Home to some of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, such as Uluru and Kakadu National Park, the Northern Territory represents the beating heart of Australia’s rich cultural history, from its tropical north down to the famous red earth that flows through its centre.
Featuring some of the most dramatically biodiverse environments on earth, the Northern Territory plays host to a handful of the country’s largest deserts, including the Great Sandy Desert, Tanami Desert and Simpson Desert, each contributing to an expansive landscape that is uniquely Australian.
With terrain ranging from powerful rivers and expansive wetlands to barren deserts and sandstone escarpments, much of the Northern Territory has been shaped by a monsoonal climate that cultivates extremities, ensuring one of the most dynamic and exciting environments on earth.
Together with our Northern Territory tour and experience operators, local contacts, and our Regional Experience Expert, Libby Larsen, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to the best times to visit each region within this incredible state.
Choosing the right time of year to explore the Northern Territory can be difficult, with the best times largely dependent on the region you intend to spend most of your time and the type of holiday or adventure you’re hoping to have.
In this article we break the Northern Territory down into two major regions: The Top End, and The Red Centre. Each offering their own unique set of conditions and terrains that result in a variety of optimal visiting times.
The Top End
Darwin, Kakadu, Arnhem Land, Katherine & surrounds
Known for its tropical weather, Salt Water Crocodiles, rich Indigenous culture, abundant fishing spots, National Parks and laid-back Australian lifestyle; the Top End is blessed with more than its fair share of world-class destinations and attractions.
If you’re planning to explore the Top End during your trip to the Northern Territory, then you’ll likely be headed to Darwin, the multicultural capital made famous by the markets and festivals that litter it’s beautiful natural harbour.
Darwin is the perfect hub from which to explore the various treasures sprinkled throughout the Top End, including the World Heritage-listed Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, and Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s last true wilderness destinations.
To the south lies a vast network of rivers, escarpments and gorges collectively known as the Katherine region, including Nitmiluk National Park and the towering sandstone cliffs that form the world famous Katherine Gorge.
The Top End is as remote as it is beautiful with over three hours drive between Darwin and Katherine and nearly seven hours separating Katherine from Arnhem Land. You will need to allow plenty of time to explore the region top to bottom (and left to right!); including the seemingly endless supply of must-see destinations sprinkled between every major town or city.
The first obstacle to overcome when putting together your Top End itinerary is the weather. Subject to some of Australia’s most intense weather cycles, unique to the northern-most parts of the country, the Top End is an entirely new destination depending on the time of year you choose to visit. Monsoonal wet and dry seasons provide the region with one of Mother Nature’s most punishing environmental contrasts, shifting from dry heat and scorched earth to astonishing downpours and flooded plains on a half-yearly cycle.
Almost like the passing of a baton from season to season, the ‘build up’ months of October and November play host to extraordinary conditions of unfathomable humidity as the climate transitions from the dry heat to a monsoonal wet.
Wet Season (November – April)
During the wet season, the Top End is subject to unprecedented volumes of rainfall, reaching record heights of 2,918.4mm in 2010-11. Characterised by intense and often visually dramatic weather events, the average temperatures range from 25C (77F) to 33C (91F) and are amplified by a sharp rise in humidity (in excess of 80%).
Visiting the Top End during the wet season provides travellers with some interesting dilemmas. The increased rainfall results in spectacular waterfalls pumping with life and lush green landscapes that engulf much of the region, including Kakadu and Litchfield National Park. Locations such as Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls will also reach their visual best during these months.
“A visit to Kakadu when the wetlands are full, the landscape is a lush green and the waterfalls are pumping, it’s amazing and a totally different experience to a dry season visit.”
Chantelle Khan from Gray Line Australia recommends Katherine Gorge as a visually impressive destination during the wetter months. “The waterfalls are amazing when it’s so wet, the wildlife really comes out,” she said. However, the wet season also brings with it various limitations, such as road closures and dangerous conditions that prevent visitors from making full use of their time in the region.
Libby Larsen, our Experience Expert for the Northern Territory and former Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Ranger, also noted the wet season as having some distinct upsides. “The lightening shows and thunderstorms are truly spectacular,” she said. Libby was also quick to point out Kakadu as being particularly beautiful this time of year. “A visit to Kakadu when the wetlands are full, the landscape is a lush green and the waterfalls are pumping, it’s amazing and a totally different experience to a dry season visit.”
However, as mentioned, the high volumes of rain can quickly become a hinderance, with road closures making it difficult to get around. “Roads can often be closed and certain areas won’t be accessible,” Libby said. With weather capable of derailing an otherwise perfect itinerary, any plans to visit the Top End during its wettest months will need to include ample contingency plans.
Darwin itself offers a variety of indoor activities and attractions to entertain visitors during a downpour, providing a welcome escape from the heat and humidity. Though it’s unlikely that many visitors to the region set out to experience the Northern Territory behind closed doors, and with road closures lasting months at a time, many will look to find alternatives to the traditional road trip.
One popular alternative is to take to the skies, with a number of scenic flights still operating throughout the wet season providing a popular substitute that avoids the various disruptions caused by road closures. A scenic flight also offers unparalleled views of both Kakadu and Litchfield at the peak of their powers.
January and February enjoy the full force of the Top End’s wet season and are often considered to be the most beautiful months of the year to visit. The land is at its most vibrant during this time; the waterfalls at their most powerful, the weather at its most dramatic, and the National Parks at their most alive.
Also known as the ‘Green Season’, the Top End’s wettest months feature blooming wildflowers and an abundance of wildlife. However, as is so often the case with an environment subject to extremities, every positive has its drawbacks. With immense rainfall comes widespread flooding, and with flooding comes an increase in the presence of water-dwelling reptiles, namely the resident Saltwater Crocodiles; a consequent risk for visitors venturing out on their own. To avoid any hazards, be sure to follow any and all directions given to you by locals and rangers alike and read all signage as you journey through the region.
The Top End during wet season is a strikingly beautiful place to visit. If you have a passion for wildlife, don’t mind singing in some heavy rain, and enjoy seeing nature at its most dramatic – from spectacular thunderstorms to pumping waterfalls – then the wet season may well be the perfect time of year to kick off your exploration of the Top End.
Dry Season (May – October)
During the dry season, the Top End boasts warm sunny days and crisp winter nights. Temperatures typically range from 21C (70F) to 32C (90F), with a drying heat throughout the day complemented by substantially lower levels of humidity (around 60 – 65%) providing arguably the most comfortable time of year to visit.
With the lowest temperatures falling between May and July, the Top End will never be more accessible than it is during these months. Regions that were previously off-limits from flooding or dangerous conditions have now reopened and visitors are free to explore every nook and cranny to their heart’s content.
At the conclusion of the wet season and leading into the dry season (March through April), the waterways begin to subside and fish become plentiful in the rivers and billabongs as they feed in the run-off from various floodplains. Huge tidal rivers around Darwin, Kakadu and Katherine become host to metre-long barramundi and is largely considered to be the best time of year for fishing in the Northern Territory, if not all of Australia.
Between May and July temperatures can typically range from 17C (63F) to 23C (73F) during the night, making it the coolest time of year in the Top End. For those visitors coming from cooler climates around the world, this period is the best time of year to avoid the unfamiliar heat and humidity associated with a tropical climate.
Visiting the Top End in the dry season, while not known to be as visually dramatic as the wet season, provides travellers with an unrivalled opportunity to explore the region in relative comfort.
Gray Line Australia’s tours showcase the best of Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks during the dry season. “Our tours visit various waterholes and waterfalls in these regions, so there are plenty of opportunities to cool off,” Chantelle said.
Libby also identified Gunak Barlu National Park and Coburg Peninsula as destinations of particular interest during the dry heat. “I would do a 4WD camping trip [to Gunak Barlu or Coburg Peninsula] with the family, or the Jatbula trail through Nitmuluk National Park, which is spectacular that time of year,” she said.
The dry season encompasses the coolest, busiest, and driest months of the year in what is generally considered the best time to visit the Northern Territory as a whole. With swimming holes gently cooling and humidity settling to a much more reasonable 60%, the Top End is without a doubt at its most welcoming during this time.
Busy Period (June – August)
The Top End’s monsoonal climate generates two distinct seasons for visitors to choose from, both uniquely magical in their own way but on opposite ends of the spectrum. The busiest time falls in the dry season, most notably from late June through to early September to coincide with school holidays.
Temperatures are at their most comfortable as the sun provides a drying heat throughout the day and the clouds have parted, leaving the state wide open for business.
“It’s the best time to get outdoors amongst it all. The Top End is vast so you can get away from the droves of tourists if you want to.”
The Top End’s dry season is well documented for its travel upside. Offering cooler daytime temperatures (ranging from a pleasant 27C to 32C), lower humidity levels, warm days and crisp nights, the season provides a climate that is ideally suited for exploration and perfect for a region that is full of natural wonders in every direction.
Our Northern Territory Experience Expert described this period as being ideal for adventure activities. “It’s the best time to get outdoors amongst it all. The Top End is vast so you can get away from the droves of tourists if you want to,” Libby said.
Quiet Period (January – March)
During the transition from dry to wet, humidity rises and the air becomes thick with heat and moisture. Known as the ‘build up’ or ‘troppo’ season, this period is subject to gathering storm clouds but only sporadic rain, with locals and visitors alike doing their best to cope with stifling conditions.
With relentless heat and humidity not considered particularly desirable to the average traveller, visitations understandably decrease in the Top End throughout Troppo Season, and there is a consequent lull in activity.
The time of year has also bred its own unique expression amongst the locals, known as “gone troppo” or “going troppo”, which simply means to go mad or crazy due to the tropical heat and humidity.
Our Recommendation (August – September)
With such distinct seasonal diversity, you’ll need to visit the Top End more than once before you can truly tick it off your bucket list. Both in the peak of its dramatic wet season and during the most comfortable moments of its sunny dry season, the region is transformed from one holiday oasis to another, providing two utterly unique adventures.
However, if you only have one shot at your perfect Top End adventure, then nothing beats the shoulder season from August through September at the tail end of the dry season.
Getting the best of the dry season’s blue skies with slightly reduced crowds (school holidays typically end in late July or early August) makes for an ideal setting to explore the region’s many hidden gems in peace.
Alternatively, if you’re not a fan of the summer heat, May through June provides the region with its coolest temperatures of the year whilst also being early enough to skip the influx of visitors exploring the state from June through August.
The Red Centre
Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Uluru, Kata Tjuta & surrounds
A burnt red conglomeration of desert plains, weathered mountains, rocky gorges and some of Australia’s most sacred sites, the Red Centre epitomises the Australian outback.
One of the most unique landscapes on earth, The Red Centre has fascinated travellers the world over for decades with its famous red earth, captivating rock formations, cultural significance to the aboriginal people, and thriving arts scene in what is a timeless destination littered in otherworldly attractions.
If you’re planning a visit to The Red Centre then you’ll likely be headed to Alice Springs, the spirited cosmopolitan centre situated in outback Australia.
Alice Springs is the second largest town in the Northern Territory, behind only Darwin, with more than 25,000 people calling this isolated wonderland home. Spanning across the typically dry Todd River on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges, Alice Springs is surrounded by an arid environment that encompasses several deserts across central Australia.
With a unique pioneering history, remote communities, and a diverse and exhilarating collection of attractions, Alice Springs finds fame in its rich mix of contemporary and traditional arts that is reflective of the various natural wonders in its surrounds.
From the stunning Larapinta Trail to the MacDonnell Ranges and, of course, the unforgettable Uluru or Ayers Rock (nearly 6 hours drive southwest), Alice Springs is within a day trip to some of Australia’s most renowned natural wonders.
The Red Centre’s climate is one of stark contrasts; summer days can see temperatures climb over 40 degrees Celsius (104F) while winter nights often fall below 0 degrees Celsius (32F), resulting in a completely different experience depending on the time of year you choose to visit.
January is typically the region’s wettest month, experiencing around 40mm (1.5”) of rainfall. The region’s driest period falls in August and September, with approximately 9mm (0.35”) of rainfall over two days on average per month. With a largely arid climate, however, even the Red Centre’s wettest months can only produce an average of five to six days of rainfall.
Temperatures are considerably less extreme in both autumn (March – May) and spring (September – November), ranging from 12 – 30C (53 – 87F) throughout both seasons, with autumn being slightly cooler on average.
Humidity is another important comfort factor to consider when planning your visit to The Red Centre, with levels ranging from as dry as 18% in September and peaking at up to 80% in June.
“Central Australia in April would be ideal for a visit to Finke Gorge National Park to 4WD and camp by Bogey Hole.”
Julia Burke from Pyndan Camel Tracks in Alice Springs identified April through September as the best time of year to visit the area, as “the weather is more comfortable during this time.” Temperatures are warm without being too hot, nights are cool but comfortably above freezing on either end of this window, and rainfall is at a minimum. Humidity is also at it’s lowest towards the end of this period, making August and September in particular perfect for heading outdoors to explore the Red Centre’s vast landscape.
When asked what her one-week itinerary between November and April to explore the Red Centre would include, Julia highlighted Finke Gorge and Western MacDonnell’s as a few worthy highlights. “Central Australia in April would be ideal for a visit to Finke Gorge National Park to 4WD and camp by Bogey Hole,” she said. “Visit the waterholes along the Western MacDonnell’s; stay at the Casino in Alice Springs for a couple of nights to relax by the pool, and then go camel riding at sunset.”
Alternatively, Julia’s suggestions for a one-week trip between May and October included two nights at Uluru, one night at Kings Canyon and four nights at Alice Springs to explore the Eastern and Western MacDonnell’s, accompanied by a camel ride in the sunset to top it all off.
“The days are blissful with endless clear blue skies and in the evenings the stars are simply breathtaking… It [winter] is the ideal time for hiking, camping and exploring the amazing landscapes available in that part of Australia”
The winter months mustn’t be overlooked, however, with some of the best yearly conditions falling within the cooler seasons. Libby is a fan of the Central Australian winter, saying, “the days are blissful with endless clear blue skies and in the evenings the stars are simply breathtaking.” It’s not all about the weather though; during winter there are also ample things to do outdoors. “It [winter] is the ideal time for hiking, camping and exploring the amazing landscapes available in that part of Australia,” she said.
Libby’s one-week itinerary between November and April was largely focused on making the most of the region’s various waterholes. “If you base yourself in Alice Springs you can head to one of the waterholes just out of town along the MacDonnell Ranges. There’s plenty of beautiful places to take a dip in the icy cool waters,” Libby said.
Alternatively, if you’re travelling between May and October and have been blessed with beautiful weather in the tail end of winter, Libby suggests giving hiking a go along one of the various trails throughout the region. “I’d hike the Larapinta Trail. I’ve done parts of it years ago and it’s one of the most spectacular hikes in the world.”
Busy Period (June – July)
With intense heat in summer, freezing cold nights in winter, fluctuating humidity levels throughout the year and the usual biyearly school-holidays to contend with, Central Australia has an understandably volatile intake of visitors from season to season.
The busiest times are generally considered to be throughout the middle of the year, during the month-long school holidays in early winter (late June through to late July).
During this time, temperatures are at their lowest (between 4 – 20C), humidity is at its highest (around 60%) and rain is relatively rare – averaging around 15mm per month – perfect conditions for a tour around Uluru or hike along the Larapinta Trail.
Quietest Period (February – March)
From December through early March, The Red Centre is at its quietest during the sweltering heat of its long summer. With average temperatures sitting comfortably above 35C (95F+) and remaining above 20C (70F) throughout the night, there is very little relief from the heat in Central Australia.
Combine this with some the lowest yearly averages in humidity in the months of February and March and the region is exposed to one of the driest summers imaginable, resulting in fewer tourists.
Visiting The Red Centre during the peak of its summer can still be a positive experience, though any activities you choose to partake in will need to be well thought out and carefully prepared for. Lots of water, hats, sunscreen, and a guide are all necessities to explore this arid landscape in relative safety.
Our Recommendation (September – October)
The Red Centre is famous for its burnt red earth, arid landscape, relentless heat, and breathtaking destinations that are more than worthy of any Australian bucket list.
Regularly exposed to an unobstructed sun throughout the day and deprived of any relieving showers for weeks at a time, at its least forgiving, Central Australia can test even the most adaptive traveller.
Come winter, and The Red Centre becomes more accessible than ever. With comfortable temperatures throughout the day, freezing cold nights, and an overwhelming number of natural attractions to explore, winter provides an undeniable opportunity to discover this remarkable part of Australia in relative comfort.
Unfortunately, winter’s benefits are one of the region’s worst kept secrets, with thousands of visitors from all over the world arriving in Central Australia between June and July. During the same period, schools throughout the state begin their month-long holiday, further adding to the influx.
With school holidays ending by early August and both interstate and international visitors beginning to thin out towards the end of August, there is never a better time to explore the region than in the shoulder season of September and October.
Temperatures have begun to climb from August onwards, with previously freezing nights rising to a much more comfortable 10 to 14 degrees Celsius (50 – 58F) in September and October respectively. During the day, temperatures settle at 27 to 31C (80 – 88F) for September and October respectively, while the average rainfall remains at a minimum until early November.
Enjoying the cooler winter averages throughout the day while avoiding any sub-zero temperatures at night makes the shoulder seasons of September and October the perfect time to plan an enjoyable trip to The Red Centre without having to compete with peak season crowds.
Planning a trip to the Northern Territory is no easy task. In such a vast state, many of the best destinations and attractions are separated by hundreds of kilometres of scorched deserts, lush rainforests, and rugged mountain ranges. Each destination is also exposed to completely different weather patterns and busy periods, making the decision on when to visit more than a little overwhelming.
Hopefully, thanks to the various insights outlined above, you have everything you need to plan the perfect visit to both the Top End and Red Centre, ticking off all the wonderful destinations and attractions along the way. We recommend embarking on your journey from Darwin in early August, working your way down to Alice Springs by late September, before finally arriving at Uluru in an October sunset to cap off your perfect central Australian adventure.
From enjoying the comfortable weather and minimal crowds to mapping out the perfect order of events from north to south, we hope your journey throughout Australia’s expansive Northern Territory is one to remember, for all the right reasons.