The Atherton Tablelands are situated up in the glorious green mountains, about an hour away from Cairns. The air is noticeably cooler and there are a huge amount of freshwater lakes and waterfalls to explore, along with plenty of rainforest walks. If you’re planning a trip up here, make sure you pack your swimmers and keep your eyes peeled for the diverse wild life that inhabits this magnificent part of the world.
There are a number of tour buses that leave Cairns every day, but I highly recommend renting or taking your own car, so that you can explore at your leisure. There are a number of roads up the mountain. We approached from the South, driving inland from Gordonvale and taking the Gillies Highway (a very windy road) up to the tablelands. On the way, it’s worth stopping at the spectacular Heales Lookout, which gives you extraordinary views over the mountains.
If you leave early, you can easily fit the main attractions into one day. If you prefer to take your time, as we did, there are a number of camping spots and guesthouses at which to stay. We managed to fit the following attractions into a couple of days:
Crater Lakes National Park
There are a number of stunning crater lakes of volcanic origin around this area, including Lake Barrine and Lake Eachem. They are both within a short drive of each other are fantastic for rainforest walks, wildlife watching and swimming. Both lakes are around 65 metres deep in parts!
- Lake Barrine has a walking track which encircles the lake and there are picnic grounds, along with a tea house, which was built in 1926. Inside the tea house are some old photos of the lake (for anyone interested in history). There is the option of taking a cruise on the lake, or you can admire it from the water’s edge.
- Lake Eachem is also surrounded by rainforest and, personally, I find this the most interesting lake. You can take a walk around its circumference to enjoy the rainforest and, if you peer into the lake, you can spot lots of fish and turtles. The Saw-Shelled turtles are native to Lake Eachem and can breathe through their bottoms underwater! There is a well-established swimming area and boat ramp here too, from where you can launch your kayaks or simply swim in the cool, fresh water. It is highly relaxing and we have frequented this lake several times during our stay.
Just outside of Malanda, you will find yet another wonderful swimming hole and waterfall, perfect for a hot day. The information centre here was extremely informative and we learnt a lot about the rare tree kangaroos, which inhabit the area. We are yet to spot one of these creatures, but our eyes are on the lookout.
Smokehouse Cafe Platypus Viewing
If you drive into this cafe, you can pay $5 each to go down to the lake and see the wild platypus swimming and feeding in the water. Of course, seeing one of these unique creatures is not guaranteed. However, we spotted loads! There are also plenty of fresh-water turtles popping their heads up for a look. We spent ages enjoying these delightful creatures! Interestingly, when you walk down, you are encouraged to continue talking amongst yourselves, as they are used to tourists and will not find you a threat, unless you start pointing, of course, which is strongly discouraged.
This circuit, which meanders through the rolling, green countryside, stops by three different waterfalls, all beautiful in their own rights. It doesn’t take long to complete, though you can spend hours swimming and relaxing in each spot.
- Millaa Millaa Falls – this is my favourite! Here, you can swim beneath the magical waterfall in the heart of the rainforest. With a well-maintained lawn area, you could picnic here for hours, coming in and out of the waterhole for a dip, when it gets too hot.
- Zillie Falls – most people just stop at the top to view these falls, but if you’re game, you can take the slippery, steep path all the way to the bottom and have a swim.
- Ellinjaa Falls – It is a short walk downhill to see this waterfall, which cascades over the rocks, once again in the heart of the rainforest. It is shallower and more rocky, so better for a quick dip to cool off and a photo opportunity.
Millaa Millaa Lookout
If you stop at only one lookout, this is the one! It offers breathtaking 180 degree views over the magical countryside. We arrived just before a storm, so could hear the thunder as it rumbled in. On a clear day, I can imagine you would be able to see right down to the ocean. Nonetheless, spend some time here breathing in the fresh air. It is quite refreshing!
Curtain Fig Tree
Just outside Yungaburra, the Curtain Fig Tree is HUGE and beautiful, with its tendrils reaching to the ground from a fallen tree and creating a huge, curtain-like wall. It is approximately 800 years old and feels like something out of a story book.
Free Camping: Tolga Rocky Creek Memorial Park
Whilst I’m sure there are a multitude of beautiful options for accommodation in the area, if you have been travelling for a long time and are after a cheap option, the Tolga Rocky Creek Memorial Park offers free camping (with gold coin donation). It is a pleasant and safe spot to stay, with toilets and a washing up sink provided. It is also extremely central, so you can reach many tourist attractions within an hours drive.
To the North of Atherton, on the way back to Cairns, we stopped by Barron Falls. These are the largest falls in the area and you can reach the best view point by taking the downhill boardwalk through the forest. They are quite impressive, though not as pretty as those on the Waterfall Circuit.
Henry Ross Lookout (see featured image)
On the drive back to Cairns, we took the Kennedy Highway, which was equally as windy as the drive up! Again, there is a great lookout point, which stretches all the way down to Cairns and the ocean. An excellent last stop before returning to the humidity of the coastal city!
The Atherton Tablelands has been a pleasure. We may be back!