The road trip from the charming coastal city of Cairns to Darwin, Northern Territory's vibrant capital, is not for the faint of heart. With a little preparation and planning, you can complete this epic adventure and impress your friends with tales of crocodiles and kangaroo encounters in the Australian Outback.
The 3,140-kilometre road trip from Cairns to Darwin takes about 34 hours. Notable stops include Katherine, Alice Springs, Granite Gorge Nature Park, the Crystal Caves, Historic Village Heberton, Undara Volcanic National Park, Winton and Mount Isa.
Read on to learn more about this unforgettable adventure and our recommendations for where to stop and stay along the way.
How far is Darwin from Cairns, and how long will the road trip take?
|The Direct Route||3,140 km||34 hours|
|The Alice Springs Route||4,150 km||44 hours|
The Direct Route from Cairns to Darwin covers 3,138 kilometres and takes 34 hours of non-stop driving. This does not account for any stops and detours you might want to make.
If you've got more time, the Alice Springs Route covers all the wonders of the Direct Route plus a detour to Alice Springs. The Alice Springs Route covers 4,154 kilometres and takes 44 hours of straight driving.
Whichever route you choose, this is a long road trip so we recommend taking a week to ten days to enjoy all that Australia has to offer.
Best road trip route from Cairns to Darwin
On this drive, you'll see parts of Australia's interior that few venture into. Driving from Queensland to the Northern Territory, the earth turns red and makes for stunning color compositions as the sun changes position and the blue sky and green foliage take on new hues. Immerse yourself in amazing rock formations, marvel at gorges and waterfalls, hike remote parks, and learn about life in the outback.
If you've got time, taking the detour to Alice Springs is well worth the extra ten hours of driving. Spend several days in Alice Springs to take in the full outback experience.
The Direct Route
Wave goodbye to Cairns and take National Route 1 past Mareeba and before veering off on Peglietta Road to see the unique rock formations and wild rock wallabies at Granite Gorge National Park.
Continue south on National Route 1 to take in the natural wonders of the Crystal Caves before taking State Route 52 south and stepping back in time at Historic Village Herberton.
Take State Route 52 back to National Route 1 and head south to explore the network of undergrown caves and passages created by the longest flow of lava on earth at Undara Volcanic National Park.
Head south on National Route 1 and follow it to Winton to get your dinosaur history fix at one of its two dinosaur exhibits. Leaving Winton, jump on A2 until you reach Cloncurry, where you can learn about the geological history of the area at the Mary Kathleen Memorial Park and Museum.
Take A2 on to the mining town of Mount Isa and suit up to experience a day in the life of a miner in the early 1920s at the “Outback at Isa.” Get back on A2 and follow it to A87, which will take you to outback mining town of Tennant Creek.
From Tennant Creek, A87 North will take you straight into Daly Waters where you can hit the Daly Waters Pub for some great local good and to marvel at the mementos left by visitors from around the world.
Take National Highway 1 to Katherine for the trifecta experience of its gorge, falls, and hot springs. After Katherine, Litchfield Park's waterfalls and swimming holes are your last stop along National Highway 1 before you reach Darwin.
The Alice Springs Route
If you're taking the detour to Alice Springs, follow the same routing as above until you reach Tennant Creek and then head south on A87 for about an hour until you reach the impressive boulders known as the “Devil's Marbles”.
Continue on A87 South for another four hours until you reach Alice Springs, which is brimming with opportunities for outdoor adventure and also packs a punch of Aboriginal and modern culture.
After Alice Springs, retrace your steps back to Tennant Creek and follow the Direct Route on to Darwin.
Best places to stop between Cairns to Darwin
From lush coastal cities to the rough and tumbled outback, there is a lot to see and experience on the road trip from Cairns to Darwin. That said, lodging can be sparse in smaller outback locations and distances between towns can be quite vast, so plan your stops in advance.
See where the outback meets the tropics in Katherine
Just four hours from Darwin, Katherine will likely be the last overnight stop on your road trip on both routes. Katherine offers an authentic outback experience with loads of outdoor activities and sights.
Known as the place where “the outback meets the tropics,” this charming town is renowned for its hot springs, gorge, and falls. You'll also love learning about what it's like to live in the outback and seeing the working horses and dogs do some amazing tricks at the Katherine Outback Experience.
While you're in Katherine, stay at BIG4 Breeze Holiday Parks. Set on 44 acres of parklands in the middle of the outback, this hotel offers a variety of lodging options in rustic bungalows dotting its lush grounds.
Lounge by the pool and enjoy the tranquility of this peaceful location after spending your days exploring Katherine's Outback Experience, Hot Springs, and Gorge. Pets are welcome and free parking is available on site.
The hotel is an easy seven-to-ten-minute drive from Katherine's main attractions, such as Katherina Hot Springs, and downtown restaurants, making it an ideal perch for exploring everything that Katherine has to offer.
Experience the heart of the outback in Alice Springs
Alice Springs is about two-thirds of the way from Cairns to Darwin and this detour is a ten-hour round trip, on our namesake route. Known simply as “Alice” to locals, this artsy outback town is brimming with opportunities for outdoor adventure.
This quintessential Australian experience also packs a punch of Aboriginal and modern culture. Alice has more art galleries per capita than anywhere else in Australia and also houses excellent natural history museums.
The Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters is a great jumping-off point for the city's attractions, which can all easily be reached in just a few minutes by car. It's also a quick drive or a 20-minute walk to the centre of Alice Springs.
This full-service hotel offers sweeping mountain views in a lush garden-like setting. Dip your toes in the resort-style pool and enjoy a variety of dining and entertainment options from one of the three restaurants and four bars on site.
Try your luck at the casino, work out at the fitness centre, and pamper yourself at the sauna and spa. Free parking is available on site.
Where to stay when you reach Darwin
Nestled in the heart of Darwin's Central Business District, the Palms City Resort gives you easy walking access to the city's shopping, dining, and entertainment and its lush garden setting also gives you a respite from the city's hustle and bustle.
Stay in one of its vibrant, air-conditioned villas and relax poolside after a day of adventure visiting Mindil Beach, the Darwin Botanic Gardens, Charles Darwin National Park, Ceratosaurus Cove, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the WWI Oil Storage Tunnels, and a host of other sights.
Things to see on a road trip from Cairns to Darwin
There are many beautiful landsmarks and impressive attractions in this part of Australia. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do along the way:
On Both Routes
- Granite Gorge Nature Park – As if the unique rock formations you'll find here aren't enough, you'll also love the opportunity to hand feed wild rock wallabies in their natural habitat.
- The Crystal Caves – Tour more than 300 square meters of man-made tunnels teeming with natural crystals and prehistoric fossils that are millions of years old.
- Historic Village Herberton – Step back in time at this outdoor museum, which lets you experience life in a real pioneer-era township. The perfect immersive history lesson for visitors of all ages.
- Undara Volcanic National Park – Explore the network of undergrown caves and passages created by the longest flow of lava on earth.
- Australian Age of Dinosaurs – This working museum showcases Australia's evolutionary history, focusing especially on Australia's dinosaurs. See the world's largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils and walk amongst life-size bronze dinosaur statues.
- Dinosaur Stampede at Lark Quarry Conservation Park – You'll be amazed at the 3,300 dinosaur tracks preserved in rock face, memorializing the fear faced by hundreds of small, two-legged dinosaurs as they fled the arrival of a large theropod 95 million years ago.
- Mary Kathleen Memorial Park and Museum – This museum tells the geological history of the area and how mining and agriculture shaped the development and culture of the region. Enjoy its shaded playground and picnic area, complete with electric barbeques and toilets.
- Mount Isa – Established as a mining town after substantial lead deposits were discovered in 2923, Mount Isa is now a major industrial, commercial, and administrative centre and one of the world's top ten producers of copper, silver, lead, and zinc.
- Outback at Isa – Trace Mount Isa's mining past to the discovery of the mine on this site in the early 1920s. Suit up and experience a day in the life of a miner underground.
- Tennant Creek – Ride horses across the red earth landscape as you marvel at the vast blue skies. Go back in time as a 1930s gold miner with underground tour at Battery Hill Gold Mining & Heritage Centre.
- Daly Waters Pub – Recharge with local grub at this Outback icon and peruse memorabilia left by visitors from around the world. You can also stay overnight at the Pub's hotel or camp in site. If you do stay the night, don't miss the Pub's live music.
- Bitter Springs – Float down the river as you unwind in this unique series of natural springs.
- Katherine Outback Experience – Learn what it's like to live in the outback and see the working horses and dogs do some amazing tricks at the Katherine Outback Experience.
- Katherine Hot Springs – With a consistent temperature of between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius, this lazy river-style hot springs is the perfect place to unwind after a long drive.
- Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge – The Katherine River carved this deep gorge in sandstone, which today is lined with lush forest. Take a boat or helicopter tour or hike, canoe, or camp out to enjoy the Gorge's stunning scenery.
- Edith Falls – Swim in the cool, refreshing waters of the natural pool at the base of the Falls or enjoy a proper bushwalk hike up to the upper pools. The Falls are located within Nitmiluk National Park, so combine it with a visit to Katherine Gorge.
- Litchfield National Park – Located just 90 minutes from Darwin, waterfalls and swimming holes abound at this National Park. As you walk through the bush, be on the lookout for the area's iconic termite mounds. If you want to get off your feet, take a Crocodile Cruise.
The Alice Springs Route
- Karlu Karlu - Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve – This impressive assortment of precariously balanced gigantic boulders is the perfect place to stretch your legs en route to Alice Springs. You can also camp here and catch the sunrise over the rocks.
- Alice Springs – Known simply as “Alice” to locals, this artsy outback town is brimming with opportunities for outdoor adventure and also packs a punch of Aboriginal and modern culture. Alice houses excellent natural history museums.
- Alice Springs Desert Park – Experience the wonder of Australia's central desert environment at this tourism and conservation centre. Hike through the dramatic red dirt landscape, which is beautifully accentuated by crisp green foliage.
- The Kangaroo Sanctuary – No trip to Australia is complete without seeing kangaroos in their natural habitat. Learn all about the Red Kangaroo and meet the characters from the BBC/Nat Geo Series Kangaroo Dundee. Hold and feed baby kangaroos.
- The Larapinta Trail – This 231-kilometre trek will take you five days to complete but will leave you transformed. Book a guide to help you navigate this journey, which has been ranked as one of the world's top 20 treks.
- Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve – Established in 1871, this station is known as the birthplace of Alice Springs since it marks the first European settlement in the area. Learn how early settlers used the station to send messages from Darwin to Adelaide.
Best time to go on a road trip from Cairns to Darwin
Instead of the four seasons, Australia has just two: wet and dry. The weather in the top half of Australia changes dramatically between the dry and wet seasons.
Avoid making this drive during the wet season, which runs between November and April. Flooding and cyclones just don't make for ideal driving conditions and can isolate already remote Outback towns.
The best time to drive from Cairns to Darwin is during the dry season, between May and September. Besides the lack of rainfall, this season is also cooler, which will make your trip more pleasant.
The dry season features warm sunny days and cool nights. Temperatures range between 2w to 32 degrees Celsius, with relatively low humidity compared to the rest of the year (60-65 percent).
The annual Darwin Festival takes place every August and celebrates the art and culture of the Northern Territory. Enjoy dazzling displays and shows both day and night and dine on outstanding local cuisine during this 18-day festival.
With high humidity, monsoon rains, and thunderstorms, November to April's wet season is not an ideal time to visit Darwin, let alone to make this drive. Average temperatures during this season range between 25 and 32 degrees Celsius.