27 May 2022
Often described as ‘where the outback meets the tropics,’ the level of natural beauty that surrounds the town of Katherine is underrated.
Most famous for the magnificent Nitmiluk National Park, which is just 30 kilometres down the road from Katherine, this amazing swathe of land covers nearly 3,000 square kilometres and is best known for a gorge that’s 23 million-years-old and synonymous with Australia’s entire Top End.
Also famous for misty mornings under incredible waterfalls, lazy days in thermal springs and world-class hikes among ancient rock art, any trip to the Northern Territory should include a few days inside Nitmiluk National Park.
To help you plan a three or four day adventure in this sometimes forgotten spot, consider this list of incredible natural highlights.
Things to do inside Nitmiluk National Park
At 3.5 hours south of Darwin along the NT's Stuart Highway, the ancient gorges of the Katherine River are easy to get to and worthy of any Top End itinerary.
Add spectacular waterfalls, stunning hikes and tranquil water holes, and it’s not hard to see why Nitmiluk is one of Australia’s most iconic destinations.
Day 1 - Cruise Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge
Undoubtedly the crown jewel of any Katherine tour itinerary, Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge deserves its place among Australia’s most popular attractions.
Meaning the ‘place of cicada dreaming’ in the language of its traditional owners, the Jawoyn people, Nitmiluk consists of 13 separate gorges; producing a serpentine maze of waterways that have been sculpted over millions of years.
Home to spectacular sandstone cliffs that change colour in the same way as Uluru and Kings Canyon, there are several ways to explore Nitmiluk National Park.
Broken down into two main sections - Nitmulik Gorge to the south and Leliyn (Edith Falls) to the north - you can see this world-famous park by foot, canoe, boat or helicopter!
There’s nothing quite like the tranquillity of a river boat cruise along the Nitimulik (Katherine) River. Choose from a half, full-day, or overnight stay with any number of reliable operators.
Move through the pristine wilderness of the gorge and experience ever-changing landscapes from mesmerising cliffs and sandy beaches, to lush vegetation-filled channels that are home to thriving wildlife including cockatoos, eagles and wallabies.
Nitmiluk Tours offer a variety of options departing several times a day including the 3.5 hour Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Tour. This relaxed-pace tour explores the history of the Jawoyn people, and includes a three-course candlelit sunset dinner.
Hirable by the hour from Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, adventure awaits on your choice of kayak or canoe, whether it be a relaxed afternoon or an overnight expedition you’ll never forget.
The Malappar Traveller is a popular tour choice that leaves twice daily and lasts around 4 or 5 hours. Start off in the relative comfort of a scenic boat cruise before hitting the water to explore this amazing system. Enjoy a picnic on the river banks and cool off with a refreshing swim!
Take your Top End adventure to another level by booking a scenic helicopter flight!
With a variety of options to choose from, you won’t beat the views from above of Nitmiluk National Park, nearby Arnhem Land, and the wide variety of wildlife here (yes, including crocs).
The Ultimate Tour will land you and your flight partner at a sacred site of the Jawoyn people, with an explanation of Indigenous rock art from your pilot. Swim at your very own private waterfall before visiting another exclusive rock pool that’s only accessible by air.
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Day 2 - Swim in Nitmiluk’s Amazing Natural Water Holes
During the dry season, which runs from April through October, the waters inside Nitmiluk are placid and ideal for swimming. This is despite the presence of freshwater crocodiles, which are considered harmless to humans.
The picturesque waterfalls of Leliyn (Edith Falls) at the northern end of the park are a refreshing escape, and the best place to enjoy a dip without working up too much of a sweat.
Also a prime location for bushwalking, the challenging 2.6km Leliyn Trail starts here, while Leliyn itself is at the end point of the 62km Jatbula Trail walking track. Follow a 1.2 kilometre section to the upper pool and enjoy some peace and quiet.
Conveniently, Leliyn has its own kiosk close to the car park that offers hot and cold food as well as drinks and basic food supplies. Picnic tables, gas barbecues and toilet and shower facilities are also available.
Note that swimming in these natural pools is allowed at most times of the year but is subject to closures throughout the wet season from November to April. This is when more aggressive saltwater crocodiles (‘salties’) regularly enter the water.
Conditions are subject to rapid change at times throughout the year and while park rangers regularly monitor the safety of all swimming holes, you must swim in designated areas and exercise caution at all times.
Keep an eye on the park’s website to ensure the site is open before your visit.
Other water holes worth seeing in Nitmiluk National Park are the Sweetwater Pool, which is a 4km hike east of the Leliyn campground and a popular spot if you like swimming with turtles!
Considered the final stop on the aforementioned Jatbula Trail, it's easily one of the most peaceful places in the park.
For those with a slightly more adventurous streak and willing to push further afield, Butterfly Gorge Nature Park is a tucked-away paradise at the base of a sandstone plateau. Home to a large number of common crow butterflies, walkers can gain access via a track that traverses some of the park’s rockier spinifex country.
Day 3 - Explore the Jatbula Trail
Seasoned hikers come from all over the world to complete the Jatbula Trail.
As one of the most famous multi-day hikes in Australia, the 62km walk traverses some of the more remote and beautiful sections of Nitmiluk and leads to some of its most amazing falls and water holes.
Linking Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge with Edith Falls (Leliyn) the Jatbula Trail is kinder on hikers than the NT’s other most famous walk, the Larapinta Trail.
However, even if you’re not planning on completing the entire stretch, walking between attractions on the Jatbula will still be a test of your tolerance.
As a moderately graded walk, it’s more accessible than the Larapinta, but relentless heat in this part of the Territory has been known to wear hikers down.
The best time to take on the Jatbula is from June to September, which is the coolest and driest time in the Northern Territory. Even then, you should expect temperatures above 30 degrees and a high degree of humidity.
Hiking outside of these times is not allowed without permission from the park as the combination of monsoonal rains and extreme heat make it dangerous for even experienced walkers.
A permit fee is payable per day to access the Jatbula Trail, and the entire trail is on the traditional land of the Jawoyn people, tracing a route followed by them for tens of thousands of years.
All around you will be incredible rock art, and evidence of one of the world’s oldest continuing Indigenous civilisations.
Here’s a day-by-day break down of the walk:
Day 1 - Nitmiluk to Biddlecombe Cascades - 8.3 km
Day 2 - Biddlecombe to Crystal Falls - 11 km
Day 3 - Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls - 10 km
Day 4 - 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp - 16.8 km
Day 5 - Sandy Camp to Sweetwater Pool 11.1 km or via Leliyn 15.6 km
Day 6 - Sweetwater (overnight) to Leliyn - 4.5 km
Note that the trail has a limit of 15 walkers leaving each day, so you will need to book in with NT Parks. Public parking is available at both ends of the trail and transfers are available to Katherine or Nitmiluk Visitor Centre.
Day 4: Go Deep at Cutta Cutta Caves
30 kilometres south of Katherine, Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park offers a special underground experience just 15m below the surface.
Easily accessible to all ages, these dramatic karst limestone caves are still growing millions of years after they were first formed. Featuring spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, the caves are home to a wide variety of wildlife including the rare ghost and leaf-nosed varieties of bat!