Australia’s Northern Territory is home to stunning National Parks, vast arrays of wildlife, a rich aboriginal history and many spectacular road trips to choose from. Having completed my 6 month road trip around Australia, my Darwin road trip section was one of the most beautiful and memorable.
If you’re wanting to explore the Top End, I suggest spending at least 2 weeks on a looped round trip starting and ending in Darwin. This will allow you to take in the most famous sites including: Kakadu National Park, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield National Park.
You’ll most likely be flying into Darwin, unless you’re already on a road trip. If you’re flying in, hire a car or camper-van from Darwin airport.
When To Go
Australia’s Northern Territory has two distinct seasons; wet and dry season. Wet season runs from November to April, and dry season from May to October. Whilst wet season is great for seeing an abundance of wildlife and waterfalls in full throw, however many road in the National Parks will be inaccessible, sometimes even with a 4WD. As a result, a Darwin road trip is best suited for the dry season, as you’ll be able to visit all attractions without having to worry about the weather.
In addition, wet season is VERY humid and sticky. Therefore hiking and sleeping in a camper-van during these months can be unbearable. The months of July, August and September are the coolest with the lowest humidity making it the best time for a Darwin road trip.
Accessibility to popular spots in wet season may not be possible (especially in Kakadu and Litchfield). Some areas remain closed until June and even later. Not to mention during the wet season saltwater crocodiles are more common at popular swimming holes, whereas in dry season they are removed from these areas. You can get all the latest information on the National Park websites and Tourist Offices.
Top tip: Some camper-van and vehicle hire companies close over the wet season, making it impossible to do a Darwin road trip. Due to lower visitor numbers, and to keep their vehicles out of flood waters!
What To Hire?
If you already have your own vehicle this won’t apply to you. However, if you’re flying into Darwin to start a road trip it can be hard to choose which type of transportation is best for you.
Ultimately there are 4 different options. a 2WD car, 4WD car, 2WD camper or 4WD camper. In my opinion, the 4WD camper is without a doubt the best option. You won’t be restricted with road and you can experience the real outback by camping. However, this isn’t always possible if you’re on a strict budget or prefer the comfort of a hotel bed.
If you’re wanting to rent either a 2WD or 4WD car then rentalcars.com is my favourite site for comparing prices to get the best deal! There’s many companies to choose from with a wide range of vehicle options to choose from.
For a 2WD camper companies like Britz, Apollo, and Travellers AutoBarn all have a wide range of campers to suit your needs and budget.
Britz and Apollo both have a range of 4WD campers to choose from. Ranging from a rooftop tent to a fully decked out LandCruiser with a living area and bed all inside.
Whichever setup you choose for your Darwin road trip, it’ll be a great option for your budget and needs!
Darwin Road Trip Itinerary
Ultimately how long you spend exploring the Top End is up to you. Of course, the more time you spend the more you’ll experience and be able to see. However, I believe a 2 week Darwin road trip itinerary will give you the perfect amount of time to explore the best of what this area has to offer.
If you are tight on time, you can skip Katherine and Mataranka and do the Kakadu/Litchfield loop, which you can do in around a week.
This Darwin road trip starts and ends in Darwin in a large loop including Mataranka. You may be coming from the south if you’re already on a road trip, so just adjust it accordingly. My suggestion would be to drive from Katherine to Kakadu and from there to Litchfield and into Darwin.
Here is a simplified map of the rough itinerary:
Day 1: Darwin to Jabiru (Kakadu National Park)
Distance: 250km (157 miles)
Time: 2 hours 45 minutes without stops
Overview: Darwin – Window of the Wetlands – Jumping Croc Cruise – Mamukala Wetlands – Stay in Jabiru
Depending on what time you arrive in Darwin you may want to stay a night in Darwin, as you’ll want to head off fairly early to ensure you fit all the sights in. The drive to Jabiru is all paved and introduces you to the Northern Territories wetlands.
Before you enter Kakadu National Park, make sure you stock up on food and drinks in Darwin, either at a Coles or Woolworths as once you’re in the park everything is a lot more expensive. This also goes for fuel.
Don’t forget to buy your Kakadu National Park Pass online before arriving. A family pass (2 adults and 2 children) is AUD$100 and per adult is AUD$40. It isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it once you’re in!
Your first stop will be the Window of the Wetlands Visitor Centre. With free parking and free entry, it’s a great little centre to learn a bit about the area before you start exploring. There are several exhibits, and the centre itself has great views over the wetlands.
The first large river you’ll cross is the Adelaide River, home to the infamous Jumping Croc Cruise. It is a natural behaviour by the crocs, although they are encouraged to do it, it’s still a spectacular sight seeing the sheer power! There are three different tours operating, however my favourite was the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise. Prices are very reasonable too at AUD$40 per adult for one hour. Tours run at 9am, 11am, 1pm & 3pm.
Once you’ve passed the Adelaide River, you’ll head towards the entrance of Kakadu National Park. Before arriving in Jabiru for your first night. Stop at the Mamukala Wetlands for a great opportunity to witness a vast array of birdlife from the safety of a wooden shelter.
The next and final stop for your first day on your Darwin road trip is Jabiru. There are a number of accommodation options to choose from, including campsites, lodges and even a luxury 4* hotel.
Where To Stay?
If you’re camping or have a camper-van I recommend staying either at Anbinik Kakadu Resort Campground or Kakadu Lodge Caravan Park. Both are highly rated and have all the necessities you need. Make sure to check availability before arriving if you’re there during high/dry season.
Want something a bit more luxurious? Check out the best rates of the Mecure Kakadu Crocodile.
Day 2: Jabiru to Ubirr
Distance: 45km (26 miles)
Time: 1 hour
Overview: Jabiru – Cahill Crossing – Ubirr Rock Art – Nadab Lookout – Stay Merl Campground
Before heading up to Ubirr I’d recommend stopping at the Bowali Visitor Centre. This will give you all the information you’ll need for Kakadu, including what road and sights are open as well as campsites.
Make the short trip north to the famous Cahill Crossing, located on the East Alligator River. Make sure to look up high tide times, as you’ll want to be here for high tide. This is when all the crocodiles come out and hunt. You may even see locals cross the river in their vehicles! It’s one of the most famous and dangerous crossing, so make sure you don’t stand too close or attempt to cross it!
Ubirr Rock Art Site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and quite rightly so. It is one of the best preserved rock art sites in Kakadu and, in fact, all of Australia. It is free to walk around and paintings date back to over 5,000 years ago. The ideal time to visit Ubirr is late afternoon, and staying in the area to watch sunset from the Nadab Lookout. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views across the wetlands and plains as the sun sets over them. Make sure to join a free range led walk across the site.
Where To Stay?
There aren’t any hotels or lodges up here, therefore if you haven’t got camping equipment or a camper head back to Jabiru to one of the hotels/lodges.
The only campground up here is Merl Campground. Located right by the Cahill Crossing, it has all the amenities you need, with plenty of shade and spaces even during high season. You may want to check into the campsite fairly early before seeing all the sights to guarantee yourself a spot. When staying here, make sure you’re croc wise. Do not go near the river at night and keep within the campground. Price is AUD$15.00 per adult per night.
Day 3: Ubirr to Nourlangie
Distance: 75km (46 miles)
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Overview: Ubirr – Nourlangie Trail – Nawurlandja Lookout – Stay Muirella Campground
From Ubirr head south towards Nourlangie. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for it’s rock art. There is the option for a guided tour, but my suggestion is to do the free tour at Ubirr and then walk around Nourlangie on your own, taking your time to really immerse yourself into the heritage and culture of the site.
Whilst you’re at Nourlangie, walk the trail up to Gunwarrdehwarrde Lookout. Which has a spectacular vista of the escarpment and flood plains.
Head back towards the main road, and stop at the Nawurlandja Lookout. This is a great spot for sunset, so make sure to bring your camera, some water and good pair of walking shows so you can hike up to the top of the lookout. It’s an easy walk from the car park and has stunning views over Kakadu.
Where To Stay?
Once the sun has set, you’ll want to make camp somewhere. The nearest campground is Muirella Campground just a few minutes drive from the lookout. The campground is all non-powered, with toilets and showers close to the river. It’s fairly basic but a good spot for an overnight stop before heading onto Cooinda.
Day 4: Nourlangie to Cooinda
Distance: 32km (20 miles)
Times: 30 minutes
Overview: Muirella – Mirrai Lookout – Yellow Water River Cruise – Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre – Stay Cooinda Campground
Today is a very short driving day, firstly head over to Mirrai Lookout. It’s a fairly steep track, however it’s not a long walk but the views are beautiful. Depending on the time of year you go there may be trees blocking the view. Nevertheless, it’s a great little bit of exercise after a good nights sleep!
The most famous cruise/tour you can do in Kakadu National Park is the Yellow Water River Cruise, and it definitely not one to be missed! You can choose different types of cruises but the top in my opinion is either the sunrise or sunset cruise. During these times, the billabong is teeming with wildlife from buffalos to birds to crocodiles and much more! What’s more the colours of the sky are just magnificent at golden hour! There is a free shuttle from Cooinda Lodge to the jetty. The sunrise cruise departs at 6.45am. The sunset cruise leaves at 4.30pm.
Both the sunrise and sunset cruises run for 2 hours, with costing AUD$90 for the sunset cruise and AUD$99 for the sunrise cruise per adult (buffet breakfast is also included back at Cooinda).
Either before or after your cruise, head to the Warradjan Aboriginal Culture Centre, to learn more about the indigenous culture that lived in their part of Australia.
Where To Stay?
There is a campground right in Cooinda, at the Cooinda Lodge. This place also offers accommodation, check here for the best rates on rooms at Cooinda Lodge.
The amenities here are great, with a pool and all the facilities you need for a comfortable camp stay. There are 100 powered and unpowered sites, and you may want to book in advance or arrive early to grab a spot during high season. Sites cost AUD$35 per night for 2 adults.
Day 5: Cooinda to Jim Jim Falls
Distance: 70km (45 miles)
Time: 2 hours 30 mins
Overview: Cooinda – Jim Jim Falls – Stay Garnamarr Campground
This section you’ll only be able to do if you’ve hired or got your own 4WD. Check before to make sure the track is open, during wet season and sometimes even up to June the Jim Jim Falls track is closed due to flooding. Do not attempt this track if you haven’t got a 4WD.
Before you head off make sure to fuel up in Cooinda, and get any water/groceries you need. The track itself is nearly 60km long one way. The road is a dirt/gravel road with a few crossings. The track is a beautiful 4WD road through lush greenlands, red bricks and dramatic scenery. The road does get graded around once a month, so ultimately it’s down to luck whether it is badly corrugated or not.
Before you arrive at Jim Jim Falls you’ll drive past your campground for the night; Garnamarr Campground. Continue on another 10km to the falls.
The trailhead starts at the car park and is roughly a 2km return hike. For many people, this is their favourite spot and waterfall, it’s not hard to see why as you’re off the beaten path and it real outback territory. Make sure to wear your swimming stuff and go for a swim, spend the day relaxing and once the sun starts to set head back towards the campground.
Where To Stay?
The only near campsite to Jim Jim Falls is Garnamarr Campground. It’s a great campsite with basic facilities including showers. per person is AUD$15.00.
Day 6: Jim Jim Falls to Maguk Gorge
Distance: 123km (76 miles)
Time: 3 hours
Overview: Jim Jim Falls – Barramundi (Maguk) Gorge – Stay Maguk Campground
Head back on Jim Jim Falls road towards Cooinda, pass by Cooinda and fuel up again. Again turning off the main road and onto the track towards Maguk Gorge is for 4WD only. This track is only 10 km long but can get very heavily corrugated.
Drive past the campground and roughly 1 km further is the carpark for the trailhead to Maguk Gorge. The whole walk is through a swampy like forest, with paved metal walkways. Make sure to wear sturdy boots as you will be walking through thick bushland.
Once there you can swim and enjoy the beauty of nature. It’s a great little spot to just relax and spend the afternoon at. It is possible to also walk past Maguk Gorge and higher up the gorge to a number of smaller pools. Just be careful as the rocks can get very slippery!
Where To Stay?
The nearest and most convinent campground is Maguk Campground, just 1km from the trailhead car park. It is a basic bush camp with drop toilets and no shower facilities, however it’s totally feasible for an overnight stay. With a cost of just AUD$6.00 per night, it’s a great budget option!
Day 7: Maguk Gorge to Gunlom Falls
Distance: 80km (50 miles)
Time: 2 hours
Overview: Maguk Gorge – Gunlom Falls – Stay Gunlom Falls Campground
Again the last bit turning off towards Gumlom Falls is dirt corrugated roads, however this may be able to be done with a 2WD, just check with your rental company whether they allow it or not. Always follow your gut, if it looks too bad turn around and don’t push it as you may be left with a hefty bill to pay at the end.
Gunlom Falls is probably the most beautiful and Instaworthy spot in all of Kakadu. The view from the pools is first class, looking out on the whole of Kakadu National Park. Once you arrive, it’s a short hike up to the top swimming hole. The bottom plunge pool can be closed during parts of the season due to the presence of saltwater crocs, so DO NOT swim here unless it specifically says it is safe to do so.
I suggest staying up here till sunset, and watch the magnificent scenery change from day to night. The walk is only about 15 minutes up so don’t worry too much about it going dark.
Where To Stay?
What’s more convenient that a campground literally at the trailhead to Gunlom Falls?! Gunlom Falls Campground has everything super close by, and the amenities are good with flushing toilets and showers! Price is AUD$15.o0 per adult.
Day 8: Gunlom Falls to Edith Falls
Distance: 175km (110 miles)
Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Overview: Gunlom Falls – Edith Falls – Leliyn Trail – Stay Leiliyn Campground
Say goodbye to the beautiful Kakadu National Park, and head south towards Katherine. Before you reach Katherine (about 60kms north), head to the western side of Nitmiluk National Park, where you’ll explore Edith Falls.
You can enjoy swimming in the natural pool at the base of the falls most of the year, although it may be closed to swimming at times between November through to April due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles. There are also a number of trails you can hike, including a 2.5km Leliyn Trail offering a fairly challenging walk along a steep, rocky loop. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can also enjoy the longer 9km return walk to Sweetwater Pool, a tranquil swimming hole.
Where To Stay?
Leiliyn Campground is conveniently located next to the trailhead to Edith Falls. The campground itself provides green space, lots of shade and hot showers as well as flushing toilets. Per adult per night AUD$12.00.
Day 9: Edith Falls to Mataranka
Distance: 170km (105 miles)
Time: 2 hours
Overview: Edith Falls – Mataranka Thermal Pools – Bitter Springs – Stay Bitter Springs Camping
Fuel up and shop at Woolworths for any groceries you may need, before by-passing Katherine (we’ll be back here tomorrow) and head south to Mataranka. The first stop on your thermal springs and relaxation day is Mataranka Thermal Pools and Rainbow Springs. It is an excellent spot to visit all year round to have a swim and hang around in the water. The water is crystal clear especially when the light is shining bright. Make sure to bring your camera as it makes for some great photos!
After lunch, head to Bitter Springs, this I would say is a more natural, and less popular spot. You can float down the river or bring a snorkel and mask to really see how clear the water is! To this date, I’ve never swam somewhere more clear or beautiful! It’s absolutely stunning and not to be missed! Both these natural thermal pools are warm and completely free to use.
Where To Stay?
Once you’ve been to both springs, stay overnight at Bitter Springs Camping. The campsite is shaded, green and has all the amenities you need. Prices are $15.00 per person per night.
Day 10: Mataranka to Katherine Gorge
Distance: 140km (85 miles)
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Overview: Mataranka – Katherine Gorge – Stay Nitmiluk Gorge Caravan Park
Nitmiluk National Park, also known to many as Katherine Gorge is owned by the local Jawoyn people. The Katherine River, weaves through the National Park, hence the name Katherine Gorge. There are many attractions, tour and hikes to do in this National Park, and you can spend days just exploring the region. However I suggest spending 2 nights here, so that you’re able to get all the best highlights in.
Once you arrive head straight to the visitor centre, collect a map and ask what tours are operating. Once you’ve done this, check into the caravan park to secure yourself a spot early.
If you choose to do a tour, book it today ready for tomorrow. These tours can include kayaking through Katherine Gorge, a sunrise gorge cruise and many more!
Before sunset, I suggest hiking to Barrawei Lookout. This is a fairly easy 3.2km loop, starting near the visitor centre and hiking up to an incredible lookout over the gorge and National Park. Make sure to bring plenty of water, your camera and sturdy footwear, as it includes walking over a number of rocks.
Where To Stay?
As mentioned, you’ll be spending 2 nights at Katherine Gorge Caravan Park. Its conveniently located, and you can do all the hikes and tours within walking distance. It’s about a 30 minute drive from the town of Katherine, and if you didn’t fuel up or grocery shop before Mataranka, now is the time to do so.
It isn’t cheaper however, with 2 adults unpowered per night at AUD$44.00. However, due to the location it is worth it.
Day 11: Katherine Gorge
Depending on what tours you’ve decided to do, you may be waking up very early this morning for a sunrise cruise along the gorge. Getting up close and personal with the gorge is truly a magnificent sight, and if you have the budget for it, I cannot recommend it enough. A sunrise cruise will cost around AUD$80 for 2 hours.
Alternatively, you can hire kayaks for around AUD$35, this is a great way to see the gorge at your own pace.
There are plenty of different tours you can do. Click here to find the best one that suits you!
Day 12: Katherine Gorge to Litchfield National Park
Distance: 315km (190 miles)
Time: 3 hours 15 mins
Overview: Katherine Gorge – Magnetic Termite Mounds – Buley Rockhole – Florence Falls – Stay Florence Falls Campground
Litchfield National Park is the last stop on your Darwin road trip. It’s also one of the best and most accessible places near Darwin to go swimming with waterfalls and safe swimming holes. As it is so close to Darwin and free to visit, during high season this National Park can get very crowded, and camping can be hard to come by.
The first stop in Litchfield National Park are the Magnetic Termite Mounds. These termites are impressive, and MASSIVE! There are literally thousands of them, ranging in heights and some nearly as tall as double decker buses! These termite mounds are built by thousands of termites with a north-south orientation to control the temperature inside the mounds.
Next you’ll want to visit the Buley Rockholes. This is the perfect place to relax and enjoy, especially with kids. The Buley Rockholes are 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.
Next, park up at the campsite to claim your spot and from there walk to Florence Falls. Depending on the time of day, you may want to save Florence Falls to early tomorrow morning to avoid the crowds. There are two waterfalls here, and it’s a great place to swim up and see the sheer power of the falls.
Where To Stay?
There are technically two campgrounds by Florence Falls a 2WD and a 4WD one. They are both easily accessible. The 2WD campsite is slightly closer to the falls, however if this is full head further on to the 4WD campsite (don’t worry you don’t need a 4WD to get there).
The campsite has everything you need including flushing toilets are showers. It is forested and bushy, so wear closed footwear. It costs AUD$6.60 per night per adult.
Day 13: Litchfield National Park
Distance: 30km (20 miles)
Time: 30 minutes
Overview: Florence Falls – Tolmer Falls – Tjaetaba Falls – Wangi Falls – Stay Wangi Falls Campground
Continue through Litchfield National Park, to reach your first stop of the day, Tolmer Falls. Here you can walk a 1km return walk to witness the impressive falls from a viewing platform. The view of the surrounding landscape is impressive in itself and definitely worth the short walk.
I didn’t have time to do Tjaetaba Falls, however I’ve heard from a number of friends that it was one of their favourite and best kept secrets in the National Park. To get there it’s via a 4WD track, don’t attempt this if you’re only in a 2WD. Once at the car park, it’s a 3.5km return easy hike. It’s a great refreshing spot to go swimming and spend the day relaxing with few people around.
Your last stop for the day is Wangi Falls. This is the most famous waterfall spot in Litchfield, and it’s not surprising with a large swimming hole and picnic areas dotted around. Do read the signs around the falls however, when I visited a crocodile had be spotted recently so no swimming was allowed. There is also a little walk around the falls which is worth exploring.
Where To Stay?
Wangi Falls Campground is the last night on your Darwin road trip. There are plenty of sites here, so even during high season you should be able to find a spot easily. There are flushing toilets, showers and lot’s of amenities. You may even spot friendly wallabies hopping round at dusk!
Camping costs AUD$6.60 per night per adult.
Day 14: Litchfield National Park to Darwin
Distance: 135km (82 miles)
Time: 1 hour 45 mins
Overview: Wangi Falls – Berry Springs Nature Park – Darwin
Ah it’s you’re final day of driving on your Darwin road trip! There is one last stop however, depending on the time you need to return to Darwin. Berry Springs Nature Park is a beautiful spot to swim and spend your last few hours on the road trip. There are three main pools, with the main pool connected to the downstream pool by stunning turquoise water and green palm lined grounds.
It’s not time to head back into Darwin, and drop off your vehicle! I hope this 2 week Darwin road trip itinerary as helped you in planning!
Total driving distance: 1600km in 14 days
Day 15: Darwin
If you have enough time to spare, I suggest spending a night or two in Darwin itself at the end of your trip. There are a number of museums, parks and shops to walk around.
Alternatively, if you only hired a 2WD, there is a vast array of tours that depart from Darwin which include some scenic spots. Meaning you don’t have to worry about a thing, they take you to all the best spots, and everything is included when you’re on it! The following are my favourite tours out of Darwin:
Best Tours From Darwin
Where To Stay In Darwin?
Darwin has many accommodation options, ranging from backpacker budget to luxury hotels. Here are my top picks:
Budget: Chilli’s Backpackers Darwin
Mid-Range: H On Smith Hotel
Luxury: Hilton Darwin
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If you have any questions on my Darwin Road Trip, let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to help!
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Very helpful blog and you have mentioned step by step information regarding Darwin road trip. This is amazing road trip for travel lovers. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks so much, glad this has helped you 🙂