Cairns to Cape Tribulation & Daintree | Drive or Tour?
You can’t visit Tropical North Queensland without taking a trip from Cairns to Cape Tribulation & Daintree. The question is how to do it. Should you take a tour or self-drive? I’m going to show you both options with pros and cons for each. First, let’s find out more about Cape Tribulation and the Daintree.
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How far is it from Cairns to Cape Tribulation?
It is 141 km from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Driving time is approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.
How to get to Cape Tribulation from Cairns by Car
Hire a car either from Cairns airport or from the city. We use Rentalcars to compare prices, but hired our vehicle with Europcar for this trip.
Cairns’ drive to Cape Tribulation, known as The Great Barrier Reef Drive, is spectacular, with rainforest on one side and stunning coastline on the other. I think it’s one of the best scenic drives in Australia.
At the Kuranda Skyrail in Smithfield, Cairns, turn right onto Captain Cook Highway (State Route 44). This passes the northern beaches of Trinity Beach and Palm Cove before following the coast towards Ellis Beach. Just before Ellis Beach, a car park is on the right for Buchans Point, an unofficial clothing-optional beach.
As the road continues, it hugs the coast with stunning views of the Coral Sea. The deserted Ellis Beach has 1 km of pristine white sand opposite rainforest-clad mountains.
According to the 2016 census, Ellis Beach had a population of only 24 people. The Djabugay (Tjapukai) people are the traditional owners of this land.
The Ellis Beach Surf Lifesaving Club patrols during the summer months, and the beach also has a stinger net. Always swim in the patrolled area due to the dangers of Irukandji, bluebottles, Chironex, and crocodiles. There is a tavern here if you want to stop on the way back, but it provides a beautiful place to have breakfast or morning tea.
Gatz Balancing Rocks & Wangetti Beach
As the road follows the coast, look out for the Gatz Balancing Rocks, not long before the unspoiled Wangetti Beach. However, you must take care when driving as the only place to stop is a small bay on the opposite side of the road (I would stop on the return). There have been numerous car accidents in this spot, with people slowing down or stopping in the middle of the road.
Wangetti Beach is beautiful but remote. It’s notorious as the spot where Toyah Cordingley was murdered.
The surrounding area is in the Macalister Range National Park, part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and a vital cassowary habitat.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure is on the left. You won’t have time to do this on the way to Cape Tribulation and Daintree, though. Consider a tour like this one from Viator.
Further on, Rex Lookout has parking on both sides of the road. This viewpoint is a popular place for tandem hang gliding flights to take off. The sweeping views of Wangetti Beach to the south, and the Coral Sea in front, are breathtaking.
Port Douglas is a detour off Captain Cook Highway. As Cape Tribulation and Daintree have so much to do, I would recommend returning to Port Douglas another day or staying there. Read this guide on the best Port Douglas accommodation to help you choose where to stay.
As you journey along the Great Barrier Reef Drive, you pass sugar cane farms with mountains in front of you. During the sugar cane crushing season (June to October), Mossman Central Mill, which started operating on 23rd August 1897, can process up to 800,000 tonnes of sugar cane and produce up to 105,000 tonnes of raw sugar. The cane is then sent to Cairns to be shipped within Australia and internationally. You may be lucky enough to see a cane train travelling down the main street or one of the sugar cane fields on fire.
Just west of Mossman is Mossman Gorge, home to the Kuku Yalanji people. The traditional Aboriginal landowners share its special qualities with visitors to this part of the Daintree National Park.
Courtesy buses shuttle guests daily from the Mossman Gorge Centre to Mossman Gorge Car Park. The transfers run every 15 minutes from 8 am to 6 pm.
At Mossman River Gorge, crystal clear water cascades over ancient granite boulders. The 56,000-hectare area is known for its spectacular beauty, where lush rainforest and rugged mountains meet.
There are several walks at Mossman Gorge, and all of the walking tracks are signposted. You are provided maps upon entry.
The rainforest boardwalk Baral Marrjanga, which leads from the shuttle bus stop to the Mossman River lookout, is wheelchair accessible. It’s an easy 5 to 10-minute walk that meanders through the lower rainforest canopy.
If you want to cross the Rex Creek suspension bridge, follow Baral Marrjanga to the lookout and take the short, sign-posted track to the left. This 2.4 km circuit passes through the world’s oldest rainforest.
To gain a genuine appreciation for Mossman Gorge’s culture, I recommend the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, conducted by the local Kuku Yalanji people. The tour guides take visitors on a walk along private tracks, visiting special places and culturally significant sites, as they share their culture, stories, and legends.
To get to the Daintree Ferry (the only way to cross the crocodile-infested Daintree River), you need to turn right before Daintree Village. From here, it’s only 3 km to the ferry crossing and 39 km to Cape Tribulation.
The cable ferry carries a maximum of 27 vehicles, which means long queues during peak times. It only takes five minutes to cross the Daintree River, though. The ferry runs continuously from 5 am to midnight daily, and the cost for a car in 2021 is A$31 return. My advice is to get there as early as possible and return either before 3 pm or after 5 pm.
There are public toilets on this side of the ferry, so worth a quick bathroom break if you have kids, while waiting for the ferry. You stay in the car while crossing the river but pull over to the side once you are off to let the locals pass (you want to be be able to enjoy the beautiful scenery). Another reason to slow down is the huge cassowaries that inhabit the Daintree rainforest that can walk out onto the road.
Walu Wugirriga (Mount Alexandra Lookout)
From the Daintree ferry, it’s a 7.5 km drive on Cape Tribulation Road to the signposted turn-off to Walu Wugirriga. A car park has accessibility for wheelchairs to the lookout.
The views of the Daintree coastline are breathtaking, and you get the reef meets rainforest vista. You may see the brightly coloured blue Ulysses butterfly or the Pied-Imperial Pigeons that fly from the Low Isles to the mainland.
The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people are the traditional owners of Walu Wugirriga, which means ‘look about.’ It is speculated that Alexandra Lookout was named after Princess Alexandra, a Danish Princess who was married to King Edward VII.
Daintree Discovery Centre
The Daintree rainforest covers an incredible 1200 sq km, making it the largest tropical rainforest in Australia.
The Daintree Discovery Centre is a must to learn about the area and gain a unique insight into this 130 million-year-old rainforest. The tour includes an audio guide in the entrance price, which provides information as you explore the walkways.
The 23m high canopy tower and aerial walkway allow views over the forest canopy while boardwalks take you along the forest floor. Keep a lookout for wildlife, including the Cassowary. The centre is one of the best places to try to see one in the wild.
The entrance price also includes a 7-day return pass, five self-guided tours, audio guide hire, and a 68 page Daintree Rainforest Guide Book with wildlife identification.
The Daintree Café is open from 9 am to 5 pm for light refreshments.
At the end of the Great Barrier Reef Drive lies the small village of Cape Tribulation and Cape Tribulation beach. To be standing on a pristine white sand beach surrounded by mangroves and rainforest was incredible, especially as we had the place to ourselves.
As you leave the car park and enter the beach, a huge warning sign reminds you of the dangers of crocodiles at this beach. We weren’t taking any chances and kept ourselves and our daughters well clear of the mangroves and the ocean!
If you want to stay around Cape Trib, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy, including scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and kayaking to nearby islands (although I’m not sure I’d be game enough for that).
Once back on the south side of the Daintree River, turn right onto the Mossman Daintree Road. This road leads to Daintree Village, which has a range of crocodile spotting tours. We chose the family-run Daintree River Cruise Centre, the only Advanced Ecotourism Certified operator on the river.
The river cruise is one of the best ways to experience the rainforest and the abundance of wildlife living amongst the densely populated mangrove estuary.
The reason most people want to book this tour (and mine) is to see the largest living reptile, the Estuarine Crocodile. This iconic Australian animal may appear deceptively docile, but they will react with remarkable agility when there’s prey around. Apart from saltwater crocodiles, you may see snakes, fish, and a variety of birds.
The boats at Daintree River Cruise Centre are specially designed for the Daintree River. They are powered by low emission and fuel-efficient Yamaha four-stroke outboards and have a canopy over the boat to protect from weather. The seating is tiered and open-air, allowing for excellent views of flora and fauna.
The centre and boats are wheelchair accessible; just call ahead. They recommend bringing a car seat, or small pram, if you do not wish to hold your infant throughout the cruise. If you are travelling with a dog, give them a call, as the boats can accommodate your pet with advance notice.
Your tour includes morning or afternoon tea in the price which is offered while waiting for the cruise. A big tour group arrived just after us, but they kindly put us on a different boat which we had nearly to ourselves.
The cruise officially lasts an hour, but sometimes they are extended to one and a half hours if time allows.
Our tour guide was very informative and tried his hardest to find a crocodile for us to see. Unfortunately, the big alpha male was hiding, but we got to see a female sunning herself on a mudflat. The guide also spotted a snake in a tree, which we managed to get a good look at, plus lots of birdlife.
The Daintree River Cruise Centre has been awarded a Respecting Our Culture (ROC) Certification, designed by Aboriginal Tourism Australia. It is a certified Climate Action Business, exceeding the world’s best standards for efficient fuel, energy, and water use. They donate to a range of conservation, humanitarian, and community projects and launched the Lee Lafferty Foundation, which awards education grants to local young people who want a career championing the environment.
I couldn’t think of a better company to support.
Cairns to Cape Tribulation self-drive Itinerary
I advise to the Daintree ferry as early as possible to avoid long queues. We went to Cape Tribulation before the Discovery Centre to beat the tour buses. It worked, and we had the beach pretty much to ourselves. This is the order we did our Cairns to Cape Tribulation self-drive in:
- Ellis Beach
- Daintree Ferry
- Alexandra Lookout
- Cape Tribulation
- Daintree Discovery Centre
- Daintree Village
- Daintree River Cruise
- Mossman Gorge
- Rex Lookout
- Gatz Balancing Rocks
- Northern beaches
Where to stay in Daintree or Cape Tribulation
If you want time to relax and take it all in, I recommend staying the night. Here are some of my favourite accommodation around Daintree and Cape Tribulation:
- Forest Views Daintree Holiday House – a modern picturesque studio in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest that sleeps 4
- Black Palm Luxurious & Private Spa Cabin Cape Tribulation – a luxurious space situated on an 8 acre property in rainforest (sleeps 2)
- Daintree Manor B&B sits high on a ridge in the foothills of the Alexandra Range, with breathtaking views of mountains & Daintree River valley
- Noah Creek Eco Huts sleep up to 8 and is located in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest
- Rainforest Hideaway at Daintree Wilderness Lodge – boutique accommodation in the middle of the rainforest that sleeps 2
- Wompoo Retreat – set on 5 acres and made for couples who want a getaway with views, privacy and quality of facilities
- Wildwood Retreat – a beautiful rainforest eco retreat in the heart of Cape Tribulation set on a rare exotic fruit orchard (sleeps 6)
Cairns to Cape Tribulation Tours
There are some fantastic tours of the Daintree, Cape Tribulation, and Mossman that incorporate a lot into their day.
Cairns to Cape Tribulation – Drive or Tour?
We did a self-guided drive tour from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Our reasons for this were that it was cheaper for a family of four, and our daughters were young, so we wanted the convenience of having a car. This enabled us to go at our own pace, take food in an esky, and the girls could nap in the car when they were tired.
However, the downside was that it took a lot of planning, and the drive was extremely long. A tour allows the driver to enjoy the drive and views as well. The other plus for a tour is the informative tour guides who are knowledgeable about the area so you learn much more.
If you are travelling solo or as a couple, it may not cost much more to take a tour rather than hiring a car. I wouldn’t recommend driving a motorhome (RV) from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. The roads are single lanes, and narrow in places, with lots of bends. The road has a high number of crashes, so care needs to be taken if driving.
Another option is to continue your trip by driving to Cape York.
What to Pack for your Cairns to Cape Tribulation trip
Here are a few items that I recommend you bring on your Cairns to Cape Tribulation trip:
- I love my SOUNDPEATS TrueAir2 Wireless Earbuds Bluetooth V5.2 Headphones (just as good as Airpods)
- Swimsuit & Rash Vest
- Sunscreen (I like these from Nivea)
- Hat and Sunglasses
- Insect Repellent (we use either Bushman or Aeroguard) for the rainforest mosquitoes & flies
- Camera (I love my Nikon D7500 and Go-Pro)
- Beach Towel – these microfibre sand-free towels are fantastic
- Thongs (Flip Flops) & Walking Shoes
- A lightweight rain jacket
- Water Bottle like this Vacuum-Insulated Stainless-Steel one from Takeya that keeps your water cold all day
For more things to do in Queensland, check out this Queensland Travel Guide.
Do you need a 4WD to get to Cape Tribulation?
No, you don’t need a 4wd to get to Cape Tribulation as the roads are sealed. You only need a 4WD for the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown.
Is Cape Tribulation worth visiting?
Yes, Cape Tribulation is worth visiting whether it’s on a tour or self-drive. The wide sandy beach with the backdrop of the rainforest is stunning.
Can you swim at Cape Tribulation beach?
No, you cannot swim at Cape Tribulation beach due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles. There are warning signs as you approach the beach.
What is the closest city to the Daintree Forest?
The closest capital city to Daintree is Brisbane, but Cairns is the nearest city, 112 km away.
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Beautiful part of Queensland I would personally like to do again by car this time. That drive along the coast is just stunning.
Thanks for bringing back great memories
So much to see on this route! I would want to drive it myself for itinerary independence, but I would definitely make it a point to join the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks. That sounds like a great experience
We like the independence of self drive itineraries too but tours are great for those who don’t have the time to research or don’t want to drive.
This looks like such a tropical paradise! A shame that you can’t just swim at the beaches because of crocodiles. But good to hear that some beaches, like Ellis Beach, offer guards… Thank you for comparing a self drive vs a guided tour – super helpful!
It is a shame that you can’t swim at Cape Tribulation but it’s still worth the drive to see the beauty of this beach.
We took the tour! We were on a reasonably tight schedule and figured this would be the best way to see the highlights (we often get distracted and take detours when left to our own devices!). The tour and the guide were excellent. The standout for me was the river tour and the enoooormous crocodiles. I would love to go again now and take my time on a self-drive.
The Mossman River cruise was one of the highlights for us too. Just incredible to these huge saltwater crocodiles in their natural habitat.
Loads of happy memories about this trip. We spent Christmas in the rainforest at Cape Trib – got suckered by leeches, saw some of the biggest spiders I’d ever set eyes on, and spotted a cassowary in the wild on Christmas morning. Would do it all again in a heartbeat. 🥰
Can’t believe you got leeches! Lived in Australia for over 20 years and never had one. Thankfully!
I always love your packing lists! You inspire me with both your travel destinations and your logistics. Of course, I would need to add one of those sand-resistant beach towels to my list due to my deep hatred of sand, even the white and pristine kind! 😂 All the same, you’ve got me stoked to see those northern beaches and to explore Cape Trib.
Despite living near and loving the beach, I also hate sand. These are a great solution!
Another location that seems to have it all. Rainforest, beaches, views, wildlife- the works. Very comprehensive guide too Wendy. The rainforest walk would be amazing. Had to google what a cassowary was though. I’d be well into seeing the crocs, though not on tribulation beach. That’s a trial I don’t need.
Thankfully we didn’t see any crocodiles on cape Tribulation beach but they have been there!
hmmm.. I actually might go on the tour for this one. One thing bad about solo travel and road trips is that you really can’t enjoy the scenery! You’re always on and alert! (thankfully haha). Loving the plentiful beaches, lookouts and those crocs!
Also, I think it’s incredible that Australia has a Respecting Our Culture (ROC) Certification and an Aboriginal Tourism body. I haven’t noticed those from your other posts. But I love what these stand for!!
There’s definitely a need for tours with solo travellers and people that aren’t comfortable driving on our roads. It’s also great to have the knowledge and expertise of a tour guide.
Wendy, you have another sunny Australian destination to be jealous of. Looks beautiful and puts me in a good mood. Sounds like you have to be really careful since crocs are everywhere, but I draw the line with snakes in trees. That freaks me out!
I agree. Would much rather see a crocodile than a snake in a tree. Luckily we weren’t that close!
So many beautiful places to visit! There’s an amazing ecolodge in Daintree I’m desperate to visit sometime!
I know that one. Yes it looks incredible.
Thanks for sharing your experience and clear outline for a self-guided road trip. I fell for a tour and ended up spending more time on the bus than being out exploring. I understand the Daintree is quite a distance away from Cairns but in hindsight, I should have rented a car and done the tour myself. I saw the Alexandra lookout, crossed the river, and had 30 minutes at Cape Tribulation. Not that much time 🙁 Well it was an impressive area and I wouldn’t mind visiting again, once Australia opens up to International Travel. Here’s to 2022!
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Thank you for your lovely feedback Carolin. We found it easy driving ourselves but it is a long way and a big day. If you’re used to driving long distances and windy roads, then I think self-driving to Cape Tribulation is the way to go. We got to see all the main attractions and spend what time we wanted to at each place.