Driving between Cairns and Townsville along the Bruce Highway is a pretty common occurrence for those who live in the northern part of Queensland.
However, I’ve compiled this guide for those who have never been or looking to use Cairns as a starting off point for a much greater road trip down to Brisbane (see my Townsville to Brisbane guide for the rest of the route along the Bruce Highway) or even further down the rest east coast of Australia.
I’ve driven this Cairns to Townsville route a couple of times and used that experience to put together my tips and tricks to make sure you don’t miss the best of what this potentially once-in-a-lifetime road trip has to offer.
The route directly along the Bruce Highway is about 350kms. However, my suggested route is going to take you a bit further, 480kms, so you don’t miss the best sites along the way.
In theory, it should take you a little over 4.5 hours to get between Cairns and Townsville. But between the combination of road works and things to see and do along the way, I’d suggest that you give yourself at least a full day.
As with most highways around Australia, the Bruce Highway is pretty straight forward. While it’s not a full multi-lane highway the entire length, there is a good number of overtaking opportunities along the way.
There are a couple of major townships along the route, in particular Innisfail and Ingham that make for good places to stop for fuel, food or just to break up the trip.
Very easily. However, I do recommend that you try to give yourself a full day to take in the attractions along the way. There is plenty to see.
Moving right along, here are the best places to stop on the Bruce Highway route from Cairns to Townsville.
If it’s your first time to Cairns, or you are just using the tourist hub as a starting off point for a grand road trip around Australia, I’ve put together this blog post that will help you hit the ground running when you arrive in Cairns to get you started.
Babinda is quaint little town sugarcane town located about an hours drive south of Cairns. Directly off the Bruce Highway.
Now, while it is home to a couple of cool little cafes and boutique stores, the real reason to visit is the famous Babinda Boulders.
I’ve included more details about what makes the Babinda Boulders so interesting in my guide to Cairns, but if are doing this road trip down to Townsville (or beyond), it makes for an ideal first stop.
Then you can drop into one of the aforementioned cafes to grab a quick caffeine fix before jumping back on to the Bruce Highway to continue the trip.
The first of only two major townships along this relatively short road trip, Innisfail makes a great spot to stop for fuel and other supplies if you haven’t already planned ahead in Cairns.
Depending on how you’ve planned your trip, it’s also worthwhile doing a quick little detour out of Innisfail to Etty Bay.
The tropical rainforests that this part of Far North Queensland is famous for, in particular the stunning waterfalls, are going to feature heavily in this guide, but Etty Bay is a good reminder that this is a coastal route the beaches shouldn’t be missed either.
Etty Bay combines both the rainforest and the beach, but what makes it special more so than the number of other beaches along the route is that it is also one of the few places where you might spot the Southern Cassowary in the wild.
The Southern Cassowary Australia’s largest flightless bird (by weight it’s heavier than the Emu which is marginally taller), but it’s very rare to spot them in the wild in the their native rainforest habitats. However, at Etty Bay they often wander out of trees and make appearances on the beach.
Pro Tip: Just make sure you give the Cassowaries plenty of space, they can be quite dangerous if approached.
Paronella Park, Queensland
How about a little bit of a detour to a Spanish castle? A short excursion off the Bruce Highway will take you to the Insta-famous Paronella Park.
If you’ve made the trip out to Etty Bay you are going need to backtrack a little bit, but the extra time is definitely worth it on both counts.
If you don’t know, Paronella Park is a property developed alongside the Mena Creek Falls in the tropical rainforest by Spanish immigrant José Paronella back in the 1930s in his native style.
This unique site was subsequently opened to the public back in 1935 and is now is a heritage-listed tourist attraction. While nowadays its best known for its Instagram fame due to its very unique nature, especially for Australia.
Don’t let the social media crowds deter you though, Paronella Park is actually truly impressive to witness first hand as well.
Should you be taking a very relaxed pace to your road trip down the Bruce Highway, hang around until nightfall to see Paronella Park lit up a night for something really different.
Just to remind you that the Bruce Highway is indeed a coastal route, the small beachside town Cardwell makes for a very convenient stop.
No detour required for this one, the Bruce Highway runs right along the beachfront through the town making it a great spot to mix things up from the tropical rainforest excursions along the way.
However, if you aren’t sick of hidden away swimming holes just yet, the Cardwell Spa Pool is a worthwhile stop off as well.
This stunning blue mineral water pool only exists during the wet season but is a popular spot with both locals and tourist travelling through the area.
Ingham is the second major township along Bruce Highway between Cairns and Townsville. Again making it a good spot to stop for fuel and other supplies, particularly if you’ve not stocked up and are doing the trip in the other direction.
But what makes Ingham particularly interesting is Lee’s Hotel (formerly known as the Day Dawn hotel). While the name itself might not grab your attention, you might recognise the song made it famous – Slim Dusty’s “A Pub with No Beer”.
The story of the song is a long and convoluted one, so I’d recommend you check out the Wikipedia article for all the details, but rest assured the pub does have currently beer and does a decent feed as well, making it a good spot to stop for lunch (or dinner depending on how you are travelling).
And why not take in some unique Australian history while you are in the area.
Wallaman Falls, Queensland
I’m not going to lie to you, this one is a significant detour off the Bruce Highway, but an absolutely worthwhile one.
About an hour west drive out of Ingham, Wallaman Falls is the highest, permanent, single-drop waterfall in Australia and one of the key attractions of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area that makes this part of Australia such a popular tourist destination.
If you are tight for time, then you can take in the waterfall from the stunning lookout as pictured above. However to really appreciate the height of the falls, I would really recommend hiking down the Djyinda walk trail down to the bottom of the falls.
You are definitely going to need to plan ahead for this one, to fully complete this detour and the hike down to the bottom of the falls is going to take you at least 4 hours before you return back to Ingham to continue along the Bruce Highway.
So if you are planning on doing the trip between Cairns and Townsville in one day including Wallaman Falls keep that in mind and get an early start. But I do highly recommend it.
Crystal Creek Falls, Queensland
Just in case you haven’t had enough of the rainforests and waterfalls just yet, Crystal Creek Falls is another good little stop to break up the hour and a half drive between Ingham and Townsville.
This series of waterfalls and swimming holes are stunning to witness first hand and great spot to refresh if you have the time ahead of the final driving stint to get to Townsville.
All you really need to do is keep an eye out for the signs and follow them to find Crystal Creek Falls.
If you are planning on making the trip all the way down to Brisbane, make sure you check out my tips for the rest of Bruce Highway here.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.