Top 20 Things to Do in Cape York

Catherine Lawson — 5 March 2019

1. SNARE A POT OF CHERABIN

With free camping, reliable catches of cherabin and crystal clear, croc-free pools, The Bend is a blissful riverside camp just 3km north of Coen. It’s spacious and grassy, there’s plenty of riverside shade to shake out your camp chairs or soak in the river with something cold in hand. A toilet, fireplaces and rubbish bins are provided, and if you wade and swim upstream you’ll discover more amazing waterholes too.

2. SWIM BENEATH TWIN FALLS

Brave the washed-out access track to reach this spring-fed oasis in Jardine River National Park and find yourself lounging on sandy banks at day’s end, dusty feet dangling in the cool, croc-free current. The camping facilities are exceptional for such a remote spot. Short walking trails lead directly to the Saucepan, Eliot Falls and two tiers of irresistible pools beneath Twin Falls. Toilets, drinking water, tables and firepits are all provided but there’s no phone coverage so book your campsite in advance. The falls are signposted off the Bamaga Road, 119km north of Bramwell Junction.

3. SKINNY-DIP AT SUNRISE

Climb to the top of Cooktown’s Grassy Hill to stand in the footsteps of Captain Cook and gaze out over the Coral Reef as the sun slowly rises. Afterwards, drop down the hill to secluded Cherry Tree Bay for a clothing-optional dip. 

4. FIND KENNEDY’S LOST CAMP

Known as the first man to almost make it to The Tip, explorer Edmund Kennedy and his disasterous 1848 expedition are the stuff of legend. From Rockingham Bay across Cape York, in inhospitable terrain and mangroves swamped by heavy wet season rains, eight men perished tantalisingly close to the Tip. In the braided channels of the Escape River, Kennedy was fatally speared, his remaining crew never seen again. This tragic slice of history is retold at a memorial roadside cairn that overlooks Kennedy’s Lost Camp, opposite the Heathlands Ranger Base, 55km north of the Old Telegraph Track junction.

5. DISCOVER QUINKAN SPIRITS

UNESCO rated Cape York’s Quinkan Galleries one the world’s 10 best rock art sites: 13,000 year old ochre paintings of the Quinkan spirits who inhabit Split Rock’s towering sandstone bluff. To view the rock art, set out along a 4km circuit past paint-blown hands and totem animals to view the mesmerising Quinkan spirits before climbing to the top of Turtle Rock and looping back past the elaborate Guguyalangi Gallery (located 12km south of Laura, entry by donation). 

6. FISH CAPE FLATTERY

This clear, calm bay 120 sandy kilometres north of Cooktown is a remote angling heaven: catch big barramundi and mangrove jack off the rocky point and launch a tinny off the beach to troll for enormous Spanish mackerel (our’s measured 1.2m). You can free camp beneath the paperbarks fringing white-sand Connies Beach and ponder the serenity with a rod in hand! From Cooktown follow Battle Camp Road to Starcke Homestead, beach drive for 20km to Cape Flattery Silica Mine (check the tides first) and continue to the north side of the Cape. Contact Hope Vale Shire Council for permission to camp (hopevale.qld.gov.au).

7. OVERNIGHT AT CAPTAIN BILLY LANDING

Idyllic and windswept, this top beachfront camp nestled beneath towering sea cliffs by the Coral Sea provides access to deserted beaches that stretch endlessly north. Climb the heath-covered dunes for sunrise and beachcomb, collecting nautilus shells as you go. There’s a spacious, grassy camp with toilets, firepits and a huge picnic shelter, located 94km north-east of Bramwell Junction.

8. FISH THE GULF

Renowned for its big rivers and top angling on Albatross Bay, locals say the barramundi flow on tap in Weipa. Launch your tinny at Rocky Point or Evans Landing and head up the Mission, Embley or Hey Rivers in search of salmon, trevally, grunter, fingermark and jewfish. If you are travelling boat-free, line up with the locals at the Evans Landing wharf for your share of queenfish, trevally and grunter. If you go, don’t miss the Weipa Fishing Classic in June.

9. HEAD FOR PRINCESS CHARLOTTE BAY

Through Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, some of the most adventurous camping, rough offroading and off-the-scale fishing takes place on the edge of Princess Charlotte Bay. This is Queensland’s second largest national park, so there’s plenty of elbow room. 

10. BOAT TO FARAWAY FLINDERS ISLAND

The Aba Yalgayi saltwater people who fished, camped, painted and were buried on this Cape York island left behind an incredible heritage: Yindayin rock shelters, middens and artefacts. Explorers followed, including the crew of the HMS Dart who autographed a rock in 1899 and buried the dead in unmarked graves. Located an adventurous tinny ride off Bathurst Heads, Flinders Island and its seven neighbouring islands are home to sandstone cliffs, mangrove forests, coral reefs and deep blue lagoons teeming with fish – perfect for chasing big barramundi and adventure.

11. PITSTOP PALMER RIVER ROADHOUSE

Popular for its historical museum turned quirky pub, the Palmer River Roadhouse en route to Cooktown is well worth a pitstop for its food, well-priced fuel and shady beer garden.

12. SEE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST MIDDENS

Cockle shell middens piled high in the dunes at Weipa’s Red Beach (Prunung) rate amongst the world’s largest, and close by, check out the display of scarred sugarbag trees holed by Aboriginal people to collect native bee honey. At Evans Landing, the Western Cape Cultural Centre is free to tour.

13. MUSGRAVE ROADHOUSE

Whether it’s for the company, cold beers or the chance to clean up, the grassy campground at historical Musgrave Roadhouse lures campers who pull off the track past one of the last overland telegraph poles standing sentry out front. This overland telegraph repeater station was built back in 1887, long before it became a cattle station, roadhouse and travellers’ rest too. 

14. BULLS AND BRONCOS

Time your trip with the Cape’s rodeo season and catch three of the best: Laura Rodeo and Races (June), Mount Carbine Bull and Bronc Ride (August), and the Weipa Bull Ride (August).

15. FRIDAY NIGHT AT THE FISHING CLUB

As mainland Australia’s most laidback town, Seisia rewards rattled offroaders with a gorgeous curl of coastline, extraordinary fishing in the swift-flowing channel that laps nearby Red Island and a top night out when locals and travellers gather at the Fishing Club for not-to-be-missed tunes and ales.

16. CAMP AT MUTEE HEAD

Of all the free campsites included with your Jardine River ferry ticket, Mutee Head is one of the best: a beautiful, deserted beachfront camp where you can watch turtles feed in the uber clear bay and 4WD to the banks of the Jardine River to battle crocs for your share of barramundi and mangrove jack. There is camping on both sides of the headland (firepits only) but launch your tinny on Mutee Head’s southern side for mackerel, queenies, trevally, flathead and perhaps a threadfin salmon. From the Jardine River ferry crossing drive 27km north-west and continue for 20km (bring drinking water).

17. COOL OFF AT MOREHEAD RIVER CAMP

This quiet, riverside freebie helps break up the 510km drive from Laura to Weipa. It’s where wild things play: galahs screeching from the treetops, great mobs of noisy flying foxes descending to roost on the riverbank and, in the still of night, agile wallabies grazing right up to your door. It might be nothing more than a grassy pull-off with a solitary fireplace, but you can cool off in the river’s sandy, clear pools, 100km north of Laura.

18. SLEEP AT FRANGIPANI BAY

North of Bamaga at the end of the road that bumps through Lockerbie Scrub, Frangipani Bay and that much-photographed sign at the very tip of Australia await. Most travellers visit The Tip as a daytrip out of Seisia, Loyalty Beach or nearby Punsand Bay, but a night of solitude camped on Frangipani Bay, watching the sun set and rise again over The Tip is a magnificent way to end your journey. Camp close to the beach or find a forested nook just behind.

19. SOMERSET BEACH

The home of John Jardine whose sons Frank and Alexander famously pioneered a route up the Cape’s western flanks in 1865 (and had some controversial run-ins on indigenous land) may lay in ruins today, but the location – overlooking Albany Island, close to The Tip – is remarkable. Push beyond Somerset to discover remote camps, stunning cave paintings and beautiful beaches around Fly Point. 

20. CHILL OUT AT CHILI BEACH

This coconut palm-fringed shoreline in Kutini Payamu (Iron Range) National Park is one of the most beautiful on the Cape, accessed via the track to Portland Roads, just north of Archer River Roadhouse. With 25 beachfront campsites, this spot is well worth the detour.

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cape york queensland qld list destination things to do

Photographer

David Bristow