Exploring the Atherton Tablelands in Summer
Self-driving tours of Tropical North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands are definitely among the best ways to see this stunning far northern land beyond the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Full of breathtaking waterfalls, rainforest drives, bespoke food producers, country markets and fascinating heritage, there’s a bounty of sights and delights to enjoy in the Tablelands no matter what your idea of fun.
As well as being the home of Nerada Tea, the Atherton Tablelands is a treasure chest of exploration. There’s plenty to do and see in the region. From quaint villages and historic buildings to craft markets and Mother Nature at her very best, here’s our recommended places to visit on a self-drive five-day itinerary.
DAY 1: KURANDA
Most people approach the Tablelands from Cairns as it’s the nearest city and right on the main coastal highway, making it an excellent starting point. Heading north from the city, turn onto the Kennedy Highway which will take you up towards Kuranda, the first stop on the way to the Tablelands. This windy road quickly climbs the hills in this area, leading to stunning views and an instant change of climate. Where once was palm trees is now an abundance of foliage, leading in to the village of Kuranda.
Kuranda is a rainforest township where the outside world seemingly does not exist. It is a charming destination for locals, holiday-makers and honeymooners set against the magnificent Barron Falls, the lushness of the rainforest, and a melting pot of creative arts. Famous for the Kuranda Markets, open every day, and its quirky eclectic vibe, it’s also the spot to view the Barron Falls – a 260m granite-faced waterfall. Enjoy the falls from the boardwalk or take a ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, to experience the sensation of gliding just metres above the rainforest canopy.
DAY 2: MAREEBA
What better way to start your day than by gliding over the countryside watching dawn break in a hot air balloon? From Kuranda, Mareeba is 30 minutes further up the highway, so rise early for the best spot in the house to watch sunrise with Raging Thunder or Hot Air Cairns departing every morning from Mareeba. As well as being home to the region’s hot air ballooning, Mareeba is also famed for its coffee growing industry – did you know Mareeba supplies almost 80% of the coffee used in Australia’s cafes? After all that early adventure, you’re likely to need that caffeine hit to settle you into the rest of the day and Coffee Works provides the perfect spot. Enjoy the option of unlimited coffee and chocolate tastings and the largest collection of coffee treasures in the world.
Want something a little harder than coffee? Mt Uncle Distillery, located in the foothills of a banana plantation just outside Mareeba in Walkamin, has built an impeccable and unrivalled reputation in producing award-winning premium spirits and liqueurs still with a huge emphasis on using as many local and national Australian ingredients as possible. Recently named Best Whiskey Distillery in Australia at this year’s Melbourne International Spirits Competition, their whiskey is certainly one to add to the liquor cabinet, as is their famed Botanic Australis Gin.
DAY 3: ATHERTON | RAVENSHOE
Atherton is the second largest town in the Tablelands (first being Mareeba), but widely considered the central spot to access all the Tablelands have to offer. Start the day off early and head south to reach Ravenshoe – Queensland highest town. Grab a bite at the legendary Ravenshoe Hotel on the way to Millstream Falls, the widest single-drop waterfall in Australia, and be sure to look out for cassowaries and the elusive tree kangaroos! This area is full of small roadside producers with good ol’ fashioned honesty boxes. Fill up on locally grown seasonal fruit and vegetables – pineapples, mangos and bananas are the best you’ll ever taste.
DAY 4 MILLA MILLA | MALANDA
Next, enjoy the wonderful scenic drive along the ridge as you make your way back to Millaa Millaa. This town lies at the heart of the Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Circuit and is the perfect place to tick more of the fabulous falls here off your list. Milla Milla, Zillie, Papina, Elinjaa and Mungalli Falls make up the circuit, each one spectacular in their own right.
Stop in at Mungalli Creek Dairy – a biodynamic dairy farm just outside of Millaa Millaa that is a leading force in the conscious food market. A place to refuel and relax, their property also boasts stunning views of Queensland’s highest mountain, Mt Bartle Frere.
While on the nature trail, the Atherton Tablelands are renowned for their population of platypus. The Australian Platypus Park at Tarzali Lakes is the perfect spot to view these shy little creatures. Head down in early morning or early evening for your best chances of seeing them, keeping as quiet as you can – the bill of a platypus acts as a ‘sixth sense’ for these very sensitive creatures.
DAY 5 – YUNGABURRA & THE GREAT CRATER LAKES
Finally, make your way up to the town of Yungaburra to enjoy the last part of your time in Atherton Tablelands.
Just on the outskirts of Yungaburra village is The Gillies Roadhouse, certainly worthy of a stop. A café and information centre all in one, the Gillies Roadhouse is run by a local family with a passion for the Tablelands, there is little they can’t tell you about the region and its attractions. And if you time your trip right, artisan goods from the iconic Yungaburra Markets will stay with you as a reminder of your time here.
For the nature lovers, save enough daylight hours to see one, if not all three, of the Great Crater Lakes of the Tablelands that point to this region’s volcanic past. Pack your swimmers because you can swim in both Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine, while you’ll just have to settle for a bird’s-eye-view of Mount Hypipamee.
Lake Eacham is a gorgeous crater lake is set in some beautiful tropical rainforest and is the perfect spot for a picnic or a BBQ. For a walk that won’t leave you short on breath still, but metaphorically blown away, take to the Lake Eacham circuit track, which promises wet tropics rainforest to one side and views of the deep blue lake (and an entire population of turtles!) to the other.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your keys, fire up that playlist, pick up a map and a handful of flyers and hit the road.
Image credit: Aussie Destination Tours