The main goal of our trip to Cairns was to see as much of the Great Barrier Reef as possible, but when we found out that the world’s oldest tropical lowland rainforest was just a short drive away, we had to add a day in the Daintree to our itinerary. We decided it was the perfect first-day activity to help us shake off our travel exhaustion before swimming our days away for the rest of the trip. (I also had a good laugh when the show I had downloaded to binge on the flight, The Mole on Netflix, started the first episode in the Daintree! Coincidence?!? Probably, but still a fun sneak peek of what was to come!)
After arriving from Melbourne (which worked best for our timeline), we got our rental car and headed out straight away to get to the Daintree Rainforest – about a 1.5-hour drive to the Daintree ferry, where many of the river cruises operate. Our goal was to get all the way up to Cape Tribulation and back before the sun set. It was about 9 a.m. when we set off from the Cairns airport (with amazing weather – hallelujah!) and we were looking at at least five hours of driving for the day, but we couldn’t wait!
On our way, I called the Solar Whisper Cruise to see if we could get in on their 10:45 a.m. tour since we thought it made sense not to have to be racing back to do their last tour of the day. (That turned out to be a fantastic plan!) Everything came together so well!
What to Know Before Heading to the Daintree
This is one of those places you need to be a little prepared for due to it being more off-grid and so heavy with wildlife.
- Download a map for use offline because signal isn’t reliable.
- Make sure you have fuel, water, and other necessities before heading up.
- Food options are limited and often close early.
- Beware of cassowaries and other wildlife while driving.
- Do not walk by the water’s edge at the beach, river, or other murky water because the crocs can be lurking there.
- No swimming at the beaches due to crocs and jellyfish.
- Cassowaries are gorgeous, but also can be dangerous if threatened (they have badass talons they will totally come at you with, so don’t get too close).
- Bug spray is your friend and sunscreen if exploring out of the forested areas.
Although we only spent a day there, this could definitely be a multi-day destination and has various lodging options, I have my eye on the Daintree Ecolodge for next time!
Route for a Day in the Daintree
From Cairns to Cape Trib and ending in Port Douglas, this trip took us about ten hours total. It was a wonderful day and I highly recommend at least taking a day to see the highlights of this area as we did.
Solar Whisper Cruise to See Crocodiles & Wildlife
The main draw to the Daintree River cruises is to see the native crocodiles. However, how many you will see really depends on the season and time of day. Although we didn’t see very many crocs due to going at high tide and a less active season, we still really enjoyed the tour on the Daintree River and the guide was extremely knowledgeable. He even had a cute dog co-captain who was a hit with the guests, and a video camera setup to help zoom into smaller wildlife.
We saw one small female croc, the tail of a large male croc (just missed him!), and a tiny baby crocodile (my fave!) while out on the one-hour tour. Our guide also pointed out a cute little tree snake – the only snake we saw on our ENTIRE trip. Something I would have never guessed was possible in Australia since I was sure they’d be in grocery stores, on roads, and hanging from every tree.
I’d highly recommend Solar Whisper Cruise if you are in the area. We chose them over the other options due to their commitment to do what is best for the local wildlife and nature. Their zero-emission boat is wonderfully quiet and gets you very close to the wildlife.
Daintree River Car Ferry & Mount Alexandra Lookout
After the tour, it was a very short drive to the cable ferry to take the car over the river to continue on our mini road trip. I had read that this can get busy, but we had a minimal wait. They also run until late, so it was good to know we wouldn’t be stuck even if our explorations were unintentionally extended.
Mount Alexandra Lookout is one of the top spots listed for a great view of the area. It is an easy walk over to the overlook, so no reason not to stop and take in the views. We weren’t disappointed.
Daintree Ice Cream Company
The next stop was the one I was looking forward to most because I just really love fruit. And I love trying exotic, new-to-me options whenever possible. So, when I saw that there was a local farm in the Daintree offering exotic fruit ice cream tastings (even with a vegan option!), I made sure to star it on our route.
The Daintree Ice Cream Company location is gorgeous and the ice cream is delicious. I wasn’t a huge fan of every single flavor (we may or may not have tried 10+), but it was so much fun to try ice cream made of fruits I had never heard of, like sapote and – my new fave – wattleseed.
When we initially started planning our trip, I considered staying up in this area because they have some great snorkeling and opportunities to see the rainforest wildlife. However, I kept reading warnings about having to be careful of crocs and I was pretty certain all of the cabin-like lodging options would have something creepy crawly in it. I just wasn’t quite ready for that on my first trip to Australia, but we ended up really loving this area and wouldn’t have minded spending more time.
Cape Trib is definitely worth the drive since it is where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. This is also where the paved road ends, so it is pretty much your forced turnaround point. Cape Tribulation also has multiple restaurant options and a grocery store, so planning to eat here is probably your best bet. We ate at Whet Cafe and enjoyed what we had as well as the birds coming to visit us on the outdoor patio.
We also got out on our first of three boardwalk walks here, which we highly, HIGHLY recommended!
Nature Boardwalks of the Daintree
The Daintree Rainforest is a lush, dense forest along the coast. It is very marsh-like in places and is home to a large variety of plants, bugs, birds, and other wildlife – including the elusive cassowary. As someone who likes to admire nature, but not have it touch me (especially in Australia where so many things wanted to kill me or give me a nasty rash), the boardwalks were much appreciated!
Each boardwalk also had parking and toilets (except Madja) available at the trailhead.
Kulki Boardwalk – 600m
This was our first boardwalk since we decided to get up to Cape Tribulation and then stop at as many boardwalks on our way back as we could before it got dark. The Kulki Boardwalk is short and only takes about 20 minutes max to explore, but it also leads up to a great view of the beach below. At first, I didn’t think there was much to see on the trail, but if you look closely, you’ll see so many little bugs and plants you’ve never seen before. We even had a ranger point out a spider on a tree that looked just like bark. Wild!
You can also walk from the parking lot to the beach, but just remember to beware of crocodiles and stay away from the water.
Dubuji Boardwalk – 1.2km
For a longer walk with a more varied landscape, the Dubuji Boardwalk is a great loop through the rainforest, mangrove swamps, streams, and out to Myall Beach. We saw a small kangaroo here hopping away and the crabs under the boardwalk in the swamp were massive and so fun to watch scatter around! The fan palms were also stunning!
The most amazing thing we saw here were the Flying Foxes hanging around in the trees in the large parking lot. These enormous bats are adorable, very vocal, and extremely intimidating. We told a local they were there, and they were like “yea, they are everywhere” which we would later find out when we saw them every night. But at the time, we were absolutely mesmerized!
Madja Boardwalk – 1.2km
The main difference in this boardwalk from the others is that it is raised up since it is mainly in a muddy mangrove area. We planned to just do a quick wander through since our daylight was limited at this point in our day. But then …. we saw a cassowary.
Just below the boardwalk, this ancient and other-worldly creature was happily preening and drinking from the stream. I was completely overwhelmed with excitement and amazement. I hadn’t even known this stunning bird existed before planning our trip to Australia, but I had my hopes way up that I’d have a chance to see one in person. It just felt like we had gone back in time as we quietly sat watching the cassowary, tearing up at the pure magic of it all.
I knew it was a lucky encounter, but a few days later a nature photographer told us he had gone looking for one for four days straight before seeing one. And we had an up-close view all to ourselves!
It also worked out perfectly that we were on a raised boardwalk because the cassowary is also nicknamed “murder bird” since it is known to be defensive and is actually the most dangerous bird in the world toward humans. It was much easier to appreciate the cassowary’s beauty without having to be actively worried it would decide to eviscerate us if we made a wrong move.
Jindalba Boardwalk – 600m
This is the boardwalk closest to the ferry and we decided to skip it since we had already had such a great experience with the cassowary and it was starting to get dark. But you never know what you may encounter in the Daintree, so if you have time, I say explore all of the boardwalks! There is also a Discovery Center nearby but we opted not to do a paid version with so many great free ones. It also seems like they cater more toward kiddos, so may be a good bet for families.
Final Thoughts on our Day in the Daintree
I was genuinely nervous for this part of our trip. I imagined snakes and spiders and crocodiles jumping out at every turn, spikey bushes ripping through my clothes to make me have a dramatic allergic reaction, and bug bites the size of a baseball threatening to take a limb, or worse. But the Daintree was so entrancing, I stopped worrying about those things early on in the day – although I did keep my long-sleeve shirt, pants, and closed-toe shoes on the entire time just to be safe. 😉
After crossing back over the cute little ferry, we gleefully recounted the amazing day as we made the 45-minute drive to Port Douglas where we planned to stay the night and enjoy dinner with a few drinks. Not surprisingly, we were asleep by 8 pm after such a long, fantastic day of adventure. We hadn’t even had a glimpse of the reef yet and Australia was already winning us over!