From the ancient flora of the Daintree Rainforest to the wilderness of Cradle Mountain and the millennia of Indigenous history at Kakadu National Park, Australia’s more than 500 national parks are places of immense natural beauty and huge cultural significance, and cover almost four per cent of the country. It’s almost impossible to pick the best, but to help you on your way, we’ve selected our eight favourite Aussie national parks for you to enjoy.
1. Royal National Park, New South Wales
This is Australia’s oldest national park and the world’s second-oldest (after Yellowstone in the US), but its age and history aren’t the only reasons the Royal National Park features on our must-do list. The park spans 160-square kilometres and is only an hour from Sydney (so perfect for a day trip), and has something for everyone. Bushwalkers will enjoy the many trails, with their sweeping panoramic views of the Tasman Sea and ranges in length and difficulty; families will love off-the-beaten-track beaches such as Wattamolla Beach, and the rich Indigenous history depicted through ancient rock engravings; day-trippers can get a taste of what the RNP has to offer with iconic landmarks such as Wedding Cake Rock and the Figure Eight Pools (only accessible during low tide); and adventure-seekers will enjoy searching for hidden swimming holes and beautiful coves.
When to go: Between May and November, when you’ll likely spot migrating humpback whales. It’s also much cooler than going during peak summer months, which hikers will appreciate.
What to pack: Sun cream, water and a hat. Many of the bush walks, including the famous 26-kilometre Coast Track, are exposed to the elements.
Nearest airport: Sydney Kingsford Smith
2. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory
The red heart of Australia rises up in magnificent glory at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The two prominent features which give the park its name – Uluru and Kata Tjuta – are incredibly significant in Indigenous history and are also awe-inspiring natural formations. At 348-metres high, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower, while the domes of nearby Kata Tjuta soar even higher, to 546 metres. The Anangu people are the traditional owners of the lands here and have lived and managed them for thousands of years, with archeological findings dating back more than 30,000 years. To truly soak up the incredible natural wonder and cultural significance of Uluru, take the 9.4 kilometre Base Walk, or for an unforgettable experience, witness Uluru at sunrise or sunset, when the deep red colours of the rock appear to burn and radiate from within.
When to go: Between May and September, when the weather is cooler and the colours of the rock are at their most vibrant.
What to pack: Plenty of water and sun protection.
Nearest airport: Alice Springs Airport
3. Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia
One of South Australia’s most popular destinations, Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park is all about craggy mountains and deep gorges. It’s a place where history runs deep – homesteads of times gone by, Indigenous rock art thousands of years old, and impressive fossil remains can be found throughout the park, giving visitors a sense of the stories ingrained in the history of Outback South Australia. Wildlife is abundant here, and if you come after the rains, creeks will be flowing and meadows will be blanketed in wildflowers. Don’t miss the centre-piece – Wilpena Pound (Ikara) is a crater-like valley surrounded by sharp ridges, which forms a natural amphitheatre over 80-square kilometres with one single entrance.
When to go: Spring time (September-November) is best for the wildflowers. If there has been rain over the winter, wattles, Sturt desert peas, native hopbush, and mintbush will be in full bloom.
What to pack: Your camera – you won’t forgive yourself if you miss the chance to photograph the incredible Wilpena Pound.
Nearest airport: Adelaide Airport
Daintree Rainforest is the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforest in the world
4. Daintree National Park, Queensland
Known for its exceptional biodiversity and home to the 600-million-year-old Zamia Fern, the Daintree Rainforest is the oldest rainforest on the planet and a World Heritage Site. Located in Far North Queensland and part of the Wet Tropics (an area that is said to have provided inspiration for the film Avatar), Daintree National Park is a tropical wonderland of rare and endangered species with an exceptional concentration of flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. The park’s traditional owners are the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people, with many areas holding great spiritual significance. The park is comprised of two areas – Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation – and in the former you’ll find the tumbling clear waters of the Mossman River, while the latter offers views of spectacular sweeping rainforest down to hidden beaches fringed with coral reefs.
When to go: May to September – being in tropical North Queensland, the summer months bring with them intense rainfall, which can lead to flash floods and swarms of insects. Winter is a much more pleasant time to visit, but will be busier, so plan your trip to avoid the crowds.
What to pack: Insect repellant and swim gear. Swimming in pristine water holes is an ideal way to experience the national park, but be extremely cautious – this is the wild afterall! Pay attention to all warning signs, never swim in an area marked as unsafe, and don’t be silly (an ill-thought out jump could cost you physically and financially!). Don’t swim in rivers and creeks near the ocean (crocodile territory), and many beaches in Cape Tribulation will be off-limits, especially during stinger season. Do your research thoroughly and pick popular spots that are safe, such as the swimming hole at Emmagen Creek.
Nearest airport: Cairns Airport
5. Purnululu National Park, Western Australia
A maze of beehive-shaped karst sandstone domes and cones that rise up 250-metres high is what draws so many visitors to Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The park is home to the Bungle Bungle Range, and this incredible natural formation is the most outstanding example of cone karst sandstone in the world. Although significant to its Aboriginal custodians for thousands of years, until the early 1980s, these incredible natural formations were virtually unknown to the outside world. Since its ‘discovery’, the Bungle Bungle Range has become a popular attraction and a World-Heritage Site. As the last 53 kilometres of rugged track into the park is only accessible by 4WD vehicles, make sure you plan ahead or book a tour. Purnululu National Park is known for its wilderness (it is in an extremely remote area, so be prepared for a long trip if you travel from Darwin or Broome), which is part of the experience, and visitors will be rewarded with some fantastic bush walks, including Picaninny Creek, Cathedral Gorge and Echnida Chasm.
When to go: Purnululu National Park is only open during the dry season months from April-November. May can be a beautiful time to go as the wildflowers are in bloom and the creeks and pools will still be flowing. June to August is the most popular time as temperatures are cooler and more manageable, but it is also the busiest season.
What to pack: Layers – if you go during the cooler season, temperatures can plunge as the sun starts to set.
The Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park is the most outstanding example of cone karst sandstone in the world
6. Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Australia’s largest land-based national park is not only a place of mesmerising changing landscapes and abundant wildlife, but one of immense cultural significance. Aboriginal people have lived in Kakadu for more than 65,000 years, and their history is recorded in the incredible rock art visitors can see in the park, some which date back 20,000 years. This World Heritage-listed park has one of the greatest concentrations of rock art sites in the world, depicting Aboriginal life over thousands of years. The park itself covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres in the Northern Territory of Australia, and while we’re on numbers, it’s home to more than 10,000 crocodiles and one-third of Australia’s bird population, not to mention beautiful tumbling waterfalls, glistening billabongs, flowing rivers and sandstone escarpments. Seeing the resident prehistoric predators is part of the Kakadu experience, and there are a few ways to do it safely. Aside from tours and cruises, there are safe crocodile-viewing platforms at Cahills Crossing and Yellow Water.
When to go: Kakadu is open all year round, but the dry season (May-October) is the most popular time to visit as most sites are open. However, the tropical summer (November-April) can be an exciting time to explore, with lush landscapes, dramatic storms and thundering waterfalls, but be aware that some sites may be closed. Bear in mind that fire management usually occurs at the beginning of the dry season, where the land is strategically burnt off to allow regeneration of plants and to burn off fuel that may encourage bigger, more destructive fires.
What to pack: Swimming gear. With such a tropical climate, you will likely want to swim. Exert caution though and do plenty of research into where is recommended for safe swimming – remember how many crocodiles are in the park, and the water is their home! Kakadu has Crocodile Management Zones, but that does not guarantee the area is croc-free, so you should observe safety signs at all time.
Nearest airport: Darwin International Airport
7. Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, Tasmania
Home to Australia’s most famous hiking route, the 65-kilometre Overland Track, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is a jewel in the Tasmanian crown. In a state that is so abundant with stunning wilderness and gorgeous national parks, it can be hard to pick where to go. But a trip to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is a good start, as you’ll travel through ancient rainforests, around pristine lakes, over rugged peaks and alpine heaths, and along tumbling glacial streams in a pinch-me wilderness experience. Though the park is 1,262-square kilometres of wild beauty, the most popular areas are around Cradle Mountain, which can be viewed in all its glory from the shores of glassy Dove Lake. The park is home to Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa, and Australia’s deepest lake, Lake St Clair, as well as plenty of wildlife including wallabies, wombats, and if you’re lucky, Tasmanian devils and elusive platypuses.
When to go: The national park is open all year round, but if you go during the winter months, be prepared for snow. The cold weather and snow can come anytime between July and September, and often earlier and later – it’s not unusual to have snow in to November. The warmer months are December to April, but these are of course busier, and you still need to be prepared for four seasons in one day. If you’re planning on walking the Overland Track during the booking season (1 October-31 May), you must walk from north to south, starting at Cradle Mountain and finishing at Lake St Clair. Outside the booking season, the track can be walked in either direction.
What to pack: Pack plenty of layers – the weather can change in an instant in Tasmania. For the Overland Track you will need to do your research and be well-prepared for the serious undertaking of a 65-kilometre walk.
Cradle Mountain in Tasmania is the centerpiece of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park
8. Grampians National Park, Victoria
We’re ending our list on a high with Grampians National Park, one of Victoria’s most stunning national parks. The Grampians themselves are a series of five sandstone ridges, creating a landscape of craggy edges and deep valleys, with incredible panoramic lookouts. There are more than 150 kilometres of well-marked hiking trails ranging in difficulty, which lead you to meadows of wildflowers, into lush forests, past cascading waterfalls and to dramatic look-outs. Don’t miss MacKenzie Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Victoria, or for awe-inspiring views of Halls Gap and the surrounding ridges, head to The Pinnacle lookout. For spectacular views of Victoria Valley, don’t miss The Balconies, particularly inspiring at sunset. The heart of the national park is Halls Gap, and a great base for exploration.
When to go: For stunning wildflower displays, head to the park in spring, between August and October. You might be lucky enough to spot some of the native animals and birds such as kangaroos, koalas, emus, shingleback lizards and wedge-tailed eagles, too.
What to pack: A camera, for those incredible panoramic views.
Handy hint: Each state in Australia has different rules and regulations around national park permits, so it’s best to visit the website of the national park and state you’re planning to visit to find out what costs will be and how to get a permit (if required).
Please note: While many of Australia’s national parks are abundant in gorgeous wildflowers, there are strict rules regarding the picking of native flowers. As the saying goes, take only photographs, leave only footprints.
If this is your first time travelling to Australia, you might want to read our blog on what to know before travelling to Australia to help you plan for your trip so you can hit the ground running when you arrive. If this has whet your appetite for hiking adventures, check out our pick of the best national parks to visit in the US to see how the national parks compare Stateside.