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Ten of the Best Day Trips from Cairns

Whichever direction you head from Cairns in breathtakingly beautiful Tropical North Queensland, you'll find something special. From the majestic reef and ancient Daintree rainforest to the rolling green hills of the Tablelands that harbour historic towns and villages, here are ten amazing day trip destinations.
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

1. Kuranda

Whether you choose to travel on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, by road up the winding range, or on the soaring Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, Kuranda is an absolute must-visit. Located just under 30 kilometres north-west of Cairns, the ‘Village in the Rainforest’ is exactly what it says on the tin: a charming village nestled within the lush UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforest.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Hit the markets in Kuranda. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

The township is compact and easy to explore, but brimming with things to do. You’ll easily fill a few hours exploring the markets, independent galleries, and local wildlife attractions — Birdworld Kuranda, the Kuranda Koala Gardens, and the delightful Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. If you have time, take a scenic boat trip on the river (crocs ahoy!) or soak up the epic beauty of Barron Falls.

Watch our video of ten top things to do in Cairns:

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2. Cairns Botanic Gardens and Palm Cove

This one’s less a day trip; more a ‘day of activity’. The Cairns Botanic Gardens are located about five kilometres north of the city centre in Edge Hill, and you could easily spend four or five hours losing yourself in this exquisite piece of paradise. There are a number of different sections, but those that will be of most interest to visitors are the main Flecker Gardens and the Centenary Lakes, which are separated by Collins Avenue.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns: Cairns Botanic Gardens. Image: Alamy

The Flecker Gardens are the more ‘formal’ of the two (if you can apply that word to a verdant rainforest). Meander along trim pathways framed by ferns, palms, gingers and monster staghorns dangling from the limbs of trees. The gardens date back to the 1880s, so many mature trees provide the shade needed for this lush wonderland to flourish. Don’t miss seeing the Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, which houses rare plants and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Across Collins Avenue is the entrance to the Centenary Lakes Rainforest Boardwalk, where nature runs free.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns: Palm Cove. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Also north of Cairns is the charming resort enclave of Palm Cove, so it makes sense to combine your day at the gardens with a visit here. The drive from Edge Hill will take you about 30 minutes. Try and time your arrival for mid to late afternoon as the sun starts to drop and the oceanfront is bathed in a warm glow. Stroll along the beach and out onto the Palm Cove Jetty, then choose an eatery and settle in for sundowners and dinner.

3. Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands are characterised by a spectacular undulating landscape, which encompasses some of Queensland’s most iconic natural attractions. They include the volcanic crater lakes of Eacham and Barrine, the Curtain Fig Tree, Lake Tinaroo and a circuit of spectacular waterfalls. The myriad botanical species and unique wildlife of the Tablelands provide endless fodder for nature lovers, while for foodies, its renown as the food bowl of the region rings true as you graze at gourmet food stores and farm-gates.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Visit Lake Barrine in the Atherton Tablelands. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland/Andrew Watson

4. Wooroonooran National Park

Experience the splendour of North Queensland in all its magnificent glory in one place in the Wooroonooran National Park — a microcosm (although at 800 square kilometres, perhaps not so micro) of head-swivelling natural beauty. Wooroonooran is home to the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest canopy. You can also feed your soul and senses with a plunge into the crystal clear waters of Josephine Falls, Nandroya Falls, Behana Gorge and the Boulders.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Mamu Tropical Skywalk. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

If you’ve got the energy for hiking you can venture along circuitous trails through ancient rainforests, and scale the dizzy heights of Walsh’s Pyramid or Queensland’s highest mountain — Bartle Frere.

5. Daintree National Park

In the ancient, complex eco-system of Daintree National Park, magic happens where the rainforest and the reef meet down by the sea. This vast protected region is a sacred Indigenous site and home to a mind-blowing number of the oldest plant and animal species on Earth. Possible activities include a visit to the original settlement of Daintree Village, crossing the river to Cape Tribulation on the Daintree River Ferry, or seeking adventure on the spine-jarring 4WD Bloomfield Track. You can explore the lush surroundings on guided boardwalk trails or soak up the solitude on pristine beaches. However you see it, Daintree National Park is an experience unlike any other on the planet.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns: Mossman Gorge, Daintree

6. Port Douglas

At the end of what’s consistently voted one of the most beautiful drives in the world (and you can call in for an encounter with the less-than-friendly locals at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures along the way), Port Douglas is the jewel in the crown, the cat that got the cream, and the icing on the cake with a cherry on top! You’ll run out of clichés well before you run out of appreciation for this jaunty little seaside town that’s been winning the hearts of visitors for decades.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns: Port Douglas

Beyond the obvious delights of Four Mile Beach and main thoroughfare Macrossan Street’s bustling boutiques, there are plenty of ways to pass the time in ‘Port’. Explore traditional Kuku Yalanji culture on an Aboriginal owned-and-operated tour, browse for gifts and souvenirs at the array of local markets (including the colourful mid-week craft market), and dazzle your taste buds in any of the town’s fabulous restaurants.

7. Fitzroy Island

For an I’m-short-on-time taste of the magic of the marine world off the North Queensland coast, Fitzroy Island is a sublime option. Situated just 40 minutes from Cairns Marlin Marina by launch, the island is home to a popular resort, gorgeous coral beaches and warm crystal clear waters that teem with life just metres from the shoreline. There are a range of facilities available for day use, including a bar/bistro and general store. Stinger suits, snorkelling gear and diving apparatus can all be hired from the beach hut close to the main jetty. The hut also runs glass bottom boat trips for those who prefer to stay dry.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Ten of the best day trips from Cairns: Fitzroy Island

8. Green Island

Closer to the main reef system is Green Island — a tranquil coral cay that’s estimated to be some 6,000 years old, and is accessible on a day trip from Cairns by fast catamaran. The transfer time each way is around 45 minutes. Like Fitzroy Island, Green Island is home to a resort, but day guests are welcome. Laze on the crisp white beaches, snorkel off the shore, do a glass bottom boat trip or self-guided eco walk. Lunch and drinks are available for purchase from various outlets.

9. Outer Great Barrier Reef

For those looking to immerse themselves in the extraordinary beauty of the outer Great Barrier Reef and spend the majority of their time snorkelling or scuba diving, a reef day tour from Cairns with Sunlover Cruises makes it possible. Their permanently moored activity pontoon at Moore Reef is equipped with everything you’ll need to take in the full majesty of the world beneath the waves. Having transferred out to the pontoon by high-speed catamaran, you’ll enjoy around four hours of snorkelling, diving (additional cost applies), spending time in the underwater observatory, or cruising in a semi-submersible craft. A tropical buffet lunch is included in the cost of your day on the reef, and drinks are available for purchase.

Ten of the best day trips from Cairns
Snorkel the outer Great Barrier Reef. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

10. Chillagoe Caves

If you’re ready to mount a serious inland expedition, the trip out to the renowned Chillagoe Caves takes about three hours each way from Cairns and will see you traversing a number of contrasting landscapes. Chillagoe is rich in geological diversity and home to a breathtaking limestone cave system that was once part of an ancient reef. Above ground, there are remnants of the reef in the form of rocky ‘bluffs’, and below ground a world of epic caverns and chambers featuring stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and the like. Ranger-guided cave tours operate daily.

Browse our full range of Cairns tours and experiences here. We offer a Best Price Guarantee.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best day trips from Cairns? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Julietta Henderson

About the writer

Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy, and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind, and an open-ended ticket. Her first two novels — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman and Sincerely, Me — are now available in bookstores.

Adam Ford

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours & Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.

 

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