Head to the hills to discover the Atherton Tablelands, whose rolling green hills are ready for a different type of adventure every day
While Cairns might have some famous neighbours, the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics Rainforest, its hinterland holds its own when it comes to things to see and do.
Rising over 700m above sea level, the Atherton Tablelands is worthy of more than a day trip, promising a food scene that’s as varied as the other kinds of adventures you can have along the way. Getting here is most commonly accessed via either the Kuranda or Gillies Ranges, though you can venture up via the Palmerston Highway near Innisfail in the south, or the Rex Range near Port Douglas in the north.
Whether you have a penchant for freshly whipped ricotta, a need for speed, or prefer to get to know a destination by brushing up on its past, explore the many sides of the Atherton Tablelands on your next Tropical North Queensland trip.
For the waterfall chaser
Don’t just pack your togs and towel for the coastline, you’ll need them for what awaits inland where you’ll find a waterfall oasis amongst the rolling green hills of the Atherton Tablelands.
Towering mountain ranges, remnants of former volcanoes and cascading mountain streams make for a waterfall wonderland, so much so that this area even has its own waterfall circuit, like a hype reel of water experiences, primed for chasing.
Since no two falls are the same – some barrel over granite with thunderous applause, while others more closely resemble a trickle over mossy stones – you’ll want to set aside time to discover at least four falls on this list.
Stay: Wake up close to the waterfall action at Malanda Falls Caravan Park.
For the foodie
If you’re the type of traveller that tours with their taste buds top of mind, consider the Atherton Tablelands the destination equivalent of an all you can eat buffet.
It’s the kind of region that lives and breathes a low food miles philosophy, with most food groups (at least all the important ones – grains, dairy, vegetables, coffee and gin) produced on its fertile hills.
From your morning jolt (Skybury Café and Roastery, Jaques Coffee Plantation or Coffee Works) to your morning snack purchased from a roadside fruit stall selling tropical delicacies like mangosteens, prepare your tastebuds for a tropical sensation.
It doesn’t stop there – you’ll also find hand whipped ricotta cheesecake, handmade chocolates and yoghurts (Gallo Dairyland or Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy and Farmhouse Cafe) and your final tipple of the day (Mt Uncle Distillery) within easy drive’s reach of one another.
Take the pressure out of navigating the Atherton Tableland’s food trails yourself and be guided by the pros, letting Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures take the reins for the day. Their day long tour, which departs from Port Douglas, Cairns City and Cairns Northern Beaches, is a curated celebration of the producers found in the region’s ‘food bowl’.
Stay: Tempt your tastebuds to a multi-day treat and stay at the centrally located Jackaroo Motel.
For the history buff
If you’d dismissed the Atherton Tablelands as just an epicurean food-venture, think again. History buffs can bury their noses in the past, exploring townships like Watsonville, Irvinebank and Yungaburra.
Museums like the Historic Village Herberton and the Mareeba Heritage Museum point to timber times on the Tablelands, while the Malanda Falls Information Centre is rich in Indigenous history. Pay a visit to the centre for a cultural perspective of life on the land as told by the local Ngadjonji tribe.
If you prefer stories of the past to come to life through a region’s geography, a visit to the crater lakes on the Tablelands will do you just fine. Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham tell tales of a volcanic explosion over 17,000 years ago, which formed craters which filled with water to create the lakes you see today.
Stay: Opt for a sunrise dip in a crater lake by staying at nearby Crater Lakes Rainforest Cottages. Or stay in the Oldest Hotel on the Atherton Tablelands at Mount Molloy.
For the family
Life’s a playground on the Atherton Tablelands, with plenty of activities to keep the backseat bandit’s boredom at bay.
If travelling with little ones, pack the swimmers for a dip at Lake Eacham or Malanda Falls – both offering refreshing freshwater swimming conditions all year round.
To see life on the land, visit KurCow, six minutes from Kuranda which gives visitors a working cattle farm experience with everything from ATV quad biking to horse riding or simply enjoying a steak from the onsite restaurant.
The fun doesn’t stop there, Mareeba delivers wholesome family fun – whether it’s the Mako Gokart or Drive-in Movie (Friday and Saturday nights only).
Stay: BIG4 NRMA Atherton Tablelands Holiday Park has everything needed for a fun family getaway, including BBQs, a playground and a pool.
For the wildlife lover
Flanked by the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics Rainforest, wildlife lovers are drawn to this part of the country for a reason.
Not only is it home to one of the best locations to spot tree kangaroos in the wild, but you can also spot so many other famous Australian native faces.
For the chance of encountering platypus in the wild, make like a local at dawn or dusk to go platypus spotting at Yungaburra.
If making a difference to the plight of endangered local wildlife is important for your holiday, pay a visit to the Tolga Bat Hospital to see their tiny, winged patients and learn more about the impact of climate change and how you can make a difference to the flight of these Microchiroptera.
Or, if you simply want to make the wildlife the soundtrack to your visit, simply wind down your windows and keep your eyes and ears open for the birdlife that calls this region home.
Stay: Wake up in the midst of the rainforest to a symphony of bird song at Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat or The Canopy Treehouses
For the shopper
We see your big city boutiques and raise you market shopping on the Atherton Tablelands.
For fresh produce all in one place, put Yungaburra Markets on your itinerary, provided your trip is timed for the fourth Sunday of the month. Expect up to 250 growers, producers and artisans showcasing their wares on the ‘Bruce Jones Market Grounds’ in the middle of Yungaburra.
For trinkets and souvenirs that aren’t mass produced, but locally and artisan-made, visit the Kuranda Markets, which have been running for more than 20 years.
Stay: Centrally-located Eden House Retreat is a fantastic place to stay for Yungaburra Markets.
For the luxury traveller
Life’s luxuries can all be found inland from Cairns, with the Atherton Tablelands known for its romantic, secluded retreats.
For the ultimate couple’s getaway, check into Mt Mulligan Lodge and be transported to 28,000 hectares of private, working cattle station paradise.
Even getting to the lodge sets the scene for the secluded escape that awaits, accessible 35 minutes by scenic helicopter or two and a half hours by four-wheel drive.
Swap mountain views for rainforest ones closer to the historical townships on the Tablelands overnighting in Canopy Treehouses, Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat or Mt Quincan Crater Retreat, which each deliver on the romance front.
For the adventurer
There’s plenty of ways to work up an appetite on the Tablelands if you like your holidays to get your heart rate up.
Start your day early with a hot air balloon ride over the Tablelands to get an aerial view of the patchwork of producers dotted across its rolling hills.
Hiking boots are a must in this neck of the woods for exploring the trails which lead in most cases to waterfalls and stunning vistas.
Want to explore with two wheels rather than two feet? The Atherton Tableland’s mountain biking trails just happen to be world famous to see the region under pedal power.
Not all adventure is found above land, go beneath ground to find the limestone caves, small galleries of Aboriginal rock art, jagged limestone outcrops and a historically significant mining site at Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park.
Expect a landscape formed 400 million years ago, defined by limestone towers, caves and caverns all decorated by stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones.
Stay: Adventurers can enjoy a night wildlife canoeing tour with their stay at On The Wallaby Eco Lodge or stay at one of these spots around the Atherton Tablelands mountain bike trails.