For most people visiting North Queensland, the two must-see highlights are the Great Barrier Reef and rainforests of the Tropical North. When it comes to the rainforests, the best way to see them from every perspective is by rail on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and by cable car on the Skyrail. While it’s possible to do these tours as standalone trips, it’s much better, easier and cheaper to combine the two. The Kuranda Scenic Railway has been operating since the late 1800s and as I board the historic rail carriages in Cairns, I can’t help but feel the history. I am about to do this journey for the third time, my first I can’t remember as I was about 5, another for a school trip in the ’80s with sleep deprivation – again not much memory – so the third time should be great. Except…here comes a tropical downpour. Oh well, at least the waterfalls should be good.
My adventure to Kuranda this time around takes on not only the historic train journey but a new element of the Skyrail cable car experience – a gondola with a clear floor. Combining these two journeys is a great way to experience the best of this World Heritage Area and learn a lot along the way. This guide is packed with Kuranda Scenic Railways tips and Skyrail tips and provides plenty of useful information to help you get the most out of both journeys. Whether you’re a local or visiting from overseas, this experience is well worth your time (and money).
Times and direction
When booking a trip to Kuranda it’s important to work out what will work for you time-wise as the train journeys are set times with morning departures from Cairns and afternoon return trips from Kuranda. The Skyrail operates continuously so you can hop on and off at your leisure. You are given a ride time for the Skyrail on the way back to Cairns but if it’s not too busy, you can get straight on. By far the best and most popular option is the early Kuranda Railway journey up and Skyrail return. This gives you the option to take your time in Kuranda and enjoy the return Skyrail journey at your own pace.
Get seats on the best side of the train
On the journey up to Kuranda, it’s important to get the seats on the right-hand side of the train to get the best views out to the coast and valleys. Having said that, you also get some great waterfalls on the left-hand side, especially in the wet season or like on my trip when a tropical depression had the falls flowing with gusto. Some seats on the train face backwards so make sure you request a forward facing seat if travelling backwards makes you feel queasy.
Take in the commentary on the way up
Unlike many pre-recorded commentaries, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is highly entertaining and insightful and tells a fascinating story about the construction and perils of working on the railway. One interesting fact I learned was that all the rock and rubble from the construction of the railway was used to build the foundations of Cairns and turn swampy marshlands into solid ground for roads and buildings. More history unfolded on the trip up with entertaining stories about the problems building the railway and how vital it became in World War II for carrying troops and supplies.
There’s more than one waterfall
Towards the top of the range, you get to look at some spectacular waterfalls that you probably weren’t expecting. Stoney Creek Falls and the bridge here is the most outstanding feature of the railway line, especially in the wet season. In fact, we thought this waterfall was better than Barron Falls. Stoney Creek Falls are best viewed from the left hand side of the train with the train slowing down so everyone gets to take a look. Baron Falls are the big drawcard for the trip to Kuranda and are best viewed in the wet season when in full flow. The train stops at the Barron Falls lookout for 15 minutes for photos and so passengers can take in the falls, valley and surrounding rainforest. And, in our case, get a bit wet as started pouring just as we pulled up alongside the viewing area.
Making the most of Kuranda
The small township of Kuranda has had a pretty tough couple of years, with many businesses struggling with no tourists. However, things are starting to look up with cafes, galleries and stores open again and welcoming visitors. Asking a local for tips for the best spot for lunch had me with a list a mile long with offshoots for the best coffee and desserts. Having time in Kuranda to explore is a must, especially for lunch or a freshly baked treat with locally grown coffee. Some other tourist adventures include the Kuranda Riverboat that explores the Barron River and Kuranda Markets for locally made arts and crafts. A few hours in the town will have your fed, watered and possibly weighed down with shopping.
Skyrail Diamond View gondola
From Kuranda, it’s a short walk past the many gift stores to the gondola entry where you present your ticket. We opted for a Diamond View gondola before we knew how wet it would be. By the time we boarded Skyrail, we could hardly see in front of us, it was raining that hard. We thought the Diamond View gondola would be a waste of time as it was raining so hard but we couldn’t have been more wrong! If it’s a rainy day upgrading to one of the gondolas with a clear floor is a huge bonus and worth every cent. While the rain pours down outside, the gondola floor stays dry and crystal clear, giving you perfect views of the rainforest below your cabin. If anything, the rain makes this view even more magical.
Getting off the Skyrail along the way
There are two stops on the Skyrail journey and you should definitely make the most of them. There is no need to worry about getting off the gondola as it slows right down so every traveller, young and old, can get on and off safely. The first stop on the journey from Kuranda is Barron Falls station which offers dramatic panoramic views of Barron Falls and the surrounding rainforest and gorge. Also at this station is the CSIRO Rainforest Interpretation Centre and Historical Precinct which gives you loads of information on the environment and history of the area. You don’t have to get off at the Barron Falls stop closest to Kuranda but it’s a shame not too as there is plenty to see and do. You must get off at the second stop to change gondolas but there are viewing platforms, interactive science stations, and a free tour here as well to make it worth your while.
Download the Skyrail App
The Skyrail app is a multi-lingual interpretive app and audio guide that places the story of Australia’s ancient tropical rainforest directly in your hands. The commentary via the app takes in the features of the wet tropical rainforest and the history of the area. Another feature of the app is the augmented reality rainforest animals which appear right before your eyes at the two stations along the Skyrail. There is also a journey tracker so you know your exact location along the way.
Getting back to Cairns from the Skyrail
The Skyrail’s arrival/departure point is located at Smithfield which is a 15 minute drive from downtown Cairns so you’ll need to arrange a taxi, an Uber or arrange a pickup/transfer to get back into town. If you are doing the Skyrail first, the closest Kuranda Scenic Railway train station to the Skyrail is at Freshwater.
Don’t forget the essentials
Remember you are in the tropics and it gets hot so keep cool and hydrated remember a water bottle, sunscreen and wear light and cool clothes. Also, wear comfortable walking shoes, have a hat and bring insect repellent. It can be much cooler up at Kuranda than in Cairns so it’s worth brining a light sweater, particularly on wet days or in the cooler months.
Disclosure: The writers travelled as guests of the operators.
Looking for things to do while you’re in Cairns? Go white water rafting on the Barron River, take a day trip to Paronella Park and the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail, check out Cairns’ thriving coffee scene, or head out of town and spend a few nights at the luxurious all inclusive Mt Mulligan Lodge . If the weather is good, a day trip to Fitzroy Island is a top choice if you don’t mind venturing slightly further afield.