How to plan a Kuranda Day Trip from Cairns

Make the most of a day trip to the village in the mountains from Cairns

A truly unmissable part of your Queensland itinerary is a day trip to Kuranda with kids.  This quintessential Australian town should be a must on every tourist’s list.  Yes, it’s touristy – but charming! 

This post is part of our series Discover Australia – learn more about our favourite parts of Tropical North Queensland and beyond to explore our home country of Australia with kids

Getting there – Cairns to Kuranda

Let’s be honest – this is the real highlight of visiting Kuranda! Perched high up in the mountains beyond Cairns, there are three main ways to get to Kuranda:

Take the Kuranda Scenic Railway

Kuranda Scenic Railway with kids

Go the old-fashioned way and take the 120-year-old Kuranda Scenic Railway.   The journey takes nearly 2 hours as you meander your way through the 93 turns and 15 tunnels to get 328m above sea level. 

Enjoy passing by waterfalls and mountainous ravines of Barron Gorge National Park.  Be sure to book your tickets in advance as this is an attraction that does sell out. 

At the time of ticketing, you can select a “Heritage” seat or Gold Class. Gold Class guarantees you a window seat, lounge-style chairs and morning or afternoon tea included (and a glass of sparkling should you wish!)

The train leaves from Cairns central station twice every morning at 8.30 am and 9.30 am, also stopping at Freshwater Station 25 minutes later (easier for those driving from further north). It departs from Kuranda twice daily in the afternoon at 2 pm and 3.30 pm, stopping at Freshwater and terminating in Cairns.

Take the Kuranda Skyrail

Boys enjoying the Kuranda Skyrail

The more modern method is to jump on the Kuranda Skyrail.  Enjoy spectacular rainforest views as you rise more than 500m above sea level and drift across the Barron Gorge National Park in a suspended gondola.

The Skyrail has 103 regular gondolas that can seat a maximum of 6 passengers and 11 “Diamond” gondolas with a glass bottom for an enhanced rainforest experience.   

It operates in three separate sections so you will need to change gondolas to complete your journey, but there are also several picturesque nature walks and guided tours you can take if you choose to hop off at each stop.  T

he Skyrail Terminal is in a small town called Smithfield, you can park your car here and relax and enjoy your ride.  Tickets are booked into timed slots to ease the flow of traffic throughout the day – but be warned the early tickets can be snatched up! 

Combination tickets Kuranda Scenic Railway and Kuranda Skyrail

The most popular way to tackle Kuranda as a day trip is to take the Skyrail in one direction and the scenic railway the other.

  • It doesn’t matter too much which way around you do it, just bear in mind the train takes longer. 
  • The train and Skyrail stations in Kuranda itself are almost adjacent, but at sea level, they are NOT! If you are booking one service up and the other down, make sure you tick the box that you’d like a bus transfer back to the other station.  This transfer can add a good extra 20 minutes at the start or end of your journey. 

We have more on how to get your tickets and best value options below, keep reading!

View from the Skyrail back to the coast

Self-Drive to Kuranda

Whilst perhaps not as spectacular as the other methods (but who are we kidding, its still amazing mountainous drive), the 30-minute drive from Cairns is probably the most practical if you want to spend the entire day in Kuranda. 

Even taking the first cable car up and last back, it’s super difficult to hit in more than one or two of the main attractions in a day trip. Self-driving and staying longer, or even overnight (see accommodation options below) is a far more practical option to fit in everything this gorgeous town has to offer and run at your own pace.

The ultra-fit may also take on the mountainous challenge of cycling, but I very much doubt this would be a preferred family choice!

What to see and do in Kuranda

The journey up to Kuranda is very much the highlight of the experience, but there’s certainly a lot of opportunities to spend your tourist dollars once you get here!   Most attractions are within walking distance from the Skyrail and train terminus. If you have little ones you will likely want a stroller, so make sure you have a good collapsible travel stroller to take on the journey up.

Kuranda Markets

Inside the Kuranda Markets

There are several different markets across the village including the Kuranda Heritage Markets and the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets making it the perfect spot to pick up your Aussie souvenirs. 

There’s a lot of aboriginal arts and crafts, Australian jewellery, opals, paintings and handcrafted goods (and just a little Made in China tourist tat – which of course our kids LOVED!). 

Be warned to keep an eye on little hands, there seemed to be a large number of breakable items on display!!! There are plentiful little cafes too for refreshments, and of course, our kids were insistent on a stop at the Kuranda Candy Kitchen.

Kids at the Kuranda Candy Kitchen

Australian Butterfly Sanctuary

Australia’s largest butterfly sanctuary! I was surprised this was my son’s top pick, but of course, he was then scared of them (but cool with the bigger birds next door, go figure!). 

A full lap of the sanctuary won’t take you much more than an hour.  A pretty rainforest environment, plenty of photo moments for kids and with patience, a great opportunity to see some of them up close. 

Birdworld Kuranda

A large aviary housing hundreds of free-flying birds, in fact, they have over 80 species.  As it is an open aviary they will be flying by you, they may even feed out of your hand with some seeds. Just mind the bird poo – hand sanitiser aplenty after this one!!

Kuranda Koala Gardens

Much more than just koalas, this small but quaint attraction gives you the opportunity to have your photo taken with a koala, but you can also hand-feed kangaroos and wallabies as well as see a freshwater croc. Learn more about the Koala gardens here.

Rainforestation Nature Park

5 minutes by transit bus from either station, Rainforestation is a wonderful educational experience. An amphibious Army Duck takes you on both land and water to learn about the plants and wildlife of the region and join in with the Dreamtime Walk – including boomerang throwing and a didgeridoo display.  There’s food on site here or you can BYO BBQ Aussie style! 

A popular choice is to combine your Skyrail & train ticket with a visit to Rainforestation.

Other attractions in town

Close to town there is a large children’s play park (free) and space to run around behind the visitor information centre.  We also had a lovely pub lunch at the 100-year-old Kuranda Hotel which has a superb location overlooking the train station, ideal if you’re nervously watching the clock!

Kuranda Hotel in the centre of town for pub lunch

Barron Falls

They can be viewed for spectacular photographs from the Scenic Railway stop – the only stop the train makes on its meandering journey for approximately 10 minutes.   

The falls can also be viewed from the Barron Falls Skyrail station, but this stop was undergoing restoration works at the time of our visit – due to re-open later in 2019. 

You can take a challenging walk from Kuranda village to the falls, or if self-driving, you can get to the same viewing platform as the train stop.  If you visit in the summer (December to March) you will catch the falls at their fullest.  As you can see in the dry winter months it’s only a small but pretty trickle! 

Barron Falls taken from the Kuranda Scenic Railway stop

Handy tips to make the most of your day in Kuranda

We had heard criticism of Kuranda being too geared to overseas tourists, but if you go in with your eyes open you’ll get what you expect – and so much more! (or have we lived overseas too long now and absolutely crave this stuff when we go home?) 

Here’s how we think you can make the most out of a day trip to Kuranda from Cairns of the northern beaches.

  • You must pre-book your tickets for the Skyrail and Scenic Railway.  Most online agencies at least 24 hours ahead will say no tickets available for the following day (just because the systems have shut to them, not necessarily because they’re unavailable).
  • Good time slots (ie where you can maximise first lift up and last lift back) go very early on.
  • As we mentioned above, don’t try to cram too much into one day.  If you really want to experience Kuranda, pack yourself an overnight bag and stay up there for the night so you are not time pressured and can actually appreciate the amazing setting and attractions.
  • Remember the two stations at Smithfield’s Terminal for the Skyrail and the Freshwater train station are nowhere near one another. You MUST book the bus transfer or risk being stranded; they put on the right number of busses for expected passengers only.
  • If you are planning to visit the butterfly sanctuary, try to wear bright colours as the butterflies are attracted to this.
  • If you are visiting the birds, beware they love sparkly objects!  Keep the jewellery and sequenced tops to a minimum.
  • The mountains can be several degrees cooler than the coast, so packing a jumper or pullover is wise for most of the year.
Enjoying tea at the Markets in Kuranda Queensland

Best ticketing options for Kuranda

Have a good think about how long you will be in the region for and plan your Kuranda experience ahead of time, also will you have your own vehicle or need transfers.

Getting to Kuranda

We recommend trying these combinations:

TOP PICK: Scenic Railway up and Skyrail down (including hotel transfers) with Experience Oz

Attraction Passes for Kuranda

TOP PICK: Premium Kuranda Tour with Skyrail, Train, Zoo, River Cruise, Lunch & transfers via Get Your Guide

River boa

Where to stay in Kuranda

If you opt to extend your visit to Kuranda, the accommodation choices in Kuranda village itself are very limited. There are several beautiful rainforest style accommodation choices further out of town. 

Cedar Park Rainforest Retreat gets excellent reviews  – or search the map below for other rainforest options.

Signage in Kuranda Queensland aussie village in the mountains

 Yes, it is somewhat ‘put on for the tourists’ – although I am Australian I consider myself an overseas tourist too, and it was spot on Australiana – we have many new souvenirs now in our overseas home from Kuranda and very pleased and proud of them from a memorable day. 

Have you visited Kuranda with kids? We’d love to hear your tips for family travellers on how to make the most of a day trip to Kuranda

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How to plan a day trip to stunning Kuranda in Queensland Australia

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3 thoughts on “How to plan a Kuranda Day Trip from Cairns

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