Cooktown, a small town located in the northernmost region of Queensland, is steeped in history and culture.
During the late 1800s, the town played a crucial role in the gold rush that swept across North Queensland, attracting thousands of prospectors in search of fortune.
Today, visitors to Cooktown can explore the town’s rich gold rush history by visiting the James Cook Museum, which is home to a range of exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of the town’s early settlers and the impact of the gold rush on the region.
Another popular attraction is the Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery, which showcases the works of one of Australia’s most renowned botanical artists. The gallery features a collection of over 1,000 watercolor paintings of the region’s flora and fauna, providing visitors with a fascinating glimpse into the natural history of the area.
In addition to its gold rush history, Cooktown is also a popular destination for those looking to explore the natural beauty of North Queensland. The town is located just a short distance from the stunning beaches of Port Douglas, where visitors can enjoy a range of water-based activities such as swimming, snorkeling, and fishing.
The region is also home to several national parks, including the Daintree Rainforest, which is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. With its unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty, Cooktown is one of our favourite places in Australia.
This coastal town is beautifully located on the Cape York Peninsula between Mount Cook National Park and Endeavour River. It is the last bigger town before going north and hitting numerous corrugations on Peninsula Developmental Road.
If you are planning your way to Cape York, make sure to explore all attractions before heading further.
There are three ways to get to Cooktown.
- Mulligan Highway – it is a 330 km trip from Cairns. The biggest highlight on the way is Bob’s Lookout overlooking Mount Windsor National Park and Mount Lewis National Park. The trip takes four hours on a bitumen road.
- Bloomfield Track – a real shortcut from Cairns – only 242 km. However, this route is only for 4WD cars. It is a dirt track that has numerous, steep uphills and downhills. Engaging low range is a must. Note, that the track may be impassable during the wet season due to many washouts and fallen trees. The trip also takes four hours due to the track condition.
- By air – it is only a 45 minutes flight from Cairns – find a deal with Skyscanner
#1 Cooktown Discovery Festival
Discovery Festival happens every year in June. It is one of the best town attractions. At this time of the year, the town is boosting with people as the weather is beautiful and there is a lot happening in town.
In 2021, when we visited Cooktown the event was extended to 9 days composing of the Reconciliation Rock Festival, Cape York Dynamic Business Symposium and Discovery Festival.
Discovery Festival is a three-day event featuring Aboriginal art and culture, Botanic Garden tours, lectures, live entertainment, parades, river cruises, and museum tours.
Our favourite ones were The Sea Lantern Parade, Paranormal Investigation Tours (night tour at the museum), indigenous dances, and local Warrma stories.
The key highlight of the event is Captain Cook’s Landing Re-enactment. It is an outside showcase presenting the first meeting of Captain Cook, his crew and the local indigenous people on the banks of Endeavour River in 1970.
That significant exchange of culture and language lasted 48 days and it became an inspiration for local people to celebrate this act today. Check the expo website for the current year calendar.
#2 Cooktown Botanical Garden
Botanical Gardens are located on the east side of town at a very close distance to a picturesque Flinch Bay. The gardens were established in 1878 making them one of Queensland’s oldest regional botanic gardens.
Botanical Gardens house five major plant collections in their rainforest garden, bush tucker garden, heath garden and water lily pond.
It is a perfect place to relax! Visit Nature’s Powerhouse, grab a coffee and sit among the palms in a shady spot.
Also, there are hiking walks around the gardens. It is possible to do a short walk to Finch Bay or go along the escarpment to Cherry Tree Bay.
From there, the green track leads directly to Grassy Hill with one of the most spectacular lookouts over the sea.
#3 Cooktown Museum
Formerly known as James Cook Museum, these days, Cooktown Museum is a place where you can get a glimpse of history. The museum houses an extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts together with an original anchor and cannon collected from HMB Endeavour that was salvaged in the 1970s.
There is a lot more to discover. The best time to visit the museum is during the Discovery Festival due to some additional sessions being organised for visitors.
Apart from a standard visit, you can book a Paranormal Investigation Tour where you listen to spooky stories and walk the museum in darkness!
#4 Lighthouse at Grassy Hill
Grassy Hill is an essential destination that should not be missed. Regardless of the time of day – be it sunrise, noon, or sunset – the panoramic view from the hill is nothing short of breathtaking.
There is easy access to Grassy Hill by a Finch Bay road with parking on the top. It is quite limited though, so especially for the sunset arrive early.
#5 Endeavour Boat Cruise
One of the best ways to learn about the mangroves, Endeavour River and Cooktown itself is by embarking on a boat cruise.
Once you leave the wharf, you will explore the harbour and later go into a maze of channels of Endeavour River. Usually, they serve a gourmet cheese platter, ice water, and a complimentary drink.
*The cruise we attended was a Botanical Cruise during the Cooktown Discovery Festival, so there was a lot of information about plants and mangroves.
#6 Stroll along the waterfront at William Daku Park
Town waterfront is just beautiful. William Daku Park is located at the end of Webber Esplanade making it a perfect picnic, fishing and relaxing hot spot in Cooktown.
There are two major fish & chip shops: Gilled & Gutted Takeaway and Cooks Landing Kiosk.
Gilled & Gutted Takeaway is the most popular place as they serve a good variety of fresh fish, prawns, crayfish, and oysters. Sit in or take away.
At Cooks Landing Kiosk there is Groper feeding every afternoon at 5 pm, so you can order your meal and watch the feeding sitting on the veranda.
#7 Soak Cooktown history
Cooktown lies in Guugu Yimithirr country, the aboriginal nation that stretched from Annan River, south of town to Princess Charlotte Bay.
History of Cooktown reaches 1770 when Captain James Cook landed here for the first time when his ship, Endeavour crashed on the reef. Until nowadays this event is commemorated during the Captain Cook’s Landing Re-enactment event that happens every year in June during the Discovery Festival.
The town itself has a few places not to be missed on your first visit: History Centre, Cemetery, Singing Ship, Railway, and H.M.B Endeavour Reconciliation Rocks. When you walk along William Daku Park, there are many information signs telling us about the history of one of the oldest towns in Queensland.
#8 Taste the seafood basket at The Top Pub
This double-storey historic building cannot be missed as it is standing right in the middle of town. It is called Cooktown Hotel, but for some, it is known as The Top Pub or The Toppie.
The hotel was built in 1874, and originally it was called The White Horse Hotel, and later The Commercial Hotel. Today it is a place of great food (we really liked it!), entertainment and accommodation.
If you like seafood, this is the place where you can get really good oysters, mussels, prawns or fish. Don’t worry, they offer awesome steaks too.
#9 Relax on beaches around Cooktown
Waters around town are crocs territory, so being aware of that head off to one of the two beaches.
Cherry Tree Bay – small, iconic, 200 meters beach lying at the foot of the Grassy Hill Lookout. This beach is not accessible by car. Instead, walk your way from the Botanical Gardens (1.4 km) or a similar distance from Ann St (at the bottom of Grassy Lookout).
Finch Bay – the most popular beach in Cooktown (don’t expect crowds though) that is easily accessible by car on a bitumen road. It is located 2 km from town, and 800 meters from Botanical Gardens. Optionally you can walk from Botanic Gardens using the hiking trail. The beach is protected from the trade winds by high, vegetated granite headlands.
Quarantine Bay – this awesome beach is situated 8 km from town, on the east side of Mount Cook National Park. There is a small car park with toilets right next to the beach. Usually, there are not many visitors.
There is a free camping spot at Quarantine Bay accessed by a narrow, 100 meters track to the left of the car park.
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#10 Mount Cook National Park – Waymbuurr Lookout
Those who are active may try a challenging hike to Mount Cook. The hike is a 5.5 km return and can be completed within 2 hours. The trail has minimal markers and is considered moderate to difficult in some spots.
The views from the top are stunning!
What to see around Cooktown?
If you have extra time and desire to explore beyond Cooktown, there are numerous nearby destinations worth seeing. With the exception of Elim Beach, which requires a minimum of two days, the places listed below can be easily accessed on a day trip.
#11 Endeavour Falls
Endeavour Falls are located 31 km from the town. The falls are accessible through the Endeavour Falls Caravan Park. Even if you don’t stay there, you can visit the falls, but let the owners know at the reception.
Whereas in the past it was possible to swim at the base of the falls, these days there are saltwater crocodiles around so swimming is out of the question.
On the other hand, Endeavour Falls Caravan Park is very spacious with many accommodation options, so if you don’t need to be close to town it is a nice relaxing place to be.
#12 Isabella Falls
Located just 10 km further north from Cooktown, and 41 km in total, Isabella Falls is a must-see destination. Conveniently located right off the road, the falls can be accessed easily. As you approach the falls from Cooktown, you will actually cross over them at the top. Simply park your car and head down for a stunning view of the falls.
If you are planning to drive from Cooktown to Cape York, view Endeavour and Isabella Falls on the way.
#13 Trevethan Falls
If you prefer more private falls, jump in the car and drive 32 km south of Cooktown to Trevethan Falls. Turn left off Mulligan Highway at the 19 km mark into Mount Amos Road. It is a narrow dirt road that leads to a small car park. From the car park, there is a short walk to the falls.
Trevethan Falls cascade down into a swimming hole and later the stream makes more small plunge pools closer to the parking area.
#14 Keatings Lagoon
Keatings Lagoon is a picturesque and tranquil destination located only 6 km south of town. The lagoon is an idyllic spot to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and a variety of bird species, it offers a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the town.
You can take a leisurely stroll along the walking track that winds around the lagoon, taking in the beautiful scenery and spotting the diverse wildlife.
Bird enthusiasts will be delighted with the variety of species that can be found here, including the white-bellied sea eagle, the eastern curlew, and the mangrove kingfisher.
The lagoon was named after the Mulbabidgee Aboriginal family who built and lived in the area.
During the wet season, the water is trapped in a naturally occurring basin adjacent to Meldrum Creek. Later, in the dry season, the waters shrink to a series of waterholes like this.
Keatings Lagoon is an oasis for many waterbirds which migrate here to feast. Some years, the water dries out entirely causing only a few birds to arrive. At the end of the dry season, most birds depart to more attractive feeding areas.
The lagoon is best seen from the bird hide boardwalk accessed by a short walk. There is also a picnic area at the end of the walk.
#15 Elim Beach
Elim Beach is a hidden gem and a must-visit destination for anyone exploring the Far North Queensland region of Australia.
Located on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula, Elim Beach boasts pristine white sand and crystal-clear waters, making it an ideal spot for swimming, snorkeling, and fishing.
Visitors to Elim Beach can take a leisurely stroll along the shoreline, or explore the nearby creeks and estuaries. The beach is also home to a variety of wildlife, including sea turtles, dugongs, and a range of bird species.
Camping is permitted at Elim Beach, making it an ideal spot for a peaceful and secluded overnight stay.
Elim Beach is located 72 km north of Cooktown. It is mostly known for its coloured sands, but also for great 4WD tracks around Cape Bedford. We recommend staying in Elim Beach for at least 2 days to fully soak in the atmosphere of this place.
#16 Archer Point
Archer Point is a stunning headland located on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. The point offers breathtaking views of the Coral Sea and is an ideal destination for visitors looking to explore the natural beauty of the area.
Visitors to Archer Point can take a leisurely stroll along the walking tracks that wind around the headland, taking in the stunning scenery and observing the abundant bird and marine life that inhabit the area.
The rocky coastline is home to a variety of coral and sea life, making it a popular spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Visitors can also try their luck at fishing from the shore, with a variety of species such as barramundi, mangrove jack, and queenfish among those that can be caught here.
Archer Point is located 20 km from Cooktown and accessible by Mulligan Highway, and a well maintained Archer Point Road. It is a beautiful spot to drive for a day’s visit. There are a few 4WD tracks that go along the coast and end at the Archer Point Lighthouse.
In the past, it was possible to free camp anywhere but recently it is only allowed in the designated camping area before you reach the coast. There are no facilities, so bring enough food and water, and take your rubbish with you.
#17 Black Mountain National Park
Black Mountain National Park is a unique and fascinating destination. The park is known for its mysterious black boulder formations, which rise up to 260 meters in height and cover an area of over 1,000 hectares. The rocks are made up of pure black granite, and their origin and formation remain a mystery to this day.
Visitors can also learn about the cultural and historical significance of the area by visiting the nearby Jumbun Aboriginal Art Site, which features a range of rock paintings and engravings.
The Black Mountains is located 23 km of Cooktown and accessible for viewing (only) from the lookout next to the road.
The mysterious Blank Mountain is known by locals for its spooky stories and tourist disappearances in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Are the stories true? Read more about Black Mountain here.
#18 Little Annan Gorge
Little Annan Gorge is a stunning natural attraction. The gorge is part of the larger Lakefield National Park and boasts crystal-clear water, surrounded by towering cliffs and dense rainforest.
Visitors to Little Annan Gorge can take a refreshing dip in the cool waters of the gorge, or explore the surrounding area by hiking along the many walking trails that wind through the rainforest.
The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including the elusive saltwater crocodile, which can often be spotted sunning themselves on the banks of the river.
Travelers can also take a guided 4WD tour to explore the more remote areas of the park and discover the rich cultural and historical significance of the area.
Little Annan Gorge is conveniently accessible off Mulligan Highway, 27 before Cooktown. When you drive from the south, stop at the small gorge and relax before doing the final stretch to town.
The small car park with toilets is on the west side of the Annan River. It is safe to swim at the top of the gorge as the crocodiles will not get there!
#19 View Cooktown from the air
If you are staying in Cairns it is possible to jump on a scenic flight to Cooktown and see it this way.
During the flight, you will admire the amazing views of the Coral Sea, Great Barrier Reef, and Word Heritage Daintree Rainforest. Once you get to Cooktown you hop off the plane and visit the major Cooktown attractions before heading back.
Tour providers like Viator offer different options, so it is best to check their website before making your decision.
Best Cooktown Attractions – Summary
Cooktown is a beautiful town with numerous places to see. Planning your visit to Cooktown as your final destination is not a bad idea. The town offers a lot, and if you are still bored, there are plenty of day trips around Cooktown.
The best time to visit Cooktown is in the dry season between May and September, but if you want to participate in many local events arrive in June/July as we did.
We hope this list of best Cooktown attractions will help you with organising your trip. If you have any comments or suggestions please leave them below.
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Enjoy outdoors with Tentworld equipment
4WD Equipment Checklist
Tire Repair Kit – to fix the tire by yourself when you don’t have access to the tire shop (we use Oztrail)
UHF Radio – for communication with your mates and in emergency
Full Recovery Kit (with Dampener Blanket) – must-have if you are going on real off-road
High Lift Jack – useful if you do serious 4WD tracks
Shovel – useful if you get bogged, also good for campfire cooking
Fuel funnel with water filter – additional protection when fueling up in dodgy places