If you’re planning a visit to the Northern Territory you really want to go beyond Darwin and check out the Top End. The best way to visit this beautiful natural playground is on a Top End Road Trip.
The “Top End” is what locals call the tropical north of the Northern Territory. The Top End spreads north from around Katherine to Darwin and across to Arnhem land. This magnificent part of Australia contains three of the best national parks in the country, Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield.
We have visited the Top End three times in the last three years, both in our own campervan and also in a hire car, staying at local accommodation. In this post, you’ll find all the best tips for where to go, what to see and do and where to stay on your Top End Road Trip.
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When is the best time to visit the Top End?
The Top End has a tropical climate, with two distinct seasons. The winter is known as the Dry season and runs from May to October. This season is characterised by warm sunny days and cooler nights. Daytime temperatures in the dry season average 32 degrees celsius, and the nights drop to around 24C so you definitely won’t need your winter woollies here!
The summer, “green” or wet season runs from November to April. The summer temperatures aren’t much different, but the humidity is a lot higher – often over 80%. There are frequent tropical storms in the afternoons.
You may find some roads and attractions (especially waterholes) closed during the wet season. While this isn’t the most popular time for tourists, if you visit during the “green” season, you’ll see the waterfalls in their full glory. This is when the Top End really comes alive!
Getting to Darwin
Darwin is the gateway to the top end, and you can fly into Darwin from many Australian cities and also Singapore, Bali, and several other nearby international destinations.
If you’re driving, the main road to the Top End is the Stuart Highway. This is the main north – south arterial road in the centre of Australia. This road leads all the way from Adelaide.
From Western Australia you can cross into the NT near Kunnunurra and head to Katherine and then drive north.
If you’re coming from Queensland, take the Barkly Highway from Mt Isa to the “three ways” near Tennant Creek and then turn north up the Stuart Highway.
Click on Map image to open in Google Maps
Getting around the Top End
The Top End is perfect for a Road Trip. The roads through the National Parks are sealed, so even if you’re travelling with a 2wd vehicle you can see most of the attractions. This route is known as the “Nature’s Way”.
If you have flown into Darwin you can hire a vehicle from the airport for your Top End Road Trip.
Where to stay on a Top End Road Trip
You will find accommodation for all budgets in the Northern Territory. The National Parks have some great camping sites, there are caravan parks with powered sites and cabins, and you’ll also find a great range of luxury accommodation, including resorts and glamping safari tents.
The National Park campsites need to be booked online, and internet isn’t always reliable once you’re in the park. Make sure you book these campsites while you are still in Darwin, Katherine or Jabiru.
We will give suggestions for accommodation as we discuss each National Park or location.
Must-see places on a Top End Road Trip
Darwin is the natural jumping off point for your Top End Road Trip, especially if you have flown in and hired a car or campervan. If you’re driving from the south, you will probably visit Darwin last, after seeing the National Parks.
Darwin is a vibrant city which is unlike any of the other Australian state capitals. A smaller city with a population of only 120,000 people, Darwin’s culture has been shaped by the many migrant communities that have come here, particularly those from Asia.
One of our favourite things about Darwin is all the street art. More is added each year as part of the Darwin Street Art Festival. We love jumping on the electric scooters or bikes and checking out the newest art.
There is certainly an exciting “vibe” to Darwin, and no matter when you visit, it feels like there’s always something going on. There are many festivals during the winter months, this is when Darwin really comes alive. We love the café/bar scene in Darwin, and each time we visit we find more new places popping up. Check out:
One of our favourite experiences in Darwin was the Darwin Sunset Champagne cruise with Sail Darwin. We sailed around the harbour on a beautiful catamaran with canapes and unlimited champagne.
Sunsets in Darwin are legendary, as you can watch the sun set into the ocean. One of the best places to watch the sunset is at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (open Thursdays and Sundays from April to September). Locals and tourists alike come for the great food trucks, and take their food down onto the beach to watch the sunset. We were surprised at people clapping when the sun disappeared.
Speaking of markets don’t miss Parap Market on a Saturday morning. This local market is famous for one of its stall holders, Mary, who has been serving up Laksa, a spicy Malaysian noodle soup for over 20 years.
Darwin has an interesting history, being flattened by Japanese bombs during WW2, and again by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1975. The city has been rebuilt since the cyclone, so it really appears quite a new city.
You’ll find some great museums in Darwin, featuring Indigineous culture and history, and more recent history. Some of our favourites include:
- Museum and Art Gallery of the NT
- Darwin Military Museum
- Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility
Look for more things to do in Darwin here.
Where to stay in Darwin
The Mindil Beach Casino Resort is one of our favourite places to stay in Darwin. The luxury suites have direct access to the pool from your private deck. From there its a short swim over to the swim-up cocktail bar. The Italian restaurant “Il Piatto” serves up excellent authentic Italian food. Bellissimo!
The Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront is conveniently locate near the waterfront precinct with its wave pool, and many good bars and restaurants. You can take an elevator and foot bridge across to the city centre. We had excellent service from this hotel when our flight was cancelled meaning we had to spend an extra night in Darwin.
There are many Caravan Parks around Darwin, from Big 4 to Discovery Parks, however, one of the most popular is the independent Darwin Freespirit Resort.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is one of the largest National Parks in Australia, almost 20,000km2. This area is home to the oldest living culture in the world – the indigenous Bininj and Mungguy people have been living here for 65,000 years.
Kakadu is one of the few places in the world to have dual World Heritage listing – for both cultural and natural significance. The Aboriginal culture is very much on display in Kakadu – the park has some of the best indigenous rock art in the country.
Don’t miss the Ubirr Rock site or Burrungkuy (Nourlangie Rock).
Wildlife lovers will be in heaven in Kakadu. You’ll find over a third of all the bird species in Australia here in Kakadu – 280 different birds call this park home.
One of the best places to see the prolific bird life in Kakadu is on the Yellow Water Cruise. The Yellow Water cruise departs from Cooinda. The best time to do this cruise is at sunrise or sunset, as the wildlife will be more active.
We did this cruise in the wet season and saw lots of birds, but friends who have done it in the dry season also saw buffalo and crocodiles.
The best place to see crocodiles in Kakadu is at Cahill’s crossing. Last time we visited they were building a new viewing platform. Cahill’s crossing goes over the East Aligator River, and you’re almost always guaranteed to see many large crocodiles waiting at the crossing. When the tide comes in washing water over the crossing, they sit with mouth’s open, catching fish.
Kakadu is known for it’s stunning natural beauty. From the wetlands in the north to the stone country in the south of the park, Kakadu is somewhere to take your time. You’ll love hiking in Kakadu amongst the escarpments or out to waterfalls.
NOTE: Visitors to Kakadu require a valid Kakadu Visitors Pass which you can buy online or at one of the Kakadu Visitor Centres near Jabiru or Cooinda.
Swimming in Kakadu
There are several waterholes where you can swim in Kakadu. Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) is probably the most popular and easily accessible.
If you have a capable 4×4 vehicle, head out to Jim Jim falls. There is a nice swimming hole here although the waterfall may not be much more than a trickle, depending on the time of year you visit.
NOTE: Gunlom Falls was once one of the more popular waterholes in Kakadu, but this area has been closed for several years now.
Hiking in Kakadu
There are many hikes in Kakadu, suitable for all fitness levels and capabilities. Drop into the visitors centre at either Bowali (near Jabiru) or Warradjan (near Cooinda) and grab a printed hiking guide for whichever region interests you most.
Some of our favourite hikes in Kakadu include:
Where to stay in Kakadu
There are two main settlements in Kakadu, the “town” of Jabiru, and Cooinda. Both have a variety of accommodation including lodge/cabin style, caravan and camping sites. Cooinda Lodge also has glamping Safari tents. When we stayed here in March 2023, they were building new Safari tents with ensuite bathrooms.
There are several National Park campsites in Kakadu, from bush camps with just a long-drop toilet, to hosted campsites with shower and other facilities too. Payment for the bush camps is on an honesty system, you’ll find a Park Fees box conveniently located in the campsite.
At a hosted campsite, the host will come by and collect your fees in the evening or early morning – just make sure you carry cash! Rangers do patrol to check payments.
NOTE: Other than the Mardukal campsite, alcohol is not permitted in any of the Kakadu Parks campsite.Check out our full Kakadu Travel Guide
Katherine is the main large town you will encounter as you drive south from Darwin towards Alice Springs. With an estimated population of 10,000 people, Katherine is a hub for the Nitmiluk National Park and for travellers heading further afield.
You will find all the usual services here, a good supermarket, fuel stops, and you can fill your water tanks if you’re travelling with a campervan or caravan. Katherine is the gateway to the Nitmiluk National Park.
On the way out to Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, stop off at the Top Didj Art Centre and attend an Indigenous culture workshop with Manuel Pamkal. We loved the painting workshop, and Nigel even started a fire with just sticks!
The Katherine Hot Springs is a great place to relax and soak after a big hike – the springs are not really that hot though.
Nitmiluk National Park
There are two sections of this park – Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge and Leliyn (Edith Falls). Katherine Gorge is located 30km north of Katherine town on a sealed road. Leliyn is located 40km north of Katherine along the Stuart Highway, and then 20km down the Edith Falls road (sealed road)
Katherine Gorge is one of the most spectacular gorge systems in the country, with it’s red cliffs towering above the Katherine River. This gorge is best seen from the water. Nitmiluk Tours offers boat cruises through the gorge system, and they also hire canoes in the dry season. We have done both, and we especially loved pulling the canoe up to a little beach and having a swim.
Katherine Gorge is great place for hiking, though most of the walks her involve climbing steps or steep hills to get to the lookouts above the gorge. It’s definitely worth it for the views, but be sure to leave early in the warmer months, and carry plenty of water.
Leliyn (Edith Falls) is a beautiful place to stop for a few days to relax. There is a large swimming hole at the base of the falls and a convenient camp ground right here. You can hike to the upper falls for another great place to swim too.
Really keen experienced hikers may like to walk the Jatbula trail, a 62km one way trail between Nitmiluk and Leliyn. This trail is suitable for experienced hikers, and is open from June to September each year.
Where to stay in Katherine
In addition to the wide range of accommodation in Katherine town, there is accommodation at Nitmiluk Gorge. You’ll find a campsite here, and also the beautiful Cicada Lodge, a boutique accommodation with just 18 cabins, a swimming pool, and an excellent restaurant.
There is a National Park campsite at Leliyn with good facilities and a kiosk. We stayed a couple of nights here, but we actually preferred the free camp right at the turn off to Leliyn as there was no internet access at the NP Campsite.
NOTE: All visitors to Nitmiluk National Park require a NT Parks pass (NT residents excepted)Check out our full Katherine Gorge – Nitmiluk National Park Guide
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield is one of the most popular National Parks in the Northern Territory. It’s close enough to Darwin to do on a (long) day trip, but we really recommend spending a couple of days in this park to fully enjoy it.
If you do this Top End Road Trip in a clockwise direction, Litchfield will be at the end, making it a great place to relax after all your activity in Kakadu and Nitmiluk. That’s not to say there’s not a load of activities in Litchfield. There is actually a lot to do in this park too!
Waterfalls in Litchfield
Litchfield is known for its waterfalls and swimming holes. Some of the best waterfalls in Litchfield National Park are:
- Florence Falls
- Buley Rockholes (not technically a waterfall, but a great place to swim)
- Wangi Falls
- Tolmer Falls (viewing only, there is no access or swimming allowed at this waterfall)
- Tjaetaba Falls
- The Cascades
Hiking in Litchfield National Park
Litchfield is home to some wonderful short hikes, and what makes them even better is that there is usually a swimming opportunity. Some of the best walks in Litchfield National Park are:
- The Upper and Lower Cascades Hike
- Greenant Creek to Tjaetaba Falls
- Wangi Falls circuit
Giant Termite Mounds
Driving into Litchfield from the south, you will pass the Giant Termite Mounds. This short stop-off is well worth getting out of the car and having a look. We’ve seen some pretty big termite mounds on our trip around Australia but these were the largest. These giant mounds are called Cathedral mounds and stand up to 4m tall.
You’ll also see the Magnetic Termite Mounds here – where the termites build tall, thin mounds oriented with their flat sides to the East West. This helps regulate the temperature inside the mounds. We thought they looked like sentinals, or even gravestones, all standing on the plain.
The Lost City
If you have a 4×4 vehicle you can drive out to the Lost City. This collection of stone pillars and piles that have been weathered over time resembles a ruined city. We rode our bikes out there. The road was corrugated but not too bad. It’s really only the last couple of kilometres that require 4×4.
Where to stay in Litchfield
You will find National Park campsites at Florence Falls and Wangi Falls which are accessible with all vehicles. There are also campsites at Walker Creek, Central Valley, Surprise Creek and Tjaenara Falls though you may need a 4wd to access these.
The campsites at Florence Falls and Wangi Falls have good facilities (including showers) and are walking distance from the swimming holes. You can book these campsites online before you arrive.
There’s a range of accommodation just outside the park. Our favourite is the Litchfield Hideaway – these sustainable shipping container cabins make a beautiful luxury stay. You will need to bring your own food if you’re staying here as there is no restaurant facilities. The cabins have all you need in their kitchens.Check out our full Litchfield Travel Guide
If you’re driving back to Darwin from Litchfield, you may like to stop off at Berry Springs on the way back. There is a looped walking trail here and a pleasant swimming hole. Be aware that Berry Springs can get quite busy, due to it’s proximity to Darwin.
Dundee Beach was one of our favourite stops on our trip around the Top End in 2022. Sadly the free camp where we stayed has been closed (it is private property and many visitors were not being respectful). However, there is another free camp just north of the town, and a caravan park in town. The meals at the Dundee Beach Lodge are really good, and apparently the fishing here is great too (not that Nigel caught any fish!)
Watch our Top End Road Trip travel film
Essential information for a Top End Road Trip
Weather in the Top End
This is the tropical north of Australia and even in winter it doesn’t get very cool. July temperatures in Darwin range from average lows of 19C to highs of 30C. It can be even warmer in Kakadu as you move away from the coast.
In the summer months (November to April) frequent tropical storms are likely, especially in the afternoons.
What to pack for a Top End Road Trip
The Northern Territory is very relaxed, so casual clothes are fine. Keep them loose-fitting and cool. Light colours can help reflect heat and are also good in you’re in a mosquito prone area. You should take a wide brimmed hat as often you’ll be hiking in areas with no shade.
In addition to your clothes, you should carry cash to pay for campsites in Kakadu, portable chargers for your phones, and we would also recommend taking some toilet paper as sometimes there is none in the park toilets. Please remember to leave no trace if you are going to the toilet in the bush.
Driving in the Top End
On the main highway the speed limit can be 130km/hr, but in Kakadu and Litchfield it is only 80km/hr. Allow plenty of time to get where you’re going.
We recommend you download a fuel app, and familiarise yourself with the best places to fuel up. Remember that you may not have internet access to check the app once you get into the parks.
Driving between dusk and dawn is highly discouraged, as wildlife (and stock animals) often wander on to the road. Kangaroos are more active during the night time and trust us, you don’t want to hit one.
Food and Water
You’ll need to plan ahead with regards to eating on this road trip, as there are distances with no places to stop for food. If you’re travelling in a campervan, caravan or motor-home, we recommend you stock up before leaving Darwin, and again in Katherine.
If you’re in a hire car and staying in resort style accommodation, you’ll find restaurants at the resorts. We do recommend taking plenty of snacks too.
We recommend carrying plenty of drinking water, as you won’t always find places to fill your water bottle. You can purchase a 10 litre bottle in the main supermarkets and refill this when you have the opportunity. You’ll find you will drink more water than normal in the tropical north, especially if you’re hiking.
Litchfield National Park is notoriously bad for food – there is one small kiosk at Wangi Falls, but this has very limited opening hours and the food choices there are pretty limited too.
Mobile phone and Internet coverage in the Top End
You may struggle to get coverage outside of Darwin, Katherine and the smaller towns. In Kakadu we only had coverage around Jabiru and Cooinda.
We found that we needed to plan and make any bookings while we were in range, as we spent most of our time in phone silence.
How long should I spend in the Northern Territory?
If you’re planning a self-drive road trip through the Northern Territory, allow as much time as you can! There’s a lot to see, and you’ll want to take the time to “Look, Listen and Feel” – something we were taught by one of our Indigenous guides in Kakadu.
While you could see the Top End in a week, we recommend at least 10 days for this Road Trip: 3 nights in Darwin, 3 nights in Kakadu, and 2 nights in Katherine and Litchfield.
Do I need a permit to visit Kakadu?
Yes, you will require a Kakadu pass, which is separate to the Parks NT pass. Kakadu is jointly administered by the traditional owners and the federal government, so entry to Kakadu is not included with a Parks NT pass.
You need a separate Parks NT pass for entry to Nitmiluk and Litchfield National Parks.
Are there crocodiles in the waterfalls?
The short answer is Yes. You should be aware of crocodiles around any waterway in the Top End, and be particularly mindful if there are crocodile warning signs around.
At the popular swimming holes in Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield, there are crocodile management procedures in place. The swimming holes remain closed after the wet season until rangers are confident that any estuarine crocodiles (salties) have been removed.
Do I need a 4wd in the Northern Territory?
You can visit all the main sights in the Top End with a conventional 2wd vehicle. The main roads from Darwin through Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield National Parks are all sealed.
There are however, some 4×4 only roads in both Kakadu and Litchfield which lead to some of the less visited sites.
How many days should I spend in Kakadu?
While technically you could visit Kakadu on a day trip from Darwin, you’d barely scratch the surface of this huge natural wonderland. Kakadu is vast, and beautiful. There are 6 different habitats here.
When we travelled with our campervan we spent a full week in Kakadu, which allowed us to really explore all the different areas. On our most recent visit we spent just 2 nights there, and while we saw a lot, we know we missed a lot too! We recommend 3-7 days for Kakadu.