A short drive from Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands are a popular day trip and a great place to escape the tropical humidity of the coast in summer.
The Tablelands are always a few degrees cooler than Cairns and with plenty of things to see and do, it is a good destination to go exploring on a self driving road trip.
Its a bit ambitious to expect to do everything in one day so we would recommend focusing on one area so we listed some things to do in the norther, central and southern Tablelands. If you’ve got time it’s worth staying a night or two.
You can access the northern end of the Tablelands via the Kuranda Range Road from Cairns or via the road that travels up to Julatten and Mount Molly.
1. Kuranda – Lots of tourists arrive each day in Kuranda via the Skyrail or the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns. If you want to avoid the crowds, make this your first stop for a coffee if you’re on a self driving tour. There are shops and markets to browse and a few attractions – our favourite is the Butterfly Sanctuary.
2. Kuranda River Cruise – This short boat trip is a great way to enjoy the natural environment around Kuranda, which you can easily miss if you just go the village. These guys also offer a guided rainforest walk on the opposite side of the river.
3. Rainforestation – Just outside Kuranda on the main road this is a very touristy attraction but good if you’ve got kids in tow. If you’re short on time it provides you with several attractions in one spot – a zoo, rainforest tour and aboriginal shows.
4. Barron Falls – The biggest waterfalls on the Tablelands are spectacular after a big rainfall and definitely worth a look.
5. Davies Creek – This is a very popular camping spot and also a beautiful place to go for a swim and a picnic.
6. Emerald Creek – You need to drive along a fairly rough unsealed road and then walk up a walking track to get there but you can get fairly close to the top of this beautiful waterfall.
7. Coffee Trail – If you’re a coffee lover head to Jaques Coffee for a tour of the plantation to see how coffee is grown and produced before visiting the museum at Coffee Works in Mareeba where you can learn all about the history of coffee production around the world.
8. Microlight tour – For those who want to mix in a bit of adventure, Jaques also offer microlight tours over the area.
9. Taste some tropical tipples – De Brueys, Mt Uncle Distillery and Golden Drop Winery all have cellar doors so you can try some of the local alcoholic drinks crafted from exotic fruits grown in the region.
10. Mareeba – The northern Tablelands around the Mareeba area is dry savannah country, which is a major contrast to the green rainforests of Kuranda. This is the largest town on the Tablelands, which is often overlooked but there are a few things to do in the area.
11. Mareeba Wetlands – This 5,000 wildlife reserve is popular with birdwatchers. There are walking tours, boat tours and 4WD tours on offer.
12. Hot Air Ballooning – For something special, this is one of the best ways to start your (very early) day on the Atherton Tablelands.
13. Granite Gorge – This private nature reserve has beautiful landcapes featuring huge boulders. It’s major drawcard is the rock wallabies that are friendly enough to feed by hand.
14. Kangaroo spotting – Wildlife enthusiasts should also head to the Mareeba Golf Course where a group of eastern grey kangaroos call home.
15. Skybury Farmgate – The farm at Skybury produces coffee, red pawpaw and bananas, which you can buy directly from their farmgate shop. They also have a cafe with fantastic views overlooking what used to be a tobacco plantation.
16. Mareeba Rodeo – Pick up an Akubra hat and a big buckle belt from Mareeba before heading to one of the region’s biggest events (held in July every year).
17. Stargazing – the outback skies at the edge of the Tablelands are the perfect place to lie down and gaze into the galaxies. Not sure which star is which? Join the tour.
The Central Tablelands are where most of the action is in terms of accommodation, restaurants and attractions.
1. Yungaburra – This is a quaint village and a popular place to stay overnight. There are a few accommodation options and also a few cafes and restaurants to choose from.
2. Lake Tinaroo – Tinaroo is a man-made reservoir that supplies most of the Tablelands communities and farms. It is also extremely popular for camping and watersports.
3. Avenue of Honour – This beautiful memorial beside Lake Tinaroo is dedicated to soldiers involved in the conflict in Afghanistan. The avenue of flame trees is best seen in October-December when the trees are flowering.
4. Platypus spotting – there are a few different places in the Tablelands where you can see platypus. One of the easiest is at sunrise or sunset at Petersen Creek in Yungaburra although it can get quite busy with all the bus tours.
5. Curtain fig tree – The Curtain Fig Tree and Cathedral Fig Tree are huge strangler figs trees that are both thought to be about 500 years old. They are both within the last remaining remnants of a particular type of rainforest called Mabi Rainforest, which is almost extinct with only 4% left.
6. Gallo Dairyland – Also close to Yungaburra, this is a great spot to pick up some delicious cheese and chocolate. There is also a cafe and a farm animal shed out the back, which is good for the kidis.
7. Lake Eacham – One of two volcanic lakes, Lake Eacham is a fantastic place to go swimming in the summer. It has a pier and steps so you can easily get in. There are also BBQ’s available. Get there early at the weekends in summer.
8. Lake Barrine – Also a volcanic lake, Lake Barrine has a walking track around the lake but you can also take a boat ride. This is a good stop for Devonshire tea too.
9. Pick strawberries at Shaylees – September is strawberry picking season on the Tablelands so if you happen to be in the area at this time of year, go to Shaylees, pick up a punnet and go in search of the biggest strawberries.
11. Herberton – Anyone with a fascination with Australian pioneering history with love Historic Village Herberton, which is essentially an open air museum.
12. Bird watching – With over 300 bird species due to the variety of habitats, the Atherton Tablelands are very popular with birdwatchers. Some of the places to keep your binoculars on hand are the national parks with lakes and waterfalls, as well as Hasties Swamp, Nardellos Lagoon, Bromfield Swap, Abbatoir Swamp and the Mareeba Wetlands.
13. Mount Hypipamee – This massive diatreme is just one of the many volcanic remnants of the Tablelands. Find a stone, throw it in and wait for it to plop. Dinner Falls is also right nearby.
14. Bush walking – There are lots of bushwalking trails around the Tablelands,
15. Atherton – Similar to Mareeba, Atherton is a growing town that serves the surrounding farming communities. The main cultural attraction here is the Hou Wang Temple, which used to be the heart of the region’s Chinese settlers. Halloran’s Hill is also a nice spot to get some views of the area and, if you’re in to crystals, you can pop into the Crystal Caves on the Main Street.
16. Mountain biking – Far North Queensland is becoming a hub for international mountain bike championships so there are many high standard trails in the area. Head for the Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park and Davies Creek Mountain Bike Park. You can rent bikes in Atherton.
17. Tolga Bat Hospital – Run by a conservation community group, the Tolga Bat Hospital is open to visitors who want to learn more about micro bats and flying foxes. You must book and appointment.
The rolling green hills of the Southern Tablelands are dairy country and where some of the region’s best biodynamic dairy products are produced
1. Nerada Tea Plantation – Nerada has a cafe where you can drink the locally grown tea while overlooking the beautiful tea crops. This is also a good place to spot tree kangaroos.
2. Misty Mountains – For those who enjoy exploring wilderness areas, head to the Misty Mountains for camping, bird watching and hiking. There are several walking trails.
3. Waterfall circuit – The waterfalls are probably one of the main drawcards of the Atherton Tablelands and there’s plenty of choice. Choose at one or two to add to your itinerary.
4. Ravenshoe – The highest town in Queensland is a small town mostly known for its wind farm. Its also close to Millstream Falls, which are worth seeing.
5. Cooking Classes – The Tablelands are known as the food bowl of the Far North and these cooking classes near Malanda enable you to learn how to cook a new cuisine using local produce.
6. Mungalli Falls Biodynamic Dairy – Pop in for Devonshire Tea at the tea shop at this dairy farm, which produces very popular biodynamic eggs, milk and dairy products.
7. Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walk – Just off the Palmerston Highway, this walk along allows you to see and learn about the rainforest and also enjoy some beautiful views of the North Johnstone River winding its way through the gorge. The pathways are pretty flat and easy to walk but in total it is about 2kms so allow about an hour.
travel nq fast facts:
- There are four access roads to the Tablelands from the coast – one near Port Douglas, one in Smithfield in the north of Cairns, one in Gordonvale (Gillies Highway) and one north of Innisfail (Palmerston Highway)
- If anyone in your vehicle gets motion sickness, avoid the Gillies Highway since it has lots of twists and turns.