Hiking Mount Bartle Frere is one of the biggest adventures near Cairns! After recently enduring this beast of a trail, I’m sharing all you need to know. This article includes a complete lowdown of what to expect, trail details and essential tips.
The beautiful Atherton Tablelands near Cairns houses two of Queensland’s highest mountains. At 1’622 metres, Mount Bartle Frere may not appear in “Australia’s top 10 highest mountains” list, but don’t let that fool you. Many experienced bushwalkers say it’s one of the hardest hikes they’ve done in Australia! It’s also been the most challenging and rewarding one I’ve ever experienced.
The Frere trail is steep as hell, with it’s fair share of leeches, boulders and humidity. It’s unrelenting both up and down, and you’ll probably need to bush camp near the summit.
However, the rewards are just as great as the pain (which I know is always easier to say in hindsight!). I’ve never pushed myself so hard physically on a hike before, so that intoxicating feeling at the summit and finish line is what I remember most. Of course, the rainforest’s beauty is stunning too, with incredible views from the top.
So if you’re game and want the chance to say “I’m the highest Sheila/Bloke in Queensland!”, then this could be the greatest adventure you do in Australia this year!
Good to know
Hiking the 17km Mount Bartle Frere trail takes most people about 10-15 hours on foot. Because of the time factor, most people bush camp near the summit like we did and spread it over 2 days.
We did see a few people do it in a day which can be done if you set out really early (try first light at 5/6am) and if you’re very fit.
A perk to the day hike is that you won’t need a big heavy backpack which really makes the trip so much harder. I made the mistake of taking a non-hiking bag which I stuffed with about 10kg of gear, and my shoulders were bruised before I even reached camp! It killed.
The Sailor had about 30kg and drank three litres of water on the way up without needing to pee once as it all came out in sweat. Seriously, every kilo counts! Definitely do an easy overnight hike before this trip so you know what you won’t need.
There are three different ways you can conquer the Mount Bartle Frere hike …
- A return journey from the eastern trailhead near Babinda.
- A return journey from the western trailhead on the Atherton Tablelands, or :
- Walking the entire track from east to west or vice versa.
Hiking Mount Bartle Frere eastside is said to be more scenic. Panoramic views from Broken Nose, the Boulder Field & Eastern Summit camp look gorgeous if the mountain is not shrouded in cloud, which it often is.
The smaller eastern camping pad fits about 2 small tents, plus there’s a helipad and an evacuation hut which I’ve read some people sleep in for extra protection from the elements…although QLD parks ask that it’s only used in an emergency.
However this route is said to be much harder as it’s steeper and you’ll have to face the Boulder Field in between the Eastern Camp and the summit, which some say is pretty scary. If choosing this trail, I’d suggest leaving your backpack next to the camping pad before making the 1-hour slog to the summit as it’ll be way easier.
My hiking bible- Best Walks around Cairns & the Tablelands, gave trail details for the western approach and I researched that this was marginally easier, so happily signed up for that one. Judging from all the people I saw on the Saturday, I think it’s the most popular.
Another perk to doing it westside is that there’s a permanent stream next to the western summit camp which is good if you’re low on water, which you probably will be.
We could also leave our big backpack at camp before taking the 40-minute rock hop to the summit, which I couldn’t imagine doing with it on. Not only were we lighter but it’s really tight in places and the bag is a hassle, so I felt more agile without it.
This camp can hold about 3-4 small tents.
Western Trailhead - At a Glance
🏃🏻♀️ Distance: 17km return – but feels like double that.
⏲ Time: 2 days (usually between 10-15 hours on foot)
📈 Ascent/descent: 850m (you’ll start at 750m)
To access the Western Trailhead, follow GPS directions to Junction Camp or open up the map above. If (like us) you’re not coming in a 4×4 then the journey will take about an extra 20 minutes as the last stretch is a gravel/clay track. There’s ample space to park up at the start of the trail beside the camp.
The whole trail has orange triangular markers on the trees to guide you, but be careful as they’re hard to spot further up.
You’ll also see kilometre marker points on the trees with a red circle on top. Apparently rangers used string to measure the path… I had the suspicion that it broke in half along the way as each km felt like triple the last!
The beginning of the Mount Bartle Frere hike is by a mile, the easiest part of the track and deceivingly flat-ish. The scrub is thick, verdant and mossy with signs of feral pigs who dig-out the ground in search of food.
About 1.8k in there’s a detour to Bobbbin Bobbin Falls (signed in an orange marker) which most day trippers come here for. It only requires a 10 minute walk to get there but we bypassed it to ensure we reached camp before dark, and I’m glad we did.
As soon as you leave the falls, the path quickly steepens (as if created in haste) which is a taste of things to come. It was about this point that the Sailor and I began to seriously regret taking so much gear that wasn’t critical!
On the trees are distance markers in kms however we missed 1-3 on the way up as they’ve been nailed to the back of the trees.
Leeches are a pain from this point too so douse your shoes, socks and legs in Bushman’s 80% deet repellent and try not to stop too often to prevent them from latching.
After what feels like a long slog but has only been 1.5k since the falls, the Granite Overhang is the first set of boulders you’ll need to climb over. They look a bit daunting to begin with but they’re pretty easy. Try to use your hands and arms to pull you up as much as possible to save on leg strength, and on the way back you can do a bit of bum-sliding.
There’s a second set of rocks to climb over soon after the Granite Overhang 👇🏼. Then progressively, the path narrows even further and the orange markers dwindle a little. If you’re not sure on the correct route, look out for the pink/orange ribbon and a more worn trail.
You’ll notice the track gets rockier from here, and after a sweat-dripping 2.5kms you’ll cross a series of boulders called Lunchtime Rocks (which thankfully you don’t need to climb over).
My hiking book said this is a good place to stop and have lunch as, allegedly, there’s “a spot where you can clamber up a tree root to flat rocks (1500m in altitude) with fantastic views to the coast, Mulgrave Valley & Bellenden Kerr.” I didn’t see it but maybe you’ll have better luck.
Otherwise stop anywhere you can if you’re peckish.
This was probably the hardest part of the hike for me as the trail seemed to go on forever and we were wiped. It’s also pretty rocky around which requires regular big steps upwards- hard on your already tired leg muscles, but does create buns of steel.
Tip: Utilise your hands as much as possible to help pull yourself up using the trees.
Thankfully the leeches ease off from here as it’s too cool for them. The path will eventually wind around a few patches of long, wavy grass and won’t be as steep (watch out for paralysis ticks & apply repellent- I got one on me).
Then after nothing but dense rainforest all the way up, you’ll now begin to see a glimmer of hope beyond the foliage at the panoramic views waiting for you.
Eventually you’ll begin to spur downwards, which feels annoying because you’ve spent so much energy getting up. Then just before the Western Summit camp you’ll reach a set of rocks that you’ll need to hop over. It’s not hard, but you’ll be knackered.
It took us about 7 and a half hours in total to reach the camp but if you’re above average fitness, it should take about 4-5.
Our initial plan was to sleep on the other side at Eastern Camp which is supposed to have amazing views overlooking the ranges, but that’s a further 40 minutes over a daunting Boulder Field and we didn’t get here until 4:30. Feeling wiped, neither of us were in the mood! Knowing your limits up here is more important than a sunset.
Now you’ll need to decide if you have the energy to tackle the summit today as there’s climbing involved (we did it in the morning). Either way, if you’re staying here then dump your bags before heading up.
If it feels like hell, just think of the views at the top!
Once you cross the permanent freshwater stream just in front of camp, you’ll start climbing up over a series of boulders and bracken fern to the summit, passing the 8km mark as you go.
This was actually my favourite part as I enjoyed the challenge of climbing over the rocks. Plus with a night’s kip and without a bag made it sweeter, otherwise I’d probably be cursing.
If you are taking your backpack because you’re sleeping at the next camp, then try to carefully balance your weight. The turtle back often made us want to fall backwards or lose balance, and when your legs are nackered the risk of having an accident is higher, so go slow and be careful.
You may find the rocks a bit daunting on sight, but as you work your way through you’ll realise it’s not that bad. Try using your hands and arms as much as possible and bum slide if needed.
About halfway up, there’ll be one gorgeous view of the Tablelands.
Then after 500 metres from camp you’ll reach the summit where a sign tells you you’re at the highest peak in Queensland baby. Congratulations! 🤟🏼
If you look to your right there’s a rock there which you can step out on for sweeping views towards the coastline.
Mount Bartle Frere trail: History Sidenote
Interestingly, the British Colonial administrator that Frere was named after- Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, never set foot on the mountain. To my knowledge, nor did he even visit Australia. The Scottish colonist and explorer that did name it in 1873- George Elphinstone Dalrymple, also didn’t climb it.
The first European to scale this mountain was Christie Palmerston, who reached the top in 1886 after being guided by several Noongyanbudda Ngadjon men.
Although known for being a significant explorer and prospector back in the day, Palmerston wasn’t a good man. He was reportedly a local Robin Hood who escaped from down south because he was wanted for murder, and when is came to Indigenous peoples, didn’t hesitate to ‘give them a taste of the rifle’. What a prick.
From Josephine Falls along the Eastern trail to the summit, tin miners also blazed a rough track and mined a claim close to the peak.
If you’re sleeping at Eastern Camp tonight then your final hurdle is braving the Boulder Field.
Just next to the rocky fireplace at the summit is a steep trail that you’ll need to follow downhill for about 15 minutes before reaching the boulders.
Then it’s 45-minutes of rock hopping with metal hand and foot grips. Below it you’ll see the Eastern Camp & Emergency Hut.
Phew! You’re heading back down. I’m pretty sure you’ll be wishing you can take that chopper now. 😉
Although the return journey will still be really hard on the legs and knees, it’s so much easier than going up and will take less time. It took us about 4.5 hours from the Western Camp.
Over the years there have been many rescue missions for bushwalkers who couldn’t manage the return trip, got caught out with bad weather or didn’t bring the right gear. A man was rescued there just this week, and sometimes the results can be fatal.
When hiking Mount Bartle Frere, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. The trail is remote, isolated and very challenging so prepping right will make the journey safer, easier and more enjoyable. Here’s a few tips that might help.
1. Go at the right time.
The dry season (May – October/November) is by far the recommended time to do this hike and the only months I’d consider it. Not only is it cooler but it’s far less wet & slippery with fewer leeches. Some parts near the summit also look like it turns into a stream in the rainy months so accessibility may be prevented.
As the weather on the mountain is changeable, always check the forecast before heading out.
Otherwise, set out early. We started at 9:00am but wished we got out at 7:00 (it took us 2h30 to drive from Port Douglas). If we were to do it again we would have stayed somewhere on the Atherton Tablelands the night before.
2. Bring the right gear!
If staying overnight then remember- every kilo counts! It became a thing for us on the way down to check out everyones backpack as they climbed up to predict how hard they were going to find the hike. Needless to say, the two couples that had a small bag and did the hike in a day seemed to find it the easiest and were like whippets flying up and down.
Before the trip, we bought a few new bits and bagged some good deals on BlackWolf camping gear in Escape 2 at DFO Cairns. Their hiking gear was really great quality and much more affordable than bigger brands like North Face or Kathmandu.
For smaller essentials we went to Anaconda & BCF, but if we had more time to shop around then I’d probably buy more online to nab better deals.
Camping Gear Essentials
✣ Lightweight tent. The tent ended up being one of our heaviest items. Ideally you’ll have a lightweight tent that’s designed for hiking trips such as this.
✣ Lightweight sleeping bags. In October it was hovering around the 12°C mark near the peak. We bought the BlackWolf Backpacker 50 which was light, compact to carry and kept us warm.
✣ Lightweight self-inflating mattress or mat. Our BlackWolf ones were awesome too- it was so easy to inflate, pack up and surprisingly comfy. It also came with lifetime warranty (and I’m not being sponsored by them, lol!)
✣ Small gas canister & hiking stove attachment. You’ll probably need to treat water, and a hot coffee & soup in the morning is priceless. We bought a simple stove top to attach to our small gas canister.
✣ Saucepan. Pop-up ones are ideal (though pricier) as they’re lightweight, foldable and fit snug in your bag.
✣ Cooking equipment. The less the better. Eat straight from the saucepan if you can to avoid taking bowls. Ideally you’d just need a spoon each and a cup.
Clothes & Hiking Gear
✣ A bloody good hiking bag. I squeezed and added stuff onto a North Face computer bag & dry bag which killed my shoulders! We bought a new backpack from BlackWolf which the Sailor carried (and upsized to 75L to use on bigger trips too) but should’ve bought another smaller one like this. Having a good hiking bag that has a padded back and waist strap for extra support is essential.
✣ Awesome hiking shoes. Ones that are comfy and have a good grip are ideal as you’ll be climbing over rocks.
✣ A waterproof jacket. Weather is changeable on the mountain and mornings are nippy.
✣ Long hiking trousers/gym leggings & socks. To protect against the leeches.
✣ A change of clothes. Your gear from day one may still be wet after all that sweating! It can be used as a pillow too.
✣ Trousers & jumper/shirt for wearing at night. Keeps you snug from the midnight chills.
✣ Torch or headlamp.
Food & Water
✣ Lightweight meals. Make sure you grab a good breakfast roll before setting out as you’ll need fuel from the start. We packed sandwiches for lunch but ended up having them for dinner too (Me: 2/Sailor: 3). We ate tinned soup in the morning but regretted the weight and should have taken a pot noodle. Baked beans or tinned tuna is also a good option.
✣ Lightweight healthy snacks. Muesli/protein bars, fresh or dried fruit & nuts work well. We consumed two protein bars each, fruit (an apple & tangerine) and a bag of Macey’s pretzels.
✣ Water and electrolyte water. This will be the heaviest thing you take. Count for about 3-4 litres p/p on the way up and around 2 p/p on the way down – plus extra for a morning tea or coffee. A reusable flask and collapsable water container are ideal for storing.
Water from the stream next to Eastern Camp is crystal clear and smells better than the tap water at home, but you should probably treat it just in case- you really don’t want want an issue on this remote mountain!
Treat your water by either:
- Boiling for 1 minute.
- Using purification tablets or liquid. They contain silver ions and chlorine to kill any harmful bacteria. Just add it to the stream water and it’s good to go (wish I bought these!). Katadyn Micropur is one of the most trusted brands and doesn’t require stirring.
- Purification sticks or bottle. Just pop it in the water and it filters the water as you drink. The Life Straw is a well-known and trusted brand.
✣ Biodegradable wet wipes, toilet paper & hand sanitiser. For when you need to go. The wipes are also good for giving your body a wipe-down/clean in the morning.
✣ String & duct tape. Always handy for something.
✣ First aid kit. Or at least plasters, antiseptic & compression bandages just in case.
✣ Biodegradable rubbish bags. All trash needs to be taken back with you.
✣ Deet insect repellent. Ideally Bushman’s 80% deet repellent. Spray it on your arms, shoes, socks and trousers before you set out to prevent leeches attaching. Salt can be handy for when they do.
3. Book a campsite.
A camping permit needs to be pre-booked in advance. There are four bush-camping sites in total along the trail although you don’t book a particular one- you can sleep at any, or anywhere on the mountain if required.
Head to the Queensland park’s website to book, and write ‘Bartle Frere Trail camping’ in the location field. There are 12 permits available in total and costs $6.75 p/p- more booking deets can be found here.
4. Be ship shape.
If you’re above average fitness then you can probably skip this part!
I’d say I’m of good fitness but about halfway up I regretted not physically preparing more for Mount Bartle Frere. A lady I spoke to at Escape 2 also said the same.
Normally I run twice a week, do yoga 4 times a week and hike once a fortnight (usually up a steep hill). But if possible, as well as cardio and yoga (for flexibility) I’d recommend:
- Calf exercises.
- A load of squats, with weights (for the butt and hips).
- Leg exercises. They’ll need to be strong!
- Going on a long-ish (but not necessarily hard) overnight hike. This will give you a good idea of things you don’t need to take with you, or anything you’re missing and will get you used to walking with a big backpack and balancing weight.
Yup, I’m going there!
If you’re an experienced bush-camper like most Far North Queenslanders seem to be, then you may be used to doing your business out in the open. This was my second time camping in the wild without a toilet or facilities so I’m definitely not well seasoned to pooping in the bush! It was an experience.
When watching an episode of Jack Whitehall’s ‘Travels with My father’ on Netflix, expert Aussie bushman Cockatoo Paul suggests digging two holes: one to drop a nugget as a decoy poo for the flies, and the other for the main drop, lol. 😆
There’s a few flies around here but not as much as the outback so you shouldn’t need to do that. Apparently the heli-pad at the Eastern camp is a popular place where hikers ‘go’, so someone renamed it the ‘pooping pad’. To ensure that doesn’t become a problem and to minimise human impact on Frere, here’s what to do.
Search for your poop spot away from campsites, the main trail or any stream. Then try to find a good tree or rock to hold onto as you get into a squat position. Dig a hole at least 15cm deep, do your business and then cover it before you leave. Happy days.
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So there you have it, your complete guide to hiking Mount Bartle Frere with success. I hope you found it useful!
The Sailor and I are keen to do it again this year with better preparation- it’ll be interesting to see how it feels the second time around. I’ll update this post when we do!
If you go, have an awesome time, be safe and dig deep. You may question your sanity a few times but it’s definitely worth the perseverance. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, right?!
And finally, I’d love to hear how you got on so don’t forget to come back here and let me know!
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