As Australia’s largest national park, it makes sense to plan your visit to Kakadu in advance. Across the vast Top End wilderness, there are lots of things to do in Kakadu but being prepared is vital – not just to make the most of your time but because mobile phone reception is quite limited to do research on the road.
So, where to start? Well, there’s something eternal about Kakadu National Park, a landscape that was forged millions of years ago – and with scientific evidence of some of the continent’s oldest human habitation (65,000 years ago!). It’s not somewhere you rush and I certainly don’t recommend visiting Kakadu as a day trip.
From the coast in the north, down towards the Outback in the south, there’s a huge range of landscapes across Kakadu National Park. You’ll find wetlands with mangroves and crocodiles, woodlands with billabongs and crocodiles, and sweeping stone country with waterfalls and crocodiles.
So I’m half-joking about the crocodiles. There are certainly lots of them here and you need to be careful around water, but you won’t be seeing them all the time. It’s the birdlife in Kakadu that really stands out – there are 280 types, a third of all Australia’s bird species, and they’re constantly around you.
Kakadu National Park was named a World Heritage Site 40 years ago for both its natural and cultural elements and, as a visitor, it’s important to experience both sides of the park to properly appreciate it.
The Indigenous heritage is still strong here amongst the different clans who live on their country. Most of the rangers who lead tours in the national park are Bininj/Mungguy (the local words for Aboriginal people) and they’ll be able to share stories about both the history and the current way of life.
One of the most obvious tangible parts of the Indigenous history is in the rock art found at sites around the park. As you’re planning your Kakadu itinerary, I would suggest including time to visit the rock art amongst any other plans you have for hiking, swimming, fishing, and relaxing.
What is the best time to visit Kakadu?
You’ll often hear about a bad time and a good time to visit Kakadu, but let me explain why it’s not that simple.
The dry season, between June and September, is the most popular time because you’ll get good weather, moderate temperatures, and most sites will be open and accessible. For the average visitor, this is when you should try to come.
But during the wet season, between November and March, you’ll find much more natural activity in Kakadu. The waterfalls are thundering, wildlife is everywhere, and the green landscapes glow. For something special, come during this period.
In the shoulder periods, you’ll get a bit of both worlds, depending on the climate that year. But between March and May, many sites will still be closed from the wet season. And between October and November, some of the waterways and falls will have dried up.
How many days do you need in Kakadu?
As many days as you can give! It’s a huge park with some roads that can be slow to drive, so you’ll need a few days in Kakadu. One day is certainly too short and even two days (one night) will be pushing it a bit.
I would recommend a minimum of three days (two nights) to see the main sites in Kakadu National Park. If you want to explore some of the further areas, add more days. And if you want to spend time just relaxing at the best spots, rather than rushing like a tourist, add even more. I think you could easily do a whole week here.
How much does Kakadu cost to visit?
You need a park pass to visit Kakadu but, don’t worry, it’s good value for everything that you’ll be able to see and do here! Each person will need to buy a pass, but it lasts for seven days (and can be extended to 14 days for free).
During the tropical summer from 1 November to 14 May, a pass is:
Seniors, pensioners, and carers of disabled pensioners: $19
Children aged 5-15: $12.50
Family (2 adults and 2 or more children): $65
During the dry season from 15 May to 31 October, a pass is:
Seniors, pensioners, and carers of disabled pensioners: $30
Children aged 5-15: $20
Family (2 adults and 2 or more children): $100
Park passes are free for residents of the Northern Territory.
You can get the pass in advance here. Or you can buy it at a few places in the park including the Bowali Visitor Centre, Cooinda Lodge, and Mary River Ranger Station.
Are there tours from Darwin to Kakadu?
Yes, there are indeed tours from Darwin to Kakadu, and they can be a really good way to explore the park without having to worry about the logistics yourself. Visiting Kakadu is one of the best things to do from Darwin.
Although I wouldn’t recommend just going for one day, if you’re short of time, then this is a good one-day tour of Kakadu from Darwin. I’ll have some more recommendations for longer tours further down.
There is no one way to visit Kakadu National Park. Everyone approaches it a bit differently – coming for a couple of days to relax by the natural pools, spending a few days learning about the Indigenous culture and natural heritage, or even adventuring on the 4WD tracks and camping by remote billabongs.
There are so many things to do in Kakadu and you can craft the trip that’s right for you. To help with your planning, I’ve got a whole heap of useful information in this Kakadu travel guide.
How to get from Darwin to Kakadu
Getting from Darwin to Kakadu is easy if you have your own vehicle. The drive from Darwin is along good sealed roads with speed limits of up to 130 km/h in some parts. Just head south from Darwin and turn left at Humpty Doo.
Technically you’ll reach Kakadu National Park about 1.5 hours after leaving Darwin – but this is just the park’s boundary. It’s still about another hour until you get to Jabiru.
Jabiru is the main town in Kakadu and it has some shops and the famous Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel (which is a great option for accommodation). It’s also very close to the Bowali Visitor Centre, where you can buy your park pass. It’ll take about 2.5 hours from Darwin to this part of Kakadu, then most of the sites you’ll want to visit are even further on.
Unfortunately there’s no public transport to Kakadu National Park. However, even if you could arrive by bus, you would need a vehicle to get around, so there wouldn’t be much point.
If you don’t have a car, the best option is to join a tour. There’s a wide variety of Kakadu tours to suit your interests, and I’ll go through some of them later in this article.
Know before you go
There are a few important things you need to know before you go to Kakadu, to make sure you stay safe and make the most of your trip.
- There is limited phone coverage throughout much of the park. You’ll get good reception at places like Jabiru and Yellow Water, but be prepared not to be able to access the internet or call people in many other areas. You may want to take printed maps and plan your day before you head off from the accommodation.
- You need to be careful of animals that might harm you. Crocodiles are the most dangerous, so stay away from water that you’re unsure of, and always follow the warning signs. Wild buffalo are also not to be messed with, so stay far away from them.
- Roads and access to sites can change suddenly for a variety of reasons. It could be because of bad weather, crocodile sightings, or cultural issues with the traditional owners. Check at the visitor centres for the latest information and be prepared to change your itinerary.
- There are restaurants at Jabiru, Yellow Water and the Mary River Roadhouse, and there are shops at Jabiru and Cahill’s Crossing. But you should bring enough food with you for all the times you’ll be away from these main tourism centres – such as day trips to waterfalls and rock art sites.
- Water, water, water. It gets really hot in Kakadu and you’ll need lots of water. If you’ve got your own vehicle, I recommend stopping at a supermarket in Darwin and buying one (or more, depending on number of people and days) of those large 10-litre water containers and keeping it in the car.
- The main roads in Kakadu National Park are sealed and are fine for any type of vehicle. But there are lots of unsealed roads leading off the highway to some of the more remote sites. Some of the unsealed roads are designated as 2WD and some as 4WD. Don’t risk driving down the 4WD ones without a suitable vehicle. Even with the unsealed 2WD roads, you may want to consider going with at least an SUV with AWD.
Things to do in Kakadu
There really are so many things to do in Kakadu. With all the campsites, small walking trails, 4WD tracks, and boat ramps, you could create a real adventure in the epic landscapes.
But, for the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you don’t want to go bush for a few days, and that you’re more interested in seeing the main sites and having some special guided experiences.
Because Kakadu National Park is so large, I’m going to break down the things to do into each region within the park. It might help to refer to the map below to see where things are.
In the next section, I’ll offer a sample Kakadu itinerary, so you can see how you might put it all together.
South Alligator region
This is the name given to the region along the road from Darwin, from the park’s boundary until near Jabiru. There isn’t too much to do here and most people just drive straight through.
However, there’s a nice 3km walk at the Mamukala wetlands, especially towards the end of the dry season when there are huge flocks of magpie geese here. It can be a good way to spend an hour if you need a break after (or before) a long drive.
There are also a couple of 4WD tracks here – the West Alligator Head track and the Alligator Billabong track – which lead in different directions to remote campsites and boating facilities.
The most obvious thing in the Jabiru region is Jabiru itself, the main town that was established to support the nearby Ranger Uranium Mine. If you need shops, a bank, a post office, a health clinic, etc – then this is your place.
Jabiru is also home to the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, as I mentioned earlier. Even if you’re not staying here, I think it’s worth stopping at Jabiru to check out the Marrawuddi Arts and Culture Centre, which has a gallery of Indigenous art combined with a cafe with good coffee. Often the artists will be here painting as well.
The main thing to do in the Jabiru region is the Bowali Visitor Centre. It has a very interesting free museum about the nature and environment of Kakadu National Park. There are often events here, like art classes. And the rangers will be able to give you lots of information about what else is happening in the park.
There is a short 2km walk you can do between the Bowali Visitor Centre and Jabiru called the Bowali Track that gives you a good sense of the flora of this area, with an elevated pathway over the wetter areas.
East Alligator region
Heading northeast from Jabiru, away from most of the other things in the park, you’ll read the East Alligator region.
The highlight here is Ubirr, an incredible sunset spot from a sandstone outcrop – and probably the best collection of rock art in Kakadu. There’s a range of different art styles, with new ones often superimposed over older ones. The works tell the stories of the mythology, the laws, and the wildlife.
You can learn a lot from the details in the paintings. There’s one of a Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct on the mainland at least 2000 years ago. And there’s one of an early buffalo hunter, a white man from around the 1880s. You’ll get a lot out of the site with a guide.
The eastern boundary of Kakadu is formed here by the East Alligator River, which is an attraction in itself. You can join the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise, run by local Aboriginal guides, for a 1h 45m cruise to see the landcapes, learn about the culture, and spot a few crocodiles!
There are also three interesting walks you can do in the region, each of a slightly different length, so you can fit them in regardless of your plans.
There’s the 1.5km Manngarre Rainforest walk, which leads you through some verdant monsoon rainforest. The 2.5km Bardedjilidji walk is a fascinating exploration of the layered sandstone here. And that connects to the 6.5km Badbong Wodjmeng Sandstone River walk, which has a variety of landscapes including the river, billabongs, and sandstone outliers.
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) region
Not too far south of Jabiru is the region known as Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), a popular area because of its rock art and stunning views.
The main attraction here is the site that the region is named after – Burrungkuy (Nourlangie). There are a series of rock art galleries here, featuring images from over the centuries depicting different parts of Indigenous life from hunting to complicated kinship laws. There’s a 1.5km trail that leads past them all. A guided ranger tour here will really add to your experience.
Continue up the path for just a few hundred metres more and you’ll reach the Kunwarddewardde Lookout, with incredible views across the wilderness over to the Arnhem Escarpment and the shape known as the Lightning Man Dreaming.
This is also the official start of the loop Barrk Sandstone walk, a difficult 12km trail through striking sandstone country and past more rock art. You’ll need to put aside a few hours and be well-prepared but it’s a great option for keen hikers.
The trail passes the Nanguluwurr art site, which you can access with a short 1.7km trail from a different carpark. There’s a huge amount of paintings at the site, showing a wide variety of styles, and it’s just as (if not more) impressive than the main Burrungkuy gallery (and with a lot less tourists).
Also in this region is the Anbangbang Billabong, one of the best examples of a billabong in Kakadu National Park and with a beautiful vista with the rocks in the background. There’s a 2.5km walking trail around the billabong (which will only be open if there are no crocs around).
And there’s also a short but steep hike up to Nawurlandja Lookout, another stunning viewpoint to see the rocks and the distant escarpment, with the billabong just visible below. Sunset is beautiful here (which is convenient because it’s not far from the main accommodation options).
Yellow Water region
South of Burrungkuy, in a location that’s pretty much the centre of Kakadu National Park, Yellow Water is a bit of a tourism hub. For instance, it’s where you’ll find Cooinda Lodge, a popular accommodation spot with rooms, glamping, and powered camp sites – plus good restaurants, pools, and a bar.
But the main attraction here is Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba), a huge wetlands area full of wildlife. As well as crocodiles, you’ll see dozens of bird species in the trees and on the water itself. There is a boardwalk but the best way to experience the wetlands is on a Yellow Water Cruise, which I recommend doing at sunset so you’ll get the amazing colours (sunrise is another good option). It’s one of the best things to do in Kakadu.
To learn more about the heritage of the area, head to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which has an excellent free museum all about the people who have lived here for millennia – as well as the changes since new ones arrived in the past couple of centuries.
There are a couple of short walks you can take from the Mardukal campground but they’re not worth going out of your way to do.
The other site of note in this region is Jim Jim Billabong, a pretty wetlands spot. It’s not really aimed at the casual tourist but at those who come prepared with a boat and camping gear because it’s great for fishing and hanging out for a couple of nights.
Jim Jim region
From near Yellow Water, there’s a slow 4WD track that goes down towards the southeast of Kakadu National Park to a region known as Jim Jim. On the edge of the Arnhem Escarpment, this is rough stone country and is quite an expedition to reach and explore.
The main attraction here is Jim Jim Falls, a spectacular natural sight where water plummets over a 150-metre-high cliff (although it dries up during the dry season). Beneath the waterfall is a large (cold!) swimming hole surrounded by steep rock faces and lush trees.
From the main track into the plunge pool at Jim Jim Falls, you can take the Barrk Marlam walk. It’s a steep and difficult 6km return walk but will give you an awesome perspective of the stone country here.
A bit further along the road is Twin Falls, another of the Kakadu’s largest waterfalls. As the name suggests, there’s a split cascade here spilling over the enormous cliff face. You have to take a boat transfer ($12.50) along the gorge to reach the falls, where there’s a large natural pool where swimming isn’t allowed, and a sandy beach beside it.
There’s a 6km return walk here up to the plateau and pools at the top of the cliff, where you’ll not surprisingly get some incredible views.
Because this region is so hard to access and the waterfalls turn to a trickle in the dry season, it’s not visited by road by most tourists. But during the wet season, it’s one of the most popular areas for scenic flights, as the water flows over the incredible ochre escarpment.
Mary River region
Down south, you’ll find some of the most scenic things to do in Kakadu National Park, with the Mary River region full of adventure but with much more convenient access than areas like Jim Jim.
The first place you can reach is Maguk, a large stunning swimming hole set in an amphitheatre of sandstone. With a waterfall flowing down the cliff at the far end, it’s a beautiful site as well as a refreshing place for a dip. From the carpark at the end of a dirt road, it’s about a 20 minute walk over the rocks to Maguk.
From the Maguk turn-off on the Kakadu Highway, it’s about another hour of driving (77km) to the region’s other famous waterfall and swimming hole at Gunlom. You might recognise Gunlom not from the bottom, but from above, because the infinity pool at the top of the falls is used for lots of photos!
It’s only a 100m walk to the plunge pool at Gunlom Falls, and another steep 500m to the top. There’s a campground here that is quite popular and you may want to consider spending a night here so you can see the falls at sunrise and sunset.
On the way in to Gunlom, you’ll pass the Yurmikmik walks, a series of interconnecting trails that lead through a tropical environment of plunge pools and wet season falls. The shortest trail is the 2km-return Boulder Creek walk, while there’s also the 5km-return Yurmikmik lookout walk, the 7.5km-return Motor Car Falls walk, and the 11km-return Kurrundie Creek walk (which needs a permit).
Also in the same area is a special site called Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin) gorge, which is rarely visited because you need a permit to access it (apply at least two weeks in advance). But the stunning red rock formations lining the gorge, filled with dark pools are incredible, and there are lots of spiritual stories about the site.
Other things to do in Kakadu
So, now that I’ve covered all the main sites in the park, let’s have a look at a few other activities in Kakadu that are worth considering.
The first thing to mention is the seasonal rangers program, where the (mainly Indigenous) rangers take free tours of some of the sites. It’s a really good way to learn more about the cultural and environment heritage of Kakadu and I really recommend you do one, if you can.
The only problem is that they don’t run as often as you would like, and the schedule changes each month. You can see the schedule here, so have a look in advance and see what you can sign up for.
Aside from the ranger program, I think one of the best tours in Kakadu that you can do is the Animal Tracks Safari. You’ll go off the main roads into some beautiful country with a local Bininj guide called Patsy, who will show you all the tricks of bush tucker and then cook up a feast in a ground oven. It’s a special look at the traditional way of life in the park.
A popular activity in the park is fishing, and there are lots of spots where you can cast a line. Unfortunately I don’t know of any fishing tours that operate here, so you’ll need to have all your own equipment – and maybe even a boat.
However, if you like birding then there are some tour operators that will be able to take you out to the best spots and help you spot many of the 280 bird species that live here. Have a look at NT Bird Specialists or Tracks Birding.
And, of course, I need to mention one of the best things to do in Kakadu – which is scenic flights over this wonderful landscape. You’ll get a completely different appreciation of the land when you see it from the air, especially the long rivers and the waterfalls tumbling over the escarpments.
Scenic flights are particularly popular in the wet season because the cascades are more dramatic – and it’s the only way you’ll see some of the sites. But the views are just as good in the dry season. The biggest operator is Kakadu Air, or there’s a helicopter option with Coolibah Air as well.
Kakadu self-drive itinerary
Putting together a Kakadu itinerary is a bit tricky because there are so many different ways to approach the park. Even if you’re wanting to do a fairly classic visit to Kakadu, some people will want to focus more on hiking, others on the rock art, others on the swimming holes.
Still, to help with your planning, I’ve got a suggest Kakadu self-drive itinerary that you can use as the base for your trip. It’s just three days, but I’ve got some suggestions for how to extend it. I’ll also explain why I’ve done things this way, but you can swap activities around to your own taste.
Drive from Darwin in the morning and stop first at the Bowali Visitor Centre to get your parks pass, find out any latest information, and see the museum. I recommend staying tonight at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, so you may want to check in or drop your bags in Jabiru.
Spend the afternoon out in the East Alligator region, visiting the Ubirr Rock Art site, doing some of the walks here, and possibly staying for the stunning sunset view before heading back to Jabiru for the night.
Hit the road early for a long drive down to the Mary River region, where there are a few possible activities for the morning. You could just do the hike into Maguk and go for a swim, which means less driving. Or you can go all the way to Gunlom and hike to the top of the falls for that iconic infinity-pool shot.
In the afternoon, head back to Yellow Water, where I suggest you stay overnight at Cooinda Lodge to save the extra drive. Visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre and then jump on the sunset Yellow Water Cruise for amazing wildlife and colours over the wetlands.
(Another option is to spend all day at both Maguk and Gunlom and then do the sunrise Yellow Water Cruise the next day.)
Regardless of whether you do the sunrise cruise today, head off after breakfast to the Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) region, where you’ll easily be able to spend all morning. Visit both of the main rock art sites here, as well as do some of the walks to the viewpoints. Hopefully you can time your visit to join a ranger tour.
After lunch, head back to Darwin, possibly stopping at the art gallery in Jabiru and the Mamukala Wetlands on the way.
If you have a good 4WD, you can add a whole day to go to Jim Jim region and explore the two enormous waterfalls there.
You could also do an extra day in the Mary River region so you can focus on all the things around Gunlom without feeling too rushed. You might want to consider camping a night there – or there’s the Mary River Roadhouse which will save driving all the way back to Cooinda Lodge.
And, of course, it’s really easy to add more days to do some of the specialised tours to scenic flights. Or just to take things slower and enjoy the tranquility of the nature here.
I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again – I really recommend you don’t visit Kakadu as a day trip. However, if you’re really short of time and have no other option, there is this good day-trip tour of Kakadu from Darwin.
If you don’t have your own vehicle – or you just don’t want to drive – doing a tour for a few days in Kakadu is a fantastic way to explore the park without worrying about any of the logistics.
For a budget camping-style tour, have a look at Territory Expeditions.
For a small-group tour that’s affordable and a bit adventurous, there’s Kakadu 4WD Safaris.
Another good option for a small-group tour that shows you a range of sites is Sacred Earth Safaris.
And for private tours in a comfortable 4WD vehicle that you’d probably describe as ‘soft adventure luxury’, the best options are Brookes Australia Tours or Venture North Safaris.
When it comes to accommodation in Kakadu, there are quite limited options – but don’t worry, as long as you book in advance, you’ll be able to find something that suits your taste.
I’ll cover camping in the next section, so let’s just look first at hotels.
The first area you’ll come to with Kakadu accommodation is Jabiru, which has a few options. By far the nicest hotel here (and in the park) is the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel and I recommend getting a room here if you’re looking for comfort. There’s a great pool and the bar and restaurant are just the kind of place you want to relax in after a busy day of exploring.
There are a couple of other options in Jabiru, so if you’re looking for something a bit more affordable, then there’s Aurora Kakadu Lodge to consider.
Although it’s not particularly convenient for most of the park, if you need somewhere to stay near the Ubirr rock art site, then Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge has some tented cabins.
The most central Kakadu accommodation, and a great option for families and groups, is Cooinda Lodge at Yellow Water. You can choose from large rooms, comfortable glamping tents, or powered campervan spots. With pools, restaurants, and other facilities, it’s easy to base yourself here for a few nights.
And a final option to mention is the Mary River Roadhouse. It’s at the bottom of the park, so most people coming from Darwin wouldn’t use it, but it can be useful if you’re driving up from Katherine. It’s a rather basic setup, but it’s safe and comfortable enough for a night or so.
The other thing you can do in Kakadu for accommodation is camp. There are about 20 campgrounds in Kakadu, right across the variety of landscapes, so it’s definitely a wonderful way to connect with the nature.
There are four types of campground in Kakadu: Commercial sites, managed sites, unmanaged sites, and free sites.
The commercial camping sites are run by the private accommodation providers in Kakadu, most of which I have already mentioned – places like Cooinda Lodge, Aurora Kakadu Lodge, and the Mary River Roadhouse. They each have their own fee system that usually gives you access to the facilities like pools and restaurants.
The managed camping sites in Kakadu are run by Parks Australia and have more facilities than its other spots – things like showers, toilets, picnic areas, and fire pits. There’ll usually be a campground manager on site to help as well. A managed site is a good way to stay in Kakadu if you don’t have a lot of camping gear and want to have a bit of comfort.
Some of the managed campsites include Gunlom, Mardukal near Yellow Water, and Djarradjin near Burrungkuy. They cost (per night) $15 for an adult, $7.50 for a child, or $38 for two adults and children.
The unmanaged camping sites still have some facilities but they are more basic. So it’s likely to be pit toilets and no showers, rudimentary picnic facilities, and a fire pit. There’s no staff on site and you’ll need to be more prepared with your gear.
Some of the popular unmanaged camping sites include Maguk, Burdulba near Jabiru, and Jim Jim Billabong. They cost (per night) $6 for an adult, $3 for a child, or $15 for two adults and children.
And the free camping sites are the most basic of all. There are no facilities and it’s basically just a spot in the bush. It’s really just a designated area that you’re allowed to pitch a tent – you’ll need to bring everything with you and be much more prepared. I wouldn’t recommend this if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The good news is that the free camping sites have no fees, as the name suggests.
While the commercial camping sites will often take reservations, you don’t need to book ahead for any of the Parks Australia campgrounds – in fact, you can’t book ahead. They all work on a first-come first-served basis.
This is good in a sense because it means that people haven’t block-booked campsites over popular periods like school holidays. But the downside is that you’re not necessarily guaranteed a spot and you won’t know until you get there.
But don’t worry, the park never fills up, even if your favourite campground is a bit busy. There’s more information here about Kakadu’s camping spots. I recommend stopping at the Bowali Visitor Centre on your way in just to check the status of the campground you’re heading to – or even phone ahead in busy periods.