Cairns is gorgeous, once you know where to go.
My brother and I were raised here. This post summarises some of our favourite spots and activities.
This post is tailored to folks who don’t want to empty their bank account. We’ll show you the best swimming spots in the region and share some “local tips” to help you dodge the crowds.
Cairns is best visited while avoiding the tourist traps… but we have kept a few suggestions you’ll be happy you paid for.
Enough chit chat. Let’s get into it.
Mossman Gorge is a cracker freshwater swimming spot.
Hidden in the dense tropical rainforest is a lovely spot to birdwatch, swim and relax. It hasn’t got much in the way of cliff jumps, but some of the boulders create sections of fast(ish) water flow that are a blast to cruise down.
You can access the water at a few different spots along the creek. It’s all fairly similar, but once you’re at the water’s edge I’d suggest hiking along the river to find a spot to yourself.
I went back for the first time in a while and found they’d put a fancy (privately owned) tourism centre at the base of the hill. They’ll try charge for a shuttle bus to take you to main entry, but you can walk/ride up the 2km road free of charge. Free public vehicle access is allowed before 6am and after 8pm, otherwise you’re either paying or walking. We parked at the bottom and just hiked in along the road and past the aboriginal community and into the park. No issues, no money spent.
There’s no food, water or amenities nearby. Bring your own grub.
Babinda Boulders has some amazing fresh water spots and awesome BBQ facilities. There’s a couple of public swimming holes and a couple less public ones…
The council has restricted access to some spots because of past accidents. There are plenty of no swimming signs around. Lots of folks choose to ignore them, and though fines may apply, you’re unlikely to get busted. It’s worth avoiding this spot after heavy rain, that’s when it gets dangerous.
If you’re turning a blind eye to the signs head to the lookouts and jump the fences (see map below) .
Devil’s Pool is the best spot. There are a couple points you can jump in from. Including a little cave which doubles as a cliff jump. It’s a pretty magic.
Stephane also reckons hiring a kayak and floating down the stream is a great way to see the area. A local business called ‘Babinda Kayaking’ offers very fairly priced kayak or stand up paddle board hire. It’s like $50 for equipment hire and pickup. Bargain.
I’ll be honest, this one isn’t going to win awards in the “scenery” department. You’ll be going there for the waterfall and cliff jumps.
The hike up to the top section is pretty long. On a hot, humid, muggy, moist tropical day the walk is a draaaaaaag, but the payoff is crispy. You’ll often be the only one(s) at the water hole.
Once at the carpark, follow the obvious concrete path and massive water pipe all the way to the top. You will walk past the a few “lookouts”, keep going. Eventually, you’ll reach an open area which drops off on the left (here). Keep wakling until you reach a big wire fence. The actual falls are here. The approach path is very obvious you couldn’t get lost if you tried.
There is a clear jumping point at the central rocks. Check the depth and obstacles, get a run up and jump in!
Fitzroy Island ( & Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre)
Fitzroy Island is far enough away from the coast that you’ll dodge Cairns’ murky estuary water. You’re going to need to catch a ferry to this island.
The water is blue, teaming with life and the sandy white beaches are some of the best in FNQ.
There’s a healthy population of green sea turtles that roam the shallows, a lot of them were released from the turtle rehabilitation centre so they’re quite confident around humans. If you move slowly you’ll be able to get pretty close to them.
There’s a fair bit of stuff you can do on the island. I recommend you hike to the lookout and explore the little beaches. Nudey Beach and Hidden Beach are the best. There’s also a little restaurant, a turtle rehabilitation centre and shops you snorkel hire centre.
I did a bit of work at the the turtle rehabilitation centre. The public talks were free when I was there, but I think they might ask for donations now. Part with a bit of mulla and help them out, they’re doing good work. The centre is run by a team of dedicated volunteers.
Lastly, if you see a couple walking a pet goose on the island say hi to them. They’re a bloody awesome couple; friendly, eccentric and a wealth of knowledge about the Cairns area. The goose is pretty cool too, it knows how to count.
Nestled in the Redlynch valley, Crystal Cascades and Fairy Falls are “go to” local swimming spots. A short small drive out from the city you get two locations for the price of none.
It used to be a well kept secret, but now gets busy with families and backpackers. We’ve got a few tips to avoid the crowds and get the most of this spot. Free parking is available, but don’t blindly follow your GPS to this spot, you’ll get stitched up.
This is the most popular spot. It also the most swimming hole options.
Most people head to the carpark, head up the main path and swim at a few of the waterholes. You can, however, walk downstream. It’s equally beautiful and particularly soothing at night.
You can also walk to the top waterhole, scramble up the side of the falls and access a “secret” top section (see map). No one goes up there. You’ll be alone and have the best spot in the valley and most likely be alone.
About half 3/4 up the path to the top of crystal cascades, you’ll see a rock with some blue graffiti on it. That’s “No Fear”, a well known cliff jump.
You can jump over small railing fence onto the slanted rock platform. Swim across the water hole to access the cliff on the other side. Climb said cliff to whatever height you’re comfortable jumping in from.
Be careful, it can be slippery and it’s a long way to fall.
Fairy falls is Crystal Cascades’ little sister.
It’s a smaller creek and tends to be a more quiet. The scramble up the rocks is also a turn off for some.
You can access from the other side of the Crystal Cascades’ carpark. You’ll need to follow the dirt path to the only swimming spot. It’s only a short walk.
There are shrimps in the top water hole. If you dangle your feet in the water and keep still they’ll eventually come over and give you a free “nibble pedicure”. No, they don’t bite, but they do tickle!
I don’t love Port Douglas, it’s just… OK.
Port Douglas has the “halfway gentrified” tropical village feel. There are a couple nice lookouts and the cafe scene is bustling.
The drive out there from Cairns is S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R. Sunrises are next bloody level in that neck of the woods. The lookouts are pretty nice and it’s home to some of FNQ’s better beaches
Oh, it’s also the gateway to the Daintree National Park.
A lot of reef day trips leave the marina up there so the chances are you’ll probably end up in the area.
Make a day of it if you’re nearby, but I don’t recommend heading out there without a reason.
I know, I know… another gorge. This one is a little different though.
Granite Gorge located inland and up in the Atherton tablelands ranges so it’s a lot less tropical. Think of it as an oasis in an otherwise semi-arid landscape. Everything changes, the type of heat, the animals and the plants. It’s quite different to the coastal waterhole on this list.
It’s privately owned so you have to pay to enter, but it’s worth it.
There’s plenty of wildlife around; you can feed the rock wallabies and the beautiful water holes are a nice way to cool off. The marked hike in the area can take you anything from 20mins to 4hrs to complete. Plenty of options.
For those of you with camping equipment there’s a cracker camping spot out there.
I recommend calling up before arriving to see if there’s room for you and to check if there is much water flow. The gorge dries up considerably when it hasn’t rained in a while. You also get stagnant water which brings on swarms of mozzies.
This spot is a beautiful tourist trap, you’d be remiss not to visit the village if you’re in the area. It’s home to a cute rainforest village, boasts some gorgeous lookouts and close to some gorgeous swimming holes; some legal and some a little less so.
Barron falls is pretty much FNQ’s Iguazy Falls.
In the wet saison this waterfall is an absolute MONSTER! It’s worth stopping off at barron falls lookout to see it in action.
If you want to be a little naughty and swim in the mighty Barron you’ll need to drive to the end of Weir Rd. Park you car, we’re going on an adventure!
You’ll see some train tracks at the end of that road, turn right and follow them until approximately this spot. Then turn left down the sketchy looking dirt paths that take you to the waters edge.
The trains go past relatively often so scatter into the nearby bushes if you hear them approaching. They’re not going to stop for you and you probably don’t want to be spotted.
Once you’re on the rocks near the water your free to explore around the place; this spot and this spot are favourites. The damn upstream tends to control the flow of water fairly well, but in peak wet season this spot can be dangerous.
Be careful or don’t go in if the water is flowing fast.
Stoney Creek has plenty of swimming options and its a very convenient location.
The waterholes in this area are seldom visited by tourists, but its hidden in plain sight. You will drive past this area a few times as you visit the spots on this list. It’s worth stopping off at least once during your travels.
Park here. There are plenty of hiking and swimming hole options in that area. There are paths you can follow, but I think scrambling up stoney creek is more fun. I’d keep going until you get to Old Weir Falls and swim under the big log at top of the track.
There are plenty of hikes in the area too. A classic would be to hike at glacier rock and then stop off for a swim at Stoney Creek. The walking tracks are all connected.
Black Rock Waterfalls
This is a Stephane (my brother) special. I’ve never been.
The road there takes you through the nicest part of the Palm Cove to Port Douglas drive. Sunrises along that road are world class.
Stephane recommends you hike up to see the falls, but many of the swimming spots along the way up are more private. They’re usually a better go if you’re spending a whole day there. Those spots along the hike also have better cliff jumps if you’re into that sort of thing.
This cute spot is a a bit out of the way for most. You going to want a car and enjoy bush walking… It’s worth it though. I’ll leave it at that.
Hartleys Crocodile Farm
Hartleys Crocodile Farm place is a great time. Yes it’s a zoo, heavily focussing on reptiles, but there’s no better way to gain a healthy respect for the animals whose environment you’re visiting. The shows are last of a kind. The keepers are literally knee deep in crocodile water during the show. It’s Australian comedy gold.
That’s it! This list is by no means exhaustive, plenty more to do in Cairns! It’s the stuff. I hope this helps with planning your travels.
Shoot me a message if you have questions. Social links are at the bottom of this page.
Have a cracker holiday.