The Atherton Tablelands, the highlands behind Cairns, are named after John Atherton, who made the tin deposits at Herberton accessible by opening a route to the coast in 1877. Dense forest covered these highlands before the majority was felled for timber and given over to dairy cattle, tobacco and grain. The remaining pockets of forest are magnificent, but it’s the area’s understated beauty that draws most visitors today, and though Kuranda and its markets pull in busloads from the coast, there are several quieter national parks brimming with rare species. You could spend days here, driving or hiking through rainforest to crater lakes and endless small waterfalls, or simply camp out for a night and search for wildlife with a torch. For a contrast, consider a trip west to the mining town of Chillagoe, whose dust, limestone caves and Aboriginal art place it firmly in the Outback.
Numerous tours run here from Cairns, but to explore properly you really need your own car: drivers can reach the Tablelands on the Palmerston Highway from Innisfail; the twisty Gillies Highway from Gordonvale; the Kennedy Highway from Smithfield to Kuranda; or Route 81 from Mossman to Mareeba.