Nitmiluk National Park is dominated by the sandstone cliffs and gorges of Nitmiluk Gorge, or sometimes referred to as Katherine Gorge. The traditional homeland of the Jawoyn people, this spectacular park area is just outside of Katherine in the Northern Territory.
The world famous gorge is one of the best places to visit in the Top End and is widely considered to be a top attraction in the state. With 13 connected gorges, Aboriginal rock art, natural swimming holes and waterfalls, and some of the country’s best walks, it’s a place you’ll want to add to your Top End itinerary.
I spent weeks in Katherine and explored the national park over a few different trips. From hiking the Jatbula Trail to spending a few days at Edith Falls/Leliyn, I definitely covered most of the highlights during my visit. This guide will help you plan your visit to Nitmiluk National Park, including the best walks and swimming holes to explore.
About Nitmiluk National Park
While often overshadowed by Kakadu National Park which lies directly to the north, Nitmiluk National Park is a smaller but no less spectacular park in the Top End. The traditional home of the Jawoyn people, it’s a wild and rugged landscape carved out by the Katherine River.
For visiting purposes, the national park can be divided into two sections. To the north is Edith Falls or Leliyn, which is 63km north of Katherine. To the southern end is Katherine Gorge or Nitmiluk Gorge, which is 30km northeast of Katherine. Outside of these areas, the vast escarpments and rugged landscape is practically inaccessible.
Both Edith Falls and Katherine Gorge are very popular places to visit in the Northern Territory and it’s worth taking the time to explore both spots.
There’s plenty of things to do in the national park, including hiking, canoeing, boat cruises, camping, swimming, scenic flights and helicopter rides. I’ll outline these a bit more below.
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When to visit Nitmiluk National Park
The best time to visit Nitmiluk National Park is over the cooler dry season from April to September. This is when the skies are generally clear, conditions are more stable, and the heat is dry with low humidity. Water levels are also at their lowest during this season, which means most of the swimming holes are open and swimming is safest.
The wet season from October to March is very humid, extremely hot, and sees extreme tropical storms and downpours. The gorge generally floods and the swimming holes can be closed. However, it does provide a different perspective and scenic flights are incredibly spectacular at this time.
A warning about the climate! It’s hot in Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park all year round. There’s not really such a thing as a cool period. Even in the dry season, temperatures are generally over 25 degrees and can soar into the 30s. I was there over August and September. In August, there was a heat wave where temperatures were around 38 degrees every day for a week, while in September temperatures between 38-40 are common every day. It’s certainly no joke – and if you’re planning on exploring, especially hiking, you should be very prepared. Carry lots of water and take it easy, with plenty of rest stops. I suffered initially from the heat but by September I was more used to it.
Read more: How to Survive Hiking in Extreme Heat
How to get there
Nitmiluk National Park is just 30km northeast of Katherine. Katherine is a major town in the Northern Territory and has a supermarket, shops, cafes, and plenty of accommodation. The 30km drive to the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre from Katherine is on a sealed road.
If you’re coming from Darwin, it’s around 340km south of the state capital to Nitmiluk Visitor Centre in Katherine Gorge. But you’ll come to Edith Falls/Leliyn first, which is before Katherine off the Stuart Highway.
Nitmiluk National Park accommodation
If you want to stay as close as you can to the national park, there’s two options.
At Katherine Gorge near the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, there’s a few choices depending on your budget. The Cicada Lodge is an exclusive 5-star resort, while the Nitmiluk Chalets and Nitmiluk Gorge Caravan Park offers cabins, glamping tents and camping spots.
Edith Falls has a campground which is run by the kiosk near the carpark. The large camping area has 50 unpowered spots which cost $15 per adult per night. Otherwise, there’s no other accommodation close by.
The best alternative is to base yourself in Katherine and do day trips into the national park. Some of my top picks for Katherine accommodation include:
Pine Tree Motel || A comfortable option close to the main street in town. It has double rooms, family rooms and inter-connecting rooms for larger groups, as well as an outdoor pool. Check availability here.
Discovery Parks – Katherine || A popular caravan park just outside of town on the way to Nitmiluk National Park. They offer powered camping sites, as well as, a variety of cabins. Check availability here.
Best things to do in Katherine Gorge / Nitmiluk National Park
There’s a great range of activities to choose from at Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park. From walking to kayaking and swimming, it’s a fun place to explore for a few days.
Nitmiluk Gorge walks
There are a number of Nitmiluk National Park walks to choose from, most of which depart from Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and main car park. From a safety point of view, I’d recommend starting any of these walks as early as you possible can no matter what time of the year. There are some water tanks available on the trails, but the heat can be intolerable after midday even in the dry season.
The day walks I can recommend are:
Butterfly Gorge loop
Distance: 15km | Time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: Medium-hard
This is the ultimate Nitmiluk National Park walk in my opinion. It is perfect for taking in the best of Katherine Gorge in half a day. I found it to be a fun day hike that provided incredible views over the gorge and a chance for a swim at Butterfly Gorge. But it can be a bit challenging, especially the walk down to the gorge and back, so be prepared!
I walked from the car park at the visitor centre along the trail that runs parallel to the road. Then, follow the Gurumal Trail, which takes you to the first water tank and intersection. I continued straight on the Windolf Walk, which is a nice easy stroll for 2km to Pat’s Lookout.
From Pat’s Lookout, continue around for a kilometre to Jedda’s Rock lookout to admire the view from there. Then follow the Waleka Walk for 1.7km to the intersection with the Butterfly Gorge track. Turn left and scramble your way down to the gorge. This section can feel a bit long, but you’ll get to walk with hundreds of butterflies, which is obviously how this part of the gorge got its name.
The track ends right at the water’s edge of Katherine River at Third Gorge, and it’s an incredibly beautiful spot to jump in for a swim. However, you’ll be disappointed that there isn’t really any nice beach or spots to sit around and relax in the shade. So it’s really just nice for a swim and a few photos before returning the same way back up to the intersection again.
Except this time you can follow the Yambi Walk straight ahead to get back to the car park, which is wider and easier to follow but will be heating up in the sun by the afternoon.
Alternative option: You can make this walk 12km by doing what NT Parks map suggests which is going there and back the same way via the Yambi Walk. I personally think it’s worth adding the 3km on to Jedda’s Rock and Pat’s Lookout via Waleka Walk to make it a loop, if you have the time.
Jedda’s Rock and Pat’s Lookout Loop
Distance: 12km | Time: 4 hours | Difficulty: Medium
If you don’t want to walk down into the gorge for a swim, then this loop option still provides incredible vantage points of the national park. It’s basically what I’ve described above except without the 2.8km return side trip down to Butterfly Gorge. This is best for a morning hike, when the sun is still not too hot and the light on the gorge is perfect for photos.
You could add a side trip down to Southern Rockhole from Pat’s Lookout. This is a seasonal swimming spot and waterfall at First Gorge. However, in dry season it’s really not that impressive and a bit stagnant and is best visited during the wet season.
Baruwei Loop via Lookout
Distance: 5km | Time: 2 hours | Difficulty: Medium
If you’re short on time and want an easier walk to do, the Baruwei Loop is a 5km option including a lookout over First Gorge. It’s a great introduction to the national park if you only have a day to explore it.
It begins from the visitor centre and has a water tank on the walk for drinking, if you need.
Find a comprehensive Nitmiluk National Park walks map from NT Parks here.
Nitmiluk National Park multi-day hikes
If you’d rather head out into the wilderness for longer than a day, there are a couple of options for overnight hikes in the national park. The most famous hike is the Jatbula Trail, which takes hikers from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls over 62km and 5-6 days.
However, there is also the option for a 2-3 day hike known as the Southern Walks, which is a lot easier to secure a permit for. I completed both during my time in the Top End, so I can provide some more info below.
The Southern Walks is the name given to a network of trails around the Katherine Gorge area. Beginning right from the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, it includes the day hikes I mentioned above, but also extends all the way to 8th Gorge for those interested in doing an overnight hike.
Walking along the eastern escarpment to Eighth Gorge, there are two main tracks you need to be aware of: the Waleka Trail and Yambi Trail. The Waleka Track is the harder one and skirts along closer to the edge of the escarpment, with rock scrambling and lots of challenging undulations. The Yambi Walk is much easier, mostly flat, and is a wider sandy track. Both meet at 8th Gorge with several interconnecting trails so you can make up your own hike, depending on how challenging you want it.
There are three campgrounds: Smitt Rock, Dunlop Swamp and Eighth Gorge, which need to be booked and paid for in advance at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre or by phone. Smitt Rock and Dunlop Swamp are only 3km a part, so most people opt for a two night, three day hike, but you can also just do an overnight hike if you’re limited on time.
I did the two night hike, with the first night at Smitt Rock and second night at Eighth Gorge. It’s a really incredible way to experience the national park and was far more challenging than I expected. You can swim in the gorges at both of those campgrounds, which was much needed with the intense heat that I had during my time there.
Considered one of the most famous treks in all of Australia, the Jatbula Trail is an incredible journey through Nitmiluk National Park. The 62km trail starts at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre at Katherine Gorge and finishes at Edith Falls/Leliyn. It takes 5-6 days to complete and there is a very competitive permit system that sells out months in advance.
The trail is limited to just 15 hikers per day and is only open for a short few months over the dry season, so it can be difficult to secure a spot. You can hike the trail independently with a permit or pay to join a guided commercial tour which have departure dates set throughout the walking season. Either way, it’s an incredible experience to cross the landscape through the heat of the day to finish at a secluded swimming spot each night.
I was very lucky to secure a permit late in the season with cancellations due to the pandemic. I hiked the trail solo, but shared it with 8 others over the course of 5 days. It really is a world class trek, and although the heat is the real challenge, it’s a hike you can’t really experience anywhere else.
Read next: A Guide to Hiking the Jatbula Trail
Nitmiluk mountain biking trails
Due to the rising popularity of mountain biking, you can now find a network of MTB Trails around Katherine Gorge. Some of them share the walking trails on the Southern Walks, but there are also designated mountain biking trails which is great for those who like to explore on two wheels.
Ask at the visitor centre about bike hire, if you don’t have your own. You can find a map of the MTB Trails here.
Katherine Gorge cruise
The most well-known thing to do at Nitmiluk Gorge is a boat cruise. This is the easiest way to see some of the best parts of the national park, with a guide who can explain much about the history and geology of the gorge.
Sunset and sunrise are the most popular times for the gorge tours, and they can book out days in advance during the dry season. Dawn tours last two hours and cost around $110 per person, while sunset dinner cruises cost around $190 per person. Otherwise, regular two hour gorge cruises during the day cost $100 per person, which explores up to 2nd Gorge.
These can all be booked through Nitmiluk Tours from the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre or through Viator.
Katherine Gorge canoeing
One of the best ways to explore the gorges of Nitmiluk National Park is by kayaking or canoeing. You can hire canoes and kayaks from Nitmiluk Tours at the visitor centre for half day, full day or even overnight excursions. It’s only available when water levels are deemed safe in the dry season.
If you only opt for half day hire, then most people simply explore up to 2nd Gorge which is one of the most picturesque parts. If you want to venture beyond 3rd Gorge you should opt for full day hire or overnight hire if you want to explore beyond 5th Gorge.
It can be a unique adventure to head off on an overnight canoeing trip in the Katherine Gorge. I met a couple of girls who got to Fifth Gorge and camped on the river bank for the night, which looked really nice. You have to get a permit for overnight camping at the visitor centre and make sure you’re prepared to have to carry your gear across some of the rocks between the gorges.
NT Parks have a great canoeing guide brochure for anyone hoping to plan a full day or overnight adventure.
Nitmiluk National Park scenic flight
If you want to splurge a little more, you can also opt for a helicopter flight over Nitmiluk Gorge. The best part is that they are offered all year round, so when the other activities are closed for the wet season, you can still see the national park by air. In fact, scenic flights are arguably better in the wet season when you can see the park at its most vibrant.
Regular helicopter flights are from 10 minutes up to 40 minutes long, depending on what you want to see. 10 minutes will just get you to 2nd Gorge, but 40 minutes will get you all the way over to Edith Falls and back. Prices start from $115 per person for 10 minutes and go up from there. Check out Nitmiluk Tours scenic flights here.
Edith Falls / Leliyn
While most of this post has been about Nitmiluk Gorge, the other main attraction in the national park is Edith Falls or Leliyn. The series of cascades is one of the most popular swimming spots in the Northern Territory and is an absolute paradise on a hot day (which is every day up there!).
With a kiosk, campground, picnic areas, and walks to do, you can easily stay a couple of days to swim, hike and relax in one of nature’s best playgrounds. I could detail all the things to do at Edith Falls here, but I’ve already written a full guide to visiting that part of the national park to help you make the most of your visit. Check it out below.
How long to spend in Nitmiluk National Park
It’s difficult to describe the perfect Nitmiluk National Park itinerary. It really depends on what you want to see and do. Some people just head into the park from Katherine for a day trip, to do a short walk and maybe a boat cruise. However, I would recommend perhaps spending at least a couple of days so you can include a kayaking trip or a longer day hike to a swimming spot.
It’s also worth spending at least a day at Edith Falls further north. I would actually recommend a couple of days to get the most out of it, including a walk to Sweetwater Pool. If you can camp there it’s even better!