The Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is one of Australia’s most scenic driving routes. Discover an epic 1-day itinerary with stops not to miss.
A trip to Cairns and Port Douglas just isn’t complete without driving the scenic coastal route from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Following the scenic Captain Cook Highway, this drive takes you to the incredible coastal road wedged between the Daintree Rainforest and the shores of the Great Barrier Reef.
After driving this route several times, I’ve created this 1-day itinerary. Below you will find out exactly what to expect on this amazing self-drive route, with all the best highlights not to miss along the way.
By Olly Gaspar, traveler, travel blogger & photographer for 5+ years with 600+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.
Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive Overview
Below is a simple overview and important things to know before I get into the itinerary.
- Driving distance: The Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is approximately 140 kilometres with about 3 hours of driving time.
- Road conditions: This scenic route is well-maintained and sealed the entire way. You don't need a 4x4 to drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation.
- Ferry: You will need to take a ferry to cross the Daintree River over to Cape Tribulation as no land crossing bridge exists. Departures are every 15 to 30 minutes from 5 am and midnight daily and cost $47 per car for a return trip
- How many days? I recommend doing this itinerary over one day and staying at Cape Tribulation. However, you can also break this up over several days by staying at the Nothern Beaches or Port Douglas.
- Car rentals: There are many car rental offices in Cairns and at Cairns International Airport. However, I recommend booking in advance to get a good deal. I use DiscoverCars to compare rates across dealerships in FNQ.
- Accommodation: There are plenty of places to stay along the Great Barrier Reef Drive including hotels & resorts in Port Douglas and various lodgings in Cape Tribulation.
- Mobile Coverage: Limited in remote areas especially around the Daintree River & Cow Bay. Download maps and important information beforehand.
Don't Have Your Own Car?
You can still explore this incredible journey by joining the Billy Tea Safaris 4x4 tour. This includes a boat cruise on the Daintree, a guided wildlife walk at Cape Tribulation, and swimming at Emmagen Creek.
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!
1-Day Great Barrier Reef Drive Itinerary
Here's an overview of my recommended itinerary with stops on the Great Barrier Reef Drive. All of these are optional of course, but I've included everything I think is worthwhile for a fun, adventurous drive!
- Palm Cove - Scenic palm-lined cove known for safe swimming within a stinger net, rainforest walking tracks, and a vibrant selection of restaurants, bars, hotels, and resorts.
- Ellis Beach - Beautiful, lifeguard-patrolled beach perfect for a quick stop. Don't miss the sunrise and the excellent beachside restaurant/bar.
- Hartley's Creek - Premier wildlife experience a short drive from Ellis Beach. Guaranteed crocodile sightings within the park or spot them in the wild at Mowbray Bridge.
- Thala Resort Palm Tree Road - Famous for its symmetrical palm tree plantation, easily visible from the road. Ideal for drone photography.
- Captain Cook Highway - Not a stop, just enjoy the most breathtaking coastal views on one of the world's most scenic parts of the drive.
- Rex Lookout - Offers panoramic views and is a popular hang gliding launch spot. Watch for hang gliders and possibly the hang-gliding dog on weekends.
- Mowbray River Footbridge - A reliable spot to view saltwater crocodiles, especially during low tide. Newly-constructed parking area is available.
- Port Douglas - Famous for its waterfront and 4 Mile Beach. Perfect for a coffee break or lunch.
- Mossman Gorge - Experience a 45-minute walk through the Daintree Rainforest and swim in crocodile-free creeks.
- Daintree Village - Offers a glimpse into rural Far North Queensland with small cafes, restaurants, and shops.
- Daintree River - Catch a crocodile spotting cruise near the ferry terminal. Solar Whisper offers an eco-friendly experience.
- Cape Tribulation Ferry - The gateway to Cape Tribulation, operating from 5 AM to midnight. $27 for a one-way car ticket.
- Mount Alexandra Lookout - Provides stunning views of the Daintree River, a short drive after the ferry crossing.
- Cape Tribulation - Where the rainforest meets the reef. Explore Mason's Swimming Hole, Mount Sorrow Ridge Trail, and Myall Beach for a full experience.
This itinerary covers the key highlights and practical tips for a day trip along the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. For accommodation and activities, I've provided to suit various budgets.
1. Palm Cove
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.
2. Ellis Beach
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!
3. Hartley's Creek
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 onto the road bridge over Hartley's Creek. Sometimes, you'll spot a crocodile sitting right under the bridge!
Optional: Hike to Hartley's Creek Falls nearby.
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).
4. 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!
5. 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! The section leading up to Rex Lookout (below) from Thala Resort is one of the most scenic, so make sure to take it all in!
6. Rex Lookout
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!
7. 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 footbridge 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!
- Google Maps Pin: Mowbray River Foot Bridge
8. Port Douglas
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 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.
9. Mossman Gorge
Only a short 20-minute drive north of 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.
10. Daintree Village
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 toward 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.
11. Daintree River Crocodile Cruise
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. Must Do 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!
12. 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
The Daintree River Ferry costs $27 for a one-way car ticket. However, if you want a return ticket, it's $47. Keep in mind that the return tickets are flexible and you can use them another day if you plan on staying in Cape Tribulation.
13. Mount Alexandra Lookout
Shortly after the ferry, the road continues for about 50 minutes toward 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!
14. Cape Tribulation
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 and I recommend staying in Cape Tribulation for a night or two to explore.
But the adventures don't end here! There are so many fun things to do in Cape Tribulation. I'll include a few of my recommended activities below.
Tip: If you're up for a bookable tour, check out my roundup of the best Cape Tribulation tours to choose from.
Exploring Cape Tribulation
This region features one of the rawest coastlines in Australia and is certainly a highlight for those taking the scenic coastal road from Cairns.
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 to swim somewhere a little quieter than Mason's Creek, check out Emmagen Creek. This is a beautiful (mostly) croc-free freshwater creek accessible via a short rainforest stroll from the creek crossing.
You might even spot some local wildlife on the way!
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.
Myall Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Cape Tribulation. It's where you can see the famous Cape Tribulation headland from its 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.
1. Wildwood Rainforest Cottages Luxury
Wildwood offers luxury rainforest cottages set on a rare exotic fruit orchard. Freely explore the 800+ trees on the property, picking & sampling any of the fruits in season
2. Daintree Crocodylus Hostel Budget
Located in Cow Bay, this hostel offers safari-tent style rooms that are built from wood and canvas, with high ceilings, fans and mosquito net.
3. Cape Tribulation Holiday House Family
The highest-rated holiday house in Cape Tribulation set on 5 acres of rainforest & includes a huge balcony, 2 bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen!
More Far North Queensland Travel Guides & Blogs
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 have any updates or further suggestions, drop a comment below! Otherwise, scroll down for some more epic adventures in North Queensland.
- 60+ Things to do in Cairns - my ultimate Cairns and FNQ travel resource covering the best activities, hidden gems, and unmissable experiences.
- Cairns Hiking Guide - a huge list of epic rainforest, waterfall, and lookout hikes in Cairns.
- Cairns Waterfalls - a huge list of epic waterfalls that I've visited in Cairns and the surrounding tropics.
- Cairns Islands - discover my favorite Great Barrier Reef islands near Cairns and Port Douglas.
- Cairns Tours - my roundup of the best tours you can book in Cairns and FNQ, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Daintree Rainforest.
- Cairns Packing List - tips on what to pack for a trip to Far North Queensland.
- Top Things to Do in Port Douglas - a comprehensive guide to the sleepy Far North Queensland town of Port Douglas.
- Epic 5-Day Cairns Itinerary - my suggested adventure itinerary if you only have 5 days to spend in Cairns.
- Cape Tribulation Travel Guide - discover where the rainforest meets the reef at one of my favourite places in Australia.
- Magnetic Island Travel Guide - your ultimate resource for visiting "Maggie" near Townsville.
- Best Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands - my guide to one of Far North Queensland's most underrated adventure destinations.
- Accommodation Resources: Discover where to stay in Cairns, the best hotels in Port Douglas and my Cape Tribulation accommodation guide.