Discover the most amazing routes in one of Australia's most dramatic regions.
Tropical North Queensland is the adventure and tourism playground of Australia. With its pristine coastline and towering hills, on a bike you’ll see more than you would on foot - and travel at the ideal pace to soak in the views and the pristine air of the World Heritage tropics. But it’s not all about nature: cycling gives you the perfect excuse to indulge in local food, wine, and coffee without any risk to your waistline.
Bike Australia visited the Tropical North recently to check out some of the best rides the region has to offer, led by Wil Bird, head Cycologist at Cycle FNQ, and a man who’s explored just about every inch of Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) by bike.
Wil takes us on one of his favourite rides. An Audax rider, he isn’t afraid of doing a few miles, so we plan to take in a bit of everything, starting in Cairns and riding up to the Tablelands and back. We head out of Cairns along the side of the Bruce Highway towards Gordonvale, 25 kilometres away. The road is fairly flat, and while it’s the main road out of Cairns to the south, it’s reasonably quiet in the early hours, or on weekends when most people ride it.
Wil explains that until recently, Gordonvale was a tiny town servicing the cane farms cut by the highway, but a bunch of new suburbs springing up in subdivided cane fields have just about joined Gordonvale up with the city. It’s got a good servo and a bakery for anyone looking to fuel up for the ride ahead, but we push on, and pretty soon the road starts to climb. In front of us the Tablelands sit above a wall of jungle, the top cloaked in mist.
To our right we see Walsh’s Pyramid. At 922m, it’s the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. Wil tells us that once a year a bunch of crazy runners race the 12-kilometre return trip to the top. Unfortunately there’s no rideable road or trail to the top, where the views are magnificent.
We turn right onto Gillies Range Road. ‘Gillies’ is the most rolled over route up to the Tablelands. It’s safer for bikes than the alternative Kennedy Highway route up to Kuranda, due west of Cairns, but also gentler and more scenic. The road is known for its twists and turns - legend has it there are 263 bends on the 18 kilometre climb to the top. “I’ve tried to count them on a few occasions but I’ve always lost track,” says Wil. I try too, and lose count at about 11.
The climb officially starts at the Mountainview Pub (great place for a burger and a beer). The road pitches at a gentle gradient, just over 4%, and it barely changes the whole way up. What does change is the climate. After about 10 kilometres of climbing we notice a freshening breeze, a cool dampness in the air, and clouds hanging low in the jungle overhead.
We pause a couple of times to admire our achievements and the huge granite boulders that tumble around us, leaning against trees and balancing on impossible angles. Before too long the climbing’s over, and a couple of hours into our ride we emerge on the Tablelands. It’s a good five degrees cooler than down on the coast. There’s a sign for the tea house at Lake Barrine, known for serving Devonshire teas overlooking the pristine blue waters. “If you get up here and you’re stuffed, you go there for a cup of tea and a scone, then you’re right to get to Yungaburra,” says Wil.
We’re going the long way around to Yungaburra, so instead of stopping for scones with jam and cream we turn off at Lake Eacham where we take a side trip down to the clear blue waters. There are no Devonshire teas here but there is a crocodile - a freshwater croc that’s been released into the lake by some neglectful owner, but who now lives a peaceful (if lonely) life among tourists and swimmers. We catch a sight of him at the eastern side of the lake, sliding along near the opposite shore. That done, we swap to spotting turtles and fish in the water, soak up some sun, then head back out onto the road.
Today Wil is taking us on one of his favourite backroads, and we turn down lanes so narrow you’d barely notice them if you didn’t have a guide, or weren’t on a bike. We head around the back of the famous Nerada tea plantation, past immense natural craters that haven’t had the luck to turn into lakes, and over a couple of stretches of dirt road, red with the rich volcanic soil of the region.
At this point Wil starts discussing the incredible number of ride options available up on the Tablelands - we could head back to Yungaburra, known for its farmers’ markets, or to Atherton via Malanda (known for its dairy). Wil rides a Norco Threshold cyclocross bike and says it becomes obvious why he feels it’s the perfect machine for getting around on his long explorations. “Around here you can go for two hours or more and not see anyone, only farmlands,” he explains.
“It’s just beautiful.” There are plenty of dirt roads around the back of farms, and although he’s lived in Cairns and ridden the tablelands for about ten years, Wil thinks he’s barely scratched the surface of the rides to be had.
While Wil’s loop could take us around to touristy Yungaburra, a cute mountain community of cafés and shops, we choose to hit up another climb, so turn onto Upper Barron Road and feel the burn for about 10 minutes, enjoying expansive views over some of the most fertile country in Queensland. Then we turn down a hairpin and swoop down the Kennedy Highway all the way to Atherton.
We head through town (which has built a name for itself as a mountain bike mecca, with nearly 100km of singletrack on offer at the Atherton Mountain Bike Park) and stop at Tolga, a tiny settlement just on Atherton’s outskirts. Here, we refuel at the Tolga Woodworks Gallery and Café, then jump back on the bikes for another lesson in Tablelands backroads, heading out behind vegetable farms and orchards on the quietest, prettiest roads I’ve ridden for years.
Wil navigates these scenic laneways all the way back to Yungaburra, explaining a bunch of alternative routes we might choose if we had the legs. We’ve passed the 100km mark, so for us, a simple return trip back the way we came, down the technical Gillies descent and into Cairns, is on the cards.
There are days and days of riding to be had in Tropical North Queensland. Between Cairns, Port Douglas, and the Atherton Tablelands, you can head out for flat, tranquil spins, or saddle up for epic mountain ascents. Here’s Bike Australia’s guide to the pick of them.
TNQ Ride Guide
For a nice spot of climbing right within Cairns, locals go straight to Copperlode Dam. It’s a 50km return trip from Cairns’ famous esplanade, up a near-deserted dead-end road to the top of Lamb Range overlooking Copperlode Dam from dense and beautiful rainforest. Cairns itself is quite flat, so it also offers plenty for those looking to cruise around with family, or rest the legs.
There’s the Crystals Loop, which takes in Crystal Cascades (a popular swimming spot with locals and tourists), totalling 21km with just 188 metres of elevation change. Or Palm Cove, Cairns’ most beautiful beach. A 50km ride from the airport, or about 60km from Cairns central, this is a flat spin suited to anything from TT training to a coffee roll. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes overlooking the pristine sands at Palm Cove to refuel at before the pedal home.
From Port Douglas
If you’re in Port Douglas, you might be kept busy with reef tours, swimming, and trips to the Daintree. If you score a spare day, however, there’s plenty of good riding from this dedicated tourist town.
The Mossman-Mt Molloy road heads up to the Tablelands from Port Douglas. It’s possible to ride on and even do enormous loops, but a lot of riders choose to ride about 25km to Nine Mile Store, refuel if required, and head back down to Port Douglas. Take care as Mossman-Mt Molloy Road can get busy with cane trucks, especially from June to December.
A quieter, easier ride from Port Douglas to tiny, quaint Daintree Village provides an opportunity to get some kilometres in the legs, without taking to the mountains. Taking in some stunning coastline and rainforest along with way, Daintree Village is about 55km from Port Douglas, but the gorgeous valleys and unspoilt natural views make the distance fly. Refuel at Daintree Village and enjoy the return journey to Port Douglas.
From Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton Tablelands boast some of the best riding that Tropical North Queensland has on offer, with countless country roads and dirt lanes, it’s also a great place to explore with no map and no agenda. While it is of course possible to ride up the range, we’d recommend anyone wishing to do a few rides in the Tablelands base themselves at Atherton or its surrounding towns to make best use of the vast amount of riding on offer.
The route we took up Gillies Range provides a starting point for a number of adventures, including the full circuit through Mareeba (famous for its 300 days of sunshine a year) and down Kuranda and back to Cairns (180km+), as well as loops to the south around Tumoulin and Ravenshoe. There are plenty of gorgeous natural sights to visit just off these roads, including the Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra, and of course lakes Eacham and Barrine.
Check our website for a bunch of routes. Please be aware that Kennedy, Bruce, and Mossman-Mt Molloy roads can be busy, particularly with cane trucks and large vehicles.
The best time to visit is the dry season, between about April and November.
Mornings are still the best time to ride. It can get very warm during the day.
But… it’s cooler on the Tablelands. Pack a jacket if you’re heading up.
If you’re riding in the Tablelands, throw a few spare dollars in your pocket for roadside stalls. There are always avocados, bananas, mangoes, peaches, and nectarines on offer.
Towns are far apart. Always take two bottles and plenty of food.
There are few bike shops on the Tablelands. Don’t forget your spares.
NEVER swim in any waterholes or creeks on the coast unless you know it is safe to do so!
9 Tropical must-do activities
* A Barrier Reef tour
* The Kuranda Skyway takes you over the tops of some of the oldest rainforest in the world
* A visit to the Daintree
* Walk along the beach and a coffee at Palm Cove
* A dip in one of the Tablelands Crater Lakes
* A stop at the Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra
* Browse Cairns’ famous night markets
* A $10 back massage
* A picnic on the Cairns esplanade (with its excellent water park)