High above the Coral Sea’s turquoise patchwork of watery reefs, the Atherton Tablelands lures travellers into a cooler world coloured by lush, tropical rainforests and blue crater lakes.
There are waterfalls and wild granite gorges, picturesque villages and top waterfront camps too. The wildlife is distinctly tropical and quite unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen before. You could easily spend a month roaming these rolling, high-altitude hills, so why not start your adventure with these favourite ways to unwind and explore.
1. Encounter tree-kangaroos
Resembling a cross between a bear and a kangaroo, the far north’s most intriguing creature inhabits the canopy of Mount Hypipamee National Park, catching early-morning bushwalkers by surprise. Found here and nowhere else in the world, Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos only occasionally reveal themselves, dropping silently to the ground and scampering along mountainside tracks before climbing swiftly away into the canopy above.
Just the thought of catching a glimpse lures a steady stream of walkers onto Mount Hypipamee’s lush volcanic slopes, to follow trails – necks craned upwards – that end at a dramatic volcanic crater where sheer granite walls plunge 140 metres. Returning from the crater, walkers linger with cameras poised, cooling their heels in chilly swimming holes beneath pretty, fern-fringed falls.
If you don’t get lucky at Mount Hypipamee, head to the nearby Nerada Tea Plantation, signposted 9km from Malanda. Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos are commonly spotted here, right in front of Nerada’s friendly teahouse serving pesticide-free, Tablelands’ tea and delicious hot scones.
2. Barron Falls
From the high slopes of Mount Hypipamee, the Barron River begins its winding, 60km-long journey across the Atherton Tablelands, gathering strength before plunging 265m over the edge of Barron Gorge. Spectacular after wet season downpours, Barron Falls’ gentler, wintertime flow captivates too, and my favourite vertigo-inducing lookout overhangs the Barron’s deeply carved gorge at the end of the Budaadji Canopy Walk.
This 600m-long, elevated boardwalk lifts you into the treetops to eyeball epiphytes and fat, curling vines before the thunderous sound of the falls heralds your arrival at the gorge. If this easy trail leaves you wanting more, drive 10km to Speewah Campground where secluded walking trails follow ancient Aboriginal pathways and historical pioneering tracks.
When you go: From Kuranda, drive 3.5km along Barron Falls Road and follow the signs to the Barron Falls car park. Nearby Speewah Campground is perfect for small-rig travellers ($6.55/person/night) with free gas BBQs, water, toilets, a cold water shower and bins (10km from Kuranda off the Kennedy Highway).
3. Bathe in a Granite Spa
Forming a formidable backdrop west of Cairns, the rugged Lamb Range rises steeply to meet the Tablelands, topped by rock pinnacles and eucalypt-covered ridges in distant Dinden National Park. Few crowds gather this far off the Kennedy Highway and you’ll need a sturdy, off-road rig to reach the stunning waterfront camps shaded by a towering canopy of eucalypts.
Downstream, Davies Creek plunges 75m into a cascading series of clear, granite swimming holes, and bushwalkers set out on the rugged circuit route to Kahlpahlim Rock – the highest point on the range (12.2km/5 hours). This strenuous trail is one of the far north’s best, cutting a steep path up rainforested gullies and over rocky knolls blooming with alpine plants to reach a stunning summit vista over Cairns (carry plenty of water).
When you go: Turn off the Kennedy Highway 21km west of Kuranda, continue 14km to Dinden National Park, and book campsites in advance at qpws.usedirect.com ($6.55/person/night).
4. Paddle with Platypus
As the far north’s favourite adventure playground, Lake Tinaroo is no secret spot but there is much more to this magnificent, World Heritage Area than you might suppose. Head here to nestle your rig into a shady site with water views then get wet anyway you can. Launch your tinny to fish for barramundi in the lake’s shallow, snaggy tributaries, or push off for a pre-dawn paddle to sneak a peak at the lake’s thriving population of platypus.
Silent paddlers who get onto the lake as the early morning mist begins to rise might spot dozens of tiny platypus duck-diving and floating as they feed. To spot them, paddle away from the campground’s open, grassy shores into shallow, protected nooks with overhung banks, or launch from the Tinaburra boat ramp in Yungaburra.
While at Lake Tinaroo, spend a day ticking off this Top 5: see the 500-year-old Cathedral Fig Tree at dawn; search for platypus in Mobo Creek Crater; peer into Lake Euramoo; climb Turtle Rock; and stretch out on the Kauri Creek trail.
When you go: Five campgrounds in Danbulla National Park provide fire pits, picnic tables, water and toilets (no dogs), entry is free and camping costs $6.55/person/night (qpws.usedirect.com).
5. Chill your bones in a volcanic crater
At 65 metres deep, there are endless ways to fathom this uber-cold swimming hole that Tableland locals love! An extinct volcanic crater known as a maar, Lake Eacham was formed by explosive rising lava, but its setting – surrounded by rainforest and home to musky rat kangaroos and saw-shelled turtles – couldn’t be more idyllic.
Scuba diving is the most adventurous way to explore (contact bluedive.com.au), but paddling is peaceful, whether by canoe, kayak or SUP. You can hire a canoe from the nearby Yungaburra Pit Stop or simply don a mask and snorkel and kick out around the shallows, spotting lots of unique saw-shelled turtles famous for begin able to breathe through their bottoms.
After a swim, warm up along the 3km trail that circles the lake through magnificent rainforest (1hr, easy-moderate).
When you go: Follow the Gillies Highway east of Yungaburra and take the signposted turn to the lake. The lake has toilets, picnic tables and a boat ramp (free entry).
6. Meet tall trees
Early in the morning, a shroud of mist creates a magical atmosphere as you tread the short boardwalk around the 500-year-old Curtain Fig Tree. Its dimensions are mind-boggling: 50 metres high, 39 metres in circumference, with aerial roots that hang 15 metres to the forest floor, forming a beautiful ‘curtain’.
Just as old and equally precious is the nearby giant Gadgarra Cedar: the largest, most accessible red cedar tree in all of north Queensland that pierces the canopy, 35 metres above you.
When you go: From Yungaburra, take the Gillies Highway, turn right and follow Curtain Tree Fig Road to the tree (2.5km). The Gadgarra Cedar is located near Lake Eacham at the end of Gadgarra Road.
7. Get Waterfalled Out
With a reputation for being the most perfect of waterfalls, Millaa Millaa Falls lures travellers onto the Tablelands’ Waterfall Circuit to spend a day bathing in sunny pools beneath the most picturesque of tropical cascades. The streams that gather as Zillie, Ellinjaa and Malanda falls are easy to access and popular, and there are others too: little-visited Souita and Pepina falls.
My favourite – Big Millstream – is found farther afield past Ravenshoe and woos visitors as Australia’s widest, single-drop waterfall. This falls is well worth a detour and is a must-do if you are driving past en route to Karumba.
When you go: Set out from Millaa Millaa, travelling a 16km loop to Millaa Millaa, Zillie and Ellinjaa falls before branching out to visit Malanda or Big Millsteam falls. Pack a picnic to enjoy at the base of Millaa Millaa Falls and take a chilly dip with the freshwater turtles and eels.
8. Find a Free Camp
If there is a downside to touring the Tablelands, it’s the lack of free camps on offer. On the northern end of the Tablelands, between Atherton and Mareeba, you can stay for up to three nights at Rocky Creek War Memorial Camp: a big, grassy camp with toilets, water and bins (pets permitted, gold coin donation welcomed).
For those headed west to Karumba, Archer Creek Rest Area is a top choice, located 18km past Queensland’s highest town – Ravenshoe. Shaded by towering gums, this grassy, free, riverside camp provides toilets and tables and accommodates big rigs and pets. To top it off, just upstream, Big Millstream flows spectacularly over a broad rock tier on the river.
When you go: Rocky Creek War Memorial Camp is located on the Kennedy Highway, 8km north of Tolga. Follow the Kennedy Highway 18km past Ravenshoe to reach Archer Creek Rest Area.
9. Walk through Wongabel Forest
It’s one of Australia’s last patches of endangered Mabi forest and so far off the radar that most travellers don’t know that Wongabel Forest even exists. That’s good news for the Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos that dwell here and the walkers who stroll the loop circuit in blissful solitude.
Wongabel is a precious remnant of the expansive Mabi forests that covered the Tablelands 100 years ago. Today, less than four percent of these forests exist, swamped by a patchwork of agricultural plots and now far too small to support the Southern cassowaries and musky rat kangaroos that have disappeared from much of the Tablelands.
When you go: Wongabel Forest is located 8km south of Atherton on the Kennedy Highway. The easy Heritage Walk loops 2.5km through the forest (1hr).
10. Discover hidden Rainforest Falls
Far off the tourist trail, hidden deep within expansive Wooroonooran National Park, three stunning falls await walkers. From Crawfords Lookout, trails lead to Tchupala Falls (1.2km return, 40mins), Wallicher Falls (2km return, easy) and the stunning, 50-metre high Nandroyda Falls (6km return, 2-3hrs).
All are within easy reach of the swimming holes and campground at Henrietta Creek, a spacious spot to overnight with good facilities (no pets). For a bird’s eye view of the forest, visit the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, 1km from Crawfords Lookout ($25 adults, $14 kids).
When you go: Henrietta Creek Campground is located 25km south of Millaa Millaa on the Palmerston Highway. Sites cost $6.55/person/night and sheltered picnic tables, free gas barbecues and toilets with wheelchair access are provided (parks.des.qld.gov.au).
Location: From Cairns, follow the Captain Cook Highway northwest to Kuranda (20km) to access Dinden National Park and to camp south of Mareeba at Rocky Creek War Memorial Camp. For Yungaburra, Lake Tinaroo and Atherton, drive south of Cairns to Gordonvale (20km) and climb the Gillies Range.
Best time to visit: May to September.
Camping: Danbulla (Lake Tinaroo) and Wooroonooran national parks provide camping for $6.55/person/night. You can free camp at Archer Creek Rest Area (18km from Ravenshoe) or Rocky Creek War Memorial Camp (8km north of Tolga).