Planning to visit Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) in the Northern Territory? Here’s my guide to this spectacular national park.
One of the highlights of visiting the Northern Territory is seeing the unrivalled beauty of Nitmiluk National Park.
Frequently referred to as Katherine Gorge (its previous name), Nitmiluk is a place of sheer, rocky sandstone cliffs, tumbling waterfalls and rich Indigenous history and culture. This ancient landscape is just 30km from the town of Katherine and is a must-visit destination when you’re passing through.
I recently visited the national park and spent several days walking its trails and swimming in its clear waterholes. Here’s my guide to what to see and do in Nitmiluk National Park.
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About Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk National Park is a series of 13 gorges carved out by the Katherine River. The name “Nitmiluk” means “place of cicadas” in the language of the Jawoyn people, who are the Traditional Owners of the land.
There are actually two sections of the national park – Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge and Leliyn (Edith Falls). Most travel guides focus only on the Katherine Gorge section, but in this article, I’ll be talking about what to do in BOTH the Katherine Gorge and Leliyn sections of the park. (Spoiler alert: Leliyn is actually my favourite part of the park!)
I’ve created the map below to show where these two different sections are located from Katherine.
Covering 2,947 square kilometres, Nitmiluk National Park borders Kakadu National Park (I highly recommend visiting both national parks). At Nitmiluk, you can simply admire the views or get active with hiking, swimming, canoeing, camping, mountain biking and cultural tours.
IMPORTANT! You need an NT Parks Pass to enter Nitmiluk National Park. Get yours online here.
11 Fun things to do in Nitmiluk National Park
Here are 11 of the best things to do when you visit Nitmiluk National Park. This park should definitely be on your Australia bucket list.
1. Get maps and advice from the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre
Your first stop when you visit Nitmiluk National Park should be the visitor centre. I found that the maps provided online don’t show all the hikes, so I recommend heading to the visitor centre before starting anything. I spent a while chatting with one of the rangers for advice on the best hikes – and she gave me some of the additional maps they have behind the desk.
You can also get food here from the cafe. The tables outside on the deck are the nicest.
The visitor centre is at the Nitmiluk Gorge section of the national park, so plan to visit this section first as there’s no visitor centre at the Leliyn section.
2. Do the Leliyn Trail loop
All the guides I read online before we went to Nitmiluk National Park talked about the Katherine Gorge and Southern Walks section. But my favourite part of the park is Leliyn (Edith Falls).
This section of the park is a little further from Katherine, about 60km away. But the extra kilometres are totally worth it – the swimming holes here are so refreshing and some of my favourite in all of the Northern Territory.
The Leliyn Loop trail is a 2.6km loop that’s a Grade 3 (moderate). It should take you about an hour to do the loop – but you’re going to need longer because there are swimming holes to cool down in! You could easily spend a whole day completing this short loop because the swimming holes are just too tempting.
I recommend doing the loop clockwise from the car park so that you sweat it out and then cool down in the pools. It also means you’re going up and then down – the section from the Bemang lookout is quite steep down. There are two pools you can swim in here: the Upper Pool and the Edith Falls plunge pool.
The Upper Pool is gorgeous: small waterfalls tumble over the reddish brown boulders into huge plunge pools that are so refreshing. The pools are quite big, so even when it’s busy you’ll still be able to find space to swim in peace.
After swimming in the Upper Pool, head up the steep and rocky trail to the Bemang Lookout. Here you’ll get great views over the Middle Pool. Continue down to the Edith Falls Plunge Pool. This is usually way busier than the Upper Pool because it’s right by the car park, so it’s always full of families. There’s a large grassy area that’s great for picnics.
Top tip! Bring a pool noodle or floatie for a chilled-out swim.
3. Branch off to the Sweetwater Pool trail
If you’ve got the stamina, then definitely take the branch off the Leliyn Trail loop to Sweetwater Pool. The turnoff is about 650 metres from the car park (if you’re going clockwise).
This is a 6.8km trail in and out, so you NEED to start this trail early. We were on the trail at about 8am and had Sweetwater Pool to ourselves for about 15 minutes – heaven! We only saw a handful of people as we were walking in – but as we hiked out, there were way more people coming in.
On the way to Sweetwater, you’ll pass Long Hole Pool. It’s also lovely, but I think Sweetwater Pool is much nicer. It’s slippery from algae so be careful climbing in, but the “infinity pool” is gorgeously refreshing after the hike.
Top tip! While we hiked to Sweetwater Pool during the day, friends who have camped here say it’s also spectacular here at sunset.
4. Gaze over Nitmiluk Gorge (Katherine Gorge)
The highlight of any visit to Nitmiluk National Park is, of course, looking out over the gorges. The Baruwei Lookout is the easiest lookout to reach for those stunning views over the iconic Nitmiluk Gorge and Katherine River. This picturesque lookout spot has graced countless tourist brochures and postcards, and for good reason – it truly is a sight to behold.
To reach the lookout, it’s a 1.8km return walk from the visitor centre. There’s a sandy path that you can follow to the lookout that’s very close to the edge of the Katherine River. While it may be tempting to get closer for a better view or even take a dip on a hot day, be aware there are crocs here!
There are also a lot of stairs to conquer to get to the lookout – but don’t let that deter you, as the views from the top are well worth the effort.
Once at the lookout, you’ll find large decks where you can relax and take in the awe-inspiring scenery. There are signs that tell the Jawoyn stories of the Rainbow Serpent Bolung, who created the gorge, and Nabilil, who carried the water (in a dilly bag) that filled the river’s depths.
As you’re walking through the picnic area near the visitor centre, keep an eye out for the thousands of bats in the trees above. I’ve never seen so many bats in one place!
Top tip! You can also reach the Baruwei Lookout by taking the full Baruwei Loop. If you’ve got the energy, feel free to take the 4.9km loop (Grade 3, 2 hours) but to be honest, I didn’t find the loop that inspiring. There’s little shade and not a whole lot to see. I’d only do the Loop if you’re planning to branch off to one of the Southern Walks that I talk about next.
5. Hike the Southern Walks
From the visitor centre, several trails lead to other gorges in the national park. They’re all reached via the Baruwei Loop (see my tip in the section above) and range from 9.1km return to multi-day hikes.
We took the Butterfly Gorge trail, which is an 11.8km, Grade 3 return trail that leads to the second gorge. It’s mostly shaded and there was one part where we were surrounded by butterflies fluttering all around us – which is where the trail’s name comes from. While the trail is mostly easy, there are some parts with loose rocks, so wear good shoes to avoid rolling an ankle.
At the end of the Butterfly Gorge trail, you’ll find a small “beach”. It’s basically a bit of rock that gets quite muddy and crowded when there are more than five people. You can either turn back around now or be brave and jump into the gorge!
We did the latter and I have to admit, even though the ranger had assured us there were no crocodiles (only freshies), I was freaking out! I don’t think I’ve swum so fast since my competitive swimming days in high school.
Leave your stuff at the beach (unless you’ve brought a dry bag with you) and swim around to the left side of the rock face where there are some rocks that are perfect for sunbathing or a picnic. Don’t forget to bring a pool noodle or floatie to make the swim easier!
Top tip! Some of the Southern Walks trails are shared with mountain bikers, so keep an eye out.
6. Take a boat cruise
Not everything at Nitmiluk requires exertion. Join one of the relaxing boat tours with Nitmiluk Tours, a 100% Indigenous-owned and operated business.
The 4-hour cruise winds through three of the gorges. That there is some walking as you change boats between the gorges, so keep this in mind if you’ve got mobility issues – and wear suitable shoes.
As you float through the waterways, the guides point out rock art, wildlife and birds, and explain the Jawoyn people’s connection to the land.
If you really want to have an unforgettable experience, I highly recommend taking the dawn tour. The light at this hour is absolutely perfect as the colours of the gorge change.
7. Experience a sunset dinner cruise
Alternatively, level up your boating experience with a sunset dinner cruise. Ooh la la!
Also run by Nitmiluk Tours, the 3.5-hour tour showcases the rugged landscapes and stunning colours of Nitmiluk National Park as you travel along the Katherine River – but with the added bonus of food and booze.
A candlelit, three-course meal is included, along with a glass of sparkling wine.
These dinner cruises aren’t cheap but they are a spectacular way to end the day.
We didn’t get to do this on our visit, but it’s on our list for when we return. You can book the sunset dinner cruise online here.
8. Paddle a canoe on the Katherine River
This is definitely one of the highlights of Nitmiluk National Park – canoeing through Katherine Gorge. Cruising at your own pace, you’ll see the national park from a different perspective than you get on the cruise boat or hiking.
You’ll also get to go deeper into the park and visit gorges beyond the first one, depending on how far you’re willing to go.
As you paddle through the waters of the Katherine River, you’ll be surrounded by towering cliffs and lush greenery. There are several swimming spots you can cool off in.
The full-day tour includes all the essentials – a canoe, double-ended paddle and life jacket. However, you’ll need to bring your own food and water for the journey. Pack sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the intense Aussie sun.
9. See Nitmiluk Gorge from above
For those who prefer a bird’s eye view, Helispirit offers scenic flights over Nitmiluk Gorge. We didn’t get to do this but I can’t imagine a better way to see the beauty of the gorge!
You can choose from an 8, 12, 15, 20, 30 or 45-minute flight to see the stunning landscapes and network of gorges carved into the earth.
The longer flights not only showcase Katherine Gorge but also give you a glimpse of Arnhem Land and the Jatbula Trail.
There are even private chopper tours that take you further into the national park to one of Australia’s most remote and beautiful waterfalls for a swim! You’ll have the swimming hole all to yourself, which sounds just incredible.
Flights are only available between April and November, and prices start at $115 per person.
10. Go mountain biking
Got your mountain bike with you? Then you’re in for a treat at Nitmiluk National Park. With almost 20km of mountain biking trails to explore, this is the perfect place to hit the dirt on two wheels.
The rugged terrain and stunning landscapes make for an exhilarating ride through the park. There are a variety of trails, ranging from easy beginner routes to more challenging trails. Some trails are dedicated to mountain biking, while others are shared use with hikers. The full list of trails can be found online here.
11. Tackle the Jatbula Trail
For the ultimate Nitmiluk National Park adventure, hit the Jatbula Trail. This 62km trek takes hikers through the heart of Nitmiluk National Park and along the western edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment, showcasing some of the most untouched landscapes in Australia.
The trail can be completed in 5 to 6 days, with hiking distances ranging from 8km to 16km each day. Along the way, you’ll pass by waterfalls, gorges and swimming holes.
Only 15 people are allowed on the trail each day (and can only stay at each campsite for one night). Permits for the Jatbula Trail need to be booked in advance and can be purchased online here. The trail is only open during the dry season from June to September. Bookings for the 2024 season open on 6 February – get in quick as they usually sell out within minutes.
Coincidentally, one of my besties was doing the Jatbula Trail while we were in Katherine, and she had an amazing time. The trail is pretty tough with little shade on most days, but the scenery and swimming holes are the reward.
Nitmiluk Gorge tours
If you don’t have your own car, you can easily take a trip to Nitmiluk National Park from Darwin. Here are a few Katherine Gorge tours from Darwin.
This Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls Full-Day Tour from Darwin starts with a boat cruise through Nitmiluk Gorge, followed by a refreshing swim at Edith Falls. The tour includes a visit to rock art sites. A buffet lunch is included, but not dinner. It’s run by well-known company AAT Kings. Check availability here.
The other option is this Katherine Gorge Cruise and Edith Falls Tour departing from Darwin. Like the above tour, it includes a boat tour on the Katherine River and a visit to Leliyn (Edith Falls) for a swim. The tour doesn’t include meals but it does include hotel pick-up and drop-off. Check rates online here.
Best time to visit Nitmiluk Gorge
The best time to visit Nitmiluk National Park is the dry season (May to September), when the weather is cooler and there’s little to no chance of rain. During this time, the water levels in the gorge are lower and better for swimming, canoeing and boating.
While it’s cooler during these months, it’s still pretty hot during the day. When we were there in June it was 32 degrees!
During the wet season, from October to April, the park is less accessible and some activities and swimming holes may be closed. The risk of salties (saltwater crocodiles) entering the national park is greater. You can check the status of the park online.
However, this is also when you can witness the waterfalls at their most powerful and the landscape transform into a lush green oasis. Temperatures, however, can hit 40 degrees with super high humidity.
How to get to Nitmiluk Gorge
Nitmiluk Gorge is easily accessible from both Katherine and Darwin. You can rent a car in either city – check rates and availability here. It’s a must-do stop along the well-travelled Adelaide to Darwin route.
From Katherine, Nitmiluk Gorge National Park is only 30 kilometres away, on the sealed Stuart Highway. From Katherine to Edith Falls (Leliyn), it’s 60km or around 45 minutes by car.
If you’re travelling from Darwin to Katherine Gorge, it’ll take you around 3.5 hours to get to the main entrance of the park.
There are flights from Darwin to Katherine (approximately 1 hour) with Airnorth. From Katherine, you can rent a car.
The next nearest airport to Nitmiluk Gorge is Darwin International Airport, which has direct flights from most major cities in Australia. Rent a car in Darwin for the drive south.
There are daily Greyhound bus services between Darwin and Katherine. The trip takes around 4 hours and costs about $100 one-way.
Where to eat
There are a couple of options for eating at Nitmiluk. For a casual bite, the Nitmiluk Cafe is open daily from 8am to 2pm for breakfast, lunch and snacks. The cafe also has a lovely deck area.
If you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience, Cicada Lodge offers fine dining at their on-site restaurant. Even if you’re not staying at the lodge, external guests are welcome to make reservations for dinner at the restaurant.
Or, do as we did and bring your own food. Definitely bring lots of water. There are water tanks on the Southern Walks, but it wasn’t entirely clear to us whether the water was filtered or not.
Where to stay
I recommend basing yourself in Katherine, as you’ll be close to the national park but also close to all the other things to do in Katherine.
We stayed at the Riverview Tourist Village (⭐️ 8.0/10) in our camper trailer. We loved it so much that we ended up staying there for more than a week over two different visits! It’s right by the hot springs, so you can be first in when the gates open in the morning. There are cabins and caravan sites. Check rates online.
Other great accommodation options in Katherine are:
- The Contour Hotel (⭐️ 8.0/10), set on four acres of tropical gardens. There are tennis courts, a swimming pool, restaurants, barbecue facilities and a bar. Check rates and availability on Booking.com or Expedia
- Knotts Crossing Resort (⭐️ 7.3/10) – Close to the Katherine River, this resort has a range of accommodation options, from cabins to motel-style rooms. It also has a restaurant and swimming pool. Check rates and availability on Booking.com
Right in Nitmiluk National Park is the famous Cicada Lodge (⭐️ 8.9/10). It’s operated by the Jawoyn people and has hotel rooms, cabins and a campground. Check rates and availability on Booking.com or Expedia.
There are also several park-managed campsites in the national park. The most easily accessible campsites are the two in the Leliyn section (there’s the Edith Falls camping site right at the car park or you can hike into Sweetwater Pool campsite).
The campsites in Nitmiluk Gorge are remote sites (other than the campground at Cicada Lodge mentioned above).
What to pack for Nitmiluk National Park
Here are a few things you should bring on your visit.
- NT Parks Pass
- Hiking boots or sneakers
- Tevas or other water shoes – I wish I’d brought mine with me
- Water bladder (I prefer a water bladder to a bottle when I’m hiking)
- Sunscreen, minimum SPF50+
- Hat and sunglasses
- Day pack
- Swimming gear (I wore my sports bra and bike shorts, other people swam in their underwear!)
- Dry bag – I wish we’d had ours with us when we did the Butterfly Gorge trail
- Pool noodles or inflatable – a must for the swimming holes!
- Food, snacks and plenty of water
Final thoughts: Visiting Nitmiluk National Park
A visit to Nitmiluk National Park is an absolute must when travelling to the Northern Territory.
The stunning gorges and swimming holes are the perfect reward after a day of hiking. Not only is it a picturesque destination, but it also holds great cultural and historical significance for the Traditional Owners, the Jawoyn people. It’s one of my favourite spots in the NT – I hope you love it too.
Nitmiluk National Park: FAQs
Are there crocodiles in Katherine Gorge?
Yes, there are crocodiles in Katherine Gorge National Park, mostly freshwater crocs (they’re the ones that generally don’t attack people), however salties sometimes do make an appearance. ALWAYS check with a ranger before swimming anywhere, and be careful when close to the water’s edge.
How many days do I need for Katherine Gorge?
I’d recommend at least two days to visit Nitmiluk National Park – one day each for each section of the park. However, if you’re an avid hiker, I think you need at least 3-4 days to check out a few of the trails.
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What are your favourite things to do at Nitmiluk National Park?
Before you go… you might like these other Australia travel blogs:
- The ultimate guide to Litchfield National Park
- How to plan an epic Central Australia road trip
- The best things to do at Uluru
- What to pack for Uluru
- What to do in Coober Pedy, South Australia
- The best things to do in Alice Springs
- Tips for visiting Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park
AUSTRALIA TRIP ESSENTIALS
- Book your flight to Australia online with Skyscanner. I like this site because it shows me which dates are cheaper.
- Find a great hotel in Australia. Check prices on Booking.com and Expedia online.
- Check out the huge range of day tours throughout Australia on GetYourGuide or Viator. There’s something for everyone.
- A copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Australia will be handy.
- One thing I always purchase is travel insurance! Travel Insurance Master allows you to compare across multiple policy providers, while SafetyWing is great for long-term travellers and digital nomads.
- Pack sunscreen (look for SPF50 or higher), a hat and sunglasses because the sun is hot!
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