Darwin locals are so fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most spectacular national parks in Australia.
If you’re exploring the Top End of the Northern Territory then a looped road trip from Darwin taking in Katherine Gorge, Kakadu National Park, and Litchfield National Park is a must.
We recommend taking at least two weeks to fully explore the top end of the Northern Territory. We started in the opposite direction from Katherine Gorge and looped anti-clockwise.
If you’re flying into Darwin, hire a car and loop around whichever place you please.
Northern Territory Highlights
Nitmiluk National Park is owned by the local Jawoyn people and Katherine Gorge is the main attraction of the park. It’s a series of 13 deep sandstone gorges carved out by the Katherine River on its journey from Arnhem Land to the Timor Sea.
Only three of the gorges can be accessed via tours and activities from the main visitor centre. Visiting the other gorges involve a long five-day hike.
Here are our Katherine Gorge highlights:
Walk to the Barrawei Lookout
This was a 3.2km loop walk up to the lookout with great views over the gorge. You can do the shorter walk taking a steep climb up to the lookout from the river and back down again. Don’t forget to check out all the bats hanging from the trees as you walk along the river bank.
There are plenty of other walking trails in Nitmiluk. If we didn’t have the kids with us, I’d take on the 12km Butterfly Gorge walk.
Do the Sunrise Gorge Cruise
This two-hour Dawn Break tour will take you through to the second gorge. You get to walk 800 metres when moving from the first to the second gorge and see some rock art and get a closer appreciation of just how beautiful this gorge is.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the second gorge that I understood what the fuss was all about. It’s called the breakfast cruise, but it’s really just a bowl of fruit and a drink. Forget the eating, it’s more about the stunning scenery in the soft, morning light.
There are other cruises you can do: a longer one, which takes you into the third gorge and a sunset dinner cruise, which is meant to be awesome. Make sure you book ahead as they get very busy.
Cost: $82 adults, $45 child (5-15)
If you’re staying in Nitmiluk National Park, in the evening at sunset walk down to where the tour boats leave from and view the hundreds of fruit bats flying over the river. Amazing site to see.
Kayak into Katherine Gorge
We could not do the kayaking trip as Savannah was too young, but Craig did it previously and it came highly recommended by our community. Our friend, Nick explored the gorge on his stand up paddle board. Definitely, make a day of it and paddle into the second gorge, which I found the most beautiful.
Kayak hire: Double – AU$38pp, Single – AU$53pp
Stay at the Nitmiluk Caravan Park
Right near the visitor centre is the Nitmiluk Caravan Park and it’s the perfect place to stay right near the entrance to Katherine Gorge, about a 30-minute drive from the town of Katherine.
You can easily walk to the gorge, it’s clean, tidy, shady and has a great swimming pool. You’ll need it!
Campsite $19 unpowered, $44 powered
If you want something a little more luxury, consider staying at the Cicada Lodge.
Kakadu National Park
Ah Kakadu National Park, an Australian bucket list must. I’m already planning my return trip in a different season.
It’s hard to put into words its power, but it has an ancient mysticism urging you to explore its changing landscapes. From wetlands, to sandstone escarpments, waterfalls, swimming holes, billabongs and rivers, it teems with wildlife and abundance. Spend awhile soaking it up.
I’m not sure I’ve been to such a powerful place before. It sure made me super grateful to be born in such an exquisite country.
Kakadu National Park is Australia’s biggest National Park, and is half the size of Switzerland. You know it’s a big place when you enter through the gates and you still have a 1.5hr drive to your campground, so you will need a bit of time here.
Here are our Kakadu Highlights:
This has to be the most beautiful swimming pool I’ve ever been in. Just look at this view.
Wow! Wow! Wow!
It’s a bit of a drive into Gunlom off the main road within Kakadu, but so worth it. Go slow on the dirt road coming in, there’s a few corrugations. Once you arrive, it’s a short hike up to the top swimming hole. The bottom plunge pool was closed due to the threat of saltwater crocs.
There are a series of pools at the top, which trickle down over the cliff as a waterfall. That trickle will grow once the wet season arrives.
Note: there are very few places you can swim in Kakadu due to saltwater crocodiles. You MUST pay attention to all signs and talk to the rangers if you are unsure. A saltwater croc will eat you with ravenous intent.
Yellow Water Billabong Cruise
The Yellow Water billabong cruise is an absolute must and we highly recommend you do the sunrise cruise. Seeing the mist dance on the water as the sun rose was mystical and magical.
You don’t want to miss the billabong waking up. I’ve never seen such an abundance of wildlife: Hunting sea eagles, flocks of storks and darters flying by, dancing brolgas, buffalos grazing on the floodplains and of course the stealthily moving crocodiles looking for breakfast.
We were lucky to see the frightening power and speed of one launch and snap at a passing fish. He got him. Like he was ever going to miss.
Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu’s most famous wetland, is located at the end of Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of the South Alligator River. The river system, which is the largest in Kakadu, contains extensive wetlands that include river channels, floodplains and backwater swamps.
We’ll have a post with more photos just on the cruise later as it was just too stunning not to feature it. You can see Craig’s experience with it two years ago here.
Cost: $99 adults, $70 child
Sunset at Nardab Lookout, Ubirr
Take some time to enjoy the rock art in the Ubirr gallery as you walk up to the lookout. It’s some of the best rock art you’ll see in Australia. Check the schedule for free ranger guided tours. We joined Kenneth, a local Aboriginal guide who shared stories and aboriginal customs and beliefs behind each piece of art.
Then sit atop the lookout for an hour or two as the sun gently sets over the vast emerald green floodplains, the outcropping of rocks glow in the sunlight and look like the remains of crumbling ancient temples.
Up here you can totally understand why this is such a spiritual land to the Aboriginal people. There’s a timelessness and wisdom to this land.
We were so happy to spend it with our friends from The Block Shop. The kids played hide and seek, giggling and laughing, while we had a chance to savour the sunset with adult friends!
Nourlangie Rock Art and Sunset
I loved walking along the Anbangbang Gallery through cave dwellings and a walkway along the walls of the escarpment cliffs.
The kids had a ball racing from one picture to the next giggling at Dreaming characters like Nabulwinjbilwinj, a dangerous spirit who likes to bang females on the head with a yam and then eat them. (It’s far too easy to see this one is a boy!)
You can walk to Gunwarddehwarde Lookout for views of the red-sandstone cliffs, striped with oranges, whites and blacks rising above the woodlands. So pretty.
From here drive a few kilometres back up the road to Nourlangie Lookout, another beautiful place to see the sunset. It was setting behind us on the mountain (I think you could walk up to the peak to see it set but it was too hard with the kids)
We loved watching the colours of the Arnhem Land escarpment change from gold to pink as the sun went down. Magic.
Some highly recommended places we could not get to due to access being only for high-clearance 4WD VEHICLE – Maguk (Barramundi Gorge), Twin Falls, and Jim Jim falls.
Where to Stay in Kakadu
We camped at the Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park at Jabiru, the main town within Kakadu and proved to be a great base. There are plenty of grassed, shady sites, a swimming pool and a bistro with great food.
There are plenty of national park campgrounds in Kakadu and the Gagudju Cooinda Lodge and camping at Cooinda comes highly recommended. This is where you get the Yellow Water Cruises from and would be worth staying here as you explore the south-western part to the park.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park is only an hours drive from Darwin, which makes it a perfect weekend getaway. It’s one of the best places in the Top End to go swimming with waterfalls plunging off the edge of the escarpment into crystal-clear, safe swimming holes. By safe, we mean salt-water crocodile free!
Florence Falls is a double-plunge waterfall leading to a popular swimming hole. There’s a steep staircase down to the pools passing through a lovely viewing point.
Otherwise, you can take the walk down to the falls from the car park via Shady Creek track.
We didn’t get to do it, but it’s meant to be very pretty. We walked from Florence Falls to Buley Rockholes
This was my favourite part of Litchfield National Park.
It’s the perfect place to visit with kids and we recommend getting there early to escape the tour buses and have the rock pool serenity to yourself. The Buley Rockholes is a series of rock pools that has water cascading through them. Walk up to the top and take your pick of rock holes to sit in for awhile.
Just spend the day moving from one to the other. It’s hot enough to warrant it – even in the winter.
Wangi Falls is probably Litchfield’s most popular attraction with a large swimming hole and picnic area.Whilst pretty and definitely worth a stop, I didn’t like Wangi as much as Florence and Buley.
If you want a swimming hole experience that is away from the crowds then take the 3km walk along Walker Creek to shared swimming hole number six. It was small, but just lovely to have all to ourselves and so refreshing after such a hot walk with two kids.
Along the walk, you’ll see various private camp sites next to the creek with their own private swimming hole. One to seriously consider pitching a tent at if you like bush camping. Number one was my pick.
Magnetic Termite Mounds
Want to see a termite mount that’s as high as a building? These termites are pretty impressive. Not only do you see extraordinarily big ones but a field of them that look like gravestones. These termite mounds are built by thousands of termites with a north-south orientation to control the temperature inside the mounds.
Where to stay in Litchfield National Park
We stayed outside the park At Batchelor Big 4. It was a lovely campsite with a natural bush setting. We had to stay here as we needed internet service, but there are plenty of camping sites in the National Park.
Cost: $30 unpowered site $42 powered site
After all that time spent in such beautiful natural landscapes of the Northern Territory’s Top End you might need a little city civilisation. Park your car and butt in Darwin for a while.
It has a small-town, laid-back vibe. A bit of tropical mixed with Top End country. We love it. For now, check out this old post on things to do in Darwin, which we’ll be updating shortly with our fresh, new perspective.
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