Cairns / Cooktown (324km) / Cape Tribulation (105km) / Cairns (141km)
It is possible to drive to Cooktown and back in a day in 7-8 hours of driving round trip but that might not be so much fun for children. Decide to stay for one night though, just bringing overnight things from your Cairns base, and you will have a memorable trip without being exhausted.
The inland road via Palmer River and Lakeland Downs is undoubtedly the best road for driving because it is sealed all the way. The coast road via Cape Tribulation is more exciting but requires a 4 wheel drive and a deal of care to drive.
I have included tide tables for the area for fishing purposes. Until last year (2014) it was important for the Bloomfield crossing (which required fording the river) but a new bridge has made that no longer necessary.
Tide tables for Cooktown or Kangkiji Beach
Condition of the Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield River track
Distances by road between Cairns and Cooktown
|Cairns / Mt Molloy||100km||Cooktown / Bloomfield||74km|
|Mt Carbine||30km||Cape Tribulation||31km|
|Palmer River||83km||Daintree River||36km|
|324 km / About 4 Hours||246 km / About 6 Hours|
This is a fantastic and diverse drive which takes you from the beautiful coast hugging highway, through the canefields around Pt Douglas and then up through the rainforest of the Rex range to the lovely tableland around Julatten. From Mt Molloy you pass into the rain shadow of the coast and the rugged beauty of the drier interior before returning to the coast at Cooktown.
The return via the Bloomfield track is an all day adventure. The track to Cape Tribulation climbs and descends steep rainforest covered ranges and crosses several beautiful clear stony creeks. From Cape Trib to the Daintree River the going is easier as the road is sealed but still requires care. The scenery is spectacular so give yourself plenty of time for photo stops.
Places to pause
The Captain Cook Highway literally hugs the coast as far as Oak Beach. There are several quiet and lovely beaches between Ellis Beach and Wangetti .
Wangetti is the home of Hartley's Crocodile Adventures which is a crocodile farm and zoo. Pull over at the top of the hill beyond Wangetti – the Rex Lookout gives a marvellous view of the McAlister range, Double Island and the beach below.
Between Wangetti and Port Douglas are Turtle Ck, Pretty, Oak and Pebbly Beaches. On a clear day, as you round Yule Point (just after Pebbly Beach) Thornton Peak is the large mountain on the horizon looming over the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park.
Turn off for Mt Molloy 8km past the Pt Douglas turn. Another vantage point on the right near the top of the Rex range road looks north over Mossman towards Thornton Peak beyond the Daintree River. The tableland around Julatten is a great birdwatching area – the Kingfisher Park Lodge has recorded 220 species locally (www.birdwatchers.com.au).
Mt Molloy – Lakeland
Turn right for Mt Carbine 1½km before Mt Molloy. Both are good places for a break or fuel. From the turn off the road is behind the coastal range and the landscape becomes drier and more rugged. After Mt Carbine the road climbs the Desailly range. Pull over before the top and check out the view behind and Mt Elephant across the valley.
Be careful of cattle on the road from Mt Carbine to Cooktown – there are no fences and in the dry season nightly dew run off from the road supports better grass along the verge.
Palmer River roadhouse is the only fuel between Mt Carbine and Lakeland Downs (98km). The highest point of the trip is passed soon after Palmer River and as the road descends the steep Byerstown range to Lakeland there are more great views north. The farms at Lakeland Downs grow coffee, peanuts and bananas on the rich volcanic soils. Lookout for the flocks of Red tailed Black Cockatoos in the area.
Lakeland Downs – Cooktown
The road to the coast at Cooktown (80km) is especially beautiful in the wet season with large areas of water supporting swathes of the beautiful blue flowered Monochoria. Look out for Red winged Parrots and Pale cheeked Rosellas. Pull over at the Annan River and walk downstream on the eastern side to see the gorge.
The road to Rossville and Bloomfield (Ayton) begins 1km past the Annan River. The famous bush pub, The Lion's Den Hotel, is 4km from here (Google's satellite map has it named as Mungumby Lodge which is actually 6km further east). Looming over the landscape is the Black Mountain - this extraordinary heap of boulders is actually a granite intrusion which weathering over the eons has exposed and fractured.
11km past the Rossville turn off is the 12km road to the Archer Point lighthouse overlooking Walsh Bay. It can be very windy here but the view from the lighthouse over Walsh Bay and Rocky Island to the south is sensational. On a clear day it is possible to see Cape Grafton, east of Cairns.
19km past the Rossville turn the road crosses the Annan River again. Up ahead is Mt Cook on the right and Keatings lagoon on the left - a good area for spotting water birds.
A village really, beautifully situated on the southern shore of the Endeavour River with a vast wilderness beyond. Drive up to the lighthouse on Grassy Hill for wonderful views over the estuary to Mt Saunders and Cape Bedford. Cootown was our hometown for 15 years – here are our recommendations for things to do:
- Walk or drive up Grassy Hill
- Botanical Gardens and Nature's Powerhouse Museum ( Vera Scarth- Johnson paintings)
- The Cooktown Museum
- Finch Bay for walking and swimming
- Walk to the summit of Mt Cook (a clear day is best for the view)
- Lunch in the wharf café
- Buy a handline and bait to fish off the wharf or along the rocky headland
- Hire a dinghy to explore the Endeavour River or charter a boat for reef fishing
- Talk to the locals in any of the three pubs
- Drive to Elim Beach and Cape Bedford via Hopevale or take a tour with aborigine elder Willie Gordon.
Turn off for Rossville after the Black Mountain. Mungumby Lodge driveway is on the left after 2km. This is a lovely wilderness hideaway with great walks along Mungumby Creek and up to the waterfalls coming off the Big Tableland behind. In Rossvile, follow the sign to Home Rule Lodge to either stay in the backpacker style accommodation or visit the beautiful Home Rule Falls (please ask permission and directions from the owner). Past Rossville the road passes through a gorgeous section of rainforest between Mt Hartley on the left and Mt Finnegan on the right before coming out onto a cattle station. On a clear day you can see the granite peak of Mt Pieter Botte behind Cape Tribulation.
There is a small store in Ayton and fuel and a supermarket in Wujal Wujal, the aboriginal community. 1km past Wujal the road crosses the Bloomfield River. It is important to check the tide times before leaving Cooktown because the causeway is usually impassable for an hour or so on either side of the high tide. It is worth the short drive upstream to see the spectacular Bloomfield falls. Just drive about 1km until the road ends and follow the path for 200m.
Bloomfield River – Daintree River – Cairns
This is the steepest and most exciting part of the drive. Do not try to change gear on the steepest hills – just engage 2nd gear and 4WD (even if it is dry) and keep your revs steady all the way up (or down) and you won't have a problem.
Be sure to engage 4WD. There are great views south from Cowie Point and north from Donovan Point.
Take care at Emmagen Creek (25km) which has a loose stony bottom.
After Cape Tribulation the road is sealed and there are plenty of places to stop for food and drink. On the right, the long green ridgeline running up to Mt Sorrow is a glorious site against a blue sky. Look out for the Marrdja Boardwalk after Oliver Ck about 7km from Cape Trib – this is a very good interpretive walk over 1000m through the rainforest out to the mangroves. After Cow Bay the road climbs the Alexander range – do not miss the lookout at the top for a fantastic view over the Daintree River mouth and down the coast to Cape Grafton. After the Daintree ferry the road passes through canefields to Mossman with the impressive Dagmar and Coast ranges towering on the right. Mossman to Cairns will take around an hour and a quarter.
Distances from Cooktown: Bloomfield 74km / Cape Trib +31km / Daintree River +36km / Cairns +105km