Atherton Tablelands Self Drive Day Trip

The Atherton Tablelands has diverse landscapes, from dry savannah plains to lush tropical rainforests. The entire area spans over 64,000 square kilometres with enough natural and local attractions to keep you entertained for days. If you only have one day, below is a recommended day trip from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands. The route is a circuit and around three hours of driving time.

On this varied and action-packed day, you will have the opportunity to swim in pristine water, meet some of our more elusive Aussie animals, learn about the history of this important region that supplies so much of the state’s produce and find plenty of great food to eat and drink.

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Atherton Tablelands Map – Self Drive Day Trip

Start. Cairns

Try to start your day nice and early, while this route only takes 3 hrs to drive, the more time you in Cairns have to explore, the better. I suggest you pick up some coffee and breakfast supplies at Rusty’s Market to enjoy on your first stop. The market opens at 5am so grab some tropical fruit and coffee and hit the road.

Stop 1. Lake Barrine, Crater Lakes National Park

Head south from Cairns, following the Bruce Highway through Gordonvale and then turning onto Giles Range Road. Make sure you’ve got enough fuel in the tank as the next place to fill up will be in Yungaburra, 44 km away. Giles Range Road delivers on its name, twisting and turning up into the mountains and rewarding you with astonishing scenery.

Set your directions for the Lake Barrine Day Use Area. This is one of two volcanically formed lakes that make up the Crater Lakes National Park. Stop in at the Lake Barrine Teahouse for their famous scones and a hot cuppa to wash it down. You can look forward to country-style hospitality and sweeping views of the lake from the deck. Afterwards, take a leisurely 5.1 km stroll around the lake.

Lake Eachem Atherton
Lake Eacham Credit: Tourism Events Queensland

Stop 2 and 3. Wrights Creek Falls and Lake Eacham

On the way to the second lake in Crater Lakes National Park, you can find a hidden waterfall on Wrights Creek Road. Look for the narrow walking track near the roadblock. Lake Eacham is less than a 10-minute drive from Lake Barrine. Here you’ll find a 2.9km circuit walking trail around the lake. Or if you’re not feeling energetic – jump into the cool, blue water and splash around with the locals.

Stop 4. Yungaburra Platypus Viewing Platform

Seeing a platypus in the wild is an unforgettable moment for many. And one of the best places to see a platypus on a Cairns day out is at the Yungaburra Platypus Viewing Platform. After parking your car, you’ll see the actual platform with wooden slots to peek down at the waterhole below. If you don’t have any luck there, cross the bridge and quietly make your way down to the stream. Patiently wait and look for bubbles, and you’ll be delighted to see the small, duck-billed mammal surface.

Platypus in a river
Spot a Platypus

Stop 5. Curtin Fig

The next stop in Yungaburra is the Curtain Fig Tree, just a few minutes driving south of town. After parking, follow the Curtain Fig boardwalk that takes you around the tree with aerial roots which form into a curtain. The raised boardwalk is 180 meters return and protects the endangered Mabi forest below.

Looking up the giant Cathedral Fig Tree on the Atherton Tablelands, Australia
Looking up the giant Fig Tree

Stop 6. Atherton Crystal Caves & Strawberry Farm

The rural town of Atherton is 14 km west of Yungaburra. Its major attraction is The Crystal Caves, five man-made caves with a collection of crystals, gems and fossils. You’ll be astounded by one man’s life work to accumulate precious stones and present them in an interactive way for the public’s enjoyment.

On a self-guided walking tour of the Crystal Caves, you’ll be prepared with your miner’s helmet and flashlight before venturing into the dark. This adventure will take you through 300m of grottos and tunnels to discover 600 types of crystals.

If the Crystal Caves doesn’t sound like your thing, just a seven minutes drive from town is the Togla Bat Hospital. They offer visitor experiences between 3pm-6pm, which last about one hour. Also nearby is Shalee Strawberry Farm, where you can pick your own in season (July to November) or enjoy a strawberry gelato.

Stop 7. Mareeba Heritage Museum

The fourth town on your day trip to the Atherton Tablelands is Mareeba. Get to know more about this historical area at the Mareeba Heritage Museum and Visitor Information Centre. The museum has free entry during the opening hours of 9am – 4pm from Monday to Friday and 8am – 3pm on weekends. Note that the last admission to the museum is thirty minutes before closing. There are 47 exhibits across historical eras with dedicated sections to Mareeba’s Traditional Owners.

The Muluridji People are Traditional Owners with Native Title rights over land and waters to the north-west of Mareeba. In the local Aboriginal language, Mareeba means meeting of the waters, which is in reference to referring to Barron River connecting with Granite Creek.

Mareeba Wetlands Atherton Tableland
Mareeba Wetlands Credit: Tourism Australia

Stop 8. Emerald Creek Falls

A quick detour (20km) from Mareeba will get you to Emerald Creek Falls. These multi-level falls are a brilliant spot for a swim, but if you travel with a caravan, you will have to leave it and walk-in. It’s dirt road access, but worth the effort.

Emerald Creek Atherton Tableland
Emerald Creek Atherton Tablelands

Stop 9. Mareeba Wetlands

Mareeba Wetlands, a 5,000-acre conservation reserve, is a must for birdwatchers. Over 200 species of birds can be found here, along with wallabies and emus. The wetlands are closed in the wet season (January to March). Self-guided walking trails are well marked and give you a chance to explore just a fraction of the property. Check opening hours before you head here, as there have been some closures recently.

Before driving back to Cairns, perk up with a caffeine hit at Coffeeworks in Mareeba. It began as a family-owned business with one location at Rustys Markets in Cairns. Coffee works is now an institution with six locations around Tropical North Queensland. During your visit, you can dine at the Espresso Bar, indulge in edible art at the Chocolaterie and walk away with sweet treats from the gift shop. They also have a museum and coffee flights if you are keen. The main building is only open until 3pm.

If you don’t have your own transport, this Waterfall, Wildlife and Rainforest Tour from Cairns stops at almost all the places above on its 11-hour tour.

Got a question? Head over to our Australia Travel Tips Facebook Group and ask a local.

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