To the west of Rockhampton, a few hours from the coast, you’ll find yourself in sandstone country. Millions of years old, the landscapes here have been lifted, twisted, and eroded into stunning pockets of enormous rock formations amongst the dry plains.
Among them all, one stands out as both the most spectacular and the most ecologically significant – the magnificent Carnarvon Gorge.
Visiting Carnarvon Gorge is the main attraction in this part of Queensland, and when you see it for yourself, you’ll realise why. Because Carnarvon Gorge is more than just a single natural wonder – it’s the setting for at least a dozen special spots in this part of the Carnarvon National Park.
The gorge itself is formed by the sandstone cliffs on either side – a couple of hundred metres high and running across from each other for about 30 kilometres. And within it are sections of rainforest, ancient fern gardens, rock pools, stone theatres, and Indigenous rock art.
I think Carnarvon Gorge is different to somewhere like the Northern Territory’s Kings Canyon, which is all about the dramatic vistas of the same site from different angles. When you visit Carnarvon Gorge, you’ll realise that it’s about exploring the variety of environments that are spread through quite a large area – certainly large enough to warrant at least two days at Carnarvon (more on that soon).
Why is Carnarvon Gorge special?
Carnarvon Gorge is one of the most spectacular natural sights in inland Queensland. Stretching for 30 kilometres, there are a number of hikes in Carnarvon Gorge that lead you to stunning rock formations like the Amphitheatre. There is also significant Indigenous rock art and an incredible biodiversity of plants and animals.
How many days do you need at Carnarvon Gorge?
It is possible to do the highlights of Carnarvon Gorge in a day, but it will feel rushed. Two days at Carnarvon Gorge is what I would recommend. If you have three days, you’ll be able to fill them exploring some of the quieter parts of the gorge.
When is the best time to visit Carnarvon Gorge?
It can get very hot here, so the best time to visit Carnarvon Gorge is in the winter, between about April and September. Outside of these months, you may find it too hot to hike all day – and not all accommodation options and local businesses are open in summer.
Carnarvon Gorge gets particularly busy during school holidays, so try to avoid those periods if possible.
To see Carnarvon Gorge, you need to be in Carnarvon Gorge. There are no viewpoints that you can drive up to, or bus tours that will show you the site.
It’s the different environments running through the ravine that take you on a journey through the biodiversity – from grasslands to rainforest and rocky beds. And it’s the little detours along the way that make it even more special.
Most of the walks and ways to access Carnarvon Gorge are at ground level – you tend to be looking up at the sandstone cliffs, rather than down from them (with the notable exception of Boolimba Bluff). So doing some walking is unavoidable, but the good news is that it’s mostly flat and easy to wander along.
For people with accessibility issues, there are a few shorter trails before the main mouth of the gorge, which I’ll mention in a moment. But for most visitors, prepare to spend at least a few hours out in the park.
Come prepared to spend the day in the national park. There are no shops, so bring all your food and water for the day. Consider also having a basic first aid kit and anything else you might need in an emergency.
Because there are no shops in the park, you’ll need to bring your own food and water. There is water in the river, but it would need to be treated before you drink it.
And although it’s always sensible to have supplies in case of an emergency, the reality is that the main track is very safe and has a constant flow of people walking along it. You should be prepared, but not concerned.
It is worth having a plan for how you want to visit Carnarvon Gorge, though, because there’s a fair bit of walking involved. In a moment, I’ll share some suggested itineraries, but first I want to run you through the options of what you can do at Carnarvon Gorge.
Carnarvon Gorge walks
As I’ve mentioned, walking is the primary activity in Carnarvon Gorge. Although most people do the Main Gorge Track (and it is the best), there are quite a few other options that make good additions or offer an alternative if you’re looking for something different.
Mickey Creek Gorge
Driving in to Carnarvon Gorge along the access road, you’ll reach the start of the Mickey Creek Gorge walk about two kilometres before you get to the Visitor Information Centre. The trail takes you into a narrow side gorge with a bubbling creek and moss covering the walls.
The official track is only about 1.5 kilometres long and from there you can make your own way along the gorge, jumping across the rocks and scrambling your way further along to feel a bit like an explorer. It’s not difficult, but you certainly need to concentrate on what you’re doing.
About 600 metres past the start of the Mickey Creek Gorge walk, still before you get to the Visitor Information Centre, is the car park for the Rock Pool. This beautiful water hole is great for a swim in the warmer months and also makes a nice spot for a picnic.
To get from the carpark to the pool is just a few minutes’ easy walk, but from here you can stretch your legs and take the 1.8km trail that leads to the visitor area – meaning some members of your group can walk and some can drive, if that’s required.
You’ll find the nature trail just near the Visitor Information Centre and it’s just a short 1.5km loop that gives you a taste of what there is to find in Carnarvon Gorge. It’s good for young kids or people who don’t want to do the longer track.
The trail goes along the Carnarvon Creek and there are plenty of birds to see amongst the spotted gums and fan palms. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to spot wildlife, and you may even get to see a platypus, if you’re lucky!
While most of the Carnarvon Gorge walks are relatively flat, the exception is the hike to Boolimba Bluff, that takes you up to the top of one of the ridges. While it comes off the main track as a detour, many people do it as a separate walk for sunrise or in the early morning, when the light is best.
From the visitor area, it’s a 3.2km walk in each direction, or 2.1km each direction from the main track turnoff. It’s got some steep sections towards the end, including a series of ladders, but the view across the gorge to the colourful cliffs on the other side makes it all worthwhile.
Main Gorge Track
Of all the possible walks at Carnarvon Gorge, this is the one you need to prioritise. It’s the main event and the best way to take in all the splendour that is found here. The good news is that it’s not particularly difficult, with the only tricky spots being the creek crossings, where you’ll need some balance to hop across the stepping stones.
The Main Gorge Track goes down the centre of the gorge, vaguely following the river, and passes through a series of microclimates. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re in a eucalyptus forest, other times it looks more like a rainforest. Cycads and fan palms are some of the most obvious flora, and there’s lots of birdlife all around you.
Coming off the Main Gorge Track are the most popular things to see at Carnarvon Gorge, such as the Amphitheatre and the Art Gallery. I’ll go into more detail about them shortly, but taking the detours to see them all is certainly recommended.
The trail is about 10 kilometres long in each direction and a fast walker will be able to go one way in about two hours (an average walk should probably allow closer to three hours with breaks). If you do all the detours (other than Boolimba Bluff), it’s about an extra two kilometres.
Many visitors just walk halfway to the Art Gallery and then come back, which makes it an easier walk. But I think some of the more dramatic cliff landscapes and river vistas are further on, so try to do it all if you can.
Almost everyone who visits Carnarvon Gorge will stick to the main trail or the other easy options near the entrance. But for those who want something a bit more adventurous, there are a few remote tracks you can tackle.
A difficult but rewarding trail is the hike to Battleship Spur, which is on top of one of the ridges and offers incredible views back across the gorge, for the best overall view of how the landscape looks.
It starts near Big Bend at the end of the Main Gorge Track, through Boowinda Gorge and then up a steep gradient. From Big Bend, it’s 8km return – or from the visitor area, it’s 30km return (making it possible for a fit walker to do it in a very long day).
Another option is the Devil’s Sign Post, which is in the opposite direction and doesn’t go along any of the Main Gorge Track. This rocky formation, high up the top of an incline, has incredible views across the landscape – but it’s not an obvious walk.
You can either get there by going off track from the Carnarvon Great Walk trail, or follow the ridge line from the Rock Pool (which makes it about 9.5 kilometres each way). Either way, take precautions and let someone know your plan if you’re going to do this hike.
Carnarvon Great Walk
As you may know, Queensland has ten ‘Great Walks’, which are multi-day hikes through some of the best landscapes the state offers. One of them is the Carnarvon Great Walk, and I think it’s the ultimate way to get out amongst this dramatic rocky environment.
The total length of the Carnarvon Great Walk is 87 kilometres, and it is broken up into six sections, with the shortest section 9.7 kilometres and the longest 17.3 kilometres. For this reason, it’s recommended that you do the walk over six days, although you could probably reduce that by a day or two if you wanted to rush through some of the stretches. There are campsites at the end of each section, which need to be booked in advance.
One of the wonderful things about the Carnarvon Great Walk is that it immerses you in the imposing sandstone landscapes and shows you the variety of environments, as you travel through the gorge, up along the ridges, and through the bushlands. You’ll feel like you have it all to yourself and you’ll likely have some special wildlife encounters away from the crowds.
The Carnarvon Great Walk is closed from the start of November until the end of February because it’s too unsafe to walk it during these hot months. This is certainly a walk that needs a lot of preparation, so be careful with your planning.
Things to see at Carnarvon Gorge
Along the Main Gorge Track, there’s more than just the walk. The detours along the route are highlights and these are, in some ways, the most important things to see at Carnarvon Gorge.
I would suggest visiting as many of them as you have time for. From the start of the track, in order, this is what you’ll find.
650 metres one-way from main track
Tucked away under the trees, the Moss Garden feels like a cool escape from the sun. Walking through a patch of rainforest, you’ll arrive in a sheltered side gorge that’s covered in moss. The water dripping off the green curtain flashes like fairy lights.
A boardwalk leads over a rocky creek to a small waterfall flowing over a sandstone ledge. Around it are ferns and boulders covered in bright green moss. Compared to the large cliffs in other parts of the gorge, this feels like a more intimate escape.
600 metres one-way from main track
There’s no doubt that the Amphitheatre is one of the highlights here and, of all the things to see in Carnarvon Gorge, this is one not to be missed.
To reach the end, you’ll need to climb up a small metal ladder and then walk through a narrow crack in the cliff. At the end, the huge natural cavern opens up in front of you. Over thousands of years, water has carved out this space in the middle of the rock, the roof finally collapsing to create the space you see today.
270 metres one-way from main track
Although it’s not far off the main track, Wards Canyon requires a bit of a climb up some stairs. Along the way, there’s a waterfall of note, but the main attraction is the canyon at the end.
Jumping over a few little stones, you’ll walk under a dramatic overhang that leads to the end of the canyon, and until the pocket of Gondwana rainforest that could be from the time of the dinosaurs.
The most important thing here are the king ferns (the world’s largest ferns) that are only found in this one specific spot in the gorge, creating a bit of a mystery for scientists about why that is.
The Art Gallery
300 metres one-way from main track
Another one of the most important things to see in Carnarvon Gorge, the Art Gallery is an incredible collection of Indigenous art that has been create on the stone canvas over thousands of years. Along the 62-metre-long sands tone wall, there are at least 2000 engravings, ochre stencils, and paintings of things like boomerangs, animals, and weapons.
The carvings in the rock resemble female anatomy and it’s thought that the site was used for important women’s business, most likely some kind of fertility or pregnancy ceremony. It’s interesting to think of the art as not something that was created to be admired later, but engraved as part of the ceremony itself.
Alongside the main track
In the upper section of the Main Gorge Track, where most of the day visitors don’t venture, you’ll find another Indigenous art site that is just as impressive as the Art Gallery (and actually much bigger).
Cathedral Cave is a massive overhang that was used for shelter, with stories of millennia of Indigenous life painted and carved into the sandstone. Some of the artworks are thousands of years old, while others are just 200 years, and there are some examples of ‘contact art’ here.
If you have the time, I really recommend you extend your walk along the main track to get here. There is lots to see and the scale of the site is awe-inspiring.
Begins at the main track
Just a little further along the main track is the start of Boowinda Gorge, a narrow chasm with high stone walls on either side. As you start your walk into it, you’ll find moss covering the sides and just the occasional ray of sun breaking through from above.
There’s no official track into the gorge, but the walk along cobbled stones is relatively easy. You can go as far as you like, through the twists and turns of the water-carved gorge, until the path starts to head upwards to Battleship Spur and then continues on as the Carnarvon Great Walk.
How to do Carnarvon Gorge in one day
It is possible to do Carnarvon Gorge in one day – but to make the most of it, it’ll be a really long day. Remember, it’s not just the main walk – it’s also all the things to see off to the side.
Although the first half of the walk has the main attractions, I think some of the most spectacular scenery is in the second half of the walk. This is also where you get away from the crowds and can feel more in tune with the nature.
So, my suggestion for one day in Carnarvon Gorge is to start early (try to set out by 8am) and walk all the way to the end of the main track and back, stopping into most of the sights on the side (except Boolimba Bluff, which you likely won’t have time for).
It’ll be more than 22 kilometres in total, so will take you most of the day.
To break up the walk in both directions, and to make sure you don’t miss the highlights, I recommend doing some of the detours on the way up, and some on the way back. My tip would be to see the Amphitheatre and the Art Gallery during your morning walk and the rest on the way back.
Two days at Carnarvon
Spending two days at Carnarvon is much better than one day because it allows you to see a bit more, plus go at a more leisurely pace (without a super early morning).
If you’re going to do Carnarvon over two days, I would suggest spending the first day walking to the end of the main track and back – but do all the detours on the return leg, beginning at Boowinda Gorge.
You may not have time to see all of the side attractions today but that’s fine – you can see the ones you missed on day two (which is why it’s better for those ones to be closer to the start of the trail).
On the second day, hike up to Boolimba Bluff in the morning (the earlier you’re there, the better the light is). Then finish seeing any of the main sights on the main track.
In the afternoon, take your time exploring the Rock Pool (a lovely place for a packed lunch), and also Mickey Creek. This second day will be more relaxed than the first and you may find yourself finding the time to look at more of the details within the national park.
Carnarvon Gorge tours
It’s easy enough to visit Carnarvon Gorge by yourself – you won’t get lost on the main track, and there are plenty of other hikers in the popular areas to help if you ran into a problem.
But taking a Carnarvon Gorge tour can be a fantastic way to see a different side of this natural wonder. The hiking trails are surrounded by a whole range of ecosystems and there are so many fascinating things to see and learn about. I can tell you from personal experience that you miss 90% of what’s around you if there’s nobody to point it out.
The best guided experience you can have here is with Carnarvon Gorge Eco Tours. Run by locals Simon and Michelle, they are experts on ecology and nature tourism and will be able to give you a much deeper appreciation of what’s in the national park.
How do you get to Carnarvon Gorge?
There is no public transport to Carnarvon Gorge, so you’ll need to drive in. The good news is that the roads have been sealed now, so it’s an easy (although long) drive from any direction.
If you’re flying and hiring a car, the three closest airports are Roma (2h 45m), Emerald (2h 45m) or Rockhampton (4h 30m). From Brisbane to Carnarvon Gorge is about eight hours by car.
A final tip for drivers – fill up on petrol at Rolleston or Injune because there is no fuel available in the park.
How much does it cost to visit Carnarvon Gorge?
Great news – it’s free to visit Carnarvon Gorge! There is no ticket or pass needed to go into Carnarvon Gorge National Park and spend time there during the day. You will need a camping permit if you’re staying overnight in the national park, though.
When is Carnarvon Gorge open?
Carnarvon Gorge National Park is open 24 hours a day, all year round (but you can check the official website just to make sure there are no park alerts about unexpected closures). The Visitor Information Centre is open every day (except Christmas Day) from 8am to 4pm.
Carnarvon Gorge accommodation
The first and very important piece of advice I would offer is to make sure you book accommodation before you arrive – and try to book it as early as possible! There are only a limited number of options and they can get full, especially in busy periods like school holidays.
There are four places to stay at Carnarvon Gorge, offering a bit of variety, depending on what you’re looking for.
- Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge: The most popular option is the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge, which consists of 28 large safari-style cabins set among grass that kangaroos like to graze on in the evening. Some of the cabins can accommodate a family of four, and there are two kitchens for self-catering (the restaurant is closed until 2023). It’s very close to the park and I would recommend it for people looking for the most comfortable accommodation.
- Big 4 Breeze Holiday Park: Just slightly further away from the gorge is the Big 4 Breeze Holiday Park, which has a range of cottages, villas and tents that can fit up to 5 people. They’re a bit more basic but are still perfectly comfortable and are a bit cheaper. It’s a better option for budget travellers or families.
- Sandstone Park: For people travelling with a campervan, there’s Sandstone Park, which has 41 drive-through sites. It’s pretty rustic but there’s a dump point and some portaloos. You’ll need to be fairly self-sufficient, but it’s good value – and pets are allowed.
- National Park campsite: If you want to get back to basics, there’s also a campsite near the start of the main walk in the national park. The Carnarvon Gorge Camping Area is only open in the Easter, June/July and August/September Queensland school holidays and doesn’t have a lot of space, so book early.
- It’s also worth noting that there is a campsite at Big Bend, but that’s 10 kilometres along the main walking track, so you’ll have to hike in with everything.
The other Carnarvon Gorge accommodation that you might like to consider is the charming Wallaroo Outback Retreat. It’s about an hour’s drive away so is not the most convenient if you want to spend more than a day at Carnarvon Gorge.
But it is a wonderful experience in itself, with glamping tents and a friendly homestead on a cattle station. There are other things to do around the site and it can make for a lovely base in the region for a few days.