Is there anything better than a stunning gorge of spectacular proportions, buried deep within the outback?
Chuck in a few mind-blowing waterholes, plummeting waterfalls, awesome hikes, and the opportunity to paddle and swim, and you’ve got a serious adventure on your hands.
But where exactly in the bush can you find these rugged gems? We set out to answer that question in this guide to eight of the best from around the nation. Buckle in. We’re about to go offroad.
1. PICCANINNY GORGE
Purnululu National Park, WA
If just getting to the Bungle Bungles isn’t far enough off the beaten track for you, fill a backpack, rope in a hardy friend and follow the fluted bedrock channels that lead deep into secluded Piccaninny Gorge.
This is the longest and most spectacular gorge in the Bungle Bungle Range, where wild, week-long adventures will have you exploring the ‘five fingers’ – exceptional sandstone chasms at the head of Piccaninny Gorge.
The gorge is hot and exposed, there are no signposts or facilities, and with no reliable water sources, walkers must be prepared to seek it out. But Piccaninny’s dramatic scenery eclipses all the hardships, luring you along Piccaninny Creek to boulder-hop beyond The Elbow where the Bungle’s distinctive domes begin to merge.
Top up your water bottles at Black Rock Pool and push on to base camp – a seasonal pool at the entrance to Piccaninny’s first finger, 15km from the trailhead. Pitch your tent and explore deeper, walking and wading upstream, shimmying through slim rock chasms and disappearing into darkened recesses where bats shift restlessly overhead.
For experienced bushwalkers only, Piccaninny Gorge is about as untouched a playground as you can find in the Kimberley, so plan for at least three days on your feet.
Get yourself there: Purnululu National Park is located 300km south of Kununurra. Allow two hours to navigate the access track off the Great Northern Highway. The park opens in April (dependent on rain) and entry is restricted to 4WD vehicles and camper trailers (plus caravans with single axles). Two bush campgrounds provide bore water (boil before drinking), toilets, picnic tables and shared wood barbecues. Entry costs $13/vehicle and camping costs $13/adult ($3/child, $10/concession). No fuel, food or mechanical assistance is available in the park.
2. HANCOCK GORGE
Karijini National Park, WA
This thrilling adventure reinvents the walking experience; where the trail disappears, you find yourself rockhopping, climbing and swimming along a rocky obstacle course through exhilarating Hancock Gorge. Clearly it’s no walk in the park, but, if you’re prepared to get wet, don’t be put off by this Class 5 adventure.
The fun begins at Weano Recreation Area in the park’s west where a long steel ladder drops you into the gorge. Follow the swiftly flowing ‘trail’ to the Amphitheatre, a small stone arena that faces a pretty waterfall, and ditch your boots.
Next up is the Spider Walk: a narrow, water-filled chasm that you negotiate by bracing your bare feet against the highly polished rock in a crazy scary stance and shimmying along above the stream. Splash through the next watery chasm to reach Kermit’s Pool’s bright green, impossibly deep waterhole and take the ultimate plunge.
Hancock Gorge is recommended for agile walkers so be your own judge and allow three hours to complete the 1.5km return trip. If Hancock Gorge sets a new benchmark, head next door to Weano Gorge for an equally challenging wet walk to hidden Handrail Pool.
Get yourself there: Karijini National Park is located 400km off the North West Coastal Highway via Tom Price. Park entry costs $13/vehicle and camping at Dales Gorge is $13/adult and $3/child. A free camp at nearby Hamersley Gorge provides a toilet, shelter, and free solar-powered Wi-Fi. Visit from May to October.
3. LAWN HILL GORGE
Boodjamulla National Park, Qld
In Queensland’s rugged north-west, an emerald, spring-fed oasis blazes a palm-fringed path towards the sea, greening the spinifex plains and luring paddlers deep into Lawn Hill Gorge. Challenging trails elevate hikers to gorge-side lookouts, but the most fun to be had at Boodjamulla National Park happens with a paddle in your hands.
Push off from the campground’s pandanus-fringed banks and glide beneath blazing red cliffs that shoot skywards, negotiating swift reedy channels to tie up at Indarri Falls and snorkel with fat barramundi and freshwater crocodiles (if you get lucky).
Indarri Falls stalls crystal-clear Lawn Hill Creek, sending it cascading over its two metre-high drop and stealing its limestone to expand its delicate tufa falls. Portage your boat around the falls and explore all the way to the racy cascades at the top of Upper Gorge to swim with archerfish before drifting back downstream.
Hike the Wild Dog Dreaming trail (4.5km/1.5hrs return) to see Waanyi rock art and freshwater crocs sunning themselves. At day’s end, pack head torches (and a drone) and climb to the top of the Constance Range for sunset (three hours return).
Get yourself there: Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is located 100km west of Gregory Downs via the Wills Developmental Road. Entry is free, campsites cost $6.55/person ($26.20/family) and coldwater showers and drinking water are provided. Book well in advance for peak-season stays from April to October. Pack your own kayak or canoe to explore the gorge before the rental desk opens.
4. NITMILUK GORGE
Nitmiluk National Park, NT
Carved deeply into rugged sandstone, Nitmiluk Gorge is dramatic from every angle: an immense system of 13 canyons that thrills paddlers and self-sufficient walk-in campers who can adventure beyond reach of the tour boats to experience their own slice of the Katherine River’s freshwater crocodiles, falls and ancient Jawoyn rock art.
Well-prepared hikers can reach bush camps at Smitt Rock (Gorge Four) and another at Gorge Eight close to rarely seen rock art in Jawoyn Valley. A loop here via Southern Rockhole, the Lily Ponds and Smitt Rock takes three to four solid days of hot, exposed walking (46km). Paddlers prepared to tackle tricky portages can camp and canoe all the way to the ninth gorge (download a canoeing guide at nt.gov.au).
Get yourself there: Nitmiluk Gorge is located 30km from Katherine. Walk-in camps at Smitt Rock and Gorge Eight junction provide toilets and emergency call devices and water is available at six locations en route. Paddlers can camp at Gorges Four, Six (toilets) and Nine. Secure permits from the visitor centre before setting out (camping costs $3.30/person/night).
5. TREPHINA GORGE
East MacDonnell Ranges, NT
At first light in the East MacDonnell Ranges we abandon our cosy beds and hit the trail, spooking lorikeets gathered on Trephina Creek and climbing with black-flanked rock wallabies along the Panorama Track. Within 20 minutes one of the best vistas in the Red Centre is ours and we sit, mesmerised, as the rising sun that’s warming our backs turns Trephina’s teetering cliffs of quartzite gold and crimson.
Rock wallabies rest motionless on towering lookouts that zigzag north into Mordor Pound and later, after a day spent exploring Altyerre – The Red Centre’s “Eternal Land” – Trephina Gorge beckons us back to hike a solid lap along the rim of this rugged abyss, climbing through fractured rock and descending to rock pools to cool our heels as the daylight disappears.
Perhaps it’s the lack of crowds that makes Trephina Gorge such a remarkable place to explore, or the game of spotting black-flanked rock wallabies camouflaged against the rock as you climb. With undulating, rocky trails that keep you on your toes, Trephina’s hikes are more rigorous than most, and that’s precisely what makes them fun.
Get yourself there: Trephina Gorge Nature Park is located 85km east of Alice Springs. National park campsites cost $3.30/adult ($1.65/child) with toilets, free gas barbecues, tables and rainwater tanks. For power and showers, stay nearby at Ross River Resort.
6. BELL GORGE
King Leopold Ranges National Park, WA
At the western end of the Gibb River Road where the lofty King Leopold Ranges rise in flat-topped mesas and stunning pink quartzite escarpments, Bell Gorge waylays travellers with its spectacularly chilly, five-tier waterfall and deeply invigorating waterhole.
Bell’s dazzling pool is one of the best places in the Kimberley to get wet but you’ll have to work for it first. There’s a solid 50 minute hike and rock hop ahead of you before you can peel off your gear, take the plunge, kick out across the icy pool for a pummelling waterfall massage, and warm up afterwards on sunny, sculptured rock slabs that tilt and dip back into the pool.
Close by, Silent Grove campground tempts travellers with hot showers (a rare Kimberley luxury), and up the track you can gorge on a string of red rock swimming pools at Adcock, Galvans and Barnett River Gorges.
Get yourself there: Bell Gorge is signposted off the Gibb River Road, 250km from Derby. Camping at Silent Grove costs $13/adult and $3/child, plus a national park’s entry fee of $13/vehicle. Plan your trip from May to September.
7. UMBRAWARRA GORGE
Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park, NT
Blissfully isolated, this little-visited chasm provides a great bush camp and big possibilities for adventures into and over its steep red cliffs. Where the walking trail ends at the first waterhole, Umbrawarra’s rugged, red walls steepen to guard a sacred Wagiman women’s site on the gorge rim that only female visitors are permitted to enter (no photographs).
Beyond here intrepid adventurers will find it near impossible to resist the call downstream into five kilometres of deep, clear, spring-fed pools. Squeezed between ever-narrowing, sheer rock walls, Umbrawarra’s waterholes are home to Merten’s water monitors and short-eared rock wallabies, and you’ll have to swim through with your gear in a dry bag. This endless, watery rock-hop is limited only by your energy and enthusiasm.
Get yourself there: Turn west off the Stuart Highway 3km south of Pine Creek and follow the gravel road for 22km to the gorge. Visit soon after the park opens in May, before the springs dry out. Camping costs $3.30/adult, $1.65/child (5-15 yrs) and $7.70/family, and pit toilets, tables and firepits are provided (no pets; BYO drinking water and firewood).
8. PORCUPINE GORGE
Porcupine Gorge National Park, Qld
From the rim of remote Porcupine Gorge, a meandering trail drops swiftly to the water’s edge, luring walkers who scramble down the cliffs to soak in sculpted, chilly waterholes and explore irresistibly dark caves along Porcupine Creek.
The marked trail might end at these cool pools (1.2km), but hardy bushwalkers can find their own footholds, adventuring downstream to reach the spectacular Pyramid. Winter is the best time to explore, but just after summer’s wet season, the creek is full and impressive. Camp on top of the cliffs and share your bush campfire with rufous bettongs.
Get yourself there: Follow the Kennedy Development Road 60km north of Hughenden. Camping (toilets, tables and fire rings) costs $6.55/person (book online via Queensland Parks in advance).