Australia’s fabulous Atherton Tablelands lie in the beautiful rolling hills behind Cairns and are definitely one of the best destinations to visit in North Queensland.
Full of great hikes, exciting bike tracks, stunning waterfalls, rainforest drives, magnificent lakes and fascinating heritage, there’s a whole of heap of budget-friendly things to enjoy in this part of Australia that are perfect for those travelling on a shoestring.
So here, to get your travel planning off to a great start, are 12 of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
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#1 Visit Barren Gorge National Park
Situated just outside the colourful village of Kuranda, Barron Gorge National Park is home to the infamous Barron Falls, one of the most spectacular displays of nature in this whole area.
A 260m granite-faced waterfall, Barron Falls are best seen via a stroll along the fantastic boardwalk, which is free to enter.
This definitely makes it one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
The small, alternative community of Kuranda nearby is most famous for its bustling markets.
So, if you have time, definitely make a stop to see all the fantastic local arts and crafts on offer here too.
#2 Take in the Views from the Kennedy Highway
Most people approach the Atherton Tablelands from Cairns, as it’s the nearest city around and right on the main coastal highway, making it a convenient point of access.
From Cairns, the easiest way to get to the Tablelands is to follow the Captain Cook Highway and then take the turning onto the Kennedy Highway.
This incredibly twisty-turny road, quickly climbs the hills in this area, leading to breathtaking views and an instant change of climate.
Suddenly you feel like you are in the thick of the rainforest, with lush green foliage on a giant scale all around you!
As such, stopping at some of the lookouts en route to gaze and snap the landscape spread before you is definitely one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
#3 Check out the Mareeba Heritage Museum
The largest town in the Atherton Tablelands, Mareeba has an awesome Heritage Museum, which is free to enter and certainly worth checking out to learn more about the area’s fascinating aboriginal and colonial history.
With some great displays about the changing nature of local industry and lots of historical artefacts, this large museum is well worth dedicating an hour or so too.
#4 Bird Watch at the Mareeba Wetlands
The nearby Mareeba Wetlands are also free to enter and another one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
A protected area of natural beauty, home to many bird species, you’ll easily spot one or 2 from the lovely boardwalk.
Alternatively, you can just spend some time at the Mareeba Wetlands to enjoy the peace, quiet and tranquillity of the place.
#5 Marvel at the Crystal Caves Shop
No visit to the Tablelands second largest town, Atherton, is complete without a visit to the quirky Crystal Caves.
This alternative shop is dedicated to precious stones and gems collected around the world by one rather eccentric Dutch man!
The Crystal Caves now house his collection of impressive crystals in a series of manmade tunnels beneath the shop.
Although you have to pay to go into these caves, access to the shop is free and it’s well worth popping in to marvel at the huge array of precious stones on display here
Trust me, it really is a sight that has to be seen to be believed!
There’s also lots of info about the minerals mined, where they come from and the techniques used to unearth them, making this one of the most fascinatingly free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
#6 Enjoy a Bike Ride on the Rail Trails
The Atherton Tablelands are fast becoming known as one of the adventure capitals of Queensland, so if you have a push bike, there are plenty of trails here that showcase the stunning scenery of the area.
Highly recommended are The Rail Trails, which provide 6km of track between Atherton and Tolga.
Otherwise try the Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park, which has steep tracks that will take you through forests and mountains if you’re up for a challenge.
If bike riding isn’t your thing, then there’s also plenty of walking trails to do in and around Atherton too.
A stroll up to take in the view from Halloran’s Hill is a good one to attempt. Sadly it was raining when we got up here, but if you manage to visit on a clear day, the views across the rolling hills should be breathtaking!
#7 Catch your Breath at Queensland’s Highest Town
Making a trip to Ravenshoe – Queensland’s highest town – is definitely one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
This very cute and quaint old village is full of character and history – much of which is proudly displayed along the one street!
You can also peruse the local art gallery here or check out the nearby Windy Hill Wind Farm – the largest in Queensland, and a surprisingly memorising experience, which I found rather beautiful.
Being so high up, driving to Ravenshoe will also grant you some of the most expansive and impressive views of the Atherton Tablelands.
The wonderful scenic drive along the ridge to the neighbouring town to Millaa Millaa was a particular favourite of mine and well worth checking out.
#8 Stare into the Depths of Hypipamee Crater
One of my favourite places in the whole of the Atherton Tablelands, the Hypipamee Crater is an amazing spectacle.
Situated within a national park of the same name, this impressive hole in the landscape now houses a beautiful lake at the bottom of it, and peering over the railings into its eerie depths was pretty chilling.
We also saw a wild cassowary during our time in this National Park, which makes it an absolute no-brainer on our list of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands!
#9 Cruise the Waterfall Circuit
Spread out around the town of Millaa Millaa, the waterfall circuit is a drive that encompasses some of the Atherton Tablelands best waterfalls … and in this land of water, that’s saying something!
My favourites include the Zilliie Falls, Papina Falls and the Millaa Millaa Falls themselves, but there’s plenty of others to check out too.
And don’t forget the epic Dinner Falls and Millstream Falls as well.
Although not officially part of the Waterfall Circuit, these gushing cascades are situated nearby and are certainly worth seeing too.
#10 Stroll the Avenue of Honour
The town of Yungaburra in the Atherton Tablelands is perhaps one of the area’s prettiest hamlets and definitely worth a stop on any itinerary.
One of the main highlights of this town is the Avenue of Honour – a veteran memorial dedicated to those Australians that have lost their lives in the Afghanistan conflict.
It’s a delightful memorial (if such a thing exists) which you can stroll down and enjoy, especially during the fading light of the day.
#11 Unpuzzle the Curtain Fig Tree
Also located near the town of Yungaburra is the enormous Curtain Fig Tree.
Set within a national park area, this massive tree is really quite impressive and, despite the excellent storyboards telling you how the crazy structure was formed, it’s still hard to fathom the whole thing!
We also loved the platypus viewing area on the nearby Gillies Highway, so both agree this is one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
#12 Take a Dip at Lake Eacham
With so much to see and do in the Atherton Tablelands, fitting everything in can be hard.
However, you definitely want to allow yourself enough time to check out Lake Eacham.
This gorgeous crater lake is set in some beautiful tropical rainforest and is the perfect place for a picnic or a BBQ.
You can also walk the 3km track around the lake and enjoy spotting some of the 180 resident bird species too.
Or best of all, take a dip or snorkel with the resident freshwater crocodile … I’m being serious!
A definite highlight of our time in the Atherton Tablelands, splashing around in the clear blue waters of Lake Eacham was pure delight and comes highly recommended as one of the best free things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
Travel Tips for Visiting the Atherton Tablelands
Where to Stay
There are tons of great caravan parks, campsites and backpackers across the Atherton Tablelands, which are ideal for those on a budget.
Top of my list was On the Wallaby, a wonderfully relaxed hostel in the beautiful Yungaburra Village.
Where to Eat
There is a Coles Supermarket in Mareeba and a Woolworths in Atherton. With loads of awesome picnic spots across the Atherton Tablelands, buying your own food and enjoying it amidst the gorgeous surroundings is definitely the way to go.
How to Get Around
As usual, driving your own vehicle around the Tablelands is going to be the most efficient way of seeing as much of this gorgeous area as possible.
However, you can also fly to Cairns and then hire a car or, even better, a campervan, quite easily.
This will save you a lot in accommodation costs, but still give you the freedom to go everywhere you want.
How to Visit the Atherton Tablelands from Cairns
If you don’t have your own vehicle, or want to join others to spend a fun day exploring the Atherton Tablelands, then check out this great day trip from Cairns.
Including morning and afternoon tea, as well as lunch, this trip will have you ticking off most of the best Atherton Tableland things to do on this list, such as Wooroonooran National Park, Josephine Falls, Millaa Millaa Falls, Mount Hypipamee, the Giant Curtain Fig Tree and Lake Eacham.
What to Pack for the Atherton Tablelands
#1 Good Camera – You will be pretty much snapping non-stop in Australia and will need a good camera to do this gorgeous country justice. I highly recommend the Sony A6000, which I use for all my travels and love, not least because it’s light, compact and robust!
#2 Good Walking Shoes – There will be a lot of walking in Australia – from cities to national park! Make sure your feet are comfortable therefore with a pair of New Balance Trainers. Perfect for stylish strolling, I love mine
#3 Good Guidebook – I’m still a massive fan of the Lonely Planet Guidebooks and do think their Australia edition is well put together
#4 Good Water Bottle – Travelling in hot old Australia can be thirsty work, so make sure you have a metal water bottle that you can refill as you go, because tap water is drinkable… and free!
#5 Good Sun Hat – And there’s no denying you’ll need a good sun hat for protection in Australia too. In my opinion you can’t go past this Hello Sunshine one, which is both gorgeous and ideal for keeping the rays off your face.
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So there you have it, the 12 best FREE things to do in the Atherton Tablelands.
Have you ever visited this incredible part of Queensland?
What did you enjoy doing most?