I’ve visited the Atherton Tablelands a few times, and with each visit, I discover yet another beautiful place. The climate here is a lovely respite from the tropical heat. The elevation reaches over 1,600 meters above sea level. This provides a cool and temperate atmosphere perfect for waterfall chasing.
About a 90-minute drive from Cairns, this plateau opens up into a landscape promising adventure. It delivers it in the form of cascading falls, each with its own character and charm.
In this guide, I’ll introduce you to the majestic waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands. From the famous Millaa Millaa Falls to the serene Malanda Falls, every trail in the Tablelands offers something special.
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Location & How To Get There
Cairns is the gateway to the Tablelands via a variety of routes.
If you’re starting in Cairns, the most direct and scenic route is via the Gillies Range Road. This road begins at Gordonvale, on the southern outskirts of Cairns, and spirals upwards through the Gillies Range. It consists of a winding ascent with over 260 curves and 800 meters elevation gain, which can be quite an exhilarating drive. As you navigate these bends, you’re rewarded with sweeping views of the valley below and pockets of ancient rainforest. Upon reaching the plateau, the landscape changes to the rolling hills and lush farmland of the Atherton Tablelands.
Alternatively, the Kuranda Range road is another popular route. It takes you through the rainforest village of Kuranda, famous for its arts scene and the Kuranda Scenic Railway. From Kuranda, you can continue west to Mareeba and then head south into the heart of the Tablelands. This route is less steep and is often preferred by those who find the tighter turns of the Gillies Range daunting.
The Gillies and Kuranda Ranges can be challenging for larger vehicles or caravans. If you’re not driving yourself, coach services and guided tours operate from Cairns. This provides a stress-free option if you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
When To Go
Higher elevation means cooler temperatures year-round, along with misty mornings and ample rainfall that give life to its cascades. I’ve found the falls at their most spectacular after the wet season, which runs from November through April.
If you want to experience other outdoor activities too, the drier months provide perfect conditions.
Waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands
Millaa Millaa Falls
This waterfall was made famous by the Qantas and Herbal Essence hair shampoo commercials. It’s also my favourite on the waterfall circuit.
In the Ma Mu Aboriginal peoples’ language, ‘Millaa Millaa’ refers to Elaeagnus triflora, the rainforest vine. The Ma Mu people are the traditional owners of this land, which holds significant cultural value to them.
At the falls, a sign reads: “The basalts that form the falls come from the Millaa Millaa shield volcano, which is believed to have erupted approximately 1 to 1.5 million years ago. As the lava spewed out, it flowed down, filling ancient valleys. Later weathering changed the black basalt to red soils, and erosion removed the crater and cut gullies into the lava mass.”
- Features: A classic heritage-listed plunge waterfall with an 18-metre drop into a pool. The falls are surrounded by lush rainforest.
- Viewpoints: Easily accessible viewing area close to the car park with clear, unobstructed views of the falls.
- Activities: Swimming in the refreshing pool, picnicking on the grass and photography. These falls are one of the most photographed in Australia.
- Trails: A short, well-maintained walkway from the parking area to the falls.
- Wildlife: Opportunities to spot the stunning blue Ulysses Butterfly, turtles, & platypus (although generally in the late afternoon), and Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo.
- Tips for Visiting: Visit early to avoid crowds, especially during the tourist season. Wear water shoes for swimming due to the rocky bottom.
- Facilities: Toilets, changing rooms, picnic tables, and barbeque areas are available.
The falls tumble over a series of lava columns, a testament to the volcanic history that sculpted this landscape millions of years ago. The water plummets into a cool, clear pool, inviting you for a refreshing dip.
- Features: Picturesque cascades surrounded by dense rainforest and volcanic rock columns.
- Viewpoints: A walkway leads to a viewing platform at the base of the falls.
- Activities: Photography, birdwatching, and enjoying the sound of the cascades.
- Trails: A well-defined path with steps descending to the base of the falls.
- Wildlife: Look for the electric blue Ulysses butterfly and platypus in the waters.
- Tips for Visiting: Wear sturdy shoes for the walk down to the falls; it can be slippery when wet.
- Facilities: Car Parking; no toilet facilities.
Malanda Falls is fed by the clear waters of the North Johnstone River. It tumbles into a shallow pool that is perfect for families to enjoy a safe swim.
Surrounded by the Malanda Falls Conservation Park, the area provides excellent facilities. This includes a visitor centre with displays about the local Ngadjon-Jii culture and the area’s natural history.
- Features: Cascade Falls, where the North Johnstone River flows over basalt rock.
- Viewpoints: Viewing can be done from the front of the falls or from an elevated platform.
- Activities: Swimming in the pool beneath the falls, rainforest walks.
- Trails: Gentle, wheelchair-accessible path leading to the viewing area. There are additional rainforest and river walks.
- Wildlife: Tree kangaroos on the rainforest walks.
- Tips for Visiting: Best visited during the week to avoid local swimmers on weekends.
- Facilities: Visitor Centre, picnic area, toilets, and an educational environmental walk.
Dinner Falls and The Crater
- Features: Located within Hypipamee National Park, Dinner Falls is a series of cascades. The Crater is a diatreme formed by a volcanic explosion.
- Viewpoints: Viewpoints for the falls and a viewing platform for The Crater.
- Trails: The track to Dinner Falls is well-signed; the loop walk to The Crater is an easy grade.
- Wildlife: High-altitude rainforest birds and unique flora around The Crater.
- Tips for Visiting: Bring insect repellent due to the rainforest environment.
- Facilities: Parking and barbecue.
Rains feed the waterfall from Queensland’s highest peak, Bartle Frere. From here, it starts as a trickle but ends up as a roaring torrent after travelling the 7.5 km to the granite boulders (after heavy rains). Watching the water cascade over the smooth granite boulders is captivating.
- Features: A stunning multi-tiered waterfall set in a natural amphitheatre.. It’s known for its smooth, granite rock base and surrounding rainforest.
- Viewpoints: The falls can be enjoyed from multiple angles on the designated walkways, including an upper-level viewing platform and a lower deck close.
- Activities: Take a dip in the crystal-clear waters and use the naturally formed waterslide. However, take note of the conditions as people have drowned here.
- Trails: A scenic 1.2 km return walk through the rainforest leads you to the falls, with lookout points to stop and enjoy the surroundings.
- Wildlife: Keep an eye out for butterflies, birds, and snakes!
- Tips for Visiting: Arriving early can give you a more peaceful experience. Always heed any signage, as conditions can change, and stay within the designated swimming areas for safety. You may need to take some insect repellent, as the March Flies were awful in September. Biting flies, also known as marsh flies, March flies, or horse flies, are often present during the warmer months (August to April).
- Facilities: On-site amenities include toilets, picnic areas, and a car park close to the start of the walking trail.
When visiting these waterfalls, check the local conditions, particularly after heavy rain. The trails can become quite slippery, and water levels may rise unexpectedly. Always adhere to safety signs and stay on designated paths to protect the delicate environment and ensure a safe experience.
One-Day Waterfall Circuit Itinerary
- Start at Millaa Millaa Falls: Begin your day early with a swim in the iconic Millaa Millaa Falls. Arriving early ensures fewer crowds and better photo opportunities.
- Visit Zillie Falls: A quick stop to view the falls from the platform above, capturing the essence of the Tablelands’ rainforest.
- Ellinjaa Falls: Descend the steps to the base for another beautiful photo op and enjoy the lush surroundings. Stay for a picnic lunch.
- Drive to Malanda Falls: After lunch, head to Malanda Falls. Visit the visitor centre, swim in the falls, and take the educational walk.
- End at Dinner Falls and The Crater: Finish your circuit with a visit to these unique geological sites. Explore the series of cascades at Dinner Falls and marvel at The Crater.
Self-Guided Tours vs. Guided Tour Options
- Flexibility: Create your itinerary, stay as long or as short as you like at each destination.
- Planning: Use maps and local guides to plan your routes, ensuring you have all the necessary information for a safe trip.
- Cost-Effective: Save money on guide fees and tour packages by organising your travel and accommodation.
Guided Tour Options:
- Knowledge: Benefit from the expertise of local guides who can provide in-depth information about the waterfalls and surrounding ecosystems.
- Convenience: Transportation, itinerary, and sometimes food are taken care of.
- Safety: Guides ensure you stay safe on the trails and have assistance if needed.
- Use a polarising filter to cut the glare on the water for clearer waterfall shots.
- Early mornings are best for soft light and avoiding the midday tourist crowds.
- A tripod can be useful for long-exposure shots of waterfalls to get that silky water effect.
Swimming Safety Tips
- Always observe any posted safety signs; they are there for your protection.
- Avoid swimming in areas not designated for such activities, as there could be hidden dangers.
- After heavy rainfall, be wary of strong currents and rising water levels.
What to Pack for a Day Trip
- Waterproof Backpack: To keep your essentials dry in case of rain or splashes from the waterfalls.
- Water and Snacks: Stay hydrated and keep your energy up with light snacks like nuts or fruit.
- Appropriate Footwear: Water-resistant hiking shoes with good grip for slippery trails.
- Sun Protection: Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, even on overcast days.
- Swimwear and Towel: For those refreshing dips in natural pools.
- Rain Jacket or Poncho: The weather can change quickly in tropical environments.
- First Aid Kit: Always be prepared for minor injuries.
- Camera with Waterproof Housing: For those all-important waterfall photos.
- Binoculars: Enhance your wildlife spotting experiences.
- Insect Repellent: To keep the bugs at bay.
- Change of Clothes: Comfortable clothes for the drive home.
Safety Precautions Near Waterfalls and During Walks
- Stay on Marked Trails: This helps prevent erosion and protects you from getting lost or coming across dangerous wildlife.
- Observe Signage: Heed any warning signs, as they are there to inform you of potential dangers.
- Check Weather Conditions: Before leaving, check the weather forecast to avoid being caught in rain or storms.
- Avoid Slippery Rocks: Rocks near waterfalls can be deceptively slippery. If you’re not sure-footed, enjoy the view from a safe distance.
- Buddy System: It’s always safer to travel with a companion in case of emergencies.
Staying Environmentally Conscious – Preserving the Natural Beauty
- Take Only Photos, Leave Only Footprints: The adage remains true. Ensure that you carry any rubbish out with you.
- Stick to Paths: Venturing off the path can damage fragile ecosystems and cause soil erosion.
- Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a distance, don’t feed them, and definitely do not disturb their natural behaviours.
- Use Established Rest Areas: Utilise the facilities provided, such as benches and picnic areas to minimise impact.
- Biodegradable Products: Consider using biodegradable sunscreen and insect repellent to lessen your chemical impact on the environment.
Atherton Tableland Tours
There are a range of Atherton Tablelands tours that depart from Cairns.
Brief History of Atherton Tablelands
I would like to respectfully acknowledge The Yidinji and Djirrbal People, the Traditional Owners, and the First People of these lands. I would like to pay my respect to the Elders past, present, and future, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture, and hopes of The Yidinji and Djirrbal People.
The white settlers’ arrival resulted in conflict, starvation, and dislocation to the land’s traditional owners. There were instances of rape and massacres of local aboriginal people causing the estimated population in the Cairns-Tableland region to be reduced to less than 20% in just 20 years.
John Atherton was the first European to settle in the area in 1876. He brought his cattle and family from Rockhampton the following year. Tin mining became the most significant industry after Atherton found tin in 1880. The timber industry began, used primarily for construction and fuel.