All Articles An outdoor lover's guide to Cairns

An outdoor lover's guide to Cairns

White-water rafting, epic hikes, and endless waterfalls await.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey5 Apr 2024 3 minutes read
Australia, Queensland, Cairns, woman looking at Millaa Falls
Millaa Falls in Cairns
Image: Peter Adams/Getty Images

When I was asked to write a travel guidebook covering most of coastal Queensland as well as the Great Barrier Reef, I jumped at the chance to explore this northern state. I spent many happy weeks roaming the coastal paths, the countryside, the many natural wonders, enjoying the amazing outdoor experiences to be had in this tropical region.

Queensland, Australia’s second largest state, quickly became my top choice for outdoor enthusiasts for its huge variety of experiences. There is such a wide array of natural landscapes perfect for scuba diving, wild-water rafting, endless hikes, bird watching, and, surprisingly, the world’s oldest rainforest. Using Cairns as your home base, here are a few ways to get outside in Queensland.

Channel your inner Crocodile Dundee in Daintree

Tourist at Mossman gorge national park in far north Queensland
Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest
Image: John Crux Photography/Getty Images

The Daintree River, which marks the entry point to the Daintree Rainforest, looks much the same today as it did millions of years ago (the forest itself is some 180 million years old, making it the oldest in the world), with similar creatures in the waters now as there were then. The prehistoric crocodiles are everywhere in the river—you can see them sunning themselves on the river’s beaches or lazily swimming in the waters, and they’re best appreciated from the safety of a guided boat tour.

Tip: You can also spot crocodiles from the small car ferry crossing the river, and even the Skyway Rainforest Cableway that takes you across the mountains to the village of Kuranda.

Find Nemo at the Great Barrier Reef

Overlooking view of the Norman reef in Great barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia
The Norman reef in the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns
Image: Max shen/Getty Images

A visit to Queensland isn’t complete without seeing the Great Barrier Reef. From Cairns, many of the reef islands are quite far out, taking time and a huge investment to get to. But Green Island sits within easy reach of Cairns. A full-day tour (available through Great Adventures) will take you first to Green Island, where you’ll have access to a pool, several restaurants, and everything from scuba diving to snorkeling—plus the fun Seawalker dive, where you get to experience the sea floor without needing diving experience—for a few hours. Then you’ll transfer to the Outer Reef Platform for an extra three hours of snorkeling fun on the fringe of the Great Barrier Reef.

Tip: For an extra thrill, book a helicopter flight to get a bird’s eye view of the reef and spot migrating whales along the coast.

Get splashed in the Northern Queensland rivers

Whitewater rafting on Tully River
Whitewater rafting on the Tully River
Image: Holger Leue/Getty Images

You could take a day trip to the artsy village of Kuranda, on the fringes of Cairns, to see Barron Falls, an imposing cascade in the Blue Mountains. But you can (and should) get much closer to the water than a viewing platform. Barron River wild-water rafting takes you through the rapids as the river flows through the serene Atherton Tablelands before making its way to the mountainous gorge near Cairns. Along the way you’ll get a close-up look at the surrounding dense forest, which is full of colorful birds and other local wildlife.

The Barron River is thrilling to raft and you’ll get plenty of squeals from your group, but for something a touch more adventurous, try the Tully River rafting excursion, which is slightly longer and with more rapids but still fine for the entire family.

Tip: Bring your own shoes to get wet as you are not allowed to go barefoot. Otherwise, you will be asked to rent a pair at an extra cost.

Shout from the top of Mount Bartle Frere

Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland's tallest mountain
Mount Bartle Frere
Image: John Crux Photography/Getty Images

Cairns is the perfect entry point to the Blue Mountains, with access to Barron River, endless hiking trails through the forests of Wooroonooran National Park, and the chance to hike Queensland’s highest peak, Mount Bartle Frere, which reaches an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.

Head out on the 10-mile Bartle Frere trail to the mountain’s summit or the shorter Broken Nose trail, some six miles long, which offers stellar views. Note: Most trails up here are challenging and should not be underestimated. Slippery terrain, leeches, and tropical humidity make this more than your average mountain hike, even if the elevation may not initially sound that demanding.

Tip: If you’re looking for a more manageable route, tackle the family-friendly, one-mile Josephine Falls trail to see the tiered waterfall up close.

Chasing waterfalls in Babinda

Devil's Pool (Babinda Boulders), Babinda Creek, Far North Queensland, Australia
Babinda Boulders
Image: Artie Photography (Artie Ng)/Getty Images

Part of Wooroonooran National Park, the Babinda Boulders area is magical and mystical, with several waterfalls and those Seychelles-like smooth boulders. The name Babinda comes from the indigenous Wanyurr Yidinji language, with Bunna binda meaning “water passing over your shoulder,” reportedly referring to the sensually rounded rocks.

Less than an hour’s drive south of Cairns, take a right at the tiny blue tourist information hut. From the designated car park, there are several trails to follow, each more scenic than the next. Beware, this place is famous as the wettest spot in Australia and can be dangerously slippery. As the river’s seemingly serene pools are filled with undercurrents, please be cautious when taking a dip.

Tip: Stop either before or after your boulder adventure at the Babinda Bakery, which is just as famous as the boulders, to stock up on picnic goodies. The pies, especially the daily specials (try the curry pie), are superb.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a travel writer who has lived all around the globe, but calling Paris, France, home for six years was a definite highlight.