David Attenborough’s Favorite National Park Is ‘the Most Extraordinary Place on Earth’
Oh, you thought the Amazon was the largest rainforest in the world?
Well, it is. But the Daintree in Queensland is the biggest rainforest in Australia, the oldest rainforest in the world, and more importantly, David Attenborough’s favorite. The all-knowing 96-year-old naturalist—bless him—once deemed this wild slice of northeast Oz “the most extraordinary place on Earth.”
Though it’s perpetually overshadowed by its more-famous conjoined twin, the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree National Park is equally astonishing with its sprawling tangle of towering palms, ancient ferns, moss-covered boulders, and trickling creeks stretching all the way to the Coral Sea.
Imagine following a boardwalk through dense, 180-million-year-old jungle and stumbling on a secluded swimming hole, crystal-clear and croc-free. Better yet, the pool sits under a thundering waterfall semi-hidden by luxuriant canopy. Predating the Amazon by an unfathomable 160 million years, the Daintree once accommodated dinosaurs—and if you’re lucky enough to cross paths with any of its modern-day inhabitants, you’ll discover that not much has changed over the millennia.
Crocs can be seen filling their lungs on the surface of the Daintree River and enormous, prehistoric-looking cassowaries perch in the thick foliage, munching on fungi and fruit. There’s more to see than otherworldly animals and isolated waterfalls, too, if you can believe it. Here’s how to have one epic, Attenborough-worthy experience in the utterly “extraordinary” Daintree Rainforest.
The best time to visit Daintree National Park
The Daintree doesn’t adhere to the Gregorian four-season convention; it knows only two. The dry season, April to November, is its high season. Peak tourism occurs during July and August, when the Aussies take their winter school holidays. The wet season starts in December and persists through April. The sweet spot is perhaps October through early December or late April through June, between the most crowded time and the wettest period. Fewer tourists means quieter trails, more wildlife sightings, and off-season rates for tours and accommodation.
Take in jaw-dropping scenery along Great Barrier Reef Drive
Fun fact: The stretch of far-north Queensland where the rainforest borders the sea is the only place where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef) meet. Cutting a staggeringly scenic route between the two is Great Barrier Reef Drive, aka Captain Cook Highway. Think the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but flanked by one of the Seven Natural Wonders and the world’s oldest tropical rainforest.
Start in Cairns, where rental cars abound, and drive north into the rainforest for the best possible first impression. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes one way, but rest assured you’ll want to spend a whole day making endless stops to explore hiking trails and sink your toes in the white sand.
Road-trippers would be remiss not to hang a left towards Kuranda, 30 minutes from Cairns, to peruse the famous Heritage Markets, where dozens of eclectic stalls selling everything from didgeridoos to Australian opal rings radiate bohemian flair deep inside the dense wilderness. To admire them just by strolling through the labyrinth of bunting-adorned pedestrian alleyways is an experience worth the short detour.
Gawk along jungle boardwalks
Hiking in the Daintree is pretty “cruisy,” to quote Aussie lingo. That’s because the paths are predominantly short, easy, and flat, with the exception of a few uphill slogs: Mount Sorrow and Devils Thumb. For the most part, trekkers are tucked under rainforest canopy where it’s cool and shaded. Long, meandering (and accessible) boardwalks even make it possible to explore swamps and mangrove creeks without getting your boots wet.
Some of the best walks are concentrated near Cape Tribulation, famous for its remote beaches. The Dubuji Boardwalk includes two loops—one about 20 minutes to walk, the other 40—either of which you can follow to Myall Beach. Try to arrive at low tide for amazing rockpooling.
Just south of that, near Cow Bay and the Daintree Discovery Centre, the Jindalba Boardwalk circuit beckons a slightly longer, roughly hour-long mosey amid king ferns, fig trees, and other Wet Tropics wonders, all described on information signs along the route.
Anytime you’re hiking through the Daintree, keep your eyes peeled for cassowaries (blue-headed, emu-sized birds), musky rat kangaroos, platypuses, and even pythons baking in the canopy. Stroll the boardwalks at night for a chance to see feral pigs, flying foxes, and possums.
Spot crocs on the Daintree River
One animal the Daintree is well known for is the crocodile—of both the saltwater and freshwater variety. There are thought to be about 70 adults in the Daintree River, and you’re liable to see at least one deadly snoot protruding from the water on a river cruise with the area’s best croc spotters. The ECO-certified Daintree River Cruise Centre is one of the most popular operators, offering 60- to 90-minute tours from Mossman.
October to mid-March is crocodile breeding season in the Daintree. While the chance of a sighting is less likely this time of year than in the cooler months, the probability of seeing them fighting, courting, mating, or their hatchlings is far higher. Come during low tide to increase your chance of a sighting. Some tour operators, like Bruce Belcher’s Daintree River Cruises, offer free return tickets if no crocs are seen on your tour.
Swim (safely) at Mossman Gorge
The stunning rainforest-lined beaches of north Queensland may seem inviting, but the plethora of signage and vinegar stations warns of what lingers in the azure waters: Stingers. Jellyfish inhabit Australia’s tropics from November to May and will not hesitate to inject a human swimmer with their potentially lethal venom. A lot of beaches in the area have net enclosures for this reason, but the whole ordeal can be avoided by swimming instead at Mossman Gorge, which is arguably even prettier.
Mossman Gorge includes a stinger- and crocodile-free sheltered swimming hole with calm, clean water and big boulders perfect for basking. From the Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, you can take a shuttle to the start of a boardwalk. This is, by far, the most popular walk in Daintree National Park, its main draw being the gorge overlook. The swimming hole is about a third of a mile in.
The Cultural Centre doesn’t recommend swimming in the river, because water conditions can change quickly and there’s no supervision. Keep in mind that December to April is the rainy season, and flooding is more likely then. If the heat of the Wet Tropics on a summer day makes it impossible for you to resist a dip, then just remember your common sense. Please, no swimming in monsoons.
Discover Aboriginal art and culture at Janbal Gallery
The Aboriginal Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, Australia’s earliest human occupants and carriers of what’s thought to be the world’s oldest living culture, have lived in the Wet Tropics for 50,000 years. And since the Daintree was handed back to its original inhabitants in 2021, they and the state government have jointly managed the national park, under the designation Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land (CYPAL).
Visitors can learn all about the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people’s culture and customs at Janbal Gallery, a fully Aboriginal-owned and -operated art gallery and cultural center right off Great Barrier Reef Drive, three minutes from the Mossman Gorge car park. The hand-painted canvases and boomerangs (an Aboriginal symbol of endurance) you’ll find here tell ancient stories and make the most unique and meaningful souvenirs. You can even sit down and paint your own at one of Janbal Gallery’s workshops.
Where to stay in and around Daintree National Park
Cairns is the biggest city in far-north Queensland and the gateway to both the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef. There are 150-plus hotels and more than 1,000 Airbnbs to choose from. If you don’t have the cash to splash out on luxury accommodation along the lively esplanade—like at Crystalbrook Riley or Waters Edge Apartments—you can find a fun and cozy budget option in Travellers Oasis, a colorful hostel with a swimming pool and hammock-dotted sundeck.
More immersive rainforest experiences can be found at Cairns Rainforest Retreat, a collection of treehouses 15 minutes from the city center, or at the higher-end Daintree Ecolodge, perhaps the most popular place to stay in the rainforest (equipped with a spa and private waterfall). Located between Mossman and Cape Tribulation, the Ecolodge is perfectly convenient for multi-day adventures in the Daintree.
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