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The Atherton Tablelands are one of Australia’s best kept hidden gems. It’s made up of a massive diversity of landscapes, from cascading waterfalls to dense rainforests to emerald creeks.
It’s also known for its coffee plantations and agriculture and is one of the best places in Australia to try fresh fruit, nuts, and of course, coffee.
Millaa Millaa Falls,
We were surprised by the variety of things to do in Atherton Tablelands, and many of our community told us it was one of their favourite places in Australia.
We spent two days in the Atherton Tablelands at the start of our road trip along Savannah Way Drive. Unfortunately, we had two days of rain while we visited, but we loved it anyway and still managed to see and do a lot.
Here are just a few of the amazing things to do in the Cairns Atherton Tablelands.
Where are the Atherton Tablelands?
The Atherton Tablelands is a region about an hour southwest of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.
It was named after John Atherton, an early settler who became well-known for overlanding sheep from NSW to Queensland, and then moving to this area. You might say he pioneered the agriculture here.
Today is known as a region that changes from agricultural land to scrub forests, to ancient rainforests, and then eventually to the Queensland Outback, and is worth spending a few days exploring.
To get to the Atherton Tablelands, you will need to hire a car if you don’t have one already. We recommend you stay in Atherton as a base to explore the region, since it’s right in the middle of the attractions.
To get to Atherton from Cairns, you simply drive along the Kennedy Highway, passed the MacAlister range, Mareeba and Karunda.
To get there from the South from Innisfail, you can either drive up Gillies Range Road or the Palmerston Highway to reach Atherton.
Things to Do in the Atherton Tablelands
Now you know a little bit about the Atherton Tablelands, it’s time to introduce you to the top attractions in the region.
1. Drive The Waterfall Circuit
Starting near the town of Millaa Millaa there’s a 15km circuit that embraces some of the best waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands region. Because of rain we didn’t get to every waterfall but the ones below are well worth visiting.
2. Check Out Millaa Millaa Falls
Millaa Millaa Falls is the main event on the waterfall circuit and one of the most photographed waterfalls in Australia.
The waterfall is surrounded by lush rainforest. The water cascades into a pristine waterhole, perfect for swimming on those tropical humid days. Look for platypus in the late afternoon. There are plenty of shady grassed areas for a picnic.
There are meant to be beautiful views of the Tablelands from Millaa Lookout. Worth a stop – we only had rain clouds to see!
3. See Zillie Falls
The viewing platform is at the top of Zillie Falls, but there is a muddy track (when it rains) taking you down to the bottom of the falls to see the cascading waterfall and rapids.
4. Admire Ellinjaa Falls
The tree ferns and jungle vines offer pretty surroundings on the short five-minute sealed track to the bottom of the falls. Ellinjaa Falls cascades over a series of lava columns.
Hot Tip: Have a waterproof bag for your camera. We didn’t. The rain got on it and the camera died and we had to take this pic on our Samsung phone. Totally hated that $700 mistake and having to buy a new one the next day.
5. Walk to Malanda Falls
Not officially on the Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Circuit but just off the Malanda-Atherton Rd is Malanda Falls, a cascade waterfall on the North Johnstone River.
There’s a beautiful walk through the rainforest across the road from the falls and if you look up you might be lucky to spot a tree kangaroo. Apparently, they are easy to find here – we’re just unlucky!
6. Don’t miss the Curtain Fig Tree
Prepare to be wowed by the Curtain Fig Tree. It’s a definite must-do.
I’ve fallen in love with the Strangler Figs here in Tropical North Queensland, they are such a vital part of the rainforest. Even though they strangle the host trees, they leave behind a twisting trail of beauty and a thriving ecosystem.
They were the supermarkets of the local Aboriginal tribe providing them with almost everything they needed.
This Curtain Fig Tree is incredible. It spans several metres across and the vines drape 15 metres down giving a lovely curtain effect.
The Curtain Fig Tree is located just outside of Yungaburra in a World Heritage rainforest. While in this area of the Tablelands stop in at The Whistlestop Cafe for lunch.
8. Check Out Hypipamee Crater and Dinner Falls
Hypipamee Crater is a fascinatingly eerie place worth visiting. Far North Queensland is brimming with evidence of a land once teeming with volcanic activity. Hypipamee crater is one of the volcanic crater lakes in the area that’s a good example of this.
Thousands of years ago, during an eruption, gases trapped under the earth’s surface burst their way through the crust, creating a gigantic hole in the middle of the mountain.
The crater is now filled with water that runs under the mountain in the lava pipe. The top of the water in the crater lake is covered with duckweed; its vibrant greens give a pretty, yet kind of deathly glaze, over the top. Sure wouldn’t like to fall in there!
Dinner Falls, a cascading waterfall, is also a short walk below the crater and worth a look. The rainforest here is just beautiful – lush and green and if you’re lucky you might see a cassowary.
9. Ride the SkyRail and Kuranda Scenic Railway
Kuranda is a small village in the Atherton Tablelands that draws a lot of day visitors from Cairns.
We visited Kuranda from Cairns taking the Skyrail up and the Kuranda Scenic Railway back down.
The views over the rainforest and looking back over Cairns are beautiful.
There are a few markets up here, worth a browse, although I think you’ll find better in other places in Australia. Although I did find the most magical mookite crystal while there, so it made it a winner in my eyes. Isn’t she truly beautiful?
While in Kuranda, we highly suggest you enjoy the 3km rainforest walk from the centre of town through the rainforest and along the esplanade to the train station.
It was truly beautiful and I loved the last section along the esplanade. It was stunning with the afternoon light and the melaleuca gums along the banks of the Barron River.
10. See Coffee World at Coffee Works
Prepare to wake yourself up with endless shots of coffee.
That’s if you pay the admission fee ($19) to Coffee World at Coffee Works in Mareeba. From there, you have access to unlimited quantities of coffee, tea, chocolate, and liqueur.
We bypassed this sensory explosion and stopped in at the cafe for a coffee. You’d expect a good one at a place called Coffee World – and yes, it did not let us down.
We did get to taste a bit of the chocolate in the cafe. I fell in love with the chilli chocolate. The coffee one was pretty good too. And we had to drag the girls out of the tasting room.
11. Go cheese tasting at Mandala Dairy Centre
We stopped in for lunch at the Mandala Dairy Centre. There’s a display area within the cafe if you are interested to learn about the dairy industry in the Tablelands. You can also pay to go behind the scenes into the milk factory
We had a delicious pumpkin soup which heartened us up in the cold rain.
Mungalli Creek bio-dynamic dairy also has a selection of cheese and yogurt to taste, which were deliciously creamy. They are well known for their gourmet cheese pies and Sicilian cheesecake if you want to indulge.
For delicious ice cream, head over to Gallo Dairyland!
12. Stop Off at Lake Barrine Tea House
Although it was still raining the Lake Barrine Teahouse was a lovely place to visit right on the lake. They’re famous for their Devonshire Tea and we appreciated that they had a little kiddies play area so we could have some downtime with our tea.
Lake Barrine is also well known for its relaxing cruises around the volcanic crater brim, or if you’re feeling more energetic there’s a 5km walking track around the lake.
13. Go mountain bike riding
The Atherton Tablelands is a mountain bike lovers dream play area.
There are over 30 kms of world-class dedicated mountain bike trails, ranging from beginner to hardcore, and they take you winding through ancient rainforests and scenic back country roads.
14. Ride in a Hot Air Balloon
Why not take a look at Atherton from above? Hot air ballooning is a magical way to join the sun in its journey up.
It operates flights daily, weather dependent, from the Atherton Tablelands, Cairns, Port Douglas, and Palm Cove with door-to-door transfers included in your hot air ballooning ticket.
15. Visit Granite Gorge Nature Park
Credit: Tourism & Events Queensland
The Granite Gorge Nature Park is a campground next to huge granite boulders and a gorgeous creek that’s great for swimming.
The park is located just 12km from Mareeba in a blissful rural setting. If you want to camp, you can rent one of their safari tents or pitch your own tent.
Or, you can visit for the day to see some of its amazing native wildlife. Echidnas, quolls, rock wallabies, possums, gliders and many species of bird call this park home.
If you’re looking for things to do in Atherton Tablelands with kids, this would be it!
16. Explore the Mareeba Wetlands
We mentioned earlier that the Atherton Tablelands has a diverse landscape, and so far you’ve seen waterfalls, volcanic crate lakes, and plantations, but you haven’t seen wetlands…
And the Mareeba Wetlands are a definite must to any Athertons Tablelands itinerary.
It’s packed full of rare and stunning wildlife and connected to the Queensland Outback at the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve.
The reserve is best known for its walking trails, which range from short easy hikes to full-day 15km hikes. You can also take a guided boat tour across Clancy’s Lagoon, where you can spot some of the park’s resident jacanas, pygmy-geese and freshwater crocs!
If you prefer a little more solitude, you can rent a canoe and paddle the lagoon yourself.
17. Check Out Wooroonooran National Park
Another stunning nature spot in Atherton Tablelands is the Wooroonooran National Park (say that five times fast!).
The park is known for its challenging Walshs Pyramid hike, which is a challenging 6km out and back trail up a pyramid-shaped mountain, which offers amazing vistas of the surrounding jungles below.
If you prefer relaxation, head over to Goldsborough Valley for some canoeing or kayaking on the river, or check out the stunning Josephine Falls.
The park is known for its beautiful rainforest, untamed rivers and craggy gorges, so however you choose to spend your days here, you’ll be surrounded by some of the best nature in Queensland.
18. Hike up Mount Bartle Frere
Credit: Tourism & Events Queensland
As one of the highest mountains in Australia, hikers should not skip the opportunity to hike up Mount Bartle Frere, which is located inside the Wooroonooran National Park.
There are several routes up the mountain, but if you want to reach the summit, you will need to allow two days to complete the hike, whichever route you take.
Now the Bartle Frere hike is not for everyone and it can be quite dangerous. It’s also worth noting that while the trail is well marked, the trail is very steep and requires some scrambling in places.
We don’t recommend doing this hike alone, but if you’re a serious hiker and want to tackle this beast, the views from the summit will be a rewarding surprise for your efforts!
19. Visit the Crystal Cave
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Atherton Tablelands, be sure to check out the Crystal Cave in Atherton.
The cave is a 300 meter squared cavern made up of tunnels and grottos, which has been turned into a crystal museum.
As you wander through the cavern, you will see several types of natural crystals and prehistoric fossils, some more than a million years old.
While you might be thinking the cave is as old as the crystals inside, it was actually man-made.
It was created by Rene Boissevain as a place to share his love of crystals. The museum now features over 600 specimens.
20. Pay Respects at the Hou Wang Temple
You might not be expecting to see a Chinese temple in the middle of the Atherton Tablelands, but we did say it was a diverse region!
The Hou Wang Temple is a tin Chinese Temple that was built in 1903, and is the last timber and iron Chinese temple in Aus. It is also rumoured to be the only Chinese temple dedicated to Hou Wang outside China.
Hou Wang was the name given to the bodyguard commander of the Emporer of the last Song Dynasty (1127-1279AD) Emperor.
After the Emporer fled from invading Mongols in 1279 AD, the commander Yang Liang Chieh was left in charge.
The temple is also a museum, showcasing the significance of the regions Chinese cultural heritage with displays of cultural artefacts that have both social and religious significance.
Recommendations From Our Community
Views of Atherton from the balloon
We’ve shown you some of our favourite things to do in the Atherton Tablelands, and now it’s time to share what our readers and community say:
Chelsea Sutherland says – Peeramon Pub does a great lunch; the walk around Lake Eacham is very pleasant and family-friendly. Gallos Dairy has a small petting area out the back.
Becky Ward says – Lake Tinaroo is beautiful and isn’t too far away! Also when visiting Milla Milla falls arrive as early as possible to get the place to yourself!
Lesley Hurrell-Clarke says –Sunset at Lake Eacham and you can see baby turtles.
Susan Wise says – Spot a platypus in the wild at Yungaburra – a great little town to spend a couple of days in.
Tanya Manwaring says – Our little ones loved The Crystal Caves, Milla Milla falls, and Lake Tinaroo. Good spot to pick up some great local coffee.
Emma Michelmore says – Visit Granite gorge, you get to feed cute wallabies and there is a beautiful scenic walk.
Where to stay in the Atherton Tablelands
The Big 4 Atherton Woodlands Tourist Park makes for a great base to explore the area.
We stayed in a comfortable two-bedroom cabin. Just down the road are the Chinese Gardens and the platypus pool – we couldn’t spot any, but many say they do.
It’s also close to the centre of town and a short drive to many of the Tablelands attractions.
Scroll through the list of accommodations in Atherton.
Before You Go
So there you have it, those are the best things to do in Atherton Tablelands and as you can see, there’s so much to see and do.
While most people visit Cairns or Port Douglas to head out onto the Great Barrier Reef, a trip inland to see the wildlife, jungles, waterfalls, and agriculture of the Atherton Tablelands should not be skipped off any Cairns itinerary.
We hope this guide helped you to decide on what to do in the Atherton Tablelands and gave you some insight into why it’s such a wonderful destination in Aus!
Disclaimer: We visited in partnership with Tropical North Queensland, but all the thoughts and ideas in this guide are our own. For more details on magical Queensland drives, including the Waterfall Circuit and the Savannah Way Drive visit Drive North Queensland.