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13 Top-Rated Outdoor Adventures in Australia

Written by Karen Hastings
Oct 7, 2019

Few places on the planet rival Australia for its spirit of adventure. Blessed with a mosaic of rugged and ravishing landscapes, this sun-soaked country offers the perfect settings for exhilarating activities on land and sea.

Along the coast, you can zoom on a jet boat through a horizontal waterfall, snorkel with whale sharks, sail around the tropical Whitsunday Islands, or dive along the Great Barrier Reef. In the red-earthed deserts of the country's arid interior, more rugged adventures beckon. Australia's famous outback tracks offer the ultimate 4WD journeys, or you can hop in a kayak and paddle through towering red-walled gorges.

Many Aussie adventures take place in beautiful World Heritage-listed wilderness areas that showcase the best of Australia, like the pristine Franklin River in Tasmania and Queensland's Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world.

Even the cities offer their own unique adventures. In Sydney, you can climb to the summit of the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge, and less than an hour's drive away, rappel down sheer limestone cliffs in the Blue Mountains.

Whether you want to soar over the spectacular coastline, abseil, zipline, or raft white water rapids, plan your fun with our list of the top outdoor adventures in Australia.

1. Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge

Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge

Standing atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge, one of Australia's most iconic tourist attractions, sparks the senses. Far below, the glittering harbor wriggles and coils along the coast, salty sea air bristles your skin, and you can actually feel the splendor of this stunning city.

Guided ascents of the bridge include a pre-climb prep talk, all the safety gear, a photo on the 134-meter-high summit, and entertaining stories about the history of the bridge along the way. (Did you know Paul Hogan, aka Crocodile Dundee, worked on the bridge before rocketing to international stardom?)

In addition to day climbs, you can choose from dawn, twilight, and night ascents for a different perspective of this glamorous harbor city.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sydney: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Four-Wheel Drive on Fraser Island, Queensland

Four-wheel drives on the Fraser Island beach

World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, off the coast of Southeast Queensland, offers one of the most unique 4WD adventures in Australia. Cruising down 75 Mile Beach, a seemingly endless stretch of wave-thrashed shore on the planet's largest sand island, is an exhilarating experience. This is also a fun family adventure holiday.

Along the way, stop by the rusted hulls of the Maheno shipwreck, dodge dingos on the beach, and explore the red-streaked cliffs of the Cathedrals. Inland, you can jolt through subtropical rainforest to clear streams and aquamarine lakes.

Fishing, mountain biking, birding, hiking, and swimming are all popular things to do here, and accommodations range from the plush Kingfisher Bay Resort to apartments and bush-fringed campsites.

Since the island lacks paved roads, 4WD vehicles are essential, and high-clearance low-range capacity is a must for the soft sands of the interior.

If you don't have your own 4WD vehicle, you can join an organized tour with an expert guide. Tours range from Fraser Island day trips from Hervey Bay to two-day Fraser Island tours. You can also rent vehicles and access Fraser Island by ferry and boat services at Rainbow Beach, Hervey Bay, and River Heads. Be sure to check tide times before you leave.

3. Dive or Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Diver viewing colorful fish and coral on the Great Barrier Reef

Australia is not only packed with exhilarating adventures on land-you can also explore the largest coral reef system on the planet. Comprised of more than 2,900 separate reefs, this World Heritage-listed jewel in the Aussie state of Queensland is one of Australia's top tourist attractions and a bucket-list adventure for travelers.

Swimming off the edge of the reef feels like flying over an aquatic jungle. Whether you're diving or snorkeling, you can see colorful hard and soft corals, dazzling tropical fish, giant clams, whales, schools of sharks, giant cod, and even shipwrecks.

Liveaboard day trips are a great way to explore many different areas of the reef, but if you're short on time, you can also take snorkeling and diving day trips from Airlie Beach, Port Douglas, and Cairns.

If you're staying in Cairns, a great option to explore this natural wonder is the Great Barrier Reef Diving and Snorkeling Cruise from Cairns. The tour includes a full-day snorkeling and diving trip, all equipment and instruction, a barbecue lunch, and an optional sightseeing helicopter flight over the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef has undergone unprecedented bleaching over the past few years, so this is one outdoor adventure you should do sooner rather than later.

4. Jet Boat through the Horizontal Falls, Western Australia

Horizontal Falls, Western Australia

Horizontal Falls, deep in the rugged Kimberley region, offers an adrenaline-soaked adventure by seaplane and jet boat. Sign up for an organized tour like the Horizontal Falls Full-Day Tour from Broome by 4x4 & Seaplane, and you'll enjoy a full day of fun. Tours typically begin with a low-level seaplane flight over the spectacular scenery of the Buccaneer Archipelago, where red cliffs rise along the coast, and 800 islands dot the striking turquoise sea.

After a water landing on calm Talbot Bay and a delicious lunch, you hop aboard a jet boat and skid across the glassy waters through the seething horizontal falls, which are actually powerful tides of up to 11 meters that gush through two narrow gorges.

In case you're looking for an even more extreme adventure in this remote corner of Australia, after the cruise, the tour usually offers shark swims in the safety of a shark-proof (and saltwater croc-proof) cage. Seaplane flights depart from Broome or Derby, and overnight stays are also available in a houseboat.

If you're short on time, the Horizontal Falls half-day tour from Broome is a convenient option, with flights in both directions to reduce traveling time.

5. Sail the Whitsundays, Queensland

Hamilton Island

Strung along the World-Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, the 74 idyllic Whitsunday Islands are the perfect playground for sailing adventures. The islands lie in the turquoise Coral Sea off the coast of central Queensland. Most are uninhabited and protected by six national parks, and eight are home to resorts, including the luxurious InterContinental Hayman Island Resort and Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island.

Thanks to the protective embrace of the reef, the waters are typically calm and ideal for sailing, as well as snorkeling, SCUBA diving, and swimming. Highlights of sailing around these dreamy islands include the dazzling silica sands of Whitehaven Beach; the appropriately-shaped Heart Reef; and the underwater wonderland with its giant clams, colorful coral, and tropical fish. Butterfly, Blue Pearl, and Hook Island Bays provide protected anchorages.

The main launching point for sailing trips is Airlie Beach on the mainland, where you can book classic sailing boats, catamarans, and tall ships. Both crewed and bareboat charters are available.

6. Hover in a Helicopter over the 12 Apostles, Victoria

A helicopter hovering over the 12 Apostles, Victoria

Rising from the wild sea like giant jigsaw pieces adrift from the deeply scalloped coast, the 12 Apostles in Port Campbell National Park will take your breath away. You can drive along the scenic Great Ocean Road to admire the spectacular scenery, but it's even more awe-inspiring from the air.

Hop aboard a helicopter to really appreciate how the pounding surf and blasting winds sculpted this rugged coastline. In addition to the 12 Apostles, you can also see other giant rock formations, including London Bridge, Loch Ard Gorge, the Sentinel, and the Arch. This area is called the Shipwreck Coast, and a glimpse at the treacherous sea and sheer cliffs from the air reveals why.

Flights depart from various locations around the 12 Apostles. They typically take about 15 minutes and include a commentary on the history and geology of the area. You can also tour the coast in a seaplane or Tiger Moth.

7. Snorkel with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Snorkel with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia | Julie Edgley / photo modified

Imagine gliding effortlessly alongside a gentle 10-meter-long whale shark, the largest fish on the planet. Off Western Australia's north coast, you can make this dream come true on a Ningaloo Reef Whale Shark Snorkeling Adventure from Exmouth.

Often overshadowed by the famous Great Barrier Reef, World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Coast encompasses the world's longest fringing reef, with 200 species of hard coral, 50 species of soft coral, and a dazzling array of tropical fish. Dugongs, dolphins, turtles, manta rays, and whales are also found in the park, but the highlight are the graceful whale sharks that swim these waters, typically between April and August.

Once the whale sharks are spotted from a plane, a boat zips you to the perfect location, where you can don your snorkel or dive gear, plunge into the clear blue depths, and swim through a fizz of bubbles within meters of these graceful animals.

The fastest way to access Ningaloo is via a two-hour flight from Perth to Learmonth Airport. Both nearby Exmouth and the little beach town of Coral Bay make great bases for visiting the park.

8. Kayak Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park), Northern Territory

Kayak Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park), Northern Territory

Flowing through a series of steep-walled, red rock gorges, the Katherine River in Nitmiluk National Park offers the ultimate outback kayaking adventure. Cliffs rise up to 100 meters on either side of the river as you paddle through pandanus-fringed pools, past paperbark forests, and over gentle rapids. Kayaking the river allows you to go beyond the first few gorges, which can be crowded with tourists, and see the even more scenic gorges deep in the park.

The safest time to kayak the gorge is during the dry season, from May through November, as the river can rise rapidly during the rainy season.

Freshwater crocodiles lurk in some of the pools, and the screech of cockatoos echos through the steamy air. In between paddling, you can cool off in one of the tranquil lagoons.

Organized tours, some led by aboriginal guides, typically include picnics on the sandy riverbank near peaceful waterfalls and stories about the ecology, history, and sacred sites of the area. Multi-day trips offer the chance to sleep under the stars. You can also rent a kayak or canoe and take a self-guided Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) Canoe Adventure. And if you'd rather forego the paddling and just sit back and relax, opt for a Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge cruise.

9. Surf the Jungle along Cape Tribulation, Queensland

Cape Tribulation, Queensland

In tropical Far North Queensland, Cape Tribulation is one of the few places in the world where two of the planet's richest ecosystems-coral reef and rainforest-meet along dazzling white-sand beaches. For a bird's-eye view of this incredible beauty, you can zipline through the jungle canopy of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, the world's oldest rainforest, on a Cape Tribulation Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour.

This is a great adventure for the whole family. After you're clipped into the gear, you can soar through the ancient treetops, stopping at platforms along the way, with a brief pause to admire the rainforest and hear about the ecology.

The tours last about two hours, and no experience is necessary. Book well in advance, especially during school holidays.

10. Drive the Gibb River Road, Western Australia

Gibb River Road

The Gibb River Road is one of Australia's legendary 4WD adventures. Deep in the remote Kimberley region, this 660-kilometer dirt track bumps and grinds past red rock gorges, rugged mountains, and rock pools fed by multi-tiered cascades.

The "Gibb," as it's called, runs from Broome or Derby on the west coast to Kununurra/Wyndham on the state's eastern border. You can drive the route on your own (4WD vehicles are essential) or join a multi-day guided tour.

Highlights include wilderness hikes, swimming in the cool waters of steep-walled gorges, barramundi fishing, sunset safaris, and therapeutic soaks in natural hot springs.

Along the way, you can explore Windjana Gorge National Park, see freshwater crocodiles, and take a scenic flight over stunning Mitchell Falls or the bizarrely shaped rock formations of the Bungle Bungles. Note that the road is usually closed from November through March due to flooding.

11. Abseil in the Blue Mountains, NSW

Abseil in the Blue Mountains, NSW

Sliding down the sheer face of a limestone cliff into the misty blue haze of a World Heritage wilderness area is an unforgettable experience. About 50 kilometers from Sydney, Blue Mountains National Park is one of the city's top day trips and encompasses the iconic Three Sisters rock pinnacles, plunging valleys, waterfalls, and eucalyptus forests stretching as far as the eye can see.

Abseiling or rappelling down the limestone cliffs and waterfalls is an exciting way to experience this wilderness. Canyoning, rock climbing, and mountain biking tours are also available. The full-day Blue Mountains Empress Canyon and Abseiling Experience combines both abseiling and canyoning and includes lessons, safety briefings, and all the necessary equipment. Bring a waterproof camera and layers of clothing, as the weather can change quickly.

12. Raft the Franklin River, Tasmania

Raft the Franklin River, Tasmania | Photo Copyright: Franklin River Rafting

Slicing through Tasmania's ravishing Word Heritage Area, the mighty Franklin River is the setting for one of the world's great rafting adventures.

This wild and beautiful river remains a triumph of the environmental movement. In the 1980s, passionate activists led a successful campaign to protect the river from being dammed. Today, thanks to their efforts, you can enjoy the primeval beauty here on a multi-day rafting adventure.

Trips typically range from 5-10 days and run the entire 125-kilometer length of the Franklin River to the Gordon River through a pristine wilderness of eucalyptus forests, tranquil pools, and roiling rapids. Wildlife in the region includes wallabies, platypus, and black cockatoos.

No previous rafting experience is necessary, although rafters should be physically fit in order to help portage at the wilder sections of the river, some of which are Class VI rapids. Trips include equipment, meals (usually prepared with fresh local produce), and experienced guides.

13. Travel the Oodnadatta Track, South Australia

Oodnadatta Track

Traveling the Oodnadatta Track, through the red hot heart of South Australia, you can meet an affable cast of genuine Aussie characters and admire the stark beauty of the red-earth desert. This famous 620-kilometer unsealed outback track takes you away from the tourist throngs as you follow ancient aboriginal trade routes, drive through an inland seabed, and pass the remnants of the Old Ghan railway.

Highlights include mingling with the locals at the tiny outpost of William Creek (population 10), which seems straight out of a movie set from Crocodile Dundee, and a drive through Anna Creek, the largest cattle station in the world-it's the size of Belgium. Extend your outback adventure in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, where you can dig for the iridescent gems and stay in a subterranean hotel.

The route is suitable for a two-wheel drive, though 4WD is recommended. Better still, join the Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta One Day Mail Run and help deliver mail to remote outback cattle stations while learning about the area's history and ecology along the way. Avoid mid-summer when temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius.

Official site: http://www.mailruntour.com/

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More Aussie Adventures: If you're looking for other Australian adventures, take a look at our article on the Top-Rated Hikes in Australia, from the Kings Canyon Rim Walk to the summit hike up Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest mountain. If water-based fun is more your style, check out the Top-Rated Beaches in Australia and best fishing destinations from coast to coast. Still trying to figure out the best places to visit? Our article on planning your trip to Australia will help you create an itinerary to suit your travel timeframe and interests.

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