Cairns has long been hailed as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, it’s nigh on impossible to avoid seeing the word ‘reef’ at any one moment in the city. It’s not uncommon for tourists to fly in, catch a boat out to the reef, then fly out again without seeing any more of what the area surrounding Cairns has to offer. Which means they miss the Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Circuit completely.
In our opinion, this is a huge mistake. We spent just over a week in Cairns. We hired a car to make the most of our time there, and we still feel like we missed A LOT. Tropical North Queensland has some of the best (and oldest!) rainforests to explore, as well as more hikes, lakes, and mountains than you can shake a stick at.
Queensland is also home to some of the most impressive and photogenic waterfalls in the world. The hub for all of this is the Atherton Tablelands.
Top tip: get yourself a pair of cheap water shoes to help protect your feet on the wet, sharp rocks at the edges of the pools. Trust us, you’ll thank us later!
Where to Stay in Atherton & Cairns
Hotels in the Atherton Tablelands
Atherton Motel – features an outdoor pool, free on-site parking and free Wi-Fi access. The property is within a 5-minute drive of central Atherton and The Crystal Caves.
Atherton Hotel – 5 minutes’ drive from Hasties Swamp National Park and 9.8 miles from the Atherton Tablelands plateau. Cairns city centre is 58 miles away.
Atherton Hinterland Motel – set on over 10,000 square metres, Atherton Hinterland Motel is located just a 10-minute walk from the centre of Atherton.
BIG4 NRMA Atherton Tablelands Holiday Park – set amongst award-winning gardens, this peaceful retreat offers an outdoor swimming pool and free WiFi.
Hotels in Cairns
Calypso Inn Backpackers Resort – this is where we stayed when we first arrived into Cairns. Featuring a tropical garden with an outdoor swimming pool, free WiFi across the entire property, relaxing hammocks and a bar.
Palm Royale – set amongst 2.5 acres of beautiful tropical gardens and offers rooms with a private balcony and pool or garden views.
Pacific Hotel Cairns – this is the second place we stayed at in Cairns! Located on the Cairns Esplanade overlooking Trinity Harbour, the hotel offers guests amazing views from private balconies and is near to the Reef Fleet Terminal, shopping precinct, casino and Esplanade Lagoon.
Holiday Inn Cairns Harbourside – located on The , the rooms have stunning of Trinity Bay or the surrounding mountains, and the hotel is 10 minutes’ walk from the Tobruk Memorial Gardens.
Mantra Trilogy – again located on the , Mantra Trilogy offers accommodation with private balconies overlooking the pool, mountains or ocean. The lagoon-style has .
Atherton – The Gateway to the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit
Located just under an hour and a half’s drive from Cairns is Atherton. Quintessential ‘small town Australia’, it would be very easy to drive in and out of the town without giving it much thought. The Tablelands which Atherton lends its name to is a plateau that forms part of the Great Dividing Range, Australia’s most substantial mountain range. Being very fertile soil, a lot of the region is farmland, offering up bananas, peanuts, and berries.
Beyond this though is a landscape well worth exploring, and one which is home to the famous Waterfalls Circuit. Being none too keen on guided tours or coach tours, we managed to avoid the excursion reps in town and decided to tackle the route by ourselves. It wasn’t until we got to Atherton that we realised we had no idea where the waterfalls actually were, so we pulled over and fetched a handy map from the Tourist Information Centre. We’d recommend you do the same if going for the self-drive option.
We started off by driving south for half an hour to reach the start of the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit. This 10km circular drive takes you down one road but past three amazing waterfalls. Although the track can be narrow in points, there is no reason why you can’t do it backwards and potentially avoid the crowds that way. We went for the usual route but arrived at around 11.30 am. As such, we were just leaving the first waterfall on the circuit as the first coachload of backpackers pulled in. We also went mid-week, so that meant that there was a lot less footfall than usual.
Millaa Millaa Falls
The first stop on the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit (if you travel the direction we did) is the iconic Milla Milla Falls. Made famous by the memorable Herbal Essences shampoo ads of our youth, as well as the unforgettable Peter Andre hit ‘Mysterious Girl’, this is THE waterfall to visit. The water plunges down a height of 18m into a wide, jungle-fringed pool, giving you ample opportunities to work on your Herbal Essences hair flick or Andre-esque gesticulating.
The pool is safe to swim in, and you may even see a platypus! Be warned though, the water is FREEZING. No amount of mental preparation will spare you from the short, sharp panting thing everybody does when hit with icy cold water. The rocks by the edges of the pool can be super slippery too, so take care when entering and exiting the water.
Although the water is cold, there is ample grassy space in the sun to dry off and warm up on. There are also lots of parking spaces, toilets, and changing rooms. It is by far the best waterfall on the circuit for amenities and is very geared towards receiving lots of visitors. There is even a BBQ!
A short drive from Millaa Millaa is the second waterfall on the circuit, Zillie Falls. The path from the car park takes you through the jungle and out onto a viewing platform. This platform offers beautiful views from the top of the falls and down into the rocky pool below. For many visitors to the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit, this is enough.
Not for us. And probably not for you either.
Once you’ve exhausted the views from the platform, head towards the left-hand side of the area and through a gap in the bush. This will lead you onto a dirt trail through the jungle and down (rather steeply) to the bottom of Zillie Falls. And when we say steep, we mean bloody steep. Using vines and tree roots as hand and foot holds, it took us almost ten minutes of navigating through the tangle of trees before we reached the bottom. You will definitely need to wear trainers or water shoes, not flip-flops, for this one.
The path leads out to a pool at the bottom of the falls, where the water crashes down onto huge boulders and sends up clouds of spray. It’s an awe-inspiring sight and lends itself to capturing some beautiful photographs. The river beyond the rocks apparently isn’t considered safe to swim in, so depending on the time of the year and subsequent water levels we would advise erring on the side of caution when it comes to entering the water in any way. When we visited, it was dry season and the water level was very low. Always be aware that Far North Queensland is Croc Country!
The last of the three falls on the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit, and possibly our favourite, is Elinjaa Falls. By the time we arrived at this one, the people we’d been catching up to at the previous falls seem to have vanished, and we had the place to ourselves.
A more maintained track leads down from the large, shady car park. Elinjaa Falls is formed from columns of lava, and the water rushes down into a pool at the bottom where you can swim. If you are brave enough to swim/walk under the torrent of cold water, there is even a naturally worn away platform you can sit on behind the falls. The space to sit down and dry off is limited to the riverbank, but if you sit still for long enough you may spot a platypus…
On the way back to Cairns from the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit, we stopped off at Malanda Falls. This is often the first stop for many coach tours, as it’s the first big waterfall you reach from the city. It has a visitor’s centre, toilets, BBQs, and some rainforest walks in the surrounding area. As we did it in reverse though, we got to enjoy the falls all to ourselves as the coach tours had long since moved on to the actual Waterfalls Circuit.
The main draw of this particular waterfall is its concrete swimming hole. The water tumbles over basalt rock, formed by an ancient lava flow some 15km away, into the pool, and onwards into the river. It was a nice spot but a bit too man-made for us. Plus, the water looked a bit stagnant!
There are so many waterfalls to see in the Atherton Tablelands. Our best advice would be to hire a car from Cairns and spend two days exploring the area for yourself. Our whistle-stop tour of the Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls Circuit was incredible, but we know we missed out on other amazing sights in the area like the Cathedral Fig Tree, Crater Lakes National Park, and Cobbold Gorge. Who knows, perhaps we will have to go back again!
Where is your favourite waterfall or swimming hole located?
Cheers, all the best.
Sam and Kez x