Swim wild: 15 Queensland freshwater lakes and secret swimming holes to discover
It’s no secret that Queensland is home to some of the world’s best beaches (shout out to you, Whitehaven). Whatever stretch of coastline you find yourself on, you’re never far from a good summer swimming spot. But what’s less well known is that you can find counteless Queensland freshwater lakes, inland dams, island lagoons and hidden swimming holes.
From volcanic craters nestled in World Heritage-listed rainforest to tea tree-infused lakes and outback waterfalls, here’s how to take a dip with a side-serving of adventure.
Secluded sand dunes at Lake Wabby, Fraser Island
A unique body of water unlike any other on the island, Lake Wabby is formed from not one, but two different types of lake. It’s both a window lake – created when the ground level falls below the water table; and a barrage lake – formed when a sand blow blocks the waters of a natural spring.
Bordered by a giant sand dune on one side and lush forest on the other, it’s worth making the steep 3.1km return hike just for the outlook alone. But it’s the enchanting deep green waters, perfect for swimming, floating and daydreaming, that make this secluded spot deserving of a place on your bucket list.
Give your skin an ancient makeover at Blue Lagoon, Moreton Island
Long before the first skincare brands existed, Moreton Island locals swore by the skin-rejuvenating properties of Blue Lagoon, an immense body of water formed over thousands of years through natural catchments of rainwater.
Tucked away on Moreton’s eastern side and accessible only by 4WD track, your journey will take you right through the island’s heart, traversing native woodland and open forest on route to your destination.
Thanks to the abundant tea trees that fringe the shoreline, Blue Lagoon is equal parts freshwater and tea tree oil, a remedy used for centuries by the island’s Indigenous Ngugi people to heal wounds and cure ailments. Take a restorative dip and test out for yourself the locals’ theory that it can slow down the ageing process.
While there, don’t forget to make time to explore the rest of the island – you’ll find plenty of inspo in this 48 hour itinerary.
Catch your supper on the glassy waters of Bjelke-Petersen Dam, Moffatdale
Take a leisurely two and a half hour drive west of Noosa to wind up in the fertile, grape-growing region of South Burnett – home to award-winning wineries, farm-fresh local produce and the colossal Bjelke-Petersen Dam. Named after Queensland’s much-loved and longest-serving premier, you’ll also hear it referred to as Lake Barambah.
Not only is this 2,500 hectare dam tailor-made for swimming, boating and waterskiing, it’s also generously-stocked with native fish, from golden perch and saratoga to Australian bass. Rig up your rod and drop a line in at the water’s edge, then cook up your catch on the grassy banks. Just don’t forget to pick up a fishing permit from the kiosk first.
If one day on the water just isn’t enough, Yallakool Caravan Park, located right on the dam’s edge, provides the perfect excuse to stay a little longer. While there, don’t miss your chance to sample the South Burnett’s growing food and wine scene – here’s a few ideas to get you started.
Immerse yourself in an Aussie legend at Combo Waterhole, Kynuna
Not only is the Combo Waterhole in Kynuna a welcome refuge from the outback heat, but it’s said to be the place that inspired Aussie bush poet Banjo Patterson’s famous ballad, Waltzing Matilda. It was right here that a certain jolly swagman jumped into a billabong – and where his ghost may still be heard to this day (if the song’s lyrics are to be believed).
Get schooled on the history of Australia’s unofficial national anthem as you follow the self-guided trail (feel free to hum along) before setting up under the shade of a Coolibah tree for a picnic and dip.
Seek action and adventure in the heart of the Outback at Lake Fred Tritton, Richmond
About halfway along the road from Townsville to Mount Isa is Richmond, one of four main hot spots along Outback Queensland’s Dinosaur Trail. But despite being famous for fossils, there’s more to this quintessential rural town than dusty old bones.
Located just off the town’s main drag, Lake Fred Tritton is the heart of this inland community, boasting sandy beaches, a water park and plenty of cracking picnic spots. If you’re feeling adventurous, take out the kayaks and go exploring, or strap on some skis and carve up the water like a pro.
Stocked with over 18 species of fish, it’s also an angler’s dream with barra, sooty grunter, sleepy cod, archer fish and forktail catfish just a handful of the varieties you can expect to reel in.
Cool off in volcanic craters at Lake Eacham & Lake Barrine, Atherton Tablelands
Located about an hour’s drive up the Gillies Range from Cairns and fringed by World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics Rainforest, there’s more to these twin freshwater lakes than just clear, blue waters and picturesque scenery.
Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine are both volcanic craters (known in geological terms as ‘maar’) which blew up when red hot magma and groundwater came into contact, eventually forming into lakes over a process of 10,000 years. Fortunately, they’ve had plenty of time to cool off.
Work up a sweat along the Lake Eacham’s 3km circuit track and see the rainforest through the eyes of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, spot turtles along the water’s edge before you take a dip, then head to Lake Barrine’s Teahouse Cafe for a locally-grown brew and a side of their secret-recipe scones.
Discover the culture of the ancients at Brown Lake, North Stradbroke Island
North Stradbroke Island (or Minjerribah to use its Indigenous name), occupies a special place in the hearts of South East Queenslanders, who’ve been holidaying here for generations. But the local Quandamooka people’s history with the island goes back a whole lot further – try 25,000 years.
Known in the local Jandai dialect as Bummiera, Brown Lake is a perched freshwater lake found halfway down a sandy 4WD track that runs through the centre of the island. It’s one of two sacred lakes on Minjerribah (the other being Blue Lake, or Kaboora) and according to local Aboriginal legend, its believed to be the home of the jargon snake spirit yuri Kabool.
In times past, both lakes were approached with great reverence, with many refusing to enter the waters without a special acknowledgement from the spirit to do so. While this ritual may not be practised today, it’s still important to recognise and respect the cultural significance of the lake. If you find yourself here on a quiet day, rest assured you’ll definitely still feel its magic.
If you’re planning a trip to Straddie (as it’s affectionately known), make time to explore the rest of the Moreton Bay region’s coastal gems – this guide to Brisbane’s best beaches has you sorted.
Reconnect with nature at Lake Nuga Nuga, Emerald
So good they named it twice, Lake Nuga Nuga is about as remote as it gets – but those who go in search of it won’t be disappointed.
Roughly three hours south of Emerald, it takes the crown as the largest natural body of water within the Central Queensland Sandstone Wilderness and is a strictly motor-free zone. That means this freshwater lake can be enjoyed exactly as nature intended, with nothing to disturb the peaceful vibe except the native birdsong and the sound of gently lapping water.
Although it’s known to completely dry up in times of drought, if you time your trip right, you might catch a glimpse of the lake’s famous waterlilies, which add vivid bursts of purple to the sandstone landscape. Don’t forget your camera and binoculars: as well as being home to countless waterbirds, the scenery shots are solid gold (or purple, or pink, depending on when you visit).
Discover rainforest rock pools in Finch Hatton Gorge, Mackay
Just a scenic one-hour drive west from Mackay, it’s also one of the most ecologically diverse national parks in Australia. The Eungella dayfrog, Eungella spiny cray and Eungella honeyeater are just a few of the weird and wonderful creatures that call it home.
The most popular trail is the Araluen Cascades, a 2.8km return circuit that takes you to the lookout and freshwater rock pools of Araluen Waterfall. If that’s not enough to make you work up a sweat, hike a little further uphill and you’ll reach the deep rock pool and granite boulders of the Wheel of Fire Cascades – named for the bright orange-red blooms of the Wheel of Fire flowers that grow along the fall’s edge. Keep in mind that you’ll need a moderate level of fitness to attempt this hike, as the track takes on uphill sections with more than 300 steps.
*Take care when swimming and obey all warning signs.
Make a splash on the waters of Lake Awoonga, Gladstone
With an outlook dominated by the craggy peaks of Mt Castletower National Park and wild swimming, fishing, birdwatching and watersports all on offer, it’s fair to say that Lake Awoonga is a bit of an all-rounder. Located just 30 clicks (that’s a half an hour’s drive) from the coastal city of Gladstone, it’s one of the more accessible Queensland freshwater lakes on this list. It’s also one of the most action-packed.
From reeling in a few barra or mangrove jack at the purpose-built fish hatchery to taking out a kayak or stand-up paddle board (both of which can be hired nearby), one thing’s for certain: at Lake Awoonga you won’t have time to be bored.
Home to around a quarter of Australia’s native bird species, the Lake and its surrounds is also one of the largest and most important near-coast bird refuges in South East Queensland. Dry off after your swim with a stroll along the landscaped walking trails and see if you can spot the elusive red goshawk – a rare Australian bird of prey known to nest in the area.
Dive into rock pools and under waterfalls at Behana Gorge, Cairns
Wild swimming doesn’t get much better than Behana Gorge. Think deep, refreshing rock pools fed by white water rapids and tumbling waterfalls – and hardly another soul in sight.
Your journey begins at the base of the famous Walshs Pyramid, half an hour south of Cairns (turn off the main highway onto Behana Gorge Road and follow until the sealed walking track starts). From here it’s a solid 45-minute trek up steep hills to reach your destination, so pack some comfy walking shoes and a full water bottle: you’re going to need it.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rock-hop your way upstream (depending on the water levels of course – safety comes first!) Or for a next-level thrill, experience the gorge from the opposite direction with Behana Canyoning. Starting at the very top of the falls, their tour will have you abseiling, cliff jumping and rocksliding your way down the gorge.
Explore the tropical waters of Five Mile Creek, Cardwell
If you’re visiting Tropical North Queensland during stinger season, an ocean dip is off the cards (unless you’re wearing a stylish head-to-toe stinger suit). Luckily, there are plenty of spectacular freshwater swimming options throughout the region, many of which are close to the coast.
Halfway between Cairns and Townsville and parallel with the tip of Hinchinbrook Island lies the coastal town of Cardwell, made famous by the milky, almost unnaturally blue waters of its Spa Pools. But while they may have officially put Cardwell on the tourist map, they’re not the only swimming holes you should check out while in these parts.
Just 10 minutes south of town is the lesser known Five Mile Creek – a deep freshwater swimming hole surrounded by rainforest and filled with jungle perch. Bring your kayak and explore the creek system, dive into crystal clear waters from the purpose-built swimming platform, or cook up a barbecue-feast on the banks of Five Mile Creek.
Paddle your way through gorge country to Indarri Falls, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park
Nine hours from Mount Isa and not far from the Queensland/Northern Territory border, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is pretty much as Outback as it gets. But despite its remote location, thousands of adventure-seekers and nature fans make the pilgrimage west each year to revel in its sandstone ranges, World Heritage fossils and spectacular gorge country.
The 200km 4WD journey from the Barkly Highway along mostly unsealed tracks is an experience in itself, but the real star of the show is Indarri Falls. The falls separate the upper and middle gorges in Lawn Hill Gorge and are accessed via a 3.8km walking track or an hour’s paddle upstream by canoe (available for hire at the camping grounds).
Both ways are ridiculously scenic, but canoe wins the day thanks to the dramatic 360 degree views it provides of the orange sandstone walls of the Middle Gorge. Cool down after your trek with a refreshing swim in the spa pools before heading on to Upper Gorge by foot, or caneoing back downstream.
Tip: If you’re starting your Boodjamulla road trip from Cairns, check out this 6-day itinerary that will get you there along the Savannah Way.
Swim beneath World Heritage listed waterfalls: Nandroya Falls, Palmerston
Drive two hours south of Cairns and you’ll find yourself dwarfed by the mountainous landscapes and sprawling rainforest of Wooroonooran National Park.
Its Aboriginal name means “black rock”, so-called for the ancient basalt rock that forms much of the park’s geography. One of the oldest living rainforests on the planet, Wooroonooran belongs to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area – a group of rainforests with such ancient ancestry and unique flora and fauna that they’re of global environmental importance.
And with experiences like these to be had, it’s easy to see why. Starting at Henrietta Creek, take the 6km circuit track which winds along the upper valley of Douglas Creek and leads to Nandroya Falls. Stop to catch your breath and take in the 10 metre drop of Silver Creek Falls before being rewarded with the main event: an uninterrupted 50m wall of water that descends from the basalt parapet above into the base of the falls below.
Don’t forget to pack your swimmers and your camera – this is one wild swimming photo opportunity you won’t want to miss.