Things To Do In Chillagoe. Cavernous limestone caves, giant balancing rocks, ancient escarpments, Aboriginal rock art, historic smelters and a night-time sky which sparkles with a million stars, while the Milky Way spins its way overhead – you can see and do all this and more when you’re in Chillagoe. Grab the keys, jump in the car and head into the savannah.
The savannah country surrounding Chillagoe, will slip into your spirit and stay with you forever.
Chillagoe is approximately 135kms south-west of Cairns as the crow flies, but it’s a 2.5 hour drive, on a journey that takes you from the coast with its cane fields, up the Kuranda Range Road, and out to the savannah plains on the Burke Development Road. The stretch between Mareeba and Chillagoe is called The Wheelbarrow Way, in a nod to early European pioneers and miners, who packed their belongings in a wheelbarrow and travelled the land looking for work or luck. Fortunately, we didn’t need a wheelbarrow for this trip, instead enjoyed a scenic road trip through the ever changing landscape.
“The drive from Cairns to Chillagoe is an easy one, on mostly sealed roads. It’s interesting watching the terrain transition from lush tropical rainforest to the agricultural fields on Mareeba’s outskirts – including some cotton and citrus farms – passing through the historic townships of Petford and Almaden, before cruising into Chillagoe. We left in the morning, giving us time to do some early exploring with a visit to the Smelters, the first afternoon we arrived.” – Julie Johnston
There are so many things to do in Chillagoe. This tiny town offers visitors a range of natural, cultural and historical sites and activities. We started our exploration the afternoon we arrived, with a visit to the Chillagoe Smelters. This significant heritage site is a fascinating ruin, which preserves evidence of historic smelting processes. As well as distinctive chimneys and infrastructure, there’s walking tracks and lots of interpretive signage. Top tip – this is a great place to watch the sun go down! Other than the smelter, the most well-known attraction here are the fabulous limestone caves, which rate highly on every ‘Things To Do In Chillagoe’ list. You can explore the caves on Ranger guided tours, self-guided tours, or both. We booked Ranger guided tours at two of the caves – Trezkinn and Royal Arch – and that’s how we ticked off the second item on our things to do in Chillagoe list.
The Trezkinn Cave is not far from the town centre and has electrical lighting, which helps to illuminate its impressive array of stalactites. The guided tour lasts around 40 minutes and has lots of staircases, so you’ll certainly get your steps for the day. In the Royal Arch Cave tours, you use hand-held lamps to explore the labyrinth of passages and caverns with your Ranger guide; this gives it more of an adventurous feeling. It’s also a longer tour lasting around 1.5 hours but is less strenuous than the Trezkinn (as there are less staircases). To make sure you don’t miss this as one of your things to do in Chillagoe, ensure you pre-book the Ranger guided cave tours to avoid disappointment. There are also several other caves you can explore on your own.
Of course, what’s outside the caves is impressive too. A dominate feature of the landscape is the giant limestone karsts, which are scattered across the savannah plains. These massive grey limestone structures are slowly being eroded by rainwater, making them resemble the reef system they once were. Seeing these are definitely on the things to do in Chillagoe list – check our video to see them from a few different angles and perspectives.
Anyone who’s been in Australia’s outback will know the beauty of the night-time sky – a million stars twinkling in the black velvet, as the soft swirls of the Milky Way spins its way across the sky. So of course star gazing, is also on the list of things to do in Chillagoe. If you want a more interactive experience, book a ticket at the Chillagoe Observatory – and in fact stay there, as we did – there’s cabins and a campground with powered and unpowered sites.
The Chillagoe Observatory and astronomy tours are awesome, even if you aren’t into that kind of thing. The owners are super passionate and have constructed their observatory with fully equipped dome and telescope, letting guests take a closer look at the stars and planets. There’s also comfortable outdoor seating and an interpretive talk, revealing lots of interesting information on the many visible stars, clusters and constellations, all of this makes it a compulsory addition to our things to do in Chillagoe list. The sessions start at 7.30pm and last around 1.5 hours, as you can imagine, they are entirely weather dependent.
As above, we chose to stay here during our Chillagoe adventure. The facilities were clean and well maintained. We had a camper trailer and booked a powered site, which had its own firepit (yes, there were marshmallows), but there were also lovely cabins on-site and a swimming pool. The landscaped grounds, flowering trees and shrubs attract many of the local birds, including flocks of pink and grey galahs. We also saw kangaroos and guinea fowl.
We stayed at the Chillagoe Observatory & Eco Lodge, lovely owners and facilities. We saw so many birds, including pink and grey galahs.
It’s the last day of our Chillagoe adventure, so we woke early to make the most of it. As the sun rose, we drove to the nearby Ramparts section of the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, where we were lucky enough to enjoy a truly blissful, few hours all by ourselves in a stunning natural landscape. We walked up an escarpment and from its elevated rock ledge we watched the golden rays of light disperse over the savannah plains. This place has a spiritual feeling and it’s truly special. The weather sculptured rocks, the light, the views, the rock art on the cavernous ceiling, the sense of stillness and the colour. For us, it’s an essential item on any things to do in Chillagoe list.
Balancing Rock was next. A short walk from the car park (440m return), winding through the rocks up until the namesake of the destination, a large rock which appears to sit balancing precariously on top of the outcrop. Great views, great photo opportunity. The last item on our things to do in Chillagoe list, was to see the Aboriginal Rock Art at Mungana, which is 15km further past Chillagoe on the Burke Development Road. Easily accessible on foot, the rock art here has been protected by the cliffs above it and transport you to another time and place.
The roads to and around Chillagoe are a combination of bitumen and dirt, but they are in reasonable condition and driving is not difficult. You do not need a 4WD to get to any of the attractions, or to Chillagoe itself. The town is small and accommodation is limited with a combination of self-contained cabins and bed and breakfasts, as well as campgrounds with powered and non-powered sites. We have stayed in a few and liked Chillagoe Observatory and Eco Lodge for its distance from the main road (road trains), excellent facilities and of course, the on-site observatory. We stayed 2 nights and 2 days, arriving around noon on Friday and leaving Sunday lunchtime, which gave us a comfortable amount of time to tick off everything on our things to do in Chillagoe list. Our Top Tips. Definitely pre-book the Ranger guided tours, pack a hat, sunscreen and water bottles for exploring. Get up early to enjoy cool mornings and exploring, and the observatory tour is amazing. If you want some downtime, take it in the middle of the day. The Chillagoe Smelters are a great place to see the sunset, orange light illuminating the chimneys and surrounding savannah landscape.
© I Love Cairns 2023