G’day, my name’s Catherine and I’ve lived in Tropical North Queensland for the last 20 years. I’m an author and travel journo, so I spend pretty much all my time exploring my backyard. One thing I’ve learned is that if you can do it outside, you can do it in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. And this list of top freebies is oh-so-budget-friendly (ie, they are all free). Packed with plenty of free things to do around Cairns, this list will fill your days and mothball your wallet. All you need is a couple of lazy days (or weeks) and a set of wheels.
If these things whet your appetite, grab a copy of 100 Things To See In Tropical North Queensland, which I wrote for people like you. It’s all my favourite places after living here for 20 years.
1. Chill your bones at Babinda Boulders: Ulysses butterflies flutter above these clear, rainforested pools and the best free camp in the north is just a short walk away, perfect for sunrise wake-up swims. There’s also great picnic area for day trips and plenty of parking.
Follow the Bruce Highway 60km south of Cairns to Babinda and continue the 6km to the Boulders on Bartle Frere Goldfields Road. More info here.
2. Encounter Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos: Resembling a cross between a bear and a kangaroo, these rare creatures inhabit the canopy in Mount Hypipamee National Park, also famous for a dramatic, water-filled volcanic explosion crater with sheer granite walls that plunge 140m. There’s also a pair which inhabit the small grove of trees out the front of the Nerada Tea Plantation on Glen Allyn Road, Malanda. Stop into the tea rooms and sit down for some tea and scones while you’re there.
3. Kayak to Snapper Island: On a calm day, see-through seas surround this coral-fringed national park island, a 1.5 to 2 hour paddle from Wonga Beach (90km north of Cairns). Step off Snapper Island’s white sand beaches to join an endless procession of fish and turtles, gliding over coral gardens peppered with vibrant clams.
4. Go Body Boarding at palm-fringed Ellis Beach: Easily the prettiest beach in the region, with a stinger-free swimming zone. Or get great coffee at the Ellis Beach Bar and Grill.
5. Balance your rocks: Add your cairn to the outdoors installation taking shape on the edge of the Coral Sea on one of Australia’s most scenic drives – the Captain Cook Highway from Palm Cove to Port Douglas. Find it here.
6. Mountain Bike the Goldfield Trail: Nestled against the rainforested slopes of the Bellenden Ker Range, the Goldfield Trail leads for 19km through Wooroonooran National Park. From Goldsborough Valley (25km south of Cairns), you can bike as far as the causeway over the Mulgrave River, then continue on foot to Babinda Boulders and back.
7. Get Twitching at Hasties Swamp: Known to Indigenous Yidinji people as Nyleta (where the waters meet) and renowned for its incredible diversity, Hasties Swamp is home grey teals, pink-eared ducks, egrets, ibis and magpie geese that congregate in numbers of up to 1500. The two-storey hide is signposted 4km south of Atherton on the road to Herberton.
8. Wet your water toys: Head for Lake Tinaroo, the far north’s biggest and best adventure playground to go paddling, water skiing, fishing and swimming. Check out the camping options here.
9. Hug a (500-year-old) fig tree: As tall as a 12-storey building with a girth of 43 metres, you can’t miss the Cathedral Fig Tree in World Heritage-listed Danbulla National Park, west of Cairns.
10. Cycle the beach: Pedal Port Douglas’ premier stretch of sand – the famously firm Four Mile Beach. The sand is so firm most bikes can cruise down it unimpeded. If you don’t have your own, hire one from Bike Shop and Hire Port Douglas.
11. Go sailing: Port Douglas Yacht Club hosts super-friendly, free WAGS sailing every Wednesday afternoon. Register at the clubhouse on Dickson Inlet from 4pm (18 years plus, visit portdouglasyachtclub.com.au).
12. Climb through the canopy to Barron Falls: For vertigo-inducing views, follow the Budaadji Canopy Walk to Barron Falls, which plunges 265 metres off the Kuranda Range.
13. Scuba dive a volcanic crater: 65 metres deep and awesome for diving, swimming, paddling and hiking the trail that follows its shoreline, Lake Eacham is one of the Tableland’s top sights.
14. Snorkel with jungle perch: Stare up at the rainforest as you float in clear, chilly pools and snorkel with the jungle fish that tickle your toes. Take an easy walk and BYO a picnic to Crystal Cascades, a short drive from the Cairns CBD.
15. Swim with freshwater eels (& turtles): Head for the big, cool pool beneath the Atherton Tableland’s uber scenic Millaa Millaa Falls.
16. Taste-test biodynamic dairy goodness: Try davidsons’ plum, mango or bush honey yoghurts, and a range of cheeses – marinated feta, ricotta and cheddar – at Mungalli Creek Dairy in Millaa Millaa (free tastings from 10am-4pm daily).
17. See Australia’s widest waterfall: Big Millstream rates as our widest, single-drop waterfall and you can free camp nearby at Archer Creek Rest Area.
18. Marvel at a Maar: Check out Euramoo and Mobo Creek Craters – two water-filled volcanic craters (or maars) easily accessible in Danbulla National Park (Lake Tinaroo). Hike the easy loop to Mobo at dawn or dusk to spot platypus.