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There are few road trips in Australia that can compete with the adventure that is driving to Cape York. The journey through Queensland’s wild and remote northern peninsula is one of the great expeditions Australia’s wilderness has to offer.
Here in the vastness of the Cape human impact is limited and nature still rules. Its ruggedness and its remoteness make it a challenging place to navigate. If you are to succeed in driving Cape York, preparation is key. To that end, we have put together a Cape York trip planning guide to get you ready for the significant undertaking into the remote Cape York peninsula.
This step-by-step Cape York trip planning guide will help you with the surprisingly in-depth process of Cape York trip preparation. It includes not just the best things to do in Cape York, but all the information you will need to consider in your Cape York trip planning.
We have included details and resources on route planning, packing, supplies, accommodation, car care, and a range of other helpful tips. Following this Cape York trip planning guide will have you one hundred percent ready for your trip to Pajinka the northern tip of Australia.
Looking for a rugged vehicle to get you up to the Cape and back?
Step 1 | Get a Good Cape York Map
Before you begin planning your trip to the Cape, you need to find a good Cape York map.
Google Maps has forsaken the Cape and I mean forsaken. Unlike in other parts of the world where Google might occasionally direct you into the sea or label a cattle track as a ‘road’, here Google is often unable to even load a map and will just spin into oblivion.
Luckily there are a few other navigational tools available to assist in planning your trip.
Cape York HEMA App
This off-road navigation mapping app is the best Cape York map available. Built for those looking to get off the beaten path, it is the perfect navigational tool to have if you’re aiming for a wild 4WD adventure on the Cape. It has the best topographic maps of the area including all off-road trails and tracks. It uses GPS and can be used offline.
Go old school and grab a paper Cape York Peninsula map from one of the nearby information centers like the one in Cooktown. Even if you have the HEMA map, sitting around the paper map with the crew, plotting your course is one of the more enjoyable parts of Cape York trip planning.
If you don’t want to pony up the $100 for the Cape York HEMA map or an old-school paper map isn’t for you, MapsMe is the best free digital option. While we found driving times were a little off, the ability to download maps and use them offline was essential in the remote Cape where service is practically non-existent.
Step 2 | Understand the Distances in Cape York
Understanding the distances between locations along the drive from Cairns to Cape York is essential for planning your trip. While Google might tell you that the 1,000-kilometer journey should take 13.5 hours, it will likely take a lot longer. Driving time varies considerably with the condition of the roads, which in turn is dependent on the season, weather, and the number of travelers on the road.
Below is the average driving time between popular routes that will help with your Cape York trip planning. These times, however, are estimates and could vary immensely depending on the road conditions on any particular day of travel. Leave yourself enough time to extend these driving times should the weather turn, or should you have car trouble.
|Route||Est. Driving Time||Route||Est. Driving Time|
|Cairns to Cooktown (Coastal Road)||5.5 hours||Archer River Roadhouse to Bramwell Junction||2.5 hours|
|Cairns to Laura (inland)||4 hours||Bramwell Junction to Eliot Falls (Bamaga Road)||2.5 hours|
|Cooktown to Laura (Battlecamp Road)||2 hours||Bramwell Junction to Captain Billy’s Landing||2.5 hours|
|Laura to Lakefield Ranger Base||1 hour and 45 mins||Eliot Falls to Jardine Ferry||1 hour|
|Laura to Coen||3 hours||Jardine Ferry to Bamaga||45 mins|
|Coen to Archer River Roadhouse||1 hour||Jardine Ferry to Ussher Point||3 hours|
|Archer River Roadhouse to Chili Beach||2.5 hours||Bamaga to Pajinka (The Tip)||1 hour|
Step 3 | Decide on Things to Do at Cape York
Once you have an understanding of the distances and driving times, you need to decide what to do on Cape York. Cape York is brimming with different places to explore and things to do in this vast natural playground. From challenging 4wd tracks to remote beach camping to waterfalls and more.
Given the distances in between the various attractions of Cape York, deciding the things to do in Cape York is an important step in your Cape York trip planning.
We have put together a list of the most popular things to do to get you started. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things to do on the Cape, but rather some suggestions from some of our favorite experiences.
1. Drive the Old Telegraph Track
Built to allow access to the telegraph lines connecting Cooktown and the Cape in the early 1800s, the Cape York Track or Old Telegraph Track was originally the only way to access the Tip. Today, this four wheel drive track is the reason many make the pilgrimage here. One of Australia’s oldest, most famous 4WD tracks, it is an Australia bucket list item for many 4WD enthusiasts.
2. Visit the Northernmost Point in Australia
No trip to Cape York is complete without visiting Australia’s northernmost point. The northernmost point in Australia is approximately 45 minutes north of Bamaga. The return walk to the sign should take no more than an hour at a leisure pace with plenty of time for the obligatory photo.
3. Hire a Boat to Enjoy Cape York Fishing
In our opinion, of all the things to do in Cape York, renting a boat to go fishing is one of the best. We hired a boat from Bully’s in New Mapoon. Showing up at the Seisa Pier with our singular small rod and reel resulted in belly laughter from Bully, we quickly understood why. The unspoiled waters of the Cape are teeming with fish, and they’re not small.
We didn’t have to go far offshore to find flocks of sea birds diving into churning bait balls surrounded by leaping tuna. Closer in, near the mouth of the Jardine River, monster trevally were lurking below and giant turtles floated lazily by. Before long gangs of huge sharks began to circle the boat, waiting to grab our catch. It was some of the wildest fishing we have ever seen, especially so close to shore.
An experience on the waters of Cape York is truly remarkable. If you are looking for one amazing thing to do in Cape York, a boat trip to the mouth of the Jardine River is a must!
4. Take a Dip in the Cape York Waterfalls
Since swimming in the ocean is off the table on Cape York, heading to the fresh waterfalls in the area is a must for anyone driving to Cape York. Offering a respite from the heat and the ability to rid yourself of a bit of red dust, taking a trip to visit Fruit Bat Falls, Eliot Falls and the hidden Sam Falls should be on everyone’s Cape York trip bucket list.
Often substituting as a shower for the day, a dip in one of these refreshing Cape York waterfalls is a highlight of the trip not to be missed.
5. Tackle the Archer Burger
Almost as famous as the Old Telegraph Track is the Archer Burger. Available at Archer Roadhouse, this ginormous burger comes with the lot. Beside the usual trimmings expect pineapple, beetroot, bacon, grilled onions, and a fried egg.
Whether you’re passing through at lunch time, later in the day or even early morning, no trip driving to Cape York is complete without stopping at Archer Roadhouse for this legendary meal.
6. Relax at Chili Beach
Chili Beach is known as the most scenic beach in Cape York. Famous for its wind swept palms and white sand beaches, it is no wonder this Insta-worthy beach is a popular stop on the drive from Cairns to Cape York.
The beach itself reminded us of our time at El Cuyo in Mexico with a strong offshore wind that is present year-round. Make sure to book a camping spot in the national park that is protected from the persistent gales to ensure you make the most of your time at Chili Beach.
Also, if you are a keen bird watcher, the elusive and beautiful Palm Cockatoo (Palmie for short) can be found here with its dark black coloring and striking red crest.
7. Fish for Barramundi in Weipa
The western side of the Cape is often overlooked in Cape York trip planning. But those with a little extra time up your sleeve should head over to Weipa for some amazing Cape York fishing. Weipa is regarded as one of the premier on-shore fishing spots to land a barramundi.
8. Feast on a Chicken Burger from Bramwell Junction
Throwing its hat in the ring for the Cape’s best roadhouse burger is Bramwell Junction with its massive chicken burger. Fried chicken topped with lettuce, tomato, pineapple and smothered in delicious, tangy, spicy mayo, you can’t go wrong with this staple driving to Cape York.
9. Grab a Beer from Queensland’s Northernmost Pub
No holiday in Australia is complete without a trip to the pub. The pub in Bamaga holds the title of Australia’s northernmost pub and is the only place at the Tip where you can grab grog to go. Beware, this remote pub isn’t cheap.
10. Check Out the War Relics
If you are interested in World War II history, don’t miss out on the war relics throughout the Cape. Almost all of the Cape was used during WWII in preparation for the potential invasion of Australia by the Japanese. Home to several air facilities and major bases, the Cape played a critical role in Australia’s WWII involvement. Discover all of the WWII relics from crashed planes to airfields to fuel fields. A visit to these relics is definitely one of the most fascinating things to do in Cape York.
- Green Hill Fort | Thursday Island
- WWII Artillary Aircraft | Horn Island
- DC-3 Wreck Site | Bamaga
- WWII Fuel Dump | Bamaga
- Bristol Beaufort Bomber Wreck | Bamaga
- Curtiss P-40E Warhawk Wreck | Bamaga
11. Discover Nature
One of the things you will notice in Cape York is the incredible abundance and diversity of nature. With minimal human impact, nature still rules here on the Cape. And the wildlife here is remarkable if you only take a few minutes to sit down and observe it.
While on the drive to the Cape, we discovered so much wildlife around us. From hawks feeding their young from the fish they caught in the creek in front of our camp to bower birds building ornate nests to impress potential suitors. You might see sharks breaching or crocodiles bathing, scorpions lurking or snakes warming. The nature that surrounds you on the Cape never fails to impress.
One of the top things to do at Cape York is to be really be aware of your surroundings and discover the nature that abounds. Trust us, it may turn out to be one of the highlights of your drive from Cairns to Cape York.
12. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Crocs
Everyone’s Cape York trip planning should include saltwater crocs! The saltwater crocodile is recognised as the animal most likely to eat a human so it is no wonder that these dangerous animals hold a grim fascination for people. Growing as large as 6 meters, spotting a croc on your drive from Cairns to Cape York is sure to make your trip a memorable one.
Pro-tip: Known croc spots are at Loyalty Beach near the top of Cape York and at Captain Billy’s Landing on the eastern coast.
Pro-tip: Don’t ever feed or interact with crocodiles. It might be a bit of fun for you, but it won’t be for the child who gets attacked because that croc becomes complacent around humans.
Step 4 | Plan Your Cape York Trip Route
With your map in hand, an understanding of the distances, and an idea of the things you would like to see and do driving to Cape York, the next step in Cape York trip planning is to plot your course.
The distances here are vast, the destinations remote, fuel stations and campsites are few and far between. Knowing exactly where you are going, how long it will take you to get there, and how much fuel you will need is a critical step in Cape York trip planning.
Check out our FAQ on everything to know before you go to the Cape for information on where fuel stations are located.
A great resource to use along the way to help plan your route is WikiCamps. This app shows campsites, points of interest, day-use areas, water facilities, and even dump locations. There is plenty of free Cape York camping to be had and WikiCamps is the best app to locate these amazing spots.
It is also wise to map out an altnerate plan in case things, well, don’t go to plan. Get familiar with key locations, where people are located, and where fuel is available. It might come in handy if you have an emergency. Build a couple days contingency into your route planning in case you have a breakdown or just really love a spot and want to stay an extra day or two!
Step 5 | Cape York Trip Planning for Meals
As with every camping trip, planning your meals is an important part of preparation. But, when it comes to a Cape York trip, planning for meals is even more important due to the limited availability of supplies on the Cape.
Supermarkets can only be found in Cooktown, Weipa (if you go), and Bamaga/Umagico near the tip of Cape York. The supermarkets were generally well stocked and prices while a little more expensive than home didn’t seem too exorbitant. In between the supermarkets, you will find a small number of roadhouses and general stores with quite limited options and high prices. Planning your meals in advance and ensuring you have everything you need is key to enjoying your Cape York dining experience without breaking the bank. Part of your Cape York trip planning should involve meal planning. What you need, and where and when you will be able to stop at supermarkets while driving from Cairns to Cape York.
We planned out all our meals for our three weeks on the Cape and stocked up on enough canned and dry ingredients in Cairns for the entire trip. We packed fresh fruit, veg, and dairy for the first week and then restocked as needed from the general stores and supermarkets we passed.
Step 6 | Know the Alcohol Restrictions in Cape York
An important part of your Cape York trip planning is knowing about the alcohol restrictions. Dry communities exist where full alcohol bans or alcohol limits may be in place. Be aware of the areas that enforce alcohol limits per vehicle and where exemptions exist for bonafide travelers (i.e., you).
It is inevitable that you will pass through one if not two of the dry communities on your trip to the tip of Cape York.
For more information on the alcohol restrictions in Cape York check out our Everything You Need to Know Before You Go FAQ on Cape York!
Step 7 | Book Your National Park Accommodation in Advance
While there is free camping in Cape York, to truly experience all Cape York has to offer, you will want to visit some of the national parks. Spaces in the national parks, however, are limited and fill up fast especially during school holidays. Make sure you book in advance to secure a spot as part of your Cape York trip planning!
The most popular national park camping destinations are Chili Beach and Captain Billy’s Landing.
Step 8 | Decide What to Pack for Cape York
One crucial step in your Cape York trip planning is deciding what to pack. And, deciding what to pack for Cape York can be a challenge. Being so remote, you will need to bring more items and supplies with you than you would for a normal camping trip. From spare parts to recovery equipment to extra supplies, making sure you have everything you need may seem overwhelming.
Luckily for you, we have put together a helpful Cape York trip checklist of everything that we took with us (and a few things we forgot but wish we had)! The Cape York trip checklist includes everything from recovery equipment to medical supplies to camping equipment and more. You don’t want to be without something on the Cape because running to the nearby Woolies or Big W won’t be an option.
Step 9 | Brush Up on Safety Tips Before Driving to Cape York
The drive to Cape York cuts through some of the most remote, wild, and rugged land in all of Australia. Brushing up on a few safety tips is always a good idea before heading on any Australian road trip, but it takes on special significance here. Make sure your Cape York trip planning includes brushing up on a safety strategy.
Here are our top tips for staying safe to help you with your Cape York trip preparation.
Drive with Your Headlights on
They may seem redundant on a bright sunny day, but head into a dust cloud kicked up by traffic moving in the other direction and they’ll be the only thing other drivers see.
Lower Off-Road Tyre Air Pressure on Roads with Extreme Corrugation
It makes for a (slightly) less bumpy ride.
If you have off-road tyres, letting the pressure down can help smooth the ride over the rough corrugation of the PDR.
If you have road tyres, without tread on the wall of the tyres DO NOT let your tyres down. By doing so you will put the weak tyre wall on the ground where you risk it shredding on a stone or stick. The ride may be bumpy, but not as bumpy as the drive home without any tyres at all!
Take It Slow
The majority of roads on the trip to the tip of Cape York are unsealed and quality can vary dramatically from one kilometre to the next. Violent corrugation, gaping potholes, and sharp turns can jump out at any moment, so don’t get tempted to drive flat strapped.
Aside from your run of the mill snakes, spider, scorpions, and marine stingers, it’s croc country up here so learn how to be croc-wise before you arrive. As part of your Cape York trip planning, brush up on the available advice to ensure you know what to do in case a croc is spotted while driving to Cape York.
Step 10 | Give Your Vehicle a Tune Up
Often overlooked by some in their Cape York trip planning, making sure your vehicle is fighting fit is an important step. There would be nothing worse to begin this epic 4WD adventure by getting stranded on the side of the road.
We recommend stopping by your local mechanic to ensure your 4WD vehicle and all its parts are in top condition before setting out on this adventure.
That being said getting a routine inspection before you set out won’t totally eliminate your chances of breaking down or having a bit of trouble. These roads are some of the toughest in the country, planning for, and being prepared to run into at least a little bit of trouble out here is sensible.
Check out our Cape York trip checklist for a full list of spare parts and tools we suggest taking on your Cape York adventure.
Getting your vehicle in quality shape before driving to Cape York should be included on anyone’s Cape York trip planning list.
Step 11 | Come Prepared with Entertainment
You may be looking at this last step and thinking that the whole point of an epic outdoor adventure like Cape York is to get away from it all. And while that is certainly true you will spend a LOT of time in the vehicle driving to Cape York. And with little to no cell signal pulling up your favorite playlist in Spotify will be difficult.
Our last step in our Cape York trip planning guide is to make sure you take the time to download road trip playlists, podcasts or even movies for the young ones to keep everyone occupied on the drive to Cape York.
Trust us, you will need these on parts of the drive as the drive isn’t all as exciting as the famous Old Telegraph Track!
I hope that after reading this article you feel more ready to tackle your own Cape York trip planning and preparation. Let us know in the comments below if you found this step-by-step Cape York trip planning guide useful or if we missed something!
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