The five most wow-worthy Cairns day trips
There is no better base to explore Queensland’s Far North than Cairns. Originally founded in 1876 as a port, Cairns is now the region’s tourism hub. There’s almost nothing you can’t do from Cairns, with adventure activities to throw yourself into (or from), beaches straight out of a brochure, and ancient forests with secrets to reveal.
From our centrally located JUCY Cairns branch, we’ve been recommending epic regional day trips since we opened our doors in 2002. Now, instead of waiting to meet our friendly JUCY Cairns crew, we reveal our top day-tripping picks right here, right now.
A deep dive: the Great Barrier Reef
Could we claim ourselves a tourism operator without suggesting some time spent on the reef? No, of course not! And while it’s not road tripping, per se, we are recommending you get a JUCY Cairns car hire to road trip to the best of the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site and Queensland’s most famous attraction. At 2,300 km long and covering 344,400 km², it’s the world’s largest living organism. Pretty cool, huh?
There are many ways to experience the reef – scuba, snorkel, kayak, liveaboard, or cruise - and no doubt you’ll do some of them out of Cairns itself. We’d also advocate hopping in your JUCY rental car and drive an hour north to Port Douglas for an epic coastal day trip.
Port Douglas is the northernmost part of the reef system. An excursion from here is quieter than those out of Cairns. Port Douglas is more than just a jumping-off point for the reef, so it’s ideal for splitting your day. Spend a leisurely half-day exploring the reef, and the remainder exploring this stunning beach resort town.
Posh Douglas, we mean Port Douglas, has a reputation for being a pricey place to stay – so it’s perfect for sightseeing by day, then return to a more reasonably priced accommodation bracket by night.
The palm-fringed arc of Four Mile Beach is a must to explore. Also, a walk up to the Flagstaff Hill Lookout gives you a bird’s eye view of the beach and a bonus butt workout. Not up for that? Good job you’re in a car as you can also drive to the top!
You’ll also want to save some time to wander the boutique-lined Macrossan Street. Here, you’ll discover a range of exquisite eateries serving meals that practically demand you Instagram them before taking a bite.
Discovering the magic of the world’s most famous reef, relaxing on a postcard-perfect beach, and living the high life on Macrossan Street. Sounds idyllic to us!
Totally gorge-ous: Barron Gorge National Park
A 40-minute drive west from our centrally located Cairns branch can deposit you amid the spectacular Barron Gorge National Park. As ruggedly good-looking as George Clooney, the park is filled with nature’s finest. Think cascading waterfalls, rainforest-clad mountains, and an adorably quirky community.
While there is an option to take a cable car from Cairns to Kuranda, a small town on the fringe of the park, you lose the opportunity to immerse yourself in Barron Gorge’s greatness fully. You’ll want to take in the superb scenery and diverse flora and fauna, along with making time for stillness in the park. The traditional land of the Djabugandji Bama people, this Aboriginal tribe has a longstanding spiritual connection to this land, which you can connect with, too.
The Barron Gorge National Park is part of the Wet Tropics; also a designated UNESCO Heritage Site. Exploring on foot is a popular way to explore the park, especially if you’re keen to spy the native kangaroos, possums, and cassowaries that call it home. We’re fans of the Glacier Rock Lookout Track if you’re in the right gear and up for a 7km hike. If not, there are plenty of shorter trails to give you a teaser of these ancient wetlands, too.
For thrill-seekers, don’t miss the chance to take a half-day water-water rafting adventure on the Barron River. It’s an exhilarating way to experience the life force of the Barron Gorge National Park. If you prefer to experience the more serene side of the Barron River, riverboat tours go out of Kuranda. Be on the lookout for freshwater crocodiles, once aboard.
The multi-tiered Barron Falls are eye-poppingly gorgeous, particularly if you’re visiting after the rainy season when they are at their most thunderous.
While you are in the area, a stop in Kuranda is recommended. This mountain village offers a thriving daily market, artistic vibes, and a free-spirited community.
Wild about it: Daintree Rainforest
We’re on a roll with the UNESCO references (we love ‘em, check out this blog, too), so next up: the Daintree Rainforest. The sheer volume of ancient flora and fauna that you’ll discover during your explorations will make you want to crack out your best David Attenborough impression (it’s his fave place, too).
Tens of millions of years older than the Amazon Rainforest, you can find the Daintree 100km north of Cairns. A trip to the ‘Tree is worth it for the rich heritage of the life there. Surely there is no better place to get into the forest-bathing trend than in the world’s oldest surviving rainforest?
Make headway to the Daintree early in the morning, as there is so much to see and do. Hiking is an obvious one, and you can get some solid vistas, even on the short trails. For example, the 1200m Mardja Botanical Walk journeys to Oliver Creek where you can croc-spot! If you’d like to spend most of your day on a trail, opt for the challenging 6-hour Mt Sorrow Ridge Trail.
If you like a supercharged dose of information when exploring natural wonderlands, consider stopping by the Daintree Discovery Centre (fee). Alongside a ton of info and a self-guided audio tour, they also have a 23m high canopy tower so you can walk among the treetops. The 125m-long Aerial Walkway gets you off the ground, too. It’s great for families and those in fear of running into the cassowary while on a hike. Tee hee.
A cruise on the Daintree River gives you a two-for-one opportunity. As the magical landscape unfolds, the park’s history is narrated alongside it. Plus, estuarine crocodiles and a plethora of birds can be safely viewed from your river cruise.
If time permits, an additional 30-odd minutes drive north, you’ll find the secluded, pristine beaches of Cape Tribulation. We recommend checking out Ocean Safari's Turtle Tripper Adventure and camping in the heart of Cape Tribulation with Safari Lodge. Plus, you can unlock 20% off both these Ocean Safari deals with JUCY Bonus Experiences.
As one would expect in an area so rich in flora and fauna, there is an indigenous connection to the Daintree. For 50,000 years, the Kaku Yalanji tribe lived in harmony with the environment, which you can learn about at the eco-tourism centre at Mossman Gorge on your drive back to Cairns. The knowledge about aboriginal bush tucker, medicinal plants, and the guide Dreamtime walks are all eye-opening.
Say cheese: Atherton Tablelands
At JUCY, adventure is life, but that doesn’t mean it all has to be outstanding hikes, hurling your body off something, or any other heart-pumping activity. The other way to the heart, as they say, is through the stomach and for that, there is no better place regionally than the Atherton Tablelands.
The Atherton Tablelands impresses with its tropical rainforest, rolling hills, quaint villages, and a foodie culture to rival the big cities. Thanks to the region’s mountain climate and fertile soil, the Atherton Tablelands is as rich in food and wine as it is in scenic views.
Ask any Australian how to start the day best, and the answer will be an (almost) resounding “coffee”! Do as the locals do by starting with a drive to Mareeba. It’s an hour out of Cairns and famed for its coffee plantations.
Jacques is a family-owned plantation with 85,000 Arabica coffee trees, plus onsite roaster and coffee harvester. If you’d prefer a wide selection of coffee to choose from, the ‘Disneyland for coffee’, Coffee Works, offers 43 blends, plus liqueurs and chocolates.
If you need an activity to wear off the caffeine buzz, detour to Granite Gorge Nature Park to see rock wallabies. If not, say cheese and head to the Gallo Dairyland!
It’s not just coffee that drives the economy in the Atherton Tablelands, but also cheese! At the Gallo dairy farm, they offer a gourmet cheese factory (um, hello yes!), handcrafted chocolates, and onsite café. The cheese platter is where it’s at, obvs!
Next up, a stop at the nearby Curtain Fig Tree. This impressive 500-year-old heritage-listed tree is one of the region’s largest and makes for an awesome photo stop.
From here, drive 40 minutes to Rainforest Heart to sample bush orchard delights, like native fruits, teas and their specialty fortified plum wine. You’ll need to book in advance here. The Rainforest Heart tour includes a deep-dive into the regional bush tucker, but also a delectable afternoon tea! Double yum.
After feasting all day, you’ll need an activity to work off the gourmet tummy you’re now growing. Nothing too strenuous is in order, so stop by the Josephine Falls on your drive back to Cairns. A short hike (or possibly food coma waddle) will get you to a swimming hole with a remarkable natural waterslide to plop you into the water! Perfect on the kind of steamy summer’s day the region is famous for.
Should you choose to accept it: Mission Beach
If you like your wildlife, well… wild, then consider a day trip to Mission Beach, an hour south of Cairns on the Cassowary Coast. The beachside communities of North Mission, South Mission, Bingil Bay, and Wongaling Beach combine as Mission Beach and are crammed with stunning sights. But it’s the wandering neighbourhood cassowaries that draw a crowd.
If you’ve ever wondered if dinosaurs really existed, one look at the cassowary will confirm it to be true. And when you find out about this flightless bird’s knife-blade-sharp middle claw, you may also have the answer as to why the cassowary made it when the t-rex didn’t. Unfortunately, they’re not breeding like a labradoodle; there are only an estimated 4,000 cassowaries left in the wild. Given their essential role in the rainforest ecosystem, their survival is critical.
You’re probably wondering where to find cassowaries when you reach Mission Beach, right? Could it be at a wildlife sanctuary, zoo or hidden section of the bush? Nope! To spy one of Mission Beach’s 100 resident cassowaries takes patience and luck; plus they are occasionally spotted wandering around the community.
While you may get lucky and watch a cassowary cross the Mitre 10 car park, you can up your chances by visiting a few spots. A quiet walk along the Dreaming Trail offers your highest chances of sighting this helmeted creature. Alternatively, Garner’s Beach, near Bingil Bay Reserve has four cassowary squatters. The Tully-Mission Beach and El Arish Mission Beach access roads have regular sightings, too.
Perhaps the mention of their Samurai-sharp claws is a clue; cassowaries are deadly when provoked. Stand back quietly, don’t feed them, and never approach their chicks. Please also take extreme care when driving in the area, cassowaries are fast at 50km an hour, and we don’t need to do the maths to know that 50km speeds with a 60kg mass create a problem for everyone involved if it connects with your car.
For sure, Mission Beach has more going for it than bird hunting. There are some superb trails (like the 4km summit circuit to Bicton Hill), bikes to rent for coastal cruising, and 14km of sandy beaches. Oh, and that attraction you may have heard of – the Great Barrier Reef? Sounds legit, right?
If these suggestion day trip itineraries have piqued your interest for a Cairns-based road trip, you can check out our car or campervan rental dates and rates by clicking ‘get a quote’ above. Book in advance in peak (the cool and pleasant months of April to October) as our vehicles book up. Also, check out our Cairns deals you can unlock when you book a JUCY car rental.