As loyal as I am to Melbourne, where I was born and raised, it is Australia’s Northern Territory, also known as the “Top End,” that has my heart. The land in this nation is full of character, and it’s no surprise that the incredible landscapes and wildlife here have been the subject of poetry, paintings, songs and books.
There’s truly nowhere else like it in the world, and the best way to discover its magic is through its abundance of national parks. There are approximately 650 national parks in Australia, all with their own distinct landscapes, diverse wildlife and levels of accessibility. Some boast Aboriginal artwork that traces back tens of thousands of years, while others are home to elusive, beautiful animals and flora.
The Northern Territory is home to 17 national parks, and a NT Park Pass is mandatory to visit nearly every single one of them. The best time to visit in terms of accessibility and safety is the dry season, during the southern winter period between May and October, as opposed to during the wet season, when many parks are closed due to floods or cyclones, especially between December 1 to March 15.
To make it easier for you to plan your journey, we’ve created a guide to 10 of the best national parks in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land span over 42,000 square miles, comprising the second-largest national park in Australia, after the Munga-Thirri-Simpson Desert National Park in South Australia. Located 106 miles east of Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park is one of only four UNESCO-recognized national parks in Australia. During the dry season, the park is home to soaring cliffs, waterfalls, hiking trails and incredible sunrises and sunsets. For those escaping drab city landscapes, there’s a colorful array of birdlife, saltwater crocodiles (steer clear of these creatures) and wild coastlines. The concentration of Aboriginal rock art is one of the largest and oldest in the world. During the wet season, crocodiles emerge and trails become dangerous, but it’s still possible to organize helicopter and plane tours of the park.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park covers approximately 580 square miles, and is an important conservation reserve in the Northern Territory. The park’s traditional owners are the Wagait Aboriginal people.
This park is located 43 miles south of Darwin, and the waterfalls and impressive biodiversity in plants and wildlife attract tourists from all over Australia and the rest of the world. During the hot dry season, the park offers delightfully clear pools for swimming, and luckily, crocodiles are not as much a threat in Litchfield as they are in other Northern Territory parks. Bushwalkers should embark on the 24 mile-long Table Track to take in views of secret waterfalls and cypress pines. This is the nation that made the movie Crocodile Dundee, so our penchant for savage wildlife and muscular men in silly hats battling with crocs is well known.
Some of the unusual (and Instagrammable) sites include the termite mounds and the “Lost City,” an area of curious sandstone block and pillar formations that have been sculpted by wind and rain over thousands of years.
Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk National Park is about 30 minutes northeast of the town of Katherine. It’s home to the beautiful Katherine Gorge, and in the dry season, visitors can walk, swim, canoe, boat or fly. There are a variety of walks over the sandstone plateau, whether you want to embark on an hour-long hike or a five-day trek. If you’re not already an avid hiker, stick to a shorter trail. The 36-mile Jatbula Trail offers views of most of Nitmiluk’s landscapes (monsoon rainforest, stone country, upland swamp and woodland), or you could hire canoes at the Gorge. For those interested in a guided trip, there are two- to four-hour cruises available.
Rivers rising during December to April can restrict activities, but there is always something to do. During May to November, swimming and canoeing are brilliant ways to immerse yourself in the spirit of Nitmiluk.
Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park
Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park is in the “Red Center of Australia,” 767 miles south of Darwin. It extends along the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs.
Of the many highlights, don’t miss Gosse Bluff and Gosse Crater (also known as Tnorala). This massive meteor crater is registered sacred ground, so a permit is required to travel the road (you can arrange this at Kings Canyon, Hermannsburg or Glen Helen). There are 4WD tracks, picnic tables and walking tracks, but overnight camping is not permitted, so plan your visit accordingly. The Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg (Western Aranda name: Ntaria), at the far end of the sealed Larapinta Drive, is nearby. It’s famous for being the home of the late painter Albert Namatjira, and is also home to an old Lutheran mission, which has been transformed into an Aboriginal enterprise, providing training and employment for some of the local people. A trip to any of these parks without learning about, or engaging with, the Indigenous owners is time wasted.
The park is accessible all year round, although we’d recommend visiting between the cooler months of April to October, since some roads are impassable for short periods after heavy rain.
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is in the Red Center, an UNESCO World Heritage area widely known as the home of the massive rock formations Uluṟu (also known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuṯa (also known as The Olgas).
Plan ahead and don’t get stuck without provisions, as Yulara is the only accessible nearby town. The park closes at night, and there are very few services and no accommodations or camping sites.
This is Australia’s most globally recognized park, and an important sacred site for the indigenous Anangu people. Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa are owned by the indigenous Anangu people, and visitors will notice efforts throughout the area to include and encourage respect for the Anangu perspective on the land. Because it is sacred land, much of Kata Tjuṯa is off-limits, and climbing Uluṟu is illegal. A few areas around the base of Uluru are also off-limits for photography. A guided tour is the best (and most respectful) option to thoroughly experience Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park.
Watarrka National Park
Kings Canyon is located within Watarrka National Park, and it is truly stunning. Millions of years of erosion have resulted in the scenic landscape in and around the Canyon, made up of rock domes, sharp cliffs and unforgettable views of the surrounding desert. We recommend the Rim Walk around the Canyon, where you’ll see an array of desert plants, waterholes and local fauna.
Watarrka has been home to the Luritja people for thousands of years, and places in the canyon are still sacred sites.
Finke Gorge National Park
If you’re into history, or you just want to pretend to be Indiana Jones for a day, this is for you. Located 818 miles from Darwin, Finke Gorge National Park protects the Finke River, which is over 350 million years old and believed to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. This ancient valley is an 86-mile drive from Alice Springs. There’s plenty of choice when it comes to hiking trails, each of which boasts scenic views, including various sandstone formations.
Djukbinj National Park
Wildlife lovers, your attention please. Owing to its unusual number of waterholes, Djukbinj National Park is home to an abundance of magpie geese, waterbirds, egrets and brolgas. It’s a safari in the Top End, if you will. Approximately an hour by car from Darwin, Djukbinj National Park offers a scenic drive through a floodplain network of billabongs, from Scotts Creek to Twin Billabong.
Limmen National Park
Limmen National Park crosses four major rivers, and also boasts woodlands, floodplains and billabongs in the Gulf region of the Northern Territory. Don’t forget your hiking boots so that you can trek to see the striking sandstone formations of the Southern Lost City and Western Lost City (accessible via 4WD). You can stick to the car if you wish, but walking the land out here offers a unique opportunity to connect with the area, so bring decent boots and sunscreen.
The Southern Lost City is open-access, but you will need a code (which you can at the Nathan River Ranger Station information center) to enter the Western Lost City. Butterfly Falls, located 3 miles from Nathan River Road, is seasonal and can stop flowing in the dry season, so you may not be able to swim all year round.
Elsey National Park
How about an all-natural spa experience? Embrace the hot springs of Elsey National Park, which are 93 degrees Fahrenheit year-round for a comfortable post-hiking dip. Located 74 miles south of Katherine near Mataranka, this park is popular for boating and fishing, with two boat ramps and several land fishing locations along the Roper River. Take a walk that explores historical sites such as the World War II Aboriginal Army Camp and the Old Mataranka Sheep Dip. Elsey National Park also has an easy Botanical Walk.