If you are keen on seeing a beautiful slice of the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Rainforest in the Far North of Queensland, Australia, then I can think of no better way of doing this than to experience the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
It certainly isn’t one of the longest train journeys you will ever take, but this trip is renowned for traveling through stunning natural beauty in this part of Australia. Notably, this journey is also featured in Lonely Planet’s book ‘Amazing Train Journeys’, detailing what they regard as the world’s top 60 unforgettable rail trips.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway really is a spectacular gateway and ideal introduction to the fabulous Daintree Rainforest region. The Daintree region starts just north of Cairns and continues all the way to Cape Tribulation. You can read more detail of the Daintree Rainforest and our experience there in a separate post.
The route taken by the Kuranda Scenic Railway is from the tropical northern port city of Cairns to the village of Kuranda up 328 m (1076 ft) traveling through Barron Gorge National Park. Without a doubt, it is certainly one of the great scenic railway journeys.
Planning your trip
There are a few things to consider when booking your Kuranda Scenic Railway trip. Below are a couple of key things I would bear in mind along with recommendations based on our research and experience traveling there.
One way and return options
You do have the option to book a return trip by rail from Cairns to Kuranda.
So, if you book one way, how do you return?
There are actually three main ways to reach Kuranda Rainforest Village. You can drive there from Cairns, you can take the Skyrail (the rainforest cable car from Smithfield, just north of Cairns) or of course, you can take the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
So, if you are not going by car, what order would be best? Train to Kuranda and Skyrail to Cairns? Or Skyrail to Kuranda and Train to Cairns?
We opted to ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway to Kuranda and then take the Skyrail across the ancient rainforest to Smithfield. We recommend this as the best option as you start by leaving the suburbs of Cairns behind, climbing the rugged mountains through Barron Gorge National Park with the views getting progressively better all the time.
Then, when leaving Kuranda, you can enjoy spectacular views above the rainforest (stopping at two places along the way) before making your final descent to Smithfield and Cairns, while looking out to the coast and the Coral Sea.
The above combination of Kuranda Railway and Skyrail in my view is absolutely the best way to progressively enjoy the beautiful natural environment here. We also did travel to Kuranda by rental car as part of a few road trips we enjoyed from Cairns but I will share these travel options in a future post.
You can enjoy the convenience of taking the train from its point of origin at the main station in Cairns city. This station is centrally located and literally walkable from the majority of main hotels and all types of accommodation in their CBD. The Cairns train station is perfectly fine as stations go and is even located right alongside a major shopping center.
However, if you would like to experience a much nicer, more interesting station full of historical character and charm, I would strongly recommend catching the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Freshwater Station. It is only one stop away on the line or about 15 or so minutes by car from the city.
Freshwater station is not your average train station and is very much tied into the Kuranda Scenic Railway experience. Here you can enjoy breakfast in an antique railway carriage while waiting for your train. There is also a museum showing all the aspects of the construction of the line and the carriages that are still in use today.
Finally, there is an interesting miniature replica of the railway route not to mention a lovely souvenir/gift shop where you can purchase a number of keepsake mementos of this special rail journey. The train is operated by the state-run Queensland Rail and they have done a great deal to preserve the heritage and story of this amazing route.
Class of ticket and travel times
There are two classes of rail tickets you can purchase: ‘Heritage Class’ or ‘Gold Class’.
Heritage Class is the traditional class offered with long seats within the original carriages.
Gold is the premium option which is advertised as:
- Dedicated attendant service
- Individual seating, lounge-style chairs
- Kuranda Scenic Railway gift pack including Kuranda Scenic Railway badge, pen, and postcard
- Souvenir trip guide
- Optional exclusive tour of the Heritage-Listed Signal Cabin at Kuranda station (for morning Gold Class service only).
- Morning or Afternoon Tea featuring a selection of Queensland and local Tablelands produce such as Gallo Dairyland Cheese, Skybury Coffee, Wondaree Macadamias, Mango to Go (100% pure mango treat), freshly-baked muffins, Sirromet wines, and Great Northern Brewing Company Super Crisp Lager
- Welcome tropical mocktails served in the pavilion area, 20 minutes prior to the arrival of the train when boarding at Freshwater Station in the morning
- Welcome drinks served onboard the train, 20 minutes prior to departure, when boarding at Kuranda Station in the afternoon
The above is considered great value, especially as the Gold Class tickets only cost an additional AUD$49.00.
However, if you choose to book Gold Class there is a catch. The Kuranda Scenic Railway timetable shows there are only two services daily and the Kuranda Gold Class is only offered on the latter one. This means if you prefer to take the train going up to Kuranda, you must leave an hour later, missing this time at Kuranda. Alternatively, if you choose to take the train back from Kuranda the Gold Class service is offered on the later train but again, I think the journey heading to Kuranda is better than the return Kuranda Cairns option.
For this reason, we took the option of doing the traditional Heritage Class going up to Kuranda and returning by Skyrail. The package cost to anyone booking this option would be AUD$117.00, which includes coach transfer from the Skyrail station at Smithfield back to Cairns or Freshwater Station.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway Experience
We arrived at Freshwater Station well ahead of the earlier departure time of 8:55 am to check out all the features, history and enjoy a bit of breakfast before the journey.
We were quite excited as the announcement was made that the Kuranda Scenic Railway train was approaching the station, allowing time to take photos as the train pulled in.
The carriages of the train were all original and included some that were over 100 years old, having been beautifully maintained. All carriages had a wonderful old-world charm with authentic red-wooded timber used at the time they were created and everything had been preserved so well.
Luckily for us, the day we chose for our trip appeared to be a quiet day as tourism is still building back from the pandemic. Queensland Rail staff that issued seating tickets took this into account and therefore all passengers were comfortably spaced out with their seat allocations.
This train was not airconditioned so I imagine it would be incredibly humid and uncomfortable during the middle of summer. This should be something to consider for the time you book your visit to North Queensland anyway. However, the carriages all had wide-open windows allowing plenty of scope for taking photos without having beams in the way.
The train was also very clean and there was no problem at all with moving about to get better viewpoints on different sides of the train during the journey – although you should bear in mind that most of the views are on the right-hand side when traveling up to Kuranda.
Constructed between 1886 and 1891, this heritage-listed railway line originally opened in 1891 and is impressive from an engineering perspective. Up to 1500 men at a time only using hand picks, shovels and dynamite toiled away to carve tunnels through mountains and inhospitable terrain to construct 33 Kms of the track.
Due to the conditions and dangers inherent in their work, 32 rail workers lost their lives and the finished railway really stands as a monument to them. As you traverse through 15 hand-made tunnels and some 37 bridges, you gain an appreciation for what they had to go through back then.
When you take the Kuranda railway journey, you really do understand why it was included by Lonely Planet among its top 60 train trips in the world.
As if the breathtaking scenery of the Barron Gorge National Park was not enough, towering waterfalls, deep ravines, amazing tropical flora, and fauna surround you on this stunning journey.
While this authentic historical train does not have air conditioning, it does have a very interesting audio commentary that takes you through the history of the Kuranda Scenic Railway as well as the flora and fauna found here and points of interest as the train passes them. You are given adequate warning time as well for particularly good vantage points for photos.
A highlight of the Kuranda train trip is passing very close to Stoney Creek Falls as you cross the most outstanding bridge of the journey. We loved photographing Stoney Creek Falls and our trip along that section of track and bridge. It really is a spectacular spot that is used a lot in their tourism marketing to promote the region.
It is a fascinating experience to travel on this heritage, rickety locomotive through such picturesque nature, climbing the mountainous area toward the quaint village of Kuranda. All fellow passengers had smiles permanently on their faces for the duration as we all enjoyed this unique journey.
Thankfully the trip is done at a slow pace, allowing you to really take in the scenery, observe and absorb all that is the Barron Gorge National Park and views below as you travel higher. It is also a joy to stick your head out of the window and see views of the entire train as it snakes up the track.
Barron Falls Station
Not so much a station but more of a stop, the Barron Falls Station is a long platform that the Kuranda Scenic Railway stops at for around 10 minutes so passengers can stretch their legs before the final leg to Kuranda.
Why stop here? This platform offers a wonderful outlook to Barron Falls, one of the major attractions within Barron Gorge National Park. Depending on the time of year and the amount of recent rainfall, the falls can be a gushing magnificent body of water or a much gentler cascade. Either way, it is a worthy stop to enjoy the impressive view.
Kuranda Railway Station
Arriving at Kuranda station is quite a treat and worth checking out. Built back in 1915, it is also over 100 years old and according to Lonely Planet, is one of the most photographed railway stations in the world.
While everyone else runs off to explore Kuranda you would enjoy having a leisurely look around this heritage-listed station renowned for its tropical gardens and historic significance. In 1915, the Kuranda Station was nicknamed “The Honeymoon Station” and the village became known as the health resort of North Queensland due to its cool climate providing a reprieve from the coastal humidity.
The Kuranda Railway Station Tea Room offers traditional Devonshire Tea and/or delicious mango smoothies. There is also a separate café and gift shop to peruse before heading off to wander Kuranda village on foot.
What to see at either destination
Known as the “village in the rainforest”, Kuranda is a lovely, quiet settlement full of character. It is very clean and well maintained. Everything is within walking distance provided you are fairly fit and can handle reasonable distance and inclines. Otherwise, there are buses that will take you from one part of Kuranda to another.
There is also a visitor information center staffed with volunteers who provide friendly advice on what you can do or where you can stay, depending on your interests.
Attractions here are many for such a small place and include the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Kuranda Birdworld, Emu Ridge Gallery/Fossil and Gemstone Museum, Koala Gardens and Rainforestation Nature Park.
Another big attraction is the Kuranda Markets which began in 1978. The village is home to many artists and the markets sell hand-made arts, crafts, and local produce. The markets are open 7 days a week with many customers being visitors who have traveled on the iconic Kuranda Scenic Railway.
Kuranda village also sells much in the way of jewelry and Australian black opal, boulder opal, crystal opal, pearl, and gemstones as well as aboriginal artwork, wood, and leatherwork. Food produce includes North Queensland’s best range of honey, local coffee, tropical fruit ice cream, coconuts, and macadamia nuts.
Kuranda River Cruise
Riverboat tours are available 5 times a day along the Kuranda River, departing from a jetty fairly close to the Kuranda Scenic Railway station. The walkways are pretty well signed and locals are also happy to help so it is very easy to find your way around.
James and I took a river tour which we booked online beforehand and found the ride very relaxing and enjoyable. The guide provided a lot of interesting information in the commentary on board.
Highlights of the cruise included getting up close to a bale (or dole) of turtles and spotting crocodiles on the banks of the river (something quite common in this region).
The Skyrail Cableway is a very popular way to see the rainforest from above. We really enjoyed the Kuranda Skyrail experience which is covered in more detail as part of the Daintree Rainforest post mentioned earlier. It is really a wonderful way to see the rainforest from an aerial perspective.
Kuranda has a network of interlinked walks linking the village and its surrounding environment of the Barron Gorge National Park.
These walks include the Village Walk (500m), Jumrum Creek Conservation Park (1.4km), The Jungle Walk (900m), and the River and Esplanade Walk (1.5km). These are very manageable and enjoyable for people of most ages and fitness levels.
Aside from being the regional capital of Far or Tropical North Queensland, Cairns is the gateway to the World Heritage Rainforests in this region as well as the world-famous Great Barrier Reef with surrounding islands.
The city is not that big, but extremely clean and with a very laid-back, chilled vibe to it. The locals are extremely friendly and helpful and everything is easy to find.
Cairns CBD is situated right on the waterfront with fabulous views out to the Coral Sea. One of the key attractions is the Esplanade Lagoon. This is a 4,800 square meter saltwater pool that is open year-round for people to use.
The lagoon is between the CBD and the Esplanade fronting the sea, with surrounding tropical gardens where you can stroll, have a barbeque or enjoy a picnic. James and I loved using the lagoon as we holidayed here in between exploring the rainforest, reef, and other attractions reachable from Cairns.
Located right in the CBD the Cairns Aquarium is a must-see for anyone interested in marine biology or anyone not able to get out onto the water to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
This aquarium has been so well designed to exhibit over 15,000 fish and aquatic animals, within 9 Tropical North Queensland ecosystems, including the world’s most ancient rainforest (Daintree) to the marine life living within the world’s largest coral reef, just miles offshore.
What made this aquarium so special is that it focussed predominately on marine life found in this part of the world. The displays of life as well as the information on each area or type of species gave you a real appreciation of the uniqueness of this beautiful region.
We found so much to experience and enjoy, not only during our time on the Kuranda Scenic Railway but at either end of this fun journey. Kuranda and Cairns both have so much to offer anyone that loves nature and exploring.
I really do hope you liked all that we experienced here as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.
Your thoughts on Kuranda Scenic Railway
Is the Kuranda Scenic Railway an experience that appeals to you? Do you agree this should be classified as one of the top 60 train journeys in the world? Have you perhaps also taken this journey and explored this region? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.