The Atherton Tablelands is a lush, fertile plateau that is part of the Great Dividing Range in the tropical north region of Queensland, Australia.
The ‘Tablelands’ (as referred to by locals) is a combination of wet tropical rainforests, sweeping Savannah Lands, and a vast outback desert. The Atherton Tablelands is well known within Queensland as a region of stunning natural beauty situated at an altitude ranging from 600m to 1100m where the air is cool and fresh.
Yet to the rest of the world, it seems that the Atherton Tablelands often appears lost when compared to the famed Daintree Rainforest and of course the world-famous Great Barrier Reef located nearby.
As a result, people who come to this part of the globe and base themselves in Cairns often are not aware of the existence of the Tablelands and don’t know what they are missing when planning and enjoying their trip to Cairns and Tropical North Queensland.
The lovely inland town of Atherton is 81 km southwest of Cairns. The town and surrounding tablelands are named after John Atherton, a remarkable early settler who, in 1857 when he was only twenty, overlanded sheep from the New England area of NSW all the way to Rockhampton in Queensland. He moved to the Atherton Tablelands area in the late 1870s.
Due to the town’s elevation of some 752 meters (2,467 ft) above sea level, Atherton weather contributes to this community’s reputation of being a nice place to live. Atherton Tablelands weather generally is much cooler and more bearable than the coast, especially in summer.
Getting to the Atherton Tablelands from Cairns
You can pick up a drive map of the Atherton Tablelands from Cairns or the town of Atherton and at any of the “i” (or tourist information centers). These maps are really easy to read and follow. Depending on your driving route and where you are headed to, Cairns to Atherton usually takes between 1-2 hours.
The other option of course would be to take an Atherton Tablelands tour which originates from Cairns and is done on nice comfy tour buses with a guide and commentary as you go.
We decided to experience both the tour and self-drive options on our visit to this region and we were quite surprised by the huge number of things to do in Atherton Tablelands.
Our 7 Hidden Treasures
We were well aware of the Atherton Tablelands prior to flying into Cairns, and were determined to ensure we allowed enough time to explore this region in addition to the more famous attractions mentioned earlier.
Below is a summary of some of the more significant highlights that I would recommend you see and experience when visiting.
The Babinda Boulders is an area of the Babinda Creek lined with huge boulders and clear freshwater weaving between the boulders to fill large pools where people can swim. Visitors to the Babinda Boulders are often amazed that the water is quite cool, even during mid-summer.
Just behind the Boulders is Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain, from which Babinda Creek’s cool water originates. The section of the creek where the water rushes over massive granite boulders, smoothing and shaping them, is referred to as the Babinda Boulders.
These boulders reminded me so much of the scene we experienced at Mossman Gorge while exploring the incredible Daintree Rainforest, just north of the Atherton Tablelands.
On the day we visited Babinda, it was pouring non-stop rain, which made for a cooler visit but we hadn’t anticipated the downpour so we didn’t have an umbrella and were well and truly drenched from the experience.
It was fun to see the boulders, creek, and surrounding rainforest area and while we didn’t go swimming on this occasion, we did manage to take a few photos without completely wetting the camera.
Curtain Fig National Park
Entering this small but popular national park, you can view a spectacular curtain fig tree from different vantage points along a boardwalk.
Why would a fig tree be so special that people flock to see it, you may ask?
Well, this large fig tree in Curtain Fig Tree National Park is unique because the extensive aerial roots, that drop 15 meters to the forest floor, have formed a ‘curtain’. Starting from a seed dropped high in the canopy, this strangler fig grew vertical roots, which gradually became thicker and interwoven.
Over hundreds of years, these roots have strangled the host tree causing it to fall into a neighboring tree – a stage unique to the development of this fig. Vertical fig roots then formed a curtain-like appearance and the host trees then rotted away, leaving the freestanding fig tree.
This particular tree which you can see in the photos is nearly 50 meters tall, with a trunk circumference of 39 meters, and is estimated to be over 500 years old!
Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls
When people say you shouldn’t miss seeing the Atherton waterfalls, they are actually referring to the Atherton waterfalls circuit (a drive that connects a number of beautiful waterfalls) and also waterfalls in the broader Tablelands generally.
From our adventures exploring this region, my top 3 falls are shared below.
These falls are one of the most popular and were the first we saw, located within Babinda creek, close to the Babinda Boulders.
The falls are an easy walk from the Babinda Boulders car park, along a walkway that runs alongside the Babinda creek.
While Josephine Falls is promoted as a beautiful spot to enjoy along with the Babinda Boulders, authorities caution swimmers to take great care as to where they enter the water. Signs indicate dangerous areas where people have drowned in the past.
Devils Pool is one of the pools along the boulders area which is sacred to the Aboriginals of this land. Legend has it that a young beautiful woman fell to her death there and continues to haunt the waters. This legend does actually help to warn swimmers, even more, to not take these waters for granted.
Located on the North Johnstone River, the town of Malanda is synonymous with milk and all things dairy. The Malanda Falls is a popular attraction close to the town and also includes a park area where many people enjoy picnics.
The Malanda Falls are within the Eacham Shire, not far from Eacham Lake and the area is maintained by the local council.
There are also guided walks through the Malanda Falls Conservation Park led by local indigenous people.
Millaa Millaa Falls
Often referred to as ‘the village in the mist’, Millaa Millaa is a town located on the southern edge of the Atherton Tablelands, around 100 km south of Cairns.
The waterfalls situated close to the village mark the start of the waterfalls circuit, consisting of three lovely waterfalls in this area.
We found Millaa Millaa Falls to be a spectacular spot and very peaceful even though there were also a number of other tourists there at the time. I think you will agree from this photo that it is indeed quite a stunning waterfall.
Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway or ‘Skywalk’
The Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway is a spectacular walk through the canopy of the World Heritage rainforest.
Otherwise known as ‘Skywalk’, this is an iconic tourist attraction in the heart of the Wet Tropics. It has a 350 meter long elevated walkway through the canopy, a cantilever, a 37-meter observation tower, and more than 1200 meters of walking tracks.
You can wander through this piece of wilderness taking in the wonder of nature at your own pace while learning about the flora and fauna here from the information posted along the various trails.
The cantilever provides tantalizing views over the North Johnstone river gorge. The 37-meter observation tower emerges high above the canopy, offering sweeping views over a pristine rainforest-clad mountainous landscape, the homeland of the Mamu Aboriginal people.
Located within the Palmerston section of Wooroonooran National Park, the attraction was built in natural clearings in the rainforest caused by cyclone Larry in March 2006 and constructed from durable unpainted galvanized steel and recycled plastic.
This attraction is a must-do for anyone wanting to experience being close to the rainforest. It is located close to other National Park walking tracks and picnic areas, making it a great day visit to the area, armed with a picnic hamper and walking shoes.
Skywalk is also wheelchair friendly with the exception of the observation tower where there are stairs to reach the top to enjoy views above the forest canopy.
Platypus Spotting at Yungaburra
Mention unique Australian wildlife and everyone immediately thinks of the kangaroo. However, the platypus is equally unique and in fact more challenging to find and observe.
Immediately outside the small, charming town/village of Yungaburra, there is a creek just off the road that you would miss if you didn’t know it was there.
The only signage indicating the presence of the platypus exists within the area of the creek itself which is great because there might otherwise be hoards of people pulling over or walking from the village and potentially affecting the habitat there.
We only found out about it from our tour guide who knew we were keen on the unique natural experiences of the region and not because this is on the official tourist trail.
It took a while to finally locate a platypus in the creek after getting there but everyone in our small group was excited when the sighting occurred. Most of us managed to get a photo before the platypus again vanished under the water back to peacefully enjoy his day. This was certainly a highlight for our day to see this outside of a zoo-type experience.
There are a few lovely lakes up on the Atherton Tablelands. The biggest of all is Lake Tinaroo.
Not surprisingly, this beautiful area is well set up for locals and visitors alike to enjoy the lake and its beautiful surroundings. Lake Tinaroo is a favorite spot for fishing, water-skiing, and those keen on boating.
The lake is large enough for virtually all visitors to find a private and quiet spot to enjoy the beauty and atmosphere there. The area also has a number of campsites perfect for spending time under the stars in this peaceful location. In addition, there are also more up-market cabins at the Lake Tinaroo Holiday Park.
We loved checking out the lake from a number of locations and it was one of our favorite places on the Atherton Tablelands.
Crater Lakes National Park
Crater Lakes National Park comprises two separate sections—Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham. Both sections have clear, blue crater lakes surrounded by cool rainforests. As the name of the park suggests, the lakes are both volcanically-formed and there are also walking trails around the water.
At Lake Barrine you will find a walking track, giant bull kauri pine trees, and privately-owned teahouse and boat cruises which make it a popular stop for visitors.
Lake Eacham, a favorite of locals and visitors alike, offers swimming, birdwatching, picnic areas, and shady walking tracks.
We spent most of our time within the park at Lake Eacham as it was such a pretty location. It is yet another jewel in the crown of the Atherton Tablelands and you can’t help feeling a little sorry for visitors who just don’t know about the Tablelands and all there is to see.
The lush and vibrant vegetation found in this warm, tropical environment creates conditions ideal for growing a variety of food of high quality.
The Atherton Tablelands provides an amazing array of produce including bananas, berries, avocados, mangos, sugar cane, dairy, coffee, tea, and beef cattle.
There are a number of places you can sample the produce while visiting and it always seems to taste that much better when you are actually right there.
Atherton Tablelands accommodation is not just restricted to the Atherton Motel. In fact, accommodation in Atherton Tablelands extends throughout the region and provides a fair amount of choice if you prefer not to be based in the city of Cairns.
If you are thinking of staying close to Atherton itself, the most popular choice appeared to be the Big 4 Atherton which offers a number of options of caravan sites as well as cabins in a lovely natural setting.
Atherton is an ideal, central location from which to explore the Tablelands however it is still very possible to do so from many of the towns and villages in the area or even from Cairns itself.
When most people arrive in Cairns, they are well aware of the main draw of this area, being the Great Barrier Reef and the beautiful coastline in the region stretching from Mission Beach in the south to Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation in the north.
However, I hope that this article has highlighted the significance of the Atherton Tableland attractions sufficiently to convince you to also make time to travel inland. Taking a road trip here for some fabulous experiences can truly add to some wonderful memories in this beautiful part of the world.
Have you visited the Atherton Tablelands at all? Or did you find this article and my experience interesting enough to think about going? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.