During our road trip of Australia’s East Coast we spent a few days in the beautiful city of Cairns. Cairns is located in the tropical far north of Queensland, and is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Besides the famous GBR there are a number of other awesome things to do around Cairns. This post covers all of the best things to do around Cairns that you can experience as a day trip.
Where to stay in Cairns
While in Cairns we stayed at the Queenslander Hotel & Apartments. There was 6 of us sharing so it turned out cheaper to get an apartment than all of us staying in a hostel dorm, figured we’d treat ourselves!
The location was pretty good too as it was a short 15 / 20 minute walk into the main harbour area where all the bars, shops and restaurants were. While it might not be super central you can do the walk along the esplanade, which makes it very enjoyable.
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Best day trips from Cairns
Great Barrier Reef
I couldn’t start this roundup with anything else other than the Great Barrier Reef. With its 2,300km long ecosystem composed by thousands of barrier reefs and hundreds of islands the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living being on Earth.
The reefs are made up of over 600 types of hard and soft coral and it’s home to countless species of fish, molluscs, turtles, dolphins and sharks. From Cairns you can do scuba diving or snorkelling day trips to the GBR.
We did an organised tour that picked us up from our hotel at 7:30AM and we got back around 6PM. The journey to the GBR takes a couple hours during which you can tan on deck or listen to the explanations of the guides about what you will see on the reef.
We did two stops of around 1 hour each, where you can freely snorkel and scuba dive. It’s a long day trip with a lot of travelling by boat (make sure to get some seasickness tablets if you suffer from seasickness!) but well worth the experience of seeing the GBR in person.
Close to Cairns you will find the Daintree Rainforest, also known as the world’s oldest rainforest and one of Sir David Attenborough’s favourite places on Earth (if you don’t know who he is, you should watch BBC’s Planet Earth asap).
We did a 1-day trip with Billy Tea Safaris of the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. We got picked up from our hotel at 7:20AM and drove for a couple hours to reach the Daintree Rainforest.
Here we started the day with a Daintree River Cruise where we were able to spot crocodiles and learn about other local flora and fauna.
The cruise lasted about one hour after which we went for a walk on an elevated boardwalk in the rainforest, where our guide taught us about Aboriginal culture and the local natural environment.
Next stop of the day was a barbeque lunch, where we were also able to hand feed wallabies. After lunch we went for a swim in a freshwater creek (without crocodiles!) called Emmagen Creek.
We finished off the day with a visit to Cape Tribulation Beach, where the world heritage rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef (also a world heritage site)!
The tour dropped us back at our hotel at 6:30PM, after a full day immersion in the nature and history of the Daintree Rainforest. If you’re looking for one of the best day trips from Cairns, make sure to pay this stunning rainforest a visit.
Atherton Waterfall Circuit
“Frolicking in swimming holes and marveling at stunning views on the Atherton Waterfall Circuit was our favorite day trip out of Cairns. Visitors can join a guided bus tour, but it’s easy to rent a car and take your own road trip as well.
The most popular stops include Josephine Falls (trying the natural water slide is a must!) and Millaa Millaa Falls (which you may remember from scandalous Herbal Essences commercials from years back).
But there are enough picturesque waterfalls in this area to fill a day and then some! Our favorite off the beaten path spots that will get you away from the crowds were Zillie, Elinjaa and Wallicher Falls.
Pack your swimsuit and a sense of adventure, and see how many falls you can squeeze into one day!”
– recommendation by Emily & Aaron of Two Dusty Travelers
“I flew down to Cairns to dive the Great Barrier Reef, and arrived two days prior in order to make sure I was situated prior to my dives.
My expectations was to just lay out on the beach and get some rays – what I didn’t know before going was that Cairns was a lagoon area and that there was no beach!
I did not even think to research it because I assumed if that was the hub for the Great Barrier Reef then it must have a beach life?
While there was not a beach option at Cairns, there was the option to go over to Green Island. Green Island is right off the coast (and you’ll pass it on the way out for any liveaboards on the GBR).
The Island is a tourist getaway from Cairns to get the beach life on, snorkel and scuba dive. I arranged a round trip from Cairns on a ferry over to the Island, where I then did some SCUBA diving.
The diving in the area while not as amazing as the GBR, was still enjoyable due to the clear waters and colorful coral.
Green Island offers the chance to relax on the beach with a good book. Take some discover SCUBA diving lessons, or renting snorkel equipment to go on a little swim.
There are a couple of restaurants on the Island for either a sit down or for a quick bar bite. Additionally there are numerous bar locations!
Book a trip over the day before, most dive companies in the area can book a ticket for you, or down at the port you can find a vendor. Expect the ferry’s to be packed – but if you’re looking for that beach life it’s a great private island to enjoy it!”
– recommendation by Amy of Oceans to Alpines
“Josephine Falls and swimming hole is a local favourite for tropical north Queenslanders, located just 75 km south of Cairns. These picturesque falls set in the jungle are a great place to spend a few hours or even a whole day.
The natural swimming hole complete with water slides is a refreshing way to beat the steamy tropical humidity.
While you can visit as part of a tour of the nearby Atherton Tablelands, we recommend self-driving so you can stay as long as you would like.
When you are not enjoying the crystal clear waters of the swimming hole, check out the mammoth jungle vines and rain forest trails.
Swimming is restricted to the lower area and water conditions can be hazardous so make sure you follow the signs. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy tropical north Queensland like a local.”
– recommendation by Dawn of 5 Lost Together
Horse Riding in Little Mulgrave
“Although there’s a lot of great things to do in Cairns, my favourite experience there was going horse riding. There are several companies that offer this excursion; the one I went with was Mount ‘n’ Ride Adventures.
They are located in Little Mulgrave which is about a 30-minute drive away from Cairns. They do offer to pick you up from your hotel or a central location so you don’t need to worry about finding your own way there though.
The horse riding lasts approximately an hour and a half. A light meal and refreshments are provided. During the ride, you pass through paddocks, lush rainforest and even a small river.
It is tailored to your experience with horses and there are areas where the more advanced riders can trot and canter while those with less experience can stick to a comfortable pace.
The company even takes professional quality photographs of your ride which you can buy at the end as well as taking some on your own camera or phone.”
– recommendation by Amy, author of The Travel Fairies
“Kuranda is a 30–40 drive from Cairns but by car is certainly not the way to experience a trip to Kuranda! Part of the fun of an excursion to this beautiful patch of rainforest is the train journey to get there.
Travelling via the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway gives you the picturesque route via famous Freshwater Station and Stoney Creek Falls and also provides some commentary on the life of those that built the route to the town.
Once in Kuranda, there is plenty to explore including beautiful artwork, a scenic cable car, several animal attractions and also the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.
If markets are your thing then this place is great and you really will find everything – including purses made out to Australia’s invasive Cane Toad!
Shopping aside, the area is a beautiful spot for nature with boat tours of the Jumrum Creek and Barron River showing visitors the resident crocodile population.”
– recommendation by Kirstin, author of The Tinberry Travels
Have you been to Cairns before? How did you find it? Let me know in the comments below! There are lots of cool things to do also in Cairns, however this post was aimed at covering the epic things you can do around Cairns.
If know of other epic activities of awesome destination that you can visit as a day trip from Cairns let me know, I’d love to include them!
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