When you picture Australia's Northern Territory, iconic landscapes like Uluru, Kakadu, and Kings Canyon probably come to mind. Unlike the East Coast, this sparsely populated region is known more for its parks and reserves than its cities and beaches, from the impressive waterfalls of the Top End to the striking rock formations of the Red Centre.
The ideal time to visit many of the parks is in the cooler months, from May to September. Many are also best visited with a guide who can explain the rich history of the country, especially in areas with cultural significance to local Aboriginal peoples.
With so many to choose from, we put together this guide to the best parks of the Northern Territory to help you get the most out of your trip.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Australia's most famous national park is found on the traditional lands of the Anangu people, a 5-hour drive southwest of Alice Springs. You can also fly into Uluru Airport in Yulara, the closest town to the rock.
Uluru is sacred to Anangu people, and for this reason climbing is no longer permitted. Instead, visitors can walk around the base of the rock or take a ranger-guided tour to learn more about the culture and history of the area.
Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is a cluster of ochre-colored rock domes located a 40-minute drive west of Uluru. Here you can hike through the domes on the magnificent Valley of the Winds Walk, keeping in mind that they are also sacred to Anangu.
Watarrka National Park, known for the dramatic red cliffs of Kings Canyon, is located southwest of Alice Springs, and can be included in your road trip to Uluru or visited as a destination by itself.
The 3.7-mile Rim Walk provides the best vantage point over the canyon and the surrounding sand dunes, but the park can be experienced via scenic flight or guided tour as well. Accommodation is available at Kings Creek Station and Kings Canyon Resort.
Another unmissable destination in the Territory, Kakadu is located a 3-hour drive east of Darwin on the lands of the Bininj/Mungguy people. In Australia's tropical north, this park is a haven for wildlife and is packed with waterfalls, rainforests, wetlands, and ancient rock art sites to visit, with panoramas you might recognize from iconic Aussie films like "Crocodile Dundee."
Covering an area larger than the state of Connecticut, Kakadu requires at least a couple of days out of your itinerary. There are plenty of guided tours available from Darwin or Jabiru, as well as accommodations located inside the park.
Just over an hour's drive from Darwin, Litchfield makes a great day trip from the city or from nearby Katherine. It is best known for its waterfalls, many of which are open for swimming, and the pretty hiking trails that wind their way along the creeks. You'll find enormous termite mounds and a group of sandstone pillars known as the Lost City in the park, too.
Make sure to check the park website for safety updates and follow any signs, as certain swimming areas can be closed due to crocodile sightings. Camping is permitted at Wangi and Florence Falls, as well as other more remote sites.
If you're on a tight schedule, Alice Springs Desert Park is easily accessible from town and has plenty of presentations and activities throughout the day. The park is home to dingoes, bilbies, kangaroos, emus, and dozens of native reptiles and birds.
Visitors can learn about the culture of the Arrernte people, including types of native bush foods and their religious beliefs. There is plenty of information about endangered animals and the geological history of the region as well. Entry costs AU$37 for adults and $18.50 for kids. There is an on-site café, plus picnic facilities.
A sunrise or sunset cruise of Nitmiluk Gorge is one of the Territory's unmissable experiences. Nitmiluk National Park is located just under an hour's drive from Katherine, on the lands of the Jawoyn people. Keep an eye out for paintings on the walls of the gorge system—you may be able to spot ancient rock art.
In the park, you'll find 13 gorges, with plenty of space for hiking, canoeing, and swimming. The Windolf Walk offers unbeatable views and is a great option for adventurous visitors. Nitmiluk is also a popular destination for scenic flights.
Palm Valley is the main attraction in Finke Gorge National Park due to the healthy numbers of rare red cabbage palm that can only be found here. The Finke River, which runs through the park, is thought to be around 350 million years old, making it one of the oldest rivers in the world.
The park is culturally significant to the Western Arrernte people and holds many important sites. Camping is permitted in designated areas, and there are signposted trails through the palms and up to the Kalarranga Lookout. Finke Gorge National Park is accessible only by four-wheel drive, but there are plenty of tours available from Alice Springs.
Whether you're hiking the Larapinta Trail or taking a day trip to Ellery Creek Big Hole, Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park is an essential stop for visitors to Australia's Red Centre. The traditional owners of Tjoritja, the Arrernte people, have a strong connection to this land, which can be seen at sites like the Ochre Pits.
The park is an ideal spot for hiking, birdwatching, and four-wheel driving. Camping is permitted at Ellery Big Hole, Redbank Gorge, and Ormiston Gorge, while accommodation is available at Standley Chasm.
For a refreshing pit stop during your Outback road trip, look no further than Elsey National Park near Mataranka. Here there are a range of swimming pools to enjoy, fed by the local hot springs.
At Mataranka Thermal Pool, Bitter Springs, and Rainbow Springs, the water temperature hovers around 90 degrees and the pools are shaded by cabbage palms and pandanus. During the summer, the unheated Stevie’s Hole on the Waterhouse River may be a more refreshing choice. The park is also popular with locals for fishing, walking, and boating.
Not far outside Darwin, you'll find wallabies, buffalos, bandicoots, and echidnas at Territory Wildlife Park. With three main habitats (wetland, monsoon vine forest, and woodland) spread out over a large area, the park reflects the diverse landscapes of the Northern Territory and gives visitors a taste of the wild tropical north.
A free shuttle train allows for easy access to each of the exhibits, and daily animal presentations offer up-close encounters at an extra cost. Entry is AU$37 for adults and $18.50 for children.
Known as Karlu Karlu to the traditional owners—the Kaytete, Warumungu, Warlpiri, and Alyawarra peoples—these huge granite boulders south of Tennant Creek are a sacred site. Like many of the other rock formations in the Territory, they are best observed at sunrise or sunset to make the most of their changing colors.
The boulders offer shelter to animals like black-headed goannas and zebra finches, making this reserve an excellent wildlife watching spot. There are areas for camping and walking, and interpretative signage gives a fascinating account of the rocks' significance in local Aboriginal cultures.
On Darwin's northern fringes, this nature reserve offers beachside views for picnickers, walkers, and cyclists. The land is culturally significant to the Larrakia people, with Darriba Nunggalinya, or Old Man Rock, visible at low tide. Ruins from Australia's northern defenses during World War II can also be seen throughout the reserve.
Biking trails along the coast connect the reserve with the city, and there are barbecues and picnic areas available for public use. As with most beaches in the Territory, visitors should make sure to check signage before entering the water, as box jellyfish are common here during the wet season.
This remote park on the fringes of Arnhem Land is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Territory. Although swimming is not permitted due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles, there are lots of opportunities for walking, camping, birdwatching, fishing, and simply taking in the views.
Visit Black Point Cultural Centre for historical information, or take a boat tour out to the ruins of a failed British settlement from the 1830s. Road access is usually only possible during the dry season and a permit is required. Booking in advance is recommended, especially in the school vacation period.
This is one of the Territory's lesser known parks, but well worth a visit if you're driving south from Alice Springs. With landscapes reminiscent of Monument Valley, Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve is at its most magical at sunrise and sunset, when the sandstone rocks glow red and purple. During spring, you may even see some of the wildflowers that are native to the region.
This area is known to the Upper Southern Arrernte people as Wurre and covers significant archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation. Camping is permitted and there are signposted walking trails.