Looking to pack the most into your Cairns trip but need some inspiration on where to go? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
Cairns is the gateway to Tropical North Queensland and is the perfect spot to base yourself when exploring all of the magic on offer here. Having spent the last few months living and working in Cairns to replenish my travel funds, I’ve learnt that there really are so many things to do and see that it can be a bit overwhelming. There are tropical islands and ancient rainforests, endless waterfalls and palm-lined beaches and if you’re short on time, how do you choose what to see?
If you want a little taste of everything on offer, check out these 5 day trips from Cairns:
- Go waterfall hopping on the Waterfall Circuit in the Atherton Tablelands
- Hang out on the palm trees of Mission Beach and spot wild Cassowaries at Etty Bay
- Live out your tropical dreams for a day on Fitzroy Island
- Glide over ancient rainforest on your way to Kuranda
- Take the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas
1. Waterfall hop through the Waterfall Circuit, Atherton Tablelands
Distance from Cairns: 1 hour 40 minutes (driving)
There is a serious abundance of waterfalls dotted around Tropical North Queensland and luckily, a lot of them are next to each other so you can make a day out of waterfall hunting!
The Waterfall Circuit in the Atherton Tablelands is made up of three stunning falls: Milla Milla Falls, Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls.
Getting to the Waterfall Circuit
Head south from Cairns towards Gordonvale, taking a right up to the Atherton Tablelands via the Gillies Range Road. Starting just outside the town of Milla Milla, take Theresa Creek road to visit all three waterfalls on the circuit.
Milla Milla Falls
The first waterfall on the waterfall circuit is Milla Milla Falls, an 18-metre single drop waterfall that takes the title of most photographed waterfall in Australia. With the lush foliage framing the falls that fill a beautiful swimming hole below, it’s easy to see why this place is all the rage.
The walk to the falls from the main carpark is a short stroll down a few sets of stairs (no hiking needed).
Snap a shot with the waterfall then set up for a picnic and go for a refreshing dip at the base of the waterfall. I recommend getting to this one early for maximum serenity, as it can get pretty busy during the day.
Next stop on your waterfall adventure: Zillie Falls.
Zillie Falls is a 15-metre drop waterfall that is far less popular so you can don’t need to worry about beating the crowds as much.
There is a viewing platform of the falls near the car park. Keep walking and you’ll find an unofficial track down to the base of the falls. Beware of the slippery mud on your way down though!
Ellinjaa Falls is the final waterfall in the circuit and is definitely worth a visit.
Ellinjaa Falls is a 12-metre waterfall that cascades over a series of lava columns (there is some interesting volcanic history in the area). It’s a bit of a longer walk than the other two waterfalls, but still under 20 minutes.
Grab a seat on a rock and take in the sights and sounds or swim over to the rock ledge that hides behind the waterfall.
2. Hang out on the palm trees of Mission Beach and spot wild Cassowaries at Etty Bay
These two spots are some of my favourites in Tropical North Queensland. Why? Mostly because I’m a bird nerd and Etty Bay is one of the best places to spot Cassowaries in the wild, but also because of the unique and picture-perfect palm trees of Mission Beach. These two spots are fairly close to each other so why not make a day out of them.
Distance from Cairns: 2 hours (driving)
Mission Beach is a long stretch of stunning tropical paradise south of Cairns, famous for its palm trees that curve and bend out towards the ocean. It’s the perfect place to spend a day soaking up the sun by your own private palm tree. Despite recent popularity, this spot still feels really quiet and untouched. I often visit on a Saturday morning and only see a handful of people spread out along the beach.
Make sure to swim inside the stinger nets during summer!
Getting to Mission Beach
To get here, head south on Bruce Highway. As you drive down, you’ll see the famous Walsh’s Pyramid – the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. The journey passes through abundant sugar cane fields and banana plantations, eventually leading to Innisfail. Just south of Innisfail near El Arish, turn left (follow the Cassowary Coast signs) and continue on for another 16km. If you don’t have your own car, there are several hire car options and shuttle services available.
Where are the famous palm trees?
Your maps should take you to a little car park at the end of Seaview street. From here, walk ahead to the beach (this is where the stinger net usually is) and turn right. Walk along the beach for a few hundred metres and you’ll see these iconic palm trees.
Distance from Mission Beach: 40 minutes (driving)
Distance from Cairns: 1.5 hours (driving)
Etty Bay is one of the best places to see Cassowaries in the wild and is a great spot for an afternoon picnic by the beach. The best time of day to see them is early morning or late afternoon (typically 3pm onwards). There are four local Cassowaries that can sometimes be seen wandering along the beach, through the caravan park or in the forest behind the beach.
Getting to Etty Bay
After spending the better part of the day at Mission Beach, make your way back up towards Innisfail and turn right when you see a sign for Mourilyan Harbour road (if you’re heading down from Cairns, take Bruce highway past Innisfail and then turn left at Mourilyan Harbour road). After 3 km, take a left onto Etty Bay Road and keep heading down until you get to the beach. There’s a small car park on the right and a caravan park on the left.
Make sure to drive slowly and carefully on this road. Cassowaries are often roaming along the road and can appear suddenly when they jump out of the bushes.
Enjoying your Cassowary experience safely
Cassowaries are incredible prehistoric creatures but they do have the ability to cause serious injury if they feel the need to. The Cassowaries of Etty Bay are certainly more accustomed to human visitors than other populations but you should still exercise caution in their presence. Keep a safe distance at all times and do not approach them. If they approach you, stay still or slowly move away but remain calm. If you want to photograph them, a telephoto lens is the best way to keep your distance (I typically shoot wildlife with a Tamron 18-400mm lens).
And please don’t leave your food scraps behind. As you can see from the photos below, Cassowaries will eat what they find. This one was finishing off a box of chips that someone had dumped near a tree, and whilst watching him fling chippies down his throat was one of the most entertaining things to see, Cassowaries remain endangered and we need to ensure we are not causing them any detriment by having them depend on humans for food. Nor are chippies really that good for anyone’s health…
3. Live out your tropical dreams for a day on Fitzroy Island
Distance from Cairns: 45 minutes to 1 hour (ferry)
Did you even go to Cairns if you didn’t visit the iconic Fitzroy Island?
With one of the top voted beaches in Australia, a.k.a. Nudey Beach, and only a 45 minutes ferry ride from Cairns, this island is a must see on your next trip to Cairns!
Getting to Fitzroy Island
Ferries depart daily from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns (near the lagoon). Tickets can be booked online and should be booked in advance, especially for weekend trips. You can choose to book the ferry transfer only, or book a full day tour with optional add-ons such as a guided snorkel or glass bottom boat tour.
Book day tour: Fitzroy Island Adventure Tour
Book ferry transfer: Fitzroy Island Return Transfer
To maximise your time on the island, book a morning ferry which will see you arrive on Fitzroy Island around 9-10am, depending on which ticket you book. Once on the island, choose between lounging by the beach, snorkelling amongst beautiful coral and marine life or going on one of the many hikes/walks available.
Nudey Beach was voted Australia’s best beach in 2018, presumably for its jaw dropping scenery and crystal blue water.
The walk to Nudey Beach is around 15-20 minutes. The track is fairly easy but the rocks can get slippery when wet and some parts were steep enough to make me sweat. If you don’t want to bring your heavy bags along, there are lockers available in the resort for a fee.
Once you reach the point where you can look out over Nudey Beach you are about 5 minutes away. Climbing down those last few rock steps, you’ll see the famous swing as the canopy opens out to the ocean. Spend the morning or day here and snorkel straight off the beach. Keep in mind there are no facilities out here and you will need to walk back for lunch if you didn’t bring any food with you.
The beaches on Fitzroy Island are made up of dead coral, not sand. Bring a rug with you to place under your towel for a little bit of extra comfort when lying on the beach!
The best snorkelling spots on Fitzroy Island
There are a few different spots to snorkel on Fitzroy Island. After a few visits, I’ve learnt where the turtles are and where the more vibrant coral is.
- Between the jetty and White Rock: best place to spot turtles and reef sharks
- The section of beach out the front of Foxy’s Bar: absolutely stunning coral and lots of colourful fish (snorkel to the left of the beach, near the rocks)
- Nudey Beach: a mix of both coral and sea creatures
There aren’t any stinger nets on the island so make sure to wear a stinger suit during summer. These can be hired from the Sports Hub in the resort.
4. Glide over ancient rainforest on your way to Kuranda
Kuranda is the ultimate rainforest village and being high up on a mountain, it offers some incredibly unique ways to access it. Journey through Australia’s Wet Tropics on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway en route to Kuranda. Spend the day exploring organic-style markets and encountering a wide range of wildlife. Then make your way back down the mountain via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Distance from Cairns to Smithfield terminal: 20 minutes (driving)
The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway runs from Smithfield up to Kuranda, departing daily.
Jump into a gondola and glide over the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest. There are two stops on the Cableway; Red Peak and Barron Falls. Both include short walks and the cableway operates as a hop on, hop off service so you can spend as long as you like at each spot before making the final leg to Kuranda.
Book experience: Skyrail & Scenic Railway tour (self-drive)
Book experience: Skyrail & Scenic Railway tour (transfers included)
Tip: if you take the Scenic Railway back down the mountain, you will arrive at Freshwater or Cairns Central. If you parked at Smithfield to catch the Skyrail, you will need to get yourself back here (or book a coach when you book your railway ticket).
Kuranda is a gorgeous mountain village northwest of Cairns.
Whether you’re someone who loves vibrant markets, exotic food options, airplane wrecks, river tours or native wildlife – Kuranda likely has something for you. It’s even home to Australia’s largest butterfly aviary where you’ll be greeted by hundreds of butterflies all fluttering around you.
Check out these top things to do in Kuranda:
Kuranda Scenic Railway
After a day spent exploring the rainforest village, make your way back down towards Cairns via the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Built in 1891 and carved into and through the mountains, this railway is pretty darn impressive. The train station and historic carriages also have some serious Harry Potter vibes. Keep your eyes peeled for views of Stoney Creek Falls and Barron Falls where the train will stop and let passengers snap a quick shot.
Both the Skyrail and the Scenic Railway run return trips so you can choose to take one option there and back, or do both and really see the forest from every angle!
I’ve added some tour options below, including tours that offer pickup and drop off to most major hotels in Cairns.
5. Take the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas
Distance from Cairns: 1 hour (driving)
Port Douglas is my weekend go-to when I’m looking for somewhere funky but with a relaxed coastal vibe. And I’d be lying if I said the drive up there wasn’t half the reason I end up there so often.
Great Barrier Reef Drive
This incredible drive takes you along a windy road that borders two World Heritage sites: the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Let your jaw hang to the floor as you drive through lush greenery that opens out to unspoilt views of the Coral Sea.
To get there, head north of Cairns and after 30-35 minutes you’ll pass Palm Cove (highly recommend stopping here if you have the time). As you head further north, you will reach the start of the Great Barrier Reef Drive. 28kms of breath taking views and very windy roads. Make a quick stop at Rex Lookout to snap a photo and then keep heading up to Port Douglas.
Once you arrive in Port Douglas, it’s all up to you. Spend the day lounging at Four Mile Beach, hit up one of the many cafes in town, go shopping in unique boutique stores, and check out St Mary’s Church by the Sea.
There are also plenty of day trips running from Port Douglas, including snorkel tours to the Low Isles, river drift snorkelling in the Daintree rainforest and scenic flights over the Great Barrier Reef.
As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do around Cairns – the trouble is deciding which ones to choose!
I hope this guide helps inspire your next trip to Cairns. Please feel free to leave any questions in the comments.