Are you looking for an insider’s adventure travel guide for the best outdoor activities in Cairns?
As part of our Adventure City Guide series, Charli from Wanderlusters shares with you her expert insider tips on the top adventure and outdoor activities to do in Cairns; including how to get there and costs.
Why visit Cairns for adventure?
Cairns sits on the north east coast of the state of Queensland. Known as the place where the rainforest meets the reef the area provides a wealth of activities for the adventurous traveller. With its warm climate and laid back vibe the city is an excellent base to explore Australia’s tropical north.
We spent two months living in Cairns although we’d only planned on visiting for a few days. Camping each night in our Winnebago we utilised the city’s excellent network of bicycle lanes to discover all that is on offer.
Outdoor Activities in Cairns
Scuba Dive the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and it would be impossible to visit the city without hopping aboard a boat to see first-hand the beauty of the world’s most extensive coral reef eco system. For the adventurous traveller the only way to experience the reef is to join one of the liveaboard dive boats that take guests out to the best dive sites on the reef.
The famous Cod Hole, Steve’s Bommie and Pixie Gardens all provide world class dives and give a brilliant insight into the diversity of life on the reef.
If you’re a more experienced diver or wish to gain experience fast join Mike Ball’s 7 day Coral Sea Safari and see the best of the Great Barrier Reef as well as the epic shark dive 150km from the shore at Osprey Reef. This five star liveaboard is world renowned for ensuring you see the best the reef has to offer.
Jump in at the Cod Hole and dive with fish the same size as you!
Brush up on your macro photography skills at Steve Bommie where you’ll spot nudibranchs, frog fish and sea horses. You’ll need nerves of steel for the shark feed dive out at Osprey Reef. Descending to fifteen metres your heart will race as you watch their shadows appear from below anticipating a meal. As they frenzy around you’ll need a steady hand to take a photo as they swim inches from your mask. In our opinion this trip is the only way to literally submerse yourself in an unforgettable Great Barrier Reef adventure.
Getting to the Great Barrier Reef
You can jump aboard any of the liveaboard boats in Cairns so no transportation is required.
Mike Ball offers three, four and seven night trips. Note that you must opt for either the four or seven day trip to experience the shark feed. Prices start at $1600 AUD for the three night trip but cheaper rates can be negotiated a week before departure.
SAVVY TIP – We secured a placement on the Mike Ball Expedition Volunteer Programme and worked as dive crew on the boat for two weeks. This meant that we experienced the seven night Coral Sea Safari twice in exchange for two weeks of unpaid employment on the boat.Averaging three dives a day this is a brilliant way to experience the reef on a budget.
Note: To work on the dive deck you must be a certified Dive Master however there are opportunities for Open Water divers to volunteer in the galley.
For more information read our trip report.
White Water Rafting
For adrenaline junkies the opportunity to get off the beaten track and onto some white water is always met with enthusiasm. The run off from the rainforest and mountain ranges that surround Cairns provides a number of great stretches of river to explore. The Tully River is known throughout Australia and New Zealand for its exceptional rafting and encompasses classes one through five.
Along with the white water rafting a day trip to the River Tully includes the opportunity for rock jumping, raft surfing and rapid swimming. With memorable spots along the stretch of forty five rapids like ‘Alarm Clock’ named because it provides those who pass a soggy wakeup call, and ‘Stair Case’ a nail biting drop, the Tully makes for a first rate adventure from your base in Cairns.
When booking your white water adventure you will be advised of a collection point for your journey south to the Tully River. The transport is included in the cost of your rafting experience.
Cairns Rafting offer collection and return to your accommodation, a lunch time BBQ and five hour rafting experience for $195 AUD
SAVVY TIP – Visit the numerous tour desks in the town and barter for the best rate you can. Booking direct with the company is not always the cheapest option. The tour desks receive commission and they often give extra discounts to secure a sale.
If you’re strapped for cash take a day trip to the freshwater paradise of Crystal Cascades. Located just twenty minutes west of the city this area is known to locals and tourists alike and is a popular place to cool off in the heat of the day.
With no entry fees this is one of the most affordable paradise retreats you’ll ever find.
With numerous waterfalls and swimming holes set in stunning rainforest surroundings it’s a great place to explore or relax and soak up some sun. There are opportunities for the more adventurous to take part in some cliff jumping. A short walk up the cliff from the largest waterhole will take you to ‘No Fear’ point, the highest part of the cliff face from which you can launch yourself into the water below.
While not far from Cairns there are no public transport options to Crystal Cascades.
We recommend hiring a car which can be done for around $35/day. If you’re considering taking a taxi note there is intermittent mobile reception at the falls and you may find yourself unable to call for a ride home. Drive to the suburb of Redlynch, and simply follow the signs to Crystal Cascades. From the Red Beret Pub, the swimming hole is about 10 kilometres away.
There is no entry fee to the falls however be sure to take supplies and sun cream as there are no shops close by.
SAVVY TIP – Chat to other travellers about visiting the falls, they may have their own transport and be interested in experiencing the beauty of the falls themselves. Leave a wanted advert on the noticeboards in hostels and caravan parks advertising for travel buddies to share the cost of car rental and fuel.
Local Secret Adventure in Cairns
If you’ve spent your day laid by the lagoon and are in need of something to get your blood pumping pop down to the esplanade for an evening exercise class. The best part about this programme is that all the classes are free. All you need to do is arrive at the esplanade in the centre of the city equipped with the motivation to burn some calories and away you go.
Choose from yoga, pilates, beach volley ball, aqua aerobics, bootcamp and zumba and get that booty in shape for free.
Best time of the year to visit Cairns for adventure?
Cairns provides adventurers with activities throughout the year however be aware that the Minkie Whale migratory season is from May to August and you can scuba dive with them aboard Mike Ball’s Minke Whale Expedition in June and July.
Temperatures in northern Queensland can also reach 40°C during the summer months and the area can be hit with thunderstorms and cyclones December to March. If visiting during this time be vigilant about applying sunscreen, wearing a hat and always carry water.
The reason I love Cairns for adventure is because…
The city is nestled in between the aquatic splendour of the Great Barrier Reef and the vibrant canopy of the surrounding rainforest that covers many of the coastal mountain ranges. Both provide endless opportunity for exploration and would keep any explorer happy for the duration of their stay.
And once you’ve explored the natural beauty of the surrounding environment you can experience the cities thriving nightlife and relaxed beach vibe. Sometimes a cool beer and a sea view is just what you need after a day of adventure.
In 2010 Charli & Ben made the decision to live a life less ordinary and six months later embarked on an undefined period of travel. Enforcing no restrictions on their itinerary they have chosen to travel at a slow pace and incorporate house sitting assignments in each country they visit.
With no time limit restricting their experience they are content to continue exploring the world as digital nomads. From backpacking through Central America to road tripping around Australia they embrace each and every opportunity for adventure.