There’s so many adventures to enjoy in the Atherton Tablelands that it’s one of those places you keep coming back to and never get bored of.
Located in the bucolic hinterland just an hour’s drive from Cairns and Port Douglas, it’s long been a popular choice for locals & tourists wanting a nature escape away from the humid coast.
Most many people come here to relax, enjoy the spectacular scenery and switch off from the real world. And others, like me, also come for the adventure!
From exploring hiking and biking trails, to spotting endemic wildlife or literally chasing waterfalls – you’ll be dreaming about this place for a long time after you leave.
I’ve visited a handful of times and recently spent 12-action packed days here over Christmas, so I got to travel deep into the region and visit a lot of hidden gems that most tourists miss. One thing that surprised me was the prevalent heritage and history of the area, which you can explore further within some hiking tracks, villages and at a cool spot in this article. 😉
To help you plan your trip, I’ve compiled a collection of my favourite things to do in the the Atherton Tablelands with honest insights, tips and maps.
Best Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands for 2020
The Atherton Tablelands offers a maze of awesome hiking tracks. Originally blazed by the aborigines and then later by tin prospectors, there are routes that lead to waterfalls, around crater lakes, through heritage listed rainforests, into old mining fields and up Queensland’s highest mountain- it’s every hikers wet dream.
One of the cooler things about hiking here is that the temperature is 5-degrees lower than the rest of North Queensland. During the wet season (October – April) it will still be hot, but not as muggy as Cairns or Port Douglas.
2. Visit Nerada Tea Plantation and Spot a Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo
If you didn’t know that roos can be tree dwelling then SURPRISE! Australia doesn’t have monkeys, they’ve got roos that have evolved to live in trees. 🤟🏼
There are only two types of tree tree kangaroos in Australia and one variety is completely endemic to the Atherton Tablelands: Meet the Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo, named after the Norwegian explorer who first discovered this rare species after the Aborigines.
Believe me, I hiked high and low searching for these elusive marsupials to no avail as they’re notoriously hard to spot. It wasn’t until our last day that I remembered a tip-off and managed to spot two at Nerada Tea Plantation.
This place is Australia’s biggest tea estate and makes a mean brew and scone. Not long after they planted some trees near their teahouse, a small family of wild tree kangaroos hopped over from the neighbouring rainforest and decided to make this patch their home. Although they’re wild and therefore (obviously) sightings aren’t guaranteed, chances are you’re likely to see one around.
To find out more about where to spot endemic wildlife in the Atherton Tablelands,
check out my recent article.
3. Explore the Tablelands by Bicycle
It’s shouldn’t come as a shocker that this region attracts a decent amount of hikers and bikers every year, after all, it’s got an awesome myriad of tracks. Yet when the Sailor and I took a scenic (and relatively rigorous) bike ride around the hills of Yungaburra at Christmas, people passed us in cars and looked over like we were crazy!
Looking back, we were the only bikers I saw on our 12-day adventure, and it was the hight of summer so maybe we were a little nuts. The hills can be quite a climb and you’ll definitely be sweating a puddle afterwards, but bombing it downhill was exhilarating and the scenery was even more spellbinding. It was a highlight of our trip!
There are quite a few tracks to explore. For novice riders you may want to hit the Atherton Tablelands Trail Rail along a decommissioned railway corridor. Off-road riders may wish to explore the collection of trails through the award-winning Herberton Ranges.
Or for a challenging [yet not expert level] ride, I’ve mapped out a route that we took around Yungaburra.
Route: Starting off at On The Wallaby where you can rent a bicycle for $20 a day, you’ll pass the heritage-listed Curtain Fig Tree (below) before arriving at Gallo Dairyland. Here you can stop for an ice-cream refresher or cheese platter.
The second leg is the longest and most strenuous, but don’t worry, there’s a cold beer stop at the end of it 😉. It takes about 40-50 minutes around Mt Quincan to Peeramon Hotel (below). The last leg is pretty much downhill all the way back to Yungaburra, which takes around half hour.
Mareeba has been growing coffee for over a century and the region’s higher altitude is perfect for it. This area of the Tablelands is Australia’s biggest producer of the brown stuff.
If you’re keen to look around a plantation and stop for a coffee or lunch, then Jaques Coffee Plantation lead two types of daily tours. You can either take a self-guided walk (& enjoy a coffee liqueur tasting) for $15, or arrange a premium guided tour- although you’ve got to be pretty into coffee to pay for this one as it’s $75 per adult! Here’s their schedule.
You can also stop by Skybury Coffee for a fresh brew and to soak up the views from their cafe, although I don’t believe they offer tours of the plantation.
We visited Coffee Works because I’ve previously brought their coffee in Cairns and thought they had a plantation (I didn’t do my homework!). Whilst they’re not coffee growers themselves, they are a local, long-standing boutique roastery and chocolatery. They use four types of beans from the Tablelands region as well as other imported varieties, and make a mean brew!
For $19 you can visit their coffee museum for a self-guided tour and taste a selection of coffee liqueurs, coffees and chocolates. Monday and Thursday is also their roasting day so you can catch them in action and learn about the process.
Otherwise you can save that money and buy a fresh pack of ground coffee to take home with you instead, which is what we did – I highly recommend the local Black Mountain beans, it did us well all holiday. 🙂
5. Camp out and Count the Stars
The Atherton Tablelands is a popular spot for campers, particularly around Lake Tinaroo where many visitors go for watersports. If you’re a tourist and don’t have your own camping gear, then don’t fear, CampersOz shop in Cairns loans out everything you need for a pretty good rate. 🤙🏻
As well as being a great way to lap-up the region’s beauty and enjoy a cracking sunset, camping is a good way to spot the region’s endemic mammals as most of them are nocturnal. Plus the stars are insane! And the lack of street light makes them clearly visible.
If you’re looking to camp around Lake Tinaroo then there’s heaps of state-owned campsites around, although they are all BYO shower (who has a portable shower? 🤷🏻♀️) I didn’t have my own so I stayed at Camp Barrabadeen. The facilities are very primitive but it had everything we needed (bar a fridge), and there’s plenty of nice sites overlooking the lake.
A downside to this camp is that it can get a quite noisy during the day from all the boats, who aren’t allowed to run a business from this public jetty but they do. Although if you go for a site at the far end (numbers 12-17) then they’re not so annoying.
From November to May it gets pretty hot during the day so I’d recommend a campsite with a decent amount of tree shade. We had to change our site (number 4) as it was baking (although the views were sublime!). You can check out their available sites here.
Oh and I nearly forgot, they use compost toilets which took some, er, getting used to. 😄On the plus side, they weren’t as gross as I was expecting. Although the Sailor hated it. We lasted two nights but booked three…maybe you’re more hardcore than us!
6. Stop for a Cream Tea at Lake Barrine
Stopping at Lake Barrine Teahouse for a tea and scone has become somewhat of a compulsory tradition when we visit the Tablelands. It reminds me so much of a quaint English tearoom that sometimes I forget I’m in Australia at all, and then the glorious sun hits my face and I’m reminded where I am.
This family owned business has sat on this turf for over a century and it’s such a peaceful and pretty escape overlooking the lake. As well as visiting their tearoom which also serves breakfast and lunch, you can walk off your food and take an easy 5k hike around the crater lake.
7. Explore the Historic Village in Heberton
I’m not normally one to visit a museum on holiday as I don’t like being cooped up inside a stuffy hall looking at a bunch of old stuff when I could be outside exploring, but this was honestly one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. Even the Sailor loved it…I think his exact words when we left were “well that was f**king awesome”! 😄
Set across 16 acres, the village has over 60 original buildings and is brilliantly curated. It basically emulates the town of Herberton during its early pioneering days and gives a very real insight into life here back then, and old life in general. You’ll definitely need at least 4 hours to explore the village as there’s a lot to get through, but you’ll get a re-visit pass if you need more time (we did!).
There’s a cafe on sight for a drinks refresher although I’d skip their food as it was well overpriced for what you get.
Tip: Nearby is a really cool series of hiking track that traverse through the town’s former mining area. You can see old mineshafts, mullock heaps and awesome views. Check out my post on top hikes in the Tablelands for more details.
8. Dine at a Dairy
Apart from a scattering of Forest Reserves and National Parks, the Tablelands is basically 65’000 square metres of fertile farmland, and has been ever since the rainforest was chopped down over a century ago to accommodate for it. One thriving industry here is dairy farming, which produces over 52 million litres of milk per year.
As I’m a big fan of Mungalli Creek’s smashing yoghurts and buy them weekly, I wanted to support my local farmers and check out their cafe. They’re a fully sustainable, biodynamic farm (ticking so many boxes already) and are situated deep in the Tablelands, so the setting is remote and bucolic.
Although they don’t appear to allow self-guided tours of their farm, we primarily went to feed our stomachs. The cafe was packed when we arrived and the service was, well, typical of the Tablelands (a bit slow) but the staff were nice enough and the food made up for it.
We tried out their cheese platter which was amazeballs and they had a very temping offering of home-made cakes. We were stuffed after our feast but their pies looked very tempting and substantial too. I’d highly recommend a visit for lunch.
9. Chase Waterfalls
Being an elevated region where thousands of years worth of volcanic activity have moulded dramatic landscapes, there are heaps of waterfalls to explore in the Atherton Tablelands. The most visited three sit just half hour from Yungaburra and form The Waterfall Circuit. Others are much further south so can be a bit of a drive to get to, but they should have fewer- if any- crowds.
On the waterfall circuit, the first stop is the heritage-listed Millaa Millaa Falls. It’s a pretty spot and perhaps the most photographed, but it was the busiest too. I’d suggest heading here early to beat the crowds, or check out some others on my list instead.
Millaa Millaa Falls
About 10 minutes further on the loop is Zillie Falls, which you can gaze at from the viewing platform at the top. It’s quite dreamy and barely anyone else was there which was nice. You can’t see all the way down or swim there…unless there’s a secret trail I don’t know about!
After another 5 minutes drive you’ll reach Ellinjaa Falls which was my favourite out of the three. You can admire it in all its glory from the bottom and take a dip if you dare. We were lucky enough to have it to ourselves for a short while.
As we were staying in the south for a few nights we also got to check out a couple of other waterfalls.
The Mungalli Creek Falls is more of a rocky creek than a falls so I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way for it. Although my favourite one so far in the Tablelands is Millstream Falls. It’s Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall and was really impressive to look at. Whilst you can’t see it from the bottom, there’s a great view from the platform.
To be honest, I think there’s only so many waterfalls you can see in a day! But if you’re an aficionado and want to see as many as you can, then maybe do to the Waterfall Circuit first followed by lunch at Mungalli Creek, and then check out more remote ones further south, like Nandroya Falls, Wallicher Falls and Tchupala Falls. I’ve mapped them all out (below) so you can plan your visit easily.
10. Visit Australia’s Rum Distillery of the Year
The Sailor is an ex-bartender and appreciates a good sip of rum (as do I) and being Christmas, we weren’t going to let this place slide.
Mount Uncle is North Queensland’s first and only distillery and has won a series of awards for its spirits. Set on a banana plantation, the location is dreamy and all ingredients are sourced from their farm and local growers.
We popped in for a cheeky tipple in their tasting room and shared a combo of 6 – which included 3 gins, two rums and 1 whiskey, and were told a bit of spiel about them. I even got a homemade Bloody Mary mix sample on the house to go with my gin which was spicy and delicious.
I particularly enjoyed the Bushfire Smoked Gin which was created by accident when a few botanicals got smoked from a local bushfire. The Sailor’s favourite was the Iridium Gold Rum.
Hanging with the resident alpaca after our tipple
Although I was intending to buy a bottle before I arrived, I do like my rums a bit sweeter so didn’t go for one. Understandably as a boutique distillery, the bottles are also quite expensive, particularly if you’re not 100% into it.
Overall I enjoyed sampling their spirits and supporting my local producers. However it’s a real shame that visitors are not able to look around the distillery, which would have made the experience much more enjoyable.
Also as it was just me and the Sailor there, our tasting did feel a bit full on and rushed, so perhaps it’s better coming as a group or at busier times.
11. Observe Wild Platypus
This animal is totally endemic to eastern Australia and a freak of nature. With the bill and webbed-feet of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the body and fur of an otter, early explorers thought that that were being tricked and deemed initial specimens as fake!
There’s a few places you can see them in the Tablelands. Check out my article to find out where.
Lake Tinaroo is a popular place for locals and visitors to get up to all kind of watersports, from kiteboarding to wakeboarding, paddleboarding to canoeing, or even fishing for a prize barramundi. And as there are no jellies, you don’t have to worry about being stung in the wet season.
But, not that I want to put you off, there is a resident population of freshwater crocodiles in the lake. This endemic variety are much smaller than their saltwater cousins and aren’t known to eat people. There haven’t been any attacks at Lake Tinaroo, and trust me, these guys have more than enough fish to eat in the lake, so I wouldn’t be worried (does it sound really Australian of me to say that…?!) I just wanted you to be aware.
Okay, if you fancy renting some canoes or taking a night wildlife canoe tour, then check out On the Wallaby in Yungaburra who have really good rates. I hired bikes from them and their service was really good.
Or if you fancy paddleboarding, head to Pacific Watersports who lead sessions in a variety of locations in and around Cairns including at Lake Tineroo.
13. Hang with Mareeba Rock Wallabies at Granite Gorge
Mareeba Rock Wallabies were identified as a new rare species at the Gorge in 1996 so this is the only place you can see them in the world! As an animal lover, being able to hang with these cute marsupials was definitely a highlight of our trip.
We stayed here for a couple of nights but for a small fee, non-guests are welcome to enter the gorge too. You can buy small bags of feed for the wallabies at reception for $1 and I’d highly recommend taking the 1k / 3k walking track around the Gorge.
14. Explore the Prettiest Village in North Queensland
Lined with flowers and heritage-listed houses, Yungaburra is a charming chocolate-box village that’s a popular stopping point for visitors. Whilst it’s usually lightly buzzing, it never get’s busy in the traditional sense. We first arrived on Christmas Day so it was a ghost town and everything was closed! But it was nice having the place to ourselves to take pictures- it’s the prettiest village I’ve visited in North Queensland.
Apart from casually strolling around to stop at a country-style cafe for brunch or tea and scones, it’s got a small artsy following and a few boutiques to stop into.
There’s also a pleasant 5k hike that takes you through the creek with some historical remains and wildlife spotting opportunities. Check out my post on great hikes in the Tablelands for more details.
15. Spot Other Awesome Endemic Wildlife
As I said earlier, this region is a nature lover’s Eden and there’s plenty of fauna to sight here- if you’re looking in the right places.
For tips on where to spot endemic mammals in the area like long-nosed bandicoots, striped possums, sugar gliders and northern bettongs, check out my recent post.