Cairns is perfectly situated on the eastern coastline of Australia, far up in the north of Queensland, overlooking the colourful marine world of the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical climes of the Daintree Rainforest.
The city is the largest at the top end of the state, and it’s the perfect base from which to explore the unique natural scenery that’s quite literally on the doorstep of Cairns.
Cairns is where the reef meets the rainforest.
Take a cruise to the Outer Barrier Reef and snorkel through the diverse and vibrant coral of one of the most iconic sights in the world, before heading inland to explore the humid jungle of the world’s oldest rainforest, the Daintree.
There are waterfalls to discover, gorges to hike and rivers to raft.
There’s a lot going on around Cairns, and here are our favourite day trips to make from the city.
1. Great Barrier Reef
Of course, anyone travelling to Cairns has to make the once-in-a-lifetime trip out onto the Great Barrier Reef.
This underwater marine world is absolutely huge.
In fact, the reef begins hundreds of miles to the south, and continues on along the coast far to the north, but Cairns is one of the best locations in Queensland from which to venture out to explore this natural wonder.
There are many specialised tour companies departing from the city and out into the coral cays and islands of the reef during the dry season.
The boats offer snorkelling, scuba diving and even trips in submersible vehicles during their day tours into the surrounding waters.
Different vessels travel out to different areas, and you could keep returning day after day to see more and more of this outdoor phenomenon.
Recommended tour: Great Barrier Reef 2-Stop Cruise: Outer + Coral Cay Reefs
2. Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island is a spectacular island paradise that’s found just a short boat ride away from Cairns.
The island is surrounded by white sand beaches and some of the best coral in the barrier reef, making this an excellent place to visit if you want to experience the reef, but don’t fancy spending all day on a boat.
There’s a great resort on the island where you can hire snorkelling gear, or sign up for scuba diving trips too, while the turtle sanctuary offers tours that give an insight into the great rehabilitation work being done here to help save one of the reef’s endangered species.
Suggested tour: Fitzroy Island Full-Day Adventure Tour from Cairns
3. Green Island National Park
Green Island is a beautiful coral cay that’s found hidden away in the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s protected as a national park, and offers visitors from Cairns a great escape into the marine world, with fantastic snorkelling to be found all around the island.
If you would rather stay dry, then there are even glass bottom boat tours that explore the surrounding coral, and although Green Island is a perfect day trip from the city, there’s also a high-end resort here too for those looking to spend the night in luxury.
Suggested tour: Cairns: Green Island & Reef Full-Day Sailing Cruise
Kuranda is a small town that’s found in the mountains just outside of the city, and it makes for a great place to visit to escape the tropical humidity of Cairns.
The journey to Kuranda is a trip in itself, and although you can drive up to the town, many people choose to take either the spectacular scenic railway or the breathtaking cable car ride that carries you over the rainforest below.
Kuranda is home to some of the area’s best markets, and there are plenty of opportunities to try local foods and to enjoy the vibrant local life.
Recommended tour: Skyrail Rainforest Cableway & Kuranda Rail from Cairns
5. Barron Falls
Just outside Kuranda can be found one of Queensland’s most dramatic waterfalls.
Barron Falls is a truly incredible sight to witness, as the huge waterfall has multiple tiers that cascade over tumbling rocks and through the rainforest.
There’s a panoramic viewpoint that’s reached after a short walk through the trees, and while the falls can be just a trickle by the end of the dry season, visit just after it’s rained and you can experience what becomes one of the most powerful waterfalls in Australia.
Related trip: Barron River Half-Day Rafting Tour from Cairns
6. Barron River
The Barron River is the wide river that feeds its namesake, Barron Falls, and carves out the deep and beautiful Barron Gorge too.
The river starts high up, inland, and eventually flows all the way down to empty into the ocean by Cairns.
Although you can see the river from many points of course, an excellent day trip opportunity is to join one of the many whitewater rafting tours that depart from the city to explore the rapids in an adventurous fashion.
7. Chillagoe Caves
The Chillagoe Caves are found a long way from Cairns, but a day trip here is definitely worth the journey, as this is where the true Australian Outback really begins.
It’s a stark contrast to the reef and the rainforest, and the Chillagoe Caves are found in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dust and nothingness.
This was once a thriving mining area, but now it’s all very quiet.
The caves themselves are a spectacular underground system of karst rocks and caverns, a truly unexpected sight to find way out in the interior.
Recommended tour: Chillagoe Caves and Outback from Cairns Full-Day Tour
8. Atherton Tablelands
Found away from Cairns at a much higher altitude inland, the Atherton Tablelands are a world away from the coast.
It’s cool and breezy in the Tablelands, and the climate is very much suited to agriculture and farming, meaning there’s a plethora of cheese factories, local dairy farms and more to visit.
Make sure you stop off at the incredible volcanic crater lakes to enjoy a scenic boat ride, and call in at the bat hospital to learn more about the many species of bats that are found in Queensland.
9. Josephine Falls
Josephine Falls is one of Queensland’s most picturesque waterfalls.
It’s found to the south of Cairns, hidden away in the rainforest.
A boardwalk leads through the humid trees and foliage to several viewing platforms that offer different angles from which to be utterly amazed by the multiple tiers of this cascading waterfall.
The lower plunge pool is somewhat of a favourite swimming hole, offering a refreshing respite from the sticky, jungle-like environment, but be careful here, as after heavy rain the area can be hit by flash floods.
10. Babinda Boulders
The Babinda Boulders are one of the most epic natural spots to be visited on a day trip from Cairns.
Located near Josephine Falls to the south, this is a spectacular area of huge boulders and dramatic gorges.
The Babinda River flows over smoothed, granite boulders, and at the start of the gorge, it’s safe and refreshing to swim in the shallows.
Head further along the trail though, and soon you will come to a viewing platform that gives you an intense panorama of the trees, the river and the boulders stretching far into the distance.
11. Palm Cove
Palm Cove is a beautiful, quaint and charming little seaside community that’s found just a short drive north along the coast from Cairns.
It’s a great place to relax on the beach, as the shoreline here stretches for mile upon mile, uninterrupted and lined by swaying palms.
Be careful heading into the sea though, and make sure to stick to the designated area and heed the local warnings, as although it looks beautiful, the coast of Queensland can be full of dangerous surprises too.
12. Port Douglas
Port Douglas is an hour north of Cairns, and this seaside town is a great place to visit on a day trip to enjoy the wonderful beaches and laid-back lifestyle.
There are some great harbourside restaurants and bars overlooking the marina, while the walking tracks from town lead straight to Four Mile Beach, where there are safety nets to allow swimming and bathing in comfort.
Many people will visit Port Douglas in order to make trips out to the Barrier Reef, in particular to the outlying sections of the reef, as from here it can be much quicker and more convenient to get to the remote areas in comparison to travelling out from Cairns.
13. Daintree River
The Daintree River is a long, meandering waterway that flows from the hinterland, through the Daintree Rainforest and out into the ocean to the north of Cairns.
Much of the river winds through the Daintree National Park, which protects the world’s oldest rainforest, and the river itself is a haven for local wildlife.
Visit Daintree Village, or the ferry crossing that takes visitors across to Cape Tribulation, in order to take one of the many boat tours that head out hourly in search of the fearsome, local crocodiles.
This is one of the best places to see these dangerous animals in the wild, as the local guides know the area well, and know the territories of the local crocs too.
14. Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge is found within the Daintree National Park, and is a really extraordinary place to experience the wealth of natural beauty that’s found in the rainforest.
There are many short walking trails that lead to the gorge, and it’s an immersive, if humid place to hike.
15. Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is found at the northern end of the Daintree National Park, and it’s a secluded, isolated and utterly spectacular place to visit.
To get here, you must cross the Daintree River by ferry, before driving through the rainforest, along the sandy beaches and finally, to Cape Tribulation, named by Captain Cook when he sailed along the coast and had to beach here to repair his ship when it was damaged on the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s wild and untouched, and one of the best day trips to make from Cairns.