Which Northern Territory national parks to visit

From Kakadu to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Arnhem Land to Elsey

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Kakadu National ParkConfidently centre stage on the country's map, the Northern Territory is an adventure seeker's paradise. Beautiful, rugged and remote – yet surprisingly easy to drive, motorbike or fly around – the Northern Territory has the country's highest indigenous population per capita. This, coupled with the Territory's world-class wilderness areas, allows visitors a torrent of soul-nourishing experiences, particularly in its many beautiful National Parks.

Australia's Northern Territory has so many National Parks to visit that it can be overwhelming trying to decide which ones to pick. This guide will help you choose the one (two, or three...) that best suits you and your tastes.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu isn't just a national park - it's 'the' national park. This is northern Australia at its spectacular, best, where soaring cliffs birth dazzling waterfalls, wetlands bulge with birdlife and golden escarpments arc under cotton-wool clouds. Equal to the size of Switzerland, Kakadu has biodiversity in spades including 10,500 species of fauna and 2000 types of plants.

Across Kakadu's vast canvas ebbs all six of the ecosystems found in the top half of the Northern Territory: savannah woodlands, tidal flats and hills, basins, stone country, wetlands and floodplains. To take in the majesty of each zone, begin your weekend in the park's drier northern region – a three-hour drive from Darwin – with its famed Aboriginal rock art. Next descend south to the lusher sections for a duck dive through one of Kakadu's teal-toned waterholes (Gunlom Fall's network of infinity pools with views over the tree-lined terrain below are magical). Rent a 4WD to access the park's rugged regions, concentrate on the rock art sites with a 2WD, go fishing in the Yellow Water region or jump aboard one of the other many tours available. If you have extra time, a week-long walking adventure is a wonderful way to 'slow travel' through Kakadu, too.

Nitmiluk National Park

Sightseeing Boat at Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Nitmiluk National Park, a 3½-hour drive (or short plane ride) south of Darwin, is a water-laden wonderland – a breathtakingly beautiful wilderness reserve featuring Katherine Gorge, a network of 13 canyons through which the Katherine River flows. While stunning during the dry season from May to September – when visitors picnic, camp, cruise, swim, canoe and gaze at rock art – Nitmiluk is also fully accessible during the wet season, the monsoonal months of December to February. At this time of year the lower gorges' water levels rise higher, allowing for greater exploration by boat. Helicopter tours run all year round.

Stay at the luxurious glamping lodge, Cicada, or pull up in a cabin or tent in the park grounds. Alternatively, check in to the nearby township of Katherine. Your Nitmiluk bucket list? Take a canoe trip along the Katherine River; join a sunset dinner cruise and explore the lower gorges and their art sites on foot before settling into an atmospheric three-course meal while night birds soar above and freshwater crocodiles swim below.

Arnhem Land

Arnhem Land National Park

With rugged coastlines, remote islands and rivers thick with fish, this 34,000km2 Aboriginal reserve to the northeast of Kakadu is one of Australia's last untouched wilderness areas. Owing to its entry requirements, Arnhem Land is best appreciated via a tour – travelling alongside a guide will allow you more opportunities to tap into the local Indigenous culture, known here as 'Yolngu'. Try a coastal cultural adventure with Lirrwi's multi-day Aboriginal tours, and discover dance, storytelling, didgeridoo carving, spearfishing and mud crabbing.

Arnhem Land is famous for its bark paintings – their style is unreplicated in other parts of the country, so if you're travelling independently make a pit stop at Yirrkala Arts Centre to sample the region's wares.

Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park

It's a tall order to find a weekend trip more stunning, adventurous and refreshing than one spent at Litchfield National Park. A 90-minute drive from Darwin, this park hums with spring-fed streams, monsoon rainforest, exquisite waterfalls, and historic ruins. Join a day or overnight tour, or hire a car to arc around Litchfield's curvy roads, stopping first at the magnetic termite mounds - eerie tombstone-like marvels of nature. Next, view Tolmer Falls, a dramatic, non-swimmable waterhole that's hoe to a colony of protected orange horseshoe bats. From there, tour the park's signature swimming hubs, Buley Rock, Wangi Falls and Florence Falls. Each of these sparkling emerald pools boast tropical backdrops littered with pandanus, tall cliffs, crystal clear waters, ferns and shady nooks.

Elsey National Park

Mataranka Hot Springs

Head to the Elsey National Park (a 4½-hour drive south of Darwin, near Nitmiluk National Park) to swim, canoe, camp, fish, walk, and to enjoy its famous thermal springs. Luxuriate in the 34°C waters of Mataranka Hot Springs, a sandy-bottomed lagoon framed by palm forest; it boasts startlingly clear and mineral-rich waters, animated with fish and freshwater turtles. Go fishing and canoeing on the Roper River, or follow one of the park's bushwalks along the course of the river through pockets of rainforest to a swimming spot.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Kata-Tjuta National Park

This National Park is home to the iconic rock formations of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, two of the top tourism spots in Australia. However, if you like your space, there's also plenty of that here, with fabulous hiking and camping opportunities. The Kata-Tjuta mountains offer wonderful hikes and day-walks for people of all levels. Make sure to visit the Olgas, an incredible group of 36 domed rocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder 35km west of Uluru. They create deep valleys and gorges and the tallest rock, Mt Olga (546m) is 200m higher than Uluru.

A challenging, but rewarding, bush walk is the 7.4km Valley of the Winds loop, which gives fabulous views of the domes while winding through the gorges. For a shorter track, try the walk beneath towering rock faces to the Walpa Gorge, wonderful when lit up in the afternoon sun.