Cairns, located in the Tropical North Queensland region of Australia, is a paradise for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts alike. Many of the area’s top attractions are outside the city, making it an ideal base for exploring the region. If you’re looking for the best day trips, you’re lucky – Cairns offers endless options. Whether you want to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike through the Daintree Rainforest, or learn about Australia’s culture and heritage, there are plenty of places to explore nearby.
The best Cairns Day Trips
I have gone on the below day trips from Cairns, mostly alone. For the 4W adventure, I suggest joining a one-day-guided trip, or if you want to spend a night in Cooktown, you can also extend it to a two-day trip. Below are my choices for the best day trips from Cairns you can’t miss when visiting Cairns solo.
1. Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is a remote paradise at the northernmost point of the Daintree National Park. There are no mobile phone services and little internet, so it’s the perfect place to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature. A stroll at Myall Beach at Cape Tribulation is a must, with its white sand and crystal-clear water. The rainforest also offers plenty of opportunities for exploration, with several hiking trails that allow visitors to admire its flora and fauna. The Mount Sorrow trail is what most popular trail. But if you prefer a short walk, you explore the rainforest by taking the Dubji Boardwalk or the Kulki Boardwalk that takes you up to the Kulki Lookout.
Being Cape Tribulation, the only place where the ocean meets the rainforests, you can go from exploring the rainforest to snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef in one day. The reef here is less crowded and as beautiful as the most popular spots in the region.
Guided Reef Tours start from Cape Tribulation and take you on a day boat trip. While the beach may be inviting, swimming in the ocean at Cape Tribulation is not recommended due to dangerous jellyfish in summer. For safe swimming, try Mason’s Waterhole instead.
For those looking for adventure, ziplining is an exciting way to get an aerial view of the rainforest. This zipline adventure run by Jungle Surfing Tours takes you soaring through the dense forest canopy of the Daintree National Park, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
Tribulation Guided Day Trips
Here are more options if you prefer going on a guided tour to the Daintree Forest and Cape Tribulation:
Where to Stay in Cape Tribulation
Book a night at Safari Lodge to stay overnight in Cape Tribulation!
2. The Daintree River
The Daintree River is a winding waterway that meanders through the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world. It’s a World Heritage Site that offers an essential habitat for local wildlife, including the elusive cassowary, which is rare to spot in the wild. You can go on a Daintree River Cruise, a great way to see the local wildlife. It’s best to go in the early morning as animals are active. The river is home to saltwater crocodiles, pythons, various birds, frogs and many other fascinating creatures. A guided Daintree River Boat Tour will teach you about this region’s unique ecosystem and wildlife. Start your trip at the Daintree River Village, where you can also stop at shops and cafes. Here is our pick for the Daintree River Boat Tour.
3. Port Douglas
Port Douglas should be at the top of your list if you’re looking for a tropical getaway. This idyllic town is a gateway to some of the most beautiful places in Tropical North Queensland. Located just an hour’s drive north of Cairns, it’s home to the famous Four Mile Beach and a popular base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
Port Douglas is also famous among luxury travellers, with many high-end resorts and restaurants lining the main street. But it’s not just for the elite. Plenty of affordable accommodations, restaurants, and activities will suit any budget. One of the best things about Port Douglas is that it’s a great starting point for snorkelling and diving trips to the Great Barrier Reef. The Low Isles, just a short boat ride away, is a popular spot for snorkelling with sea turtles and colourful fish.
Guided Trip From Port Douglas
When in Port Douglas, make sure you join a local tour. Here is what we recommend:
Where to stay in Port Douglas
Want more time in Port Douglas? Stay the night at Port Douglas Motel, which receives a 9.8 rating by solo travellers.
4. Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge is a must-visit destination for nature lovers. Located in the southern part of the Daintree National Park, it’s a stunning location for a day trip from Cairns. The gorge is home to rich rainforest, crystal clear streams and numerous walking tracks that offer spectacular views. There are several walking tracks, ranging from easy to more challenging. There are 2 circuit walks, one short of 400 mt and the longest of 2.4 km take about an hour and are on boardwalk tracks. You can also stop at the swimming holes along Rex Creek for a safe swim.
The longer track, which takes about 2 hours to complete, is the best way to appreciate the gorge’s beauty fully. The trail is uneven and has slight inclines, so wear comfortable footwear and bring plenty of water. At the end of the track, you’ll reach the Mossman River, where you can cool off in the refreshing natural pools. However, it’s important to note that weather conditions can be unpredictable in Far North Queensland, and swimming is not always possible. Make sure to follow all warnings and restrictions to stay safe. Next to the self-guided walks, join one of the Dreamtime Walks led by indigenous people that will allow you to experience this place through the eyes of the Kuku Yalanji people.
If you prefer a tour, here is an option of a 9-hour guided day trip from Cairns that includes:
Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation
5. The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most iconic natural wonders of the world and a must-visit destination in Tropical North Queensland. The reef is home to thousands of species of marine life, including sea turtles, tropical fish, sharks, and rays. There are various ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef, including snorkelling, diving, and glass-bottom boat tours.
One of the most popular ways is by taking a tour from Cairns to Low Isles. Low Isles is a small, sandy island in the Marine National Park Zone of the Great Barrier Reef. It is part of the Commonwealth Heritage list and is home to a Great Barrier Reef Research station operated by the University of Queensland. On Low Isles, you can take a heritage walk to the lighthouse, snorkel around the island, or relax on the sandy beaches. Other popular destinations for a day out to the Reef are a tour to Green Island or a sailing tour to Fitzroy Island. You can book a great barrier reef tour in town or online.
Best Snorkeling Tours from Cairns
Here are the best snorkelling tours that we have selected for you:
Glass bottom boat or snorkel tour (6hrs, from Cairns)
Great Barrier Reef snorkelling and diving tour(8hrs, from Cairns)
6. The Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton Tablelands is a beautiful and diverse region in Tropical North Queensland. The area is known for its lush rainforests, waterfalls, and stunning landscapes. The Mareeba Wetlands, Malanda, Yungaburra, and the waterfall regions are some of the most popular attractions in the Atherton Tablelands. The part is perfect for a road trip, and a three-day journey across the Atherton Tablelands is recommended to fully get to know the area if you have the time.
You can explore the walking tracks that lead to the waterfalls, swim in the natural swimming holes, and enjoy the stunning scenery. The Atherton Tablelands is also home to various wildlife, including tree kangaroos, platypuses, and birdlife. If you are looking for an adventure, you can also take a hot air balloon ride over the Atherton Tablelands at sunrise. The scenery is breathtaking, an unforgettable experience that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
Where to Stay in the Atherton Tablelands
There are so many things to do in Atherton Tablelands that it’s well worth staying one or even two nights. Both Atherton Hinterland Motel and Nightcap at Atherton Hotel are great options for solo travellers, and they get 8.7 and 8.9 ratings.
7. Kuranda, the Kuranda Scenic Railway + the Barron Falls
Kuranda is a beautiful mountain village just a short drive or train ride from Cairns. The Kuranda Scenic Railway is one of the most popular day trips from Cairns, offering a breathtaking journey through the rugged terrain of the Barron Gorge National Park. The train passes through waterfalls, gorges, and dense rainforests, offering stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
Once in Kuranda, you can explore the many markets, cafes, art galleries, and museums that give the town its artsy vibe. Visitors can also purchase a Kuranda Wildlife Experience pass, which includes entry to Birdworld Kuranda, the Koala Gardens, and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary.
The Barron Falls are another must-see attraction in Kuranda. These breathtaking falls are easily accessible by walking the Barron Falls Lookout trail, which takes visitors through the rainforest to a lookout platform to take in the stunning view.
Do you prefer a guided Kuranda Day Tour? Check out this 7-hour guided trip:
8. A 4WD Adventure to Cooktown
For those seeking an adrenaline-fueled adventure, the Cooktown 4WD Adventure is an exciting day trip that takes visitors off the beaten path and into the rugged terrain of Far North Queensland.
The tour’s highlight is the Bloomfield Track, a challenging 4WD route that winds through dense rainforest, river crossings, and rocky terrain. The journey offers stunning views of the coastline and the rainforest and is an excellent opportunity to see Australian wildlife in its natural habitat. The tour takes visitors through some of the region’s most remote and beautiful areas, including the Bloomfield River, Cape Tribulation, and the historic town of Cooktown.
However, it is essential to note that the track is not for the faint of heart. Taking an organized tour with a knowledgeable guide who can navigate difficult conditions is recommended. With a tour guide, you can safely and confidently explore this stunning area, learn about the region’s history, and experience the natural beauty of the rugged terrain.
Click this link to join a private guided day tour to Cooktown.
Where to stay in Cooktown
If the journey is too exhilarating to do twice in one day, stay the night at Sovereign Resort Hotel. Solo travellers give it a 9.0 rating.
9. Babinda Boulders
The Babinda Boulders is a picturesque area where visitors can enjoy the refreshing waterfalls and crystal-clear pools of Babinda Creek. It is easily accessible to visitors of all ages. This hidden gem is located just a short drive from the township of Babinda, known as the place with the highest rainfall in Australia, and is worth a stop at one of the funky street cafes. The boulders are naturally formed, creating unique rock formations carved out over thousands of years by the constant flow of water.
The area is surrounded by tropical rainforest, which provides ample shade and makes it a great spot to cool off on a hot day. There are plenty of activities to enjoy at Babinda Boulders. You can swim in the pools, walk along the trails, picnic, or camp overnight in one of the free campsites. There’s a large area for safe shallow swimming.
The site is also famous for fishing, bird watching, and spotting other animals, such as peacocks. And you may be lucky to get entertained and someone diving from a massive boulder into a rock pool. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a short walk to Devil’s Pool, which shows what an incredible force of nature water can be, carving formations into the rock over the years. Several viewing decks offer stunning views of the surrounding area.
10. Josephine Falls
Josephine Falls is a famous waterfall located about 75 kilometres south of Cairns. It is tucked away in the heart of the Wooroonooran National Park, making it an excellent spot for nature lovers and those who enjoy outdoor activities.
The waterfall is truly a sight to behold, with the water cascading down multiple tiers of rock formations. Visitors can stroll along the boardwalk and snap memorable photos at one of the many viewing decks.
A popular swimming spot is a lower plunge pool at the waterfall’s base. The crystal clear water, sandy shores, and sloped rocks make great waterslides. It is important to note that visitors should take care when swimming here, as the current can be intense. There are also several walking tracks that visitors can take to explore the area further. The trails are well-maintained and offer scenic views of the surrounding rainforest. It’s a great spot to pack a picnic lunch and spend the day soaking up the beauty of this natural wonder.
How to plan your day trips from Cairns
My tip is to rent a cart in Cairns for 4-7 days and use Cairns as your base. You may also want to split the time between Cairns and Port Douglas to reduce the driving distances when you hit the road to Daintree River and Cape Tribulation. I did spend the first five days in Cairns and then went camping in Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas and the Atherton Tablelands.
Check this website to book the best Cairns Car Rental deals.
Where to best stay in Cairns
I recommend staying in Cairns for all your day trips. If you prefer exploring Cairns and its surroundings on individual day trips, staying centrally located in Cairns city is convenient and allows you to optimise your time and resources. You can use public transportation, buses or the train from the city centre, hire your car, and join a local tour.
Below are our picks for the best places ranging from budget to boutique and apartments.
Cairns Central YHA (budget excellent for solos).
The Abbott Boutique Hotel (4 stars top location and excellent prices).
The Southern Cross Atrium Apartments (central apartments with pools, gym and on-site cafe).
Browse for more options in Cairns City: Check All Accommodation Options in Cairns.
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Content First published in Feb 2023
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