Must-See Sights in the Northern Territory

Home to a vivid and largely untamed collection of landscapes, the Northern Territory is one of the most visually distinct of Australia’s states and territories. While typical mental imagery might indicate the NT as relatively empty, it’s actually home to some of our country’s most famous landforms as well as a range of lesser-known gems that show off Aussie nature at its finest.

From sunburnt deserts to verdant floodplains to wild coastlines and everything in between, the Northern Territory is nothing if not diverse, and it’s this variety that can ironically make planning a trip to the NT somewhat difficult: with so much to take in during a potential visit, how does one narrow down its essential attractions?

Here, we break down 10 of the must-see attractions in the Northern Territory, with a focus on individual natural attractions (rather than vast regions-in-themselves such as Kakadu or man-made wildlife parks or architecture) that should form the staple of any NT adventure – extended or otherwise.

10. Karlu Karlu / The Devil’s Marbles Conservation Reserve

Devils Marbles NT
Image credit: Barry Skipsey/Tourism NT

Location: 100km south of Tennant Creek, NT

The Northern Territory is nothing if not famous for its rock formations, and one of the most unique and iconic of these gets far less attention both domestic and international that some of its more famous brothers. The Devil’s Marbles Conservation Reserve can be found around 100km to the south of Tennant Creek just off the Stuart Highway, and is surprisingly large in its scope while offering some of the most mind-boggling examples of erosion and the passage of time at work.

The Devil’s Marbles (or Karlu Karlu in the local Aboriginal dialect) has long been famous as a photography site that offers a very Australian spin on an almost Stonehenge-style atmosphere. Consisting of a large number of huge granite boulders scattered haphazardly across a wide valley, it’s perhaps most famous for its two signature “marbles” which look as though they may tumble down at any moment.

There’s far more to the reserve than just its two most famous, precariously-balanced rocks, however – each individual “marble” in the reserve looks slightly different in terms of both size and shape, and range in size everywhere from 50cm up to an impressive 6 metres. The diversity of its different marble “stacks” makes exploring the grounds exceedingly interesting, with more ambitious visitors able to clamber up on top of the rocks for a better look (although taking care is, of course, important).

“It’s perhaps most famous for its two signature “marbles” which look as though they may tumble down at any moment.”

The haphazard-yet-seemingly intentional placement of the rocks gives the impression that they may have been scattered there by humankind; however, those seeking clarity on how the formations came to be can gain insight into their history via a number of informative signs set up to detail both their geology and indigenous cultural significance.

Exploring the reserve via a series of short walks can maximise time spent for a visit to what is a relatively isolated spot, and no visit to the Marbles is complete without staying until sunset when the photographic value of the site reaches its zenith. While it’s unique enough in the day, the contrast of the shadows and distinctive shapes of the rock formations against the sun helps create what will likely be one of the most treasured visual mementos of any trip to the Northern Territory.

Devil's Marbles Conservation Reserve
Image credit: Peter Eve/Tourism NT

As with many other locations in the NT, the Reserve is no slouch at night, either, as nightfall presents some wonderful stargazing opportunities. Those wanting to stay into the evening can take advantage of the reserve’s simple bush campsite equipped with toilets, picnic tables and not much else; alternatively local tour operator Real Aussie Adventures include a visit to the Devil’s Marbles as part of their multi-day Darwin to Alice Springs itineraries as well.

9. Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park

Cutta Cutta Caves
Image credit: Nitmiluk Tours

Location: Stuart Highway outside Katherine, NT

30km to the south of the town of Katherine lies one of the oldest cave networks in Australia; one full of all the signature wonderful limestone formations one might expect, but also with enough unique characteristics to set it apart from other cave systems of its ilk.

Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park’s is a hidden gem not often talked about on Northern Territory travel itineraries that’s host to caves that were formed millions of years ago and are quite a lot warmer than other typical Aussie cave networks. The caves have a tropical/humid bent that’s quite a change from what one might typically expect, and reach around 15 metres below the surface.

Five different species of bats call the caves home, and it’s not uncommon to see them slumbering above alongside the stalactites and pretty crystalline structures protruding from the ceiling.

“It’s a cave network full of all the signature wonderful limestone formations one might expect, but also with enough unique characteristics to set it apart from other cave systems.”

There’s no claustrophobia involved here, as the caves are fairly expansive and comfortable to move around in (other than some slight squeezing required in certain sections to see everything) – just keep your eyes peeled for the occasional snake or adventurous rock wallaby during your journey.

Visitors are free to explore themselves, however guided tours of the caves run on the hour throughout the day alongside passionate local rangers, and take around an hour to cover a full overview of the caves’ formation and current environment.

Taking photos of the caves is permitted (including flash photography), and the way both camera and torch lights refract from the limestone surface and calcium deposits makes for some quite impressive snapshots. The caves themselves are well navigable via sets of stairs, while their pathways are also well-formed to help prevent potential slippage.

Cutta Cutta Caves Tours

Those wanting to extend their stay can also embark on a tropical woodland walk on a route that surrounds the caves and covers a range of the local flora of the region as well. Tours to the caves can also be done with operator Nitmiluk Tours for those looking to make a journey of things.

The caves are open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm during the dry season, but are closed between December and April during the wet when they become flooded. All it takes is around a 20 minute drive south of Katherine proper to encounter a wonder that few other NT visitors will talk about, yet is no less impressive for that fact.

8. Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon NT
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

Location: Watarrka National Park, NT

The signature highlight of the Northern Territory’s Watarrka National Park, Kings Canyon is another ruggedly beautiful, ochre-tinged location with the added benefit of far fewer crowds than some of the other more famous NT destinations on this list.

In many ways it’s a criminally underrated destination that’s often acclaimed as the surprise highlight on a many a first-timer’s NT itinerary, offering a mixture of diverse and changing scenery along with views that are truly somethign special.

The canyon is a rocky landscape dotted with a mixture of fiery sandstone cliffs and chasms, with its Rim Walk perhaps the most popular way to take the panorama all in. The walk offers the chance at often-spectacular views and plenty of stops throughout which are worthy of pausing at for a photograph along the way.

“In many ways it’s a criminally underrated destination that’s often acclaimed as the surprise highlight on a many a first-timer’s NT itinerary.”

This doesn’t come without significant effort, however, as this route for Kings Canyon starts with a challenging climb that mandates a solid level of fitness, with 500 uneven steps to navigate in order to ascend to the top (hence starting early in the day to avoid the biting heat comes recommended). The Rim Walk extends for around 6 kilometres in total for a roughly 3 to 4 hour completion time, yet the landscape it offers makes the trek well worth it.

The Garden of Eden natural waterhole – encountered around halfway – is an essential highlight, providing a concentration of greenery amongst the earthy reds. Those wanting further insight on the walk can join a tour with Kings Canyon Resort, whose guides providing expert commentary throughout.

Kings Canyon Northern Territory
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

Self-walkers can still gain context on the Canyon and its routes from some in-depth signage at the park’s entrance, and it’s not difficult to reach for those spending time at Uluru either. Expect a roughly 3.5 hour drive from Uluru via Curtin Springs for those equipped with their own transport; alternatively, day tours from Uluru to Kings Canyon that include all of its major highlights as well as guided commentary from an experienced driver guide provide a more luxurious option for those willing to spend.

7. Mataranka Thermal Pools

Mataranka Thermal Pools
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

Location: Elsey National Park, NT

One of two main viable swimming spots in Elsey National Park and sitting at around 30 to 34 degrees Celsius, the clear, warm springs of Mataranka Thermal Pool consistently draw crowds throughout the year – for a good reason. While it’s technically a “hot spring” only in the loosest sense, Mataranka is nonetheless warm enough to enjoy in all seasons and serves as a great way to wash off some of the red dust of previous NT adventures.

Fed by one of many springs that feed the Roper River, the pools serve as a great place to relax and wade in the water, and are believed to heal aches and pains – making for the perfect way to unwind after a long day of exploration. The pool resides in an idyllic portion of the park surrounded by paperbark trees and palm forest, which is shielded from the direct sunlight yet still allows enough light creeping through the leaves making for a magical dappling effect on the already vivid water.

The pools have had man-made additions in terms of paving and concrete to help stabilise its conditions in minimise the impact of the elements without breaking the natural atmosphere. This also plays a large part in keeping the waters remarkably clear, with a lack of sediment being stirred up (or unwelcome wildlife denizens which can be found at some of the NT’s other renowned natural swimming areas).

“The pools serve as a great place to relax and wade in the water, and are believed to heal aches and pains – making for the perfect way to unwind after a long day of exploration.”

As a result, the Mataranka Thermal Pools are ideal for families travelling with kids, as the lack of a current means there’s no fear of getting swept away either – simply grab a pool noodle (available for hire for a few dollars nearby) and float comfortably in relaxation.

Their popularity has made Mataranka something of an unofficial meeting point for travellers from afar to converse, and it’s not uncommon to spend several hours lazing in the waters and chatting to fellow adventurers from across the globe. This can either be a positive or negative depending on your point of view; during peak season the pools can be crowded which can remove the otherwise tranquil aspect somewhat.

Elsey National Park
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

One of the NT’s signature natural swimming venues – with no park or entry fee attached – the pool is open 24 hours a day; however, during the months of November to April flooding may make the pool inaccessible at times. Showers and toilets are available at the caravan park nearby, while its seating area makes for an enjoyable picnic spot.

Be sure to check with local information centres about accessibility before you attempt to visit the pool, and also remember: “if it’s flooded, forget it”. Expect to spend around 3 hours on the road to reach the thermal pool if travelling from Darwin – and they area easily reached just off the Stuart Highway.

6. Katherine Gorge

Katherine Gorge NT
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

Location: Nitmiluk National Park, NT

Katherine Gorge has long been one of the most popular extended day trip destinations in the Northern Territory, renowned for its mixture of easily-accessible bird life and opportunities to see fresh water crocodiles up close – almost as much as its colourful sandstone landscape.

Perhaps the signature drawcard of Nitmiluk National Park and reachable via a prompt 300km trip down the Stuart Highway from the NT’s capital, the area known as “Katherine Gorge” actually consists of over a dozen individual gorges which showcase some truly dramatic, earthy rock walls on either side.

As with many other Northern Territory wonders, the persistence of time and the elements gradually combined to carve the gorge out of the bright sandstone landscape, and the Katherine River now serves as both a visual highlight in itself as well as a method of conveyance for exploring the gorge from below. The towering sandstone cliffs reach up to 100m high in some cases – a fact that becomes obvious both from its lookout points and when cruising its waters.

“The area known as “Katherine Gorge” actually consists of over a dozen individual gorges which showcase some truly dramatic, earthy rock walls on either side.”

Those after views from above who want to take a shorter and more accessible option can embark on the gorge’s Baruwei Lookout Walk, a reasonable (yet still fairly steep) 1 hour adventure that provides an excellent overview of the waters of the Katherine River below. The track is well-formed with handrails for support and offers the chance to get up close with wildlife along the way.

It’s taking a cruise, however, that remains the flagship way to explore the gorge and is quite majestic in its own right, as every bend of the winding river offers a new spectacle. The ever-quiet and serene atmosphere on the water makes quite the contrast to its dramatic surrounding scenery, too, and can be enjoyed either in 2 or 4 hour fashion with operator Nitmiluk Tours.

A cruise makes for the ideal way to explore the gorge for those operating on a limited timeframe, while also providing some additional insight into the history and culture of the region’s Jawoyn people. Taking a dinner cruise is particularly magical, as it allows guests to enjoy the gorge’s beauty by candlelight while the chef prepares a delicious Aussie-style meal on board.

Katherine Gorge
Image credit: Sam Earp/Tourism NT

Lastly, no visit to the region is complete without stopping for a swim at Edith Falls, which lies on the western side of the national park. Water temperatures hover at around a comfortable 30°C, and the surrounding chorus of bird life adds some additional life to the proceedings. Cooling off in the plunge pool at the falls’ base surrounded by local flora makes for yet another distinctive NT natural swimming experience; just be sure to allow time to walk up the top for a swim during your visit.

5. Sunset at Mindil Beach, Darwin

Sunset at Mindil Beach
Image credit: Aude Mayans/Tourism NT

Location: Darwin, NT

Sunsets are such an integral part of the Darwin culture that entire events are based around their occurrence, with the city’s longstanding and ever-popular Mindil Markets held at a time of day designed to coincide perfectly with this beautiful natural phenomena.

As such, no visit to the NT’s capital is complete without soaking in one of its often-spectacular evening skies while enjoying some reasonably-priced local cuisine along with it. Darwin’s sunsets are so impressive, in fact, that you voted them onto our list of “The Best Sunsets in Australia” back in 2013, and they’ve continued to serve as a major drawcard to the region since time immemorial.

The Mindil Markets are held at Mindil Beach – directly alongside the city – during the yearly dry season in Darwin and allow those attending to grab some freshly-made local food or drink, then kick back and enjoy the sunset from right on the waterfront.

“No visit to the NT’s capital is complete without soaking in one of its often-spectacular evening skies while enjoying some reasonably-priced local cuisine along with it.”

Add to this the large number of stalls featuring hand crafted goods that include everything from fashion to art and homewares and it’s easy to see why the Mindil Markets have been a local icon for quite some time. There’s a distinctly “Asian” feel to the markets that’s highly reminiscent of similar affairs in Bali or Thailand, and the utter lack of rubbish on the beach’s sands helps keep things feeling as pristine as possible.

Held on Thursdays and Sundays, the markets offer an enjoyable diverse range of food cuisines reflecting the cities multicultural influence – a stroll amongst its stalls will give you access to the likes of Indian, Chinese, Brazillian, Greek and numerous other food types that ensure there’s a taste that will please all but the fussiest eaters.

Darwin Sunset
Image credit: Aude Mayans/Tourism NT

If you’re feeling thirsty, freshly-squeezed juices are the ultimate quencher, while local seasonal fruit and French desserts provide a range of ideal complements to your main meal. The size of the markets is quite impressive, with an average of over 60 foot stalls and 130 vendors selling crafts stretching out over the beachfront, creating a bustling yet laid-back atmosphere that is characteristic of Darwin as a whole.

If you’re a visitor to Darwin and looking to purchase souvenirs to take home, then THIS is the place to do so. Photographers visiting the NT likewise won’t want to miss Darwin at sunset, as twilight imagery of the evening skies here have become the stuff of Aussie travel legend.

4. Jim Jim Falls

Jim Jim Falls

Location: Kakadu National Park, NT

The Northern Territory’s contrast between the thirst of its dry season and the abundance of its wet is perhaps best epitomised by its waterfalls, and few in the entirety of the territory are quite as dramatic as the towering Jim Jim Falls deep within the innards of Kakadu National Park. While the park contains near-countless highlights, it’s this towering cascade that ranks among its most majestic.

Cascading down a sheer 200 metre cliff face from its plateau above into an eagerly awaiting plunge pool below, the falls at their most powerful during the height of the NT’s wet season (between September and June) are an impressive sight. Unfortunately this dries up to a mere trickle during the other half of the year, yet even moderately-equipped 4WD vehicles can deal with its occasionally-corrugated Kakadu Highway leading in during this period to offset this somewhat.

As a result, travellers wanting to take in views of Jim Jim at its best are presented with a dilemma: does one aim for a wet season visit and deal with the inaccessibility of closures, and perhaps opt for a scenic flight instead to see it at its most cascading? Or do instead you make it part of a dry season itinerary and keep your fingers crossed for a rare bout of recent rainfall?

“While [Kakadu National Park] contains near-countless highlights, it’s this towering cascade that ranks among its most majestic.”

This largely depends on what you’re looking for from this essential Kakadu highlight, and it’s unfortunate to not be able to have things both ways. Accessing the falls is also a fairly arduous trek, requiring navigating a combination of badly-corrugated road and haphazard boulder-clambering to reach. Those tackling the journey are rewarded with a swim at the end in the falls’ plunge pool which provides a cool and relaxing reward for your sometimes-scrambling efforts, however.

Due to this difficulty of land-based access, many visitors take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime nature of a visit here to splurge on a scenic flight, which not only provides the ultimate vantage point of the falls but also of many of Kakadu’s other natural highlights from the air as well.

Jim Jim Falls

Local operator Kakadu Air offer a number of scenic flight itineraries that include Jim Jim Falls, with the choice of both airplane and helicopter flights (recommended due to their ability to hover) to soak in the spectacle.

3. Kata Tjuta / The Olgas

Kata Tjuta
Image credit: @80kphcombilife/Tourism NT

Location: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, NT

Less-known than their more famed sister rock formation nearby, yet no less visually striking in their own right, the enormous red-rock domes of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) lie relatively close to Uluru yet are different in a number of notable ways – and just as worthy of a visit in their own right.

Rather than one single monolith, Kata Tjuta (which means “many heads” in the native Aboriginal vernacular) consists of 36 individual “domes” of varying sizes – the highest of which is truly enormous and clocks in at nearly 200m higher than Uluru itself. Formed over the course of around 500 million years’ worth of weathering, the resulting topography is a mish-mash of colourful rocks meeting old gum trees, and natural pathways and side tracks which wind their way between the massive formations.

As with Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a site of spiritual significance to the traditional Anangu land owners, with the majority of its points of access closed to the general public – however its both its Walpa (short) and Valley of the Winds (long) walks directly through the grooves of the towering rock faces offer circuits that serve as a pair of the national park’s best overall journeys. The gorge walk is an easier and briefer proposition, clocking in at 2.6km and roughly 1 hour return and offers some shade throughout for those sensitive to the outback heat.

“In many ways, the “less-equipped” nature of Kata Tjuta – it lacks many of the more developed facilities that Uluru boasts, and is seldom as busy – serves to add to its charm.”

The more extended three-hour+ journey of the Valley of the Winds Walk in particular provides a duo of excellent viewpoints along the way in return for your extended efforts, and showcasing overviews of the eerie Mars-like atmosphere to the terrain in general. Comprised of both up and down hill sections, it’s a journey that exudes solitude – especially if conducted around sunrise where the incredibly clear skies add an extra aura of magic to the proceedings.

In many ways, the “less-equipped” nature of Kata Tjuta – it lacks many of the more developed facilities that Uluru boasts, and is seldom as busy – serves to add to its charm; there’s an utter lack of commercialisation, and while it may take more time to explore, there’s plenty to see and wander around to observe its mixture of vegetated valleys and open viewing areas.

Kata Tjuta Tours
Image credit: AAT Kings

Kata Tjuta sits around 30km from Uluru which makes for about 40 minutes extra drive time; for those looking for a guided tour for further insight, both Emu Run Tours and AAT Kings offer day trips from Alice Springs. Those after its ultimate panorama – and with some additional funds to spare – can also opt for a scenic flight with Professional Helicopter Services and take in aerial views of its many carved valleys and canyons from high above.

2. Ubirr

Ubirr Kakadu National Park NT
Image credit: Johan Lolos/Tourism NT

Location: Kakadu National Park, NT

Voted as an award-winning site in two national polls we conducted on must-visit Australian locations over the past several years, Ubirr is another of Kakadu’s key highlights that’s predominantly famous for two main things – its rock art, and its amazing sunsets.

Home to a number of the most striking examples of Aboriginal rock paintings in existence that date back as far as tens of thousands of years, Ubirr carries with it a truly prehistoric sense of being a “land that time forgot”. The vantage point on offer from atop Nardab Lookout on its rocky outcroppings showcases a wilderness landscape of wholly untouched floodplains and escarpments, and is well worth the climb required to reach.

The rock lies in Kakadu’s north-eastern portion and can be accessed via a relatively easy track that clocks in at around 250 metres in length, and its view on offer is breathtaking simply in terms of sheer distance; the plains stretch out as far as the eye can see, and are particularly glorious after recent rainfall.

The wetlands here come to life during wet season, with the water drawing out wetlands birds such as Jabirus and geese, as well as marsupials who come to drink.

“Ubirr carries with it a truly prehistoric sense of being a ‘land that time forgot’.”

It’s the sunsets, however, that make Ubirr’s views such a significant and spiritual-feeling experience; the skies change from a vibrant blue to a blazing orange, and the contrast with the floodplains greenery makes for a vivid tableau of colour. Timing your visit to take place during sunset is not only great for the spectacle, but for the accompanying ranger talks that coincide with them and lend an extra level of context to the proceedings.

The diversity this part of Kakadu is an attraction in itself, but when coupled with the beautiful sunset it completely transforms. The frequent sight of migrating birds adds an authentically-Australian touch to the scene.

Ubirr NT
Image credit: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

The site Ubirr rock site comes equipped with rustic benches on which to rest and reflect, and it’s hard not to feel moved by simply sitting down and absorbing the entire process of nature’s transition.

Accessible via a half-hour drive from Jabiru, Ubirr’s blend of landscape and profound history make a visit all but essential. Kakadu park rangers are typically on hand to check you’re carrying your park permit, but these challenges are trivial when compared to the visual rewards Ubirr offers travellers.

1. Uluru / Ayers Rock

Uluru / Ayers Rock
Image credit: Peter Aitchison/Tourism NT

Location: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, NT

There are countless reasons why Uluru topping a list of must-see Northern Territory destinations moves far beyond the cliche into simple, undeniable truth. Sure, at its most basic level it’s merely a huge “land iceberg” of sandstone, yet there’s something about the enormous size of the monolith jutting above an utterly flat landscape in the middle of nowhere that screams “significance” and “spirituality” even to the most jaded-hearted traveller.

There’s a reason Uluru holds a special spot in many visitor’s hearts and, despite its ever-increasing fame, is often said to be the highlight of an entire Australian journey. The vivid orange of the rock has made it the natural symbol of our country and the backbone of much of the Northern Territory’s tourism industry, with an appropriate level of service and accessibility having been developed as a result; there’s never been an easier time for the public to travel to such an isolated part of the country, and to do so in comfort and style, as well.

Of course, this increased access has led to increased controversy as a result, with greater visitor numbers exacerbating some of the tension between traditional Anangu land owners and adventure-seekers wanting to climb Uluru. Cultural issues aside, the climb up Uluru is a challenging, chain-aided journey that nearly 40 people have died attempting over the years – yet one that still doesn’t discourage some 250-odd climbers from making their ascent per day.

For the rest of us, it’s a good thing that exploring Uluru and surrounds from ground-level is no less stunning or impactful.

“There’s a reason Uluru holds a special spot in many visitor’s hearts and, despite its ever-increasing fame, is often said to be the highlight of an entire Australian journey.”

Whether it’s on a tour from Alice Springs or using the nearby Yulara as a base and self-driving, there are multiple ways to absorb Uluru, by both foot and wheel. Its popular full-length base walk is a 10km, 3 to 4 hour journey that can be both strolled and ridden around and which takes place on a flat, easy to navigate path, while the shorter Mala Walk takes those with less time and energy from a nearby carpark to culminate in a wonderful gorge view.

As with many other locations on this list, Uluru serves as one of the most popular sunset and sunrise spots in Australia, with specially designated viewing areas which have been set up to allow visitors to take in the magical views. Due to its sacred nature amongst its Aboriginal custodians, there are regulations in place restricting viewing and a number of specific places from which to view the rock.

Uluru Tours

This includes an additional platform just 3 kilometres from Uluru constructed in collaboration with the Indigenous community that provides one of the best perspectives of the phenomenon in a non-sacred area. Those with cars can drive and stop at a number of other great viewing areas landscaped into the sand dunes that provide a great overview of Uluru and even Kata Tjuta in the background.

Getting to Uluru isn’t difficult, but it can be expensive due to the sheer distance from most east coast Australian cities; budget carriers such as Jetstar and Virgin fly directly there from Sydney, while other routes connect from most capital cities to Ayers Rock Airport.

A number of companies including Emu Run, Wayoutback, AAT Kings and various others also operate day tours and transfers from Alice Springs; alternatively those looking to explore the outback along the way can embrace the more drawn-out 450km journey of driving themselves.

One of Australia’s true natural wonders, Uluru has amazed human eyes for thousands of years, and will continue to do so info the foreseeable future.

In addition, if you’re looking for all the top things to see and do in and around Australia including activities, attractions and more, be sure to check out our main Experiences section to browse and book online!

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