Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, some of the areas around Cairns has the highest average rainfall in Australia. Which makes Cairns a great place to chase waterfalls – especially during the Wet season (December to March). You can visit many of the spectacular waterfalls around Cairns on a road trip to the south – allow at least a half-day to get to the easy-to-reach the waterfalls, and a full day to include a few short bushwalks that reach some of the slightly more remote cascades and falls. As well as waterfalls and swimming holes, a drive out to Chillagoe takes you to some fascinating Aboriginal rock art sites, as well as multiple caves (self-guided or you can book a guided tour) and unusual rock formations.
These two self-driving day trips out of Cairns each involve 4-6 hours of driving, and visit some of the best scenic waterfalls, picturesque swimming holes, rock formations and short rainforest bushwalks around Cairns.
Southern Loop from Cairns: Chasing Waterfalls and Swimming Holes
Driving distance: 290km (approx 4 hours)
Recommended direction: Anti-clockwise; if you finish after dark the last section between Babinda and Cairns is the least scenic. You can also choose from a few very nice swimming holes for a last swim before returning to Cairns.
Features: Six waterfalls (most of which you can also swim at), scenic lookouts
Whether you’re starting from Cairns, Palm Cove or further north, head south towards Gordonvale. You’ll notice to the west as you approach Gordonvale a pyramid-shaped mountain rising above the canefields… if you’re after a challenging walk, start early and tackle this peak in the morning, before it gets too hot.
Walsh’s Pyramid bushwalk
Offering great views from the peak, the climb to the top of the 922m high mountain is fairly strenuous. The track is well-marked, but bring plenty of water and start as early as you can.
Time: allow 3-4 hours (return)
From Gordonvale, turn onto Gillies Range Road. A popular tourist drive, the road climbs steeply from the coast up onto the Gillies Range and Cairns hinterland, through Little Mulgrave National National Park. As you drive up the winding road, you’ll pass 263 corners, and 800m elevation change in only 19km of road. Although there are not many formal lookouts, there are a few places you can stop to admire the views back down to the coast.
While the Gillies Range Road continues to Atherton, the Waterloop Loop turns onto Lake Barrine Road – at this junction is The Gillies Cafe, which offers great coffee and food if you’re ready for a short break. Another 10-15min and you’ve reached the first waterfall stop at Malanda, on the Atherton tableland. It’s one of the least spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes along the drive, but offers very easy access to the waterfall and swimming pool, and the the modern Visitor Centre has toilets and basic facilities.
A small but wide waterfall cascades into a man made swimming pool. It’s one of the easiest-to-reach swimming places and good for younger kids.
Time: allow 15min-1 hour (if swimming or doing on of the two short rainforest walks)
The Waterfall Loop drive continues south from here along the Malandra Millaa Millaa Road; a short detour down East Evelyn Road takes you to the Millaa Milla Lookout, which offers “one of the most superb vistas in the region”. After passing the town of Milla Milla, turn onto the signposted Millaa Millaa Waterfall Circuit (Theresa Creek Road), which takes you past three waterfalls.
One of the most spectacular (and most-photographed) waterfalls around Cairns, Millaa Millaa Falls also has a beautiful natural pool at its base where you can enjoy a refreshing swim.
Time: allow 15min-45min (if swimming)
Easy to access, Zillie Falls is impressive… but not as photogenic as the other two waterfalls since you can only view the falls from a viewing platform near the top.
Time: allow 10-15min
A picturesque waterfall which cascades into a shallow pool. It’s reached by a short but steep paved track.
Time: allow 30min
The Waterfall Circuit (Theresa Creek Road) finishes back on the Palmerston Highway (SH 25), with the route continuing south towards the Wooroonooran National Park. There’s no more facilities for a while, so double-back a short distance to the town of Millaa Millaa if you need some food or water. There’s a number of bushwalks and waterfalls in the Wooroonooran National Park, which can easy fill an entire afternoon!
The first waterfall requires a solid 1-2 hour bushwalk, so skip this if you’re short on time or energy! If you have time, it’s well worth stopping at the Henrietta Creek camping area to do this rainforest bushwalk.
Nandroya Falls Loop bushwalk
Choose between a 4.4km “out and back” or a 6.4km loop walk through rainforest to a spectacular waterfall and natural swimming hole.
Time: allow 1.5-3 hours
You can extend the bushwalk to a much longer 13km walk that also visits Tchulpala Falls and Wallacha Falls – this is a relatively challenging route with some creek crossings. My recommendation is to drive a bit further along the Palmerston Highway, and do a shorter bushwalk to these next two waterfalls. (If you don’t have time for all three, Nandroya Falls is the most impressive – but also involves the longest bushwalk.) It’s a bit tricky to find the starting point for these next two waterfalls; they are both accessed from the same trail, which starts from the shoulder of the Palmerston Highway (Google map reference).
An impressive (but less-frequented) segmented waterfall, which you can see from a distance at the end of a short bushwalking trail.
Time: allow 15-20min
Accessed by the same trail as the Tchupala Falls, this is an equally picturesque waterfall which you can also admire from a distance.
Time: allow 20-25min
Depending on how much time you have left, there are a few other attractions in and around Wooroonooran National Park:
- Crawford’s Lookout is right next to Palmerston HIghway and provides a glimpse of the North Johnston River and the rainforest of Wooroonooran National Park. A 2.6km return walk (allow an hour) takes you down to North Johnstone Lookout, for better views of the North Johnston River (you can also continue down to the river).
- Cowley Falls is reached via a rough and informal walking track (2km return) which descends to the top of a tall waterfall. You can also scramble to the base of the falls. Follow pink tape from edge of Palmerston Hiighway. Allow 1-2 hours.
- Mamu Tropical Skywalk allows you to explore the rainforest from the forest floor to the canopy, passing through one of the largest-remaining continuous stands of complex vine forest on basalt soils in the Wet Tropics. (Entry fees apply). Allow an hour.
From Henrietta Creek camping area, it’s about 50km (45min) to the next stop, as you leave the national park and head east towards the coast and the Bruce Highway. Josephine Falls is worth the short detour as you head north up the Bruce Highway back towards Cairn; it’s both a picturesque waterfall and beautiful swimming hole. One of the routes to the top of Mount Bartle Frere (the highest peak in Queensland) starts from here, but it’s challenging bushwalk that requires a full day (or two days). This is a busy and popular spot, so getting here late in the day will help you avoid the crowds.
A popular and often busy spot, Josephine Falls combines some idyllic rainforest pools with picturesque cascades. The falls and pools are a 700m walk along a paved walking track.
Time: allow an hour if swimming
From Josephine Falls it’s about 20 minutes to Babinda Boulders, the last stop on the Waterfall Loop, and a nice spot for a swim.
A popular destination, Babinda Boulders has a number of spectacular swimming holes. A short rainforest walk to Devils Pool provides a good view of the cascades and rock formations along Babinda Creek.
Time: 30min to 1.5 hours if swimming
From Babinda Boulders, it’s about an hour back to Cairns along the Bruce Highway. Stopping at all the attractions and doing all the bushwalks is possibke in a long day, but an early start is recommended. (If you are keen to include Walshs Pyramid in the itinerary – which is the best of all the bushwalks – I’d suggest leaving an hour early and leaving out the Nandroya Falls bushwalk. Or if you’re not really into bushwalking, consider spending an hour or two at the Mamu Skywalk.)
0km 8:00am Cairns 77km 9:30am Malanda Falls Visitor Centre. 30min to swim/explore area. 102km 10:20am Milla Milla - start of Waterfall Circuit. Allow an hour (3 waterfalls) 142km 11:50am Henrietta Creek Campground. Allow 2 hours for Nandroya Falls 145km 2:00pm Park 3km further for Tchulpala Falls & Wallacha Falls. 45min 200km 3:20pm Josephine Falls. Allow 45min. 225km 4:30pm Babinda Boulders. Allow 45min. 290km 6:15pm Back in Cairns
Heading West of Cairns: Waterfalls, Caves and Aboriginal Art
Driving distance: 470km (approx 6 hours driving, including side-trips)
Recommended direction: This is best done as “out and back” trip to Chillagoe, stopping at Davies Creek Falls and Emerald Creek Falls on the way back (when there will be less people, and you won’t be in a rush to get to the Chillagoe cave tours).
Features: Up to six caves to explore, an enormous limestone boulder and two Aboriginal rock art sites. Along the route are two spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes.
Although this is a relatively long day trip from Cairns, it combines some spectacular caves and rock formations – as well as some impressive waterfalls. I’d recommend leaving Cairns reasonably early and heading straight to Chillagoe, so you can do some of the ranger-guided cave tours. Three of the six caves must be done with a ranger, and the tours run sequentially from 9am to 1:30pm (book at least a day in advance).
The drive to Chillagoe starts with a steep ascent up to the town of Kuranda on the Atherton Tablelands. If you have time, this is a good spot for breakfast or a break. A short detour to the end of Barron Falls Road takes you to a lookout over Barron Falls – but as the Barron River has been dammed for a hydroelectric power station, the waterfall is fairly unimpressive except after very heavy and sustained rain. (In any case, if you have time, Kuranda is worth visiting as a separate day trip – take the train up and the cable car back down.)
From Kuranda, continue along National Route 1 (Kennedy Highwaya) to Mareeba, and then take State Route 27 (Burke Development Road). Between Mareeba and Chillagoe the Burke Development Road (also called the Wheelbarrow Way) is mostly sealed, but does have a few gravel sections that are suitable for 2WDs, but are a bit rough. Once you reach Chillagoe there are a couple of places you can get food or drinks, and a hardware store if you need some torches for the caves. Head to the Chillagoe Hub Information Centre (“The Hub”) to pick up pre-booked cave tour tickets, or to get more information on the area. Most of the caves and the short bushwalk to Balancing Rock start from the Donna Cave carpark at the end of Frew Street.
There are five caves in the main section of the park which you can explore, either with a ranger or self-guided. (The ranger-guided tours are a bit easier, and visit some of the most spectacular formations.)
Time: up to 5 hours (if doing all caves)
A very short (0.5km) loop walk takes you up and around Balancing Rock, an enormous limestone tower perched on a tiny base.
Time: allow 30min
One of two Aboriginal rock art sites at Chillagoe the Wullumba Rock Art site has white and red ochre drawings, and deep, vertical grooves in the limestone cliff.
Time: allow 15min
Continue another 15km along the Burke Development Road to reach the Mungana Caves section of the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. Here you can visit The Archways caves and another spectacular Aboriginal rock art site.
One of the easiest but most spectacular cave systems, The Archways is a network of narrow passages and light-filled caverns below huge limestone cliffs.
Time: allow 30-45min
The most impressive of the two accessible Aboriginal rock art sites, the Mungana Rock Art Site has a range of figures in white an red ochre.
Time: allow 15min
If you’re doing all three ranger-guided Chillagoe Cave tours as well as the self-guided tours, you won’t have much time left in the day… but if you’re only doing one or two of the caves, there are two waterfalls and swimming holes worth a visit on the way back to Cairns. They are situated near each other, about two hours from Chillagoe (allow about 45min hour for each one) – if you need to choose one, Emerald Creek Falls would be my pick. Going late in the afternoon (but before it gets dark) means you’ll avoid the crowds – and the drive back to Cairns is all on sealed roads once you hit the highway.
The star attraction at the Davies Creek Falls is a stunning, natural “infinity pool” at the top of the falls. You can do an easy loop walk or just head straight for the waterfall and pool.
Time: allow 30-45min
Visit the top of this spectacular, multi-tiered waterfall – or head straight to the bottom of the falls along a more challenging track for a choice of stunning swimming holes.
Time: allow 30min-1 hour
0km 8:00am Cairns 205km 10:40am Chillagoe (11am-11:30am Trezkinn Cave tour) Allow another 2 hours for lunch and self-guided caves 220km 1:45pm Mungana Caves section Allow 45min to explore this area 395km 4:45pm Davies Creek Falls or Emerald Creek Falls Allow 45min for a swim 470km 6:30pm Cairns