10 Best Things to do in Cooktown, Australia On a Budget

By on December 12th, 2019 in AUSTRALIA, Budget Travel Ideas with 12 Comments

Cooktown feature

Who would have known, the community of Cooktown, situated in the remote Cape York peninsula of Queensland, is a bustling place!

Driving this far north in Australia, we would never have guessed that a fairly sizeable, well-stocked, pleasant and busy civilisation could have existed out here.

But there you have it, Australia is full of surprises and Cooktown was one for us!

Located in an area renowned for its remote camping, national parks and excellent 4wd opportunities, Cooktown acts as the major service station for this part of the country.

That said, being over 2000km from the state capital of Brisbane and nearer to Papua New Guinea than Sydney, you don’t think of Cooktown as a place with lots to do!

But don’t be fooled like we were! Cooktown is a great little place to stop for at least a few days and we only wished we had allowed more time when we happened upon it as part of our great budget 4wd around Australia – Week 7.

In fact, we’ve voted it one of the most amazing destinations to visit North Queensland!

So here, to give you some idea about the range of stuff to do in this Cape York capital, are the 10 best (and cheap) things to do in Cooktown, Australia.


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#10 Sink a Beer at the Historic Lion’s Den Hotel

Lions Den Hotel

Situated in the suburb of Helenvale, about half an hour south of Cooktown as you head towards the Bloomfield Track, is the historic Lion’s Den Hotel.

Enjoying a drink here is definitely one of the best things to do in Cooktown.

First opened in 1875, this place is steeped in history – much of it written across the walls!

Yes, in the usual style adopted by many outback watering holes, the Lion’s Den allows its customers to scrawl, draw and stick almost anything they want to the sides, roof and doors of the building.

This stems from an early tradition when miners began leaving they pay packets here and keep track of their bar tabs on the walls.

There’s also a great little museum room at the Lion’s Den, with some fascinating tales from the local communities, as well as a powered camping area if you want to have a few drinks and stay the night.

 

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#9 Stroll the Botanic Gardens

The beautiful Botanic Gardens in Cooktown are one of Australia’s oldest and the perfect place to spend an afternoon.

Established in 1878, it’s free to enter and there’s tons to learn about and see as you explore the beautiful grounds and exotic specimens.

Afterwards, why not enjoy a coffee at the great cafe here (free wifi for customers) and then stop in at Nature’s Powerhouse.

This exhibition space hosts a small, but significant amount of work by local artists and is well worth a look.

 

#8 Explore the History-Filled Esplanade

Cooktown Esplanade

With tons of historic buildings located throughout Cooktown, this place is ideal for a self-guided walking tour.

If you want to concentrate your efforts however, then one of the best things to do in Cooktown is head to the Esplanade.

Here you’ll find a ton of historical artefacts, all set to the backdrop of some beautiful gardens and the Endeavour River.

Highlights include the Cook Monument, the Milbi Wall and the Queen’s Steps, which were constructed especially for the Royal visit in 1970.

 

BUDGET TRAVEL TIPS FOR COOKTOWN

Stay: There’s a number of good budget accommodation options all within an easy distance of town. This is great as it allows you to easily explore all the awesome things to do in Cooktown without the use of your car. There’s some good caravan parks, but our recommendation is the

There’s some good caravan parks, but my recommendation is the Cooktown Motel / Pam’s Place Hostel. With dorms and private rooms available, it is perfectly located and has free wifi and a communal kitchen.

Eat: Eating in is the obvious budget option to take here and thankfully Cooktown has a fantastically well-stocked IGA. There’s also some great free BBQs along the Esplanade to try out too!

 

#7 Visit the Cherry Tree Bay

In my opinion, Cooktown’s most beautiful beach, Cherry Tree Bay can be accessed by a gorgeous trail that winds through the Botanic Gardens.

This means it is also fairly quiet and, flagged by rainforest and stunning rock formations, is the perfect setting for a picnic.

I’d just stay out of the tempting-looking ocean if I were you – deadly crocodiles and stingers are ever-present in these waters.

I guess even paradise has its drawbacks!

 

#6 Take in the View from Grassy Hill

Grassy Hill

The best lookout in town, taking a walk (or a drive!) up to Grassy Hill is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Cooktown.

The magnificent views up and down the coastline from here, as well as across the top of town give you a unique perspective on this remote outpost, which is every bit as fascinating from above, as it is on the ground.

Take in the view from the nearby lighthouse as well and learn about the history of this navigational fort and the people who serviced and operated it.

 

5 ESSENTIAL PACKING ITEMS FOR AUSTRALIA

#1 Good Camera – You will be pretty much snapping non-stop in Australia and will need a good camera to do this gorgeous country justice. I highly recommend the Sony A6000, which I use for all my travels and love, not least because it’s light, compact and robust!

#2 Good Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking in Australia – from cities to national park! Make sure your feet are comfortable therefore with a pair of New Balance Trainers. Perfect for stylish strollling, I love mine

#3 Good Guidebook – I’m still a massive fan of the Lonely Planet Guidebooks and do think their Australia edition is well put together

#4 Good Water Bottle – Travelling in hot old Australia can be thirsty work, so make sure you have a metal water bottle that you can refill as you go, because tap water is drinkable… and free!

#5 Good Sun Hat – And there’s no denying you’ll need a good sun hat for protection in Australia too. In my opinion you can’t go past this Hello Sunshine one, which is both gorgeous and ideal for keeping the rays off your face.

 

#5 Wonder at the Black Mountain

The intriguing, and kind of bewildering, sight of Black Mountain as it looms towards you on the drive into Cooktown has to be seen to be believed.

Essentially, this dramatic feature looks like a massive pile of coal, which despite the wind and rain, simply won’t come tumbling down.

How all the rocks individually balance there really beggars belief!

Understandably a mythical place for place for the traditional owners of this land, the mountain is estimated to be around 260 million years old and straddles both sides of the road.

Interpretative signs and a viewing platform explain more about this fascinating feature on the landscape and definitely make a stop there one the best things to do in Cooktown.

 

#4 Retreat to Elim Beach

Elim Beach

There are plenty of caravan parks within Cooktown itself, but if you want my tip, then head north out of town to camp at the fantastic Elim Beach Campsite – one of the highlights from our first 6 months on the road.

Tucked on the coastline within the Aboriginal Community of Hopevale, this local elder-owned land is paradise found!

Set along a picturesque beach of mangrove trees and reef, you have stunning views all along from Cape Bedford in the south to the fantastic coloured sands in the north (a definite rival for those at Rainbow Beach in south Queensland!)

Despite regular croc sightings, Eddie the Elder will still let you slide your boat in for a fish here, otherwise set up camp in the rustic bush surroundings and enjoy some complete solitude, peace and quiet.

Part of week 8 of our great budget road trip around Australia – we loved this place!

 

#3 Climb Mount Cook

The peak of Mount Cook dominates the skyline in these parts and unbelievably can be summited by those feeling super keen.

Certainly one of the best things to do in Cooktown, this 431m peak is best started early in the day to maximise the cooler temperatures.

Leaving from the end of Hannam Street, the magnificent walk will take you through different ecological zones before reaching the top for a great lookout.

It’s quite a steep climb for around 2km so a good level of fitness is required for this one.

If you’re feeling less energetic however, don’t worry, there are still plenty of other walks in and around Cooktown, which will also lead you to awesome points of interest including the local cemetery and Finch Bay.

 

#2 Gasp with Delight at Archer Point

Archer Point

Located at the end of a dirt track, as you make your way to Cooktown from the south, is the stunning lookout area of Archer Point.

It’s a thirty minute round detour to get here, but is well worth it to enjoy that end of the world feeling as the wind and the waves of the great ocean beyond roll in.

Snap some great pictures and enjoy the remoteness – you’re in the Cape now!

Although its 20km from the centre of town, this is definitely worth a stop as one of the best things to do in Cooktown.

 

#1 Visit the James Cook Museum

Unbelievably one of the best historical exhibitions I think I’ve ever visited, heading to the James Cook Museum is an absolute must when it comes to the best things to do in Cooktown.

Entrance is $10 per person, but this is a total bargain once you see all the stuff on display.

Set within the old convent school building, everything about the place is fantastic, crammed full with information about the landing of James Cook and beautifully displayed.

There’s also a pleasing amount of space dedicated to the aboriginal voice and story too.

If you’re not up for paying the $10, then it’s still worth strolling into the James Cook Museum foyer to take a look at the anchor from The Endeavour – Cook’s famous vessel which ran aground near the reef here.

The original artefact, along with an original cannon from the ship, are now both proudly on display for all to see.

They really are quite impressive!

 

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So there you have it folks, the 10 best (and cheap) things to do in Cooktown, Australia.

Told you there was a lot more going on in this remote outpost than you thought!

Have you visited Cooktown or Cape York?

Let me know what you enjoyed most in the comments below…

 

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About the Author

About the Author: Creator of Big World Small Pockets, Stephanie Parker is a budget travel addict! Originally from Jersey in the Channel Islands, Stephanie backpacks the world collecting tips, advice and stories, to share with a smile .

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There Are 12 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Alex says:

    Great list. Mised feeding the grouper off the esplanade boat ramp though. By the way, On my smarphone the Share buttons on the side obscure the text which makes it very hard to read.

  2. Lorraine Clark says:

    What about the Chinese Cemetary? Definitely worth a visit.

  3. What about the History Centre next to the Post Office. Only $5.00 to see, watch and read the history of the town. 3rd most popular place to visit according to Trip Advisor so how did you manage to miss it.

    • Steph says:

      Hi Majorie, looks from your email address like you might have something to do with the history centre! Unfortunately, we didn’t stop there on our visit, but great that my readers are now aware of the centre. I don’t use trip advisor a lot I’m afraid, but glad your attraction is well liked.

  4. David B says:

    Its a bit of a hike from Cooktown, but the Coloured Sands is BEYOND spectacular with the right light on it.

    • Steph says:

      Couldn’t agree more David. Well worth the hike in my opinion and the drive to get there is spectacular too. Happy you’re a fan also!

      • David B says:

        A fan I am indeed. I have been blessed to have explored this amazing country since 1984, several occasions lasting 2 to 4 years before a quick “base” stop over before going again, so I have seen a lot! Would love to hear more of your journeys, likes and discovers and thank you for sharing and promoting this awesome country with others that are less fortunate than we are.

        • Steph says:

          Great David, so glad you are enjoying the blog and following our adventure. Australia really is a marvellous country and we are very lucky to be seeing so much of her.

  5. David B says:

    It is not until you stand on top of Grass Hill and look out over the reef that you can even begin to imagine how unbelievably talented James Cook had to of been as a cartographer and navigator. To be able to stand on that hill and produce a map to navigate into deep water seems totally unimaginable. That section of water has to throw fear into mariners to this day, and now days they have SatNav!!!

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