Aerial view of a white water rafting along the Barron River

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One of the best things about Cairns is that you are never short of things to do. You can dive into the Great Barrier Reef, laze around on a tropical island, go hiking or on bush walks, or simply kick back in the CBD and do some shopping.

But we’re a family that likes to keep things adventurous, so if you’re also someone who’s looking for some adrenalin-fueled attractions in Tropical North Queensland, then you might like white water rafting in Cairns.

Couple sitting in the raft, paddling down the Barron River
Credit: Tourism & Events Qld

There are two main rivers in Cairns, The Tully and the Barron River. One is for adventurers, and the other is a bit more family-friendly.

Not sure which white water rafting experience is right for you? This guide will tell you about our experience white water rafting in Cairns and give you a little idea about what to expect.

Which is the Best River in Cairns for White Water Rafting?

There are two rivers that offer white water rafting and they both offer something different and unique, so there isn’t really a best river, per se.

Let’s take a closer look at each one to see which one might be best for you.

Barron River

Aerial view of Barron Falls
Barron Falls| Credit: Tourism & Events QLD

The Barron River is only a 20-minute car ride out of Cairns and so can be easily visited as a half-day trip. If you have a short time in Cairns, this is the river that will allow you to pack more into your itinerary.

The rapids are gentler than The Tully, though still strong enough for the thrill, making it a fantastic introduction to white water rafting for first timers. It’s suitable for beginners and families with children of a minimum age of 12. The rapid grade is 2-3, which is about in the middle of the scale.

Although it can be done as a half-day tour, you still get to spend a good two hours on the river.

Aerial view of a white water rafting along the Barron River
Credit: Tourism & Events Qld

As well as the exhilaration of adventure, the Barron River is also an area of outstanding natural beauty, with the stunning Atherton Tablelands in the distance, and the jungles surrounding Kuranda. And let’s not forget, the 260m high Barron Falls.

Barron Gorge is a narrow valley formed by waterfalls. While the area is stunning, the rapids can be quite strong in places and are even used to create electricity by the Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station, so don’t be underestimated by these waters.

Tours for these rapids run all year round and no experience is necessary.

The Tully

Guests starting their white water rafting adventure, down the Tully River
Tully River: Credit: Tourism & Events Qld

The Tully River is a 2 hour drive from Cairns and so it will require a full day to experience. The rapids here are a more challenging Grade 3-4, but are said to offer some of the best rafting in Australia.

The Tully River passes through the world heritage rainforest, Tully Gorge National Park, which gives you incredible scenery of the rainforest around you.

This option is best suited for those who have done white water rafting before, but if you haven’t, you can still join. A full safety briefing is given beforehand to make sure you’re comfortable and know what to do.

You must be 13 years or over to tackle these rapids.

Our Experience White Water Rafting in Cairns

people in rafting boat waving paddles in the air

You know you’re in North Queensland when the hotel information book has cyclone procedures and stinger safety precautions. And you have to worry about crocodiles.

Lucky for us, we were visiting Cairns out of stinger and cyclone season. We visited at the start of winter, the perfect time to experience Tropical North Queensland, with warm temperatures minus the stifling humidity.

We spent a few days kicking back and relaxing, so we were eager to get out and do something more action-packed.

So we decided to go white water rafting. We opted to go to the Barron River rapids since it was the nearest to Cairns.

We decided to use Raging Thunder Adventures as our river guides for this expedition, and they certainly offered us the adventure-fueled day out that we needed.

Raging Thunder adventures white water rafting Cairns (2)

I swear our guide Marty, Mr White Water Rafting, knew we had some serious food removal to do from all that relaxing we’d done before. Our first encounter was to get wet, and swim over to the raft.

Marty seemed to make our gentle swim in the “normal” waters of the river a bit further than the other boats.

The normal part is where the rapids stopped and the croc’s homes started.

I’m not sure what it is about rapid rivers and the absence of crocs in places you know the crocs would just love. We had a similar experience of a white-water rafting adventure on the Nile River.

“You guys can jump in now and swim,” our guide said after we reached a long, still stretch of water.

“What do you mean? Isn’t this the part where the crocs are?” We knew it wasn’t where the rapids were as the ancient beasts are scared of them.

“Trust us, it’s safe here.”

I can’t believe I actually jumped in and swam, just like I was doing this time on the Barron River in the beautiful Barron Gorge National Park.

White water rafts on the Barron River Cairns

Apart from the odd joke, Marty assured us there were no crocs in this river, even though there were a few signs on the river bank of Lake Placid warning people to be careful.

Apparently, it’s a friendly one and not to be worried about. As always when you travel listen to the locals! (Seriously, no need to be freaked out about this, it’s all good!)

It started off as an enjoyable and relaxing afternoon through the pretty jungle ending at Lake Placid – just the kind of name that signals man-eating crocs.

But all that was about to change, as we entered the few thrills on the Barron River rafting trip through rapids called The Meat Cleaver, The Suckhole, and the Rooster.

“White water rafting guides are always crazy and great fun!“

Craig commented after leaving Marty, a local plumber turned rafting guide. He was lots of fun: full of life, quick with a joke and a wry smile. His loud booming laughter echoed off the steep ravines and towering trees wrapped in vines amid dense undergrowth.

You’d have to be a little crazy to work with raging rivers every day. Well, maybe it’s more the crazy tourists coming through each day that would send you on the edge a bit.

people bumping rocks on white water rafting ride

A raft trip is always made that much more special by the guy steering your boat safely through the danger zones and sometimes amping it up with a quick flick here and there.

I remember one serious guide we had rafting the Upper Gauley, in West Virginia. She wanted no-nonsense and we all copped a stern word when we fell about in hysterics when our friend went overboard, and we were too weak to pull him back to safety.

Come on, you need a little crazy on the rapids.

The whole experience went smoothly and we felt very safe with our guide. As we bounded over rapid after rapid, the thrill of it was immense.

The two hours of white water rafting were up sooner than we realised. It’s true what they say, time flies when you’re having fun!

people laughing in White water rafting

At the end of the trip, Marty let us jump out for the final rapid to body surf it feet first. I twisted and turned, smashed into the jagged rocks, and desperately tried to stop myself from being sucked under by the man-eating rocks.

How on earth did I ever have the nerve to tackle the grade 5 Bad Place rapids when this grade 2 was freaking me out? Man, I was hardcore back then. Motherhood has made me soft.

What to Bring White Water Rafting in Cairns

Aerial view of a Raging Thunder raft on the white water rapids
Credit: Tourism & Events Queensland

You will need to wear your swimming suit as you do need to do a bit of swimming. It’s also recommended to wear a loose t-shirt and light shorts to use as a rash guard.

Wear reef sandals or secure footwear on your feet that strap on (not flip-flops, or you’ll lose them). You can always hire shoes if you don’t have any.

You should also bring a towel, sunscreen, and a dry bag. Don’t wear any jewellery like necklaces as they will likely fall off.

All safety equipment and gear such as a helmet, paddles and life jacket will be given to you by your guide.

You may also be asked to pay a levy on arrival, so bring cash with you.

Things to Know Before White Water Rafting

rafting group high fiving paddles in boat

This is no ordinary tour, you can’t just rock up and be told what to do and away you do. Participants of white water rafting usually have to sign a waiver of some kind, exempting the tour company from any responsibility should there be an accident.

You should inform your guide of any medical conditions you may have.

If you’re looking for a family rafting trip, you can usually do this if your children are over the age of 12, but they will need to be accompanied by a guardian over the age of 18 – so don’t think about leaving them to it.

Most tour companies offer pickup from your hotel, so make sure you check you have given them the right address, especially if you’re staying in Port Douglas.

FAQs About White Water Rafting in Cairns

peopel in raft waving to camera

Here’s what people usually ask us about white water rafting in Cairns.

What is the best month to go white water rafting?

Spring is a great time to go white water rafting. In Australia, Spring runs from September until November.

What happens if you fall out white water rafting?

We get asked this a lot, and the long answer will be taught to you beforehand by your professional guide. The short answer is to not panic and trust your PFD (personal flotation device) to take you to the surface.

Can beginners do white water rafting?

Yes, absolutely! We all have to start somewhere, right? The rapids in Cairns are quite strong and we knew what to expect as we had done it before, but beginner rafters should listen to your guide carefully and expect it to be a bumpy ride!

Where to Stay in Cairns

Peppers Palm Cove Resort with gum trees in front

After a fun day of adventure in the region that enhances an adrenaline junkie experience, we were relaxing for the evening at Peppers Beach Club & Spa in Palm Cove, just north of Cairns.

table set on patio of Peppers Palm Cove Resort beside gum tree with views of the ocean.
woman on lounge chair beside pool

Peppers at Palm Cove was a tropical paradise, and we enjoyed the ocean views with a 9-course degustation menu.

The German head chef came out to explain each of the gourmet dishes to us, all made from fresh local produce from the reef and rainforest. We sat under the towering melaleuca trees, the ancient and mystical air wrapped us in health and well-being.

Far North Queensland was quickly shooting up my list of Aussie favorites. It puts you in the mood for relaxing, good food, and of course an adventure activity.

We spent the morning gorging ourselves on banana chocolate smoothies, fresh dukkha-crusted ocean fish, and sweet potato fries with lemon aioli at the Paleo Cafe in Cairns, a destination in its own right.

What else do you do after rolling yourself out of a feast like that? Go white water rafting of course! I hope you can fit your life jackets on!

Highly Recommended Raft Tours in Cairns


Final Thoughts on White Water Rafting in Cairns

So there you have it, our experience white water rafting in Cairns, and as you can see, we had a fantastic day out and would recommend it to anyone looking for adventure in Cairns.

If you’re heading to North Queensland soon, and want to go white water rafting in Cairns, check out Raging Thunder Adventures.

It’s a fun day and makes a good day trip from Cairns. Say hi to Marty for us!

Disclaimer: We travelled to Cairns as guests of Tourism Queensland, but all the thoughts, ideas, and opinions in this guide are our own.

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Have you rafted on the Barron River before in Cairns? Where’s your favourite place to go white water rafting? Let us know in the comments!