A land of stark beauty, sacred aboriginal sites-and space, the Northern Territory has always stood apart from the rest of Australia. Vast deserts, wetlands, monsoonal rains, red-rock gorges, and raging rivers spark the spirit of adventure in those who visit, and these same natural features enabled the local aboriginal people to preserve their traditional way of life. Today, travelers flock here from around the world to see these spectacular sites and learn about the fascinating culture of the tribes who have thrived on this rugged land for thousands of years.
The Red Centre, in the south of the territory, is a land of parched deserts and striking rock formations. Uluru, the iconic red monolith, is one of the region’s most famous attractions. Northwest from here lies the legendary Outback town of Alice Springs, a popular base for wilderness safaris.
The tropical Top End, or northern part of the state, encompasses the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, famed for its Crocodile Dundee scenes; beautiful Litchfield National Park; Katherine Gorge; and the aboriginal settlements of Arnhem Land. Also in the Top End, is multicultural Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.
Find the best places to visit in this rugged Outback region with our list of the top tourist attractions in the Northern Territory.
1. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
In the Red Centre, World Heritage-listed Uluru National Park is one of Australia’s most famous tourist attractions. The park’s main features include Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), the 348-meter-high red monolith rising from the desert, and the dome-shaped rocks called Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), which lie 40 kilometers away from Uluru. Oxidation or rusting of iron in the rock gives the structures their beautiful red coloring.
Both sites hold deep spiritual significance to the traditional owners, the Anangu people, who manage the park jointly with Parks Australia. Around dusk, visitors gather at sunset viewing areas to photograph these impressive structures, when the play of color is at its finest. To really appreciate these sacred sites join a tour led by an aboriginal guide.
2. Kakadu National Park
World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, in the Top End, is Australia’s largest national park and one of the world’s most spectacular wilderness areas. On the north coast lies the tidal zone, with river estuaries, mangrove swamps, and tall monsoon rain forests. Inland are the flood plains through which rivers pursue a winding course to the sea. The escarpment of the Arnhem Land plateau runs diagonally through the park from southwest to northeast. After heavy rain, water pours over its bare rocks and down the escarpment in magnificent waterfalls-Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls are two of the most famous.
Further inland lies the gently undulating upland country crossed by the main access roads and excellent hiking trails. The amazing variety of wildlife includes more than 70 different species of reptiles, the largest and most dangerous of which is the saltwater crocodile, as well as a vast array of fish, mammals, and birds. In addition to all these natural attractions, the park is home to many sacred aboriginal sites and rock paintings.
You can explore the park by car, on foot, and on cruises through the waterways, but note that seasonal flooding may close some sections of the park, especially during the wet season. For comprehensive information on the natural history and culture of this unique area stop by the National Park’s Visitors Centre in Jabiru.
Lying on the Indian Ocean within easy reach of Southeast Asia, multicultural Darwin is the youngest of the Australian state capitals and the Northern Territory’s only seaport. On Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin with wind speeds of up to 280 kilometers per hour, almost destroying the entire town. Not surprisingly, rebuilding efforts enforced strict cyclone safety regulations.
Every year about half a million visitors pour into this tropical Top End town-especially during the dry season. Shoppers love the famous sunset Mindil Beach Markets with souvenirs, art, and Asian-style snacks. Other highlights include the Darwin Botanic Gardens, the open-air Deckchair Cinema, the shops and restaurants of the Darwin Wharf Precinct, and the city’s museums. Don’t miss the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory with a giant stuffed crocodile and exhibits on Cyclone Tracy.
Darwin is also a great base for outback adventures into Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, and Katherine Gorge, and the town is a launching point for tours to the Tiwi Islands and the Cobourg Peninsula, though access is restricted.
4. Nitmiluk National Park
Formerly known as Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park is one of the most famous Top End tourist attractions. The main must-see site is the series of gorges, up to 100 meters deep, carved by the Katherine River through the soft sandstone of the southern Arnhem Land plateau. During the dry months, the river carries little water, leaving a series of pools separated by rocks and boulders. During the wet season, the river is at its most impressive as it surges tumultuously through the narrow gorges.
In contrast to the arid Arnhem Land plateau, the perennial flow of the Katherine River nourishes luxuriant vegetation and diverse wildlife, including freshwater crocodiles and more than 160 species of birds.
Boat trips through the gorges are one of the most popular things to do, but you can also explore the park on foot, with trails ranging from a two-hour hike to the viewpoint above the first gorge to a five-day hike to Edith Falls in the park’s northwest. Kayak rentals and helicopter flights are other popular ways to experience the park.
5. Litchfield National Park
About a 90-minute drive from Darwin, beautiful Litchfield National Park is a popular day trip from the capital and a great way to experience the Top End wilderness without traveling all the way to Kakadu. The main attractions are the waterfalls and springs on the escarpment of the Table Top Range. Park scenery varies from patches of tropical monsoon forest around the waterfalls and ponds to open woodland and giant termite mounds.
The Lost City is a formation of large sandstone columns near the Tolmer Falls in the park’s west. This large protected area offers ample scope for bushwalking. You can also enjoy a dip in the park’s plunge pools and swimming holes; explore the ruins of the Blythe Homestead; and visit Wangi Falls, one of the most popular swimming and picnicking spots. Sealed roads lead to most of the major attractions, but four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended to access some of the park’s more remote features.
6. Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park)
Part of Watarrka National Park and located about midway between Alice Springs and Uluru, Kings Canyon has the deepest gorge in the Red Centre. Rising to heights of 100 meters, its sandstone walls sometimes look as if they were cut with a knife. On the bottom of the canyon are perennial waterholes, while the upper part of the gorge, with lush ferns and palm forests, is called the Garden of Eden. To the Luritja Aboriginal people, this area was sacred, and their dwellings and places of assembly are decorated with rock paintings.
On the plateau above the canyon lies the Lost City, an area of red sandstone rocks weathered into the semblance of ruined houses and streets. The area is rich in flora and fauna. More than 600 species of native plants and animals live in the region.
To explore the gorge, you can hike the steep six-kilometer Kings Canyon Rim Walk, which takes around three to four hours or take a shorter hike through the bottom of the gorge to a viewing platform. Scenic flights and camel safaris are also available.
7. Finke Gorge National Park
Finke Gorge National Park is known for its prehistoric red cabbage palms, which grow in the valley of Palm Creek, a tributary of the Finke River. Extinct elsewhere, the palms are relics of a much wetter period. The imposing rock formations in the park are also of ritual significance to the Western Arrernte Aboriginal people.
Because of its inaccessibility, Finke Gorge National Park drew few visitors until a camping ground was established on Palm Creek, near Palm Valley. For visitors without an all-terrain vehicle, organized tours depart from Alice Springs.
8. Alice Springs
An oasis in the red-earthed desert, Alice Springs, affectionately called “the Alice” by Aussies, is one of Australia’s most famous outback towns. It’s also an important base camp for tours to Red Centre sightseeing attractions including Uluru, Kata Tjuta, the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, and the boundless expanses of the outback.
Neville Shute’s novel, A Town like Alice, and its film version nudged this unassuming town into the international spotlight. Once a dusty outback settlement, today Alice Springs is packed with restaurants, luxury hotels, caravan parks, entertainment venues, shops, and galleries brimming with aboriginal art. At the Araluen Cultural Precinct, you can learn about the region’s history and aboriginal culture in the complex of museums and galleries.
Other top attractions include the Alice Springs Desert Park and Alice Springs Reptile Park, as well as the annual camel races at the end of April and the beginning of May. The greatest event of the year, however, is the Henley on Todd Regatta at the beginning of October, when locals trundle boats along the dry riverbed and top off the day with a festival.
Adventures abound in the surrounding countryside. Travelers can hike the Larapinta Trail, one of Australia’s most challenging walks, and drive the Red Centre Way from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon. Desert safaris on quad bikes, hot air balloon rides, and camel rides are other popular things to do.
9. Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles Conservation Reserve)
These huge granite boulders, worn down and split by weathering, are striking landmarks in a flat sandy plain. In Aboriginal mythology, these massive rocks, lying tumbled on the ground or piled on top of one another, are the eggs of the rainbow serpent and are called Karlu Karlu. Their shade and the dew that settles around them provide habitat for low-growing plants and many birds. Karlu Karlu is a favorite subject for photographers; they are seen at their best just before sunset.
10. Simpsons Gap, West MacDonnell National Park
A visit to Simpsons Gap, near Alice Springs, is a great way to experience the rugged topography of the Western MacDonnell Ranges. Deep gorges carved by prehistoric watercourses form a striking contrast to the wide desert-like plains and dunes. Areas of white sand, huge river eucalyptus trees, and white-barked ghost gums lead to a permanent waterhole in the shelter of rugged cliffs, which are particularly impressive in the slanting sun of late afternoon.
To the Aranda tribes who live here, the gorge is the home of their giant goanna ancestors. Walking trails lead to quiet spots where rock wallabies appear in the early morning and late afternoon, and Cassia Hill offers excellent views of the Larapinta valley. A 24-kilometer hike from Alice Springs Telegraph Station to Simpsons Gap marks the first section of the famous Larapinta Trail, one of Australia’s most famous outback walks.
11. Tiwi Islands
Aptly called the “Islands of Smiles,” the Tiwi islands, about 80 kilometers north of Darwin, are among the top Northern Territory cultural attractions. If you look at a Northern Territory map, these unsung tropical islands sit just north of Darwin and offer a fascinating dose of indigenous culture, as well as white-sand beaches, dense jungles, and fantastic fishing. Bathurst and Melville Islands are the only two inhabited islands and are the top destinations for visitors, but the group also encompasses nine small uninhabited islands.
A popular way to visit the Tiwi Islands is on an organized day tour, which starts with a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Darwin. Famous for their vibrant art, the warm and friendly Tiwi people welcome visitors with a traditional song and dance ceremony and demonstrate artistic techniques like painting, screen printing, and carving in the islands’ galleries. Australian Rules Football is also a favorite pastime, and many footie fans visit during March to attend the annual grand final and local celebrations.
Besides aboriginal cultural and art tours, another way to experience the islands is on a fishing trip based out of either Melville Island Lodge, Johnson River Camp, or Clearwater Island Lodge. Barramundi, giant trevally, golden snapper, and jewfish are some of the species found in the rivers and coral reefs. If you prefer to skip the ferry, flights to the islands take about 25 minutes, but you need to organize a permit well in advance for overnight stays.