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The town of Cooktown in Far North Queensland may be small, but it has played a vital role in Australia’s history. Forever associated with Captain James Cook, there are plenty of things to do in Cooktown.
If you’re road tripping through the Wet Tropics or along the Cape York Peninsula, you can easily spend a day or two in Cooktown.
While it might be a bit isolated, Cooktown is definitely worth a visit.
Nestled up on the west coast of Far North Queensland, Cooktown is a pretty town surrounded by natural beauty. The northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef sits just offshore in the Coral Sea.
Mount Cook towers over the town, which features several streets lined with grand architecture remaining from the boomtime of Cooktown’s 19th Century gold rush.
In the heart of the town is the Cooktown Museum, which tells the whole story of the region’s fascinating history. A short walk away, Cooktown’s picturesque esplanade is a lovely spot to admire the surrounding scenery, looking out over where the Endeavour River meets the sea.
Cooktown is one of the most important places in Australia. It was here in 1770 that Captain James Cook came ashore during his expedition to the South Pacific.
His ship, the HMS Endeavour, collided against coral just off the coast of Cooktown, and he and his crew stayed here for seven weeks whilst it was being repaired.
During that time, Cook made contact with the local Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal tribe, marking one of the first instances of contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians.
A few months later, at Possession Island at the tip of Cape York, Cook claimed the entire east coast of Australia for the British Empire.
It was the discovery of gold in the nearby Palmer River in the late 19th Century that saw the establishment of the town of Cooktown. Established in 1873, prospectors descended on Cooktown from all over the world.
Today, Cooktown proudly celebrates its long and varied history.
From discovering the region’s rich heritage to taking in some truly breathtaking scenery, here are the best things to do in Cooktown.
One of the first things to do in Cooktown is to head to the Grassy Hill Lookout. This is the exact same spot from which Captain Cook surveyed the coastline after his ship had crashed against a stretch of reef in the Coral Sea.
High above the town at the end of a series of impossibly steep streets, there are spellbinding 360 degree views from the Grassy Hill Lookout.
Every direction offers a different view, from the turquoise-blue waters of the Coral Sea to the tree-covered tip of Mount Cook. To the west are magnificent views over Cooktown and the huge bends of the Endeavour River.
Also at the lookout is the Grassy Hill Lighthouse. Topped with a red domed roof, the six metre tall Grassy Hill Lighthouse was constructed in 1886. Still active today, the little lighthouse has a range of nine nautical miles to help ships navigate through the nearby reef.
By far one of the most popular things to do in Cooktown is to visit the Cooktown Museum. Housed inside a former convent building, the Cooktown Museum blends the entire history of the town in some depth.
Formerly known as the James Cook Museum, the Cooktown Museum begins with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770, recounting the seven weeks he spent here as his ship underwent repairs.
Amongst the displays are a cannon and one of the original anchors from the HMS Endeavour, which was rescued from the sea floor in 1971.
The Cooktown Museum also documents Cook’s encounters and interactions with the local Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal people, whose history is also covered in great detail.
The museum also charts the establishment and rapid growth of the town following the gold rush of the late 19th century. The museum highlights the large Chinese community who settled in Cooktown during the gold rush, as well as the building’s former life as a convent.
You can learn more about the fascinating story of Cooktown at the Cooktown History Centre.
The Cooktown History Centre is a small volunteer- run museum located inside a former telegraph and post office, the oldest of the many grand gold-rush era buildings that still line Charlotte Street.
Inside, the Cooktown History Centre charts the history of the town from 1770, when Captain Cook first came ashore.
From there the museum documents the establishment of the town in 1873 once gold was found in nearby rivers. The centre charts the adventures and struggles of the many who came to Cooktown to seek their fortune from far and wide.
There is a huge collection of photos and personal stories on display, including that of Sam Elliot, a gold miner and local legend also known as Lone Wolf.
Elliot bought a gold mine called the Wild Irish Girl in nearby Maytown on the Palmer River near Cooktown in 1930. The last hard rock miner to work in the Palmer River region, many of Elliot’s tools are on display at the Cooktown History Centre, including the scales he used to measure gold.
Cooktown’s pretty Botanic Gardens are sandwiched between the main town and the steep rise to the Grassy Hill Lookout.
Established in 1878, Cooktown Botanical Garden contains a number of plants and trees and trees that are native to this part of Far North Queensland.
The grounds of Cooktown’s Botanic Garden are a lovely place to stroll and to admire the local tropical fauna. The botanic garden has five different sections, each with a different theme.
Another has a collection of plants that were traditionally used by local Aboriginal people. Next to the botanic gardens is Nature’s Powerhouse, which contains a visitor information centre, a small gallery as well as a very good cafe.
At the far end of Charlotte Street is the Captain James Cook Memorial. It was near this spot that Cook came ashore in 1770 to scope the coastline that had badly damaged the Endeavour. Today the Captain James Cook Memorial statue stands to commemorate the moment which still reverberates through Australian history.
Next to Cook’s statue is the Milbi Wall, a decorative artwork and monument in three sections that celebrates Aboriginal culture and customs.
The first section of the Milbi Wall depicts the formation of the Endeavour River according to Aboriginal creation stories. The second section commemorates the first meeting between Captain Cook and the local Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal people. The third section celebrates the 1967 referendum that recognised Aboriginal people as equal to other Australians.
Continue past the Cook Memorial and on to Cooktown’s esplanade. Here you can take a long stroll along the seafront and enjoy beautiful views of the harbour where the Endeavour River and the Coral Sea meet.
The esplanade runs for a little less than a kilometre between the Cooktown waterfront and the base of Grassy Hill. From the esplanade there are spectacular views of the green peaks and the long thin beach that clings to the Endeavour River National Park on the opposite side of the water.
Cooktown’s esplanade features a beautifully manicured lawn as well as benches and covered seating, making this a beautiful place to relax and admire the scenery.
There’s also a small waterpark as well as a cafe offering a range of great coffee and healthy snacks, wraps and salads. At the far end of the esplanade is Cooktown Powder Magazine, originally built in 1875 to store explosives that were used in the goldmines.
The Reconciliation Rocks mark the spot where an act of detente took place between Captain Cook and the local Aboriginal people in 1770.
During his time on shore, Cook and members of his expedition had upset members of the local Guugu Yimithirr people by fishing for turtles to use as food. A scuffle broke out after the Guugu Yimithirr set fire to the ground around Cook’s campground. Cook shot at the Aboriginal tribe, hitting one of them in the leg.
In his journal, Cook describes how members of the Aboriginal tribe later came to negotiate peace. One of the elders came forward with a spear with a snapped arrowhead to show that they meant no harm. Subsequently the relations improved dramatically between the two camps for the remainder of Cook’s time here.
Today the Reconciliation Rocks commemorates the very first act of resolution between Indigenous Australians and Europeans on the same site the incident took place. Next to the rocks are two statues which honour the historic peace made between Cook and the Indigenous Australians in 1770.
Finch Bay is a beautiful beach located just beneath the Grassy Hill Lookout and Mount Cook.
The bay can easily be reached by car sitting at the tip of the road that passes by the entrance to the botanic gardens. Alternatively, you can take the walking path along the loop trail that leads directly from the gardens right out onto the beach.
As with all areas of water in this neck of the woods, keep an eye out for crocodiles, who have been spotted in the nearby rivers.
As well as the trail to the botanic gardens you can also take a longer trek to Cherry Tree Bay, another beautiful secluded beach further north along the coast.
An interesting way to see the diversity of the settlers who came to Cooktown is by visiting Cooktown Cemetery.
Located just to the south of the main town, Cooktown Cemetery dates from 1874. The burial ground was established at a time when the gold rush saw the population of the town rise to as high as 4,000 people, with even more people living outside the town near the goldmines.
There are people of all nationalities and faiths buried within Cooktown Cemetery, who came from far and wide to dig for gold. People from as far away as Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and China are all laid to rest here, while there is also a Jewish burial site within the cemetery.
Many of Cooktown’s prominent early settlers are buried in Cooktown Cemetery. The earliest grave belongs to Francis Tripp, a reverend who died a week after arriving in Cooktown in May 1874.
The most ornate memorial in the cemetery is the shrine dedicated to the many Chinese migrants who lived and died in Cooktown. For a fascinating snapshot of the town’s history a visit to the cemetery is certainly one of the most unique things to do in Cooktown.
If the view from the Grassy Hill Lookout has you craving more, then a hike along the Mount Cook Walking Track should sort you out.
Around a three hour return trek along a steep and rocky path, the track leads to two lookouts on Mount Cook. From these are some of the most spectacular views of the tree-covered headlands and the gorgeous Coral Sea.
The trail begins just off Hannam Street, around three kilometres to the east of the centre of Cooktown. Be sure to keep an eye out for snakes during the hike, as they’re often spotted along the trail.
There are two lookouts along the trail, the first reached by a relatively easy hike. There’s a small section of trail just beyond the second lookout that leads to a large rock with sensational sweeping views out over the Coral Sea.
The only way to get to Cooktown is by car. If you’re travelling from the Daintree Rainforest then there are two ways to reach Cooktown.
The first is on the Mulligan Highway, which is around a three hour drive that loops around the Daintree National Park.
If you have a four wheel drive vehicle, the other option is to reach Cooktown from Cape Tribulation via the Bloomfield Track.
As this route crosses a number of creeks and can be extremely rough during the wet season only four wheel drive vehicles are allowed on the Bloomfield Track. From Cape Tribulation to Cooktown on the Bloomfield Track is around a two hour journey.
If you’re looking for a bed for the night here are the best places to stay in Cooktown.
Run by very friendly and helpful owners, the Gecko Guesthouse offers good sized rooms equipped with all of the essentials along with comfy beds. Featuring a large communal kitchen and dining area as well as a pool, the Gecko Guesthouse is just a stone’s throw from the centre of Cooktown.
If you’re looking for a home from home in Cooktown then Tropical Styling is the place for you. This magnificent one bedroom open plan apartment is beautifully decorated and offers everything anyone could need for the perfect stay, including a fully equipped kitchen and a washing machine. Plus there are mountain views from the private balcony.
The Sovereign Resort Hotel is something of a Cooktown institution, located right in the centre of town. There is a choice of rooms and apartments available as well as a cafe bar and a restaurant on site. Amongst the Sovereign’s beautiful grounds are a pool and outdoor seating areas.
» You can search for more accommodation in Cooktown here.
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