda.
Check out Millaa Millaa Falls, just one of the many waterfalls on the waterfall circuit of the tablelands, try the deli board at Mungalli Dairy and have an ice cream at Emerald Lakes Ice Creamery (all locally made)!
Yungaburra is about an hour from Cairns and is full of country charm, and don’t forget to stop by the three crater lakes that were once eruptive volcanoes:
- Lake Tinaroo (you can camp here)
- Lake Barrine (try the devonshire tea!)
- Lake Eacham (great for a day rest!)
Plus be sure to check out Gallow’s Dairy and the Fig Tree!
Two top walks and spots are Davies Creek and Emerald Creek, where you can also take a quick dip (and you can stay nearby too, you’ll have to book though).
If you come up the Palmerston Highway, check out Henrietta Creek, there’s a picnic area, camping, walks, and you can swim in the creek.
Getting there: An hour to 1.5 hours from Cairns
This may be a country town, known as the ‘Gateway to the Savannah’, but it’s by no means sleepy.
Grab a bite to eat at one of the pubs before a plethora of activities awaits you.
Check out the Heritage Museum. The locals are more than happy to share their town’s rich history. And there’s lots of nice parks to chill if you need a break.
A trip to the Skybury Australian Coffee Centre, Coffee Works, and Jaques, outside of the town, should be on your to-do list if you’re a keen coffee fan.
Wine in this region comes with a tropical twist. The Golden Drop or De Brueys Winery are not far from Mareeba, and have a selection of tropical fruit wines.
There’s also Mt Uncle Distillery and the lovely Granite Gorge with the little rock wallabies. It’s a nice stay out there with camping or cabins.
Getting there: An hour’s drive from Cairns or half an hour from Kuranda to Mareeba
You know you’re heading into the outback when you’re on this road and it doesn’t disappoint! Beware, there is a section of unsealed road. We stayed at Sandy Tate – and absolutely loved it. Rumours have it that you can’t stay there any more but we are still seeing people there on the socials every weekend. It’s a free camp, just remember to look after the place and take your rubbish so we can all keep enjoying it!
Apart from the usual bushwalking and wildlife, you can also swim in the river, and be sure to check out Balancing and Dome Rocks, and the limestone caves.
We also got a good toastie and chips from the servo’s cafe! Chillago is about a 3-hour drive from Cairns up the Kuranda range.
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