I first wasn’t sure if Magnetic Island was worth visiting. I heard mixed opinions about it. So when we went to Townsville to dive the SS Yongala Wreck, I only planned a day trip to Magnetic Island. To be honest, I wished we stayed longer. There are many things to do on Magnetic Island. In one day we didn’t have time to go through half of what I selected. So if you can, try to spend one night on the island. But if you can’t, here’s the summary of our Magnetic Island day trip with tips to help you maximise your short stay!
Tips for getting to Magnetic Island from Townsville for a day trip
You have two options for getting to Magnetic Island from Townsville: the passenger ferry or the car ferry. Whichever you choose, you want to leave as early as possible and come back with the last ferry for the day. That’s the minimum time you need for a Magnetic Island day trip to be worth it! We took the car ferry, leaving Townsville at 7 am and Magnetic Island at 7 pm. So we had 12 hours to explore Magnetic Island.
Magnetic Island isn’t big and driving times are short, which is why a day trip to Magnetic Island is feasible.
It brings a big question: do you need a car for your Magnetic Island day trip?
The short answer is yes.
But you can also go to Magnetic Island if you don’t have a car.
If you don’t have a car and don’t want to spend time organising your Magnetic Island day trip, you can book a tour online*. It will be less adventurous than a DIY day trip but having a local guide showing you the sites will bring advantages!
There are buses on Magnetic Island.
It is a cheap (and ecological!) way to visit the island. However, buses don’t go everywhere and you’ll also have to wait a bit at the bus stops. So I wouldn’t recommend this option for a Magnetic Island day trip when your time is extremely limited.
You can bring your car over to Magnetic Island.
That’s what we did. It cost around $200 return on the car ferry, with up to five people in the car (click here to book online*). A return ticket for an adult without a car is only $30 (click here to book online*), so that’s a big cost difference if you’re travelling as a couple. However, it allowed us to maximise our time on the island: we could drive straight away without wasting time with paperwork and bringing the car back at a certain time.
It was also an easy way to bring all our food and equipment for the day. If you’re renting a car on the mainland, you must double-check with the car hire company that they allow you to take your car rental to Magnetic Island. We did that with Avis and although it wasn’t a problem, we had to put it in writing as the usual rental agreement did not allow us to take cars to any islands.
You can hire a car on Magnetic Island.
They have a few options available and it costs around $80-90 per day, including scooter hire ($50) and 4WD. The topless cars look fun and are very popular. But if we had hired a car on Magnetic Island, I would have chosen a 4WD hire. There are a few unsealed roads on the island that are worth exploring and it was frustrating not to be able to go there. Plus, if you’re visiting in summer, it’s nice to be protected from the sun while you’re in the car.
Budget comparison for a couple: Bringing a car over would cost around $200 (ferry) whereas hiring a car would cost around $140 in total ($30×2 for the ferry + $80 for the car hire).
Bring a picnic and snacks for your Magnetic Island day trip
One day is short to visit Magnetic Island. So to see more of the island, I highly recommend packing your lunch and snacks so you don’t spend time looking for food while on the island.
The best things to do on a day trip to Magnetic Island – our itinerary
Chilling at Alma Bay
We stopped at Alma Bay first thing in the morning as it was on our way to Horseshoe Bay. It was good timing to enjoy the beautiful views while it was still peaceful. We went back there later in the day to fill our water bottles before hiking. There were a lot more people so I was happy with our call to go there early.
You can have fun climbing the boulders on the side of the beach to get a superb view of the beach.
Horseriding Horseshoe Bay
The beautiful bay in the north of the island was our first visit. It’s the largest one on the island, a popular destination.
You can simply walk on the beach and have a safe swim. Or you can opt for one of the many available activities to discover the bay from an exciting point of view like kayaking, sailing or riding a jet ski. If you walk close to the boulders at the start or the end of the day, keep an eye out for rock wallabies.
We opted for horse riding: it’s not often that you get the opportunity to ride a horse bareback in the sea! Unfortunately, it seems the ranch is now closed.
Snorkelling and rock wallabies at Geoffrey Bay
Geoffrey Bay is a must-do on Magnetic Island. There’s a snorkelling trail to follow to see corals and fish (more information here). And it’s also the best spot on the island to see rock wallabies.
From the end of the afternoon, rock wallabies are used to being fed and show up in Geoffrey Bay, near the pier. They’re very cute and iconic animals. We’re used to seeing wild wallabies in Australia, but rock wallabies are rarer. On one hand, I was very interested in seeing one but on another hand, I didn’t like the idea of them being fed by humans. Feeding wild animals often bring issues in the environment and the ecosystem. You don’t have to wait for sunset to see them. We spotted a few after our snorkelling session (around 4.30 pm). It was nice to be there early as there were no people. It got a lot busier one hour later and we were, unfortunately, the only group not feeding them.
Responsible travel tip: It is tempting but, for their safety, it is better not to feed wildlife. It can change their behaviour, make them sick and also unbalance the entire ecosystem. New South Wales Parks even write “feeding native animals is the worst thing you can do”. Click here to know why.
Beach and snorkelling: Arthur Bay & Florence Bay
I was very disappointed by Arthur Bay and Florence Bay “walks”. It was nothing like a hike: we just went along the road for a couple of kilometres. It’s hilly and not particularly pleasant, especially on a hot day. Some cars didn’t even slow down when passing us. So if you can drive down there or hitchhike, you’ll save time. When we visited, the road was fine with a 2WD up to Arthur Bay. It was kind of a sealed road with a few gigantic potholes so you need to be very careful when driving there.
There are a couple of lookouts on the side of the road between Arthur Bay and Florence Bay providing great views of the bays. We went all the way to the Search Light Tower lookout but found it wasn’t worth it. Indeed, the view was obstructed by trees.
If you want to go all the way to Radical Bay, it may be better to start from the eastern end of Horseshoe Bay beach.
Our plan was to stop at Florence Bay for snorkelling, as it’s reputed to offer one of the best snorkelling on Magnetic Island. It was low tide so we sometimes struggled to find a way with enough water, but we had a great time.
Hiking the Forts: Magnetic Island must-do
The Forts Walk may be Magnetic Island’s best walk. It surely is a must-do on a day trip to Magnetic Island. I didn’t expect to like it that much.
It’s a 4km return walk quite easy at the start and very steep to reach the fortifications. But it’s worth the effort: the 360-degree views are spectacular.
We went straight up to the WWII lookouts and didn’t do the side tracks to check out the other ruins of the fort. Still, it took us a bit over one hour to complete the walk at a decent pace. We stopped a few times to look at the breathtaking panoramic views. And you have to walk with your head up looking at the trees to spot wild koalas, which will slow you down!
Seeing koalas on Magnetic Island
You don’t want to end your Magnetic Island day trip without spotting a koala. There are about 800 koalas on the island and it’s one of the best places in Australia to see wildlife. If you weren’t lucky on Magnetic Island, don’t give up. We’re lucky to regularly see wild koalas on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) near Brisbane. Coombabah Reserve on the Gold Coast is home to many koalas too. More south, the Great Ocean Road and Kangaroo Island are also reputed for it.
We spotted a few of them during our day trip on Magnetic Island: two during our horseriding expedition to Horseshoe Bay, and three during the Forts Walk. Koalas aren’t easy to spot because they don’t move. So sometimes you can pass them without noticing they’re here. But because the Forts Walk is popular, the fact that they don’t move will actually increase your chances to spot a wild koala. People will sometimes leave a mark on the ground to let other walkers know they spotted a koala there earlier.
On our second day trip to Magnetic Island, we only spotted one koala. We almost missed it as it was not on the main walk. If you haven’t spotted any koalas on your way up to the fort, you may want to add the short detours to see more ruins on your way back. You will increase your chances of spotting a koala!
I always prefer to see animals in their natural habitat. But if you’ve never seen a koala and want to make sure you see one during your Magnetic Island day trip, you may want to visit the Koala Sanctuary at Bungalow Bay. They also offer the opportunity to take a photo holding a koala, if that’s something you’ve always dreamt of.
Hawkings Point Walk
The Hawkings Point walk leads to the top of a boulder that provides panoramic views up to Townsville. It’s a short 1.2-kilometre return walk, but it’s steep. We did it in 20 minutes but it can be challenging for some people and the recommended time is one hour.
Magnetic Island sunset spots
I’ve listed below the recommendations we gathered from visitors and locals for the best Magnetic Island sunset spots. I wish I could tell you which one is the best, but I could only try one! And it was a big dilemma to choose which sunset spot to pick. It’s rare to have so many choices for sunset on the East Coast of Australia!
Magnetic Island Sunset Cruise
If we didn’t have to catch the ferry back to Townsville, a Magnetic Island sunset cruise would have definitely been my choice.
That’s the recommendation that came first when we asked locals about watching the sunset on Magnetic Island. It makes sense. Unfortunately, you need a 4WD to reach West Point so this one didn’t make it to our list.
If our ferry had been a bit later, or if the sunset had been a bit earlier, I would have done the Forts Walk for sunset. We were there during the full moon so the 360-degree views would have been an excellent opportunity to see the full moon rise at the same time!
But even if we had run back to the car, we would have missed the ferry back to Townsville. If you choose this option, make sure you have a headlamp to find your way back safely.
I’ve seen photos of the sunset on Horseshoe Bay that were dreamy. The sun doesn’t go down on the ocean horizon, but just behind the headland. It’s close enough to get vibrant colours on the water. Head to the Eastern end for the best views of the sunset.
That’s where we ended up going. We didn’t have time earlier in the day to check out that side of the island. But as it was a reputed spot for a Magnetic Island sunset, it sounded like a great choice. And we weren’t disappointed!
The best time to visit Magnetic Island
With 320 days a year of sunshine, it sounds like there is no bad time to visit Magnetic Island. Although it’s in North Queensland, it’s located in an area called the “dry tropics”, the sunniest area on the Queensland Coast.
Still, I recommend travelling there outside the cyclone and wet season of North Queensland. During the first three months of the year, your trip may be harder to organise. Roads can get flooded if there could be a cyclone nearby. Plus, you’ll increase your chances to have better visibility underwater.
The best time to visit Magnetic Island is from May to October. The temperatures are cooler so hiking is nicer than in Summer. And you’ll be outside of the stinger season so you can better enjoy the ocean.
Where to stay?
If you’re visiting Magnetic Island for a day trip, then it’s likely you’ll spend at least one night in Townsville. For those on a budget, I recommend the Civic Guesthouse (click here for more info*). It’s very simple but it has all you need for a good night at a reasonable price.
If you decide to extend your day trip to Magnetic Island and sleep there, which would be an excellent idea, I loved the location and reasonable prices of the Base Backpacker (click here for more info*) and the YHA in Horseshoe Bay (click here for more info*). Accommodation is very developed on Magnetic Island. Still, it is recommended to book in advance as it was full when we travelled there. There are many other options available for all ranges of prices and comfort.
Did you visit Magnetic Island? Is there a must-do that we missed on our Magnetic Island day trip? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where is Magnetic Island?
Magnetic Island is a suburb of the City of Townsville in North Queensland. It is only 8 kilometres away from the mainland.
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