Magnetic Island is one of the popular islands to visit on the Great Barrier Reef. It has a bit of everything: pristine small bays and coral beaches, snorkelling options, reddish rocks, numerous hiking trails, old fortifications and native Australian animals – not least a unique population of cute koala bears.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 19 JAN 2020
If you have the opportunity to stay on Magnetic Island for several days, that will just be awesome. However, you may find yourself in the situation that you have limited time, since you also want to see a lot of other places on your Queensland (or even Australia) trip!
Will it then be possible to do Magnetic Island in just one day? Yes! If you plan well and stay overnight in Townsville before and after your Magnetic Island adventure, you will be able to make it. It is unnecessary to say that the earlier you can leave Townsville in the morning – the more time you will be left with on Magnetic Island!
You can book your ferry tickets with Sealink Queensland already in advance for your day trip. You will not need to take your car over, since the island is small and there is an island bus (route 250) going back and forth all day between Picnic Bay in the south and Horseshoe Bay in the north. You may consider bringing a lunch cooler backpack for your picnic on the beach!
The ferry ride is short – just 20 minutes. If you are there at the right time of the year, you may even be able to spot a migrating humpback whale or two during the crossing.
You will arrive at the ferry terminal at Arcadia which is the main residential area on the island. It is besides the bus stop also the location of bicycle and car rental on the island.
Depending on your preferences, we suggest that you for your day trip to Magnetic Island make a choice between hiking and snorkelling – with the possibility of still trying the other activity as well.
Hikes on Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island National Park is amazing to explore – both on the land side and the ocean side. There are 9 possible hikes (W1 – W9) around the island – most of them quite short – but one of them is a longer hike. Pick your preferred stretches of hiking and combine them with the bus covering the remaining stretches of road.
On a day trip it would be realistic to combine the Forts Walk (W6) with part of the Arthur, Florence and Radical Bays (W7) – just do one of the bays – as well as the Horseshoe to Balding & Radical Bays (W8) and maybe Arcadia to Horseshoe Bay (W5). You can opt to do just the parts of them that make up a complete round trip from the Forts bus stop along the coast to Horseshoe Bay and maybe all the way back to Arcadia again (always with the possibility of jumping on the bus on the way back!).
The hiking round trip will take up about half a day. Do bring a picnic along! (which you either buy provisions for in Townsville or in the supermarket in Arcadia on arrival). The great thing about hiking is that it will give you plenty of time and opportunities to spot native animals like echidnas, koalas and fascinating birds in the terrain. Maybe you will even be able to view a humpback whale from the summit of the Fort Complex during the whale migrating season.
At Horseshoe Bay you can spend a nice time on the beach (with lots of options for swimming, renting kayaks, paddle boards and jet skis…) or eat in one of the restaurants.
If you also want to try snorkelling on Magnetic Island, you probably will have to cut a bit down on the hiking (and use the bus for some of the stretches of road – for instance from the Forts Walk bus stop to Horseshoe Bay or from Horseshoe Bay down to one of the other bays).
Snorkelling on Magnetic Island
If you want to snorkel in one of the coral gardens on Magnetic Island, you can either bring your own snorkel gear – or hire it once on the island. There are many snorkel options – nearly in all the bays! If you are beginner, you will want to do the snorkel trail in Nelly Bay as it is just 100 m (330 ft) off the beach, so you can easily get to see the coral formations in the water. The trail is marked with surface floats such that you are led round to the spots where there is something to view. Be careful not to touch or stand on the corals since they will die from it.
Other good snorkelling locations include Alma Bay, Arthur Bay, Geoffrey Bay and Florence Bay. There is another snorkel trail in Geoffrey Bay in front of Arcadia – 400 m (1300 ft) off the coast. For the curious there is also an old plane wreck (at a depth of 10 m / slightly more than 30 ft)!
The best snorkelling season is winter where the air temperatures are still relatively high – 25 degrees centigrade air (75-80 degrees Fahrenheit) – and there are still pleasant sea temperatures. The absolute plus is that it is not stinger season at this time of the year!
When snorkelling on Magnetic Island, you will in addition to the beautiful corals be able to view colourful fishes, and maybe even clams, sea turtles and smaller sharks!
Even if you mainly come for snorkelling and want to spend most of your day on Magnetic Island in the sea, we still recommend that you do at least the Forts Walk (W6) – both for the history, the views AND the koala bears. You can then catch the bus to the Forts Walk bus stop, do the Forts Walk and afterwards catch the bus back to one of the bays for snorkelling.
See the WWII Fort + KOALAS!
Whether you have come for hiking or snorkelling, we suggest that you under all circumstances reserve time to do the Forts Walk. It is a hike up to the ruins of an old WWII fort construction with an interesting history.
The Fort was built to protect the harbour and town from a possible Japanese invasion of Australia. To secure the construction, the Fort Complex was anchored into solid granite boulders. Today, there are still concrete remnants of the original water pipeline, the command post, the searchlight tower, a radar station and a signal station, as well as the old ammunition store.
It was operated by the Australian Coast Artillery Units from 1943 until the end of the Pacific War in 1945. Today, the Fort Complex is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.
The 360 degree views from the very top of the fortifications are absolutely breathtaking and fully justify the ascent!
The hike up to the Fort naturally leads you through the lush eucalyptus forest where you will be all amazed when spotting your first koala! They hide here and there on the branches in the eucalyptus trees – and are just as cute in real life as you imagine them!
A last thing you won’t want to miss before heading back to Townsville is the rock wallabies (the marsupials which are the tiniest kind of kangaroos that exists) living in the rocky terrain at the coast on the northern side of Geoffrey Bay at Arcadia. Here they hop around in their rocky habitat – always ready for snacks offered by the visitors.
At the end of an amazing day on the Great Barrier Reef island, you will take the ferry back to Townsville! No doubt you will sleep very well after your long day on Magnetic Island!
Check also our 10 Days Itinerary Queensland in Australia out:
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