Heading up to the Northern Territory to discover Darwin and its surrounding areas makes for a fantastic adventure in and around one of the less well-known Australian state capitals.
One of the biggest drawcards are its national parks. Home to the world-renowned culturally significant Kakadu National Park and the comparatively smaller, but just as beautiful Litchfield National Park, you are very much spoilt for choice when you visit the Top End.
While both these places are fantastic to visit mid-year when everything is open and much less hot and humid, vacationing in the off-peak wet season when everything is lush, green and bursting at the seams from daily monsoonal rains also provides many perks.
Kakadu Or Litchfield
If you’re considering travelling to the Top End and don’t mind getting soaked from sweating profusely or the afternoon storms, you can see some of Australia’s most iconic national parks in their rawest and most beautiful. But if you’re only visiting for a few days, and want to pick one to do thoroughly, which do you choose, Kakadu or Litchfield National Park?
Helping to slim down the list for those overwhelmed with the multitude of choices these spectacular parks offer is that numerous walks, roads and 4WD tracks are seasonally closed due to the flooding. Additionally, many tours (particularly cultural ones) don’t operate due to the drop in tourists as most prefer to during the drier, more atmospherically stable times of the year.
But don’t let the closures put you off. There’s still plenty to pack into your short stay in the Top End. Let’s get started.
Ah, the landscape. Breathtaking areas of untouched wilderness that are carved by the natural forces that shape everything in our universe. These two stunning national parks in the Tropic Of Capricorn are both beautiful and spectacular but in vastly different ways.
Kakadu National Park
Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu, is part of the wetlands region and is majoritively flat and made up of rivers and creeks snaking across the landscape. Rising dramatically from the extensive plains are stunning escarpments that house intriguing Aboriginal rock art and powerful, thundering waterfalls.
Unfortunately, during the wet season, most of the waterfalls are closed, but even when they are not, access is largely only for capable 4WD.
Jim Jim Falls & Twin Falls (Flight)
If you are willing to take to the skies, you not only get a breathtaking view of the unimaginably vast untamed wilderness that is Kakadu National Park, you also get a spectacular birds-eye view of two of the parks most famous, staggeringly beautiful landmark features in full flow, Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls. (And even some bonus hidden waterfalls.)
Vehicular access to these falls even during the dry season is rough, with only the most capable and self-sufficient 4WDs being able to take the drive. This road is so rugged that rental companies have black-listed it, even if you hire a 4WD, which makes seeing the falls from the sky during the wet season more inviting. (Flights don’t go over Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls in the dry season.)
- Click here to read my review of Kakadu Air’s Wet Season Flight over Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls.
Even if you don’t have a 4WD or wish to take a flight, you might see a spontaneous waterfall. Due to all the heavy rain that sometimes persists for hours, sometimes those waters gather enough and create a new waterfall, however, they’re not guaranteed and are often fleeting. Burrungkuy(Nourlangie) is a nice 2WD accessible place to spot one of these temporary waterfalls.
While numerous walks and roads are seasonally closed during the wet season, there is still enough to keep your days busy as you traverse through Kakadu.
Cliffs, Escarpments and Lookouts
Spectacular walks include the three culturally significant sites of Ubirr, Burrungkuy(Nourlangie) and Nanguluwurr. These walks take you to ancient aboriginal rock art sites and shelters, but more on that later. Not only are they significant to the history of the Aboriginal people, but the protruding cliffs that rise above the landscape are also breathtaking to behold.
Ubirr and Burrungkuy(Nourlangie) also have lookouts where you can gaze upon the surrounding wetlands and back towards the rugged cliffs that play such a significant role in preserving the Aboriginal culture.
Another place with a stunning lookout that should not be overlooked is Nawurlandja which at only 300m seems like it wouldn’t be great, but the short walk to get there shouldn’t be underestimated. The short climb up the open-faced rock escarpment is utterly breathtaking, unforgettable, and the perfect place to watch the sun break over the horizon at sunrise or witness the clouds roll in on a stormy afternoon.
More walks that are usually open during the wet season are the Kuraba Pools, Bukbukluk, Mirrai and Gungural.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park may be significantly smaller than its enormous neighbour, but what it lacks in comparative size, it more than packs a massive punch. Although the 4WD tracks are seasonally closed during the wet season, most of the walks along the 2WD road around the park are open and so breathtakingly beautiful that you won’t feel like your missing out.
Much of Litchfield‘s appeal is its staggeringly beautiful waterfalls. It is waterfall heaven, and none-so-more is it realised than during the wet season when heavy rains flood the rivers. The resulting thunderous waterfalls making their way over spectacular cliffs are nothing short of breathtaking.
Not only is it incredible to view such a powerful, serene scene at its fullest and most beautiful, but a few of them are also swimmable.
Florence Falls, Buleys Rockhole, the top of Tjaetaba Falls and the Upper Cascades are all swimmable year-round, although the latter three might be not all that great when the rain stops and the water flowing through them dwindles as the dry season progress.
But in the wet season, when they are full, gushing and spectacular, wild swimming in these beautiful natural, crystalline pools is refreshing and unforgettable, especially after a hot and humid walk to get there.
Meanwhile, the incredible Wangi Falls is still open for walks but is seasonally closed for swimming during the rainy season.
The Other Waterfall
Another waterfall walk that is open during the monsoon season is Tolmer Falls. Swimming is not permissible any time of year, but that doesn’t mean its skippable. It is not only staggeringly beautiful, but the gorge and the cascades are also incredible breathtaking. It makes for a fantastic place to watch the day end and see the sun dip below the horizon.
If you’re looking for a cultural experience to learn about the Aboriginals and their traditional ways of life, look no further than Kakadu National Park. World-heritage listed for its cultural significance, numerous clans still live similar lives to their ancestors within the park.
Although a lot of tours and activities that focus on and teach how the original Australian inhabitants lived, hunted, survived and created are put on hold during the wet season, you are still able to have a cultural experience when the monsoonal rains are flooding the earth.
Kakadu National Park
Aboriginal Rock Art
Three renowned rock art sites dating back up to 20,000 years are usually visitable during the bookend months of the calendar year.
Sites such as Ubirr and Burrungkuy(Nourlangie) are the ones that everyone hits up, as the walks are short, which is a hell of a lot more tolerable under a summer sky than the 4km walk that leads to Nanguluwurr.
That being said, Nanguluwurr’s rock art is beautiful and enchanting, and the cliff face the artistry sits upon is breathtaking, making a lonely walk through the park a worthy one.
While Nanguluwurr’s rock art was a personal favourite of mine, at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) you learn of the Dreamtime Lightning Man & Rainbow Serpent who play a huge role in Aboriginal culture whilst walking through and amongst incredible breaks in the cliffs faces to see where the indigenous Australians sheltered before arriving at an incredible lookout.
(Unfortunately, due to the El Nina making the sky cry more than usual, I was unable to visit the most popular rock art site Ubirr so I can’t say too much about it, but it is normally open during a regular monsoon season.)
In addition to the ancient art painted at the base of spectacular cliffs, there’s also the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Yellow Water and the Marrawuddi Gallery at Bowali Visitor Centre in Jabiru where you the learn about the landscape and the indigenous way of life.
Litchfield National Park
As far as I’m aware, Litchfield National Park doesn’t have any of the cultural things that Kakadu prides itself on.
Size & Distance
At 1,458km2, Litchfield is not a small national park by any means, but with Kakadu National Park spanning 19,803km2, it barely even registers in comparison to its brethren to the east which takes out the title of Australia’s most expansive national park.
This means that there is a lot of driving involved which is considerably time-consuming for those on a tighter time constraint.
To put it into perspective, a circuit trip from Darwin around Litchfield National Park is approximately 300km.
A drive around Kakadu starting and finishing at the capital is more than double at almost 700km which is a long-ass way to travel in just a few days.
Keep in mind too that if you’re making your way around in a rental vehicle, most companies limit the number of kilometres you can travel to 100 per day, before charging fees per km over. This is something to consider as the distance adds up quickly, and those numbers don’t account for detours, side trips, getting lost and missing the exit, and can lead to a hefty added charge.
In conclusion, Kakadu is a big, ass-numbing drive, so Litchfield takes the cake when it comes to making the most out of a short adventure in of the Top End.
Drive & Rental Car Accessibility
Whilst nature, scenery and geographical features are, for obvious reasons, the biggest drawcards in deciding which national park to hit up, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the car getting there too.
Ordinarily, the drive isn’t that much of a deciding factor, but if you’re hiring a rental car, there are some parameters you need to take into account. For example, most hire companies will not let anything less than a full 4WD on unsealed roads. Even SUVs aren’t allowed on flat, smooth, unsealed roads.
It’s ludicrous and a lot more expensive, especially when you consider the number of days you’ll be travelling. The fewer days you spend with the vehicle, the fewer kilometres you’ll be able to travel without having to pay for each km you go over your limit. As mentioned before, Litchfield is a minimum 300km round trip from Darwin, whereas Kakadu is at least 700km. That could potentially lead to a lot of km over on top of the inflated price to get a 4WD to access some walks.
If you are travelling to Litchfield, however, you’re in luck. All of the walks that are open during the dry season are just off the main road and are sealed and in good condition. The only exception is Tabletop Swamp which is a dirt road (the walk was flooded and not very exciting when I went there), the campgrounds (although I believe campgrounds are okay to access) and Wangi Falls, which while sealed, needs some serious repair (at the time I visited).
Whilst all of Litchfield National Park is a sealed bitumen, there is a stretch of unsealed road in good condition between the top entrance of the park and Berry Springs.
If Kakadu has so far tickled your fancy, you might consider otherwise if you’re considering hiring a 2WD or an SUV. Like Litchfield, the main road through the park is asphalt and in good nick, there are a few roads to walk that are unsealed and some that you definitely can’t get to in a low clearance vehicle.
The walks that you are able to access in a 2WD on a bitumen road are Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), Nawurlandja Lookout, Ubirr and Gungural.
Access to Nanguluwurr, Bukbukluk is a decent unsealed road, while Kuraba Pools, Ikoymarrwa Rock Hole would all require a more capable 4WD.
(I was unable to go to Yurmikmik due to flooded roads however it is usually open during the monsoon seasons. I believe that one is a quite corroded road ordinarily.)
Kakadu Or Litchfield Comparison
|Litchfield National Park||Kakadu National Park|
|Minimum Circuit Drive Distance From Darwin (Approx.)||300km||700km|
|Cultural Experiences||No.||3 Aboriginal Rock Art Sites (2 with lookouts)|
Bowali Visitor Centre
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
(Swimming may be seasonally closed or temporarily closed if the water gets too high)
| Tolmer Falls|
Florence Falls (Swimming)
Buleys Rockhole (Swimming)
Wangi Falls (Swimming Seasonally Closed)
Tjaebata (Swimming In Top Pool Above Waterfall)
|Ikoymarrwa Rock Hole (Croc advisory Sign) (4WD only, but short enough to walk in from the main road)|
Jim Jim Falls & Twin Falls (Scenic Flight only)
Motor Car Falls & Kurrundie Falls (Yurmikmik)
All other waterfalls are seasonally closed.
|Other Walks/ Attractions||Magnetic Termite Mounds|
|Roads||Road through national park sealed, but between the top entrance and Berry Springs, there is a unsealed section. All 4WD tracks seasonally closed.||Road through national park sealed.|
Some roads to tracks unsealed. Some only for 4WD.
Many other 4WD roads seasonally closed.
So, Kakadu or Litchfield National Park.
Both Kakadu and Litchfield are beautiful national parks which are vastly different. Depending on what you wish to get our of your short adventure in the Top End will determine which one is more suited to you.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is a largely flat wetland region with stunning escarpments with cultural significance. Most of the waterfalls and some tracks and all 4WD drives are seasonally closed, but the land is green vibrant and awash with flooded rivers and creeks which look vastly different between the wet and the dry season. There’s also Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls. A scenic flight over them is a must.
But Kakadu is also a very long drive, with dirt roads taking you to some of the walks that still remain open during the monsoon season. This can be problematic for 2WD/SUV rental car hirers, especially during a short holiday as you’re going to exceed your kilometres by a large margin as well as being limited to bitumen roads.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield, on the other hand, is still mostly open and the waterfalls are always the most spectacular after a lot of rain of which the Top End always has in abundance during the wet season. It’s also fantastic to be able to cool off in the refreshing waterfalls of the plunge pools after working up a sweat in the relentless humidity.
It’s also a much shorter drive than Kakadu, and most of the roads (all of the ones to the waterfalls) are sealed meaning you don’t need to hire a 4WD to make the most out of it. Additionally, the walks are much closer together allowing you to fit more into your day.
For the most part, in my personal opinion, Kakadu doesn’t tick all the boxes for a short holiday in a national park. The experience between the dry season and the wet season wouldn’t differ greatly. The rivers might be less flooded, the landscape would be less green but the Aboriginal art will still be there and the lookouts will have the same be similar. And if you come in the dry season, rent a 4WD and access just about everything without having to worry about closures.
Litchfield, however, ticks all the boxes. It’s closer, largely accessible by a 2WD, you’re able to fit more adventure in a day rather than copious amounts of driving, and most importantly, the waterfalls.
No one wants to see a trickling waterfall. While some waterfalls do flow year-round and are beautiful, if you’re coming in the wet season, beautiful becomes epic and epic becomes awe-inspiring.
Not only are the numerous waterfalls incredible to view at full flow, being able to experience swimming in them is something else altogether. And even more rewarding than that is doing on a hot summers day when you’re drenched in sweat and all you want to do is chill.
As for Jim Jim Falls & Twin Falls, well, there are flights from Darwin too so you don’t have to miss out on the Top End’s most spectacular landmarks in full flow.
- (Not convinced to visit during the monsoonal season? Read my post Reasons The Northern Territory Top End Is The Greatest In The Wet Season to see how rewarding a visit during this season of change can be.)
Regardless though of whether you choose to visit Kakadu or Litchfield National Park during your short stay in the Northern Territory, it will be sure to be an exciting and memorable adventure.
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