6 Unmissable Day Trips from Cairns

Tropical North Queensland is so much more than just rainforests and reefs. Get ready to discover its boundless natural wonders with six bite-sized day trips from Cairns.

Though often coined Tropical North Queensland’s gateway to Cairns & Great Barrier Reef, Cairns has so much to offer beyond the big-hitting icons. There’s a whole host of one-day wonders within a day’s drive of the city – all you need to do is hire a car.

From secluded white-sand beaches to rugged mountain trails and serene swimming spots, there’s something for every traveller – the avid hikers, waterfall chasers, deep sea divers, foodies, day spa fiends and culture vultures. Read on to discover six incredible day trips you can take from Cairns.

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6 Unmissable Day Trips from Cairns

Lace up your hiking boots at Barron Gorge National Park

If you’re feeling active... hikers rejoice, there’s a whole network of walking trails across Cairns and the Barron Gorge National Park area. One of the most rewarding trails is the Douglas Track, a 25-minute drive from Cairns.

Simply unmissable thanks to its proximity to Cairns, this walk highlights the natural beauty of the national park, taking you through lush rainforest. It starts at Stoney Creek with a nine kilometre-return walk through thick rainforest, over old, sealed roads, across the Cairns-Kuranda railway line and open grassy plains. Take a breather at Red Bluff, where sweeping views across the valley and Cairns’ township will have you reaching for your camera.

Continue towards Glacier Rock. Here, all your efforts are rewarded by dazzling panoramas over the rainforest canopy and beyond that, misty mountains cradled by the bright blue of the Great Barrier Reef. Bring a packed picnic lunch and enjoy it with the view. After time to rest and refuel, make the return journey back to Stoney Creek, where a tranquil swimming hole surrounded by native bushland and boulders invites you to take a refreshing dip. This hike is the perfect chance to reconnect with nature (plus, you can still make it back to Cairns in time for happy hour cocktails).

Distance to Douglas Track: 15km, 25 minutes

Know before you go: this moderate hike takes approximately 1.5-3 hours return, so be sure to wear well-fitted shoes (no one wants blisters), bring a water bottle with you, a packed picnic lunch and maybe your bathers for a well-deserved dip at Stoney Creek Swimming Hole.

Discover a marine wonderland at Fitzroy Island

If you’re in need of some sun, sand and sea... Fitzroy Island has the trifecta. Few islands are as accessible (and often over-looked) as Fitzroy: it’s only a 60-minute ferry ride from Cairns, right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, and made up of breathtakingly beautiful, rugged rainforest.

The island’s wilderness is fringed by coral reef and pristine beaches, including Nudey Beach (previously ranked among Australia’s best), all of which have the tropical tick of approval: white sand, azure waters, and pure peace and quiet.

The true magic of Fitzroy Island is found beneath the water’s surface. Dive right in and experience it for yourself. Slip on your snorkel and peek at the technicolour marine life thriving in the shallows, hire a kayak and go for a paddle, or simply wade into the cool, crystal-clear water and enjoy a swim. Perhaps you’d like to treat your inner child to a fun afternoon by spending time bouncing on the island’s ocean trampoline, located 25 metres offshore at Welcome Bay. If you prefer to stay dry, a glass-bottom boat tour is the perfect way to steal a glimpse at the vibrant marine wonderland – look out for sea turtles, majestic manta rays, reef sharks and clown fish (Finding Nemo, anyone?).

Distance to Fitzroy Island: 32 km, one hour

Know before you go: if you forget to bring a packed lunch or picnic, there are three dining options available on Fitzroy Island, including Foxy’s Bar Dine In or Takeaway, Zephyr Restaurant and Fitzroy Island General Store.

Follow the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas

If you’re after a memorable mini road-trip... the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas (just over one hour) is an adventure in of itself. With the glimmering waters of the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the dense emerald canopy of the Daintree Rainforest on the other, you’ll want to savour every winding bend and curve in the road on this coastal journey.

Pack car snacks or a gourmet picnic lunch and make pit stops along the way at secluded spots like Ellis or Trinity Beach and pause at the best viewpoints – Rex Lookout offers serene vistas to Trinity Bay – to admire breathtaking ocean views.

On arrival in Port Douglas, spread out a towel on the palm-fringed Four Mile Beach – one of the most iconic scenes in Queensland. Warm, crystalline waters kiss golden shores, making this a popular place to stretch out on the sand or get lost in a book (be sure to check if it’s stinger season and swim within the nets). Lounging on the beach sure works up an appetite: only a ten-minute walk away is the renowned Hemingway's Brewery. Located along Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina, be sure to get yourself a seat out front, order a craft beer with beer-battered fish and chips and watch the sailboats gently glide into the harbour.

Distance to Port Douglas: 67km, just over one hour

Know before you go: pick up some French-inspired baked goods from Le Crouton Bakery in Freshwater to enjoy at one of the lookouts en route.

Bonus: before you settle in for the drive to Port Douglas, why not stop at Barron Gorge National Park for an unforgettable river rafting experience along Barron River – approximately 20 minutes from Cairns (15km). The river route flutters between calm pockets of serene drifting and bursts of exhilarating, white water rapids that will get the heart racing. Bookable via Luxury Escapes.

Chase a world of waterfalls at Atherton Tablelands

If you want to reconnect with nature... calling all waterfall chasers, the perfect walking circuit awaits at Atherton Tablelands. Just under a two-hour drive from Cairns, this lush, unspoilt tableland is a patchwork of ancient rainforest, volcanic lakes and wetlands.

But the real treasure is the countless waterfalls that make up the famous Waterfall Circuit. For that Instagram-worthy snap, make your way to Millaa Millaa Falls, an 18-metre-tall cascade surrounded by lush rainforest, bursts of springy ferns and colourful flowers. The pristine waterhole at the base is perfect for a dip.

The lesser-known Zillie Falls will enchant you with its sheer power – head to the viewing platform at its base for the best vantage. And don’t forget your picnic basket, there’s a picnic area where you can enjoy a bite to eat with the roar of the falls as your backing soundtrack. If you’re keen to cool off at another swim stop, Ellinjaa Falls is a great option – you can even swim up to a natural ledge hidden behind the waterfall. While you’re here, follow a 200-metre walkway at the base of the falls, where, if you’re lucky, you may spot a turtle or platypus.

Distance to Atherton Tablelands: 242 km, just under two hours

Know before you go: don’t forget to pack your bathers, a beach towel for lounging in the sun and a picnic rug (with a gourmet basket filled with local produce from the iconic Kuranda Market – open daily from 9am to 3pm) to make the most of your time here.

Join a Dreamtime tour in Daintree Rainforest

If you’re looking for a culture fix... there’s so much to discover in the Daintree Rainforest. Roughly a 2.5-hour drive from Cairns, you’ll want to set aside a whole day here (or even more, if time permits) to unravel its ancient magic, the rush of its waterfalls and its imposing beauty. A UNESCO-protected site and the oldest rainforest on the planet, 180 million years of natural history is woven throughout its trees, rocks and rivers.

The Kuku Yalanji people have been living in this ancient rainforest for more than 50,000 years, so who better to learn from about this majestic place than the traditional landowners? Join a Dreamtime tour through Mossman Gorge. Be welcomed to the land with a traditional smoke ceremony before being led on an interpretive walk through the prehistoric land by an Aboriginal guide. Finish your fascinating tour with traditional bush tea and damper. You’re guaranteed to leave this spellbinding corner of the country with a deeper connection and greater appreciation for the land.

Distance to Daintree Rainforest: 124 km, 2.5 hours

Know before you go: book your Dreamtime tour with Mossman Gorge Centre well in advance to secure your spot. Need more inspiration? Don’t miss our guide to a Day in the Daintree Rainforest.

Seek indulgence in Palm Cove

If you’re in need of a day to completely unwind... drive 30 minutes north of Cairns to discover barefoot luxury in Palm Cove, an intimate beach village. Australia’s self-styled spa capital, Palm Cove is simply unmissable for its chill vibes and abundance of day spas, including Peppers Beach Club & Spa (Exclusive Spa), Alamanda Spa and Palm Cove Retreat Day Spa. Set your mind to relaxation mode and succumb to absolute pampering when you book yourself in for a facial, full-body massage or several other luxe body treatments that will leave you feeling utterly blissed out.

Jump back in the car and drive five minutes north to Ellis Beach. On a Sunday afternoon, the Ellis Beach Bar & Grill serves up A$1 oysters alongside a vibrant live music set. When you’ve had your fill, cross the road and walk right onto the beach. What could be better than that?

Distance to Palm Cove: 26km, 30 minutes

Know before you go: be sure to book your spa treatment in advance to avoid disappointment.

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