1. TOOMULLA BEACH
This shady beachfront camp north of Townsville is a stellar find, perched on the edge of Halifax Bay with estuary fishing on one side and miles of squeaky white sand out the front.
It’s spacious, free-range and cooled by towering gum trees, and you’ll love the kids’ playground, barbecue shelters and the dazzling free price-tag.
There’s a boat ramp for tinny adventures across to Magnetic Island and offshore reefs on clear, calm days, and at daybreak, everyone heads for the beach to kick off their shoes and tackle the miles and miles of secluded beachcombing and angling.
Toomulla is one of five free camping areas located within a 50km stretch north of Townsville and the most picturesque by far, but there are no shops nor cafes close by, so you’ll need to arrive fully loaded. Just north of Toomulla, Balgal Beach is another waterfront freebie with top facilities and an idyllic location.
It’s little more than a parking area for campers, but lifeguards patrol the stinger-proof enclosure from November through to March, and you can amble next door to the Fisherman’s Landing for sunset fish and chips and drinks on the deck after a big day’s fishing.
Top Cool-off Spot: Head south to the big, blue pools along Rollingstone Creek, signposted off the Bruce Highway.
Get yourself there: Toomulla and Balgal Beach are signposted off the Bruce Highway, within a 50km drive north of Townsville. Both offer free, 48 hour-long stays, and plenty of facilities. Balgal also has a stinger enclosure and dump point.
2. GOOGARRA BEACH
Flying under the radar south of uber popular Mission Beach, this palm-fringed coastal haven is a bit of a secret up north. Here, local retirees and grey nomads gather at the water’s edge chasing their share of grunter, mangrove jack and bream, and it’s an easy, 10km run offshore to the rainforested isles of the Family Group.
Launch your boat at the Hull Heads ramp and potter upstream into the shallows or take your tinny south to fish up the Murray River. There’s good fishing off the rock wall on the Hull River (just watch for crocs) and you can cast a net off the beach at Tully Heads to snare schools of prawns over the wet season months.
Bordered by Hull River to the north and the Tully River to the south, Googarra Beach is a quiet, unpretentious spot with little to do except relax, fish, kayak, beachcomb and go boating. If that sounds like your perfect day, set up camp at the mouth of the Hull River where a community campground charges $18.50 a night. It’s pet-friendly and unpowered, and there are hot showers, toilets, water and barbecues; just see the caretaker on arrival.
Top Cool-off Spot: Drive 6km north of Tully to the Alligators Nest, a sublime swimming hole at the confluence of three rainforested streams (toilets and picnic facilities provided).
Get yourself there: Googarra Beach is located 20km south of Tully. Turn off the Bruce Highway at Silkwood (6km south of Tully), drive 12km, turn left and continue 2km to the Hull Heads campground ($18.50/night for up to two adults and two kids). Toilets, hot showers and barbecues are provided (four-night maximum stay).
3. BINGIL BAY
This little pocket of tropical paradise is as close to perfect as can be with shady beachfront camps that spill out onto an idyllic, turtle-filled, tri-coloured bay. Don’t be surprised to see a southern cassowary appear suddenly out of the rainforest, traipsing through local backyards and back into the sanctuary of Djiru National Park.
Located on the far northern end of Mission Beach’s 14 kilometres of squeaky white sand, Bingil Bay is a world away from the Adventure Capital of Australia’s cool cluster of cafes, tapas bars and galleries. Head here to join the sandy-footed beachgoers sipping coffee and chilly ales, then retreat back to Bingil to stare out over your own island-studded scene.
Bingil Bay’s council-run beachfront camp provides unpowered sites, hot showers and a slice of the simple life (that means no generators to preserve the serenity), but there’s plenty to do close by.
The Great Barrier Reef sweeps close to this coastline, and while Eddy Reef woos divers, nearby Dunk Island — 4km across the sea — is great for off-the-sand snorkelling. Hit the hiking and biking trails through Djiru National Park, which is home to the highest concentration of endangered southern cassowaries in the world. I love the Musgravea trail that carves a rainforested path beneath lofty Licuala palms (6km one-way) and the Dreaming Trail at Lacey Creek, close to Bingil Bay (6.4km return).
Top Cool-off Spot: Drive to Tully (Australia’s wettest town) and follow the Cardstone-Tully Gorge Road alongside the Tully River to your favourite waterhole.
Get yourself there: Bingil Bay is located about 140km south of Cairns. Turn off the Bruce Highway at El Arish and follow the signs. Pet-friendly Bingil Bay camp provides eight unpowered sites with hot showers, toilets and a laundry ($25/family/night, no fires, generators or bookings).
4. RUSSELL RIVER NATIONAL PARK
This primitive park is one of the best-kept secrets in the north, positioned beneath the peaks of the Graham Range and staring out to sea. A long arc of deserted tropical beach curls south past big, beachfront camps nestled in the dunes, and to the north, you can set your crab pots in the Russell River as saltwater crocodiles sun themselves on muddy banks.
This low-key destination is barely signposted and though it provides nothing more than a fantastic canvas for beachside fun, self-sufficient campers will appreciate the stunning scenery and solitude. The presence of crocs means no swimming, but you can fish off the beach, launch a tinny in search of some reef, and when the river level drops low and sand bars appear, cross over for rockhopping adventures beneath the headland to the north.
Beachcombers can amble south to Bramston Beach, 6km away, to cool off with a swim in the stinger-proof swimming enclosure and grab supplies before strolling back to camp. Bramston Beach is a lovely seaside village with its own grassy beachfront camp that’s popular for its good facilities and $20-a-night price tag.
A sandy access track and some rather inconspicuous signage keep the crowds away from Russell River, but if you love to get away from it all, this park will soothe your soul.
Top Cool-off Spot: Turn off the Bruce Highway at nearby Mirriwinni and follow the signs west to Josephine Falls and the Golden Hole – two of the best swimming holes in the north.
Get yourself there: Russell River National Park (Graham Range Section) is located 66km south of Cairns. Turn off the Bruce Highway towards Bramston Beach and 200m before hitting the beach, turn north onto Sassafras St. Continue for 6km, veering right at the two Y-intersections, to reach the park entrance and pay camping fees ($6.65/person or $26.60/family). No facilities are provided so BYO everything except your pets (no campfires, either).
5. PALM COVE
Nestled against lush, rainforested hills, Palm Cove’s famous, towering paperbarks fringe the sea, standing sentry over a sweeping arc of golden sand.
The bay itself is studded with dreamy offshore isles that kayakers love to explore, and beachgoers here mingle with a well-heeled crowd that spills out of the Cove’s five star resorts to wine and dine at laid-back beachfront cafes.
But some of Palm Cove’s best real estate is reserved exclusively for campers and the pet-friendly Palm Cove Holiday Park at the northern end of the Esplanade is shady, affordable and right by the sea. There’s a swimming enclosure and playground on the foreshore, and a long jetty where locals jig for squid and tour boats pick up passengers for outer reef snorkelling trips (with wet season stinger suits supplied).
You can rent sea kayaks for paddling adventures to nearby Double Island, and Palm Cove is well positioned for day trips to Kuranda and Port Douglas too. When the sun goes down, head to the big, breezy deck at the unpretentious Palm Cove Surf Club for sundowners and the best views in town.
Top Cool-off Spot: Over the wet season, Palm Cove has a patrolled swimming enclosure on the foreshore.
Get yourself there: Palm Cove is 20km north of Cairns. Wet season camping at Palm Cove Holiday Park costs from $36/couple (powered) and $29/couple (unpowered), plus $10 per child.
6. ELLIS BEACH
On the scenic drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas, Ellis Beach pulls traffic off the road to bodysurf the breakers and sip road-trip coffees with feet dug into the sand. Ellis Beach is also home to the only absolute beachfront campsites around Cairns: shaded by mango trees and a lofty fringe of paperbarks and coconut palms, and just a few quick steps from the sand.
The gentle swell is kid-friendly, and over the wet season when marine stingers plague far northern beaches, lifeguards patrol the swimming enclosure. A solitary café-bar across the road lures an eclectic crowd of tourists and weekend bikers with good coffee, killer vegan breakfasts, seafood, steak and plenty of weekend booze.
Up the road at Wangetti Beach you can watch hang-gliders launch themselves into the abyss from Rex Lookout, add to the seaside stone cairn creations at the Gatz, and cruise with crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
Top Cool-off Spot: A shady freshwater stream trickles from the hills right beside the caravan park, filling clear, cool pools.
Get yourself there: Ellis Beach is located just over the hill from Palm Cove. Powered sites cost $39-$45/couple (depending on the proximity to the sea), tent sites cost $36/couple (kids $10 extra), and there’s a swimming pool, camp kitchen, laundry, barbecues and a general store.
7. WONGA BEACH
Nestled between Cape Kimberley and Dayman Point, the big, shallow bay that arcs around Wonga Beach calms the Coral Sea for boaties and paddlers with nearby Snapper Island in their sights.
The fishing is famously good and with 140km of river to explore on the edge of Daintree National Park, you won’t have too much trouble snaring a barramundi or some coral trout, nannygai, trevally and red emperor from the fringing reefs off Snapper Island. Launch your boat or sea kayaks from Wonga Beach Caravan Park or south at Dayman Point to spend a day on Snapper’s national park-protected isle, girthed by rugged cliffs and white sand beaches.
A stay at Wonga Beach is not entirely about fishing (despite the constant fish talk over sundowners in the RV park). Its location — close to Mossman Gorge (17km south) and Daintree Village (19km north) — makes it ideal for day-tripping, and the quiet, coconut-fringed beach is a dream destination for beachcombers. The bay off Wonga is full of stingrays and green sea turtles (making it perfect for quiet paddling) and at low tide, an extensive reef is revealed full of small pools packed with marine life.
Top Cool-off Spot: Drive 15 minutes south to Mossman Gorge to snorkel with jungle perch in some of the clearest freshwater pools on earth.
Get yourself there: Wonga Beach is located 90km north of Cairns (30km north of Port Douglas). Powered sites at Wonga Beach Caravan Park cost $33.25/couple or $39/family (no pets, laundry, boat ramp). Email Bob at email@example.com to book.
8. WEARY BAY
Between Cape Tribulation and Cooktown and flanked by the Bloomfield River, the sandy beach that hugs Weary Bay is deserted over the wet season. That reserves this pristine tropical scene for hardy travellers who adventure south of Cooktown, pausing for chilly ales at the Lions Den Hotel and a swim at Wallaby Creek en route to Ayton.
Here, the Bloomfield Beach Camp stays open over the wet and makes a top base camp for angling fun on the Bloomfield River and the long arc of sand along Weary Bay. Over the wet, Bloomfield Falls is at its most spectacular, thundering 40 metres over the cliffs. If it’s open, stop by the Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre to snap up locally designed silk clothing and art canvases.
Top Cool-off Spot: Swim in the cool, granite pools along Wallaby Creek just up the track.
Get yourself there: Weary Bay is located near Ayton, 70km south of Cooktown via the sealed Bloomfield Road. Campsites at Bloomfield Beach Camp cost $38/couple (powered) and $32 (unpowered), plus $5 per child.
9. CONNIES BEACH
Remote and beautiful, Connies Beach is custom-made for castaways with miles of fine white sand and one big blue bay, and nothing to do but hunt barra and mud crabs, collect nautilus shells and coconuts, and swing in a hammock at sundown.
We’ve caught big barramundi and mangrove jacks off the oyster-covered rocks at the eastern end of the beach, and you can launch a tinny straight off the firm sand to troll for enormous Spanish mackerel (ours measured 120cm). Nestle your camper beneath the paperbarks and palms, and spot the green sea turtles and dugongs that groom the seagrass beds in the bay.
Both coral and crocs flourish here, so swimming is out of the question except in the safe little lagoons that the retreating tide leaves behind. If you need to get walking, climb the trail to the east that elevates you high above the bay.
Top Cool-off Spot: On your return trip to Cooktown, make a stop at Isabella Falls for a proper, invigorating swim.
Get yourself there: Connies Beach is found 120km north of Cooktown via Battle Camp Road, Starcke Homestead, 20km of beach and past Cape Flattery Silica Mine down to the bay. There are no facilities but freshwater springs flow from the dunes. Before you go, check local tide times, and carry plenty of drinking water.
10. ALBATROSS BAY
When heavy wet season rains close of the rest of Cape York, Weipa remains within reach of anglers with their sights set on breezy, barramundi boating trips across Albatross Bay. The wet season is a great time to fish this destination, motoring up the Mission, Embley or Hey Rivers and returning with catches of salmon, trevally, grunter, fingermark and jewfish. Off the points in between you might hook up trout, mackerel or cobia too.
Perched on the edge of Albatross Bay, Weipa’s only caravan park provides shady beachfront sites and a swimming pool to help beat the humidity. It’s pet-friendly and close to Weipa’s bakery, bottle shop, tackle shop and supermarket, so you won’t do it tough if the fish steal your lures.
Few travellers reach Weipa without a tinny in tow, and you can launch yours at Rocky Point north of town, or Evans Landing where you can dangle a line off the wharf and afterwards, take a free tour through the Western Cape Cultural Centre.
Top Cool-off Spot: Weipa Caravan Park has a saltwater swimming pool on site.
Get yourself there: Weipa is located 510km north of Laura via the Peninsula Development Road. There’s no need to book campsites in advance over the wet season at Weipa Caravan Park.