Steeped in history, beauty and surprise, the Atherton Tablelands is every hikers Eden.
With thousands-of-years old trails engraved by the Aborigines, to routes blazed by prospectors over 100 years ago, there is a whole myriad of adventure to be ceased. You can hike to waterfalls, through heritage listed rainforests, into old mining fields, around crater lakes, or up Queensland’s highest mountain- it literally offers everything but the bathtub.
Since I’d already taken a couple of walks in the area, on my holiday at Christmas I was keen to traverse deeper into the region to see more unique and remote areas. But you won’t even be able to cover a tenth of the hikes on offer here in just a few trips!
This region is vast- a whopping 65’000 square meters of vast, so I knew I had to strategically pick a handful of hikes that offered a range of different experiences.
These highlands have long been popular with outdoor hikers and bikers and its beauty is striking. Years of intense volcanic activity have moulded a series of spectacular sloping hills, framed by the surrounding rainforest-clad mountain ranges.
There’s also a ridiculous number of furry fauna in the area that you might be lucky enough to see on your adventures.
North Queensland is home to a third of Australia’s entire mammal species and because some tree-dwelling wildlife can only live in altitudes above 250-300 meters, many have flourished here. Whilst you’re better off staying overnight to see them properly as most are nocturnal, do still keep your hawk-eyes peeled and try to be relatively inconspicuous- a Lumholtz tree kangaroo could be watching your every move.
Otherwise the bird-life is pretty cool too and there’s some interesting reptiles and cicadas about, amongst other things. You’re definitely not the only animals in this neck of the woods.
So get your walking shoes, slap on the sunscreen and take your camera.
I hope you’ll love hiking here as much as I did, with lasting memories from this beautiful piece of North Queensland.
My Helpful Hiking Bibles
As well as using this post as a guide, you may wish to buy a hiking book for a more comprehensive list of trails in the area. I always had one to hand! Here are a few goodies I’d recommend.
This was my original hiking bible but it’s like gold dust around here as it’s no longer in publication. I’ve only managed to obtain a copy from Mossman Library (which only has one…and I might have it on loan even if you try!) but it’s really good if you can get your hands on it.
Whilst it includes a lot of shorter hikes, it has the most comprehensive list of tracks in the region compared to any other book currently in circulation. I’ve searched a few second hand bookstores but to no avail- keep your eyes peeled for this gem.
I brought this one because Mossman Library couldn’t find my hiking bible on the day I was travelling to the Tablelands at Christmas! It was still quite difficult to obtain as there was only one bookstore in Cairns that had a copy, so if you can get it online that may be easier. This book doesn’t have all the longer hikes listed in the other one but enough to keep you occupied, and it’s just been recently published so it’s more up-to-date.
This book also looks pretty good if you’re after trails spanning from Cooktown to Rockhampton. It lists more than 150 routes ranging from shorter boardwalk strolls in the Daintree to epic 6-day hiking trips on tropical islands.
Hikes in the Atherton Tablelands
Thankfully not all hikes in the area are relentless ascending tracks like most I’ve endured near Port Douglas, so you’re not always having to slog it uphill drenched in sweat. In this post I’ll be covering a range of different terrains.
The region also sits one thousand meters above sea level so it’s pleasantly 5 degrees cooler, which believe me makes all the difference when you’re hitting the hills at midday. It can still get hot though and some tracks don’t provide much tree shade, so don’t forget a cap!
This idyllic crater lake was formed ten thousand years ago when a violent maar volcano exploded and then filled with water. The track itself is an easy and flat circuit around the lake, offering pleasing views of the century old teahouse.
The Lake Barrine circuit is very doable as a day trip from Cairns if you’re keen to stretch your legs in peaceful surroundings, with the added bonus of having a restaurant on your doorstep. I love coming here whenever I visit there Tablelands, if only to sit admiring the views whilst I cane a Devonshire cream tea! They also offer an extensive breakfast and food lunch menu as well as a licensed bar in case it’s 12 o’clock somewhere.
Fancy extending your trip here?
Make a stop at the nearby heritage-listed Curtain Fig Tree before driving to Yungaburra, the prettiest village I’ve seen in North Queensland. Take a look inside it’s small offering of boutique stores, or stop to spot the elusive platypus at their viewing platform.
Alternative Hikes Nearby
If you’ve already trekked Lake Barrine then it’s sister crater lake down the road – Lake Eacham offers another 6k walking track. It doesn’t have a teahouse on site but your hikers reward is taking a leisurely swim in this croc-free waterhole.
So far, this is the hardest hike I’ve endured in the Tablelands! For the first hour until the summit it’s pretty much all uphill and you’re quite exposed to the sun, so do come prepared. The next hour is complete downhill which can get a bit steep and slippery in places (good hiking shoes are helpful). For the last 20 minutes you’ll exit to the road, finishing up the loop with a bit more uphill to your car.
There was a bit of fire hazard reduction going on not long before we visited in December ’19, so whilst the palm and eucalyptus trees were still in tact, a lot of the undergrowth was burnt and smelt smokey. Nevertheless the views of Lake Tineroo and the Tablelands were really impressive and there’s a number of places to stop and soak them up. I didn’t see anyone else on this track (although it was Christmas Eve!) so it also felt really remote and peaceful.
Tip: Start this trail early to avoid too much midday sun and take 2 litres of water per person.
There’s 3 entry points into the trail but I’d recommend the one we took. So to start, head north towards Camp Barrabadeen and about 100 meters before there’s a sign to the walking track. There’s enough space across the road to park a couple of cars.
The track is quite well-trodden so just follow it up all the way and it’ll start to get quite rocky. There’s many huge boulders here but there’s a flatter one further up (after about 30 mins or so) that’s a great spot to stop and admire views of the lake.
From there, head back onto the path and you’ll climb through these two huge rocks to continue on the track.
After another 1k traipsing the ridge, you’ll find a handwritten sign on a tree that says ‘River to Moon’. Follow it for scenic views of Mareeba and the Great Dividing Ranges.
Retrace your steps to the main track and then it will then start to lead downhill where it’ll get quite steep and slippery before you’re back on the road. At the exit you’ll notice a warning sign that says ‘unexploded ammunition may be found in this area, do not handle any suspicious items’ which I guess explains the name ‘Torpedo Bay’, although unfortunately I couldn’t find anymore information about its history.
Alternative Hikes Nearby
There are a number of hikes around Lake Tineroo. A couple of others that sparked my interest were :
- Downfall Creek Regeneration Walk (5.2k return/1.5hrs/easy)
This is a flat walk along the edge of Lake Tineroo that passes through regenerated rainforest, once used for dairy farming before the dam was built. To start, head to Downfall Creek Camping Area and the walk starts at the carpark. Follow the path one way to Kauri Creek Camping Reserve before continuing on to the Day Use Area over the bridge, and then make your return walk.
- Kauri Creek (11.5k return semi-circuit/2.5hrs/moderate)
Note: You can combine Downfall Creek walk with this one to make a really long walk as they’re connected.
To start, head to Kauri Creek and begin the track at the carpark beside the road. Walk through the broad pine forest and after 500m, take a small detour to your left to see the Red Cedar Tree with a huge buttress. Then continue along the main path and soon you’ll come to a wooden footbridge where the loop trail begins into the rainforest. Follow the circuit until you arrive back at the start of it and proceed with your return walk.
This is one of the shortest hikes on the list but one of my favourites. Granite Gorge not only offers serene Savannah like scenery but it’s also home to a small colony of endangered rock wallabies. The cute marsupials were identified as a new rare species in 1996 so this is the only place in the world you can see them- incredible!
For a small entry fee, non-guests are welcome to explore the hiking trail and feed the wallabies (reception has bags of dry food for $1 and a free map). The shortest circuit is 1k, but I’d recommend taking the longer 2-3k track where you’ll get to walk through the low lying Eucalypt forest.
The track is more like a nature walk and for most of it you’ll be walking over giant granite boulders, which is pretty easy as they’ve added a hand rail and steps in some places. There’s also a small croc-free swimming hole if you get hot and fancy a dip or picnicking for the day.
I really enjoyed this track because it was peaceful, shaded and easygoing, and had some interesting historical remains that provided a small insight into Yungaburra’s past.
The Sailor and I were secretly hoping to sight a a Lumholtz tree kangaroo as they’re said to be hanging around at the start of this track, but they’re notoriously hard to spot! Although if you do wish to see them and other endemic mammals in the wild, check out my post on where to locate them nearby. Or you might just get really lucky here (tip: look up high in the trees).
This loop is well signed and easy to follow. To start, head to the platypus viewing platform in Yungaburra and try to see if you can spot one (we saw a couple here at dusk – tip: look for a collection of bubbles on the water surface). Then head over the bridge and turn left to access the trail.
After about 20 minutes you come to a grassy area with a shelter and picnic table; turn left over Lloyd’s Suspension Bridge.
At the end, take a slight detour to your right to check out an Old Boiler, the only remains of a former steam pump that was used to transport creek water up to Yungaburra Station. It’s believed to have come from England as it was manufactured by an Essex based company called Mumfords of Colchester.
Retrace your steps then continue along the path until you come to another slight detour- Williams Wier, where you can sight an old pump house from 1935.
Again retrace your steps and continue left along the main path until you approach Frawley’s Pool. It was named after a teacher from Yungaburra school who used to teach his pupil how to swim there, although traditionally it was a meeting place for Aboriginal tribes who’d often gather here to trade food, tools and share stories.
It’s a nice peaceful area where you can take a dip, have a picnic, or simply read the information board and imagine this patch throughout time.
Continue along the path which ascends a little before flattening out, then take a left to the old Railway Bridge, built in 1958.
As the original railway line went through Tineroo Dam, which was being built at the time, this new path would reroute around it. It was a costly job to get the line up and running, yet just six years after completion it was closed as road transport had improved.
To this day there’s still the old railway line sitting at the bottom of Lake Tineroo, as well as a small village called Kulara.
Recommendation: The old railway line is now a popular biking trail spanning 20.5k in length with various points of interest along the way. It looks like a nice route, you should check it out! Head to the Yungaburra Information Center for a map when you’re in town, or take a look online.
Okay back to the trail.
Look behind you at the path that continues beyond the old picnic table and walk along until you reach Williams Park & Botanic Gardens (across the road). You can explore the area or just proceed along the path until you arrive back in town, passing some houses at the latter end.
I love the view at the top by the church which I hadn’t yet seen. There’s also an interesting old Shell petrol pump and shop a bit further down the road to your right. The store appears to now loan watersports gear, although it’s not obvious from the exterior.
You can either walk back to your car at the platypus viewing platform or have a nice leisurely stroll around this pretty town.
Herberton is a rather fascinating place. It’s got a real ‘small town’ and remote vibe about it, yet surprisingly it provided the biggest historical revelation I’ve yet encountered in North Queensland. I guess, as the oldest town in the Tablelands (est. 1880), it does have to prove itself.
This once tin-mining hotspot was booming in its heyday. The area was mined extensively until the price of tin dropped in the 70’s, which consequently led to a population fall from nearly eight thousand, to its current total of approx. 855.
What’s left now is a pretty, hilly and peaceful neighbourhood that doesn’t look like it’s changed much since its inception, and tranquil mining fields that show a former glory.
Tip: Before your hike, you should definitely check out the Historic Village. It was more meaningful to explore Herberton’s pioneering past at the museum before walking alongside former mine shafts. It gave a real sense of scale and realism. Be sure to reserve at least 4 hours as there’s a lot to see.
The Great Northern Fire Trails are the original walking tracks that traverse through the town’s biggest mining area. There are a few routes to choose from, ranging from 1k to 12k, which are all well documented in a brochure given by The Herberton Visitor Center (most tracks start from there, so you should stop by for a copy).
I took the Mount Ida trail which was a moderate track that provides some pleasant views of Herberton town. There were a few trees in the way at the top and it clouded over when we got there so I couldn’t get a good picture, but I was surprised by how big the township looked from above.
Like most other trails, the Mount Ida route starts at the car park next to the Visitor Center/Mining Museum. Initially, you need to follow signs to the Magazine Road Escape Trail before proceeding to the Mt Ida Firetrail. It was a bit of an uphill climb at the beginning but nothing backbreaking.
We didn’t note much wildlife apart from quite a few mamoth-sized cicadas, who made the forest sound alive.
Tip: This route isn’t very shaded so on a sunny day be sure to bring a cap and slip, slop, slap.
Coming soon, two bonus hikes!
Even after my 12 days exploring the Tablelands at Christmas, I’m still not done with this place! It’s such a chilled getaway from Port Douglas and there’s so much to see and do that I’m already planning my return visit. In particular, I’ve been eyeballing these two hikes:
- Mount Emerald (9.4k return/5hrs/moderate)
This mountain sits on the Great Dividing Range and elevates to 1124 meters. Although it’s a 2.5-hour climb to the summit, the 9.4k track is said to be only moderately strenuous. Views at the top are meant to be gorgeous as well as being littered with a jet-plane wreck from a crash in 1990. Sadly there were no survivors and all 11 passengers on board died including the [then] Cairns Mayor and councillors from Cairns and the Tablelands.
- Mt Bartle Frere (15k return/2 days/very difficult)
2020 will hopefully be the year I conquer Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere! Although I’ll wait until the dry and cooler season between August and October before attempting this beast. The hike takes about 15 hours in total so we’ll need to camp overnight in the middle of an elevated wilderness, with no camping facilities. Understandably, this hike is rated ‘difficult’, yet I still don’t think it’ll be as hard as The Devil’s Thumb near Port Douglas, but guess I’ll find out soon! (More details on that beast coming soon btw!)
Tips, dos and don’ts
◇ These highlands may be slightly cooler than the rest of the region but the blazing sun can still make it mega hot. For less shaded routes which I’ll specify, try to time your walk earlier or later in the day for a little respite.
◇ The wet season here technically starts from November and goes through to May, so check the weather before setting out so there’s no surprise downpours. These are also the hotter months too so bring plenty of water in your reusable flask.
◇ Of course, like anywhere else in Australia, there may be snakes present on the forest floor, basking on rocks or hanging in the trees. Generally they keep to themselves and slither away before you have a chance to approach them, but if you see one just slowly back off and let it continue on its way. I’ve been on plenty of hikes here and not seen one yet and chances are you won’t too, but there’s always a possibility.
◇ Check yourself for paralysis ticks after your hike as these parasites love tropical conditions. Having one of these nasties on you for too long can lead to flu like symptoms, rashes or partial face paralysis. In worst case scenarios they can lead to an anaphylactic shock. To help prevent their latching, use a jungle strength insect repellant with DEET or Picaridin as the active ingredient, which will also repel mozzies. I haven’t had one on me but it’s always best to check.
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