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Darwin locals are so fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most spectacular national parks in Australia.
If you are thinking of getting out and exploring some of the best Aussie nature, then a Northern Territory road trip from Darwin is a great idea.
Whether you want to see the remote, desert landscapes of the outback or the craggy gorges of the national parks, there is no better way to do that than to pack up your car and hit the road.
In this guide, I’ve created a two week Northern Territory road trip itinerary that takes in three of the best national parks in the region, as well as how you can extend your road trip into the Australia outback.
- How Long to Do a Northern Territory Road Trip from Darwin?
- Map Of A Northern Territory Road Trip from Darwin
- Northern Territory Road Trip Highlights
- Stop 1: Litchfield National Park
- Stop 2: Katherine Gorge
- Stop 3: Kakadu National Park
- How To Extend this Road Trip
- Best Time to Do a Northern Territory Road Trip
- Darwin to Uluru Tour: Top End & Central Australia Explorer
- Before You Go
How Long to Do a Northern Territory Road Trip from Darwin?
We recommend taking at least two weeks to fully explore the top end of the Northern Territory. You can start from either Litchfield National Park or Kakadu from Darwin.
If you’re flying into Darwin, hire a car and loop around whichever place you please.
If you’re coming from the south, you might want to start at Katherine and do a loop from there.
Map Of A Northern Territory Road Trip from Darwin
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.
To help you plan your Northern Territory road trip, here is a map of all the stops on this itinerary.
Northern Territory Road Trip Highlights
Want to stop by the best Northern Territory highlights? Below are the stops we recommend you take on a self-guided road trip in the NT and the activities you should do at each place.
Stop 1: 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 Tourist Park. 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.
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.
Stop 2: Katherine Gorge
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.
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.
Katherine Hot Springs
Outside the National Park in the town of Katherine, you will find a series of natural thermal pools. It’s the perfect place to sit and relax in the thermal mineral rich waters and soothe your aching limbs after a day of exploring.
Another hot springs you can visit, which is bigger than Katherine Hot Springs but more crowded, is Berry Springs Nature Park, which is just outside Darwin.
You could visit this on a day trip from Darwin so if you’re staying in Darwin for a while, you can save this for another day.
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!
If you want something a little more luxury, consider staying at the Cicada Lodge.
Stop 3: 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.
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.
Another great sunset viewpoint if you have time is the Nawurlandja lookout.
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.
Top Tip: 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.
How To Extend this Road Trip
If you have more time on your side, or you want to include your Northern Territory road trip into a bigger Australia trip, then I suggest you head further south towards Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park and Alice Springs.
From Kakudu National Park, head south along the Stuart Highway towards Alice Springs.
It’s a long drive (18 hours or 1,794.8 km), so I recommend stopping overnight in Daly Waters and Tennants Creek to break up the journey.
From Tennants Creek you can visit the Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) rock formations at sunset. After that, continue south towards…
Stop 4: The West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges are a beautiful range of rock formations just outside the town of Alice Springs.
West MacDonnell National Park, or Tjoritja as it’s known to its traditional owners, is home to huge red formations, gorges, canyons and creeks, as well as lovely hikes to viewpoints.
However, the park is really hot, so you need to make sure to wake up at sunrise and visit all the sights before the midday heat hits.
Here are three stops in the national park you should make sure to see.
Simpson’s Gap is a waterhole just a 25-minute drive from Alice Springs. Many people decide to cycle the sealed 17km bike track (one way) starting from Flynn’s Grave to Simpson’s Gap, so if you have more time you can give this a try.
The waterhole is not for swimming though. The area is an important spiritual site to the Arrarnta Aboriginal people.
It’s also a habitat for Black-Footed Rock Wallabies who visit here at dawn and dusk when the heat isn’t too hot.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
A favourite swimming hole for the locals, Ellery Creek sits right near the car park, making it a great spot for those who aren’t keen on walking in. It’s also a great spot for a picnic.
If you do fancy a swim, then Ellery Creek is a favourite swimming hole for the locals.
The creek is right near the car park so you can easily jump out your car and dive in.
Another popular swimming spot is Ormiston Gorge, which has the biggest and prettiest almost permanent swimming hole in the West Mac.
You can take a short walk into the gorge, go for a swim, or hike up to the steel viewing platform overlooking the Ormiston Waterhole (20 min return).
Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon is another amazing national park in the Australian outback and is where you will find the famous Kings Canyon Rim Walk.
This is another spiritual site that has amazing scenery and vibrant red rock formations. Be sure to hike as early as possible to avoid the heat.
You can read all about our Kings Canyon Rim Walk hike here.
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Finally, it Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock. This is possibly the most famous landmark in Australia and a bucket list moment for any traveller here.
This sacred rock can be seen in so many ways, and there are so many things to do nearby.
You can read our complete guide on visiting Uluru Ayres Rock to see how to experience this magnificent site.
Best Time to Do a Northern Territory Road Trip
The best time to do a Northern Territory road trip is in the Spring when the weather is fine and not too hot.
Some of these national parks are extremely hot in the summer, and can also be closed due to heavy rainstorms.
The dry season in Australia runs from May to October, and the wet season is November to April.
Most tourists visit during the dry season, so you can expect warm weather and lots of crowds.
Darwin to Uluru Tour: Top End & Central Australia Explorer
If you’re not traveling independently, you will love this Darwin to Uluru tour with Cosmos Tours (part of the Globus family of brands, who we highly recommend)
Landscapes like no other and an abundance of cultural heritage, this is just some of what you can expect to uncover on this 11-day tour through Central Australia.
Starting in Darwin, you’ll travel south through the Northern Territory, ending in Uluru (Ayers Rock), with overnights in Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, Kings Canyon and Uluru.
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Before You Go
So there you have it, this is a two week Northern Territory road trip from Darwin, plus a way to extend your trip if you have more time.
Before you go, make sure you have your national park permit sorted for Kakadu National Park. You can usually get these at the visitor center, but if you want to plan ahead, you can get those passes here.
I hope this guide helped you plan your road trip and gave you some ideas for what to see.
Where are you most excited to see? Let me know in the comments.