A Cairns to Darwin road trip isn’t for the inexperienced traveler, but if you are looking to see real Outback Australia and the vast emptiness of the Top End, then this is the adventure you need.
From the tropical, touristy, sunny Cairns, you’ll be heading west into the interior, where long stretches of seemingly endless road are punctuated by quirky small towns with resident populations that barely break out of the hundreds, where there are more kangaroos than people, and where life is truly a world away from the big cities of the east coast.
Roads will turn red with dust as you drive from Queensland into the Northern Territory, but despite the distances involved and time it takes to get between destinations, you’ll be seeing a part of Australia that few ever venture into, with stunning landscapes, unique rock formations, deep canyons, and remote national parks.
To help you to plan your Outback experience, here’s our guide to road tripping from Cairns to Darwin!
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Best Time to Road Trip From Cairns to Darwin
Compared to other road trips in Australia, you only have a small window of time each year to make the journey from Cairns to Darwin. The weather in the Top End can be extreme, with the year divided into wet and dry seasons.
The wet season runs from November to April, and you’ll want to avoid this time of year completely. Cyclones are a regular occurrence, and heavy rains can flood roads and isolate Outback towns for weeks on end.
The best time of year to travel is the dry season, with the optimum period being from June to early September, when there’s no risk of rainfall. The weather is cooler during the dry season too which will make the trip much more enjoyable.
Things to Know About Driving From Cairns to Darwin
This isn’t a road trip for first-time travelers to Australia. The distances involved on a journey from Cairns to Darwin are vast, and you’ll need to be comfortable driving for long periods of time with few breaks to the monotony.
Our itinerary takes you along sealed roads, meaning that you can rent cars and campervans to complete the journey without worrying about your rental company’s off-road policy. However, make sure you have adequate insurance and roadside assistance which covers remote locations.
For travel insurance we recommend SafetyWing. Its cheap price of only $40/month really makes it a no-brainer. You can get a quick quote below.
If you have a four by four you have more options to explore along the way and to take more remote detours.
With big distances between towns, make sure you carry extra water and petrol, and while you can mostly stay in hotels or roadhouses along the way, if you are willing to camp you’ll have a lot more flexibility.
Wildlife can be a danger this far north too, so avoid driving at night if you don’t want a run-in with a kangaroo or a herd of cattle or camel on the road. Only swim at safe swimming spots, and be careful around waterways and rivers, as Australia’s biggest saltwater crocodiles are found in the Top End.
The Ultimate Cairns to Darwin Road Trip Itinerary
The drive from Cairns to Darwin is a long one. There’s no denying that fact, but it’s still easy to underestimate the kilometers involved. The route may look simple on the map, but you’ll need to factor in which roads are sealed and unsealed, which are four by four only, and which have supply stops along the way.
The quickest route, in terms of the shortest number of kilometers covered, takes you right along the Top End from Cairns to Darwin, but halfway across Outback Queensland the road turns from bitumen to gravel, and unless you have a four by four, you’ll need to follow the sealed road to the south, adding many more kilometers to your journey.
Our itinerary will take you along sealed roads only, making this a more accessible trip for those who don’t have four by four access or aren’t ready to get really remote. From Cairns to Darwin, our suggested route covers a minimum of 2800 kilometers.
The distance from Cairns to Darwin is long and you’ll want to ensure that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, otherwise, you’ll be driving endlessly and will have no time to stop off and enjoy the sights along the route. Our minimum recommended time for this itinerary is 10 days, but you may want to add a few extra days to spend in Cairns and Darwin.
Your road trip from Cairns to Darwin starts in Far North Queensland, at the tourist hub renowned as the access point to the Great Barrier Reef.
After snorkeling or diving the coral reefs, exploring white sandy beaches, and enjoying the tropical weather, it’s time to begin the journey inland.
Before you reach the Outback you’ll drive west into the Atherton Tablelands, where you’ll find a cooler climate and a welcome break from the humidity of the coast.
A winding road leads from Cairns to the top of the plateau, where you’ll find charming farms, quaint villages, and volcanic crater lakes. Spend the night in Atherton, before preparing yourself to travel inland.
Get an early start, as the next leg is a long one. You will be driving 300 kilometers from Atherton to Georgetown and entering the heart of cattle country. Georgetown is located on the wide banks of the Etheridge River, and with a population of just 250 people, this is a small town in Australia.
In Georgetown, you can visit the excellent TerrEstrial Centre, a museum dedicated to the geological history of Australia, where you can find one of the largest collections of rocks and minerals in the country, and enough stories and information to keep even the least scientifically inclined of travelers mesmerized.
5 Essential Packing Items for Australia
#1 Good Camera – Chances are you will be snapping pictures pretty much non-stop in Australia, so you really need a good camera to do its beauty justice. We highly recommend the Sony RX100 III. It’s super lightweight, compact, and the image quality is amazing.
#2 Good Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking around in Australia, so a good pair of shoes is really essential. Our go to shoes are Nike Free 5.0. They are comfortable, lightweight and sturdy. We pretty wear them all the time. We even hiked up multiple mountains/volcanoes with them.
#3 Good Guidebook – Lonely Planet guidebooks are still our favorites and their Australia edition is very thorough and a must for anybody traveling around Australia.
#4 Good Water Bottle – The sun can be brutal in Australia, so make sure to always carry a refillable water bottle with you. After all, tap water is drinkable in Australia, plus it’s free. Our favorite is the Klean Kanteen Classic Stainless Steel Water Bottle.
#5 Good Reef-Safe Sunscreen – Conventional sunscreen damages the reefs, so please make sure to get a good reef-safe sunscreen instead. The Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen works just as well as a regular sunscreen but without all the harmful chemicals.
From Georgetown, carry along Highway 1 for another 300 kilometers until you reach Normanton, the last stop on the sealed northern road before it turns to gravel. With a population of over 1000 residents, Normanton is a real hub in the Outback, and this is where the landscapes turn from green to red.
As well as being a good place to stock up on any supplies you might need, Normanton has a curious collection of quirky giant statues. Check out the 8-meter long saltwater crocodile replica, which is a monument dedicated to Krys, one of the largest crocs ever captured in Australia. After that, you can pop into the Purple Pub, a classic Outback tavern, before checking out the giant Salmon statue which is also in the town.
Cloncurry and Mount Isa
The is where the sealed road heading west ends, and instead our itinerary has you traveling south along the paved road for 400 kilometers to Cloncurry.
This is mining country, and you can visit the remnants of an abandoned copper mine on the edge of town or take tours of working mines in the area. This is also the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The famous Outback service began in Cloncurry, and you can learn more at the John Flynn Place Museum in town.
From Cloncurry, carry on up the road for another 100 kilometers to Mount Isa. Mount Isa is an Outback crossroad where, if you aren’t already sick of mines from Cloncurry, you can check out the Hard Times Mine exhibition.
Stock up on supplies in Mount Isa, because with a population of 20,000, this is the largest town you’ll be visiting for a while.
Now you’re starting to get really remote, and the next real stop is almost 700 kilometers away across the border in The Northern Territory, at the small town of Tennant Creek.
You can spend a long day driving, or you can break the journey up by overnighting at a roadhouse, the Barkly Homestead, before finishing the last 200 kilometers the following day.
Tennant Creek is best known for the Devil’s Marbles, an unusual rock formation, but you’ll have to drive 100 kilometers south and then another 100 kilometers back again to see them. Considering the distance you’ve just traveled, it’s really just down the road!
Best Places to Stay in Tennant Creek:
Goldfields Hotel Motel
The next stop in the Northern Territory is 400 kilometers north along the highway to Daly Waters. This is really just a refreshment stop, as Daly Waters is famous for its roadhouse, the Daly Waters Pub.
This quirky Outback pub has cold drinks and roadhouse food, and for years, travelers passing through have been leaving behind mementoes from their journeys, filling the establishment with a ramshackle collection of bizarre souvenirs from across the world.
Now you’re getting closer to Darwin than Cairns. The large town of Katherine, 300 kilometers north, is the next port of call. Along the way, call in at the beautiful Mataranka Hot Springs to relax in natural, thermal waters.
Katherine is known for its spectacular canyon, the Nitmiluk Gorge, which is found in the nearby national park. You’ll want a whole day to explore the gorge, and you can take out kayaks, join boat tours, or hike through the national park.
Litchfield National Park
Carry on north for another 300 kilometers to reach Litchfield National Park, a beautiful area of lush rainforest and stunning waterfalls which stand in stark contrast to the dusty red landscapes you’re leaving behind.
You can hike to natural swimming pools, camp out under the stars, and see the unusual, giant termite mounds.
The final leg of your journey will see you traveling for just over an hour to Darwin, where you can relax in comparative comfort in the big city. Darwin is Australia’s smallest state capital, but compared to the stops on the way from Cairns, Darwin will seem like a veritable metropolis.
You can visit the local museums, take sunset cruises out into the harbor, and if you have a few days to spare, head out into nearby Kakadu National Park to experience more of the Northern Territory’s stunning natural scenery.
And there you have it – the ultimate road trip itinerary. It’s a beautiful drive from Cairns to Darwin by car and we are confident you will love it as much as we did.
Note: This itinerary is part of a much longer Melbourne to Darwin road trip. If you intend to road trip more of Australia’s east coast, make sure to also check out our other itineraries: Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Brisbane, Brisbane to Cairns, and Cairns to Darwin.