Far North Queensland – wild, world heritage-listed and ridiculously warm.
When you enter the water here, you don’t just go for a swim; you boat to a barely-there sand cay and snorkel with green sea turtles and reef sharks.
When you fish, you don’t just flick around lures; you tempt coral trout up from the reefs and compete with crocs for a share of the barra.
When you relax, you do so on a lonely beach under a coconut palm, sipping a beer, and dreaming of what the next day will hold.
If you’re craving a wild time at the water’s edge, it’s time to head north. To get you off your backside, here’s a look at some of the best things to see and do up that way. Think dreamy beaches, croc-free pools, epic hiking trails, wildlife encounters and easy island escapes.
Just remember, leave your pants at home. In winter time, you can waltz around in a pair of shorts.
1. Snorkel Nudey Beach
Jump aboard a fast ferry out of Cairns and you can be snorkelling off Fitzroy Island’s Nudey Beach within the hour. Despite its titillating name, this stunning arc of coral and shells rarely sees a show of flesh. Instead, snorkellers don sun shirts to join the endless procession of luminescent fish, gliding over great coral bombies with green sea turtles and harmless reef sharks.
Boasting an eco-friendly resort, a laidback beach bar and a top beachfront campground with über affordable sites, Fitzroy is easily the north’s most relaxing tropical isle. Hike to stunning granite lookouts over the opalescent sea, sneak into the Secret Garden, or rent a kayak to paddle to seldom-visited Little Fitzroy Island for the ultimate snorkelling session.
When you go: BYO camping and snorkelling gear. Return transfers cost $80 for adults, $40 for kids, and campsites cost $37/night (for up to 4 people; book at fitzroyisland.com).
2. Sea kayak to Snapper Island
On a calm day, see-through seas surround this coral-fringed national park island, a 90-minute paddle from Wonga Beach at the mouth of the Daintree River. Step off Snapper’s white sand beaches to join an endless procession of fish and turtles, gliding over coral gardens peppered with vibrant clams.
When you go: Wonga Beach is located 90km north of Cairns. Take camping gear and water, and book sites at qpws.usedirect.com (toilet only, $6.65/person).
3. Body board at Ellis Beach
Fringed by mango trees and coconut palms, Ellis Beach is where Cairns’ locals take their body boards to ride the gentle, kid-friendly waves and picnic beneath the paperbarks. It has the north’s only beachfront campground and the café-bar across the road serves killer breakfasts and has live music all weekend-long.
When you go: Follow the Captain Cook Highway past Palm Cove to Ellis Beach. Peak season powered sites cost $43-50 for two (ellisbeach.com).
4. Discover Cape Tribulation
Shadowed by misty mountains and protecting world heritage-listed crocodile and cassowary habitat, Cape Tribulation severs two stellar sweeps of sand. To escape the crowds gathered on Cape Tribulation’s northern beach, follow iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies south over the rainforested Cape Tribulation saddle to magical Myall Beach. Head here at dawn to beat the backpackers and plant the first footsteps on the sand.
When you go: Cross the Daintree River by ferry, 110km north of Cairns (open daily 6am to midnight) and continue 35km to Cape Tribulation. At Noah Beach, 8km away, beachfront camps cost $6.65/person ($26.60/family, qpws.usedirect.com).
5. Free Camp the Babinda Boulders
Nestled against the rainforested slopes of Queensland’s highest mountain, translucent pools studded with enormous granite boulders beckon campers at dawn for chilly, wake-up swims. As one of the wettest places in Australia, Babinda Boulders is a sure bet for a dip year-round and this stunning oasis has easy rainforest trails and a top free campground where bandicoots forage after dark.
When you go: Head 60km south of Cairns to Babinda and continue 7km to camp (coldwater showers, water, free gas barbecues, picnic shelters, toilets and a playground; cairns.qld.gov.au.)
6. Play at Lake Tinaroo
It’s the far north’s biggest adventure playground with waterfront camping, endless bays to paddle in search of platypus, fishing, swimming and water skiing. Launch your tinny to snag barramundi in the lake’s shallow tributaries, climb Turtle Rock, and discover ancient volcanic maars and the 500-year-old Cathedral Fig Tree.
When you go: Drive an hour west of Cairns and follow Danbulla Forest Drive to your pick of five campgrounds (all with fire pits, picnic tables, water and toilets, $6.65/person; qpws.usedirect.com).
7. Climb Into the Canopy
For vertigo-inducing views, follow the elevated Budaadji Canopy Walk through the treetops towards the thunderous Barron Falls, plunging 265 metres off the Kuranda Range. Nearby Speewah Campground promises solitude because small sites exclude big vanners. The facilities are well worth the $6.65/night fee.
When you go: From Kuranda, drive 3.5km along Barron Falls Road and follow the signs to the Barron Falls car park. Speewah Campground is located 10km away off the Kennedy Highway.
8. Get Among Gorges
Through rugged, uninhabited rainforest, Mossman River beats a hasty retreat to the Coral Sea, plunging over the range past banks littered with giant granite boulders. In the dry season when the river loses vigour, schools of hungry jungle perch gather in deep, clear pools and travellers arrive en masse.
The best way to experience this pristine corner of traditional Kuku Yalanji land, protected within Daintree National Park, is to arrive before 10am or after 3pm. Rainy days deter the masses too, as does the longer hike upstream along the Rainforest Circuit to more distant pools (2.4km/45 minutes return).
When you go: Mossman Gorge is located 80km north of Cairns, a 5km detour out of Mossman. Shuttle buses provide the only access into the gorge and run every 15 minutes from 8am to 5.15pm. Tickets cost $11.80/adult, $5.90/child or $29.50/family, valid for one day (no camping; mossmangorge.com.au).
9. Track Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroos
Resembling a cross between a bear and a kangaroo, the north’s most intriguing creature inhabits the canopy of Mount Hypipamee National Park, also famous for its dramatic volcanic explosion crater with sheer granite walls that plunge 140m.
Hit the trails early (before the tour buses arrive) and you might spot a tree-kangaroo climbing swiftly through the canopy. After your hike, cool your heels in the trackside pools beneath pretty, fern-fringed waterfalls.
When you go: Mount Hypipamee National Park is located 25km south of Atherton on the Kennedy Highway. There are no entry fees and toilets and tables are provided (parks.des.qld.gov.au).
10. Spot a cassowary
Buffering Mission Beach’s idyllic, tri-coloured coastline, Djiru National Park protects the highest concentration of southern cassowaries in the world. For a good chance of spotting these endangered beauties, hike or bike the Musgravea trail beneath lofty Licuala palms (6km one-way) or head to Lacey Creek to tackle the Dreaming Trail at dawn (6.4km return). Don’t miss the Cassowary Festival (September 21).
When you go: Mission Beach is located 140km south of Cairns. Council-run caravan parks at Mission Beach (powered & tent sites) and Bingil Bay (unpowered sites only) provide hot showers, toilets and laundry (no generators) from $25/night (cassowarycoast.qld.gov.au).
11. Mountain bike the Goldfields
Nestled against the rainforested slopes of the Bellenden Ker Range, the Goldfield Trail leads for 19km through Wooroonooran National Park. From Goldsborough Valley you can bike as far as the causeway over the Mulgrave River, then continue on foot to Babinda Boulders and back again (allow a full day).
When you go: Goldsborough Valley is located 25km south of Cairns (via Gordonvale). Camping costs $6.65/person ($26.60/family; book at parks.des.qld.gov.au).
When to visit Clear skies and stinger-free seas make the dry season (May to October) the best time to visit.
Top Camps Babinda Boulders (free for three nights, 60km south of Cairns); Noah Beach (Daintree National Park) and Lake Tinaroo (Danbulla National Park), both costing $6.65/person or $26.60/family.
Contact Find out more at cairns.qld.gov.au or wettropics.gov.au and book national park campsites at parks.des.qld.gov.au ($6.55pp).