Experience one of Australia’s most scenic driving route on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive, also known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive. Read this complete self-drive itinerary including what to expect on the way, the best highlights not to miss and an option for an organised trip.
In my opinion, a trip to Cairns and Port Douglas just isn’t complete without taking the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Following the scenic Captain Cook Highway, this drive takes you to the incredible coastal road and crosses the Daintree River north to where the rainforest meets the reef.
In this blog post, I’ll outline what to expect on this epic self-drive route, as well as all the best highlights not to miss along the way.
The Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive Route
The Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is approximately 140 kilometres. In total, expect about 3 hours of driving time. Note, you will need to take a ferry to cross the Daintree River as no land crossing bridge exists.
Although it’s a three-hour drive, there are plenty of places where you’ll want to stop and explore.
In regards to a driving itinerary, it’s definitely possible to take the scenic drive and explore the highlights in a single day. However, many choose to stop over in Port Douglas in order to get the most out of the incredible Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive.
In this guide, I’ll go into a few of the highlights you should include on your road trip itinerary including:
- Ellis Beach
- Hartley’s Creek
- The Thala Resort Palm Tree Road
- Rex Lookout
- The Mowbray River Footbridge
- Port Douglas
- Mossman Gorge
- Daintree Village
- Daintree River Crocodile Tour ($30)
- Cape Trib (Daintree) Ferry
- Mount Alexandra Lookout
- Cape Tribulation
Don’t have your own car? Consider a full-day, small-group 4WD trip up to Cape Tribulation from Cairns & Port Douglas with Billy Tea Safaris.
Cairns to Cape Tribulation Map
Below is the general Great Barrier Reef Drive route mapped from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. You can click the image to have the directions loaded onto your google maps. However, make sure to read on to not miss any highlights along the way!
Alternative: The Best Cairns to Cape Tribulation Organised Trip (With a Cruise)
If you don’t have your own car, then you can still explore this incredible journey. Luckily, there are plenty of organised trips departing from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. But by far, the best bang-for-buck trip is the one organised by Cairns Adventure Group.
This full-day Cairns to Cape Tribulation trip includes a stop at Mossman Gorge, a boat cruise on the Daintree, lunch and hiking at Cape Tribulation, a traditional smoke ceremony with the Kuku Yalanji people (traditional owners of the Daintree), as well as an epic boat cruise at Cape Tribulation.
Book best price online: Cape Trib Organised Tour
Tip: How to Rent a Cheap Car in Cairns
If you don’t have your own car, then your best bet is to book one in advance in Cairns. Here’s a great list of resources to help you get the best deal:
- RentalCars.com – a rental car comparison site. Great way to compare rates and availability across companies.
- Car Next Door – sharing economy car rental app. I usually use this if I need to rent a car anywhere as it always ends up cheaper. Use my link for $15 off your first booking.
- Spaceships Vans – this one’s for the backpackers and budget travellers. One of the most affordable camper van options in Australia. I’ve had great experiences with them in New Zealand and Australia and always recommend them.
Highlights on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive
Below I’ve listed some of the highlights of the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive. If you’re on a tight time frame, make sure you at least make a couple of stops to make the most of this incredible part of the world.
The Northern Beaches is Cairns’s very own beach suburb. One of the best and most famous beaches north of Cairns is Palm Cove.
While Palm Cove is mostly famous for its palm trees, there is also a stinger net at the surf club for safe swimming, some world-class restaurants, as well as a rainforest walking track on the north side of the bay.
There’s also a wide strip of restaurants, bars, hotels and resorts at Palm Cove, which makes it an excellent place to stay as well.
Less than half an hour from leaving Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef Drive, you’ll pass Ellis Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Cairns. I’d say it’s definitely worth making a stop here if you have the time. There’s an awesome restaurant/bar and lifeguards patrol the stinger net at the beach in the dry season.
If you’ve set out early on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive, then try to make it to Ellis Beach for sunrise, you won’t be disappointed!
If you’ve got more time, just a bit up the road from Ellis Beach you’ll also find Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, one of the best-rated wildlife experiences on the Cairns Coast. You have to pay to get into the park, but you’ll be guaranteed to see a crocodile.
Otherwise, head a bit further on to the road bridge over Hartley’s Creek. Sometimes, you’ll spot a crocodile sitting right under the bridge!
If you’re short on time and you definitely want to spot a crocodile on the Great Barrier Reef Drive, continue on, as the best croc-spotting opportunity, in my opinion, is a short river cruise down the Daintree (more below).
RELATED POST: Hartleys Creek Falls
The Thala Resort Palm Tree Road
After Ellis Beach, one of the next awesome highlights for the Thala Resort. Although I didn’t stay here, I wanted to check out the famous symmetrical palm tree plantation. It’s not a big detour, and you’ll spot the plantation from the main road. There’s a big sign and it’s very hard to miss!
It’s not as spectacular from the ground, but if you have a drone, then you can snap some pretty awesome photos!
Break up the drive: STAY AT THALA RESORT
The Incredible Captain Cook Highway
Only about half an hour north of Cairns, you’ll well and truly be driving down one of the best coastal roads in the world! The Captain Cook Highway winds around the tropical beaches and up the cliff-sides of the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive.
On this epic journey, you’ll find that the scenic road itself is one of the best highlights of the trip!
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see plenty of signs pointing to a dual parking bay for Rex Lookout. This is one of the best views on the entire Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive.
There’s plenty of parking space and a spot to pull over on both sides of the road. Once you’re here, you’ll notice a large grassy clearing where you can stop for a break and enjoy the view.
Watch Hang Gliders Take Off
If you’re doing the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation on a weekend or on a public holiday, then chances are there’ll be hang gliders launching off the Rex Lookout. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the famous hang gliding dog!
The Mowbray River Footbridge (Crocodile Viewpoint)
Just before you approach Port Douglas on the scenic Great Barrier Reef Drive, you’ll spot a newly-constructed parking area beside the Mowbray River Bridge (just outside of Craiglie).
This new foot bridge has been constructed as it is another great and reliable place to spot saltwater crocodiles! It’s best to time your visit on low-tide, when the crocodiles are basking on the exposed, muddy banks. Sometimes, you’ll even see them swimming under the bridge!
Next up on this epic coastal drive is Port Douglas. Famous for its beautiful waterfront and the world-class 4 Mile Beach.
To make the most of the journey, stop in Port Douglas for a coffee break or lunch. Alternatively, stay the night in order to make the most of all of the coastal walks, beaches and nearby attractions.
Or, read the comprehensive accommodation guide with the best deals!
Below I’ve also included a couple of links to the best activities to check out when stopping by in Port Douglas on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation drive.
Only a short 20-minute drive north from Port Douglas is the famous Mossman Gorge. This is one of the best places to visit if you want to experience a walk through the Daintree Rainforest.
You can leave your car at the Mossman Gorge Visitor’s Centre and embark on a 45-minute rainforest circuit. Highlights include huge rainforest fig trees, spotting unique rainforest birds and animals and swimming in the fresh (crocodile-free) rainforest creeks.
READ THE FULL BLOG POST: Daintree Hike: Mossman Gorge Walk – Rainforest Circuit
If you’re following the Great Barrier Reef drive on your way up from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, then you’ll need to follow the signs (or directions) leading towards the Daintree River Ferry.
However, if you’re up for a short detour, and if you’ve got the time, it’s worth checking out the Daintree Village too. There isn’t much going on here, but you’ll get a real taste of rural Far North Queensland hospitality. Here, you’ll find a few small cafes, restaurants and a shop to stock up on some supplies.
Following on from Port Douglas, the next stop on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive is the Daintree River. This is the spot where you’ll need to take the ferry.
However, I highly recommend also taking a 1-hour crocodile cruise down the Daintree right next to the ferry terminal! This is another perfect stop-over on the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive, and breaks up the wait for the ferry!
The best tour company is Solar Whisper. They are the only emission-free crocodile and wildlife cruise operating in the Daintree and also one of the cheapest! What’s great about them is that they use electric engines, allowing you to get closer to the crocs in their natural habitat without disturbing them.
The Daintree is one of the best places in Far North Queensland to spot crocodiles in the wild!
Book online in advance: Daintree River Crocodile Spotting Cruise ($30)
Read about my experience: (Review) Best Daintree Crocodile Tour
Cairns to Cape Tribulation Ferry
Just a little north of Port Douglas, nearby to the Daintree Village you will get to the famous ferry crossing. Here is the only way to continue north, as no bridges exist to cross the huge river. However, it’s not too expensive, and they even offer flexible return tickets if you intend on coming back to Cairns or vice versa.
Cape Tribulation Ferry Timetable
The Cape Tribulation Ferry over the Daintree River operates from 5 AM to midnight. Ferries run every hour or so, depending on the season. Also, it’s only a short 10 minute crossing to get your car or motorbike over the river. You can pay for the ferry once you arrive.
For an up-to-date full timetable, check out the official ferry website.
Daintree River Ferry Cost 2021
The Daintree River Ferry costs $23 for a one-way car ticket. However, if you want a return ticket, it’s $39. Keep in mind that the return tickets are flexible and you can use them another day if you plan on staying in Cape Tribulation.
For a full list of updated ferry prices, you can find them on this website.
Mount Alexandra Lookout
Shortly after the ferry, the road continues about 50 minutes towards Cape Tribulation. Before you reach the cape, the road climbs steadily with an option for a quick stop at the Mount Alexandra lookout.
Here, you’ll get excellent views of the Daintree River!
Cape Tribulation is a famous Australian landmark and North Queensland attraction because it’s where the rainforest officially meets the reef! This marks the end of the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. However, it definitely doesn’t mark the end of the adventures on offer!
Cape Tribulation is one of the rawest coastlines in Australia and certainly a highlight for those taking the scenic coastal road from Cairns to Cape Tribulation.
There are so many things to do in Cape Tribulation. I’ve covered 20 in my Cape Trib Travel Guide, but I’ll also include a few of my favourite activities below.
Mason’s Swimming Hole
Unfortunately, swimming at Cape Tribulation is highly discouraged due to the marine dangers present. However, there is a great croc and stinger-free spot known as Mason’s Swimming Hole right off the main road.
This is one of the best spots to cool off and enjoy the serenity of the Daintree. If you’d like somewhere a little quieter, check out Emmagen Creek too.
The Mount Sorrow Ridge Trail
Mount Sorrow is a rainforest peak located just above the reef in front of Myall Beach. Hiking the ridge track is one of the best ways to experience the ancient rainforest and get a great vantage point of where the rainforest meets the reef.
FULL POST: Mount Sorrow Hiking Guide
Myall Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Cape Tribulation. It’s where you can see the famous Cape Tribulation headland from. It’s golden shores are lined with palm trees and the fringing reef lies just beyond.
Cape Trib Horse Riding
If you’re up for a bucket-list experience in Cape Trib, consider taking a rainforest and beach ride with Cape Trib Horse Rides. These guys are the only group offering horse riding in Cape Tribulation.
Book an afternoon beach ride: Cape Trib Horse Ride
Where to Say at Cape Tribulation
Below I’ve included some tips on the best places to stay on your trip to Cape Tribulation. If you’d like more suggestions with photos, read my comprehensive accommodation guide to Cape Tribulation.
Incredible rainforest stay: Wildwood Rainforest Cottages
Wildwood offers easily the most incredible rainforest-stay experience on offer in the Daintree. Located in the heart of Cape Tribulation, Wildwood is set on a rare exotic fruit orchard. Guests have exclusive access to the orchard and can freely explore the 800+ trees on the property, picking and sampling any of the fruits in season. All rooms provide access to a landscaped garden and fire pits for guests to cookout under the stars.
Best Hostel in Cape Trib: Daintree Crocodylus Hostel
For backpackers and those on a budget who would prefer a bit more of a raw Daintree experience, I’d recommend the Crocodylus hostel. Located in Cow Bay, closer to the ferry, but just a short hop from Cape Tribulation and Myall Beach, this hostel offers safari-tent style rooms which are built from wood and canvas, with high ceilings, fans and mosquito net. All rooms have rainforest views and include access to their swimming pool!
Epic Holiday House For Groups: Cape Tribulation Holiday House
With a group or prefer a big house in the rainforest all to yourself? This accommodation is the highest-rated holiday house in Cape Tribulation. It’s set on 5-acres of rainforest and includes a huge balcony, 2 bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen!
MORE PHOTOS OF THE CAIRNS TO CAPE TRIBULATION DRIVE
Need some more inspiration for your Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip? Check out some photos of the best spots on the road below.
If you found the guide useful, drop a comment in the section below. Otherwise, scroll down for some more epic adventures in North Queensland, including trips to the Great Barrier Reef Islands and the Best Waterfalls in Cairns. I’ve also written a comprehensive guide to the Best Things to do in Cairns and the Best Hikes in Cairns, don’t miss them before your next trip!
MY CAMERA AND PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT
- Mirrorless Camera: Canon R5
- Drone: DJI Mavic Pro 2
- 360 Action Camera: Insta360 One X2
- Landscape Lens: Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L
- All-Round Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L
- Telephoto Lens: Canon RF 100-500mm f/f/4.5-7.1 L
- Long Action Pole: Insta360 Invisible Pole (BulletTime)
- Landscape Lens Filter: Hoya Circular Polarizer
- Camera Backpack: F-Stop Tilopa
- Favorite Photography Accessory: Peak Design Capture Clip
For a list of all my recommended photography gear (including what I use and why) check out my guide to camera gear for travel.