Mostly flat, well spaced out and dotted with lakes and waterways, in Australia’s capital, it’s natural to find yourself spending most of your time outside.
The city itself is wonderfully bike and pedestrian-friendly, connecting with trails that snake out through the suburbs and beyond. National Parks, nature reserves and recreational hubs give outdoorsy types endless opportunities to get those endorphins pumping. These Canberra outdoor activities are just a hint at what’s on offer.
SUP and kayaking in Canberra
Of all the fun Canberra outdoor activities to choose from, on a hot day, getting out for a paddle tops the list. Regardless of your prior paddling experience, Lake Burley Griffin should be your first port of call. Held in high regard as the centrepiece of Canberra, this man-made lake is huge (with an almost 40km circumference!). So there’s plenty of space for paddlers to spread out and explore the inlets and isles. Kayaks, canoes, SUPs and even paddle boats are always drifting along the glassy waters.
There are dozens of launch spots around the lake. Remember, you’ll be competing with cyclists, walkers and picnickers for a parking spot so it pays to arrive early. You can rent kayaking equipment from the YMCA Aquatic Recreation Centre and SUP gear from Stand Up Paddle Canberra. If you’re bringing your own, be sure to wear appropriate safety equipment as water police patrol the lake regularly.
Just 15 minutes north of the city, Lake Ginninderra is another great spot for a paddle. The U-shaped lake wraps around an extensive wetland with an extraordinary range of water and bird species. You may encounter the odd power boat but the ACT’s strict recreational boating laws tend to keep the water pretty peaceful.
If you’re after a day trip, Kangaroo River provides a beautiful setting for more experienced paddlers. The stretch between Flat Rock and Gerringong Creek Road takes around two hours and encounters a few grade 3 rapids.
Walking trails around Canberra
Perhaps the most well-trodden walking track in Canberra is the Centenary Trail. This 145km trail takes around seven days to complete but you’ll find plenty of smaller segments to stretch your legs on. The track varies in intensity with a few steep accents. The best sections to tackle in one day are the One Tree Hill summit and Murrumbidgee River stretch. The first is a 9km return trip beginning in the village of Hall, offering great views of Canberra’s major towns. The second is around 8km and takes you to Red Rocks Gorge Lookout.
A quick, albeit steep trail only 45-minutes drive from the city is Booroomba Rocks Walk in Namadgi National Park. It takes around 30 minutes to reach the top where the view of the surrounding bushland is incredibly rewarding. But it’s a tough accent. No one will judge you for stopping to “fix your shoelace” while you catch your breath.
NOTE: Namadgi National Park in the ACT is closed for bushfire recovery (April 2020).
Without venturing out of the city, a few laps of ANZAC Parade will help get your steps up. Lined by gumtrees and patches of native grasses, this wide boulevard leads from the Australian War Memorial to Commonwealth Park. From here, you’ll get a fabulous view over the river towards Parliament House.
For more walking trails around Canberra and the ACT, read this.
Cycling and MTB in the ACT
With a great network of cycling trails, sightseeing on two wheels is one of the most popular Canberra outdoor activities. Canberra’s lakes are lined with wide cycleways which cater to both foot and bike traffic. Lake Burley Griffin’s bike track spans a hefty 40kms, while the central loop is a more leisurely 5kms. Nearby, Lake Ginninderra has a shared cycleway which links up with the Belconnen cycleway network at a number of spots.
Mountain bikers have plenty of trails to choose from in Canberra’s surrounding areas. Stromlo Forest Park boasts more than 50kms of cross-country trails of varying difficulties. A little smaller but just as fun, Majura Pines was built by volunteers and offers 20km of graded trails.
The Canberra Centenary Trail isn’t just for walkers – it’s a mountain biking mecca too. To conquer the entire 145km trail, you’ll need about three days and a whole lot of peddling power. Luckily, the track is broken up into smaller, well sign-posted sections for shorter bursts of MTB action.
You’ll find plenty of places to rent bikes in the city but Cycle Canberra is a safe bet. They’ll even deliver the bikes to your accommodation. Otherwise, you can opt for a pay-as-you-pedal approach. Share a Bike is a self-service bike rental system with multiple stations around the city. Prices start from $1.50 per hour with kids and adult sizes available at selected stations. You’ll need to BYO helmet though.
Hot air ballooning in Canberra
When I took my first hot air balloon ride, I remember thinking “who the heck thought that firing up a flame thrower underneath a giant tarp with a basket attached was a good idea?” The entire concept is bizarre but science and tourism have found a way to make it seem normal, magical even. And it is. I’ll never forget my sunrise balloon flight over Cappadocia. Luckily, you don’t need to travel all the way to Turkey to get a similar experience. Hot air ballooning in Canberra is just as spectacular.
Once you’re in the air and the pilot switches off the flame, you’re enveloped by a peaceful silence, broken only by the “oohs” and “ahs” of your fellow passengers. The balloon becomes one with the wind. This is why so much care is taken beforehand to ensure a safe flight. You’re completely at the mercy of the elements. It pays to keep your schedule flexible in case you need to rebook due to inclement weather.
While the balloons fly all year round (weather permitting), the best time to experience a hot air balloon flight is during Canberra’s annual Enlighten Festival. The festival occurs around March each year, involving outdoor food markets, light displays and various celebrations of local artists’ work. The main event, however, is the Canberra Balloon Spectacular. Hundreds of balloons gently lift off of the ground, filling the dusty-pink dawn sky with brightly-coloured bulbs.
To book a balloon flight during the festival, you’ll have to get in early. Balloon Aloft Canberra and Dawn Drifters are the two key operators and spots sell out fast. It is an expensive exercise with prices north of $300 per person. Yes, it’s a splurge but we couldn’t leave it off our top Canberra outdoor activities list because it truly is one of the most memorable ways to experience the city.
Check out the top hot air balloon companies in the area and book your flight here.
Guided tours and cruises
If you’re visiting Canberra without a car, a guided tour is a great way to hand the logistics over to someone else. Canberra Guided Tours are a well-established operator with a variety of full and half-day tours on offer. The Best of Wildlife tour visits Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve where you’ll spot emus, koalas and kangaroos – perhaps even a platypus. The Cool Climate Wine Experience combines breathtaking country sightseeing with intimate wine tastings at some of the region’s most renowned cellar doors.
If you only have a few hours to spare, they’ll be well spent on the waters of Lake Burley Griffin. Take in the sights from the boat deck and weave in a bit of history while you’re at it. The hosts of Lake Burley Griffin Cruises are extremely knowledgeable and quite cheeky with their one-liners. Expect to pay around $20 per adult and less than $10 per child.
You can find more guided tours of Canberra and surrounds here.