A Road Trip in Tropical North Queensland: a 5 Day Campervan Itinerary from Cairns & Back

 
For outdoor adventurers, tropical North Queensland is literally where the rainforest meets the reef. Hiking aficionados will feel right at home chasing waterfalls out west, whilst the water babies can swim with their finned friends in and around the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Given the width and breadth of the mighty Land Down Under, there is some serious distance between a number of these natural wonders. The best way to explore this pocket of Australia is by planning a road trip. We flew to Cairns from Brisbane and hired a home on wheels for 5 days. We provide a day by day breakdown of our campervan itinerary from Cairns and beyond and even include a breakdown of our costs. We’re not particularly skilled in the ocean blues so our 5 day itinerary focuses on attractions on terra firma. To help you plan your own road trip in tropical North Queensland, you’ll want to bookmark this blog post.
A couple share a cuddle underneath Ellinjaa Falls in tropical North Queensland

Itinerary planner: how to spend 5 days in a Campervan Trip From Cairns

DAY 1

We flew into Cairns from Brisbane on a Saturday morning, greeted with cloudy skies. Hailing a cab to drop us off at the rental vehicle agency, we collected the keys for our campervan and after a 30-minute induction, we were on our way south.

Following a quick pit-stop for groceries, our first stop on our road trip was Behana Gorge Road. We were inspired by other creatives on Instagram of this narrow road in between sugar cane fields with an epic view of Walsh’s Pyramid in the background. If you follow the Bruce Highway (A1) south of Cairns, the turn off will be on your right (don’t go down Leumann Road on your left). You will pass Walsh’s Pyramid almost immediately but keep following the narrow tar-sealed road. There will be train tracks, some houses, sugar cane fields and possibly farmers on their tractors. The best viewpoint will be at the end of the long straight stretch of road before you enter the National Park.

A couple walk along Behana Gorge Road with Walsh's Pyramid in the background, Queensland
A girl in a white dress stands next to a Britz campervan in Tropical North Queensland

From here, we continued driving south where we stopped for lunch at Babinda BakeryThe ladies behind the counter welcomed us with the warmest smiles. Go for one of their hot pies, sausage rolls or pasties. The bakery must be quite the institution and pit-stop point as the line was out the door when we visited (Closed Sundays and Public Holidays).

We then paid a visit to Babinda Boulders. A popular swimming hole which includes bathrooms and barbecue areas for picnics, beware of the biting sandflies! We were underprepared and even after a quick application of some insect repellent, we fell victim to their nasty bites. Unfortunately, the little critters affected our overall experience of the place and we didn’t turn down the path to Devil’s Pool (a 1.3km return walk) where we believe most of the boulders are for the ultimate photo experience. 

Running away from the sandflies, we drove a little further to Josephine Falls. From the parking lot, there is a paved walking track (about 700m) and various lookout points to the falls where you can swim in the lower pools. It is recommended that you take care when clambering over the boulders. The water is fast-flowing as it snakes downstream and can make the boulders slippery.

We pulled into Mission Beach later that evening staying at Mission Beach Camping & Caravan Park. If you drive through Djiru National Park, keep your eyes peeled for roaming cassowaries!

Josephine Falls, tropical North Queensland, Australia

DAY 2

Mission Beach Camping & Caravan Park is located right on the beachfront so it was easy enough for us to set a 5am alarm, roll open the door and scuttle along the beach for a sunrise photoshoot.

After testing out our balancing skills on the bendy palm tree (a 10-minute walk south along the beach), we packed up the campervan to hit the road again. We briefly stopped to check out Bingil Bay, the hilltop in the background of the cove resembling images we’ve seen of Hawaii or even scenes from a Jurassic Park movie (hey, cassowaries look like they’re related to dinosaurs anyway!)

A couple walk along a bendy palm tree on Mission Beach at sunrise, Queensland
A couple walk along the beach at Bingil Bay, tropical north Queensland

Continuing our drive south, we passed through the townships of Tully and Cardwell and made a small detour to check out the Cardwell Spa Pools. Take note: from Ellerbeck Road, the road into Cardwell Forest Reserve is unsealed. It is still suitable for cars and campervans (a sign will not recommend the road for caravans) but do take care when driving along here as small stones can fly up and chip your windscreen.

Unfortunately, given the lack of rain, the Spa Pools were virtually empty. Signs and pictures at the parking lot warn against swimming during the dry season for the risk of disease. When we walked down closer to the pools, we could see that the stagnant water was full of tadpoles. If you continue to follow the road through the forest reserves, there are other scenic drives and lookout points but we opted not to visit these places.

Our main destination for Day 2 was Wallaman Falls, Australia’s largest single drop waterfall. Situated in the middle of Girringun National Park, we turned off from the Bruce Highway at Ingham. The road leading up the mountain to the falls is tar-sealed and is very windy. Fortunately, the road is wide enough for cars & campervans to comfortably pass one another. From the edge of Lannercost State Forest, the drive up the mountain will take approximately 30 – 40 minutes.

There is a lookout built at the top of the falls providing an impressive birds-eye view of the falls and the expansive valley below. You can trek down to the bottom of the falls. The distance is approximately 3.2km and it is recommended that you allow for 2 – 3 hours return (particularly if you want to go swimming). The beginning of the path is paved and includes stairs but from a certain point, it is a rocky, marked trail down to the bottom. We recommend wearing enclosed shoes (we passed many visitors wearing thongs which looked both uncomfortable and unsafe!) and packing enough water, particularly for the hike back up.

We managed to walk down in around 30 minutes. From the bottom, the roar of the water cascading down into the pool below is mesmerizing and quite breathtaking to behold. There is a small pitched area to snap photos at the end of the trail but for the more adventurous, you can carefully climb down over more boulders to go swimming and/or take more photos from another angle. Our return journey took about 45 – 50 minutes. As we visited in the afternoon, we made sure that we weren’t climbing back up in the darkness.

Our sleeping spot for the night was at the nearby Wallaman Falls Camping Area.

An aerial shot of Wallaman Falls at sunset, Girringun National Park, Tropical North Queensland
A man stands on a rock at the bottom of Wallaman Falls, Girringun National Park, Queensland
A couple stand underneath Wallaman Falls. Australia's largest single drop waterfall in tropical north Queensland

DAY 3

We left Wallaman Falls relatively early on Day 3 to make our way back north. Driving through Cardwell and Tully again, we headed for Wooroonooran National Park on the hunt for some more waterfalls.

We joined the Palmerston Highway just south of Innisfail. Keep in mind that this road is rather windy and hilly. We would recommend leaving the Bruce Highway (around Innisfail) with a full tank of petrol as the only other petrol stations in the area which we located on Google Maps are at South Johnstone and Millaa Millaa.

The waterfall circuit close to the township of Millaa Millaa is approximately 13 kilometres on a sealed road. The first one we visited was Millaa Millaa Waterfall. A well-known and easily accessible waterhole, it was crowded when we visited in the middle of the day. For those wanting quiet photo opportunities, visiting in the morning would be the best bet! We skipped Zillie Falls and continued on to Ellinjaa Falls. The walk down to this waterfall is about 100 metres from the parking lot. The trail leads to a shallow creek and the waterfall is shaded by a canopy of trees.

Looking out to Millaa Millaa Falls in tropical North Queensland
A couple stand hand in hand in front of Ellinjaa Falls in Wooroonooran National park, Queensland

The last stop for us on Day 3 was Nandroya Falls, nearby to our campsite for the night. Beware – when driving along the Palmerston Highway, there is no sign for Nandroya Falls. There is signage to the Henrietta Camp Ground so if you do end up pulling your vehicle into that side road, there is a bridge which crosses a stream to take you to the entrance of the trail anyway.

The quick route to Nandroya Falls is 2.2 kilometres. For those with more time and energy, there is a longer circuit that you can opt to complete when you roughly reach a halfway point. This option is marked on the trail. Given we were visiting quite late in the day, we completed the short route. The walk is relatively flat with only some stone steps as you come closer to the falls. We encountered no other hikers on this particular afternoon so we fortunately had the waterfall all to ourselves. Unfortunately, there are pesky sandflies around the water again but not in the same quantity that we encountered at Babinda Boulders.

It was quite ideal that we ended the day close to our sleeping spot at Henrietta Camp Ground.

Nandroya Falls, tropical North Queensland. 5-day campervan itinerary

DAY 4

We started early again on Day 4 and drove 1.5 hours to trek to Windin Falls. Heading further west on the Palmerston Highway, we then drove north on Malanda Millaa Millaa Road. Just before reaching the township of Malanda, we turned inland on Glen Allyn Road. Unfortunately, our Tom Tom navigation system did not recognise “Windin Falls” so we switched to using Google Maps on our smartphone. If you’re unable to get reception (usually you can around the towns), a good tip is to save the route in Google Maps before you lose reception and don’t close the app on your phone. The GPS will still work on the map even if you don’t have any internet connection.

The beginning of the trail is at the bend of the road where Google Maps tells you to keep going straight. There is no signage pointing to Windin Falls. Fortunately, we came across two vans and two backpackers at the trail’s starting point so we were able to confirm the correct route before setting out. We hopped out of our campervan here and started walking along a track that looked very much like a fire trail.

This was the hardest hike on our itinerary (9km round trip) and we’re glad that we completed it in the morning when we were fresh. Again, the walking trail is clearly marked (no bush bashing required) and it’s only at the end where there is some scrambling down to access the infinity pool at the top of the falls overlooking the valley. Frustratingly, you’ll be greeted by the pesky sandflies again so jump into the cool water quickly so they can’t access any exposed skin!

A couple perch on the edge of the infinity pool at the top of Windin Falls in Tropical North Queensland

Our journey back towards the coast took us along route 52, Gillies Range Road, up and down the mountain range between Gadgarra National Park and Little Mulgrave National Park. Out of all the roads we travelled, this one had the most twists and turns. On the way down, we passed a horrific scene of a semi-trailer that had toppled over the edge, the vehicle lying in ruins. We urge drivers not to speed and to take extra precautions at night.

The road leads to Gordonvale where we briefly stopped for lunch. Then we pressed on north, going past Cairns before stopping to check out Clifton Beach and Palm Cove. There are signs at the beaches warning visitors of potential jellyfish and crocodiles in the water. It would be wise to pay attention to.

Our final destination for the day was Port Douglas. Approximately an hour’s drive north of Cairns, the route along the Captain Cook Highway is one of the most gobsmacking scenic drives we’ve done to date. There are a number of little coves where you can pull over for a breather or simply enjoy the salty sea breeze. Port Douglas is an excellent place to stay to access Mossman Gorge and Daintree National Park. Devastatingly, we didn’t have time to visit either of these spots on this itinerary. On a 7-day itinerary, these spots would certainly be included so hopefully, we will return one day!

We arrived in time for the perfect fairy floss sunset along Four Mile Beach before heading into town for a fish and chips dinner at The Court House Hotel. We elected to stay at Tropic Breeze Caravan Park, an ideal location close to Four Mile Beach and the main thoroughfare, Macrossan Street.

A couple hold hands on Four Mile Beach at sunset in Port Douglas, tropical North Queensland

DAY 5

We enjoyed a sleep-in on our last morning, waking to the sounds of the birds and rustling of fellow campers. After a coffee stop at Sparrow Coffee, we spent a lazy morning wandering the shops and checking out the view from Rex Smeal Park. Then it was time to head back to Cairns. We took our time winding down the Captain Cook Highway, stopping in at Rex Lookout and Palm Cove again for ice cream from Numi (we enjoyed Chocolate & Coconut, Honeycomb and Chocolate City flavours. Absolutely delicious but also on the pricey side).

QUICK FACTS

Distance Covered: 962 kilometres

  • Day 1: 174 km
  • Day 2: 207 km
  • Day 3: 277 km
  • Day 4: 234 km
  • Day 5: 70 km

Number of Steps: 62,125

Total Costs: $1,696.92

Campervan Model: Britz Double Down 4YX

Number of Days: 5

A couple stand in front of a Britz campervan on the Captain Cook Highway in Tropical north Queensland

TOTAL COSTS

Flights – $767

x2 adult return airfares Brisbane – Cairns, including carbon offsets and credit card surcharge

Campervan Hire – $380

Included 5 days rental, extra driver fees and gas bottle refill ($18)

Extra items incur extra costs including: camping table and chairs, baby seats, reduction in insurance excess

Transport to Vehicle Rental Agency – $30.70

Food & Drink – $221.35

Includes groceries for 5 days, coffees, x1 dinner out, x2 beers and the odd bakery treat

Petrol (x3 refills) – $194.87

Campsites – $103

  • Mission Beach – $29 (powered site)
  • Wallaman Camping Ground – $13
  • Henrietta Camp Ground – $13
  • Tropic Breeze Caravan Park (Port Douglas) – $48 (powered site)

TOTAL – $1,696.92

Note: On this campervan trip, we opted not to buy travel insurance, including for the rental vehicle. We also chose not to pay for the Liability Reduction Option. This was a personal choice and we assessed the risk as “low” because:

  • We both have open Australian Driver’s Licenses;
  • We are both familiar with the road rules in Queensland, Australia;
  • We both felt comfortable calling for roadside assistance and/or emergency services, if required; and
  • We were not planning to partake in any extreme sports/activities.

We recommend that each individual perform their own risk and cost assessment for any trip away from home and seriously consider the need for travel insurance. Read our blog post – Travel Insurance: Should I, Shouldn’t I?

The view of the coast from Rex lookout. Perfect stop for Queensland Campervan Itinerary

HOW TO GET TO CAIRNS

  • By Plane
  • We flew from Brisbane to Cairns return with Virgin Australia. Qantas and Jetstar also offer direct flights to Cairns from capital cities and regional areas. We chose to carbon offset our flights.
  • Australian domestic flights will land at Cairns Airport Terminal 1, while international departures and arrivals are at Terminal 2.
  • We booked our campervan with a local recreational vehicle rental agency (Tourism Holdings Pty Ltd) which manages a fleet of campervans and motorhomes by Britz, Mighty and Maui. The Britz campervan we rented was able to carry 4 passengers (we booked a larger vehicle as the price difference was not much and gave us a bit more room inside). It included two (2) double beds, sheets and towels, a kitchen sink, gas stove, microwave, fridge, cooking utensils, kettles (x1 gas, x1 electric), crockery and cutlery and a Tom Tom navigation system.
  • The vehicle included a Standard Accident Liability Bond of $3500. This meant that we would be held liable for the cost of repairs and/or damages to the vehicle, and/or this party, up to a total of $3500. There is an option for drivers to purchase a Liability Reduction Option to reduce this liability to nil. This is something that each traveller should assess.
An aerial view of palm trees above Thala Beach Reserve, pit-stop on North Queensland road trip

WHAT TO BRING

Insect repellent

For this trip, we admittedly used Bushman’s insect repellent. We’re yet to find a DEET-free, eco-friendly repellent and will continue to scour the supermarkets and online retailers for a suitable alternative. Recommendations welcome!

Eco-friendly Sunscreen

We recently purchased a hypoallergenic, reef safe, biodegradable sunscreen. Unfortunately, we’ve found the cream of this brand to be quite greasy and heavy on the skin. We’ll continue to search for an alternative but if anyone has any other reef-safe sunscreens they can recommend, please let us know!

Toilet Paper

Surprisingly, all the public toilets that we visited during this trip, including the ones in the middle of national parks, were well stocked with toilet paper. Just in case you get caught without any, we’d recommend having a roll in the campervan.

Hand Sanitiser

For obvious reasons.

Hiking Boots

Closed in shoes are a suitable alternative for the hikes and walking trails included on this itinerary.

Baby Wipes

In the instances whereby you don’t have access to a shower, you’ll be relieved to have some of these to wipe the sweat and grime off your skin as best as you can. Some spots and camping grounds will have taps with non-potable water. We used these at both camping grounds for cold cloth showers after our hikes (in addition to the baby wipes).

Reusable Water Bottle

When driving through towns, we would often find public water fountains. We also purchased large 5L water containers to refill our reusable Avana water bottles to limit our single-use plastic consumption.

Headlamp/Torch

Jasmine is a safety nutter and will try to ensure that we’re not left hiking in the dark. A head torch is small and lightweight and keeps your hands free if you need to be outside in the middle of the night where there is no other light.

WHAT TO KNOW

Animals & Insects

Sandflies are vicious and can bite through insect repellent and clothing. Travelling through Tropical North Queensland in October, we found them present at Babinda Boulders, Nandroya Falls and Windin Falls.

Crocodiles may be present in the waters at certain beaches and creeks. Take notice of the signs. Do not go swimming or wading in the water (even ankle deep!) at night time.

Camping Grounds

If you plan on camping in one of Queensland National Parks’ designated campsites, you must pay and register your dates, number of people and vehicle on their website. Campsites welcome camper trailers, caravans, campervans, motorhomes and tents and provide excellent value at $6.50 per person. If caught without a tag on your vehicle, you will be subject to penalties.

Many of these designated campsites have hybrid composting toilets, sometimes a cold shower block and a tap with non-potable water.

Staying in a Caravan Park

If you plan on parking and sleeping at a caravan park, we recommend reserving a spot in advance (particularly in high season). Make sure to also check when office hours are. You want to make sure you can connect to power and have access to a hot shower!

Phone Reception

Often, there is limited to no phone reception when you go inland. Bevan is with Telstra and Jasmine is with Vodafone and we had mixed results during this trip when we went west. If you don’t have a Tom Tom or other GPS navigation system with your rental vehicle, set up Google Maps for offline use before you venture out of range.

Petrol

Double check your petrol gauge before heading west off the Bruce Highway. There will be fewer petrol stations once you drive away from the coast. The campervan we hired only guzzled petrol. We found that half a tank took us about 3 – 3.5 hours driving.

Also be mindful of travelling on public holidays! Smaller, local petrol stations may not be open or will only trade for limited hours. The last thing you want is to be caught with an empty fuel tank in the middle of nowhere!

Waterfalls Galore

Thanks to Instagram but also the Internet, we had no idea about the sheer number of waterfalls in Tropical North Queensland until we begun researching ourselves. Here is a list of several other waterfalls close to Cairns that you can add to your own campervan itinerary from Cairns.

Are you planning a road trip somewhere in Australia? Tell us all the details below!

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