Riding the Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway in Cairns
On our recent trip to tropical North Queensland, there were two things we knew we had to do. The first was to revisit the Great Barrier Reef. That’s a no-brainer, you can’t head up there and not go snorkelling on the reef. But many people had also suggested taking the Skyrail over the rainforest to the quaint little town of Kuranda. Australia’s tropical rainforest area is the oldest in the world, and it used to cover the entire country. But nowadays it covers just one-thousandth of the country’s total land area.
Thankfully, in 1988 the rainforest was UNESCO World Heritage listed, in order to protect and preserve it. This beautiful rainforest contains such a large array of flora and fauna and exploring it should be on the itinerary of every traveller to tropical North Queensland.
The best way to experience the rainforest is by booking one of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway experiences. We opted for the Kuranda Train and Skyrail Tour with a Diamond view upgrade on the Skyrail. This let us ride on a glass-floored gondola, giving us a unique view down onto the pristine rainforest canopy.
The History of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
After seven years of careful planning and after many environmental studies, the Skyrail opened to the public in August 1995. Because it was built over a World Heritage protected national park, it needed to be built with minimal environmental impact.
To achieve this, both Red Peak and Barron Falls Stations were built within already existing gaps in the rainforest canopy. Both areas were carefully surveyed to avoid any impact on rare or endangered species. Helicopters were used to transport heavy equipment, tower sections and cement to the tower sites and to the rainforest stations. The towers were then assembled on site. Engineers and construction workers had to hike up and down everyday wearing protective clothing, to avoid damaging the environment. To this day, it remains the most environmentally sensitive cableway project in the world.
When the Skyrail first opened, there were only forty-seven gondolas, with a capacity of up to three hundred people per hour. A $2.5 million upgrade in May 1997 upped the number of gondolas to one hundred and fourteen, with a capacity of up to seven hundred people per hour. The eleven Diamond view gondolas were then added in 2013.
The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway Experience
The journey begins at the Smithfield terminal, which is fifteen minutes drive from Palm Cove, or from the Cairns city centre. There is plenty of parking available and it’s free. If you don’t have a car hire during your trip, you can arrange a transfer when booking your experience. You can arrange a transfer from Cairns, the surrounding beaches and from Port Douglas.
The Skyrail covers a total length of seven and a half kilometres, with four different sections, Smithfield, Red Peak, Barron Falls and Kuranda.
The Journey to Red Peak Station
As we left the Smithfield terminal, the fun began with a steep initial ascent. Very quickly the city of Cairns and the surrounding offshore islands came into view. As we glided higher and higher, we were presented with fantastic views of the lush rainforest canopy, extending out in all directions.
It was breathtaking to see just how large and thick the rainforest is. We were still close enough to it to distinguish the various types of trees, and it was especially nice to check out the treetops through the glass bottom floor of our Diamond View gondola.
It takes about ten minutes to reach Red Peak Station, which at 1788 feet is the highest point on the cableway. Be sure to hop out at Red Peak Station and explore the forest floor via the 175-meter long rainforest boardwalk. There is also a lookout point offering extensive views of the valley.
We recommend joining a guided tour given by a Skyrail Ranger. They start roughly every half hour. They point out several interesting species of trees and other plants that are unique to the rainforest. It’s a good way to learn more about the inhabitants of the forest. For example, we learnt about Strangler Figs. These trees grow downwards towards the rainforest floor on the outside of a host tree, until they eventually grow big enough to strangle their host!
Barron Falls Station
Hopping back on the gondola, you’ll spend another fifteen minutes gliding above the rainforest canopy before you reach Barron Falls Station. As you approach the station you’ll see stunning views of the Barron Gorge National Park. Dense rainforest vegetation lines this deep gorge, which is home to the two hundred and sixty meter high Barron Falls. These grand waterfalls are the most visited falls in the Wet Tropics World Heritage area.
Barron Falls Station has several lookout points that give you a great view of the falls. There is also an interpretative centre about the rainforest.
The historic village of Kuranda
The last leg of the ride lands you at the historic village of Kuranda, located right in the middle of the rainforest. This is the shortest leg and it only takes about seven minutes, but as you approach Kuranda the views over the Barron River from the gondola are superb.
As you step from the gondola in Kuranda station, it’s only a few minutes walk (about a kilometre) to the centre of town which has numerous attractions. If the heat and humidity have sapped your will to walk, there is a free shuttle available. There are so many things to do in Kuranda that you will struggle to see them all in a single day. With four and a half hours in Kuranda here’s what we managed to fit in:
Our favourite experience was Birdworld which you’ll find at the back of the heritage market. Birdworld is home to almost sixty native and exotic bird species, The enclosure you enter contains hundreds of free-flying birds. Big, small, colourful, and decidedly not shy, they will happily plonk themselves on your head, hands, and shoulders. Also, if you bring a bag of bird seeds, you’ll be their new best friend.
At Birdworld you’ll also be able to see an endangered cassowary. Native to this area, they are very interesting looking birds!
Make sure you check yourself thoroughly before you leave the enclosure. I almost accidentally went home with a cheeky little yellow bird who had hitched a ride on my handbag!
The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary
The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary is the largest butterfly flight aviary and exhibit in the Southern Hemisphere. It is home to over two thousand butterflies of various species. It’s a great place to learn all about butterflies, their habits, their varying lifespans, and to observe them going about their business.
You can also visit the onsite laboratory, where they breed all of their butterflies. You can see the process through special viewing windows. Taking photos of the butterflies was a real challenge as they were constantly moving and flapping their wings. But trying to photograph them was actually part of the fun!
The museum on the way out displays five hundred and eighty-four different butterfly and moth species. They are all different shapes, colours, and sizes, and they come from all over the world. The sanctuary is well maintained and the staff are knowledgeable, friendly and happy to answer any questions.
Lunch at “Frogs”
Frogs is an open plan restaurant inside the Heritage market, adjacent to Birdworld and the Kuranda Koala Gardens. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and to cool yourself down with a cold Australian beer. But if you think you will spot frogs there you’ll probably be disappointed. However, you will almost definitely see water dragons. They love to walk around the floor of the restaurant scavenging for food. Frogs’ speciality is the wild caught barramundi. So try their Barramundi Burger, it’s delicious!
The Kuranda Koala Gardens
If you come from overseas and would like to see some of our native Australian wildlife, check out the Kuranda Koala Gardens. Although it’s quite small, it will give you the opportunity to see koalas, wombats, kangaroos and other Australian species up close.
Checking out the markets
Kuranda is world famous for its markets and there are two main markets in the village. Both the Original Market and the Heritage Market are open every day of the year from 9.30 am until 3 pm.
The Kuranda Original Market first opened its doors in 1978, thanks to a few local artists and crafty people. After all these years it still retains its original atmosphere. This market is environmentally friendly and you will find many natural, organic, recycled, holistic and remedial products. You can also buy lots of different types of handmade arts and crafts.
The Kuranda Heritage Market is the newest addition to the list, starting up 20 years ago. Completely enclosed, it’s a great place to shop and stay dry if it’s raining. It has over sixty stalls displaying indigenous art, boomerangs, didgeridoos, local food produce, handcrafted jewellery, antiques, opals, pearls, as well as beauty products made locally from natural ingredients. You’ll find it right next door to Birdworld and the Koala Gardens.
Check out some art galleries
If you are into art, spend some time wandering the many art galleries on Kuranda’s main street. Whether you like Aboriginal art, colourful paintings, modern art, impressive photography, or pottery, Kuranda has it all.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway
The last part of our day was the ride back down on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. We booked the 3.30 pm train, which allowed us more time in Kuranda. Because the Railway Station is located right next to the Skyrail station, it’s easy to find.
The train journey is a great alternative to the Skyrail, and it’s a way to see the rainforest from a different angle. Plus if you love old trains and rail history, this is definitely a must. The authentic timber carriages have open windows. So you can take some fantastic photos as the train winds its way through the heart of the beautiful rainforest.
Not only is the old railway an incredible feat of engineering, but it’s also an unforgettable journey. On your way down you pass through fifteen hand-dug tunnels, and cross over thirty-seven towering bridges. All of these were built over a hundred years ago by some very brave and hard-working pioneers.
The first phase of the railway was built to help gold diggers carry their gold back down to Cairns. Construction started in 1882, and as you can imagine with the lack of technology they had back then, it was incredibly hard work. Therefore many of the workers lost their lives and/or suffered greatly during the construction.
Although the journey takes an hour and a half, we didn’t get bored. We had plenty of rugged scenery, bridges and waterfalls to admire along the way. There is an interesting voice-over commentary throughout the ride. It explains the history of the railway and the men who built it. Also, the train stops briefly at the Barron Falls train station, for one last photo opportunity.
After exiting at Freshwater Station, we caught our transfer back to the Smithfield Skyrail terminal to reunite with our car.
How much does it cost?
The cost of the combined scenic railway and Skyrail pass is AU$110.50 per adult and AU$55.25 per child for a one-way self-drive transfer, or AU$124 per adult and AU$62 per child with return transfers from Cairns and surrounding beaches.
The Cost for Diamond View upgrade is AU$15.00 per Adult and $7.50 per Child.
The Kuranda Wildlife Three Park pass combines Kuranda Koala Gardens, Birdworld and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and costs AU$49.50 per adult and AU$24.75 per child.
For more insight into the Skyrail and Scenic Railway experiences, watch our video below: