Daintree Rainforest: The Complete Guide

Bennett's Tree Kangaroo with baby

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Just north of Cairns in Far North Queensland, the Daintree Rainforest is the most well-known part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. A lush wonderland that served as the inspiration for James Cameron's Avatar, the Daintree sprawls over 750 square miles.

Although it might not get as much attention as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest should be on your bucket list. Read on for our complete guide to visiting the ancient natural wonder that is the Daintree Rainforest.

History

The Daintree Rainforest is estimated to have existed for around 180 million years, even longer than the Amazon. There are 18 Rainforest Aboriginal groups with connections to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The Traditional Owners of the Daintree are the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people. British colonizers arrived in the area in the 1800s, but the rainforest remained relatively unknown to tourists until the 1950s.

In 1970, the discovery of the Idiospermum australiense, also known as ribbonwood, catapulted the Daintree onto the international stage. Scientists realized the fruit was a rare and ancient tree, with links to the Earth's first flowering plants, and this helped highlight the Daintree's unique flora and fauna.

In fact, of the 19 primitive flowering plant families in existence, 12 can be found in the Daintree. The Daintree Rainforest was added to the world heritage list in 1988 and has since become a very popular destination in the Aussie tropics.

Plants and Wildlife

The Daintree is known for its incredible biodiversity. There are around 920 different types of trees, from towering red tulip oaks and mahoganies to enormous king ferns and pandanus trees.

The most iconic rainforest animal is the cassowary, a large flightless bird which Guinness World Records has called the world's most dangerous bird. They can run up to 30 mph and have a strong legs with large claws. In 2019, a man in Florida was killed by a cassowary, but attacks in the Daintree are rare. (Read the Queensland Government's advice on how to stay cass-o-wary before your trip.)

The Daintree is also home to hundreds of species of not-so-deadly birds, including kingfishers and owls, as well as an incredible variety of butterflies. The rainforest's cutest resident is the Bennett's tree kangaroo, a nocturnal marsupial that has adapted to life in the canopy.

You may also spot the white-lipped tree frog, which can grow to over five inches long and is the largest tree frog in the world. The Daintree River supports around 60 species of freshwater fish, but visitors should also watch out for tics, leeches, snakes and crocodiles around the waterways.

Best Time to Visit

The Daintree has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season from April to November is the best time to visit, especially if you can avoid the crowds by visiting outside of the July and August school vacation period. Prices and crowd levels may be higher during the dry season, but you will have much more flexibility in terms of activities and travel plans. Lower humidity and cooler temperatures make for a pleasant climate overall.

Some travelers enjoy visiting the rainforest during the wet season (December to March), when the rivers and waterfalls are flowing freely and the trees and ferns are at their brightest. There are also some great deals available on tours and lodging. However, at this time you do run the risk of frequent downpours and even road closures due to flooding. The climate is hot and humid and some activities and accommodation providers shut down during the off-season.

What to Do

There are two main sections of the Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation, which offer different attractions. Both can be visited in one day, but you'll need at least two to see all the highlights. From rock formations to waterfalls and beaches, the Daintree has many things to see and do amidst the dense rainforest.

  • Hike at Mossman Gorge: There are four marked trails around the gorge, ranging up to 1.5 miles.
  • Take a river cruise: Encounter crocodiles from a safe distance and marvel at the many birds and tree snakes in the mangroves. Most boat tours leave from Lower Daintree, not far from the river crossing. Booking ahead is recommended, especially for early morning tours.
  • Explore Cape Tribulation on horseback: A horseback tour will allow you to see the best of the rainforest and the beach in a couple of hours, as a guide explains the unique flora and fauna of the region.

Before heading out into the wilderness, stop by the Daintree Discovery Centre and the Mossman Gorge Centre to check the conditions or book a guided walk and river cruise. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes to transport visitors the last mile from the Mossman Gorge Centre to the trailhead and tickets cost AU$11.80 for unlimited rides. If you're traveling on a budget you can explore the National Park unguided, but make sure to download a map beforehand and advise staff of your plans.

Where to Stay

If you have time, an overnight stay in Mossman or Cape Tribulation will allow you to explore the Daintree's many facets. Silky Oaks Lodge is a luxury retreat in Mossman, while Thornton Beach Bungalows are a more budget friendly option.

Cape Trib Beach House is a popular choice for young people and families, but adventurous souls should book a spot at Noah Beach in Daintree National Park. If you do choose to camp, make sure to stay away from the water as crocodiles are known to live in the area.

Getting There

Public transport options are limited in Far North Queensland, so you will likely need to rent a car or take a tour to see all the amazing sights of the Daintree.

It takes just over an hour to drive from Cairns to Mossman Gorge and another half an hour to reach the Daintree River crossing. From there, you can take the ferry across and continue your journey for another 45 minutes to Cape Tribulation. Exercise caution and check for flooding if you are visiting during the wet season and intend to drive yourself.

Tours leaving from Port Douglas, a resort town north of Cairns, are often a little more affordable than those from Cairns. Daintree Tours and Tony's Tropical Tours are two great options. To learn more about the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal culture, try Adventure North Australia or Walkabout Cultural Adventures.

Travel Tips

  • Weather conditions can change rapidly, so check the Daintree National Park website for alerts.
  • The Daintree Ferry operates from 5 a.m. to midnight every day, offering a direct route between Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation. It costs AU$30 per car for the return trip.
  • Traffic can cause delays on the ferry during peak season, especially between 10 a.m. and noon traveling north and between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. traveling south during July and August.
  • During the dry season, we recommend booking tours and accommodation a couple of weeks in advance to ensure you don't miss out.
  • This is croc country, so don't swim at beaches or rivers unless it is an area declared safe by park authorities.
  • Stop by the Mossman Gorge Centre for a map and to learn how to recognize and avoid the stinging plant and the wait-a-while vine.
  • The Daintree is an essential habitat for many of Australia's rarest plants and animals, as well as a special place for its Traditional Owners, so make sure to respect sacred sites, take any trash with you and refrain from feeding the wildlife.
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