Imagine gliding high above the lush rainforests of North Queensland on a cable car. Out the window you can see the impossibly green foliage gently shake as a flock of birds takes flight, their white feathers catching the sunlight. As you approach the first station, the cable car slows and an attendant assists you back onto the ground so you can explore the vibrant rainforests of the Barron Gorge National Park.
If you’re planning to travel through Australia’s beautiful region of Far North Queensland, a trip on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is an activity you must add to your list. The Skyrail offers a chance to take a 7.5-km journey on an aerial cable car between historic Kuranda Village and Smithfield Station, located a short drive from Cairns CBD. The journey not only takes you over a UNESCO World Heritage-listed rainforest, it also allows you the chance to explore it from the ground during stops at Barron Falls and Red Peak stations. Though getting off at these stops is optional, I highly recommend taking the time to journey around each area.
I started my Skyrail journey at Kuranda Terminal, after taking the Scenic Railway from Cairns to explore Kuranda Village. The ticket redeeming process was easy, though I didn’t quite understand the 15-minute boarding times – I had rushed to be at the station by 3pm but ended up standing in line to board the gondola until about 3:20. I was ushered onto my first cable car with two other people. I’ve been on several cable cars around the world, but I have to admit that the beauty of the National Park as we drifted away from Kuranda Terminal took me by surprise. The rainforest stretched far in every direction. Below us was a thick canopy of pine trees, palms and ferns, appearing almost like a blanket over the forest.
We passed over the Barron River, and could just glimpse the Scenic Railway station as we drew closer to Barron Falls. As the brochure and interpretive app will tell you, the best views of Barren Falls are between Tower 25-27, which is also pretty difficult to keep track of during the trip. Basically, keep an eye out once you pass over the river and you should see the Falls. As we approached Barron Falls Station, the Skyrail slowed down and an attendant appeared at the window, asking if we wanted to stay on or get out and explore. Of course we all opted to explore.
There are a couple of boardwalks you can take from Barron Falls Station, and both lead to wonderful viewpoints where you can see Barron Gorge and its waterfall, including the Edge Lookout with its glass-bottomed area. There are a few informative signposts as you walk through so you can learn more about the area, and you can also visit the Rainforest Interpretation Centre, which is attached to the Skyrail station. There are washrooms at Barron Falls Station, as well as Red Peak Station, so don’t worry if the urge hits you halfway through your trip!
After spending about 20 minutes exploring the area, it was time to hop back on the Skyrail and continue the journey. The wait time to board the cable car again was only about 5-10 minutes, and I ended up getting the next one all to myself. The trip between Barron Falls and Red Peak Stations takes you over the longest stretch of rainforest during the whole journey. It’s also the lowest part of the journey, allowing you to pass just a few feet over the tops of the trees, which are a beautiful mix of Banyans, Alexandra Palms, Red Pendas, Basket Ferns, Kauri Pine Trees and Cooper’s Tree Ferns, and many others.
At Red Peak Station you have the option once again of staying on the cable car to continue the journey, or getting off to explore the Rainforest. This is a slightly different experience than Barron Falls – instead of sweeping views of the Canyon, you now have the ability to wander deeper into the rainforest on the 175-meter boardwalk, where you can view the trees from below. If you want to know a little more about the area, there are Rangers that do several guided tours throughout the day from the station.
Once I had explored the forest boardwalk around Red Peak Station, I hopped back on the Skyrail for the final segment of my journey to Smithfield Terminal. This sector was entirely downhill, and slowly reintroduced us to civilization – we passed over a road curving around the side of the mountain, caught glimpses of planes coming in to land at the airport and finally got to look out over Cairns, all the way out to the Coral Sea.
How to get to the Skyrail
You can begin your Skyrail journey at one of two stations: the Smithfield Terminal or the Kuranda Terminal.
Smithfield Terminal is the closest starting point from Cairns, located only about a 15-20 minute drive from the CBD. An Uber from the city centre will cost you approximately $30, or you can drive your own car and take advantage of the free onsite parking. Smithfield Terminal is the best place to start if you want to enjoy a return ticket on the Skyrail with a short visit to Kuranda Village. The station has a gift shop, washrooms and a small cafe that serves snacks and drinks.
Skyrail also offers a shuttle service to and from certain locations around the city for an extra cost – this can be booked in advance at the same time you purchase your Skyrail Cableway ticket. Shuttle services between Smithfield Terminal and nearby Freshwater Station can also be pre-booked if you plan to start your journey on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and need to return at the end of the day to pick up your car. Keep in mind that the shuttle busses are not equipped to carry large pieces of luggage.
Kuranda Terminal is located close to the Scenic Railway Station near Kuranda Village. This is where you’ll pick up your boarding pass if you begin your Skyrail journey at Kuranda. The terminal also has a small gift shop that sells refreshments.
The cable car options
There are three types of journeys you can take on the Skyrail Cableway: the regular gondola, the DIamond View gondola or the Canopy Glider.
The classic Skyrail gondolas seat up to six passengers and provide a birds’ eye view of the Barron Gorge Rainforest in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Each car has large windows which give you amazing views on all sides. The side windows can be opened slightly to provide fresh air. This is the type of cable car I took for my journey on the Skyrail.
The Diamond View gondolas are just like the classic cable cars, but with the added excitement of a glass floor so you can look straight down during your trip along the cableway. I took one of these at Lantau Island in Hong Kong and highly recommend this option for anyone who doesn’t have a fear of heights.
The Canopy Glider offers even more excitement, allowing between 2-4 people to travel along the cableway with a Skyrail Ranger in a small open-air cart. Trips are offered twice daily during off-peak times of the year and must be booked in advance.
What to bring on your Skyrail journey
Camera. This is an obvious one, of course, but it has to be mentioned. An extra battery pack is also a good idea, as there’s a lot to see and do during the Skyrail journey. I personally took more photos and videos during this time than anywhere else in Cairns.
Bug spray. You’ll likely be walking through the Rainforest, so it’s a good idea to have some bug spray with you, especially if you’re traveling during the rainy season.
Comfortable walking shoes. There are lovely rainforest boardwalks at both Barron Falls and Red Peak Station, and though everything’s very well maintained you’ll want to be wearing shoes comfy enough to walk around in. Keep in mind that while the Skyrail slows down at every station, it doesn’t quite come to a stop, so make sure your footwear doesn’t provide you with difficulty getting in and out of the cable cars.
Sunglasses. Since there’s nothing but open sky during most of your Skyrail journey, and both mid-stations are quite dark, you’ll want to bring sunglasses to help your eyes adjust.
Things you don’t need to bring
Umbrella. You can still enjoy a trip on the Skyrail Cableway on a rainy day, but you don’t really need to bring an umbrella. Both stations, as well as the cable cars themselves, are fully covered, and umbrellas are available for visitors to borrow at Barron Falls and Red Peak stations.
Large bags. If the cable cars are filled with the maximum of 6 people, there is literally no room for anything else. Even with just 4 people it can feel quite cramped. A good rule is, if it doesn’t fit on your lap, it’s too big. If you do have luggage to store, there are lockers available (87 x 61 x 49 cm) for hire at the Smithfield Terminal.
Food. For the comfort of guests and to help protect the environment, food and drinks are not permitted inside Skyrail cable cars. You can, however, purchase food to have before or after your journey at both Smithfield and Kuranda terminals.
Sample Kuranda itinerary
9:15 AM – After a big breakfast, make your way to Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park. Through interactive shows and presentations you’ll get a glimpse into the culture of the Djabugay Indigenous people, who are the original land owners. 1.5-2 hours is generally enough time here.
11:30 AM – The Smithfield Skyrail Terminal is literally next door to the culture park, so head over to begin your journey to Kuranda Village. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway trip, including stops at both mid-stations usually takes around 1.5-2 hours.
1:30 PM – Time to explore Kuranda Village! I recommend stopping at one of the many cafes for a quick bite to eat – the Jaffles at Cafe Azur are my personal favourite.
3:30 PM – After a couple of hours shopping and eating your way around the village, head over to the Kuranda Scenic Railway to board the train back to Cairns. After its short photo stop at the Barron Falls lookout, you’ll be able to sit back and rest your feet while you take in the fantastic views.
Are you planning a trip to Australia?
I’ve created a guide to the best backpackers hostels in Australia, with tips on how to choose a good hostel and a list of some great ones in every state. I’ve also written a post all about staying at YHA Australia-branded hostels.
You can also check out my post on what it’s like to travel Australia with a Greyhound bus pass. I spent a month traveling down the East Coast with a 30-day Whimit pass and have written about the experience, with tips on what to expect and a sample itinerary.
I’ve also designed a printable travel planner to help make trip planning your Australia trip a breeze. This 7-page PDF has spots to fill in hotel and flight details, emergency info, must-do activities and more. It is available as an instant digital download in the Onwards + Upwards shop.
*Please note that this article was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic so some information may have changed. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway kindly provided me with a complimentary ticket for this trip. My opinions, as always, remain honest ones.