Cairns is located on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula on a coastal strip between the Coral Sea and the Great Dividing Range. The northern part of the city is located on Trinity Bay and the city centre is located on Trinity Inlet. Some of the city's suburbs are located on flood plains. The Mulgrave River and Barron River flow within the greater Cairns area but not through the CBD. The city centre's foreshore is located on a mud flat.
Cairns is a provincial city, with a linear urban layout that runs from the south, at Edmonton, to the north, at Ellis Beach. The city is approximately from north to south. Cairns has experienced recent urban sprawl, with suburbs occupying land previously used for sugar cane farming.
The Northern Beaches consist of a number of beach communities extending north along the coast. In general, each beach suburb is located at the end of a spur road extending from the Captain Cook Highway. From south to north, these are Machans Beach, Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Park, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach, Clifton Beach, Palm Cove, and Ellis Beach.
The suburb of Smithfield is located inland against the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, between Yorkeys Knob and Trinity Park. It serves as the main hub for the Northern Beaches, with a modern shopping arcade, called Smithfield Shopping Centre.
Located south of Smithfield and inland from the Northern Beaches along the edge of the Barron River flood plain are the suburbs of Caravonica, Kamerunga, Freshwater, and Stratford. This area is sometimes referred to as Freshwater Valley, though it is actually the lower part of Redlynch Valley; further up the valley are the suburbs of Redlynch, on the western side of Redlynch Valley, and Brinsmead on the eastern side. Stratford, Freshwater, and Brinsmead are separated from Cairns city by Mount Whitfield (elevation) and Whitfield Range. Crystal Cascades and Copperlode Dam are also located behind this range. (Kuranda, a town on the Barron River on the western side of the Macalister Range, forms part of the Cairns economic catchment but is located in the Tablelands local government area and is not part of the Cairns urban area.)
The city centre of Cairns is adjacent to the suburbs of Cairns North, and Parramatta Park, Bungalow, Portsmith, and close to Westcourt, Manunda, Manoora, Edge Hill, Whitfield, Kanimbla, Mooroobool, Earlville, Woree and Bayview Heights. The small suburb of Aeroglen is pressed between Mount Whitfield and the airport, on the Captain Cook Highway between Cairns North and Stratford.
Southside Cairns, situated in a narrow area between Trinity Inlet to the east and Lamb Range to the west, includes the suburbs of White Rock, Mount Sheridan, Bentley Park and Edmonton. The townships of Goldsborough, Little Mulgrave, and Aloomba are near Gordonvale, located on the Mulgrave River. This area is serviced by the Bruce Highway. Several other small towns and communities within Cairns' jurisdiction are sparsely located along the Bruce highway, the furthest being Mirriwinni, south of Cairns city; the largest of these townships is Babinda, about from the city.
Cairns experiences a tropical climate, specifically a Tropical monsoon climate (Am) under the Köppen climate classification. A wet season with tropical monsoons runs from November to May, with a relatively dry season from June to October, though showers are frequent for most of this period. Cairns' mean annual rainfall is . The township of Babinda south of the city is one of Australia's wettest towns, recording an annual rainfall of over . It has hot, humid summers and milder temperatures in winter. Mean maximum temperatures vary from in July to in January. Monsoonal activity during the wet season occasionally causes major flooding of the Barron and Mulgrave Rivers, cutting off road and rail access to the city.
Like most of North and Far North Queensland, Cairns is prone to tropical cyclones, usually forming between November and May.
Notable cyclones that have affected the Cairns region include:
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