On a day trip to Magnetic Island, you’ll have a magical time relaxing on palm-fringed beaches, walking through the National Park and meeting koalas and wallabies in their natural habitat. Located within the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Park in the Coral Sea, Magnetic Island is surrounded by coral reefs and is one of many beautiful islands on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
If you’re wondering what to do on Magnetic Island for a day, you’ll be spoilt for choice with a fun selection of outdoor activities like hiking, swimming and snorkelling. It’s an easy place to visit for a day and offers a wide choice of activities whether you’re travelling alone in Australia or have company.
I spent several days exploring Magnetic Island on a solo trip to far north Queensland and on the same trip, I also discovered beautiful Fitzroy Island, the Low Isles, and stunning Green Island, a coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns. Magnetic Island is around 300 kilometres south of Cairns and just a short ferry ride from Townsville in Queensland.
A Magnetic Island day trip is an opportunity to get back to nature. Highlights for me were the sweeping coastal views, gorgeous beaches and bushwalking in a landscape teeming with native wildlife. The island is the home of rock wallabies, endangered koalas, turtles and a variety of butterflies, and birds.
This Magnetic Island guide outlines the best things to see and do and includes a variety of activities so that you can tailor your Magnetic Island day trip itinerary to suit your interests.
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What to do on a day trip to Magnetic Island?
Below are the best things to do on Magnetic Island if you’re there for a day or longer:
Magnetic Island Beaches
On a day trip to Magnetic Island, visiting the island’s beautiful beaches, hidden coves and popular swimming spots is a pleasure. There are 23 bays and beaches to choose from if swimming and relaxing on the sand are a priority. Below are the most popular Magnetic Island beaches that are easily accessible by bus and car.
Alma Bay in Arcadia is the prettiest little beach you can imagine, and it’s the perfect place to visit on a Magnetic Island day trip. Considered one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches and lined with trees, Alma Bay beach backs onto a lovely lawn and park area and is the ideal spot for a picnic and a swim. Rock wallabies live on the rocky headland, and it’s a short walk to Geoffrey Bay to see them up close.
Horseshoe Bay on the other side of the island has a lovely big beach with golden sand and turquoise water. It’s one of the best beaches to visit on a day trip to Magnetic Island. You can swim here all year round in the netted area and be protected from stingers. The shoreline is shaded by ancient trees with huge root systems and there’s a good selection of cafes and restaurants at Horseshoe Bay. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and a swim.
Picnic Bay on the opposite side of the island has a lovely quiet beach that’s great for swimming. Fishing and snorkelling from the jetty are also popular here and across the water, you can see Townsville on the mainland in the distance.
There’s a short hike to a fabulous viewpoint at Hawkings Point Lookout on the headland in Picnic Bay with sweeping views across the island and over neighbouring Rocky Bay.
Nelly Bay has a snorkel trail on the Magnetic Island Reef and it’s the first place you’ll see when you arrive on Magnetic Island because it’s where the Townsville Ferry docks. Nearby Geoffrey Bay is also on the reef and has a snorkel trail that’s one of the best places for snorkelling on a Magnetic Island day trip.
Florence Bay and Radical Bay can be accessed in a 4WD via a VERY rough road but Arthur Bay and Balding Bay have beautiful, secluded beaches that can only be accessed on foot. Flat Back and Green Sea Turtles nest on this side of Magnetic Island and if you’re lucky you might see them in the water or on the beach in the summer months.
Magnetic Island Bushwalking
If you’re wondering what to do on Magnetic Island, bushwalking is top of the list. It’s one of the best ways to see the island and a network of bush tracks makes exploring on foot easy and fun. Discovering stunning viewpoints and less visited coves and beaches on a leisurely walk through the National Park is a real pleasure on a day trip to Magnetic Island.
The walking trails are well-marked and easy enough to follow but the island is quite hilly and there are some steep sections. You can walk to all the main beaches on the island. Start walking as soon as you get off the ferry in Nelly Bay or catch the bus from the wharf to the Forts Junction for access to many of the walking tracks in the National Park.
The Queensland National Parks walking trails summary has all the information you need about the length, grade and duration of the various walks, and this Magnetic Island map shows the different trails around the island.
The most popular hike on the Island is the Forts Walk and it’s the pick of the walks if you’re having trouble deciding what to do on a day trip to Magnetic Island.
The Forts Walk & Koala Spotting
4 kilometres / 2 hours return / Grade 3
The remains of a heritage-listed World War ll military Fort can be found via a walking trail from the Forts Junction. The Fort is strategically located with sweeping views across the island and out to sea. You can see all the way north to Hinchinbrook Island and the Palm Islands from the Fort.
The best time to do the Forts Walk is in the early morning or late afternoon when it’s cooler and the koalas and other wildlife are most active. It’s the perfect way to begin a day trip to Magnetic Island.
As well as exploring the island’s history and what’s left of the WW ll Fort, the Forts Walk takes you through a eucalypt and acacia woodland where a colony of koalas live.
Koalas are now an endangered species and Magnetic Island is one of the best places in Australia to see them in their natural habitat. while you’re walking to the Fort, there’s a good chance of seeing a koala or two but they can be hard to spot sleeping in the trees.
If you’re unlucky and you don’t see one or you just want to spend more time with koalas, you can visit the Koala Sanctuary in Horseshoe Bay.
Magnetic Island Koala Sanctuary
At the Magnetic Island Koala Sanctuary, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with koalas and other native wildlife. And, for a small fee, you can hold a koala and have your photo taken as a souvenir. Magnetic Island in Australia is one of the few places where holding a koala is possible.
At the Koala Sanctuary, there are wildlife presentations several times during the day, and you can also join a tour with one of the rangers and learn all about the resident native animals. As well as koalas, the sanctuary keeps wombats, turtles, pythons and crocodiles.
The Koala Sanctuary is in Horseshoe Bay at Bungalow Bay Koala Village, and you can catch the bus from the wharf in Nelly Bay.
Another lovely and very accessible walk on Magnetic Island is the Gabul Way. You can begin this walk at the ferry wharf in Nelly Bay as soon as you arrive on your day trip to Magnetic Island. Walk to the main road then turn right and follow the road over the headland to Geoffrey Bay.
There’s an elevated walkway beside the road that’s safe for children and accessible for most people. On the pathway, there are places where you can stop to rest and admire the beautiful coastal views and it took me around half an hour to walk to Alma Bay Beach.
Walk to Florence Bay
Begin the walk to Florence Bay at the Fort Junction on the Fort Walking Trail or at Horseshoe Bay. The Fort Walk returns to Fort Junction but there’s also an option to continue to Florence Bay from the Fort.
I decided to walk on to Horseshoe Bay and followed the path down a steep set of stairs to lovely, secluded Florence Bay, Radical Bay and by mistake, Balding Bay. I got a bit lost on the trail there and eventually found my way to beautiful Horseshoe Bay which was a great place to stop for lunch at the popular Cafe Nourish.
Magnetic Island Rock Wallabies
A small colony of native Rock Wallabies live on the rocky headland between Alma Bay and Geoffrey Bay and the best time to see them is in the late afternoon or early morning. Walk around Geoffrey Bay to the old Arcadia Jetty Road and at the end of the road you’ll find the wallabies.
Alternatively, you can catch the bus to Alma Bay in Arcadia and it’s a short 10-minute walk from the bus stop by the beach to the colony of rock wallabies at the old jetty.
Magnetic Island Butterflies
In the winter months, from April to September, butterflies can be found in Horseshoe Bay. Blue Tiger Butterflies flit around and rest on the vegetation in the forest just off Horseshoe Bay Road. The best time to visit the butterfly forest is in the middle of the afternoon. Just follow the path through the trees.
I was enchanted by the pretty butterflies here, but the area was a bit swampy and there were lots of mosquitos as well.
Magnetic Island Snorkel Trail
Magnetic Island is in the Coral Sea on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and snorkelling is a popular activity. In fact, Magnetic Island is one of the top 10 spots to snorkel in Queensland.
There are 2 snorkel trails on Magnetic Island that begin at Nelly Bay and at Geoffrey Bay. For directions to the snorkel trail, and information about the coral and fish you’ll see when you’re snorkelling, collect a swim card from one of the shops in Nelly Bay. Strap the card to your wrist and when you’re in the water, look for the white numbers floating on the surface of the water. They’ll guide you around the snorkel trail.
Magnetic Island also has a shipwreck in Cockle Bay and the remains of a WW II plane, near the Moltke shipwreck 140 metres from the shore in Nelly Bay. It’s a fair way out from the beach and recommended for strong swimmers only.
Magnetic Island Dangers
During the summer from November to April, dangerous Box Jellyfish and Irukandji Jellyfish can be found in the waters of the Coral Sea around Magnetic Island. To protect yourself make sure you wear a lycra stinger suit in the summer months or stay out of the water.
Dangerous Saltwater Crocodiles are sometimes seen in the waters around Magnetic Island but luckily they are not common. Get local advice about whether it’s safe to swim before you enter the water.
Other Magnetic Island activities
Other Magnetic Island activities include all kinds of water sports such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, diving, boat tours, jet ski tours, fishing and horse riding.
If you like fishing, head to Picnic Bay Jetty. It’s a popular fishing spot with a lovely view all the way across the water to Townsville on the mainland.
While you’re in Picnic Bay, call in at the History and Craft Centre or catch the bus to Arcadia and visit the local Art Gallery.
Where is Magnetic Island?
Magnetic Island is in Cleveland Bay, 8 kilometres offshore from Townsville in Queensland It’s one of many tropical islands of the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast of Australia.
How to get to Magnetic Island
To get to Magnetic Island in Australia, head to Townsville in Queensland and catch the ferry across to the island.
Magnetic Island Ferry from Townsville
There are 2 ferries from Townville to Magnetic Island and they operate from 2 different locations in Townsville.
The Sealink Passenger Ferry is the most frequent service, and it takes approximately 20 minutes to make the crossing from Townsville to Nelly Bay on Magnetic Island. The passenger ferries depart regularly starting at 05:30 am (06:30 am on Sundays). The last ferry leaves Magnetic Island at 11:00 pm (10:00 pm on Sundays).
The Car Ferry to Magnetic Island leaves from the Magnetic Island Ferry terminal, a different terminal to the Sealink passenger ferry in Townsville. The Magnetic Island Ferry takes around 40 minutes to reach the island from Townsville. The price for the car ferry rises as the boat fills up so it’s best to book the Magnetic Island Car Ferry in advance. Check the timetable for the Magnetic Island Car Ferry here.
Flying to Townsville
The quickest way to get to Magnetic Island is to fly to Townsville airport, get a taxi or a shuttle bus to the Sealink Passenger Ferry terminal and catch the ferry across to Magnetic Island.
Train to Townsville
The Spirit of Queensland train service operates 5 times a week between Brisbane and Cairns. If you’re travelling overland, catching the train is a comfortable way to get to Townsville. The train journey takes around 6 hours from Cairns and 18 hours from Brisbane’s Roma Street Station. You’ll need to catch a bus or a taxi to the Ferry terminal from the station in Townsville.
Bus to Townsville
Premier and Greyhound bus services operate between Brisbane and Cairns and stop in Townsville. The trip from Brisbane to Townsville takes around 25 hours on the bus and from Cairns, it’s around 5 hours. Coach travel is the cheapest and most convenient way to get to Magnetic Island and the bus will drop you right at the Sealink Ferry Terminal.
Car Travel to Magnetic Island
It’s a long way by road to Magnetic Island from Brisbane. If you’re driving to Magnetic Island, the road trip is around 1,400 kilometres and takes approximately 16 hours. And you can take your car across to Magnetic Island on the Magnetic Island Car Ferry or leave it safely in the Magnetic Island Ferry Car Park in Townsville.
How to Get around Magnetic Island
It’s easy to get around once you’re on Magnetic Island. A bus service operates regularly throughout the day and stops in many places of interest on the island. But if you don’t have a car and you’d like to drive, you can hire a car or a jeep in Nelly Bay.
I used the bus and found it a good way to get around the island. The bus picks up passengers at the wharf at Nelly Bay and the bus driver kindly stopped right outside my hotel when I first arrived which was very helpful with my luggage.
If you’re on a day trip to Magnetic Island, check the bus route on the Sunbus map. The Sunbus service connects Picnic Bay and Horseshoe Bay with the Magnetic Island Ferry at Nelly Bay.
You can buy a day pass and hop on and off the bus whenever you like. It’s a cheap and convenient way to explore the island.
Magnetic Island tours
Joining a Magnetic Island day tour is another great way to see the island and maximise the time you have. Here are some Magnetic Island tour suggestions:
Magnetic Island Accommodation
If a day trip to Magnetic Island is not enough for you and you’d like to stay longer, there are a wide variety of accommodation options on the Island to suit all budgets. Here are some suggestions.
Budget: Nomads Backpackers has a stunning location on the clifftops overlooking Rocky Bay and has dorms and private rooms. This hostel is a bit out of the way but the bus stops on the doorstep and there’s a walkway beside the road to Picnic Bay.
I stayed at the CStay Motel in Picnic Bay. My room was clean and compact with a shared bathroom. This motel has a pool, a pretty garden and a cute dog but there was no hot water in the shared showers. I liked the quiet location, away from the busier places on Magnetic Island and the motel was a short walk from the Picnic Bay beach, jetty and pub. It’s a good budget option on Magnetic Island.
Mid-range: The Arcadia Village Motel has a fabulous location near beaches and restaurants and gets excellent reviews.
Luxury: Peppers Blue on Blue is a 5-star resort that gets excellent reviews for its ideal location, just a short walk from the ferry, bus and shops in Nelly Bay on Magnetic Island.
Final Thoughts – What to do on Magnetic Island for a day
Magnetic Island in Australia is a gorgeous place to slow down and get back to nature. 70% of the island is a National Park and the 5 main beaches are easily accessible by local bus, by car or on foot.
I loved visiting Magnetic Island and enjoyed visiting Cairns. This Magnetic Island day trip itinerary has lots of things for solo travellers to do especially if you’re happy to go hiking and exploring on your own.
There’s a World War ll Fort and a choice of walking trails and lookout points that deliver stunning views of the island and beyond. A colony of koalas live on the island and there are rock wallabies and butterflies in abundance on this pristine isle.
On a Magnetic Island day trip, you’ll be able to explore some of the main sights but with an extra day or 2, you can explore more of the hiking trails and coastal paths that connect the different parts of the island.
This Magnetic Island day trip itinerary outlines the best things to do but there are other beautiful islands to explore on a trip to Cairns in far north Queensland. I had trouble deciding if I should visit Green Island or Fitzroy Island so I went to them all.
The UNESCO World Heritage rainforests of far north Queensland are also worth visiting while you’re in the area. It’s around 360 kilometres from the ancient Daintree Rainforest to Magnetic Island and the rainforests cover 12,000 square kilometres of Queensland all the way from Townsville to the Daintree.
Is 1 day on Magnetic Island enough?
1 Day on Magnetic Island is enough time to get a taste of the Island and visit the best beaches. But 2 or 3 days is better for many people, and especially for wildlife lovers and walkers because you’ll have more time to explore the walking trails and viewpoints and discover secluded coves and pretty beaches away from the other visitors.
Do you need a car on Magnetic Island?
No, you don’t need a car on Magnetic Island. You can explore the island by bus or on foot. There’s a reliable bus service that meets the passenger ferry and connects the main beaches and suburbs on the island. There are also lots of walking trails and it’s a pleasure to walk around Magnetic Island.
Is Magnetic Island worth visiting for a day?
Yes, Magnetic Island is worth visiting for a day. Magical Magnetic Island is a stunning island in Queensland with beautiful beaches, coral reefs, bushlands and native wildlife. If you’re wondering what to do on Magnetic Island for a day, you’ll be spoilt for choice with a fun selection of outdoor activities like bushwalking, swimming and snorkelling.
Visiting Magnetic Island is definitely worthwhile, but if you only have a day, you’ll want to start early because there’s lots to do. A day trip to Magnetic Island is enough time to see the best beaches and meet some of the wildlife and it’s the perfect place for nature lovers. You can drive or catch the bus across the island to Beautiful Horseshoe Bay, and see koalas, butterflies and rock wallabies in their natural habitat.
Why is Magnetic Island called Magnetic Island?
Captain Cook discovered Magnetic Island when he first sailed around Australia in 1770. He experienced some problems navigating near Magnetic Island and thought there was a magnetic field around the island that was affecting his compass.