Are you looking for the ultimate travel guide to Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park? One that goes beyond a simple day trip? If so, you’re in the right place.
Located around 300km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, and at a convenient junction of the main road to Western Australia, Katherine is an ideal place to stop for a few days to discover what this unique part of northern Australia is really like.
From the stunning Katherine Gorge to the lesser visited upper falls at Edith Falls (Leliyn) to the best Aboriginal Cultural Experience, we’ve seen it all. In this ultimate guide to Katherine Gorge, we let you know the best things to do in Katherine, where to eat, play and stay.
We have visited Katherine three times in the last three years. On a budget trip in our campervan, and twice with a hire car and staying at nicer accommodation. Each time we’ve discovered something new and amazing about this great region of the Northern Territory.
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Getting to Katherine
Katherine is located around 3 hours from Darwin. Although there is an airport here, most people will arrive by car, usually as part of a bigger Top End road trip, or on a trip between Alice Springs and Darwin. Katherine is at the junction of the Stuart Highway, the main north-south highway up the centre of Australia, and the Victoria Highway which takes you west into WA.
So whether you’re coming from the north, south or west, Katherine is an ideal stop. Katherine is a larger town and has many of the services you would need. There’s a supermarket here, somewhere to get repairs done to your car, we even got some parts for my mountain bike that we needed.
Where is Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk is the name of Katherine Gorge in the indigenous Jawoyn language. It means Place of Cicadas, and you will certainly hear plenty of them. The park covers almost 3,000 square kilometres.
The park was originally named Katherine Gorge National Park, and in 1989 was one of the first parks to be returned to traditional ownership. It is now jointly managed by the traditional owners and NT Parks. At this time it was renamed Nitmiluk National Park.
The park encompasses the 13 gorges of the Katherine River, and also the area known as Leliyn or Edith Falls, which is to the north of Katherine.
Getting around Nitmiluk National Park
In this ultimate guide to Katherine Gorge we will take you to both the Katherine Gorge section and Edith Falls. Access to both parts of Nitmiluk National Park is on sealed roads, so you won’t require a 4×4 vehicle.
When is the best time to visit Nitmiluk National Park?
The best time to visit Katherine Gorge is in the cooler winter months between June and September. Much of the river system is closed to visitors during the wet season, and we certainly noticed the difference in water levels when we visited in March 2023.
If you’re planning on hiking in Katherine Gorge it can get very hot and temperatures up on the escarpment can be 10 degrees warmer than by the river. Even in August it was very hot hiking along to Pat’s Lookout and Jedda Rock.
Accommodation guide to Katherine Gorge – Where to stay in Katherine
As a large town, there are plenty of options for accommodation in Katherine. You’ll find motels, caravan parks, national park campsites and even a free camp for self-contained campervans.
On our most recent visit we stayed at the Cicada Lodge, a brand new luxury boutique lodge with just 18 units. This lodge is located right by the visitor centre of Katherine Gorge, so about 30km north of the town. Your room rate includes welcome drink and canapes, and a delicious hot breakfast. The food here is some of the best we’ve ever eaten.
If you’re interested in camping at Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk Tours operates a campsite right near the visitor centre. You can book online here. There is also a campground at Edith Falls (Leliyn) which you can book on the Parks NT website.
We stayed for a couple of nights at Edith Falls, and it was definitely nice to be able to walk to the swimming hole to cool off. We suggest you book online before you arrive as phone/internet reception isn’t great at the parks.
The closest free camp is at the junction of the Stuart Highway and the road to Leliyn (Edith Falls). You’ll find this camp on WikiCamps called Edith Rail Camp Ground. There are no facilities here so remember to Leave No Trace.
The best things to do in Katherine Gorge Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk Visitors Centre
On arriving at the Nitmiluk National Park you’ll find a huge carpark near the visitors centre. You can get maps and information here, learn about the flora and fauna in the park and more about the Jawoyn culture and stories relating to the park.
There is also a kiosk and toilets here. When we visited in 2022 we watched an Aboriginal man creating some beautiful works of art.
Katherine Gorge Cruise
One of the best ways to see Katherine Gorge and the river system is from the water. Nitmiluk Tours operate the 2 hour Nit Nit 2 gorge boat tours from just near the Visitor Centre. There are actually 13 separate “gorges” in the river, and the cruise will visit the first and second. In between you will need to walk along a formed path to join another boat in the second gorge.
Along the way, the Jawoyn guide will tell you all about the geology of the gorge, and how it features in so many of their creation stories. We learnt a lot on this cruise, especially about the process of the Jawoyn gaining joint administration of the park back in the 1980s.
Canoeing on Katherine Gorge
If you’re a bit more adventurous you might like to go canoeing at Katherine Gorge. Nitmiluk Tours rents canoes in the second gorge. We did the half day Malappar Traveller trip. First you take the cruise boat to the end of the first gorge, then grab your canoe and safety equipment.
You have the canoe for around 2 hours, which is just enough time to canoe through the second and third gorges, with a couple of quick swim stops. You will need to carry your canoe around 100m over rocks between the second and third gorges.
We did the canoe tour in September 2021, and really enjoyed seeing further up the gorge.
Scenic flights over Katherine Gorge
Katherine Helicopters offer scenic helicopter flights over the Nitmiluk National Park. We haven’t done one recently, but I (Sue) did a scenic flight here on my first trip to the NT in 1996. It’s a spectacular place to fly.
Top Didj Aboriginal Art and Cultural Experience
The Top Didj Aboriginal Cultural Experience is run by Manuel Pamkal, a Dalabon man from the area to the north of Nitmiluk National Park. This is one of our favourite things we have done in the Northern Territory.
Manuel tells his story of growing up on country, living off the land, and when he first saw white people at the age of 6. Manuel is an extraordinary artist and story-teller. You will learn how to paint in the local style (which involves lines, not dots like in Central Australia), and create your own artwork.
We then learned how to start a fire with sticks (which Nigel managed) and how to throw a spear using the woomera. Nigel also managed to spear the “kangaroo” target.
Manuel is an extremely open person, and answered any questions we had. We left feeling like we had met a new friend. Manuel is also quite the personality on TikTok apparently!
Katherine Hot Springs
These hot springs are located right in the main town of Katherine. Although they aren’t exactly hot (well, at least not when the ambient temperature is in the mid-30s), it’s definitely a great spot to go for a soak after a big day hiking in the gorge.
Leliyn (Edith Falls)
Edith Falls is located 60km north of Katherine. Head north for 40km then turn right and continue 20km until you arrive at a large carpark. You’ll find a kiosk here and the campground. As a bonus, there are free HOT showers here.
Edith Falls is known for it’s beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes. The main waterhole is located right at the carpark, and is HUGE. This is a great place to chill out – there is a beautiful lawn here to relax on, even if you’re not staying in the campground.
Hiking guide to Katherine Gorge – Nitmiluk Walks
There are hundreds of kilometres of walking trails in Nitmiluk National Park, including the 5 day Jatbula Trail which departs the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and walks along the Katherine River finishing at Leliyn (Edith Falls). This amazing hike is still on our to-do list.
We enjoyed a full day of hiking in Nitmiluk where we did a 15km loop trail taking us down into the Butterfly Gorge, and back up and along the escarpment passing Jedda’s Rock and Pat’s Lookout. This walk was long and hot but absolutely spectacular. It’s definitely worth climbing up the escarpment to view the gorge from above.
You can watch our video of this hike here.
If you don’t feel up to a 15km walk, we recommend the Baruwei lookout trail, which is a 1.8km out and back trail. This trail leaves from the Visitor Centre, heads upstream before climbing to the lookout on a series of steep stairs.
At the lookout you will have views along the gorge in both directions. There is also a signboard here telling the creation story of the Nitmiluk Gorge.
Hiking at Edith Falls
There are several hiking trails around Edith Falls, and this marks the end of the Jatbula Trail.
One of our favourite hikes in the NT is the hike up to the Upper Falls at Leliyn. This is a 3km out and back trail which begins with a steep 500m uphill climb, with fairly uneven steps. Don’t forget to look back at the views.
Once you arrive at the top there is a 70m detour to a lookout over the river, and then you can continue to the falls. There is a large swimming hole here, and you can make your way over the rocks to swim under the waterfall. We absolutely loved this.
After a swim, cross the rocks and continue up the path to the Bemang lookout, for views down over both the upper and lower waterfalls. Bemang is the Jawoyn word for Frill-necked Lizard who is a spirit ancestor the Jawoyn believe carved out the gorge here.
The trail then heads down a series of steep switch backs, where you can see the green line of trees lining the river. You’ll begin to hear the birds, and there is prolific bird life in this area. Crossing a small bridge, you will arrive back at the carpark.
Optional Long Hole Extension.
The trail continues past the upper falls to Long Hole and Sweetwater pool. We took the 3km return out and back to the Long Hole and found another beautiful spot for a swim. There were way less people here (we even had it to ourselves for a while).
NOTE: At both the upper falls and Long Hole falls we encountered what can only be described as “wiggly things” on the wall of the waterfall. We never managed to find out what they are, even asking several rangers. They seem harmless, but really grossed us out. If you want a laugh, check out our video of the area to see Sue squirming at them!
Essential information – Tips for visiting Nitmiluk National Park
NT National Park Pass
Visitors to Nitmiluk National Park require a valid Parks NT pass, which you can buy online. (NT residents are exempt). This pass covers entry to both Katherine Gorge and Leliyn sections of Nitmiluk.
Phone and Internet reception is unreliable in the park. You may get a signal at the Visitor Centre at Katherine Gorge, and there is wifi at the kiosk in Leliyn. In peak times these become overloaded so don’t rely on having connection within Nitmiluk.
In the town of Katherine, both Phone and Internet connection is fine, and there is free wifi at the Tourist Information Centre.
Food and Water
There are kiosks at both Katherine Gorge and Leliyn where you can buy lunch or morning tea and drinks. Within Katherine you will find a supermarket, along with restaurants and fast food places.
If you need to fill your campervan/caravan water tanks, the self-serve Shell just to the north of town has a water tap. We filled up here several times in 2022 and the water was fine.
Closest fuel is in Katherine, check with the Fuel Map or Petrol Spy apps for the cheapest fuel on the day.
As with all national parks in the NT, you’ll need to leave your pets at home.
How many days do you need at Katherine Gorge?
We would suggest 2-3 days will allow you to see the main sights around Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine. While many visitors only spend 1 night, spending 3 would allow you to visit Edith Falls Leliyn on one day, do a boat cruise or canoe trip and visit Top Didj another day, and have a full day for hiking in Katherine Gorge.
Can I swim in Katherine Gorge?
Swimming is permitted in certain parts of the river, mainly in the second and third gorges. The South Waterhole is another popular spot for swimming. The waterholes may be closed early in the season if the water levels are high, or at times if crocodiles have been spotted.
Are there crocodiles in Katherine Gorge?
Yes! As you will learn on the Nitmiluk Tours Gorge tour, there are many freshwater crocodiles in the gorge system. These crocodiles are generally timid and not a threat to humans, unless they feel threatened.
At the end of the wet season, park rangers check for any estuarine “saltwater” crocodiles and they will be removed. Remember to be “crocwise” and look out for all signage.
Do you need a 4wd for Nitmiluk National Park?
No, the roads to both Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls (Leliyn) are sealed all the way.
Where to next?
If you’re heading north, you’ll definitely want to check out Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park on your way to Darwin. South leads you to the Red Centre, home to Kings Canyon and Uluru.
Heading west? Check out our Darwin to Broome Road Trip Itinerary.