The Atherton Tablelands inland from Cairns in Tropical North Queensland Australia, are close to but much cooler than the coastal strip some 752 metres lower in elevation. When things are steamy on the coast, locals and visitors revel in the often mist-shrouded Tablelands. Find the very best free things to do in Atherton Tablelands, with notes for upgrades where available below.
Atherton Tablelands Self-Drive Tours are the best way to experience all the Tablelands have to offer. This post provides a variety of free activities to create your own trip.
Herds of dairy cows grazing on green rolling pastures, a never ending supply of gushing waterfalls and rainforest, the must-visit Yungaburra Markets, giant fig trees and volcanic craters blend into an intriguing holiday destination and one of the best places to visit in Queensland.
There are many things to do here, both free and paid.
A Misty Day driving near Mungali Dairy
What You Will Find in This Post
- 1. Drive around Lake Tinaroo
- 2. Visit the Crater Lakes of Lake Eacham or Lake Barrine
- 3. Explore Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls
- 4. Visit the Highest Town in Queensland
- 5. Wonder at the Curtain Fig Tree Yungaburra
- 6. Discover Platypus in the wild
- 7. Yungaburra Hotel
- 8. Yungaburra Markets
- 9. Tread the boards of Malanda Hotel
- 10. Experience Yesteryear at Mareeba Heritage Museum
- 11. Stand beside 800 year old Kauri Tree Logs at Millaa Millaa
- 12. Go Bird Watching
- 13. Cycle the Atherton Rail Trail
- 14. Be astounded at man-made Crystal Caves Atherton
- 15. Wonder at Rocky Creek Memorial Park
- 16. Take a Walk – Atherton Tablelands Walks
- Cheapest Camping Atherton Tablelands
- How to get to Atherton Tablelands
1. Drive around Lake Tinaroo
Lake Tinaroo is formed by the dam on the Barron River. It is a popular water-ski, fishing (with permit) and camping destination. One side is populated by towns like Yungaburra where the road vaguely follows the lake. But take a lakeside drive on the gravel road through Danbulla National Park at the uninhabited side of Lake Tinaroo to get up close and personal.
The road connects the different National Park camping areas (we love Fong-On Bay) and has information boards at places of interest. There are Lakeside day use areas as well as camping areas.
The Chimneys Danbulla – find them on an Atherton Tablelands Road Trip
Things to do at Lake Tinaroo:
- Walk to the Cathedral Fig Tree on Danbulla Road. This 300 m/10 minute walk is a must-do.
- Look for and learn about the Twin Chimneys.
- Climb the stairs on the huge granite Platypus Rock for pine plantation and forest vistas.
- Fantastic views of the Lake from the different bays.
- Picnic and a swim.
2. Visit the Crater Lakes of Lake Eacham or Lake Barrine
Lake Eacham Swim
Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine form the Crater Lakes National Park. A Lake Eacham walk is a great free thing to do Atherton Tablelands.
Lake Eacham is an excellent free place to swim in summer, kayak or bird watch. It is a very popular summer swimming spot, but the water is chilly in winter.
The Lake is home to a very small population of harmless Fresh Water Crocodiles, known as Freshies.
An extinct 65 metre deep volcanic crater, this blue Lake has toilets, BBQ’s, picnic tables and a 3 km circular lakeside path.
Lake Eacham Walk
Lake Barrine Atherton Tablelands
Nearby Lake Barrine is home to the historic privately owned lakeview Lake Barrine Teahouse. Boat tours and Teahouse operate from privately owned land, not National Park.
This is a great place for a walk or a Devonshire Tea or picnic. Lake Eacham is the preferred swimming destination.
Lake Barrine has a free public 5km lake circuit walking track, picnic tables and public toilets. Look for Water Dragons, Birds and Pythons. I was happy not to see a python on the walk, but have seen one from the deck of the boat years ago.
The Lake is known for it’s two 45 m tall bull Kauri Pine trees which are accessed on a 160m return path.
Upgrade: Pay for Boat Cruise
3. Explore Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls
See them all or just a few. Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls are fun and of course free to visit. On our last Atherton Tablelands Waterfall circuit we chose Malanda Falls, Millaa Millaa Falls, Mungali Falls, Ellinjaa Falls and Zillie Falls. They’re inviting to cool off in, the best for swimming being Malanda Falls and Millaa Millaa Falls.
If you have time venture to Millstream Falls, the widest single drop waterfall in Australia. Being on the western edge of the tablelands near the town of Ravenshoe, they are located in dry open country not rainforest.
Many soldiers visit Millstream Falls as they were the site of WWII Camp. On the way to Millstream Falls the road goes through the quaint town of Ravenshoe.
Want to see just one waterfall? Make it Millaa Millaa Falls. They are very photogenic and easy to access. Make sure exploring Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls is one of your unmissable Atherton Tablelands things to do. You won’t regret it.
4. Visit the Highest Town in Queensland
Ravenshoe, south-west of Millaa Millaa at 920 metres above sea level, is the highest town in Queensland. Historically it is a timber town and still has two mills operating today. This lovely little town has cheap caravan/camping at the Ravenshoe Steam Train Caravan Park. $18 powered $13 unpowered. See Wikicamps. We’ve stayed previously and it’s a friendly caravan park and town. Expect nightly happy hours and campfires. Train enthusiasts will be in heaven.
5. Wonder at the Curtain Fig Tree Yungaburra
Don’t miss seeing one of the largest trees in Queensland. This photo only shows half the height of the full tree. Heritage Listed since 2009, the Curtain Fig Tree at Yungaburra differs from others in that the Fig over-took two trees instead of one.
It strangled both hosts – Gruesome but true!
6. Discover Platypus in the wild
Where to see a platypus on the Atherton Tablelands is the first question on nature loving minds.
We were surprised at how easy it is to see a platypus at the Free Platypus Viewing Area at Yungaburra. The bridge is right on the Gillies Highway as it leaves Yungaburra toward Atherton. There is a special platform overlooking Peterson Creek, but we saw the Platypus beneath the bridge.
Immediately we arrived beneath the bridge at 3.30pm on a cloudy day, we saw the cutest little Platypus, swimming across the creek. Easy Peasy Platypus. Compared to Platypus we’ve seen in other places, this little guy was special because he stayed and swam on the surface for longer.
Try the 2.3 km one-way creek-side walk. Petersen Creek has been rehabilitated thanks to locals.
Malanda Falls Platypus
In September 2020, a Platypus was seen happily swimming around in the pool at the base of Malanda Falls. In summer this pool is full of tourists and the shy Platypus stay upstream of the falls on the other side of the road crossing.
It was a rainy day and quite chilly so nobody was swimming. He must have been inquisitive and took the opportunity to check out the big pool! So if you are at Malanda Falls check upstream and you might find a platypus.
Platypus in the wild can also be found inland from Mackay at Broken River, Eungella.
7. Yungaburra Hotel
You might also know Yungaburra Hotel (1910) as Lake Eacham Hotel. Built in 1910, this is the second largest timber hotel building in Australia. The inside shows photographs from the Saw Milling days, but it really became popular in 1926 when the Gillies Highway from Gordonvale was first opened.
It is believed to have received the name Lake Eacham Hotel to attract tourists, who would stay at the hotel while visiting the lake. Nowadays the Hotel itself is an attraction.
Maud Kehoe was involved in the running of the hotel for 60 years up until her death and the park opposite is named after her.
8. Yungaburra Markets
There are several Atherton Tablelands Markets, but Yungaburra Markets, just one hour 15 minutes from Cairns, are our favourite.
- Plan you trip to coincide with the 4th Saturday of the Month (JAN-NOV) because that is the only time the markets are on. December market is held on the third Sunday.
- The 250 Stall Holders attract a lot of people and cars, so arrive as close to 7.30 am as possible to park.
- The one-way pedestrian system within the market on our last trip was possibly as a Covid 19 precaution.
- Since 1977 market proceeds benefit Yungaburra State School Parents & Citizens Assoc.
9. Tread the boards of Malanda Hotel
Malanda Hotel (1911) is the largest timber structure in Australia and was built from tablelands timber sawn at Malanda Saw Mill.
Have a look at the floorboards beneath your feet and marvel at the Silky Oak Staircase. If your interested in old buildings, while in town check out Malanda’s heritage listed Majestic Theatre.
10. Experience Yesteryear at Mareeba Heritage Museum
As you come into Mareeba from the South, the Museum on the right. This is one of the best free things to do on the Atherton Tablelands.
There are a load of both indoor and outdoor displays. Actual buildings have been recreated and there is a funny slant to them, from the legs on view under the Dunny Door to goats pinching the teacher’s apple.
A separate toilet block is to the left front of the Museum and a Cafe within the Museum.
History Buff Upgrade: While this is a wonderful free attraction, History buffs might like to also visit Herberton Historical Museum at Herberton (Entrance Fee).
11. Stand beside 800 year old Kauri Tree Logs at Millaa Millaa
OK we might have been drawn back to Millaa Millaa to Rob and Heidi’s Barista in the Mist (because they are so genuine and serve awesome coffee and delicious fresh made cakes), but take a look at the huge Kauri Tree Logs in the nearby park. Don’t worry they weren’t wantonly destroyed, but knocked over in a cyclone.
12. Go Bird Watching
Birding is a great free thing to do Atherton Tablelands. You can spend as little or as much time on this pursuit as you want. We usually travel with binoculars to enhance the experience.
Hastie’s Swamp Atherton
This is an interesting thing to do in Atherton. We had no idea what to expect, but it’s a lake not far from Atherton Chinatown Museum and Hou Wang Temple.
Drive down a gravel road through open Eucalyptus Forest to find a lake with a 2 storey bird-hide.
The hide has extensive Information Boards inside and we saw a massive amount of whistling ducks on the lake close to the hide. The birds were resting peacefully with plenty of reeds edging this natural seasonal lake.
If you are in or near Atherton, Hasties Swamp is very easy to visit and parking and toilets are right there on the swamp which was just like a lake or billabong for us.
Watch the Cranes and Herons dancing in a peat swamp formed in a once volcanic crater. Read about it on the On-Site Information Board and view from an elevated platform. The bird action is about 500m away, so binoculars and zoom lenses are a must for close-ups.
If you are based around Mareeba try visiting the Mareeba Wetlands. We stopped to photograph the water and birds at a distance from the highway.
13. Cycle the Atherton Rail Trail
3 – Tolga Trail Head to Rocky Creek Bridge
Atherton Rail Trail is actually four successive rail trails.
The first one and most visible begins at Platypus Park near the Atherton Chinatown Museum. It leads past the sites of the old train station and silos to Rotary Park at the northern end of the city centre.
- 1 – Platypus Park to Rotary Park
- 2 – Rotary Park to Tolga Trail Head
- 3 – Tolga Trail Head to Rocky Creek Bridge
- 4 – Rocky Creek Bridge to Walkamin
14. Be astounded at man-made Crystal Caves Atherton
Crystal Caves was always on our Itinerary when our kids were younger. Paid Self-guided tours of the 300 sq. m. faux caves, 600 natural crystals and prehistoric fossils, but it is good fun just being in the shop.
There are plenty of gems on sale and a big coloured split Geode on display. You can watch the cracking of a geode for free if someone is doing so. The Geode Cracking Machine is on a small stage area within the shop.
Beware: The entrance to the shop is guarded by Dinosaurs.
Upgrade: Pay for Admittance to the Caves
15. Wonder at Rocky Creek Memorial Park
6 km north of Tolga on the Kennedy Highway heading to Mareeba, is a most unusual sight. The largest military hospital in the southern hemisphere was located at Rocky Creek in WWII. It’s 3000 beds saw 60,000 patients from 1943 to 45.
Fifty large rocks have been erected in a natural bush setting, some with commemorative plaques. It is a touching scene and every August on the Sunday closest to Victory in the Pacific Day, a commemorative service is held.
The Park is free to enter and toilets are open 8 am to 6 pm.
16. Take a Walk – Atherton Tablelands Walks
All Atherton Tablelands Walks are Free.
Many of Atherton Tableland Waterfalls are accessed from walking tracks of varying lengths.
Tracks are often slippery. Wear shoes with soles that grip like Joggers or Hiking Shoes. Marty and I both learned this the hard way. He twisted his knee when one leg slipped down a path embankment and I slipped from one stair to the next and severely hurting a toe.
Kuranda Walking Tracks
Combine three walking tracks starting at Kuranda Train Station, following the Barron River then onto the Jungle Walk and finally Jum Rum Creek Walk.
- Rainforest Canopy Walk – Din Din Lookout (1.2 km return) 40 minutes.
This Canopy Boardwalk returns on the same path. It leads from Barron Falls Road down via Barron Falls Train Station to Din Din Barron Falls Lookout. This is the best free place to view the 260 m tall Barron Falls. In the wet season the Falls provide a fantastic spray filled experience from the thundering falls. From the lookout the Skyrail Cable Car and trains on the Kuranda Scenic Railway can be seen.
The falls can also be viewed (at cost) from Kuranda Skyrail which links Cairns and Kuranda.
- Wrights Lookout – 3 km.
- Surprise Creek Walk – 3.8 km.
Danbulla Walking Tracks (near Lake Tinaroo)
The tracks that leave from the far side of Lake Tinaroo are all or partially within National Park. Read about them here.
Mt. Bartle Frere Summit Walk
One rainy day we went driving some backroads and ended up at the starting point of the 15 km trek to Mt. Bartle Frere summit. We did not do the hike but Marty has climbed Mt. Bartle Frere from the Coast side before.
This walk/climb is for fit and experienced bush walkers and is free unless you decide to camp overnight. Expect to take 12 hours (return). It is a difficult climb through rainforest to a height of 1.622 metres and involves rock scrambling and possibly leaches.
Don’t stray off the track – this is not the place to get lost.
To get there we followed Lake Eacham Road, down Topaz Road past Butchers Creek and turned left to Lamins Lookout. This is just a little pull off the road lookout in farmland with mist was so thick we couldn’t see a thing.
We ended up on gravel Gourka Road and with mist and rain it was an exciting trip. I recommend the drive even if you don’t do the walk. The road ends in an overflowing parking area. Who knew so many people wanted to climb the highest peak in Queensland in the rain.
Cheapest Camping Atherton Tablelands
Lake Eacham Tourist Park is the cheapest of Caravan Parks Atherton Tablelands:
We loved staying here in our Caravan. The Park is in a quiet hillside area in Rainforest just 1 km from Lake Eacham. There is no caravan park directly on the Lake. This park is the closest to Lake Eacham.
Rainforests can be cold and wet in Winter, but the park allows fires in off-ground enclosures and has a big fireplace in the wonderful camp kitchen. Gathering around the fireplace is the best way to keep warm and meet other quests.
In Summer the trees would provide beautiful shade.
On-site and quirky, Frond Cafe has inside and garden seating and guests can park there any time during opening hours to use wifi and enjoy a Coffee or more.
The park is set on a slope:
- Frond Cafe – Highest Level – Road Level
- Free Wifi (best in or near the Cafe)
- 7 sites (all drive-through and powered) – 1st level down
- More grassed Caravan Sites – 2nd Level Down
- Camping near Pond – 3rd Level Down
- Best Ever Atmospheric Camp Kitchen including Fireplace – 1st level
- Vehicle Fuel is available from the front of the Cafe
- DOG FRIENDLY
Free Camp Atherton Tablelands
(TOLGA) Rocky Creek War Memorial Campground was once free but now asks for a $5 Donation.
- FREE/($5 DONATION) PAY AT ATHERTON VISITOR CENTRE
- Stay Time 72 Hours
- North of Tolga Atherton Tablelands
- Non Potable Water
- Self-Contained rigs only. No Tents. Room for Big Rigs.
- Mobile and TV Reception
- DOG FRIENDLY
(KAIRI) Free Camp opposite the Pub is now CLOSED. August 2020. Read this post for Free Camping Queensland tips.
Queensland National Parks Lake Tinaroo – Danbulla
School Point Campground Lake Tinaroo Danbulla Atherton Tablelands
National Parks Campgrounds cost $6.75 ppn. Book here.
These campgrounds are scenic, well kept, grassed, with tall trees, Lake frontages, toilets/showers, fireplaces.
- Fong On Bay Camping Area
- School Point Camping Area
- Kauri Creek Camping Area
- Downfall Creek Camping Area
- Platypus Camping Area (No platypus here) Platypus (Rock) Lookout
- NOT DOG FRIENDLY
How to get to Atherton Tablelands
Three highways lead from the Coast between Cairns and Innisfail to the Atherton Tablelands.
Descending the Palmerston Highway
- Palmerston Highway from Innisfail takes it’s time with a reasonably gentle ascent and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery before arriving at Millaa Millaa, the home of waterfalls.
- Gillies Highway from Gordonvale has a 263 corners within 800 m elevation in only 19km of road, before arriving at Yungaburra on the Atherton Tablelands.
- Kuranda Range Road from Cairns arrives on the Tablelands at the famous Kuranda Village and continues on to Mareeba on the much drier northern section of the Tablelands.
It is also possible to access Atherton Tablelands from the beautiful coastal town of Port Douglas some 120 km to the north-east.
- State Route 44 approx. 1 hour 40 minutes is an inland route.
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