Cairns is the gateway to some of life's bucket list experiences: the Great Barrier Reef, pre-historic rainforests and wildlife that is endangered and can only be found in this area. There are so many unmissable experiences that are waiting within a two hour drive of Cairns city centre.
So hop in the car and see the wonders that Tropical North Queensland has to offer.
1. Mission Beach
Mission beach is definitely doable as a day trip from Cairns, but if you have time it would be worth a longer stop.
The huge sweeping beach is stunning, especially at sunrise and the palm trees jutting out towards the ocean are incredibly photogenic.
Mission beach lies on the aptly named Cassowary Coast and is an amazing spot for seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. There are signs all over the roads about keeping your speed down, and true enough a Cassowary did cross the road right in front of our car! There are many places you can spot them in this area and we saw three in total. You can even hear their distinct calls in the night, it feels like sleeping in the rainforest!
If you do have longer it's a great jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef. It's a far less popular section of reef than you visit from Cairns or Port Douglas, so you are much more likely to have very small groups. You can get to Dunk Island in only 15 minutes by boat from the beach, and only two other people got off the boat with us, paradise all to ourselves!
Dunk Island is a great place to swim and laze around but if you're looking for something more active take the walking tracks. The view from the top of the 9km Island Circuit is just incredible.
Mission beach is just under two hours drive from Cairns.
2. Crystal Cascades
It's no secret that TNQ is packed full of outstanding waterfalls, but it's pretty incredible that this one lies just 20 minutes drive from Cairns City centre. It's only about a 15-minute walk to find the falls but the path is not overly clear so leave a bit of time in case you make a wrong turn. It definitely feels a bit off the beaten track which all adds to the feeling that you are somewhere very special. The waterfall itself has a perfect swimming hole at the base, and kudos to you if you can get on that rope swing! Beware of the giant stinging trees on the way, even this view wouldn't be worth the pain of that!
3. Millaa Millaa
So this spot is firmly on the tourist track, and that's hardly surprising. It's a stunner and one you can see straight from the car park. This does mean that it gets busy. We came at sunrise to make sure we would be able to go for a dip and take shots without the crowds. It was raining pretty heavily and we were wary of ruining the camera if it was exposed to too much water so we didn't take many photos and decided to return later in the day - there were whole coachloads of people. Go early. It's worth it.
Millaa Millaa falls is around one and a half hours drive from Cairns.
4. Elinja Falls
This is another popular spot on the waterfall way, and very close to Millaa Millaa. It also gets quite busy, but not to the same extent because you have to take a 15-minute walk to get there which clearly puts some people off. Again, go early if you don't want to share it with a crowd. It's an amazing spot to sit and relax and take all the scenery in.
Visit with Millaa Millaa for an incredible day trip from Cairns or better still stay over night at one of our favourite Aussie places to stay - a tree house!
5. Mossman Gorge
Let's start by saying this gorge is beautiful, utterly beautiful. but it's very hard to avoid the crowds because you need to take a little shuttle bus from the visitor's centre to get there which only starts running at 8am. You can walk, and this would have been our preference, but the sign said that the indigenous community living here did not want you walking in this area and we wanted to respect that. Even though we went on a Monday morning it was heaving. There are a few short walking tracks but most people do these too. In short, manage your expectations, you're unlikely to have this rainforest paradise all to yourself but it will still be magical. The swimming hole was sublime, freezing cold but so worth it. .
Mossman gorge is just one hour and 15 minutes drive from Cairns and is not to be missed. It also has another of our fave places to stay - yes you guessed it, another tree house!
6. The Daintree
Daintree is a very special place, wandering through the oldest living rainforest in the world is an experience you will remember forever. We'd advise to get out on the walking tracks to really get a feel for the place and before you head out why not stop for a coffee at the Daintree Discovery Centre? The cafe has a balcony directly overlooking the rainforest, coffee with a view anyone?
The Daintree is just over two hours drive from Cairns, it makes a long but very worthwhile day trip.
7. The Great Barrier Reef
There are loads of spots you can get out to the reef from; Cairns, Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation, and if you really want to get an idea of scale our advice would be to take a flight over the reef. We flew from Cairns and the view will take your breath away. Vlassof cay in particular looks like a dream, you can actually land a helicopter here and have a picnic, life goals.
Take off directly from Cairns airport itself.
9. Nerada Tea Plantation
As Brits who love their tea this is an obvious choice. But truth be told we didn't come here for the tea, we heard it was one of the best places to spot tree kangaroos in the wild. They weren't wrong. We were lucky enough to see three, one of which was a gorgeous joey. They do roam so it's not a guarantee but if you're out of luck it's still a great place to grab a cup of tea and some lunch.
Nerada is just one and a half hours drive from Cairns and easily combined with a trip on the waterfall way.
10. Lake Eacham
Lake Eacham is a real beauty. It's an incredible place to cool off in the warmer months if the thought of fresh water crocs doesn't put you off! Freshies are not normally aggressive and leave you alone if you return the favour, so it's generally considered a safe place to swim.
There's an easy 3km walking track around the lake with some amazing curtain fig trees, and of course great views. We even spotted a bandicoot - our first sighting of one in the wild!
Lake Eacham is a one hour and 15 minute drive from Cairns.
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What are your favourite spots near Cairns that we should add to our list for the next visit? Let us know in the comments.