Cooktown is a small town in Queensland’s tropical north that isn’t visited as often as many other places in this Australian state. It usually only seems to be visited by those adventurous travelers going the Cooktown to Cape York route, but the lucky others that get to Cooktown are in for a lovely little treat. It may not be big, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in history and sheer natural beauty.
Getting to Cooktown from Cairns
Cooktown is a mere 240 kilometers north of Cairns, but getting there over land may take a little longer than this number suggests. The roads and terrain in this area are hilly, windy, tropical and outback all in one journey,.
Driving to Cooktown from Cairns
There are two main routes to get to Cooktown from Cairns if driving: the inland way and the coastal way.
The inland way (330 km) takes around 4.5 hours to drive, and it is entirely on paved roads so any car can make it. When going from Cairns, you will head west towards Mareeba on the Kennedy Highway, which is where you will proceed to head north towards Cooktown. Cairns to Mareeba is a great drive through hills and winding roads until you pass the Kuranda region. At this point the scenery changes from lush tropical surrounds to a drier landscape with bits of greenery mixed in. The road from Mareeba to Cooktown runs for around 3.5 hours along the Mulligan Highway and is quite enjoyable, even if it is more stark and dry in appearance. Be careful, though, as cattle and wallabies roam free in this area and can even end up on the road in front of you.
If you have time to spare, there are a few great coffee stops along the road to Mareeba including the Tichum Coffee Farms, Jacques Coffee Plantation and Coffee World. For those interested in a bit of wine and spirits, there are the Golden Drop Winery and the Mt. Uncle Distillery to take advantage of. Read more in my article on the Atherton Tablelands.
For restroom and gas breaks from Mareeba to Cooktown, there are stop-offs at Mt. Carbine, Mt. Molloy and Lakeland Downs.
The coastal way (240 km) takes around 5.5 hours or more and must be done with a 4-wheel drive vehicle as some of the route is not on sealed roads. You can first head north along the gorgeous 1 hour and 15 minute drive on the Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas. The views of the ocean that feels at times to be touching the side of the road is fantastic. From there, continue north on the route from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation. This will involve a Daintree River Ferry past Mossman to get your car across the waterway, and many winding roads through thick rainforest. Be careful, though, as much of the road can be very narrow and there are cassowaries in the area.
After Cape Tribulation, much of the road is unsealed, and creeks will need to be crossed in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. It is said to be an amazing drive, so if you have the opportunity to do it, do take advantage. In the summer months when the rain is at its hardest, it is vital to check road conditions to make sure there are no closings.
If you want to make a real day of the trek, try stopping off at the Mossman Gorge section of the Daintree, as well as Cape Tribulation beach for a nice swim. Croc tours take place all along the river and generally last an hour.
Flying to Cooktown from Cairns
There is a small airport located in Cooktown that the occasional flights make it to from Cairns. It takes only 35 minutes to get there from Cairns, but the flight is said to give amazing views of the area.
Quick search for flights to Cooktown (CTN) from Cairns (CNS), Brisbane (BNE) and Sydney (SYD):
Alternate Transport to Cooktown from Cairns
There are buses that can make the way from Cairns to Cooktown via both Cape Tribulation and Mareeba on Country Road Coachlines. If you have a boat, there is always the option of sailing into the harbor.