While there are plenty of attractions and towns to explore around Cairns – Mossman and Port Douglas included – the pull to travel even further is always there. We’re human, after all. But where to go? The obvious choice is Cooktown, just 170 kms as the crow flies from Cairns. The problem is parts of the Bloomfield Track, the road that follows the coast from Cape Tribulation to Cooktown, are unsealed and have creek crossings, which is no good for your average rental car.
Of course, there’s another way to get there, and that’s along what everyone refers to as the inland road (State Highway 81). Covering 330 kms, it heads over the range at Kuranda to Mareeba then travels through the savannah landscape. Different minerals were once mined in these parts and there are small communities to stop at along the way.
Here’s what to do on a road trip from Cairns to Cooktown and what to see once you’ve arrived.
You won’t have been in the rental car for long – only about 40 minutes or so – when you arrive in Kuranda, a pretty town surrounded by rainforest. Stretch your legs during a wander around the village and pick up some snacks for the road at the Kuranda Markets.
If you’re not in a hurry, consider taking a ride on one of Kuranda’s favourite attractions. Travel above the peaks and take in an aerial view of Barron Falls, when you join the Skyway Rainforest Cableway from the Smithfield Terminal. In Kuranda, take the Scenic Railway halfway back down the mountain and get the bus transfer back to your car. It takes about three hours to do the entire loop, but it’s well worth it for the unique aspect you get of the rainforest and the views down the range to the coastline.
Once you’ve passed Mareeba, there are long stretches of road only broken up by small settlements, all 80 kms or less from the last. Make sure you fill the rental car up before you hit the road.
One good stop along the way is Mount Carbine. There’s a roadhouse and pub here where you can get something to eat. The Mount Carbine Caravan Park is surrounded by Brooklyn Station, which is known for the number of birds that can be seen.
After Mount Carbine, you’ll drive the steep climb up the Desailly Range. When you get to the top, pause at Bob’s Lookout, where there are great views of Mount Desailly, Mount Elephant and the tablelands to the south.
There are two more roadhouse stops between here and Cooktown: Palmer River, the site of Queensland’s largest gold rush, and Lakeland. Around Lakeland, keep your eyes peeled for huge flocks of noisy red-tailed black cockatoos. From Lakeland, it’s less than an hour’s drive to Cooktown.
Cooktown is one of the most historically important towns to the European settlement of Australia. On its journey up the east coast in 1770, after leaving Botany Bay in New South Wales, Lt James Cook’s Endeavour hit the Great Barrier Reef. After almost a full day of pumping water, the crew were able to free the ship on a high tide, cover the hole with a sail and, for a week, looked for somewhere safe to land. That was on the Endeavour River, where they stayed for seven weeks doing repairs. During that time, they made contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people, who told them the strange hopping animal they’d seen was called the ganguuru, which was interpreted as kangaroo. Or so the story goes.
Cook’s Town, as it was first known, was established a century later as a port town to service the inland gold fields. Today, it’s one of the only large towns on Cape York, but remains picturesque and unspoiled. The highway you drove in on was only fully sealed in 2006, making the town much more accessible to visitors.
There is so much to do here. Discover the town’s past, not only Cook’s landing, but also the Indigenous culture and the history of the gold rush, at the Cooktown Museum. Stroll through the lush botanic gardens, where there are five major collections, including one featuring species collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770. Join Riverbend Tours for a sunset harbour cruise that heads up the river and into the mangroves so you can go spotlighting for saltwater crocodiles. Check out the incredible artwork at the Kuku Bulkaway Indigenous Art Gallery, owned by the Yuku Baja Muliku people whose artists are inspired by the land and sea. As the day ends, head to the top of Grassy Hill to check out the sunset. Imagine being here a couple of hundred years ago, because this is where Captain Cook stood to see if he could find a safe passage back out to sea.
When you’re ready for a road trip to Cooktown, hire a rental car in Cairns.