Exploring tropical north Queensland means diving into a region packed with colourful corals, glittering beaches, and ancient rainforests. Road tripping through the Atherton Tablelands, wandering through the funky coastal town of Mission Beach and swimming in hidden waterfalls means the area around Cairns is packed with adventure.
The best time to visit Cairns and north Queensland is in the winter months - June to August - as this is the 'dry' season. You won't have to contend with the humidity, sweltering heat and monsoon rains of summer. But it's still sunny and warm, meaning you can escape the chilly winter in the south for a delightful tropical holiday!
Here are the top 11 highlights for a campervan or car road trip itinerary through tropical north Queensland.
1. WANDER THE KURANDA ORIGINAL RAINFOREST MARKETS
Pick up your JUCY car rental Cairns and then head off on your adventure. The Kuranda Original Markets are a must-stop location for those who like all things vibrant, colourful and quirky.
These ‘Original’ markets can be found nestled amongst the rainforest and are comprised of many colourful little wooden shacks that are connected by overflowing garden beds and winding pathways. They are bursting with local art and crafts, food and interesting stalls to get lost within.
Hot Tip: If you’re a fan of churros then you absolutely must try the homemade churros and chocolate dipping sauce from the Cassowary Cafe. They are melt in your mouth, finger-licking and bowl licking good!
While in Kuranda, you can also take a ride on the scenic railway, a fun way to get great views of the area.
2. HIKE TO THE TOP OF EMERALD CREEK FALLS
On the way to the sweet little country town of Atherton, stop off at Emerald Creek Falls for a bit of exploring and a refreshing dip.
Located not far off the main highway between Atherton and Mareeba, this impressive waterfall is well worth the hike and if the cool water isn’t enough to entice, then the amazing views from the top surely will.
A 1.9 km hike will take you to the lookout and then it’s just a matter of picking a spot you like best to go for a swim.
3. VISIT THE DAINTREE RAINFOREST
The Daintree Rainforest is one of two UNESCO heritage sites that sit side by side in tropical north Queensland - the other is the Great Barrier Reef. Covering 1200 square kilometres, the Daintree Rainforest is one of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. In the dense undergrowth, you can spot cassowary, freshwater turtles, forest dragons and the Ulysses butterflies.
4. VISIT THE MOSSMAN GORGE AND GO ON A NGADIKU DREAMTIME WALK
Set in the Daintree Rainforest, the Mossman Gorge is a sacred place for the Kuku Yalanji people. The indigenous people in the area have a deep understanding and respect for the rainforest, which has been passed down through generations. The Kuku Yalanji people still look after and protect the Daintree and invite people from all over the world to share in the magical experience of exploring private tracks and culturally significant sites on a Dreamtime Walk.
5. BE AMAZED BY THE CURTAIN FIG TREE
The Curtain Fig Tree is located just outside of Yungaburra.
This is one of the largest fig trees in the region and is probably one of the most amazing trees you will ever see.
This Curtain Fig belongs to the strangler fig species, which grow by germinating upon another tree and sending roots towards the ground, from there it will grow rapidly to eventually strangle and kill the host tree. This beauty is nearly 50 metres tall and is estimated to be over 500 years old!
6. SNORKEL THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
The Great Barrier Reef needs no introduction - this is simply one of the greatest natural wonders on the planet. Snorkel, dive or take a flight over the reef. However you choose to see it, you will be stunned by the vibrant colours and sheer diversity of marine life in the reef.
There's no better time to go than now. Around half of the reef is now dead, and the rest is under threat. Try to tread lightly when you visit, and only wear coral-friendly zinc oxide sunscreen (chemical sunscreen is toxic to delicate corals).
7. FOLLOW THE WATERFALLS CIRCUIT THROUGH THE ATHERTON TABLELANDS
The wet season in Tropical North Queensland’s annual wet season creates countless creeks, rivers and waterfalls which spill into rock pools and tumble through rainforests. Soak up a few of these spectacular waterfalls, spot misty rainbows and maybe even go for a refreshing swim, on the Waterfall Circuit in the Atherton Tablelands. The Waterfalls Circuit features the picturesque Millaa Millaa and Zilzie Falls, as well as the mighty Ellinjaa Falls.
8. GET LOST IN A FAIRYTALE AT PARONELLA PARK
This incredible location boasts the ruins of a charming Spanish castle built for love close to 100 years ago. José Paronella’s dream was to build a glorious castle in one of the most beautiful locations in Australia. Paronella Park is now one of Queensland's most awarded attractions and without a doubt a highlight of the region.
Surrounded by enchanting gardens, it truly is an incredible place and you'll feel like you are lost in a fairytale.
9. RISE WITH THE SUN AT MISSION BEACH
Nestled between lush rainforest and golden sand, Mission Beach is at the heart of the Cassowary Coast. Mission Beach sunrises are some of the best in the region. Make sure you set your alarm as this is one early morning you don’t want to miss!
10. VISIT FITZROY ISLAND
Only 45 minutes by boat from Cairns, Fitzroy Island is one of the loveliest islands strung out along the Great Barrier Reef. Treat yourself to a night of luxurious accommodation on the island, or simply pop over for the day to enjoy the nature trails and excellent snorkelling spots.
11. COOL OFF AT BABINDA BOULDERS
Visit the Babinda Boulders, also known as the Devil's Pool, for a swim in an eye-poppingly scenic location. The deep green water and smooth rocks are surrounded by lush rainforest, giving you a relaxing and immersive setting for a refreshing dip.
Safety first, though: Always be aware of how strong the current is and don’t go swimming if you are unsure of anything.