Australia’s best national parks: The secret spots most people miss
We’re spoiled for choice in Australia, with some 680 national parks across our wide brown land. Such abundance means many of them go almost unnoticed except by locals, providing uncrowded natural escapes that people in other parts of the world can only dream about.
Even in our best known and most accessible national parks, nooks and crannies go unfrequented, making them worth visiting again and again, when the time presents itself in these temporarily confined times, to explore new locations and take in new experiences.
We gathered a brain’s trust of nature-oriented experts from around Australia and asked them to reveal their best-kept secrets of their favourite national parks, providing their insights for Traveller readers into the places or sights most people overlook.
Our conclusion? Get out and explore these magnificent parks, as soon as events will allow. In these fraught times they can provide a more than welcome balm for the soul.
THE EXPERT PANEL
Former director of Ecotourism Australia, Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year 2005, OAM recipient for services to conservation and the environment, and co-founder of Conservation Ecology Centre and Wildlife Wonders in Victoria. See conservationecologycentre.org, wildlifewonders.org.au
Environmental scientist, former educator in tourism and eco-tourism for Australian universities and the BBC, and founder of Vision Walks Eco-Tours in Byron Bay, which pioneers guided nature walks using night-vision technology. See visionwalks.com.au
Professional endurance athlete, ultra-marathon runner, Olympic triathlete in 2008 and 2012, adventurer racer and three times Australia’s Triathlete of the Year, who has run the trails of many Queensland national parks. See facebook.com/MrCourtneyAtkinson
Tasmania-based biologist with more than 30 years of field, teaching and guiding experience, expert on threatened species management, and owner and specialist guide on Inala Nature Tours’ Australian and international tours. See inalanaturetours.com.au
Western Australia-based photographer with a passion for birds and conservation, first Australian woman to win a category in the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and author of new Australian Geographic book For the Love of Birds. See georginasteytler.com.au
GREAT OTWAY, VIC
Great Otway National Park. Photo: Mark Chew
THE PARK Stretching along the Great Ocean Road and its hinterland, this park packs in spectacular coastlines, rugged hills and undulating plains graced with magnificent mountain ash.
DON’T MISS The coast west of Apollo Bay is rightly famous, but turns inland for mountain-bike trails, waterfall hikes and the giant trees of Maits Rest.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Lizzie Corke says that Parker Inlet, the sheltered beach across which the Parker River meanders, is an ideal spot for children to paddle and play. Shy swamp wallabies peep from coastal heath and platypus can be glimpsed upriver. Meanwhile, the rainforest at Melba Gully has glow worms; on dark nights, it feels as though you’re floating through stars.
ESSENTIALS See parks.vic.gov.au
ULURU-KATA TJUTA, NT
Wilpena Pound at Ikara-Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Photo: Adam Bruzzone
THE PARK Rust-red mountains, orange gorges and giant gum trees create quintessential outback landscapes, scattered with the melancholy remnants of failed colonial-era settlements.
DON’T MISS Moralana and Bunyeroo-Brachina-Aroona scenic drives; even from your car the scenery is spectacular. Wilpena Pound has a great variety of hiking. Sacred Canyon and Arkaroo Rock display indigenous artworks.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Don’t hurry through Brachina Gorge like most visitors, says Cochran. Look carefully and you’ll find the remains of the first multicellular life on Earth, dating back 600 million years, preserved in the sandstone. The quality of light is ethereal during early morning and late afternoon, changing dull grey rocks to rich oranges and purples.
ESSENTIALS See parks.sa.gov.au
THE PARK You’re near the Gold Coast, yet surrounded by ancient Gondwana rainforest and volcanic landscapes, with abundant walking tracks both easy and challenging – including part of the 54-kilometre Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk.
DON’T MISS Natural Bridge has a waterfall, and glow-worm caves you can visit on a night tour. Purling Brook and Twin waterfalls are famous, but quieter wilderness is found around Mount Cougal.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Courtney Atkinson recommends continuing beyond the well-known Twin Falls for another two or three kilometres and you’ll find more than a dozen other impressive waterfalls. It’s the go-to place for locals to bring visitors, but hardly anyone else knows to make the effort.
ESSENTIALS See parks.des.qld.gov.au
SOUTH BRUNY, TAS
THE PARK All Bruny Island is magnificent, but this park has a spectacularly rugged coastline exposed to the Southern Ocean: next stop Antarctica. It features impressive cliffs, coastal heathland and lush temperate rainforest.
DON’T MISS The views at Bruny Neck and walk to the former whaling station at Grass Point. Labillardiere Peninsula has a challenging but splendid hike. Cape Bruny Lighthouse (1838) is Australia’s second-oldest lighthouse.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Cloudy Bay’s ruggedly beautiful five-kilometre beach is usually almost deserted. But, as Atkinson advises, you may be lucky to see special shorebirds, including hooded plovers and Australian pied oystercatchers. You may even see migratory species like double-banded plovers and red-necked stints.
ESSENTIALS See parks.tas.gov.au
THE PARK Dorrigo Rainforest Centre has great interpretive information, shops, and a cafe, and leads straight onto the Skywalk, a boardwalk through the rainforest canopy with sweeping views of the Bellinger valley.
DON’T MISS The five-kilometre Wonga Walk takes you through subtropical rainforest to two spectacular waterfalls, with lots of interpretive signs along the way. You can walk behind Crystal Falls and look through the waterfall into the rainforest.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) If you’re quiet and still in the picnic area near the visitor’s centre, says Bithell, you might see red-necked pademelons having a feed on the grass. They’re among our smallest marsupials, and rarely seen as they normally live in dense rainforest.
ESSENTIALS See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
PORT CAMPBELL, VIC
A couple hiking on the Great Ocean Road. Photo: Mark Watson
THE PARK The landscapes along the Great Ocean Road get all the attention, but this park is home to little penguins and (between September and April) huge colonies of shearwaters.
DON’T MISS Coastal rock formations such as the Twelve Apostles, The Grotto and London Bridge, which need no introduction. Loch Ard Gorge cups a beautiful beach between sandstone cliffs.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Tourists flock to the Twelve Apostles, but this coastline has incredible locations where few venture. Corke recommends visiting the Blowhole in wild weather where it feels great to be alive. Listen for the squeaky call of the rufous bristle bird, and look out for bandicoots which live in the coastal heathlands.
ESSENTIALS See parks.vic.gov.au
Mount Bartle Frere Photo: Jilara Kuch
THE PARK This rugged landscape of wet tropics south of Cairns has tough walking and mountain-biking, but you’re rewarded with gorges, foaming rivers and waterfalls, and lush rainforest.
DON’T MISS Walshs Pyramid is a heart-banger but rewards with incredible views. The Mulgrave River has crystal-clear waters for kayaking. For easy access, visit Josephine Falls are the Mamu Tropical Skywalk.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Mount Bartle Frere has one of the most challenging tracks in the country, rising steeply to 1600 metres. But you only need go halfway to Broken Nose, a rock outcrop with great views, says Atkinson. Just before the track splits here, a refreshing waterfall lies hidden off to the left. It’s a magnificent spot.
ESSENTIALS See parks.des.qld.gov.au
THE PARK World-Heritage site near Byron Bay on the southern volcanic rim of Wollumbin (Mount Warning). It has stunning waterfalls, several types of rainforest ecosystems and rich bird, mammal, reptile and frog life.
DON’T MISS Minyon Falls and Nightcap Historic Track, which takes you past sites important to the Widjabul Wiabal people. Protesters Falls was the location of Australia’s first successful environmental protests, which culminated in the cessation of rainforest logging in NSW.
PSST (IT’S A SECRET) Bithell points out this is one of few places in the world where you can do a night-vision walk in the rainforest. Don military-grade night vision goggles and go looking for nocturnal wildlife. You might see bandicoots, pademelons, bats and tawny frogmouths.
ESSENTIALS See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au; visionwalks.com.au
TEN MORE GREAT NATIONAL PARK SECRETS
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), Kakadu National Park. Photo: iStock
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) is famous for its Indigenous rock art and cultural value, but the area is also rich in wildlife. Cochran says to go quietly and look out for black wallaroos and a variety of birdlife such as chestnut-quilled rock pigeons, white-lined honeyeaters and striking banded fruit-doves. See parksaustralia.gov.au
This represents a massive drive into outback Queensland, says Atkinson, but the resultant emerald waters are brilliant for kayaking. Head up Lawn Hill Gorge until you come to what looks like a dead end; to your left a little creek takes you on through meandering and wider waterways. See parks.des.qld.gov.au
Most people come here to see the crashing waves at The Gap, but miss arguably the best views in Albany further around Frenchman Bay, says Georgia Steytler. At Stony Hill carpark a short, meandering walk leads to large granite outcrops, from the top of which are breathtaking 360-degree outlooks. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
MOUNT FIELD, TAS
Russell Falls track is popular for its spectacular waterfalls, says Cochran, but take your time and you can often see Tasmanian pademelons curled up asleep or resting quietly beside the path. Huge ancient tree ferns festooned with mosses, liverworts and filmy ferns also abound. It’s a magic wonderland. See parks.tas.gov.au
TOWER HILL, VIC
This wildlife reserve is an incredible dormant volcano, and the only way to really discover its geological, cultural and natural history, explains Corke, is with the Indigenous insight of Worn Gundidj Tours. Watch for basking tiger snakes, turtles moving between pools, and swamp harriers soaring over the lakes. See towerhill.org.au
FITZGERALD RIVER, WA
Point Ann is well-known as one of Western Australia’s best whale-watching spots; look out for the gang of seals and rock parrots too. But, as Steytler advises, less well-known is the short, easy heritage trail from the back of the carpark, offering wonderful views of Point Charles Bay and a mosaic of unique wildflowers. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
WHITE MOUNTAINS, QLD
With landscapes similar to the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains, this park east of Townsville is fantastic, yet nobody talks about it, even though many Queenslanders know nearby Porcupine Gorge, says Atkinson. There are a few tracks, but it’s otherwise very rugged. See parks.des.qld.gov.au
BALD ROCK, NSW
This park is nestled at high elevation on the Great Dividing Range along the NSW-Qld border, with large granite outcrops and sclerophyll forest. Bithell recommends tackling Bald Rock Summit or Little Bald Rock tracks in winter and you might enjoy light snowfall and have the entire place to yourself. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
PARRY LAGOONS, WA
You don’t have to be a bird nerd to be amazed by Marlgu Billabong in this nature reserve near Wyndham. From the bird hide, Steytler says you can observe thousands of birds, including magpie geese, plumed whistling-ducks, kingfishers, whiskered terns, and jesus birds darting across the lily pads. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
The single snow gum on Mount Stirling’s summit, around 320 years old, is a humbling presence. Each winter its twisted branches are buried in snow, and yet, says Corke, most years, it flowers and sets seed. In the rain, its trunk is a rainbow of colour, and antechinus shelter in the knotholes. See parks.vic.gov.au
FIVE SECRETS ABOUT NATIONAL PARKS OVERSEAS
FIORDLAND, NEW ZEALAND
Tutoko Valley, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Photo: Alamy
Beyond well-trodden Milford Track, this stunning national park has hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails. Challenging Tutoko Valley Route has terrific mountain views and glorious beech forest. See fiordland.org.nz
KRUGER, SOUTH AFRICA
The northern zone of this very accessible national park is significantly less visited and is the haunt of elephant and leopards. Anywhere, springtime sees fewer visitors yet an abundance of flowers, birds and newborn animals. See sanparks.org
The go-to Argentine side of these famous falls gets you closer to the water, but it’s worth visiting the Brazilian side for more panoramic views, such as the outlook from Salto Floriano waterfall. See cataratasdoiguacu.com.br
GRAND CANYON, US
It’s a 320-kilometre detour to less-frequented North Rim, but the road winds through the Painted Desert, and you’ll enjoy a crowd-less canyon, whether hiking North Kaibab Trail or cycling brilliant Rainbow Rim Trail to remote viewpoints. See nps.gov/grca
Corbett and Ranthambore are the best-known parks for tiger-spotting, but Bandhavgarh has a higher tiger density and significant numbers of leopards, and offers four-wheel drive safaris and unnerving but rewarding walking safaris. See mptourism.com