You are going to cover some serious kilometres exploring Australia’s vast interior so every faraway destination had better be worth the car time.
This collection of top places is guaranteed to impress the whole family with plenty of opportunities to swim, climb, bike, paddle and toast a marshmallow, and just enough facilities to clean the kids up afterwards.
PADDLE LAWN HILL GORGE, QLD
With straight off-the-bank swimming, toddler-friendly rock pools and a 6km-long canoe adventure beneath soaring, red rock walls, Lawn Hill Gorge couldn’t thrill families more. Located 100km offroad in Queensland’s remote northwest, Boodjamulla National Park also boasts riverside camping, Indigenous art sites and rates as one of the world’s best places to discover weird and wonderful fossilised, prehistoric Aussie animals via an easy, kid-friendly walking trail.
The setting is also rather mind-blowing as you paddle upstream into Lawn Hill’s staggered, deep gorges, following a vivid maze of fan palms and waterlilies to reach limestone waterfalls and deep, barramundi-filled swimming holes.
The national park’s lovely riverside camps are a top deal at $26.20 per family with cold water showers, toilets and drinking water all provided. For hot showers, meals and ice blocks, consider the commercial camp at nearby Adels Grove but be prepared for a big hike in prices (from $60 per night for a family of four).
Where: 340km (4-5 hours’ drive) northwest of Mt Isa via a mostly unsealed track. Visit: May to October. Stay: Camp at Boodjamulla National Park ($6.55/person, $26.20/family, free for kids under 5), with cold water showers, toilets and drinking water. Pack: a canoe or kayak (or hire one on site). Don’t miss: Riversleigh World Heritage Area for ancient fossils of Aussie mega fauna.
WET-WAULK UMBRAWARRA GORGE, NT
This blissfully isolated gorge south of Darwin might be short on facilities, but you’ll want to visit just for the long, adventurous days you can spend exploring upstream into one of Australia’s most surprising, sandstone chasms.
At first light, follow the creek past screw pines and vibrant grevilleas dripping with honeyed nectar to reach the first deep, sandy swimming hole just 20 minutes away. This might be as far as tiny trekkers go, but with shade and plenty of boulders to lounge on, it’s a fine place to pause.
Longer legs will be lured on, rockhopping and wading through 5km of increasingly beautiful sandy waterholes on an endless, watery adventure. Nestled beneath soaring rock walls and fed by trickling waterfalls, Umbrawarra’s deep, clear pools draw short-eared rock wallabies into the gorge and there are enormous Merton’s water monitors to spot too, basking on hot rock slabs.
Just 22km of dirt separates Umbrawarra Gorge from the bustling Stuart Highway, so clear a few days and dress to get wet. The bush camp is basic — just toilets, picnic tables and fireplaces — but it’s a red hot deal at just $7.70 per family, and you can stoke a starry night campfire while the kids toast their marshmallows.
Where: Turn west off the Stuart Highway 3km south of Pine Creek and continue for 22km. Visit: May to September. Stay: Umbrawarra’s national park camp provides a pit toilet, picnic tables and firepits ($7.70/family $3.30/adult, $1.65/child, free for kids under 5s). Pack: Drinking water, firewood, adventure sandals. Don’t miss: Wagiman rock art at the mouth of Umbrawarra Gorge.
SNORKEL BITTER SPRINGS, NT
It’s the best snorkelling adventure you can have away from the sea: a drift dive through a tropical hot springs spotting freshwater turtles and fish in the blissfully warm current.
The clarity of Bitter Springs’ mineral-rich water is unbelievable and easy access makes this a great adventure for everyone, especially kids. Simply don a snorkel, slide into the creek at one end and float downstream to exit via stairs at the other, completing as many laps as you like.
On a frosty winter’s morning this spot is sheer heaven and this is easily the best thing you can do at 6am when the kids have just woken you up. Arrive early to have Bitter Springs all to yourself and pack a breakfast picnic to enjoy after the swim. There are no entry fees, the springs are open year-round and a walking trail loops alongside the river too.
When you go, take a dip at nearby Mataranka Hot Springs where water flowing from Rainbow Springs gathers in simmering emerald pools, shaded beneath the world’s largest stand of livistona rigida fan palms.
Where: Signposted off the Stuart Highway 2km north of Mataranka and 420km south of Darwin. Visit: May-September. Stay: Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping is pet-friendly and a 500m walk from the springs (unpowered sites from $30/night plus $5/child; powered from $35/night). Pack: snorkels, masks & fins. Don’t miss: Territory Day (July 1) for the chance to buy fireworks.
FLOAT THE RED CENTRE, NT
At the darkened entrance to Redbank Gorge, cathedral-high walls tower above a chilly pool that disappears into a narrow, twisting chasm of marbled red quartzite. High above, miniature cypress pines and ghost gums cling to the cliffs, and noisy crows swoop through the gorge, daring visitors to brave the icy waters.
The morning sun that ignites Redbank’s rosy rock faces does little to warm the water, but that won’t worry adventurous kids armed with noodles and pool toys. From camp, follow the easy walking trail to the water’s edge (1km/20 minutes) and enjoy a magical float upstream, gazing upwards at Redbank’s ever-narrowing rock walls.
For solitude and stars, Woodland Camp is my pick of Redbank Gorge’s two great bush campgrounds, with spacious sites tucked into the scrub and just enough facilities for ‘swim-cleaned’ kids.
Where: Access is via a sealed section of Namatjira Drive, 25km west of the turnoff to Glen Helen Gorge. Visit: May to September. Stay: Woodland Camp provides free gas BBQs, fire pits, picnic tables and toilets ($7.70/family $3.30/adult, $1.65/child, free for kids under 5). Pack: Drinking water, pool toys and noodles. Don’t miss: Sunset (and champagne) at nearby Glen Helen Gorge.
BRAVE KARIJINI'S PLUNGE POOLS, WA
When the trail suddenly turns into a swimming pool, it’s something kids will get excited about on a hot, Outback hike. And since Karijini National Park is full of wet-walks, kids won’t grumble about getting stuck into the day’s discoveries.
In Karijini, twisting waterways carved deep into the Hamersley High Plateau plunge dramatically over sheer cliffs, sculpting and scouring out slender pathways and filling tantalising, fern-fringed pools. Take a walk here and you’ll quickly find yourself rock-hopping barefoot, sliding into secret spa pools and warming up on sunny banks.
Easy for kids, the staircase descent into Dales Gorge leads to Fortescue Falls where two tiers of cascades fill a beautiful swimming pool below. Continue the stroll through Dales Gorge for a swim at Circular Pool and to picnic beneath the paperbarks.
Another unbeatable adventure awaits at Kalamina Gorge where you can bathe in shallow pools beneath Kalamina’s towering rock walls and follow an easy trail of sorts downstream to peer through Rock Arch Pool’s remarkable window.
Weano Gorge raises the bar for adventurous teens, challenging them with a chilly plunge into Handrail Pool, and close by, the exhilarating Class 5 ‘spider walk’ into Hancock Gorge will have them rockhopping, climbing and swimming along a thrilling natural obstacle course (3 hours return).
Where: Karijini National Park is located 400km off the North West Coastal Highway via Tom Price. Visit: May to October. Stay: Park entry costs $13/vehicle and camping at Dales Gorge is $11/adult and $3/child. Pack: Adventure sandals and a dry bag. Don’t miss: Nameless Jarndunmunha Festival at Tom Price in August.
SPOT LIMMEN'S BUTTERFLIES, NT
Beneath the trickling Butterfly Falls, thousands of common crow butterflies stake out this shady, stone-walled oasis, rising in dark, fluttering clouds when explorers approach. This immensely picturesque butterfly haven is Limmen National Park’s one and only swimming hole: deep and clear and providing delicious relief after exploring the sandstone wilderness of the Southern Lost City.
A short stroll from the water’s edge, fern-leafed grevilleas shade Butterfly Falls campground, luring great flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos with their sticky, fragrant nectar. Lazing in the shallows you might spot azure kingfishers and all kinds of waterbirds that stalk the purple water lilies downstream.
You can stoke a campfire and sites with wheelchair-accessible toilets, tables and firepits cost just $7.70 per family. Limmen National Park is 4WD-only and there is no fuel or supplies available in the park. When you go, make time to fish from the limestone wall at Towns River and launch a boat at Tomato Island (Munbililla) to wrangle barramundi on the Roper River.
Where: Turn off the Carpentaria Highway 26km south of Borroloola, travel 50km and turn north into Limmen National Park. Visit: May to September. Stay: Campsites at Butterfly Falls cost $7.70/family, $3.30/adult and $1.65/child (free for kids under 5), with wheelchair-accessible toilets, tables and fire pits provided (no pets). Pack: Hiking shoes and fishing rods. Don’t miss: Croc-spotting and fishing on the Roper River.
SHINE TUNNEL CREEK, WA
Arm kids with torches to tackle this thrilling cave adventure where cherubin (freshwater crayfish) tickle your toes in the inky darkness and little red flying-foxes squawk restlessly overhead. Wading knee-deep through a 750m-long section of WA’s oldest cave system is pure Kimberley fun, illuminating stalactites and curtains of flowstones as you go.
In a high rock cave at the creek’s entrance, eagle eyes will spot Indigenous paintings that mark the hideout of legendary freedom fighter Jandamarra, who in 1884, waged a guerrilla war against police and pastoralists in nearby Windjana Gorge. Rising 100m above the Lennard River, its walls etched with prehistoric fossils, Windjana Gorge today guards a string of seasonal waterholes where big, docile freshwater crocodiles laze on sunny, sandy banks — close enough for kids to safely ogle!
Where: Visit Tunnel Creek en route to Windjana Gorge, 150km from Fitzroy Crossing. Stay: Camp at Windjana Gorge (hot showers, $13/adult, $3 kids). Pack: Hiking sandals, a torch and cameras. Don’t miss: Croc spotting on the Fitzroy River.
FOSSICK AT GEM TREE, NT
Have you got a rockhound on board? There are few places easier to unearth some treasure than at Gem Tree on the NT’s Plenty Highway. Here, garnet fossickers meet around convivial stock camp dinners and the spacious bush campsites come with hot water showers and refreshing pool swims.
Most travellers join a tag-along 4WD tour that visits the property’s top fossicking sites and provides all the equipment and advice you need. You can keep whatever you find and Gemtree staff will even grade your stones for you. If time is short, buy the kids a bucket of ‘dirt’ and head for the shady sifting shelter to spend a few hours separating out the garnets hidden within.
Where: Gem Tree is located 70km off the Stuart Highway at the start of the Plenty Highway (sealed access). When: May to September. Stay: Powered sites cost $35/couple ($27 unpowered) and kids stay for free. Facilities include hot showers, a swimming pool, drinking water, laundry, bar, meals, a store, fuel and dump point. Pack: Boots and hats. Don’t miss: Kate’s Campoven Kitchen with communal campfire meals from $10 a head.
CYCLE TO SIMPSONS GAP, NT
This bikes-only bush track offers one of the Red Centre’s most relaxing rides and is a great way to reach the popular waterhole at Simpsons Gap that lures black-footed rock wallabies out of their hideouts at dawn and dusk.
From Alice Springs, ride west to Flynn’s Grave where you leave the rumble of tourist traffic in your wake and head across country on a sealed pathway through mulga scrub and over seasonal creeks shaded by ghost gums and ironwoods. The kid-friendly, 17km-long track is broad enough to ride two abreast and there is interpretive signage and some shady picnic tables along the way so you can stop for a breather.
Scenes of the West MacDonnell Ranges provide an excellent backdrop and the 50km round trip from Alice Springs takes about four hours, longer if you tackle a walking trail or stop to picnic at Simpsons Gap.
Where: From Alice Springs, follow Larapinta Drive to Flynn’s Grave where the cycleway begins. Set out early and pack plenty of water. Stay: Bush campsites at Heritage Caravan Park are a good deal at $25 per couple plus $6 per child (swimming pool & pet-friendly). Pack: Bikes, helmets and water bottles. Don’t miss: Alice Springs’ Desert Song Festival (September).