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A memorable day out on Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail

The attractive Skyrail terminal building at Kuranda, surrounded by tropical gardens
Skyrail terminal at Kuranda

You can drive to Kuranda, but there are more interesting ways to travel.

Kuranda is a mountain village nestled deep in the lush rainforests of Tropical North Queensland, Australia. Although it’s possible to drive the 28 km from Cairns in around 40 minutes, we decided to try two more interesting options: the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

With one return ticket, you can book to travel on the Skyrail in one direction and the train in the other, or you can take the same option in both directions. We chose to take the Skyrail for the outward journey and the train for our return.

Why visit Kuranda?

In all honesty, this trip is all about the journey rather than the destination. But Kuranda is well worth a visit. It’s quirky, alternative, a little bit hipster, and very welcoming. Plus it has that bonus that makes everywhere in this part of tropical Queensland beautiful: fabulous trees, flowers, gardens and wildlife.

Quirky, colourful huts nestled among tropical shrubbery at Kuranda Market

For such a small place, the village has more markets per square metre – both indoor and outdoor – than anywhere I’ve ever been. Kuranda Market is a delightful collection of hipster huts descending down a hillside, selling everything from crystals to alternative therapies and vegan food.

Other attractions include Koala Gardens, Birdworld and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. We didn’t visit them all, but we did pop into the butterfly sanctuary. You can walk through the tropical aviary which has trees, plants, a stream and a Japanese-style bridge. The butterflies live here and fly freely, often landing on visitors! You can also visit laboratory areas and learn about the sanctuary’s conservation work.

A colourful butterfly on a log at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda
Common Eggfly butterfly

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda

The Skyrail terminal is located at Smithfield, which is a 15-minute drive from Cairns. We opted for a pickup from central Cairns, which can be arranged when booking your ticket. Various travel times are available. Our bus arrived right on time at 10.30 with Bob, our driver – a northern Englishman with a wry sense of humour – at the wheel.

After a useful pre-trip briefing from Bob along the way, we arrived at the Smithfield terminal, where we were able to download the Skyrail app. This provided guided commentary throughout the journey and lots of interesting information about what we were seeing. The first stage was the ascent up to Red Peak, which gave us fabulous views back towards the Coral Sea and Cairns northern beaches.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway terminal at Red Peak, Queensland

Everyone disembarked at Red Peak, where a rain shower had started (not unusual in this part of the world). Umbrellas were distributed and we were invited to follow a guided ranger walk. Given the weather, we opted for the shorter of the walks on offer, but this was enough to give us a flavour of the incredible biosphere we were entering. Looking out for spiders, snakes and cassowaries, we took in the views and marvelled at the incredible nature around us.

Barron Gorge National Park

The Barron Gorge National Park lies within a Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. It was originally formed 400 million years ago under the sea, and is therefore connected to the Great Barrier Reef. Today, it’s a stunning landscape of rainforest, waterfalls and mountains which are home to rare trees, plants and wildlife species. Sweeping over the canopies of these ancient trees was an amazing experience.

A short stop was made at Barron Falls station to allow passengers to enjoy the views. Thanks to weeks of heavy rain, the falls were at their majestic best.

The dramatic, tumbling waters of the Barron Falls near Kuranda

Back on board, we continued to enjoy the spectacular scenery and informative commentary from the app. Throughout the trip, we had a cable car all to ourselves. We could have opted for ‘Diamond Class’, which offers a glass-bottomed car for a better view, but we decided that ordinary class would be fine for us.

The total travelling time to Kuranda was around one and a half hours. On approaching Kuranda terminal, we were advised that our photo would be taken. Passengers can choose to purchase a print if desired. We weren’t exactly dressed for it and were somewhat bedraggled after our walk in the rain, so didn’t bother. But I mention it in case any readers would like to prepare for this in advance!

Kuranda village was a short walk from the Skyrail terminal. There was no shortage of places to stop for lunch, but they were all rather busy. We managed to find a great Portuguese cafe, Maria Gourmet, away from the main street and near the market entrance. They served simple but delicious traditional rice dishes and empadas. Suitably refreshed, we were ready to visit the butterfly sanctuary mentioned earlier. Be warned: there’s another obligatory photo here! (though with no obligation to buy).

Pathway to Kuranda Scenic Railway Station, surrounded by lush tropical shrubs and plants

Kuranda scenic railway

Being a train buff, this was the journey I was most looking forward to! About an hour before our departure, we received texts and emails confirming our carriage and seat numbers. We had opted for Gold Class, which included drinks and snacks. Anyone not choosing Gold Class could obtain refreshments in the station tea room, which also sold souvenirs. Note: like many places in Australia nowadays, the station is cash-free.

The beautifully-refurbished vintage carriages dated back to the early 1900s and were very comfortable. After being shown to our seats, we were offered a beverage and a snack pack of macadamia nuts. I opted for wine, but beers and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available. Our hostess distributed informative cards with maps to guide us through the trip, although spoken commentary was also provided. We were also given souvenir pens and postcards.

Platform at Kuranda Scenic Railway station, seen from the overbridge

The journey took us along the opposite side of the Barron river from the Skyrail, so that we got to see Barron Falls from a different perspective. Despite travelling through the same landscape, the train was an altogether different experience from the Skyrail. With food and drink, and comfortable seats, it was very relaxing and enjoyable.

The more we learned about the construction of the railway, which began in 1887, the more we realised what an incredible feat of engineering it really was. The line was originally built as a link to the interior gold mining areas from coastal supply routes. Hundreds of men, many of whom were of Irish and Italian descent, were involved in the project – and more than a few lives were lost.

Vintage railway carriages on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, parked along the platform at Kuranda Railway Station

Our friendly hostess soon returned with our platters, which consisted of 3 local cheese selections; crackers; basil, feta and tomato dip; dried fruits and a mango ice cream to finish. (Special dietary alternatives were available – choices were all discussed and confirmed at the time of our booking). Drinks were generously offered throughout the trip.

Kuranda Scenic Railway retro-style logo on the side of a vintage carriage

The journey along the 33 km of track passed through 15 hand-dug tunnels. As on the Skyrail, stops were made for photo opportunities. On the whole, the views are less spectacular than from the Skyrail. But I did enjoy the sea views as we descended from the mountains towards Cairns, during the final stages of the one and a half hour journey.

Some passengers, who had driven their own cars to Smithfield earlier in the day, alighted at Freshwater Station, where they were transported back to their car parks. Most of us carried on to Cairns Central – a bright, modern station with plenty of eating places and an excellent shopping mall adjacent to it. I could easily spend a day there!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Bookings

Tickets for the Skyrail must be booked and paid for in advance. You can book both the Skyrail and Scenic Railway journeys online vial the Skyrail Website. If you travel during the rainy season, be aware that services can be disrupted – sometimes for days on end.

Restrictions

Gold Class on the Kuranda Scenic Railway is available on the 9.30 and 3.30 departures only. Diamond Class on the Skyrail can only be booked in one direction.

Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway are totally cash-free.

Kuranda Scenic Railway en route to Cairns Australia

Safety

Both the Skyrail and Scenic Railway have strict safety policies and procedures, which must be adhered to. Marshals and attendants are always on hand if you need advice or have any concerns.

Weather

The rainy season in this part of Queensland is from November to March. In December 2023, heavy rain caused the Barron River to burst its banks. Serious flooding in and around Cairns led to a state of emergency being declared, with some families stranded on rooftops.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway had only just reopened 2 days before our visit, in early March 2024, so we were incredibly lucky. Only a few days later, it was closed again due to further heavy rain. Not only did we enjoy mostly good weather on our trip, but the waterfalls along the route were spectacular!

Even if you do travel outside this time, it pays to be prepared for a shower now and again.

view of the Barron River, surrounded by lush rain forest, near Kuranda
Travelling above the rain forest, alongside the Barron River

Final thoughts

We thoroughly enjoyed our day out to Kuranda. The Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway each offered a unique travel experience. For the slow traveller, this is definitely the best way to enjoy the incredible, ancient landscape of the Barron Gorge National Park.

If you’re interested in Australia, see my posts on Sydney, the Blue Mountains and wine touring in Victoria.

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