4-day nature fix: Your Cairns-Tully-Mission Beach itinerary

For someone who grew up in Tropical North Queensland, I can tell you the natural allure of this place is something you never get over.

Wild rainforests coloured a green so vibrant you’d think it was Photoshopped if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. Freshwater swimming holes so clear it’s as if they’ve been poured straight from the heavens.

Yep, if it’s a nature fix you’re seeking, you’ve definitely picked the perfect place for it and, while a long weekend is nowhere near enough time to soak it all in, lemme tell you, it’s definitely doable.

From chasing waterfalls and blokarting on the beach (yeah, you read that right), to guided tours with the custodians of the rainforest in the mountainous Tully Valley, here’s how to make the most out of 4 days exploring Cairns to Mission Beach.

Day 1

AM: Adventure starts now

Fly into Cairns and sort our your hire wheels, because today, the world (of Cairns) is your oyster.

Get your nature fix started with a day trip to Barron Gorge National Park for a squiz at the #earthporn going down (literally) at Barron Falls.

Zip 40-minutes north-west of Cairns to the upper section of the park to access the Din Din Barron Falls Lookout track. From here it’s an easy stroll along an elevated boardwalk before arriving at the pièce de résistance.

Barron Falls | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

The steep, tiered cascade is quite the sight as the Barron River plunges into the dramatic gorge below, even more so during the wet season when there’s been substantial rainfall.

Rising from the rainforests of Mount Hypipamee National Park, the river actually winds itself 60km across the Atherton Tablelands – through one of Australia’s highest rainforest belts – before making the above descent into the gorge, and eventually out to the Coral Sea.

Kuranda Village | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Before driving back to the city, take some time to peruse Kuranda Village. The eccentric sibling to Cairns, this mountain retreat is a whole lotta quirky and colourful smack bang in the centre of World Heritage-listed rainforest.

Warning: it’s unlikely you’ll be leaving with empty hands here, with two market locations open daily (the Original and Heritage markets), a candy kitchen, fudge bar and tea room – just to name a few – all within the town’s centre.

Psst, prefer to stick around the Cairns CBD instead? Set your sights on the Esplanade for a long, lazy day of lagoon swims, alfresco dining and boutique shopping.

PM: Afternoon delight

Salt House Cairns | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Photo by Salt House via FB

Doll up and make your way to the marina for sunset drinks and nibbles at Salt House Bar and Restaurant, which, as well as delicious eats, is serving up one of the best views in Queensland.

While the dinner menu is top-notch, we recommend going straight for the outdoor cocktail bar to chow down on their share plates and pizzas, washed down with a few bevvies of course.

Save room for dessert, because you can’t pass up a sweet treat from the crepe shop at the Esplanade Night Markets (it’s a Cairns foodie must).

Stay overnight: Mantra Trilogy | Pullman Cairns International | Piermonde Apartments

Day 2

8AM: Break-that-fast

Candy Cafe Cairns | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Start your day with a healthy brekkie at the retro ’70s-inspired Candy Cafe on Grafton Street.

(And when we say retro, we mean RETRO: fairytale-inspired wallpaper, flowery cushions, pretty pastels, boxed hedges outside AND inside… a totally unexpected vibe from the Esplanade tourist strip.)

Good luck deciding what to order, as they’ve got an all-day menu ranging in sweet and savoury flavour bombs from house made chocolate brownies to a mouth-watering southern fried chicken burger. And did we mention they’ve got a tonne of gluten-free and vegetarian options, too? #biglove

After devouring your morning fuel, it’s time to hit the road.

Tip: If you’re here on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, head across the street to Rusty’s Markets to pick up some fresh local produce for your upcoming picnic lunch.

11AM: Eat. Swim. Insta-the-crap-outta-this-place. Repeat.

Babinda Boulders | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Photo by Mycolourfulworld via FB

Continuing the road trip theme of #naturerules is a pit stop at the wonder-filled Babinda Boulders.

Sitting at the foothills of Queensland’s highest peak, Mount Bartle Frere, the cool mountain water of Babinda Creek weaves its way between huge boulders to create these large, crystalline swimming holes.

But aside from the aesthetic lure pulling people from far and wide to this popular waterhole, the boulders also hold great significance for the local Aboriginal people, in particular the infamous Devil’s Pool.

According to legend, a beautiful young woman named Oolana from the Yidinji tribe was given in marriage to a respected elder named Waroonoo. Shortly after, another tribe came through the valley, and with it a handsome young man Dyga.

Oolana and Dyga fell in love at first sight and, knowing their union would never be permitted by their tribes, they ran off into the valley to be together.

The two tribes eventually found the runaway couple and, after capturing and dragging them away from each other, Oolana broke free and threw herself into the water, calling for Dyga, but by then it was too late; he was gone.

The land shook with sorrow as she cried out for her love, and huge boulders were thrown up into the creek, with Oolana disappearing into them and becoming part of the stones.

They say her spirit still guards the boulders to this day, searching and calling out for her lost love to return, which is why wanderers are warned to take care in case her cries lead them too close to her beautiful waters.

Note: For your own safety, obey all warning signs and restricted swimming zones.

1PM: Get off the beaten track

Canefields | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Leaving Babinda Boulders, follow the Bruce Highway to Innisfail; here, we’re parting ways with dear old Brucey to take the back roads.

Now when I say back roads I’m not talking dirt tracks and 4WD terrain, but a quieter scenic route to give you a taste of the charming rural side that north Queensland is renowned for: farm country as far as the eye can see, cane fields, locos, and that fresh mountain range air (cameras at the ready, people).

From Innisfail, continue on River Ave instead of taking the highway turn off. Stop in at the Wangan Bakery and grab yourself a pie (to this day I still reckon these guys make the best in all of Queensland), before continuing on to Paronella Park at Mena Creek.

Depending on what time you’d like to arrive at Mission Beach, you can either grab yourself a pass and explore the heartbreakingly beautiful castle and rainforest parklands, or just have a coffee at the cafe and take a quick walk along the suspension bridge over Mena Creek Falls for a free bird’s-eye view.

When you’re ready to take off again, follow the roads through Mena Creek and Silkwood before getting back on the Bruce Highway.

PM: Holla, Mission Beach

Mission Beach | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

One minute you’re driving through lush countryside, the next, you’re staring out to sea from the coastal village(s) of Mission Beach.

If you managed to get here before nightfall, make the most of dusk with a sunset walk along the beach (which one is up to you because you legit can’t go wrong).

Tonight, dinner takes the form of tapas, sliders and ice-cold frothys at The Garage Bar and Grill. Craft beer lovers? Come on down.

Stay: Beachcomber Coconut Holiday Park | Mission Beach Resort | Castaways Resort and Spa

Day 3

6:30AM: Take me to the Spirit of the Rainforest

They say the early bird gets the worm, but today, the early bird is gettin’ the whole forest and then some, thanks to Ingan Tours.

Their signature Spirit of the Rainforest Tour isn’t an adventure for the faint-hearted – requiring a moderate level of fitness, it’s physically challenging and requires you to be comfortable getting out of your comfort zone.

But oh, is it worth it.

Picking you up from your Mission Beach location, your tour officially starts in Tully, where you’ll be driven out of town, past farmlands, to a secret location in the World Heritage-listed Tully Gorge National Park.

Guided by direct descendants of the local indigenous Jirrbal people, you’ll trek into the mountainous Tully Valley, bushwalking through dense rainforest, crossing through the Tully River, before reaching Echo Creek Falls for a well-earned dip and packed lunch.

Ingan Tours | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Photo by Matt Raimondo

FYI: Don’t be too alarmed if you see your guide wielding a machete – it’ll be used to slash your pathway through the thick rainforest.

But what becomes even more impressive than just the physical beauty of this wild and rugged terrain is just how intimately your guide knows this land, and the immense wealth of knowledge that’s been passed down through the generations.

Walking the same trading routes as their ancestors, you’ll learn of skills used by this ancient culture to survive in the rainforest, including the changing colour of berries which indicate a specific time and cycle of year, and leaves that were once used as saucepans (true story).

Note: Before taking off, make sure you’ve double and triple checked you’ve got the following packed:

  • A sturdy pair of shoes for bush walking/hiking
  • Drinking water and any snacks you might need to cure potential hangry-ness (lunch is included)
  • Hat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and sunglasses
  • Swimsuit, towel and spare change of dry clothes
  • Watertight bag for your camera and personal belongings (available for hire if needed)

Tip: While you’re welcome to bring a camera, it’s probably best to keep any precious or expensive personal belongings at your accommodation. Carrying a heavy camera bag over your head while crossing waist-deep waters = not ideal.

PM: Bingil Bay Cafe

Bingil Bay Cafe | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Photo by @arii_1

One of the most popular dining spots in town, the family-run Bingil Bay Cafe is a local favourite for good reason.

Cosy and laid-back, you’ll find soulful tunes (plus live music on Friday nights) and a menu that is as diverse as it is flavourous, from German snags and falafel salads to Thai fish cakes and the crowd favourite seafood laksa.

Tuck in, mate. You’ve earned it.

Day 4

8AM: Eat local at Ebb and Flow Cafe

Ebb and Flow Cafe | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Photo by Ebb and Flow Cafe via FB

The new kids on the cafe block, Ebb and Flow on Porter Promenade are stuffin’ tummies with local and organic goodness from their modest seasonal menu, seeing poached yamagishi eggs with homemade baked beans, and banana and chia french toast added to the mix (on top of their ever-changing pastries and cakes).

Top off your eats with a red papaya smoothie or a cup of joe roasted locally by The Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters (aka the dudes behind the uber cool laneway Cairns cafe, Caffiend), and you’ve got a breakfast fit for health nuts champions.

9am: Play time

Mission Beach Adventure | 4-day Cairns to Mission Beach itinerary

Top photo by Mission Beach Tourism Inc. via FB; Bottom photos supplied.

As bummed as you might be knowing today is your last day, don’t let that spoil all the coastal fun still to be had.

So, what’s on the Mission Beach activity menu?

  • Water fiends can hire kayaks and SUPs from Mission Beach Adventure Hire (the same folks who run Mission Beach Water Taxi) for self-guided paddles of the coast.
  • If the winds be blowin’, take to the long sandy beaches via a wind-powered blokart (yep, it’s a thing and it’s AWESOME). Again, head to Mission Beach Adventure Hire.
  • Work up a sweat trekking to the summit of Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park or, if you can’t bare to tear yourself away from that golden coastline, opt for the Kennedy Walking Track at the far end of South Mission Beach.
  • If homegrown food is still high on the agenda, get the ultimate sweet-tooth fix on a tour through Charley’s Chocolate Factory. Experience the whole journey from cocoa tree to chocolate bar (runs every Thursday and Sunday).

Or simply kick-back under a shaded palm tree and do absolutely nothing. After all, it’s been an adventure-filled few days.

Midday: Au revoir

Before heading back to Cairns for your flight home, duck into Mission Beach Take Away and pick up some home-style fish’n’chips to eat down at the beach.

Okay, NOW you’re done with Mission Beach (well, until next time that is).

Has this itinerary got you itching to check out the natural beauty of Tropical North Queensland? Leave a comment below.

This post was originally published in 2016 and updated on the 5th of March 2018.