Discovering the Atherton Tablelands
If you think North Queensland is about the Great Barrier Reef, sandy beaches and rainforest, think again, there is much more. The Atherton Tablelands is the region of diversity, from colourful wetlands and rugged bushland to impressive waterfalls and gorges to lakes and caves, to a myriad of tropical fruit plantations including mangos, bananas, coffee and tea; you can spend days touring the region and tasting some of the finest produce of the country. And a great road trip from Cairns too.
Highlights of the Atherton Tablelands
Last year on my road trip in Tropical North Queensland, I set off on a solo camping adventure to discover the Atherton Tablelands.
Mareeba, Kuranda, Malanda, Yungaburra and Atherton are the main towns in the northern Tablelands with their distinctive historical heritage of the early pioneer days, the Chinese gold settlement and the markets offering the best of the local produce and arts and crafts of the Atherton Tablelands region.
The Southern Tablelands are home to little villages, dairy, chocolate and coffee factories, a picturesque landscape with over 15 waterfalls, lush hills, gorges, lookouts and tropical forests. These are the highlights of my road trip around the Atherton Tablelands.
Mareeba – iconic heritage town of the Atherton Tablelands
As you drive past the colourful, vast wetlands, you reach Mareeba. Makes sure you stop first at the heritage museum and visitor information centre, right in the heart of the town.
The outdoor museum is unique and provides an interesting insight into the early pioneer days of the region. From there, visit Coffee Works, dive into the coffee world and taste some of the finest local coffees, as well as teas and chocolate products.
Coffee Works hosts one of the oldest coffee museums in the world, which is truly amazing. If you are interested in coffee, I recommend visiting the Jaques Coffee Plantations, just 10 minutes drive from Mareeba, where you have the chance to see how coffee is grown and processed. From there you can also take a scenic flight over the beautiful wetlands.
If you like mango, don’t miss out on the Golden Drop Winery, located 15 minutes drive north of Mareeba.
Yungaburra – picturesque village with platypus viewing area
Yungaburra stole my heart because it’s where I spotted a platypus for the first time. The village has a welcoming vibe with its picturesque flowering pots hanging on the street, its bizarre shops and the Grand Yungaburra Hotel, an iconic building with impressive old-world architecture and displays of historical photographs.
Take the forest walk to the platypus viewing area to spot these amazing creatures and native birds, and local wildlife. Drive 3 km out of town to view the curtain fig tree. Don’t miss out on the Avenue of Honour, located at lake Tinarroo, with its memorial sculpture dedicated to the Australian soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Lake Tinaroo in the heart of the Atherton Tablelands
Lake Tinaroo is part of a large lake area and is very popular among the locals. With over 200 km of shoreline, it offers the best sailing, boating, canoeing, recreational fishing. Here takes place the Tinaroo Barra Bash, a fishing competition attracting many visitors from all over Australia.
I stayed at the campsite, a few minutes drive from Yungaburra, and loved the relaxing setting of Lake Tinaroo.
Malanda – Dairy Centre and forest walks
Start your visit at Malanda Falls visitor centre to visit the Malanda Falls and take self-guided walks of 30 minutes, right near the visitor centre. This is a great way to rest from a hot day with a cooling dip if you can face the waterfalls’ ice-cold water.
The rainforest walk is a great way to spot wildlife; if you are lucky, you may spot the rare tree kangaroo perching on the trees. Malanda is known for its dairy industry. The Malanda Dairy Centre has an interesting retro milk bar-restaurant and more gourmet cheese, cafe and chocolate factories. I loved the 20-minute drive out of town to the Nerada Tea Estate.
The Waterfall Circuit – Start your tour from Milla Milla Falls
Milla Milla town is the gateway to the Southern Atherton Tablelands with picturesque waterfalls, which are Queensland heritage-listed. From Milla Milla, you can start the 15 km circuit encompassing Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls. It’s worth taking this extra circuit because the falls are all different and offer various walking trails. Zillie Falls was my favourite stop.
After completing the waterfall circuit, your drive ends on the Old Palmerston Highway to continue your trip to Mungalli, where you can visit the Mungalli Creek Dairy, known for its biodynamic dairy products.
From there, you can keep driving on the highway and see more waterfalls, stop at Crawford’s Lookout. Drive further on your way back to Cairns, follow the signs to Josephine Falls, the most popular waterfalls among the locals. Beware, at weekends it gets very crowded.
Babinda Boulders and its amazing setting is another fabulous place, not to miss out on your way back, about 45 km south of Cairns. This is, in my opinion, the best place for the entire waterfalls circuit, south of Cairns.
How to plan your trip to the Atherton Tablelands
The only way to tour the Atherton Tablelands is to hire a car or a campervan. It’s an easy drive of 280 km altogether. I spent two nights, but I would recommend spending at least 3 nights.
Solo Camping is good fun, but it’s more expensive than hiring a car and staying in private accommodation as a solo traveller.
For accommodation in the Atherton Tablelands, you can choose between budget accommodation:
Click to book with Airbnb and get 40 AUD off your first booking.
You can also check this site for the largest pool of Hotels in Atherton Tablelands.
First published in 2015, last updated in April 2021
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