This blog post was written in collaboration with the Northern Territory tourist board. All opinions remain my own.
The Stuart Highway can be a hot, dusty and lonely road, connecting Darwin at the top of the Northern Territory to Adelaide, some 3,000 kilometres further south. Small towns (and the occasional city) are dotted along the road, but for the most part, it’s just you and the desert.
But every so often, you’ll reach an oasis like Katherine. This town is about three hours from Darwin and an hour and a half from Kakadu National Park. With a population of 10,000, it’s hardly a metropolis, but it has some of the most incredible Northern Territory attractions right on its doorstep.
Katherine’s position makes it a perfect place for people exploring Darwin and Kakadu to stop, or it’s a popular stop on a Darwin to Adelaide road trip.
In fact, when I visited Katherine, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t more popular. The dramatic landscapes, the variety of activities and the rich history of the city drew me in, and made me wish I had a lot longer than three days in town!
So, what are the best things to do in Katherine, and what should you know before visiting? We’ll go into them all in this blog post.
Best things to do in Katherine
Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)
The main jewel in Katherine’s crown, Nitmiluk National Park is home to a spellbinding 13 huge gorges. Owned by the Jawoyn Aboriginal People, Nitmiluk National Park means “Cicada Place” in their language; while it’s also called Katherine Gorge, the Aboriginal name is the most respectful.
This national park is the perfect place for hiking, boat trips and helicopter tours, with lots of opportunities to learn about Jawoyn Dreaming.
Here are some of the best things to do in the National Park!
Take a boat through the gorge
One of the highlights of the entire Katherine area is taking a scenic boat through Nitmiluk Gorge itself. Taking two hours (with a dawn cruise option to see the park in its gorgeous first light), this tour traverses some of Nitmiluk’s best gorges, with stop-offs to look out for animals, enjoy views or take short hiking trails.
The tour’s commentary focuses on Jawoyn culture and history, giving you the chance to learn about their deep connection with the land and some of the wildlife that lives around the gorges – you should have the opportunity to see some of these animals throughout the tour as well!
Explore the Leilyn (Edith Falls) area
Positioned in the north area of Nitmiluk National Park, Leilyn (Edith Falls) is one of the dreamiest waterfalls in the top end. Red rock surrounds fierce waters plunging into the pool below, which makes for an enticing swim on a scorching hot NT day. Leilyn is open for swimming throughout most of the year, apart from certain times in the wet season.
You could stay at the foot of Leilyn and watch the falls all day – they’re entrancing – but if you’d like to explore further, it’s worth taking one of Leilyn’s walking trails. The 2.6km Leilyn Trail traverses the entire falls, with the option to swim in the waterfall upper pool. Alternatively, hike around 4.5 km to reach Sweetwater Pool, which you can also swim in, and return the same way.
While you can certainly see Katherine Gorge and Leilyn on the same day (it’s about an hour’s drive between the two) you might find it more relaxed to set aside an entire day for hiking, relaxing and picnicking at Leilyn!
Also, Leilyn is further north, so if you’re driving from Darwin or Kakadu, you might want to stop over here first before venturing down to Katherine.
Hike the Jatbula Trail
Leilyn is also at the end of the 62km-long Jatbula Trail, which connects Nitmiluk Gorge with Leilyn and takes in the best of the national park.
This hike isn’t for the faint-hearted – it’s long, remote and very warm – but if you’re confident with bush hiking and camping and have all the equipment, I’ve heard it’s an incredible experience.
Helicopter ride through the gorge
Seeing Nitmiluk National Park from a boat or exploring by foot is incredible, but gazing down at the panoramic vista from a birds-eye perspective may just take the medal for the best activity in this park!
HeliSpirit offers a range of Katherine Gorge scenic flights, with something for every taste and budget (flights start at just $109 per person!).
From the plane window, you’ll take in uninterrupted views of the glorious waterfalls, perfectly blue network of rivers and red sandstone cliffs. It’s a Katherine experience like no other!
Katherine Hot Springs
One of the best free things to do in Katherine, the town’s natural springs are a small, clear swimming spot where you can relax and unwind after a busy day of exploring Nitmuluk National Park and the town.
With a constant temperature of 25-30 degrees celsius, the hot springs are a scenic place to refresh and chill out.
The springs do get quite busy in the evening; it’s a popular time to visit after the heat of the afternoon subsides. If you want to avoid the crowds, head there first thing in the morning (they open at 7:00 am!) or in the afternoon.
Visit the town’s Aboriginal art galleries
While Nitmiluk is owned by the Jawoyn People, Katherine town is the meeting point of the Dagoman and Wardamam People’s traditional land. For millenniums, it’s been a place of cross-cultural exchange between these three groups, and this is represented today in the Aboriginal art galleries of the town.
These Aboriginal-owned art galleries are among those open for any tourists wishing to browse and make purchases:
Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts: This is an art gallery and store, and artists who showcase their work here are often around to discuss Indigenous culture and heritage with guests. Half of the proceeds from the artwork go directly to the artist, and half goes towards the shop.
Djilpin Art Gallery: This gallery showcases work from the Ghunmarn Culture Centre which is situated in Wugularr (also called Beswick), a nearby Aboriginal community. You can also visit the Ghunmarn Culture Centre.
Top Didj & Art Gallery: More of a full cultural experience than just an art gallery, visit Top Didj to browse the selection of paintings or join a two-and-a-half-hour cultural experience, where Manuel Pamkal, an Aboriginal artist, will detail his culture, customs and artwork style. This experience provides tourists with a window into Katherine’s fascinating cultural heritage by directly supporting the artist.
If you want to learn a little more about this fascinating town, including its thousands of years as an important Aboriginal meeting place and modern history, then head to the Katherine Museum.
Detailing information from the First People of the land to the town’s bombing in World War Two, to modern-day Katherine, there’s so much to learn about this tiny town, and the museum is chock-a-block with fascinating facts and intriguing exhibits.
There’s also an interesting exhibition in Katherine Museum that’s all about the School of the Air. Long before Zoom online classes were a thing, the School of the Air taught children in outback communities remotely.
The communities that these children lived in were too small to have a school, so children used radio to communicate with their teachers, who could be thousands of kilometres away.
Today, of course, online technology has taken over from radio, but it’s a fascinating look into the intricacies of rural Australian life! The Katherine School of the Air used to offer tours, but nowadays, there’s a permanent exhibition at the museum instead.
Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park
Just a 25-minute drive from Katherine town centre sits these enchanting karst limestone caves which date back millions of years.
Not only are the caves, which sit about 15 metres under ground level, absolutely enthralling, but you can look out for wildlife like the orange horseshoe bat or brown tree snake!
You can explore the Cutta Cutta Caves on a tour, and there is also a Tropical Woodland Walk to take in some of the region’s forest and wildlife.
Mataranka and Bitter Springs
Within the Elsey National Park, the Mataranka Springs and their neighbour, Bitter Springs, are two magical clear watering holes, perfect for swimming or relaxing, both lined by tropical palms.
The Elsey National Park also has a few walking trails where you can take in the tranquillity of the natural rainforest.
These springs are located about an hour south of Katherine on the Stuart Highway.
Kakadu National Park
Although Kakadu National Park is a vast place – it’s Australia’s biggest National Park and is half the size of Switzerland – it’s worth mentioning on this Katherine attractions list because of their relative proximity.
Kakadu is majestic. It’s a tropical paradise that spans savannah, tropical rainforest, sandstone cliffs and waterfalls, with countless hikes, 65,000+ years of Aboriginal history, incredible camp spots, breathtaking waterfalls and even a hotel shaped like a crocodile.
You’ll need days to fully take in Kakadu National Park, but here are some of the highlights:
- Exploring Ubirr and seeing ancient Aboriginal rock art
- Hiking to the top of Gunlom Falls and taking a dip in the natural infinity pool
- Photographing the majestic Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls
- Looking out for saltwater crocodiles at Cahill’s Crossing
- Learning about the area at the Bowali Visitor’s Centre
You can certainly see some of Kakadu on a day trip from Katherine – Gunlom Falls is the closest part – but I’d recommend taking at least three days to fully take in this gorgeous national park.
Camp out at Daly Waters
Daly Waters is about a three-hour drive south of Katherine, but as so many people travel south from the outback town towards Alice Springs and Uluru, it’s worth mentioning in this Katherine travel guide!
Daly Waters is a tiny community just off the Stuart Highway, most famous for the Daly Waters Pub. It was licensed in 1938 to provide refreshments and entertainment for people passing through the Daly Waters Airfield.
Nowadays, it’s a charismatic place, adorned with memorabilia from many guests passing through. There’s entertainment every night and fresh food and cold drinks are aplenty.
While the Stuart Highway can be a very quiet place, Daly Waters pub always manages to be busy, with anyone and everyone enjoying the cold beer and live music. Plus, there’s a campsite where you can either pitch a tent or sleep in a car or campervan.
Where to stay in Katherine
Nitmiluk Hotel: This hotel has comfortable and stylish rooms, each with its own private bathroom. There’s a pool on-site and it’s near the heart of Katherine town centre.
BIG4 Breeze Holiday Parks: Choose from a chalet, single, double or family room at this holiday park, which is set in gorgeous tropical surroundings and has a huge pool.
Knotts Crossing Resort: With cool rooms featuring comfy beds and all the mod-cons you’ll need, plus a swimming pool, Knotts is the perfect place to relax after a day spent exploring Katherine. There’s a bar and restaurant on-site and it’s close to Katherine Springs.
How to get to Katherine
Most people who visit Katherine drive, either on a road trip south (to Alice Springs, Uluru or even Adelaide) or north (to Kakadu and Darwin). However, if you’re visiting Kakadu anyway, it’s well worth adding Katherine to your Top End itinerary – it’s about a three-hour drive from Darwin city centre.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, there are plenty of car and van rental companies available in Darwin.
There is a small airport in Katherine, but there aren’t many flights available. If you don’t drive, there are Greyhound buses from Darwin.
However, you’ll need to organise a tour guide to see attractions like Nitmiluk National Park and Mataranka Springs.
Darwin to Katherine day tour
If you don’t have means of transportation, one of the best ways to see Nitmiluk National Park is by doing a day tour from Darwin to Katherine.
Nitmiluk tours typically include hotel pick up and drop off in Darwin, transport to Katherine, a knowledgeable guide, fees and a buffet lunch.
They’re a fantastic option if you don’t want to drive or just want to add on Katherine as a day trip from Darwin.
How to get to Darwin city
Darwin city has an international airport with nonstop flights to other cities in Australia, Asia (it’s only 2.5 hours from Bali!) and even some European destinations.
When is the best time to visit Katherine?
For Tropical Australia, the best time to visit – by far – is from May to October (which is winter in Australia but summer in the Northern Hemisphere!).
This is the dry season, and if you leave it much later, most attractions will be closed and roads will be cut off!
Some tourists prefer to visit at the start of the dry season, so the flowers are in full bloom and waterfalls are abundant, but any time in the dry season is feasible!
With warm weather, gorgeous scenery and fascinating Aboriginal history, Katherine is an incredible Northern Territory destination that’s still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism. But it might not be a hidden gem forever – so don’t hesitate to visit this slice of paradise.
Australia is open again for tourism, and the highlights of Katherine are waiting for you to explore!
Top Travel Tip: My top travel tip to see more of the Northern Territory is to invest in a decent car (a 4WD is great, but I got around fine with an AWD Subaru Forester), and either convert the back of the car into somewhere to sleep or install a roof tent.
Camping is the best way to really get into the heart of the NT’s nature, whether you’re staying in campsites (there are plenty along the Stuart Highway) or pitching up in registered free camp spots!
Different In Every Sense: One of my favourite memories of the Northern Territory is road tripping around Kakadu National Park with a school friend; we were both in Australia on Working Holiday Visas at the same time (my friend completed her 88 days of farm work in Darwin) and our plans synced up perfectly for this trip.
We climbed to the top of Gunlom Falls one day in 35-degree heat, to be graced with a chill plunge pool at the top; known by many as nature’s infinity pool. From here, we could look over Kakadu’s unique landscape, the glorious savannah, forest and red rock that make this national park the world-famous phenomenon it is.
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