Freshwater swimming in Queensland's Tropical North

Original story published in Tropical North

The beaches and waterways of the Tropical North have always fascinated me. As one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country, dotted with palm trees and stretching for hundreds of kilometres alongside the Wet Tropics rainforest and Great Barrier Reef, one very real factor overrules the allure of the water; the local wildlife. 

The prevalence of saltwater crocodiles quickly diminishes any temptations for a swim upon stumbling across a secluded beach or serene riverbank. Australians’ love for the water, especially in the hot tropical climate of the North, means locals have turned to alternative sources to cool down. Inland, freshwater creeks run from the peaks of Queensland’s highest mountains, carrying fresh rainwater down into the valleys and gorges of the rainforests below. Settling in enticing pools along the way, or slow-flowing sandy streams, it is here that locals visit for a dip. 

Ellinjaa Falls by Jack Harlem (Tourism and Events Queensland)

Waterfalls, rapids and cascades have created a natural barrier between the coastline and these inland oases, keeping them free of saltwater crocodiles and safe for swimming. At the entrance of any watering hole, there is always a sign sharing whether it is safe for swimming and any hazards to watch out for - a good place to start before wetting your toes and diving in. 

From flooded volcanic craters to shallow emerald pools shaded by the rainforest canopy, the Tropical North is abundant with a vast range of freshwater swimming options. Some spots completely dry up over the winter months, while others turn powerfully treacherous in the wet season. Some spots are ideal for floating, while others offer rock slides and heart-pumping waterfall jumps. Whatever you’re looking for, the Tropical North is sure to have you covered. Here are our picks for a few swimming spots worthy of a stop on any Tropical North adventure.

Twin Falls

A rarity in a region where crocodiles have long laid claim to most of the waterways, Twin Falls is a spring-fed swimming hole in the heart of Jardine River National Park. One of the most Northern swimming spots in the country, the two distinct flows of Twin Falls wash from Elliot Creek into a calm, forested pool at their base - an oasis that often calls campers to cool-off after a dusty day of exploring. A short detour from the Telegraph Track, the nearby Elliot Creek campground is a popular spot for travellers to spend a few days during their journey to the tip of Australia.

GETTING THERE
Elliot Creek campground is a tough 10km detour along the Old Telegraph Track to Cape York. The turnoff to the campground is signposted off the Bamaga Road.

WHEN TO VISIT
The Cape York Peninsula is best visited during the mild dry season from May to October. Outside this period you may find many roads flooded or closed. 

ACCESSIBILITY
A short track leads from Elliot Creek campground to the pool at the base of Twin Falls, where swimmers can drop their towel and wade into the calm, shallow water. 

WHAT TO PACK
To the pool - just togs and a towel. For the trip - a 4WD with some extra oomph is just the starting point for tackling the tough off-road journey up the Cape. 

Twin Falls by These Wander Days  (Tourism and Events Queensland)

Josephine Falls

A series of scenic cascades in the rainforest, Josephine Falls is one of the Tropical North’s most popular swimming spots. Just an hour from Cairns and fed by rainfall on Mount Bartle Frere, Josephine Falls’ biggest drawcard is its natural rock waterslide. Over the years, the force of the water flow has smoothed the face of the granite boulders that lie across the stream, creating a slippery ten metre slope for swimmers to slide down. Although the pool at the base of Josephine Falls itself is off-limits due to dangerous rapids, these cascades and shallow pools further downstream are more than enough to attract a steady stream of swimmers. 

GETTING THERE
Just over an hour’s drive South of Cairns along the Bruce Highway, take the Bartle Frere turn-off after Miriwinni and follow the signs to Josephine Falls.

WHEN TO VISIT
This spot can be dangerous after heavy rainfall, and is best visited during the dry season from May to October. To avoid the crowds, visit mid-week or early in the day. 

ACCESSIBILITY
From the carpark, it is a 1.2km uphill walk along a paved rainforest pathway to reach the various viewing platforms and swimming areas.

WHAT TO PACK
Many of the rocks can be slippery getting in and out of the swimming areas, or up to the top of the waterslide, so pack waterproof shoes for better grip. 

Josephine Falls by Phil Warring (Tourism and Events Queensland)

Emerald Creek Falls

Mareeba is a rural town in the Atherton Tablelands, its name derived from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting of the waters’. The Barron River meets Granite Creek here, and a number of popular swimming spots can be found around the town, most notably Davies Creek Falls and Emerald Creek Falls. Davies Creek Falls is the vastly more popular option, with camping spots dotted along the creek-side, and pools just a short walk from the road. Emerald Creek Falls requires a little more effort; the 1km walk uphill from the carpark well worth it for the serenity. We suggest packing a picnic and spending the day pool-hopping, following the gentle cascades that flow back down the valley from the base of the falls. 

GETTING THERE
3km outside of Mareeba, follow Tinaroo Creek Road before turning left onto Cobra Road. The final 6km is unsealed, steep and unsuitable for caravans.

WHEN TO VISIT
The creeks & falls around Mareeba have a reputation for their cold temperatures, so summer is a great time to visit. Escape the midday sun by visiting early in the morning.

ACCESSIBILITY
After the 1km uphill walk, access to the pools is fairly flat and easy, although the granite rocks around the pools can be slippery when wet, and hot when dry. 

WHAT TO PACK
A picnic and some shade if you plan to spend some time at the top pool. If you visit in summer, bring bug spray for the sand flies on the walking track.

Emerald Creek Falls by James Vodicka

Wallicher Falls

A quick jaunt down a rainforest trail beside the Palmerston Highway leads to two stunning waterfalls in the Wooroonooran National Park. Tchupala Falls is closed during the wet season, with slippery, unkept tracks making the descent to its base quite dangerous, whereas nearby Wallicher Falls is much more visitor-friendly. The trail passes by a lookout and continues on to the serene creek above the falls, a great spot for a secluded swim in the gently flowing stream. For a spot so close to the main highway, Wallicher Falls seems to have somehow kept a low profile, with travellers often bypassing the falls for other options on the nearby Waterfall Circuit.

GETTING THERE
25km East of Millaa Millaa on the Palmerston Highway, the easy-to-miss trailhead is about 3km East of Nandroya Falls, opposite the Misty Mountains turnoff.

WHEN TO VISIT
The creek was only waist deep when we visited in the middle of wet season. Visiting outside wet season you might find it too low for swimming. 

ACCESSIBILITY
One you reach the end of the leisurely rainforest trail, access to the creek for a swim is a little more difficult due to slippery moss-covered rocks by the creekside. 

WHAT TO PACK
With just a short walk from the highway, an inflatable lilo would be the perfect addition. The top area of the creek is calm, shallow and ideal for floating.

Wallicher Falls by James Vodicka

Babinda Boulders

One of the most popular rainforest attractions south of Cairns, the ‘official’ Babinda Boulders is a treacherous stretch of Babinda Creek, with large granite boulders forming a series of fast-flowing rapids known as Devil’s Pool. Visitors can admire the cascades from a scenic walking track above, before the raging stream flattens out into a shallow confluence at the edge of the picnic area. Hidden away at the opposite end of the carpark, an unassuming bush track leads further down-stream to a series of emerald green pools dotted with boulders, perfectly safe for swimming and beyond the knowledge of many visitors. On weekdays or early mornings/ late afternoons, it’s not unusual to find the pools completely empty. 

GETTING THERE
From the township of Babinda, an hour’s drive south of Cairns, follow Munro Street through the middle of town and a further 7km to the carpark and picnic area.

WHEN TO VISIT
Shaded under the canopy of the rainforest, the water temperature at Babinda Boulders can be quite cool, so we suggest visiting from Oct - April.

ACCESSIBILITY
Once you find the path, behind the playground at the back of the carpark, it is just a short stroll to the creekside swimming spot, with easy wade-in access. 

WHAT TO PACK
Stop into Babinda Bakery on your way to the Boulders to pick up a locally-renowned pie or pastry for a casual picnic lunch by the creekside.

Babinda Boulders by James Vodicka

Emmagen Creek

With very few places to safely swim crocodile-free in the Daintree National Park, Emmagen Creek is a rare safe-haven popular with tour groups and locals alike. Its shimmering green pools and dense rainforest canopy gives the creek a truly fairytale feel. Only a short walk upstream from the carpark, Emmagen Creek features a series of deep plunge pools - the perfect landing for those eager to try out the handmade rope swing. Under the surface, turtles, eels and jungle perch can often be spotted here, including the saw-shelled turtle - one of the few native Australian animals able to prey on cane toads, an introduced pest in Queensland. Cassowaries are occasionally glimpsed amongst the foliage or strolling through the shallows by the creekside.

GETTING THERE
About 5km North of Cape Tribulation, Emmagen Creek swimming hole sits at the start of the Bloomfield Track. Parking is by the roadside before the creek crossing.

WHEN TO VISIT
As there are several small creeks and river systems prone to flooding near Cape Tribulation, the drier winter months between April are October are recommended. 

ACCESSIBILITY
From the carpark at the creek crossing, it is an easy 400m walk upstream to reach the deep plunge pools suitable for swimming. The carpark can be accessed by 2WD.

WHAT TO PACK
With an abundance of wildlife found under the water, a mask and snorkel or goggles can offer a crystal clear insight into  rainforest life beneath the surface. 

Emmagen Creek by Ashley Dobson (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

The Circuit Trio

MILLAA MILLAA, ELLINJAA & ZILLIE FALLS

The most-photographed waterfalls in the country, collectively known as the ‘Waterfall Circuit’, the spectacular trio of Millaa Milla, Ellinjaa and Zillie Falls hardly need an introduction. Just two hours drive from Cairns, surrounded by the rolling green hills of the tablelands, these waterfalls are a must-visit for anyone traversing the spectacular highway that connects the regional hubs of Atherton and Innisfail. On this 100km stretch of road lies hundreds of waterfalls, walking tracks and rainforest lookouts - a route you could easily spend weeks exploring. The Circuit Trio of falls are all within a 10 minute drive of one another, and well worth a visit for even the most time-poor of travellers.

GETTING THERE
From Cairns, take the Gillies Range Road into the tablelands and follow signs to  the town of Millaa Millaa. From here, follow Theresa Creek Road to the trio of falls.

WHEN TO VISIT
Try to time your visit for a weekday, as early as possible to avoid the crowds. Visiting just after rain can also ensure the falls are fully flowing - most likely during summer.

ACCESSIBILITY
Millaa Millaa Falls is the best of the trio for swimming, and just steps from the carpark. The others are more shallow, more treacherous, and further from the road.

WHAT TO PACK
Millaa Millaa Falls has a grassy area overlooking the waterfall that is just crying out for a picnic. Don’t forget your togs and towel for a post-lunch plunge.

 Millaa Millaa by Hayley Anderson & Kyle HunterMillaa Millaa by Hayley Anderson & Kyle Hunter (Tourism & Events Queensland)

Lake Eacham

A volcanic crater formed by massive explosions almost 10,000 years ago, Lake Eacham is one of the most unique swimming spots in the Tropical North.  With no streams flowing in or out of the 65m deep lake, the evaporating water can drop up to four metres during dry season, to be refilled by summer’s rains. It’s a mystery how the Lake Eacham rainbowfish first made it into the lake, one of three native fish species that can be found under the surface, along with several introduced species. Surrounding the lake is dense rainforest, home to thousands of native land animals - the 3km walking track a perfect way to spot Amethystine pythons (Australia’s largest snake species), saw shelled turtles, Boyd’s forest dragons, red-legged pademelons, Daintree green tree frogs or one of 180 bird species that have been recorded around the lake.

GETTING THERE
The Crater Lakes National Park is on the Eastern part of the Atherton Tablelands, just over an hour’s drive from Cairns via the Gillies Highway. 

WHEN TO VISIT
Summer is the best time to visit, when the lake’s cool water is at its warmest. It’s a great alternative to many of the nearby waterfalls that may be unsafe after rain.

ACCESSIBILITY
The lake is very easily accessible, with a sealed road leading to the carpark beside the lake. The path around the lake is also mostly flat and sealed.

WHAT TO PACK
A stand-up paddleboard or inflatable floatie is great for exploring the perimeter of the lake away from the main swimming area.

Lake Eacham by These Wander Days  (Tourism and Events Queensland)

Windin Falls

Unparalleled valley views, a natural infinity pool and the perfect sunrise vista await those who venture to the end of the Windin Falls track. From the carpark at the Windin Falls trailhead, the track winds through the rainforest on a gradual decline for about 5.5km before emerging at a clearing above the falls - a spectacular viewpoint over the Wooroonooran National Park. Once at the end of the track, it’s a short rock scramble to reach the water. After rain, the track can be muddy and slippery, and the falls can be too treacherous for a swim, so always try to visit during a dry period and use extreme caution if you choose to enter the water. It should take about 1-2 hours each way and is well worth it for the unrivalled views, especially if you can time your walk to reach the falls for sunrise. 

GETTING THERE
Follow Google directions from Malanda to the Windin Falls Trailhead, making sure to keep right at the fork and continue on the sealed road just after Lamins Hill lookout.

WHEN TO VISIT
The longer you wait after heavy rain, the better. The track can get very muddy when wet, and the falls are often too treacherous for swimming after heavy rain. 

ACCESSIBILITY
The walk from the trailhead is gently sloping with just a few steep sections. However, the track is often slippery and accessing the falls at the end requires a rock scramble.

WHAT TO PACK
The walk to the falls isn’t a stroll in the park, so be sure to swap the thongs for sturdier walking shoes. Expect hazards on the track such as fallen trees, mud and slippery rocks.

Windin Falls by Katie Purling (Tourism & Events Queensland)

Mossman Gorge

On the Southern edge of the Daintree Rainforest National Park, Mossman Gorge is a pristine natural swimming spot surrounded by lush rainforest. The Mossman Gorge Centre is the gateway to access the swimming hole, where a sandy beach leads into a series of shallow pools dotted with smooth granite boulders. The water flows from higher up in the mountains and never gets a chance to heat up in the sun, making the gorge a refreshing spot for a cool rainforest dip in any season. The gorge has great significance for the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kuku Yalanji, with the Mossman Gorge Centre providing a great opportunity to learn about the indigenous cultures of the Tropical North and their connection to the natural environment.

GETTING THERE
Mossman Gorge Centre is an easy twenty minute drive from Port Douglas. From there, a short shuttle bus takes visitors up the road to the start of the gorge walks.

WHEN TO VISIT
Flash flooding can occur in times of heavy rain, so visiting during the drier months of April - October is recommended for safer swimming conditions.

ACCESSIBILITY
All of the gorge walks are well signposted and graded as easy to moderate. The shortest, Baral Marrjanga, accesses the swimming spot with a 270m flat boardwalk. 

WHAT TO PACK
Unlike most of the other swimming spots in the Tropical North, Mossman Gorge is paid access only. Be sure to bring your wallet to pay the entrance and shuttle bus fee.

Babinda Boulders by Ashley Dobson (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Lawn Hill Gorge

The most remote of the swimming holes we have featured, Lawn Hill Gorge is just 50km from the Queensland / Northern Territory border. Surrounded by the vast ochre outback, the gorge is a refreshing pop of green that cuts through the flat, dusty landscapes surrounding Boodjamulla National Park. Lawn Hill Creek is lined with palm trees and tall sandstone cliffs, the true definition of a desert oasis, and is best explored by canoes available for hire. Paddling upstream, several gorges are separated by Indarri Falls, the perfect place to tie up and jump in for a swim. Spring-fed and completely free of saltwater crocodiles, the water is completely safe for swimming - a rarity to be cherished in the top end of the country. 

GETTING THERE
More than 1100km from Cairns, Lawn Hill Gorge can be accessed via several roads, all of which have unsealed sections. 4WD vehicles are recommended.

WHEN TO VISIT
The roads are more suitable between May and October during the dry season, with wet season more prone to flooding and muddy conditions.

ACCESSIBILITY
Indarri Falls is a great place for a swim, accessed via canoe from the camping area downstream or from one of the seven spectacular walking trails in the park.

WHAT TO PACK
When planning a road-trip to Lawn Hill Gorge, be sure to pack ample fresh water and food in case of delays caused by bad weather or breakdowns.

Lawn Hill Gorge by Sean Scott (Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

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