11 Best Sights in North of Cairns, Great Barrier Reef

Daintree National Park

Fodor's choice

The world's oldest tropical rain forest is an ecological wonderland: 85 of the 120 rarest species on Earth are found here, and new ones are still being discovered. The 22,000-acre park, part of the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Wet Tropics region, stretches along the coast and west into the jungle from Cow Bay, 40 km (25 miles) or around an hour's drive northwest of Mossman. The traditional owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji, who live in well-honed harmony with their rain-forest environs, attribute powerful properties to many local sites—so tread sensitively. Prime hiking season here is May through September, and many local operators offer guided Daintree rain-forest walks, longer hikes, and nighttime wildlife-spotting excursions. Gather information and maps from local rangers or the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service's ParksQ website before hiking unguided, and stay on marked trails and boardwalks to avoid damaging your fragile surroundings. Whatever season you go, bring insect repellent.

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Mossman Gorge

Fodor's choice

Just 5 km (3 miles) outside Mossman are the spectacular waterfalls and swimming-hole-studded river that tumble through sheer-walled Mossman Gorge. The Kuku Yalanji–run Mossman Gorge Centre is the starting point for various walks, tours, and activities. There are several boulder-studded, croc-free swimming holes within the gorge, and a 2½-km (1½-mile) rain-forest walking track and suspension bridge. (Swimming in the river itself is hazardous, crocs or not, due to swift currents, slippery rocks, and flash flooding.) Keep your eyes peeled for tree and musky rat-kangaroos, Boyd's water dragons, scrub fowl, turtles, and big, bright butterflies—and try to avoid stinging vines (plants with serrated-edge, heart-shaped leaves, found at rain-forest edges). If you intend to hike beyond the river and rain-forest circuits, inform the information desk staff at the Mossman Gorge Centre, which also has café/restaurant, gift shop, Indigenous art gallery, restrooms, showers, and visitor parking.

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Wildlife Habitat

Fodor's choice

This world-class wildlife sanctuary just off the Captain Cook Highway is divided into "immersion" wetland, rain forest, grassland, and savanna habitats, enabling close creature encounters with everything from koalas to cassowaries and crocs. The park shelters more than 180 species of native wildlife in its 8-acre expanse, including technicolor parrots, emus, kangaroos, echidnas, and reptiles. The breakfast with the birds, served daily 9–10:30 am, is accompanied by avian residents so tame they'll perch on your shoulders—and may steal your food if you're distracted. You can also lunch with the lorikeets from 12:30 daily, then join one of the sanctuary's free expert-guided tours, held several times daily. For something even more special book the nocturnal tour (A$43) or a two-hour animal and dining package (A$170).

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Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park

Just south of Cooktown within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park protects a unique mix of gigantic granite boulders, wet-tropics species, and savanna woodland vegetation harboring abundant wildlife, including threatened species. Lucky visitors might spot the scanty frog, rainbow skink, Black Mountain gecko, Godman's rock-wallaby, or a rare ghost bat. Kalkajaka means "place of the spear"; Black Mountain was a significant meeting place for the Eastern Kuku Yalanji. The boulders are treacherous, so climbing and hiking is not allowed, but the lookout point provides a fairly close-up view.

Cooktown History Centre

Cooktown's historical museum, aptly housed in a former postal and telegraph office built in 1875, is staffed by affable volunteers and houses an extensive collection of photographs dating from 1873. The building also holds Cooktown's archives and is a research center for local history. It also houses semipermanent displays.

Cooktown School of Art Society / Elizabeth Guzsely Gallery

Locally made works (including Indigenous art) in various media line the walls of this terrific gallery, where you'll often find artists working on-site. Proceeds benefit the Cooktown School of Art Society, which also offers art classes.

Daintree Discovery Centre

This World Heritage–accredited Wet Tropics Visitor Centre's elevated boardwalks and a high viewing tower enable you to overlook an astoundingly diverse tract of ancient rain forest. You can acquire information en route from handheld audio guides, expert talks, and the on-site interpretative center. Four audio-guided trails include a Bush Tucker Trail and a Cassowary Circuit, on which you might spot one of these large but well-camouflaged birds. Take the Aerial Walkway across part of the bush, then the stairs to the top of the 76-foot-high Canopy Tower. Keen students of botany and ecology might want to prebook a guided group tour. The shop sells books, cards, souvenirs, and clothing. There's also an on-site café.

Grassy Hill Lighthouse

A strenuous, not especially scenic walk or short drive from Cooktown lie Grassy Hill and the lighthouse, spectacular lookouts affording panoramic views of Cooktown, the Endeavour River, and the Coral Sea. Follow in the footsteps of Captain James Cook, who scaled the slope to view the reef and navigate his boat's safe passage out. The lighthouse, shipped from England in 1885, helped boats avoid the reef for a century before being rendered obsolete; it was then restored as a historical relic.

Hartley's Crocodile Adventures

Hartley's houses thousands of crocodiles as well as koalas, wallabies, quolls, snakes, lizards, southern cassowaries, and tropical birds in natural environs, accessible via boardwalks and boat tours. A lagoon cruise, on which keepers feed big crocs at close range, is included in your entry price. There are daily cassowary, wallaby, quoll, and koala feedings, croc and snake shows, and croc farm tours. Most thrilling is the "Big Croc Feed," a private tour for up to four people. It's your chance to handle squirming baby crocs and pole-feed gigantic ones, and includes a guided tour and commemorative photo. Lily's Bistro showcases local delicacies, including crocodile, of course. If you don't feel like driving, several Cairns-based tour operators include Hartley's on their day-tour itineraries.

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James Cook Museum

Cooktown, in its heyday, was a gold-mining port, with 64 pubs lining the 3-km-long (2-mile-long) main street; a significant slice of this colorful history, including mementos of Cook's voyage and Indigenous artifacts, is preserved at this National Trust–run museum. The former convent houses relics of the Palmer gold-mining and pastoral eras, including a Chinese joss house; canoes; and the anchor and one of six cannons jettisoned when the HMS Endeavour ran aground. The surprisingly good on-site shop sells books and souvenirs. It's recommended that you allow at least an hour to pore over the exhibits.

Nature's Powerhouse & Cooktown Botanic Gardens

This interpretive center and museum at the entrance to Cooktown's Heritage-listed Botanic Gardens is home to a valuable collection of local botanical illustrations by internationally recognized artist Vera Scarth-Johnson, and impressive displays of Cape York Peninsula wildlife, bequeathed by local fauna expert Charlie Tanner. Take extra time to wander through the gardens, which, with its stone-pitched waterways and shady paths, include 154 acres of colorful native and exotic plants. A popular attraction in the gardens is a 7-meter python carved locally from ironwood. You can enjoy afternoon tea or a light lunch at the Vera Café; browse the shop of botanically themed gifts and souvenirs, including beautiful scarves, prints and postcards, wooden bowls, and authentic Indigenous art; and get regional travel tips from the on-site Cooktown and Cape York Peninsula Visitor Information Centre.