If you are going to compile a list of the most famous attractions around Australia, Kakadu National Park would almost certainly feature somewhere near the top.
World Heritage-listed for both its cultural and natural significance, Kakadu National Park is also the largest national park in Australia.
Home to ancient rock art, magnificent waterfalls, exotic wildlife, rainforests and wetlands. It is a sight to behold and roughly a 2.5-hour drive from Darwin, making it easily accessible as a day trip if you are short on time in the Northern Territory.
Yes, absolutely. You won’t be able to discover all of what the Kakadu National Park has to offer in a single day, but you can certainly explore several of iconic sights in a single day trip.
From Darwin, it’s a really easy drive along the Arnhem Highway. It will take you about a two and half hour drive to Jabiru, the main township in the park which is your central point for exploring the northern half of the Kakadu National Park.
Your standard 2WD rental car will get you to several of the key attractions of Kakadu National Park. However, if you’d like to explore more of the sights, the waterfalls in particular, then you will definitely need a proper 4WD. That said, everywhere I mention in this blog post is accessible with a standard car.
There are a couple of service stations on the way into to the park, but be mindful they may not be open depending on the season.
Most of the key attractions have some sort of toilet facility available.
While the main township of Jabiru is your best bet for supplies/food.
Now that we’ve clearly established that Kakadu National Park can be done as a day trip out of Darwin, where should you go?
Having done it as a day trip myself, I’m going to let you know my recommended itinerary for places that you can easily access in “a normal car” in a single day to get a good feel for what Kakadu National Park has to offer.
That said, I do strongly urge you to consider giving yourself more time and either rent a 4WD or do an organised tour to discover even more of what the region has to offer. Kakadu is a massive place with so much to offer.
It’s worth noting that you will need to buy a Park Pass to access Kakadu. These can be purchased from a couple of locations en route or very easily online. More information about that can be found here.
It’s also important to check out the access reports to see if there are any road closures, particulaly during the wet season.
Pro Tip: To make your life easier, download offline maps of Kakadu within Google Maps to help your navigation throughout the day. Mobile phone reception is limited within the park.
Outside of the waterfalls, Ubirr is probably the most famous sites within the Kakadu National Park.
Now I know Ubirr is famous, at least in part, for its sunsets… But I’d actually recommend this as your first stop on a day trip through Kakadu.
Located a little over 3 hours along the Arnhem Highway from Darwin, head to Ubirr first thing in the morning to get a big chunk of the driving out of the way early and avoid the worst of the crowds.
This will give you the best opportunity to explore the ancient rock art galleries, which are the true star of the show at your own pace, and give you time read details about their significance and really appreciate them for what they are.
You don’t want to rush through Ubirr as you’ll miss many of the fascinating artworks along the 1-kilometre long walking trail. Give yourself about 2 hours here. Also keep your eyes peeled, while the galleries are marked there are artworks all through the site.
The climb to up to the lookout is optional, but I would highly recommend it. It’s a not a difficult climb (just be mindful where you step) and the views over the wetlands of Kakadu are fantastic.
Pro Tip: If you have time, particularly if you decide to stay overnight in Kakadu, come back to Ubirr in the afternoon and head straight to the top of the lookout to claim the best spot for sunset.
Kakadu is home to over 10,000 saltwater crocodiles, and while they tend to be difficult to spot in the wild, one place you can all but guaranteed to see them without doing some sort of organised boat tour is Cahills Crossing.
Only 5-10 minutes drive from Ubirr, this river-crossing between Kakadu and Arnhem Land over the Alligator River is a popular place to check out the crocs. Especially at high-tide as they attempt to catch the fish washed over the road.
While the crossing itself is really only accessible by four-wheel drives, there is a parking lot where you can park your rental car and walk down to the viewing area to see the crocs in action.
This raised platform will definitely give you the best view of the river, although it can get a little crowded with tourists sitting around all day to watch the crocs in action.
If you are feeling extremely brave you could walk down the road for a closer view. However, never get too close to the water!!!
You’ll see a lot of crocs in the area, but it’s the ones that you can’t see, hidden under the water that are the real danger. Always stay several meters away from the edge of the water.
There are also a few marked walking trails in the area to get a different view of the Alligator River worth exploring. Give yourself at least an hour hear to make the most of the experience.
As the only township within the northern part of Kakadu, Jabiru makes the ideal place to stop for lunch, or at the very least some refreshment.
Only a small town, there are some locally-owned restaurants and cafes. Most of which are attached to the hotels but you will find a couple in the centre of town also.
If you can’t find something to your liking or you’d like to make your own arrangements there is also small supermarket (IGA) in the town centre.
Jabiru is also where you will find most of your Kakadu scenic flight operators. If you have the time and the budget, this is a good way to explore even more of the park, but its best if you organise your flight well in advance.
Also make sure you check out the croc shaped hotel, the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, for something a bit different.
After lunch its time for more hiking trails, lookouts, rock art and even a billabong.
This time heading down the Kakadu Highway, stop in at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) which is the largest and most diverse site I’ll tell you to visit in this post.
To make the most of it, you are going to need to give yourself a few hours here, especially if you would like to hike up to the multiple lookouts.
Much like Ubirr, the key attraction is the rock art in particular that around the Anbangbang shelter site.
Following the marked trails, you’ll discover several galleries through these ancient Aboriginal shelters. Some of which even more impressive than the ones would have already seen at Ubirr. Again, you will want to take your time for this 1.5-kilometre walk.
If at this point you haven’t reached your step count for the day, there are several walks and hikes to take to explore this area even further.
The Anbangbang Billabong walk and Nawurlandja lookout is your easiest option and only a couple minute drive from the main car park. Give yourself about an hour to complete this one.
It’s well worth it for a distinctly different view of Kakadu National Park particularly to see some of the local birdlife and stunning views over the Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) site.
If you are feeling a little more adventurous then take on the Kubara pools walk. This 6-kilometre walk will take you a couple of hours. Also, make sure you take plenty of water with you for this one.
If at this point you haven’t been challenged enough and still have some time before you make the 2.5-3 Hour drive back to Darwin, then stop in at Mirrai Lookout.
Only roughly a 20 minute drive further down the Kakadu Highway, this is a great way to end your day in the park.
To get to Mirrai Lookout it’s a steep walk but the near 360 degree views over Kakadu National Park definitely make it worthwhile.
It will take you about an hour to complete the walk up and back to the lookout.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.