A road trip from Cairns to Cooktown is a driving adventure that you won’t forget. The 327km drive takes four hours and is a world of nature, history and fascinating outback characters.
With a beautiful harbour, warm climate and historical significance as the first European settlement in Australia, Cooktown’s buildings reflect the sentiment of an earlier time.
The historical settlement could have become one of Australia’s major centres if the gold hadn’t run out.
Cairns to Cooktown road trip
Although Cooktown itself is worth visiting, the journey from Cairns to Cooktown is the main reason to go as there’s plenty to see along the way. Here are the highlights:
The drive to Cooktown from Cairns takes four hours along the inland road and five hours along the more scenic coastal road.
Travelling north along the inland road, the lush green tropical vegetation of Cairns was soon replaced by fields of vast dry savannah grassland dotted with giant termite mounds.
After ticking several things to do in Cairns off my list, including snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the Cairns Aquarium and riding the Kuranda Skyrail up to charming Kuranda Village, I was ready for a Queensland outback adventure.
Related reading: Road trip packing list ideas.
We drove through what was once the Palmer River goldfields.
102 years after the landing of HMS Endeavour, an exploration team led by William Hann struck gold in the Palmer River.
The news spread like wildfire and the gold rush was born.
Overnight, Cooktown (then known as Cook’s Town) transformed from an uncivilised backwater into the second largest town in Queensland, with a population of over 30,000.
Within a few months there were over 500 tents and by 1875 there were 65 hotels, schools, a fire brigade and two churches.
There were large spacious shops that sold everything from ladies clothes to horseshoe nails and Colt revolvers to Chinese tea.
Alas, like most gold mining towns, the growth vanished just as swiftly as it appeared and by 1886 the gold rush was almost over.
Despite the brevity of its reign, the Palmer Goldfields produced in excess of £5.5 million worth of gold.
Palmer River Roadhouse
We stopped briefly at the Palmer River Roadhouse before driving on to our lunch spot by a river near the Annan Gorge.
The English tourists in our group kept daring each other to jump into the water but even though our guide assured us there were no crocodiles, nobody wanted to put it to the test.
Dusty and weary we arrived at Cooktown by mid-afternoon, our first stop Grassy Hill, which was the hill James Cook stood on to survey his forced landing spot.
On 11 June 1770, the Koko Yalanji tribe stalked a strange boat along the coastline until it stopped at the mouth of the Wahalumbaal Birri River.
While they didn’t welcome the strangers with open arms, they were wary of offending the wawu-nhi, the spirits of their dead ancestors.
The ship was the HMS Endeavour belonging to the King of England which had set sail from Plymouth, England on 26 August 1768 with Lieutenant James Cook was at the helm.
As I looked over the harbour, I could see that the harbour was dotted with sandbanks and shoals, fishing boats and a few sailing boats; mangrove swamps ran wild along the river.
James Cook Museum
I started my exploration of Cooktown at the James Cook Museum which was opened in 1970, during the bicentenary of Cook’s voyage when Queen Elizabeth II visited Cooktown.
The story goes that one local identity, after shaking the Queen’s hand was so overwhelmed that he refused to wash his hand for six weeks.
The museum building has elaborate cast-iron columns and grand high ceilings which were constructed in anticipation of Cooktown’s glorious future.
Surprisingly, for a small town in a remote part of Queensland, the museum has a contemporary look of glass and white canvass sails.
Some of the interesting exhibits include a shell collection and information about Cooktown’s early history.
There are also souvenirs from the HMS Endeavour, a cannon jettisoned from the vessel when it ran aground on Endeavour Reef, and one of the ship’s anchors which was recovered from the reef.
There is an original Chinese joss house for the 20,000 plus Chinese that passed through the town on their way to the goldfields.
At one time, Cooktown even had a separate Chinatown with a permanent population of nearly 3000 people.
Cooktown Botanic Gardens
Nature’s Powerhouse, which is located in the Cooktown Botanic Gardens has a depth of information about the animal and plant life of the area.
There are also paintings of the region’s plants and flowers done by local artist Vera Scarth-Johnson.
Top Pub Cooktown
Wandering back down the main street, I stuck my head into the courtyard at the Top Pub and struck up a conversation with Doris Doughboy, daughter of King George Doughboy of the Wujal Wujal mission whose tribal land was converted into a Christian Mission.
These days, life is very different for the Wujal Wujal.
Doris’ father made a living as a truck driver.
Her niece is a part-time teacher at the local school.
Cooktown Post Office
A fun time to visit Cooktown is during the Discovery Festival is held during the Queen’s Birthday weekend each June, featuring re-enactments of Cook’s arrival.
Black Mountain National Park
The next day we headed off to the eerie Black Mountain National Park to gawk at the giant piles of black granite boulders.
Geologists believe the boulders were once a molten mass which solidified deep below the earth’s surface 260 million years ago.
Erosion gradually exposed the granite plug and fractures began to form the boulders we see today.
Legends abound about people, horses and whole mobs of cattle disappearing forever into the labyrinth of rocks.
Lion’s Den Hotel
After our morning tea stop at the Lion’s Den Hotel where the locals looked like they were the perfect cast for a movie on the Australian outback.
Then we set off on the Bloomfield track to Cairns, all the while looking out for cassowaries and crocodiles.
“Last week I saw a croc lazing just by that log over there,” says Rick pointing down into a picturesque river surrounded by mountains.
At Cape Tribulation, the traffic suddenly became much thicker with busloads of tourists who had come on day-trips from Cairns to photograph the rainforest, reef and sea.
Our last activity before heading back to Cairns was a guided walk along timber boardwalks set up in this awesome Daintree rainforest.
As we approached Cairns, I could not help thinking that if the gold had not run out so quickly, Cooktown might have become one of Australia’s major cities.