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The Northern Territory is the true hidden gem of Australia. While the East Coast is full of adrenalin-filled adventures and the west with the most incredible coastline, the Northern territory feels so incredibly different and special. With tropical climates, insane landscapes and, of course, that really famous rock in the middle, you need to add a Northern Territory road trip to your Aussie bucket list.
Want to hear something truly mind-blowing? The Northern Territory is a whopping 1.4 million square kilometres big!
I mean, how can us mere mortals even comprehend such vastness? And believe me, the NT is vast. But that’s what makes it so impressive. The NT is where you need to go to learn more about Aboriginal culture and to really throw yourself into nature. I was surprised by how much I loved it.
So with such a huge amount of land to take on, it’s pretty important to know where you’re going. I’ve put together 12 unmissable Northern Territory highlights for the ultimate Australian road trip that will take you all the way from the Devils Marbles up to Darwin.
What kind of vehicle do you need?
As you might well know, Tom and I converted an old 2wd Toyota Hiace into a campervan and this is what we travelled around in, including for our time in the Northern Territory. For this Northern Territory self drive itinerary, a 2WD is perfectly fine.
Before I got to the Northern Territory, I was convinced that there would be tonnes of dusty dirt roads that were rough and difficult to drive, but this is not the case. For much of this road trip, we were on the Stuart Highway which runs straight through the middle of Australia, connecting Adelaide and Darwin. This road is well built, tarmac and probably better than the highway that runs the length of the east coast.
So, to put it simply, you do not need a 4wd to experience the red centre and Northern Territory. I was so glad to have the space our campervan gave us. If you’re not visiting Australia long enough to justify the commitment of buying a campervan, it’s super easy to rent one. Check out vroomvroomvroom.com to compare campervan rentals, or if you would prefer, 4x4s with a camping set up included.
How long do you need?
First things first, the Uluru to Darwin drive totals 25 hours worth of dive time – but that’s half the fun of it. This route is vast but honestly one of the most incredible landscapes you can experience. Because of this though, I recommend spending between 2.5-3 weeks driving on your Northern Territory road trip. I know that might sound quite long if you’re on a time limit but I really think anything less will mean missing out and spending a lot of time driving rather than seeing things.
Where will this epic road trip take you?
To be honest, the Northern Territory is somewhere where you could be doing a different thing every day in each location for a long time. Additionally, the exact route you take will depend on your overall direction of travel. For us, we drove to the red centre via outback Queensland, visited the Devils Marbles, went down to Uluru and back up to the Devils Marbles before continuing north to Darwin. For ease though, I’m going to base this guide on the idea that you’re travelling from South to North. Here’s a break down of the Northern Territory road trip itinerary:
- Uluru National Park – 4 nights
- West Macdonnell Ranges – 1 night
- Devils Marbles – 1 night
- Daly Waters – 1 night
- Katherine – 1 night
- Nitmiluk – 2 nights
- Adelaide River – 1 day
- Litchfield – 2 nights
- Darwin – 4 nights
When is the best time of year to visit the Northern Territory?
It’s super important to know that the Northern Territory has 2 season – wet and dry. The wet season runs from November to April and the dry from May to October.
Tom and I visited in the Map and this not only meant that we didn’t get caught in rain (in fact, we didn’t see a single drop at all) but it is also the cooler time of year. Really though, the NT never gets that cool and the humidity levels remain pretty high. due to the more predictable weather, I do recommend visiting in the dry season as everything is about getting outdoors and into nature.
In the rainy season, it can really rain, with there also being a chance of cyclones and generally torrential downpours. Saying that though, I’ve heard so many people talking about how beautiful the national parks get, full of life and greenery so it can definitely have its perks!
How to find the best campsites
WikiCamps is your best friend for the road trip! This nifty little app shows you all the campsites in Australia ranging from the free ones to the big-name campgrounds making it really easy to find a pitch for the night. As it allows you to search for free sites, it’s easy to save a lot of money using this app so is an essential if you’re travelling on a budget. I’ll be telling you about my favourite campgrounds for this road trip below, but to learn more about Wikicamps (and how much I love it) take a look at my guide here.
Northern Territory packing essentials
With crazy season and temperature variations in the NT, it’s the sort of road trip where you’re going to need a few extra things. Tom and I did this road trip in the dry season but we had nights in the red centre where we were sleeping under layers of clothes and days in Darwin where we were hit with humidity. Here’s what I recommend packing:
- Sleeping bag – Some nights in the red centre it got down to about 4 degrees Celcius making for a really chilly night in the van. Tom and I would sleep in jumpers, in our sleeping bags under our duvet and it made it so much cosier. Ours packed away really small and were lightweight making them easy to store in the day as well.
- Coat – This is definitely not something I thought I would need when driving through the outback but even in the day time it was super chilly and it would have been far less enjoyable without one.
- Mosquito net – This is for your camper doors because trust me, the last thing you want is to be sleeping with a heap of mozzies. Also, the flies can be really bad in the NT and they’re no fun either. I picked up a second-hand mosquito net and just cut it down to fit our side and boot door and pegged it around the door trim when we wanted them open.
- Flynet hat – Attractive? No. Think you can go without one? Think again! Honestly, the flies can be horrendous and you’ll soon get fed up with them going in your mouth, eyes and nose. Trust me, everyone will be wearing them.
- Mosquito repellant – So important for this road trip! As soon as you get vaguely near water in the NT they come out so be prepared.
- Fly spray/zapper – As gross as it is, with the flies being so bad you’re going to want something to keep them under control inside the van. I recommend getting some fly spray or a small fly zapper as well as your mosquito nets just to keep your sanity.
- Sunscreen – No matter what the temperature, the Australian sun is fierce so pile this on!
- Water bottle/Camelbak – There are so many incredible walks and hikes to do that you’re going to need to bring plenty of water with you. As soon as we reached Daly Waters it got a lot hotter and we went nowhere without bottles of water on us. If you’re going to be doing long hikes in the summer then do not go without a Camelbak. There aren’t many refill stations around on some walks (including the Uluru base walk) so you’ll need to go prepared.
The BEST places to see on your Northern Territory Road Trip!
You guys, I had a genuine fear that after driving for days from Brisbane to Uluru, that I was going to see it as ‘just a big rock in the middle of nowhere’. But it was so not the case. I don’t think I will ever, ever forget the drive into the Kata Tjuta national park with Uluru right in front of us. It’s truly incredible.
I have a full guide you can read about to plan your days for visiting Uluru here but here’s a breakdown of what you can do and how freakin’ awesome it is:
- Uluru Base Walk – This is a flat and easy 10km walk that takes you around the whole of Uluru, offering incredible views and a chance to learn more about Dreamtime Stories and spot indigenous artwork and native fauna.
- Visit the Cultural Centre – This is the best way to learn about the importance of Uluru for the rightful landowners, the Anangu people. It’s small but packed with loads of information about why Kata Tjuta is so important, their culture and the fight they took on to get their land back. Take a look at their website here.
- Watch the sunset over Uluru – How can you not do this? There is a designated ‘sunset carpark’ for this which is where you’ll get the best views. As the sun sets, Uluru turns a fantastic deep orange/red colour. Be sure to get there early though as the car park is small!
- Do the Mala and Liru walks – These are smaller walks around Uluru but are equally as beautiful.
- Visit the Field of Light – This is simply BREATHTAKING. The sheer scale of it is astounding and it literally felt like I was walking across a bed of stars. You cannot drive to the location yourself and have to book a tour to take you there and back. Be sure to book in advance as slots fill up quickly – you can check availability on their website here.
- Take a helicopter ride over Uluru – If there’s one place to do it, it has to be Uluru! Again, it’s something where spaces fill up fast so I recommend booking in advance. You can check availability and prices below.
2. The Olgas
The Olgas are the lesser-known (but equally as spectacular) rock formations within the Kata Tjuta National Park. They are just 50km away from Uluru and you can easily see them from some viewpoints. You can easily spend a day here and as you’ve come all this way, you might as well! Here’s what you can get up to on your visit to The Olgas:
- Do the Walpa Gorge Walk – This is an easy walk that takes you right into the heart of the gorge. You’ll get an awesome panoramic view over the park.
- Do the Valley of The Winds walk – This is a longer and more challenging walk but worth it. The walk is divided up into 3 sections with the last section being pretty tricky, so you have the option to do some or all of it.
- Drive over to the Dunes Lookout – At the end of your day, stop over here for an awesome view of The Olgas and Uluru.
Where to stay near Kata Tjuta National Park
Outside the National Park
There are no free campsites within the national park but there are a few within driving distance. About 15 minutes outside the park is a lay-by where overnight camping is permitted, or about an hour down the road is the excellent Curtin Springs Wayside Inn. This is a free campsite which has toilets and showers which may be well needed on a road trip!
Inside the National Park
The town of Yulara is actually located within the national park and has a range of accommodation options. For your road trip I recommend booking a stay at the Yulara campground which makes it so much easier to visit Uluru and the Olgas. Additionally, the coach for the Field of Light trip only picks up and drops off from here so that’s something to keep in mind.
3. Mount Conner Lookout
If you’ve seen my Uluru vlog (psst… take a look here if you haven’t) you’ll know that I thought Mount Conner was Uluru *face palms*. So here’s my heads so you don’t fall for this as well! You’ll see this huge rock as you drive towards Uluru and it’s well worth a stop at the lookout. I recommend an overnight stop here though to break up the drive and soak in the views.
- Admire the view of Mount Conner from the lookout point.
- Climb the sand dunes to the huge salt lake.
- stargaze the night sky (honestly, it’s awesome here!
Where to stay near the Mount Conner lookout
Conveniently, there is the Mount Conner lookout rest area to spend the night at. It’s just a small area on the side of the road but there are toilets and a great view. What more do you need?
4. The West MacDonnell National Park
Just a short drive from Alice Springs is the impressive West Macdonnell National Park. This national park is definitely not one I had heard of beforehand (in fact I think we only found out about it when we were in Alice Springs… first-class planning going on here) but it’s well worth spending a day here. In the summer it would be an awesome place to spend the day swimming and in the winter it’s still perfect for walks and wildlife spotting. Some sites here have an entrance fee or are on 4wd tracks, but there are plenty of freebies to keep you busy if you’re on a budget.
- Simpsons Gap – This is the first stop you’ll reach coming from Alice Springs. Take the track into the Gorge to the waterhole where you can take a dip if you fancy. The walk into the gorge follows a dried-up river bed which is pretty impressive.
- Ellery Big Waterhole – If you’re not into long walks then Ellery Big Waterhole is for you. This is just a stone’s throw away from the car park and IMO, the most beautiful spots. It kind of feels like there should be some fairies hanging out here. Or mermaids. I’d be happy with either.
- Ochre Pits – These brightly coloured stone pits are culturally important to the local Arraranta Indigenous people. The different stones are used to make ceremonial paints and is therefore a protected site.
- Ormiston Gorge – This is the most popular swimming spot in the summer and a really beautiful place to relax.
Where to camp near the West MacDonnell Ranges
There are plenty of campsites in the West MacDonnell Ranges at a number of locations. Take a look at the Northern Territory website here for a map of their location and more details.
5. The Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu Conservation Reserve)
The huge granite structures are something you will not forget seeing any time soon. This unique formation has formed over millions of years when lava was first pushed to the surface. Over time, cracks formed breaking the granite into rectangular chunks and wind and rain have then eroded the edges to form the boulder shape.
Additionally, Karlu Karlu is a sacred ground for the Warumungu Aboriginal people and is a key part of their creation story. As you walk around the area you will see signs asking you not to take photos of certain areas because of this. Please be respectful and responsible travellers!
To learn more about the Devils Marbles take a look at my full guide here, but below is an outline of what you can do here:
- Learn about the cultural significance – Take a look at the information signs in the visitor areas to learn about the significance of Karlu Karlu for the indigenous people.
- Do the Yakkula Walk – This is a loop walk that will take you on a decent route around the rocks formations.
- Take in an epic sunset – Watch sunset at the Nyanjiki Lookout where you will be able to see for miles.
- Do the Nurrku walk – This route will take you around the other section of the reserve and finishes at the day visitor area (where there is also wifi, just FYI)
- Go snap happy – This reserve is pretty damn photogenic; just remember to only take photos where it’s permitted.
Where to stay near the Devils Marbles
To make things even better, there is the Karlu Karlu campground which is quite literally in the middle of the Devils Marbles. It’s incredible! There is an honesty box system by the entrance where you need to pay a tiny $3.30 per person to stay and from there you can park where you want. It’s definitely one of the best campsites I stayed at!
6. Daly waters
At first, you could easily drive through Daly Waters and not quite realise what a gem it is. Yes it may be small but it is 100% somewhere you will neither regret, nor forget visiting. Daly Waters is famous for its pub and campground very conveniently located right next to it. With hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling and all sorts of ‘stuff’ (that’s really the only way to describe it) covering the walls, it’s the definition of quirky and has become an outback institution. It’s a bit like stepping into a crazy little town. It was definitely one of my Northern Territory highlights.
- Marvel at the interior decor – Trust me, you won’t have been in a pub quite like it.
- Sip up some local beers – As well as providing a really unique place to camp the night, they also have a great selection of beers on offer, so you might as well give a couple a try while you’re there.
- Tuck in on their famous Beef ‘n’ Barra BBQ – I didn’t try this myself but it looked seriously good! The pub has a massive BBQ outside where they whip this up throughout the year.
- Check out the old fashioned petrol station opposite – I’m not even sure if it actually works anymore but it looks like something out of a film.
- Enjoy the evening entertainment – To top it off, the pub hosts live bands and musicians in the afternoon and evening, as well as happy hour. The entertainment when I was there included a rather eccentric musician who lives on a riverboat and his furry chickens… Yep!
Where to stay in Daly Waters
The Daly Waters pub of course!
Katherine is one of the largest settlements in the Northern Territory and will be the most civilisation you will have seen in a while. It’s not the fanciest of places – in fact, the busiest place I saw in the town centre was outside the courthouse (yikes) BUT there are some beautiful spots to check out and get back to nature.
- Take a dip in Katherine Hot Springs – It might sound like a strange thing to do when it’s hot outside anyway, but it’s truly fantastic.
- Stock up at actual supermarkets – Doesn’t sound that exciting on paper but after not seeing anything more than an IGA, you’ll be glad to have an actual choice and not spend a fortune on groceries.
8. Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk sits right at the bottom of Kakadu but if you’re in a 2 wheel drive, is far more accessible. If you’re looking to splash out on a kayak tour then this is the place to do it. The huge sandstone gorge is spectacular and makes for a great day of being outdoors.
- Hike Katherine Gorge – There are a few walks you can do here of varying lengths. I did one that took about an hour to a lookout point which was incredible. Just don’t do it in the midday heat!
- Kayak through the gorge – Tours range from a few hours to overnight tours like this one here.
Where to stay near Nitmiluk
There’s only one place in Nitmiluk to stay for the night and that’s at Edith Falls. Not only is this campsite right in the heart of the national park but it’s also right next to Edith Falls itself. What better way to finish off a day hiking than swimming under a waterfall?
9. Litchfield National Park
If there’s one park that you cannot miss in the Northern Territory it has to be Litchfield. I love this place! With a combination of waterfalls, swimming holes and bizarre animal homes, there’s plenty to do here. What’s even better is that so much of the top things to do in Litchfield are 2wd accessible and can be reached after just a short walk from the car parks. Take a look at my full guide to visiting Litchfield here.
- Swim at Buley Rockhole – These cascades of rock pools are a brilliant place to swim. The lower pools are deep enough to jump in and the water is refreshing on a hot day.
- Visit the giant Magnetic Termite mounds – You will have probably seen termite mounds on the roadside throughout your drive (some with clothes on – what’s with that haha?) but these can reach a whopping 5m in height so are pretty impressive. Be sure to visit early to avoid the coach tours.
- Swim at Florence Falls – This is most likely going to be the busiest spot but a swim here is a must.
- Catch the views at Tolmer Falls – This spectacular waterfall is the perfect place for the most incredible views. You can do the short walk to the viewing platform or take a 6km hike around it.
- Walk to the top of Wangi Falls – An awesome 3km loop trail that will take you to the peaceful top pools where you can swim again and get some incredible views.
Camping at Litchfield National Park
Just to top everything off, a night at Litchfield means a night next to a waterfall. Wangi Falls Campground is the best place to camp in Litchfield and another chance to swim in a plunge pool. The campground does get busy so be sure to claim your spot early in the day.
Mataranka is a teeny tiny town you’ll pass through so you might as well stop here. It’s one of those small towns that doesn’t have an awful lot going on but it does have one incredible place you can’t miss, which unsurprisingly, is what it’s most famous for.
Mataranka hot springs – They are exactly that! A lush thermal pool in amongst the forest. Bliss!
11. Adelaide River
Don’t be fooled by this name, it’s definitely in the Northern Territory still. Adelaide River is just a little south from your final stop of Darwin. Adelaide River is actually a small township but it also refers to the river itself which is where you’ll find some interesting critters to see!
The Original Adelaide River Jumping Crocs Cruise – The Northern Territory is known for its crocs and this tour is a fantastic way to see them. On this tour you’ll be taken down the river in search of the many crocodiles that live and breed there. When I went, the guide was fantastic, informative and had a real passion for the animals.
I freakin’ LOVE Darwin! This city was probably the biggest surprise to me as I had no idea what to expect. It turns out, Darwin is a fantastic city with plenty going on and a great community feel about it. I honestly feel is a true gem that’s not really on the backpacker radar quite yet which is great if you want a city experience without that kind of feel. For more details, take a peep over at my guides to visiting Darwin here and here. Here’s a little bit of what you can expect though:
- Check out the awesome food scene – If you’re a big foodie then Darwin will not disappoint! The Waterfront has a great selection of food and Stokes Hill Wharf offers a market hall type dining experience but with seating outside overlooking the water. For a bit more alfresco dining, check out the food trucks at the Nightcliff Foreshore.
- Visit Mindil Night Winter Markets – Another perk of taking a Northern Territory road trip in the dry season is the chance to visit Mindil. It’s located right next to Mindil Beach and has tonnes of food, crafts and live entertainment going on. Don’t miss out watching the sunset over Mindil Beach either!
- Watch the best sunsets from pristine beaches – I don’t know how the NT does it but there was literally not a single night in Darwin where the sunset was rubbish. Not. One. Head down to one of the many beaches such as Causaurina, Lee Point or Cullen Bay for a blissful end to the day.
- Swim in the sea (without getting eaten by crocodiles) – You can’t just jump into the water in the NT because of the crocs BUT you can still swim. There is the lagoon and wave pool at the Waterfront, Leanyer waterpark (which is free) for a swim in a pool or if you want to swim in the sea, visit Causaurina Beach on a Sunday morning when the Surf Life Saving Club is on.
Phew! This was definitely a post I started writing, not quite realising how long it was going to be, so well done if you’ve made it to the end. The Northern Territory is honestly one of the most epic and unforgettable road trip routes you can do in Australia. Are you ready for your trip? Take a look at my road trip packing tips here.