For those visiting Queensland’s north coast, Cairns is often the main attraction. As the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, it’s easy to just use the city as a base for diving trips. But we recommend extending your stay to turn away from the ocean and spend a couple of days exploring the stunning Atherton Tablelands. We spent two days road tripping around this spectacular region and couldn’t get enough!
The Atherton Tablelands are a vast highland plateau extending inland from the Cairns coast. The region is a fantastic natural playground of tropical forests, volcanic crater lakes, and rivers rushing towards the coast to create a plethora of incredible waterfalls.
Most people explore this area on a guided one-day waterfall circuit tour, hitting a few of the most popular falls – but being stuck on a tour bus is our personal version of Hell. So we decided to rent a car and explore the area on our own. What had originally been planned for one day ended up extending into two very full ones – and we still would have been happy to go back for more! (Check out our video of our Australia trip to see for yourself – it’s chock full of Atherton Tablelands clips!)
Here are our best tips from our road trip around the Atherton Tablelands:
Water Slide Down Josephine Falls
This is a very popular spot, and for good reason! A short hike will lead you to a natural water slide down a portion of the falls. Every tour bus will stop here, so make sure to go early if you want to beat the crowds. Start your day off right with a dip in the swimming hole, check the water slide off your bucket list, and then go in search of less popular waterfalls and leave the tourists behind!
Visit Lesser-Known Waterfalls
All of the waterfall circuit tours will stop at Josephine Falls and photoshoot-ready Millaa Millaa Falls (made famous by the scandalous Herbal Essences commercials I remember from when I was a kid). Although both are gorgeous, we felt their beauty was matched by plenty of other falls which had the added benefit of far fewer visitors.
There is a veritable smorgasbord of waterfalls within driving distance of the main circuit, but here are the ones we stopped to see:
Zillie Falls – Just 7.5 km from Millaa Millaa, the thundering Zillie Falls sees a fraction of the visitors. The viewing platform near the top offers a great spot to look out over the falls, but you can also take a muddy scramble down to the base. It’s not a safe spot to swim, but it was well worth it to be completely alone, standing between giant boulders in the mist of the falls, surrounded by the roar of the water.
Elinjaa Falls – 3 km past Zillie Falls, Elinjaa cascades over a series of lava columns. The pool at the base is shallow and safe for swimming, and there’s even a hidden ledge where you can sit behind the falls. We visited in August (winter in Australia) so the swim was cold, but we warmed right back up as soon as we were on the road again.
Tchupala Falls – Tchupala is a segmented falls, meaning that the water streams over the rocks in segments, creating multiple distinct waterfalls. We encountered other visitors at the viewing platform near the top, but we were the only ones brave enough to clamber down to the base for a float and a shower!
Wallicher Falls – This falls is just a 500-meter walk from Tchupala, so if you’ve stopped to see one, definitely don’t miss the other! Wallicher is a bit wider than its neighbor, and you can take an easy hike up to the top and walk out over the rocky river before it drops over the edge. Just take care not to get too excited and crash your drone in the foliage, as we did (it survived). Go see both falls and try to pick your favorite!
Stand in Awe of the Cathedral Fig Tree
Although most people visit the Atherton Tablelands on the waterfall circuit, there’s plenty more than waterfalls to see here. The Cathedral Fig is a towering 500-year-old strangler fig tree nestled in the Danbulla State Forest. Although it was just a 100-meter walk from the car park, we felt immediately transported into the heart of the forest, and even stopped just to listen to the chorus of birds and insects surrounding us in the foliage.
The sight of the Cathedral Fig itself is jaw-dropping. The expansive base is 72 meters around; it would take more than 40 people holding hands around it in order to meet up to close the circle. Infinite roots stream down from the canopy to support the massive structure, sunlight peaking between them. Fifty meters above where we stood gaping upwards, the crown of the tree extends out over 2,000 square meters – about the size of two Olympic swimming pools.
A few groups came and went quickly after snapping a few pictures, but we lingered for quite a while to enjoy the quiet magnificence of this natural wonder. There’s nothing like a massive 500-year-old tree to remind you of how small you are in the scheme of things.
We also made a stop at the Curtain Fig, another stunning strangler near the charming little town of Yungaburra. This enormous tree has an unusual (you guessed it – curtain-like) structure created when the strangler fig’s host tree fell into a neighboring tree. Roots descended to form the curtain structure, and eventually the host tree rotted away to leave the fig standing on its own in its unique posture. It’s worth a stop if you’re nearby, but we thought the Cathedral Fig was the more impressive of the two.
Stop for a Dip
If the swimming holes beneath the falls are too busy for your liking, there are plenty of other places to cool off as you explore the Atherton Tablelands. A 10-minute drive from the Curtain Fig will take you to Crater Lakes National Park, home to two volcanic lakes – Eacham and Barrine. Both are surrounded by walking trails through lush rainforest.
We stopped by Lake Eacham, the smaller (but still impressive!) of the two. Steps from the car park are platforms overlooking the lake, with steps leading into the clear blue water if you’re feeling up for a swim. We stayed to cool our feet, enjoy the view, and let the tiny fish nibble at our toes. If you have time, linger to enjoy a picnic at this scenic spot or take the 3-km trail around the lake to spot some wildlife.
We also visited the Babinda Boulders early on our second day, when we just happened to pass a sign for them. Babinda is a natural confluence of streams lined with huge boulders, creating picturesque swimming holes. Paved walking trails lead to lookout areas. We hoped to return later in the afternoon when we were ready to cool off with a swim, but couldn’t make it back in time with so many other places to see! It’s easy to imagine why this peaceful and quiet place also has special cultural and spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal people.
Stray from Your Planned Itinerary
If you’re following the popular waterfall circuit, we guarantee you’ll pass signs for other sights you didn’t even know were there. Leave extra time to see whatever strikes your fancy. We recommend starting with a loose itinerary and being ready to divert from it. Sometimes the best adventures are unplanned!
This map shows everywhere we stopped on our two-day whirlwind tour of the Atherton Tablelands:
More Tips for Self-Driving the Atherton Tablelands
✅ Rent a car. Maybe it’s just us, but canned tours are usually the worst. We rented an economy car for about 20 USD per day, which cost far less than a guided waterfall circuit tour for the two of us even after we paid for gas and snacks. We started when we wanted, went wherever we chose, and stopped for food when we felt like it. Plus we got to pick the radio station!
✅ Don’t forget to drive on the left side of the road! Seems obvious, but we probably got in on the wrong side of the car 9 out of every 10 times. If you usually drive on the right, spend a few minutes practicing in a low-traffic area before you hit the highway.
✅ Pack snacks and water. You’ll save yourself a lot of cash by filling up your water bottles at the hotel and stopping by a grocery store for snacks before you leave. Plus, once we got going and saw how many waterfalls awaited us, we were loath to stop at a restaurant to eat.
✅ Wear a swimsuit (obviously) underneath something you don’t mind getting dirty. Zillie Falls in particular was a bit of a muddy slide down to the base, but absolutely worth it! Some of the falls require short (5-10 min) hikes, so sturdy hiking sandals would be perfect (although I wore my flip flops and survived just fine).
✅ Prepare a sweet playlist and pick a good road trip buddy. The falls start about an hour drive from Cairns, and you’ll be in the car off and on in between waterfalls.
✅ Download maps with the Google Maps app. Here are directions for how to download maps from Google so you can navigate offline, in case you don’t have cell service in more remote areas.
✅ And… OK, if you’re that close to the Great Barrier Reef, do not miss it! The Atherton Tablelands were absolutely fantastic, but seeing the reef is probably a once in a lifetime. Check out our 10 favorite photos from our live-aboard dive trip on the reef to get you inspired.
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