Are you planning a trip to Karijini National Park? Perhaps you’re confused about the best way to get around and see everything? Are you worried about missing out on the main sites if you’re driving not driving a 4×4?
We recently spent a full week exploring Karijini as part of our 2 year (so far) lap of Australia. We absolutely loved Karijini and we’re here to help you get the most out of your visit.
Karijini National Park is the second largest national park in Western Australia. Many visitors say it is their favourite in all of Australia. With vast Pilbara landscapes, scoured by deep red-cliffed gorges, this really is a unique landscape.
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When is the best time to visit Karijini:
The best time to visit Karijini is in the winter months between April and October. The days will still be warm, although the nights may be quite cool. The waterholes can be very cold, so be careful jumping in if you’re feeling hot after a hike!
Many roads within Karijini are closed during the summer months due to rain. There is also a danger of flash flooding in the gorges. Not to mention it will be HOT!!
Getting to Karijini:
From the coast (Exmouth) or Perth, you’ll arrive via Tom Price and Parabadoo. You can shorten the drive between Nanutarra and Tom Price by 70km if you’re happy to drive a 50km gravel road. This is a mining road, and was very well maintained while we were there.
There is another northern access point to the park from Karratha. However, you’ll need to get a permit to drive on this gravel mining road. We didn’t travel on this road so can’t comment on its condition.
From the Great Northern Highway (Port Hedland/Newman) turn off at Juna Downs along Karijini Drive. The turn-off to the Visitor Centre, campsite and various gorges are well-signposted. This road is sealed all the way.
Driving around Karijini:
Several people we’d spoken to said they avoided Karijini because of all the un-sealed gravel roads. However, it is possible to visit several of the gorges (and the main campsite) and not even leave the bitumen. Having said that, we did the 13km dirt road to the Weano/Hancock Gorge carpark, and it was one of the worst corrugated roads we’ve ever driven on! The Rangers at the Visitor Centre told us there are plans to seal all the roads within the park. To date, we aren’t sure when this is happening.
So, do you need a 4×4 to visit Karijini? The short answer is NO, so don’t let the fact that you’re driving a 2wd car stop you. We saw plenty of 2wd cars everywhere we went. We visited Karijini in October, which is the end of the season and also the end of the busy school holidays. Some of the roads were terrible, and it seemed like that hadn’t been graded for a long time. We never needed to engage 4×4. So, if you take it slowly and drive to the conditions, you should be fine.
Where to stay in Karijini National Park:
Dales is the only campground in Karijini. It is very large, with a lot of sites, all numbered. Sites are spacious and quite spread out. When you book online you can see the size of the site you are choosing. This campsite does book out quickly, so make sure you book well in advance. There is an overflow camp site, which also needs to be booked online at the DBCA website.
We stayed in the Dales Campground for 2 nights. This is the ideal spot for visiting Dales Gorge, Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool. All these sights are a short walk from the campsite.
The only facilities at the campground are drop toilets and a dump point. Neither has water, and the toilets don’t even have hand sanitiser! There’s a bucket with disinfectant/water and a big brush, so you can clean the toilet after use. There is no power available in the campsite. Two of the sections allow the use of generators between 8am and 8pm. Phone reception in the campsite is only available on the Optus network.
There are volunteer camp hosts in attendance, who check you in, and give local info about the hikes/swimming holes. The hosts were busy when we arrived and they asked us to come back after 9am to ask about the hikes. We didn’t bother going back there as we were already on the trail at 9am.
There is a resident dingo in the park who, sadly, looks very hungry. We knew not to feed him as we don’t want wildlife to become dependent on humans. I had to remind myself that dingoes always look scrawny, and that he’s not a domestic dog. I really wanted to go up and cuddle him though!
We also stayed at two free campsites located just outside the park. The first is near Mount Bruce, so it has great access to the Mount Bruce climb. This campsite is also less than 30 minutes’ drive from Joffre and Knox Gorges, and the access road to Weano and Hancock Gorges.
The other freecamp (Buddha’s Rest)is just opposite the access road to Hamersley Gorge. This campsite also has a large skip bin for your rubbish.
Both sites are very spacious and have lots of tracks leading to various places to park for the night. Neither has any facilities, so you’ll need to be self-contained. As an added bonus, there was decent Telstra signal at both free camps!
There is also accommodation available at the Karijini Eco Retreat – both campsites and cabins. There are also “glamping tents” available and these will cost you $450 in the low season and $850 per night in the high season.
Top places to see in Karijini National Park
Dales Gorge was the first gorge we visited in the park, and our first impressions were “wow”. I was struggling to figure out where the gorge would be when we first arrived. All I could see was hills in the distance. Then “bam” it just appeared out of nowhere, a big gouge in the ground. We hiked down into the gorge for a closer look.
With towering red cliffs plunging a hundred metres into the earth, this gorge is nothing if not majestical. Looking down into the gorge, we could see a variety of greenery, gum trees, spinifex grass and reeds along the edges of the water.
From the carpark a flat, paved path leads to a viewing platform over the Fortescue Falls. This is a stepped waterfalls, and one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen. The best time to photograph these falls would be late morning, to get the best sun angle.
A series of steel staircases (around 290 steps) leads down to the falls, and the large swimming hole. You can approach these stairs by heading to the right from the lookout. Getting into the pool requires climbing down over uneven rocks and some larger steps.
For an easier-to-access swimming hole, continue a couple of hundred metres along a mostly flat path to Fern Pool. This waterhole has ladder access into the pool, and a platform where you can sit and relax before or after your swim.
This pool is sacred to the indigenous Banjima people. There are sign boards explaining their rituals and lore around the pool. They ask that visitors use the pool respectfully, not jump or dive into the pool, and not to climb up on the waterfall.
The pool gets it’s name from the fern-lined rock ledge behind the waterfall. You can swam over to the waterfall and sat on the ledge behind it for a unique view.
The signs also warn that the water is very cold (especially between April and September). We swam here on 8 October and wouldn’t consider the water cold at all. It was quite pleasant. I hate the cold, so would have certainly been complaining if it was!
Both pools were crowded when we visited, although it was a Saturday on the last weekend of school holidays.
Karijini Visitor Centre
On our second full day in the park, we visited the Visitor Centre in the morning. The Karijini Visitor Centre has a lot of information about the park. They can also help book campsites, and have snacks/ice and drinks for sale. The volunteers are very helpful with their knowledge of the park. They did advise us not to take the “short-cut” gravel road to Joffre and Weano gorges. Apparently the condition of this road can be very bad. I’m sure we didn’t lose any time heading back along the sealed road.
From the carpark there is a short walk down to a viewing platform which looks over the Joffre Gorge waterfall. The waterfall wasn’t really running when we visited in early October. However, down the gorge there was a significant amount of water. We could hear water trickling, so figured it must have been coming from underground.
There is a walking path that leads across the top of the waterfall to the other side of Joffre Gorge. This path then leads down into the bottom of the gorge via a series of ladders (with handrails). You can then turn right and wade through thigh deep water to the amphitheatre at the bottom of the waterfall.
If you’re really adventurous, you can head downstream. After climbing through a narrow cleft in the gorge, you’ll arrive at a large, deep pool. From here we swam, or climbed along the ledges for a couple of hundred metres. This was an amazing adventure, that I surprised myself doing, given my fear of deep, dark water.
We turned back before reaching the end of the long pool. We could see a series of trees signifying the the end of the gorge in about 100m. Return to the top of the gorge along the same way. You can then walk to the Gorge viewpoint along the western rim of the gorge. The trail here continues to the Karijini Eco Resort.
One of our Instagram friends had told us Knox Gorge was her favourite gorge in the park. It was definitely a highlight for us too. From the Joffre Gorge carpark, drive down a 4.5km dirt road. This road was corrugated but not too bad.
From the carpark there is a short 300m walk down to a lookout. Unfortunately the platform has been closed off due to heavy rain causing slips underneath.
We chose to do the hike down into Knox Gorge, which is a Class 5 Difficult hike. The path down is very loose, shaly rock, and quite uneven. Some of the “steps” are quite steep, and I needed to butt-scoot down a few. I definitely required hand-holds in a few places, just be careful as the rocks can get hot!
Once at the bottom it’s a fairly easy walk down the gorge, crossing over the creek a couple of times. Our favourite section required traversing around the gorge wall.
The path ends at a pool which was amazingly clear, and perfect for a swim. We were lucky enough to have the pool to ourselves for a short while, which was wonderful. The gorge walls rise up majestically around the pool, and if you’re there early in the morning, you’ll see the morning sun lighting up the cliff walls beautifully. Once the sun appears into the gorge, photography becomes more difficult as the gorge is so narrow.
The sign-boards say to allow 3 hours for this 2km hike, however we did it in 2.5, even including a swim and relaxing at the pool.
We only had an afternoon at the Weano Recreation Area and needed to decide between Hancock and Weano Gorges. We chose to hike down into Hancock Gorge and visit Kermit’s Pool. The “Recreation Area” has picnic tables, along with shade sails which are very welcome!
Before heading down into the gorges, you should visit Oxer Lookout. You can walk the 800m to the lookout, or, drive down to the small carpark right at the lookout. This platform was also closed off due to land slips when we visited.
The hike down into Hancock Gorge is very steep (Class 5) although it’s not loose rocks like Knox Gorge, just uneven. To get to Kermit’s pool, you will be required to walk through water at several stages. The first pool was knee deep and the second was around chest deep.
The Amphitheatre is one of the most beautiful places we’d seen. If you are agile, you can squeeze down a little opening to continue to Kermit’s Pool. We chose to “spider climb” with hands and feet on opposite sides of the walls, but some kids who followed us, slid down on their bottoms.
Kermit’s pool is a beautiful oasis. The water was quite cold due to the depth of the pool, and there not being much sun hitting the water. We almost felt like we were sitting in a cave. We spent quite a bit of time here, just reflecting on the beauty of the place.
Hamersley Gorge is a little out of the way, and necessitated driving 50km along a dirt road. This road, however, is used by mining vehicles, so is much better maintained than the roads within the park. However, the last 2km is a park road, and very corrugated, so the going was slow!
Of all the gorges, Hamersley Gorge was probably the most accessible, with just a short 200m walk down into the gorge to have a swim. There are quite a few swimming spots, the most popular of which is a small spa pool accessible by climbing over rocks – make sure you have grippy water shoes or runners on if going to this pool. We loved it and visited a couple of times.
Heading downstream, you can swim for a couple of hundred metres down a gorge maybe 5 metres wide. There is a rock in the middle of the water a hundred metres down, which is a good spot to rest (or turn around, as we did).
What we really loved about this gorge is the variety of colours in the rocks and seeing how the forces of nature have warped and folded the rock. Whereas the other gorges the layers of rocks were all quite horizontal, in Hamersley they are curved like rolling waves.
Mount Bruce Hike
Mount Bruce is the second highest mountain in Western Australia, at 1,234m. This 9km hike is graded as Class 5 – difficult. This is not only for the length of the hike, but also for some technical climbing sections, and even a chain to get around a slightly exposed cliff.
The trail begins as a well formed, gently sloping Class 3 hike up to the Mandaroo Mine lookout. Why someone would want to hike to look out over an open cut mine is beyond me. We giggled at someone who had grafittied “mine site” out of the sign and replaced it with “eye sore”. It was definitely an eye sore, and unfortunately, one that was visible for most of the hike. Just look left as you’re hiking up and focus on the beautiful nature views!
Continuing up the hill, the trail becomes steeper and there are more loose rocks. A section of uneven steps had us reaching for handholds. We arrived at the peak of the first hill before heading downhill slightly to the next section. Other hikers had warned us that this hike is a series of peaks, and we knew we were nowhere near the top yet!
Looking ahead to the visible massif of Mt Bruce is a bit daunting, as is looking at the rocky band we somehow had to negotiate to get to the next summit was even more so.
Clambering over perfectly square red boulders we kept stopping to admire the views over the surrounding country. Other than one road there was no signs of human habitation (so long as we didn’t look out to the right at the mine!)
The technical section
After climbing over a few large boulders and along an exposed edge, we came across a chain bolted into the cliff-face. This looked more serious than it actual was, as the ledge was quite wide, and the chain not really necessary.
However, rounding the corner after the chain we came to the one short technical section of the climb. I knew I would need both hands to climb up this section. With plenty of good handholds, it wasn’t that difficult, even though it looks crazy.
We then headed slightly downhill along an exposed rocky ridge, where the wind was howling up from the south. From here the wind dropped as we headed up the south face of the final push to the summit. This trail was steep in parts, and sometimes loose and rocky, but basically a steady climb until we popped up over a rise and saw the summit cairn ahead of us. We had made it!
One of the things we noticed on the way down that we hadn’t earlier, was the carpet of purple mulla mulla flowers on the south side of the hill just near the bottom. There was also evidence of the fire that had raged through her in 2014.
This was a great hike, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The terrain was varied enough for it to never really feel like a slog. The hike took us 5 ½ hours, which included a snack stop at the top, and multiple photo stops on the way. A younger, fitter person might do it in 3-4 hours.
You can watch our Mount Bruce climb video HERE
Overall, we absolutely loved Karijini National Park. From the beautiful gorges, the red cliff scenery, the fabulous camping to the vast sweeping Pilbara views. We would definitely recommend spending a good few days here. We spent a week here, and left satisfied we’d seen everything we wanted to.