When you think of Tropical North Queensland, most people envisage the Great Barrier Reef, snorkelling and beach vibes. Some people might even think about the Daintree Rainforest, and that iconic spot at Cape Tribulation where the rainforest meets the reef.
But only about an hour out of Cairns, is the underrated region of the Atherton Tablelands.
In this post:
What are the Atherton Tablelands?
The Atherton Tablelands is one of the most beautiful and diverse regions of Northern Queensland. It is a collection of towns, natural landmarks and beautiful National Parks that also includes part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in the east, the Einasleigh Uplands in the south, the Gulf Plains to the west, the Cape York bio-region to the north and even part of the Great Dividing Range.
Made up of tall waterfalls, secluded water holes, long hiking trails, Australian wildlife, countless fruit farms, dairies and coffee plantations and some of the most breathtaking landscapes and views in all of Queensland, the Atherton Tablelands should not be missed on any Queensland road trip itinerary, and with so much to see and do here, they could actually be a trip all of their own!
There are so many different things to see and do in the Atherton Tablelands, but let’s start with what we’re all here for, the waterfalls.
Atherton Table Waterfalls
The main waterfalls can be found along the Waterfall Circuit, a circular road that links lots of the waterfalls together. Along the way you can find all the best, including:
Millaa Millaa Falls – just south of the town of Millaa Millaa, this is where the waterfall circuit begins and is one of the most popular swimming spots on the circuit. You can find BBQ and picnic facilities here, as well as change rooms and toilets. Platypus are sometimes spotted here in the late afternoon, so keep an eye out.
Zillie Falls – 7.5 kilometres from Millaa Millaa, Zillie Falls are tall and secluded. A lookout is offered straight off the circuit road, but the adventurous ones can take a hike down to the bottom of the falls for even more spectacular views.
Elinjaa Falls – another 3 kilometres along the circuit, Elinjaa cascades over a series of lava columns. Follow the zig zag track through the tree ferns and vines down to the stream for the best views and places to swim. This was definitely one of our favourites, absolutely stunning when you get down there.
Pepina Falls – found 10 kilometres from Millaa Milla along Palmerston Highway, it’s only a short walk from the car park to reach Pepina Falls.
Mungalli Falls – back along Palmerston Highway, about 13 kilometres from Millaa Millaa towards Innisfail on Junction Road, Mungalli is the highest waterfall in the Tablelands at 90 metres high!
Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands
There is really an endless list of ways you can spend your time in the Atherton Tablelands. You can visit every single time and see something new. While it’s famous for it’s waterfalls there are still heaps of other things to see in the Atherton Tablelands. Some of our favourites for you to check out include:
Spot a wild platypus in Yungaburra, where wild platypus just hang out in the dam. You’ve got to be really concentrating, because they don’t make any noise at all, and they only pop out of the water for a short amount of time, so make sure you’re really concentrating.
Check out the small town of Yungaburra, it’s so cute and well preserved, it’s definitely worth a stop over on your way out to the waterfalls.
Make friends with the little rock wallabies at Granite Gorge, or try your luck catching a barramundi at Lake Tinaroo. There are also some great free camping spots at Lake Tinaroo if you’re looking for somewhere to stay.
Check out the Nucifora Tea Plantation, where rows and rows and rows of tea grow in straight lines. You can purchase some of this tea from the little honesty box on the side of the road, but otherwise it’s a great photo stop.
Shop up a storm at the Kuranda Original Markets for all sorts of locally designed and hand crafted jewellery, indigenous art, leather and wood workers and even gem stone specialists.
You can also take the infamous Skyrail up to Kuranda to get the full experience, and then take the scenic heritage railway back down to Cairns.
Visit Rainforestation in Kuranda, where there are often a couple of cute cuddly little koala joeys to see. They have a couple of different tours around the park, including a cultural Aboriginal walks and they WWII Army Ducks tours.
Have an afternoon of freshly baked scones and a wine at Lake Barrine Teahouse. They’re open from Thursday to Sunday each week and their scones are absolutely delicious. Plus the view over Lake Barrine is pretty impressive as well.
Lake Barrine is one of the twin emerald lakes, which include Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, as well as the Mount Hypipamee Crater. Definitely worth visiting on a sunny day to see the emerald waters of the lakes.
There are HEAPS of different chocolate and cheese places to visit around the Atherton Tablelands, with some of the favourite choices being Gallo Dairyland, Emerald Creek Ice-Creamery and Charleys Chocolate Tour.
The Atherton Tablelands are also considered to be the fruit bowl of the northern tropics, with so many fruit farms in the area. Many of them offer a tasting tour, so you can try some of the freshest fruit in the country.
How to get to the Atherton Tablelands
It’s very easy to get to the Atherton Tablelands and the Cairns Highlands by car. The roads are generally pretty well maintained and you can drive there from the southern and northern coast, and even the western outback.
From the Cassowary Coast, Innisfail: The area between Townsville and Cairns is known as the Cassowary Coast, which includes small towns such as Mission Beach, Etty Bay, Innisfail and Ingham. You can get to the Atherton Tablelands from here via the Palmerston Highway, a sealed road connecting the Bruce Highway to Innisfail.
From Cairns: There are two different options to get to the Tablelands from Cairns. The Kuranda Range Road just north of Cairns climbs the coastal range to the rainforest village of Kuranda. Follow the Kennedy Highway between Kuranda and Mareeba to start hitting Davies Creek National Park and Emerald Creek Falls. All roads to the Atherton Tablelands are windy and a little bit horrible, but heading there through Kuranda definitely seem to make for an easier drive.
Alternatively, the Gillies Highway starts 35 kilometres south of Cairns and is where you will start your gradual climb up the Gillies Range, offering you views of the Great Dividing Range and taking you through to Yungaburra.
Where are the Atherton Tablelands
Located in Tropical North Queensland, the Atherton Tablelands extends from Mount Garnet in the south-west, across Millaa Millaa, Maranda, Atherton, Yungaburra, Mareeba and up to Kuranda, in the north-east. It is also considered to reach up north as high as the Cape York Peninsula at the top of Queensland.
The Tablelands sprawl across national parks, make up part of the World Heritage listed Wet Tropics, and are home to countless small towns and communities along the way. The Atherton Tablelands are easily accessible from both Cairns and Townsville, only falling a short way inland and an easy drive to many coastal towns such as Innisfail and Mission Beach.
Before you go
Plan you visit by checking out the Atherton Tablelands website before you go, to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the places you might want to see.
If you’d like some more information during your visit, there are plenty of Visitors Centres that you can stop by to find out more about the region. The main visitors centre in the region is the Atherton Visitor Information Centre, that can be found right in the heart of the Atherton Tablelands at 9 Silo Road, Atherton. There are also information centres at Yungaburra and Malanda.
Wildlife: If you come across sick, injured or orphaned wildlife, please contact Tablelands Wildlife Rescue on their 24 hour emergency helpline on (07) 4091 7767.