Are the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland Worth A Visit?

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The cool rolling hills of the Atherton Tablelands are a far cry from the humid, tropical coastline of Queensland. Located inland of the popular tourist hub of Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands couldn’t be more different. 

This unique area is home to agriculture, dairy farms, and beautiful volcanic crater lakes. It’s calm, it’s peaceful, and it’s charming.

Explore beautiful forests, visit local towns, villages, and farms, and explore a lovely, but lesser-known part of Queensland.

To inspire your next adventure, here’s our guide to visiting the Atherton Tablelands, including plenty of reasons for why it should be on your Australia itinerary. 

Don’t leave home without your Lonely Planet Australia travel guide.

Atherton Tablelands, Queensland Guide

Where are the Atherton Tablelands?

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

The Atherton Tablelands are part of a vast plateau that rises abruptly from the Queensland coast before flattening out. The main town and hub for tourism in the area, Atherton, is just one hour away by car from Cairns.

The Atherton Tablelands are located at relatively high altitudes in comparison to the coastline, with the town of Atherton being at 700 meters.

This gives the area a unique climate and landscape in contrast to the super-tropical lowlands below. That’s why the Atherton Tablelands is a great place to escape the humidity of Cairns!

Want to visit the Atherton Tablelands? Check out this tour: Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Tour from Cairns

How to Get to the Atherton Tablelands

Millaa millaa lookout atherton tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands is a surprisingly large region, and there are plenty of different places to visit within this geographical area.

The two major destinations often visited from Cairns are Atherton and the surrounding area, and Kuranda. 

To reach Atherton, you can take the winding road up into the highlands from Cairns, a journey of one hour. From here, you can drive to many great tourist sights and attractions.

You can do much of the best stuff in a day trip from Cairns, or arrange overnight accommodation in Atherton and many of the smaller towns and villages.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, there’s the option of joining a day tour from Cairns.

If you’re traveling to Kuranda, there are a few more options if you don’t have your own car. Kuranda is super touristy because it’s just a half-hour away from Cairns.

Rather than driving, you can take the Scenic Skyway or the Scenic Railway. Both options offer incredible vistas over the coastline and the tablelands. Kuranda is small enough to walk around on foot. 

The Atherton Tablelands is stunning at night, that is when we visited and you should check out this tour: Atherton Tablelands Rain Forest by Night from Cairns

Best Time to Visit the Atherton Tablelands

Millaa Millaa Falls in the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland, Australia

The best time to visit the Atherton Tablelands is during the dry season, which falls between April and October.

Not only is this the coolest time of year to be in Far North Queensland, but you don’t have to worry about flooding or cyclones!

In the rainy season, roads can often be closed, and landslides in the tablelands are a frequent and dangerous occurrence. The rainy season is much quieter, but it can also be a risky time to travel!

When visiting the Atherton Tablelands you need to check out this tour: Hot Air Ballooning Tour from Cairns

10 Best Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands

Waterfall in the Atherton Tablelands.

There’s a lot to do across the Atherton Tablelands. To see the highlights, you can get away with spending one day in Kuranda, then the second day in Atherton and the surrounding region.

To escape the crowds of Cairns, it’s a great idea to spend a few nights up in the small towns around Atherton. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to discover the best things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.  

1. Kuranda

Kuranda Sky Rail Rainforest Cableway, Kuranda, Queensland, Australia

Kuranda is often seen as a separate destination to the wider Atherton Tablelands, despite the fact it’s part of the geographic region.

Kuranda is just a half-hour away from the center of Cairns. You can get here by car, train, or cable car. 

The journey here is part of the experience. The scenic railway takes you along a winding, narrow railway that hugs the cliffs’ edge as it travels upwards.

The scenic cable car takes you right over the top of the rainforest, above the cliffs to Kuranda. 

Kuranda is always busy in peak season. Here you can find the famous Kuranda Heritage Markets, as well as quirky cafes and fun museums. 

You can also find the mighty Barron Falls, a huge waterfall that drops into a dramatic gorge far below. If it has just rained, the Barron Falls are spectacular!

If you truly want to discover the Atherton Tabelands you should join this tour: 2D1N Atherton Tablelands Camping

2. Atherton

Winding road of the Atherton Tabelands.

Atherton is one hour away from Cairns, and the winding road offers superb views over the lowlands and the coast below. 

This is your hub for exploring the Atherton Tablelands, but there are many sights here too.

Visit the Crystal Caves to see a quirky, human-made cave system. Call into the local Chinese Temple to see how immigration helped create Atherton and visit the local art gallery to get a glimpse of local culture. 

Just imagine the views from the sky over the Atherton Tablelands on this adventure: Reef and Rainforest Tandem Sky Dive in Cairns

3. Tolga Bat Hospital

fruit bat hanging on tree in the Atherton Tablelands at the Tolga Bat Hospital.

Just down the road from Atherton, you can visit the brilliant Tolga Bat Hospital.

If you’ve been in Queensland for a while, you’ll realize that Fruit Bats are everywhere. Unfortunately, many locals, especially farmers, see them as pests. 

The Tolga Bat Hospital is one of the few places in the state actively trying to save the lives of injured bats.

They also educate people about these unique and incredibly misunderstood animals. Take an educational tour to learn more about the work being done and see the bats being rehabilitated. 

When visiting the Atherton Tablelands make sure you have a good pair of binoculars.

4. Curtain Fig Tree

Famous fig tree in Australia located in the Atherton Tablelands.

The Curtain Fig Tree is one of the most unique sights to visit in the Atherton Tablelands. The local area is well known for its unusual tree species.

The best of them all is the Fig Tree, which wraps its vines around everything within reach and can grow to an enormous size.

The biggest of these trees is known as Curtain Fig Tree. It’s 50 meters tall and 40 meters wide, with a massive canopy of vines stretching around it.

A small boardwalk leads around the tree’s circumference, offering fantastic, up-close views and a glimpse into the surrounding rainforest. 

5. Herberton

Historic Steam Traction Engines at Herberton, Queensland, Australia.

The historic town of Herberton is one of the best stops on a tour through the Atherton Tablelands.

Today, the town is home to less than a thousand people, but in the late 19th century, a mining boom made Herberton one of the richest and busiest towns in northern Queensland. 

Although the mining died down, the town has preserved its mining history. Visit the excellent Herberton Museum to learn more about the history of the Atherton Tablelands (European history, anyway) and see how the town looked when it was first established. 

6. Lake Barrine

Lake Barrine Atherton Tablelands North Queensland Panoramic Water View

Lake Barrine is a beautiful lake ringed by a wonderful walking trail and home to a famous teahouse.

Stop for lunch at the teahouse, where you can also learn more about the history and geology of the lake and the tablelands. 

The lake itself is a volcanic crater lake formed by a volcanic eruption millennia ago. You can even take a boat trip across the lake on the local ferry to see more of the wildlife and the scenery!

If you want to visit Lake Barrine add this tour on to your must-do list: The Original Day Tour to Paronella Park, Lake Barrine and Millaa Millaa Falls

7. Lake Eacham

Lake Eacham is a popular lake of volcanic origin on the Atherton Tableland of Queensland, Australia.

Another great spot to visit in the tablelands is Lake Eacham. Like Lake Barrine, this is a volcanic crater lake. It’s brimming with beautiful scenery and wildlife. 

Part of the wider Crater Lakes National Park, Lake Eacham is home to a historic lakeside guesthouse and plenty of excellent walking trails. 

8. Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park

Limestone caves at Chillagoe, Queensland, Australia

The Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park is where you’ll find an intricate limestone cave system thought to be millions of years old. 

You can join tours of this deep, underground cave system to learn more about the fascinating geology and see the beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

The caves are a unique ecosystem for local wildlife, and the protected area is known to be home to several rare species of bats and snakes (watch out for pythons!)

9. Mungalli Creek Dairy

Mungalli Creek Dairy Farm

The cool climate of the Atherton Tablelands has made it a popular area for dairy farms. Visit the Mungalli Creek Dairy farm to see local agriculture in action. 

The dairy farm is totally organic and focuses on sustainability. The products they offer are some of the best in Queensland. Tour the farm before enjoying lunch at the excellent cafe with a beautiful few over the rolling tablelands.

10. Mount Bartle Frere

View from the top of Walsh's Pyramid on mountains around Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland.

Mount Bartle Frere is Queensland’s tallest mountain peak. At 1600 meters, it’s the fourth highest peak in the country.

If you want to get off the beaten track, climbing to the summit is one of the best things you could in the Atherton Tablelands. 

The trail starts by Josephine Falls, a beautiful waterfall surrounded by jungle. You’ll be walking through thick forest; it’s a tough, uphill slog through hot and humid vegetation.

When you get to the summit, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views over the Atherton Tablelands, and along the coast of Queensland, too.

This isn’t a quick or an easy hike; you’ll need around 12 hours to get there and back if you’re an experienced hiker and climber!

Wildlife in the Atherton Tablelands

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

We were on the prowl to add some new animals to the list and discover some of the species that like to hang out in the oldest rainforest in the world.

The Atherton Tablelands holds a unique makeup of Australian native wildlife. This includes a variety of kangaroos, wallabies, many snake species, lizards, frogs, bugs, spiders, bats and birds.

It also includes the elusive and hard to spot platypus. The Atherton Tablelands is one of the best places in the world to spot these rare creatures.

An experienced guide can bring you ponds where you have a high chance of seeing them too.

We were able to observe two platypus in a large pond right as the sun was going down. We didn’t get any photos, as the light was nearly gone, but we did get some decent views of the strange little creature!

During our time touring the Atherton Tablelands with Wait-A-While Rainforest Tours, we were educated about the history of the rainforest and how its changes through time have affected the local wildlife.

The Oldest Rainforest in the World

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

It was pointed out to us that some of the vegetation in this rainforest can actually be dated back to the dinosaur ages. This has been proven by finding these very plants in the fossilized remains of some dinosaur species.

Those plants still exist within this rainforest and thrive on the dense, lush environment.  Being able to see those plants was a real treat.

Want to visit the Atherton Tablelands? Check out this tour: Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Tour from Cairns

Learning Aboriginal History

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

During one of our tours, we spotted a colony of tree ants that build nests out of leaves high up in the trees.

We had been seeing these ants in various places around Australia so it was interesting to learn more about them. The aboriginal people used to seek out their nests when they became ill.

They would boil water and soak the nests with ants in the water, creating a nice medicinal drink. To prove to us, he had us lick the butt of one of the green ants.

Yes, lick the butt. I was the first to try it and although I was skeptical, I held out my tongue and wiped the ant across it. Hmm, lemon-lime. Absolutely no joke, the butt of that ant tasted like a lemon.

So if we ever get lost in a rainforest, we at least know that they are safe to eat.

Deforestation & Cattle Farming

Panoramic View with cattle at Atherton Tablelands, Queensland, Australia.

During the colonization of the area, they would cut the large trees out and ship them down to build houses and furniture. In the process, they deforested the area and the farmers took claim of the land.

It now is home to many cattle farmers and produces some of the richest grasses for them to feed on.

We spent the rest of the evening stopping off at various hiking trails where we were able to spot local wildlife and stare in amazement at the flora and trees that exist in this beautiful rainforest.

Invasive Cane Toads

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

In an attempt to control the fierce and damaging cane beetles that devastate cane crops across Australia every year, the Australian government introduced the Cane Toad.

While in theory, it makes sense, cane toads feed on cane beetles, they didn’t plan for the short reproduction cycles, their built-in natural defense mechanisms and the ability for the cane toad to thrive in the Australian climates.

As a result, the cane toad has become a woeful invasive species across the continent. You’ll see them everywhere is mass numbers, including when you visit the Atherton Tablelands.

The Atherton Tablelands is stunning at night, that is when we visited and you should check out this tour: Atherton Tablelands Rain Forest by Night from Cairns

Wildlife Night Hiking Tours

Atherton Tablelands wildlife

After partaking in a beautiful Italian style dinner at a local restaurant we headed back into the rainforest for some night hiking. 

As creepy as it sounds, and it is creepy, this can be the best time to spot some of the rare animals. Many of the treasures are nocturnal, thus only showing themselves by the light of the moon.

Our first sighting was a possum. These little guys seem to be everywhere in Australia and although we’ve seen them all over while camping, it was cool to see them in their natural environment instead of begging off people in campsites.

The highlight of the night was being able to observe the huge fruit bats in the trees above us. I have never seen a bat that large and we witnessed one feeding and then taking flight into the moonlit sky.

Where to stay in the Atherton Tablelands

The Mareeba wetlands near Cairns, Australia. One of the best places to stay within the Atherton Tablelands.

If you truly looking to experience everything the Atherton Tablelands has to offer you should spend a few days instead of just visiting it on a day trip. Below we will list out the top three places to stay in the Atherton Tablelands.

Birds ‘n’ Bloom Cottages – This amazing eco-lodge is located in Yungaburra. The grounds itself are like a tropical garden where the rooms are luxurious and spacious. Location is key, the tall curtain fig tree, Lake Eacham, and Lake Barrine is just a short distance away. Also, enjoy viewing animals like the platypus a few minutes away. Make sure while our out exploring to check out the local art and craft shops. We really loved the cheese and chocolate factories located nearby.

Crater Lakes Rainforest Cottages – Located right on the border of the World Heritage-listed Crater Lakes National Park, these amazing cottages are surrounded by wildlife and the rainforest. Relax on your deck with rainforest birds all around you, the wildlife will truly mesmerize you at this property. The Rainforest Cottages are extremely close to all the popular sites in the Atherton Tablelands.

Eden House Retreat – Located in the heart of the historic Yungaburra village, this award-winning property offers relaxing garden type cottages with a spa for guests to relax and enjoy. This place offers peaceful surroundings but yet close access to all the popular sites in the Atherton Tablelands.

Not finding what you are looking for? We’ve partnered with one of the top hotel search engines in the world to bring you a comprehensive hotel search engine that looks at all your best options and gives you the best prices available on the web for your search dates. Try it today!

Our time spent in the Atherton Tablelands was memorable and would highly recommend for other visitors to Cairns that they get out of the city and check out the wildlife.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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