Cooktown is a small coastal town in tropical north Queensland. In 1770 Captain James Cook landed on the banks of the Endeavour River repairing his ship Endeavour, after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. A century later, in 1873, it became the port for the Palmer River Goldfields. Today it is billed as the gateway to the wilderness. It offers Mountains, Outback terrain, as well as some of the top scuba diving around. Although it still has well developed facilities, the town has more of a frontier feel, as is vastly different to the resort towns further south along the coast.



The first European to visit Cooktown was in 1770 when Captain Cook holed his ship on a reef just south of Cooktown and had to beach his ship at the mouth of the Endeavour River to undertake repairs. He spent 48 days here. Over 100 years later, Cooktown became one of the main gateways into Australia with the gold rush to the Palmer River. Grand permanent buildings were established, and the population boomed. A railway was even constructed from Cooktown to the goldfields.

With the passing of the goldrush days, and a decline in shipping, Cooktown went into decline. The town was frequently cut off by flooding in the wet, and the gravel road to Cooktown was washed out frequently. Cooktown became a victim of its isolation.

The visit of the Queen Elizabeth II to Cooktown in 1970 still rates highly in the history of the town.

The sealed road made it to Cooktown in the 1990s, bringing with it a small resurgence in the fortunes of the town, with the arrival of tourism. The town's population has never recovered to the level of the goldrush days, but today is slowly increasing.

The place is called Gungardie in the language of the Guugu Yimithirr, and has had a continuous occupation by indigenous Australians stretching back thousands of years.


Cooktown viewed from Grassy Hill

The town itself is on the banks of the Endeavour River estuary, although only a few kilometres overland from the ocean.

There is an amazing natural environment that surrounds the area. From the Great Barrier Reef to the rainforests of the World Heritage Wet Tropics and the savannahs of Cape York. Cooktown is a great base to explore this these renowned areas.


Cooktown is well inside the tropics, experiences the seasonal monsoon in summer, and in general has warm and dry winters. There are a couple of weeks a year in winter when the weather can get cooler and rain is more common, usually around the beginning of July. The locals will tell you that Cooktown has a couple of weeks of winter a year.

Get in

Cairns is probably the main access point for Cooktown, with an international airport, and good bus and train connections around Australia. Most people arrive in Cooktown by car or camper.

By car

Cooktown is just over 300km north by road, from Cairns. The drive to Cooktown from Cairns is easy. The trip takes around 3 hours, is well signposted and hard to get lost. The driving challenges begin north of here.

There is a unsealed dry-weather road that cuts through the Daintree National Park following the coast. It offers better scenery, but not usually a quicker trip. Rental cars are not usually permitted on this road.

Cooktown is just over 2000km from Brisbane.

By air

Hinterland Aviation offer a regular service from Cairns to Cooktown with flights 3 times a day Monday to Friday and a Saturday morning flight.

By bus

Country Road Coachlines travel by both the coastal and inland routes, connecting Cairns and Cooktown three times a week. The coastal service also stops in Port Douglas and the inland service in Kuranda.

Get around

The township itself is easily traversed by foot, and there are a few interesting walks to the national park and beaches that start right at the edge of town. There is a taxi service in town, and an airport shuttle.


The James Cook Museum

You can get a combined pass to the Natures Powerhouse and the Botanical Gardens, the Bank Museum, and the James Cook Museum.




Expect to pay a premium over Cairns to eat out in Cooktown. There is a take-away/bakery at the southern end of town, which probably offers the best value, but closes early evening. If you don't take care of dinner early, you could be left with very few budget alternatives.

The pubs and clubs serve traditional pub and club fare. Expect to pay around $20+ for mains at these places.

Many of the hotels have restaurants, and there is a pizza place as well.


There are two clubs, and three pubs in Cooktown, all are located along the main strip, and you won't have any problem finding them. The Bowls Club and the RSL Club both have a similar feel, not much to tell them apart really. The Cooktown Hotel, known only as the Top Pub is the most visitor friendly. In days past the pubs had distinct clientele, but these days you should feel comfortable having a beer wherever you choose.


Stay safe

If you look at brochure for Cooktown from the 1990s it will advertise beaches and swimming as a feature of the town, but all those references have been removed from any recently produced documentation. Finch Bay and Cherry Tree Bay both have nice beaches, and you can drive to Finch Bay, and walk to Cherry Tree Bay. Crocodiles have been sighted at times on both beaches, and marine stingers are present during the season.

Crocodiles and stingers also inhabit the creeks, take care when bushwalking during the wet, if the creeks are up over the track, don't cross them.

Go next

Take Oakey Creek Rd and follow the road to the oldest mango trees in Australia, planted between Oakey Creek and Lions Creek. Over 30 trees in a line along the road that is about 20km off bitumen. Amazing!

To continue further north than Laura requires planning. Its possible to go into the Cape Melville National Park along tracks, with a 4wd, or return to the Peninsula Developmental Road at Lakefield, to continue north to Weipa. The road is sealed and unsealed, but should be accessible to 2wd vehicles. Its essential to check road conditions, and to accept that roads can be closed quickly due to rising water at creek crossings.

At Cooktown you are still 900km from the top of Australia at Cape York.

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