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Top 10 national parks in Australia
Wild-at-heart Australia is home to some 500-plus national parks - all of which protect significant sections of the cinematographic landscape and delicate ecosystems. Here’s the country’s 10 most awe-inspiring natural playgrounds worth getting excited about.
Kosciuszko National Park
Where: In the south-eastern corner of New South Wales.
What: Given that it’s home to Mount Kosciuszko (the highest peak in mainland Australia at a staggering 2,228-metres), this 6,900-kilometre-squared playground offers adventure on an epic scale. Set at the source of two major rivers (the Murray and the Snowy), it comes with six wilderness areas (Byadbo, Pilot, Jagungal, Bogong Peaks, Goobarragandra, and Bimberi), a superb series of cycling, walking and hiking trails, and brilliant lookouts for bushwalkers and birdwatchers. There’s also skiing and snowboarding in the Snowy Mountains (most famously at Perisher, Thredbo, Mount Selwyn and Charlotte Pass) and interesting behind-the-scenes heritage walks in Kiandra - the town most celebrated for the country’s shortest gold rush of 1860.
Highlights: At almost exactly a quarter of the size of Mount Everest, Mount Kosciuszko (one of the seven highest summits on the world’s seven continents) is a must-climb. You have two options: hitting the designated summit trail for four or five hours of decent-paced and relatively easy walking - or hopping on the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift that rises 560 vertical metres and gets you to the closest access point (around six-kilometres from the top) in just 15-minutes.
Port Campbell National Park
Where: In the south-western district of Victoria.
What: Easily the most jaw-droppingly dramatic part of the Victorian coast, this Great Ocean Road superstar between Princetown and Peterborough draws 2.2 million wide-eyed visitors every year to gaze at The Twelve Apostles - a series of giant limestone structures that tower 45 metres above the Southern Ocean (actually only eight remain; the ninth having collapsed in July 2005). But wind-battered sea stacks aside, there’s much more to this 1830-hectare landscape; mainly the striking historic sites (the Loch Ard Gorge, London Arch, and the Grotto) that form some of Australia’s most snap-worthy scenery, the selection of self-guided walking trails, the excellent wreck and reef diving, and the superb bird watching opportunities.
Highlights: There’s nothing cuter than watching the hundreds of Little (or Fairy) Penguins that famously appear at The Twelve Apostles around 15 to 20 minutes after sunset. You won’t be able to get down to beach level, so your best bet is to grab a pair of free-to-use binoculars from the Port Campbell Visitor Information Centre and park yourself on the viewing platform. For photographers, the light here is amazing - you’ll end up using all the lenses you’ve got.
Flinders Ranges National Park
Where: In South Australia, 311 miles north of Adelaide.
What: For a soul-stirring jaunt in a 540 million-year-old landscape fuelled by rugged mountain ranges, rocky gorges, and terrific wildlife, this surreal wilderness stretching from Crystal Brook in the south to Mount Hopeless in the north assures Insta-worthy shots in all directions. Following the roads, trails and razor-edged 4WD tracks that crisscross the countryside, you’re rewarded with Aboriginal rock art sites, impressive fossil remains, and an old sheep station when you can bed down for the night in a luxe villa that has a glass panel ceiling for stargazing. Equally visit-worthy is the opal mining town of Coober Pedy (where Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed) and the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in the mountains of the Flinders Ranges.
Highlights: Make a beeline for Wilpena Pound - the Flinders’ biggest draw that’s an 80-kilometre-squared natural amphitheatre resembling a meteorite crater. Named by early settlers in the 1850’s who thought it looked like a sheep pen, this colossal bowl-shaped icon is best appreciated on a scenic flight (the Flinders Ranges Flights operate daily from the Wilpena Pound Resort air strip) - or at ground level (you can trek inside the Pound and climb up over the rim).
Great Sandy National Park, Queensland
Where: In the Fraser Coast Region of Queensland.
What: Nothing prepares you for the dramatic beauty of this 2,196-kilometre-squared wonderland made up of three unique regions: the UNESCO-listed Fraser Island (dazzling beaches, giant dunes, lush rainforests, crystal-clear creeks, freshwater lakes), Woody Island (pristine bushland, stunning ocean, great wildlife), and Cooloola (peaceful everglades, massive dunes, towering cliffs, mangrove-lined waterways, the undisturbed Noosa River). Scaling this place can take weeks, but the payoff is worth it for campers, hikers, walkers and 4WD enthusiasts keen to get stuck into canoeing, fishing, bushwalking, snorkelling, and surfing. And the bird-watching’s not bad either; keep your eyes peeled for rarities such as the red goshawk and the grass owl.
Highlights: Set on the mainland between Noosa and Rainbow Beach, the Cooloola Coast is a remote stretch of long sandy beach famous for its Teewah coloured sand cliffs. Must-dos include hiking to the historic Double Island Point lighthouse, trekking through tall open forests and heathlands on the Cooloola Wilderness Trail, rocking up at any of the 15 camping sites, and praying for good grip as you venture down the 32-kilometre off-road track at Cooloona Way.
Purnululu National Park
Where: In the East Kimberley region of Western Australia.
What: Accessed by a 4WD-only track from the Great Northern Highway north of Halls Creek or by air from Kununurra, this sandstone-filled landscape that’s around 350 million-years-old was a secret from the outside world until 1983. Nowadays, it’s a double-awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site (for natural beauty and cultural significance) as well as one of the most revered spots for Aboriginal people. The park’s striking orange-and-black striped Bungle Bungle Range is the star attraction for obvious reason (these iconic structures are deemed the finest example of cone karst sandstone on the planet), but there’s also lots of ancient rock art, craggy gorges, palm-fringed rock pools, and rare wildlife to make your journey here worthwhile.
Highlights: While there are several operators offering guided tours and bush camping experiences, nothing beats a helicopter flight over these beehive-like towers. Further thrills include exploring ancient rock art and burial sites, tackling the scenic trail to Piccaninny Creek, and hiking into the huge Cathedral Gorge - a natural red-rock amphitheatre with some seriously amazing acoustics (the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed here in 2016).
Litchfield National Park
Where: In Northern Territory, a 90-minute drive from Darwin.
What: It’s all about the incredible waterfalls, sparkling (and croc-free) plunge pools, and spring-fed streams at this 1,500-kilometre-squared park named for explorer Frederick Henry Litchfield. Easily accessed from Darwin, there’s much here to applaud; mainly the hundreds of giant magnetic termite mounds that resemble tombstones, the sandstone columns of The Lost City, and the historic Blythe Homestead Ruins that were built in 1928 and abandoned in the 1960's. Most fabulous, though, is the choice of waterfalls. There’s Florence Falls for its twin turrets and idyllic plunge pool, Buley Rockhole for its series of rapids, cascades and plunge pools surrounded by bushland, and Wangi Falls for its viewing platform and water-level boardwalk.
Highlights: For off-the-beaten-track outback adventure, the Tableetop Track is a challenging 39-kilometre-long looped circuit complete with countless creeks, waterfalls, woodlands, forests, and the lovely waterholes that Litchfield National Park is famous for. Allow yourself a maximum of five days to complete the trail (or three days if you’re super fit) and be willing to rough it at one of the no-frills campsites that can be found by following the blue-markers.
Freycinet National Park
Where: Along Tasmania’s East Coast.
What: Looking out to the Tasman Sea from the east and towards the Tasmanian coastline from the west, this heart-stoppingly beautiful peninsula is home to dusky-pink granite peaks, sugar-white beaches, secluded bays, and turquoise waters. Named for French navigator Louis de Freycinet, it offers astonishing perspectives at every turn; mainly the perfect contours of Wineglass Bay, the glowing brilliance of the Hazard Range, and the cracking views of Great Oyster Bay and the coastline surrounding the village of Swansea. The region is also brilliant for keen bird-watchers, especially at Moulting Lagoon - a RAMSAR wetland sanctuary of international importance for black swans, waterfowl, and other migratory birds. And then there’s the beaches; most magically Honeymoon Bay, Coles Bay, and the Friendly Beaches.
Highlights: As Tasmania’s most photographed beauty spots (and one of the world’s best beaches), Wineglass Bay is like finding paradise in one ravishing package; think flawless crescent shape, snow-white sands and sapphire-coloured waters against a pink-hued mountain backdrop. Be sure to complete the steep and rocky walk to the Wineglass Bay Lookout for sublime views - it’s 600 steps each way and the round-trip takes approximately two hours.
Kakadu National Park
Where: In the Northern Territory, three hours east of Darwin.
What: Covering almost 20,000-squared-kilometres, Kakaudu, Australia's largest terrestrial national park has been owned by the Aboriginal people (known as Bininj in the north of the park and Mungguy in the south) for over 50,000 years. It’s impossible to do everything here in one visit, so try to factor in a visit to the Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls, the rock art sites (there’s over 5,000), the Nardab Lookout at Ubirr, and the exquisite Barramundi Gorge. Equally unmissable is the Yellow Water Billabong Cruise for some spectacular (and safe) crocodile-spotting. There’s also epic waterfalls, cliff-side pools, lush rainforest, and rare and endemic plants and animals - including one-third of the country’s bird population and one-quarter of its fish species.
Highlights: The rock art (known by the Aboriginal people as gunbim) is top-notch, especially in the public sites of Ubirr and Nourlangie where you’ll find fascinating paintings dating back 20,000 years. These include brightly coloured “x-ray” drawings, paintings of food and hunted animals, stories about the Creation Ancestors, mystical images relating to religion, sorcery and magic, and series after series of illustrations depicting the history of the Bininj-Mungguy people.
Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park
Where: In the heart of the Red Centre in the Northern Territory.
What: It’s hard to imagine anything more magnificent than Uluru-Kata Tjuta - the 1,325-kilometre-squared landmark in the heart of Australia’s Red Centre that’s jointly owned by Parks Australia and the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara Aboriginal peoples (known as Anangu). This is home to two unique rock formations: Kata Tjuta with its group of 36 steep-sided and ochre-coloured domes, and the much larger Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). Climbing the latter has sparked much controversy as it is strongly against the wishes of the Anangu for visitors to climb this sacred site (but not illegal). Those who respect this can instead follow the 10.6-kilometre base loop that gets you up-close to the 350-metre high rock with a clear conscience.
Highlights: Watching the mother of all sunrises and sunsets from the Uluru viewing platforms is a bucket-list must, but there’s also two great walks at Kata Tjuta that are very impressive. Opt for the demanding seven-kilometre Valley of the Winds Walk that makes a loop to two fabulous lookout points - or try the much gentler 2.6-kilometre Walpa Gorge Walk for a sense of the park’s endemic animals, plants, wild flowers, and towering domes.
Daintree National Park
Where: In the far north of Queensland, just two hours from Cairns.
What: At around 1,200-squared-kilometres, this World Heritage-listed continuous area of tropical rainforest is both the largest on the Australian continent and the oldest in the world (beating the Amazon Rainforest by 65 million years). Split into two sections (Mossman Gorge with its sparkling Mossman River waters and granite boulders, and Cape Tribulation with its rainforest-clad mountains and sandy beaches), it comes with ancient plant lineages that are found nowhere else on the planet, almost two-thirds of the country’s bat and butterfly species, and one third of its frog, marsupial and reptile species. As you’d expect, the scope for adventure here is huge; from jungle surfing canopy tours and bush safaris, to bareback riding through the rainforest.
Highlights: Forged from the spirits of gold rush pioneers, timber cutters and farmers, the tiny and remote township of Daintree Village perched on a bend of the Daintree River is an essential detour. Must-dos include visiting the artists’ studios, browsing for crafts in the olde-worlde stores, working your way through platters of home-grown tropical fruits, and booking one of the famous croc-spotting cruises where sightings of the Estuarine Crocodile are 99 per cent guaranteed.