Exploring the beautiful Atherton Tablelands, Queensland

Miriam Blaker — 8 February 2024
Uncover the diverse wonders of Atherton Tablelands. From fertile soils to waterfalls, explore Cairns to Tablelands routes.

With fertile soils and coffee plantations, waterfalls and rolling hills that resemble the Scottish Highlands, a visit to the Atherton Tablelands is one of culinary trails and contrast.

Located around 90km from Cairns, there are a number of ways of getting to the Tablelands, many travel via the Gillies Highway into the mountains, or take the Kuranda Highway from the northside of Cairns. The higher elevation and cooler climate are a welcome respite in the summer when the ancient rainforest and waterfalls come alive, but anytime is a wonderful time to tour with a caravan. We had three weeks to fill before an organised house sit in Cooktown — always a nice break from van life. However, even a week will give you a delicious taste of the Tablelands.

There are almost 2000 farms, producing tropical fruit all thriving from basalt soil, good rainfall and plenty of sunshine, not to mention the dairy farms with their own tantalising treats. Like a proverbial food bowl, you’ll find bananas, mangoes, limes, coffee, tea, milk, cheese a plenty and exotic fruits, many found at roadside stalls. Grab a map and divide your time between the southern and northern tablelands, or just go where the roads tempt you and prepare for a feast of the senses.



From Mareeba to Atherton

Our Tablelands adventure starts at Rifle Creek, Mount Molloy, a popular free campground just off the highway. From there we headed to Rocky Point near Tolga, another popular spot which can get extremely busy but it’s an excellent base to explore Atherton and surrounds.

At Mareeba, where more than 70 per cent of Australia’s coffee crop is grown, you can taste, buy and enjoy local coffee roasters and plantations. Visit a mango winery, check out the Mareeba Heritage Museum or take to the skies in a hot air balloon, northern Australia’s best ballooning location. Close by is the Davies Creek National Park and the stunning Emerald Creek Falls.

Ringers Rest RV Park is 8km from Mareeba, a quiet bush land setting set up for self-contained vans. There’s plenty of open flat land to spread out and at just $10 night many people end up staying a lot longer. The communal fire pit is the focal point and, if you’re there on a Sunday night, congenial host Dave, who’s a real character, makes damper and entertains guests with stories from his mustering days. 

Kick back at Lake Tinaroo

As you drive into the Lake Tinaroo area, you’ll pass the Lake Tinaroo Holiday Park however if you drive a little further into the National Park there are five picturesque camping and caravan areas. The lake is huge and can be accessed from a couple of different sides with the Danbulla Road going right around the top of the dam, to the dam wall. The campsites here need to be prebooked through the National Park website, or in person at the Visitor Information Centre in Atherton. Having done a reconnaissance the day before, we knew our preference. Platypus Campground was our home for three nights, on a big site with beautiful lake views. 

Despite its name, Lake Tinaroo is actually a man-made reservoir. This part of the Barron River was dammed in 1952 to supply water to nearby crops and small towns. Tinaroo is a great base from which to explore the Danbulla National Park and State Forest. At the other end is the gorgeous town of Yungaburra to explore and the magnificent Cathedral Fig Tree (a giant curtain fig tree). Along the way stop off and check out Malanda Falls and pristine Lake Eacham. If you fancy a cuppa and scones with glorious views over the lake, make sure you visit Lake Barrine Teahouse. Walk off the extra calories afterwards on the short rainforest trail which leads to two magnificent kauri trees. 

Grey skies and intermittent rain followed us constantly while we were at Lake Tinaroo and at night cooler temperatures had us pulling on the second doona in the van. Outside the bird life and nature was prolific, with noisy possums tip toeing on our roof. We loved Lake Tinaroo but in summer it would be much busier so book ahead.

Ravenshoe and The Waterfall Way

Ravenshoe is the highest town in Queensland, a pretty town and fabulous base to explore many attractions including Innot Hot Springs and the waterfalls. The best place to park yourself is the Ravenshoe Railway Caravan Park.

Run by enthusiastic volunteers, the park has a unique and quirky ambience amid the steam railway infrastructure. As a bonus, every Thursday and Saturday a talented group by the name of the G Strings regularly sing and play their instruments on the platform, providing lively entertainment during Happy Hour. From the park you can literally walk to the shops, the pub and the supermarket.

Not far away the Millstream Falls, tumbling over the edge of an old basalt lava flow, are the widest single drop waterfall in Australia. It’s a steep but sealed walkway to view these magnificent falls. Little Millstream Falls, not far away, is equally worth visiting. 

The Atherton Tableland is filled with volcanic crater lakes, clear flowing streams and breathtaking waterfalls that are easily accessible. Millaa Millaa is only 28km from Ravenshoe and is the gateway to the southern Tablelands. Wander the village and then head east through town, along the Waterfall circuit, a drive that encompasses the beautiful and iconic Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls. These waterfalls are easy to reach, literally only five minutes’ walk from each car park. 

There are others too like Pepina Falls, Nandroya Falls and Souita Falls, but there’s only so many waterfalls you can do before declaring time for a break and a well earnt drink. Fortunately, close by there’s the Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy, serving up excellent cheese boards and lunches. My tip, go during the week when they’re less busy for free cheese and ice cream tastings. 

Herberton and Irvinebank — A step back in time

At Herberton, the oldest town on the Atherton Tablelands, its entire precinct is listed on the National Heritage Register. Start your experience in the Herberton Mining Museum which also incorporates the information centre.

Run by extremely knowledgeable volunteers, you could spend hours here. The other half got so immersed in the mining history I left him to go explore Herberton main street on foot, past the School of Arts and down to the Jack and Newell General Store (circa 1882) which houses the fascinating Spy and Camera Museum.

Less than a kilometre from the centre of town lies the Historic Village Herberton, the largest outdoor museum in Queensland with more than 50 original buildings from the town’s pioneering days, spread over 6.5 hectares. It’s like a step back in time; there’s a garage, newspaper office, butcher’s shop, chemist, toy shop, a school, coach house, John Deere tractor shed and much more to explore. 

There’s plenty of free parking on site for RVs and caravans but, if you don’t see it all, your three-day ticket pass gets you in for the days following to see all you missed. We stayed overnight at the Wild River Caravan Park. 

Just 39km west of Herberton and nestled in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, is Irvinebank, a tiny town which would have to be the epitome of tin mining history on the Tablelands. The once prosperous tin mining town is one big open-air time capsule crowned by the stately Loudoun House, once home to Irvinebank’s founder John Moffat. 

We arrived just before the annual Irvinebank Festival and settled into a creek side spot at the free campground at Bill Newburn Park. There’s plenty of space, public toilets nearby and hot showers are available for a gold coin. Across the road Irvinebank Tavern has cold drinks and, if it’s open, a meal.

Explore Irvinebank on foot; it’s quirky and most buildings are within walking distance. Stroll around the picturesque dam, visit the Museum and seek out Freethinker Cottage, a fully restored 1940s cabin with a lifetime’s worth of antiques, fossils and curios salvaged from forgotten 1940s landfill. There’s also a historic Tramway Station and the Vulcan Mine, Australia’s deepest tin mine.

For us the highlight was Brian’s Shed, a massive warehouse space owned by Brian Perkes, a retired tin miner born and raised in town. Inside his warehouse is everything from tools to record players, hubcaps to vintage beer glasses. Brian showed us a working steam-powered water pump which splutters noisily next to an industrial corn cob stripper and giant engines rescued from abandoned mines. It’s meticulously organised and Brian delights in demonstrating the historical machines which he’s restored himself. Expect lively banter and a fascinating time. It was Doug’s birthday, and he was like a kid in a candy store, enthusiastic, enthralled and reluctant to leave.

The contrast of Chillagoe 

Chillagoe captivated me, this outback town in the midst of a savannah landscape dotted with massive limestone towers and looking somewhat like the land of the hobbits. Originally a centre for the gold and copper mining industry, the town has retained much of its historic charm and even its name sounds playful, inspired from an old sea shanty line “Ikey, crikey, psyke, mikey, chillagoe, wallabadorie.”

To get there from Irvinebank head along the Herberton-Petford Road, an ungraded dirt track with dry creek crossings, but easy enough to travel with the van. If you’re travelling from Mareeba along the Wheelbarrow Way, it’s a comfortable two-hour drive on mostly sealed roads to Chillagoe. 

Chillagoe’s landscape is dominated by chimneys and rocks. With the discovery of copper in the late 19th century a large smelting plant was opened in 1901 and remained in production for 40 plus years. The chimneys still stand, adding to the mystique of this surreal landscape. You can explore these fascinating, well-preserved ruins and the walking trails with interpretive storyboards. However, what draws most people here today is the limestone caves, ancient Aboriginal art and a unique geology.

Head to the Chillagoe Visitor Information Centre, also known as the Hub, to book an underground guided adventure. Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park offers an experience millions of years in the making and it’s worth taking a guided ranger tour to make the most of it. Three of the caves you can self-discover, without a guide. 

Aboveground explore The Archways and the extraordinary Balancing Rock. Cool off near the weir, stroll through the police museum and have a drink at the pub and soak up the outback atmosphere of this alluringly wonderful place.

At night sit back under the stars at the Eco Lodge Caravan Park and immerse yourself in big outback skies. There’s an observatory for star gazers and, if you haven’t already been wowed by the Tablelands offerings, a dazzling sky of wonder to discover. 

Where to stay

Here are some of the best places to set up camp while you explore the Atherton Tablelands with its many national parks, lush rainforests and unending natural beauty. 

Mount Molloy

Rifle Creek Camping Ground
Mulligan Highway
Mount Molloy Qld 4871

  • Large area, lots of trees, camping tables, bins, flushing toilets and cold-water shower. 48-hour free camping, fires permitted, taps with non-potable water.
  • Gold coin donation honesty box on site.

Tolga

Rocky Creek War Memorial Park
Between Walkamin and Tolga.

  • Located beside an outdoor war memorial. 
  • Large, grassy and popular rest area, toilets available.
  • Caretaker on site. Cost $5 per night.

Lake Tinaroo/Danbulla National Park

There are six camping areas: Platypus, Downfall Creek, Kauri Creek, School Point, Fong-on-Bay and Curri Curri (boat accessible only). 

  • All campsites at Danbula/Lake Tinaroo must be pre booked. Phone service unreliable so book your site beforehand.
  • Camping fees: $7.25 per person per night or $29 per family per night
  • Book online here. Alternatively phone 137 468 or visit the Atherton VIC.

Mareeba

Ringers Rest RV Camping
277 Fichera Road
Mareeba Qld 4880

  • P: Dave 0447 136 865
  • No booking required.

Ravenshoe

Ravenshoe Railway Caravan Park
63 Grigg Street
Ravenshoe Qld 4888

  • P: 07 4097 6005
  • No bookings taken.

Herberton

Wild River Caravan Park
23 Holdcroft Drive
Herberton Qld 4887

  • P: 07 4096 2121

Irvinebank

Bill Newburn Free Camping area
2656 Herberton-Petford Road
Irvinebank Qld 4887 

  • 26km west of Herberton
  • 48-hour campground, opposite the hotel
  • Grassy, plenty of shade, public toilets close by and gold coin showers

Chillagoe

Chillagoe Observatory and Eco Lodge
1 Hospital Avenue
Chillagoe Qld 4871

  • P: 07 4094 7155
  • E: info@coel.com.au
  • Observatory on site, adults $30 Bookings are essential. Open from 7.30pm for 1.5 hours. Closed during periods of full moon.

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Atherton Tablelands Queensland Cairns to Tablelands routes Waterfall Circuit Culinary trails Herberton heritage Chillagoe limestone towers

Photographer

Miriam Blaker