Atherton Tableands waterfall

7 of the best day trips from Cairns

When you’re visiting a city whose back door opens onto the Wet Tropics and front door opens onto the Great Barrier Reef, you know the day trips in Cairns are going to be good.

Throw in the fact Tropical North Queensland wears the title of Australia’s adventure capital, and you’ll understand why we’re going to ask you to put aside at least a week to experience this holiday HQ.

Get ready to experience the best of this region in bite-sized, day trip portions, following this guide to Cairns and its surrounds.

Day trip 1: Go food trail hunting and waterfall chasing


Eating through the Atherton Tablelands | The best day trips from Cairns

You don’t have to venture far from Cairns to find a verdant hinterland packed full of food trails and waterfalls for chasing. Simply head to the hills.

Atop a plateau of the Great Barrier Reef sits the Atherton Tablelands and a promise of rolling hills, cascading waterfalls, quaint villages and arriving back home with a very full belly.

Kick off with a lay of the Atherton land, with a sunrise hot air balloon ride with Raging Thunder to watch the sun rise over the Mareeba Valley.

Your early rise will afford you a head start to tick off the waterfall circuit which loops through the heart of this hinterland.

Fuel your adventure by taking your tastebuds on a tour of the tablelands, stopping at the various roadside fruit stalls, cheese-tastings, handmade chocolate stalls and sampling the locally-grown tea and coffee (and gin!).

Travel Tip: One day not enough to stuff it all in? Check out this 48-hour foodies itinerary.

Day trip 2: Scenic rides and shopping for keepsakes

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway | The best day trips from Cairns

Photo by @jarradseng

There are markets and then there are markets worth day tripping for, and Kuranda Markets falls squarely in the latter.

It’s honed its offering since 1978 and the numbers through the gate each day (in excess of 3000 people) is evidence that this market is so much more than just your usual fare.

Eclectic is one way to describe the range found in the rainforest village of Kuranda. Between the original and heritage markets you’ll find everything from handmade jewellery to kangaroo skin bikinis, homemade fudge and a tearoom along the way.

The journey is all part of the adventure of this market. Sure you could go by car, but most first time visitors choose to start their journey at the Smithfield Terminal of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

With Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, you’ll swap tarmac for the treetops as you glide over 7.5kms in Barron Gorge National Park to Kuranda’s great heights.

Save at least 1.5 hours to ascend over the rainforest canopy in a gondola cabin, which has panoramic views out to the Coral Sea. You can break up the journey with short walks and guided tours of the two mid-stations, which include a Skyrail exclusive lookout over Barron Gorge and Falls.

Spice up your return route taking the Kuranda Scenic Railway back down to Cairns. From the comfort of a leather booth inside a heritage timber carriage, you’ll pass through dense rainforest, steep ravines and picturesque waterfalls. It’s a journey so special it made the cut of this list of best rail journeys to take in Queensland.

Travel tip: If the thought of a day’s shopping doesn’t excite you, replace the Kuranda markets with a visit to Australia’s largest free-flying bird collection, Birdworld Kuranda.

Day trip 3: Relax in Palm Cove

Palm Cove

Photo by @reneeskye

If your kind of day trip in Cairns involves lunches as long as the walks on the beach, point your GPS towards Palm Cove.

Palm Cove has more than just a clean beach and palm tree-lined esplanade in its cap. This seaside pocket is dubbed the day spa capital of Tropical North Queensland, which is your cue to try their famous offering.

From Spa High Tea with the girls at Alamanda to ash clay body wraps inspired by ancient Indigenous techniques at Peppers Beach Club and Spa, the Palm Cove world is really your spa oyster.

No matter which way you go, keep your post-spa glow a little longer by plonking yourself at chef Nick Holloway’s award-winning Nu Nu restaurant for a divine degustation-style lunch or dinner.

You’ll soon see why this modern-Asian restaurant earned a place on this list of Queensland restaurants that will blow your mind.

Need more excuses to go?

Day trip 4: Beach and brews in Port Douglas

The resort capital of Tropical North Queensland, Port Douglas, needs very little introduction if you’ve read this guide.

It’s rich with resorts, beautiful beaches, wildlife experiences and now, microbreweries.

Getting there in a day trip from Cairns is easy. Simply stalk the coastline along the seriously scenic Great Barrier Reef Drive.

Start your Port Douglas adventure with your feet in its famous Four Mile Beach sand, which runs for four kilometres adjacent to the township.

When you’re visiting one of the jump-off points for the Great Barrier Reef, it pays to join a tour to see it.

Departing from The Reef Marina, Tropical Journeys will have you out at coral cay Low Isles in under 30 minutes, with plenty of time to explore the fringing reefs with a snorkel mask or from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat.

Upon returning to dry land, head next door to Hemingway’s Brewery for sundowners, share plates and blissful waterside moments.

Travel Tip: Few people have the will power to only stay one day in Port Douglas.  That’s why we made you this itinerary in case you decide to hang around a little longer.

Day trip 5: Island hop your way to Fitzroy Island

Fitzroy Island | best day trips from Cairns

Photo by @rachelssyong

If you’re wanting to see the reef from one of its 900 islands, set your day-trip-sights on Fitzroy Island, one of the most accessible islands off the Queensland Coast.

On the man-made front, it’s home to a resort, two restaurants and a campground. In nature, stunning beaches, a fringing reef and coral gardens that beg to be explored.

Getting there is easy. You’ll just need 45 minutes to zip from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns to the island with the Fitzroy Island Fast Cat.

Once you’re island-side, get amongst the Great Barrier Reef action quickly with a 25 minute glass bottom boat ride so you know what you’re looking at, before a 50 minute guided snorkel.

From there you can go it alone, exploring the fringing reefs you can walk to from the island’s shores.

While most of the snorkelling is done from the main beach at Welcome Bay, we suggest taking the short stroll through the rainforest to Nudey Beach for more seclusion.

If you still have time before your return trip and want to save the Reef, not just see it, pay a visit to the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. It’s open for daily tours where you can learn about the conservation f these precious creatures.

Travel Tip: If you decide a day trip just isn’t long enough, double it with this 48 hour guide.

While most of the snorkelling is done from the main beach at Welcome Bay, we suggest taking the short stroll through the rainforest to Nudey Beach for a touch more seclusion. (PS. it’s Nudey by name only, so please keep your kit on).

Day trip 6: Your day trip Mission

Mission Beach | The best day trips from Cairns

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to point your bonnet south to a beach well off the beaten tourist track, Mission Beach.

This picturesque coastal strip is made up of four beachside villages – Bingil Bay, North Mission, Wongaling Beach and South Mission – linked by 14kms of golden sands.

In these parts, crowds, a bit like traffic lights, just don’t exist.

You’ll want to set off on this day trip from Cairns early, because it’s a two-hour road trip to reach the Cassowary Coast.

Spend your morning one of two ways – lounging at one of the palm fringed beaches that make Mission Beach so special, or taking the leg-burning 4km circuit to the summit of Bicton Hill.

We’d suggest regrouping mid-morning to swap the mainland for Dunk Island, marooning yourself over there for a few hours to go exploring at your leisure (the water taxi will take care of your transfers).

If there’s daylight leftover as you make your way back to Cairns, add in a little bit of extra time to your commute with a quick tour of Paronella Park.

Day trip 7: Ancient history and nature in the Daintree and Mossman

Mossman Gorge | Day trips from Cairns

Photo by @invadercee

Time travel is easy in Tropical North Queensland. You just need to take a walk through the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continually surviving rainforest in the world, to understand what the landscape would have looked like 180 million years ago.

We’d suggest starting you day trip from Cairns in Mossman, with a guided Dreamtime Walk tour with a Kuku Yalanji traditional owner from the Mossman Gorge Centre.

The tours start with a traditional smoke cleansing ceremony before proceeding to culturally significant sites where you’ll learn ancient traditions, bush medicine and forest-survival tricks like making a handy lathery shampoo by pummeling leaves on a stone.

You’ll need to put the Daintree River between you and your next destination, the Daintree Discovery Centre. Here you can experience the rainforest at every level starting from the forest floor to the top of the 23m canopy tower.

Before making your way back to Cairns, drop in for a sweet treat that will change the way you look at normal ice cream forever at the Daintree Ice Cream Company.

You won’t find chocolate or vanilla on the menu. Owner Dave and his team have created a bespoke range of flavours from exotic tropical fruit grown in their very own orchard. Think black sapote, soursop and coconut to name a few.