120km (74 miles) S of Darwin
An easy 90-minute drive south of Darwin is a miniature Garden of Eden full of forests, waterfalls, rocky sandstone escarpments, glorious swimming holes, and prehistoric cycads that look as if they belong on the set of Jurassic Park. Litchfield National Park is much smaller (a mere 146,000 hectares/360,620 acres) and much less famous than its big sister, Kakadu, but it is no less stunning.
The park's main attractions are the spring-fed swimming holes, like the magical plunge pool at Florence Falls, 29km (18 miles) from the forest. It's a 15-minute hike down stairs to the water, so the easily accessible pool at Wangi Falls, 49km (30 miles) from the eastern entrance, gets more crowds. (It's also a beautiful spot, surrounded by cliffs and forests with a lookout from the top.) More idyllic grottoes are 4km (2 1/2 miles) from Florence Falls at Buley Rockhole, a series of tiered rock pools and waterfalls. You can't swim at Tolmer Falls, but during the Wet when they're flowing, take the boardwalk about 400m (1,312 ft.) to the lookout and see the cascade against a backdrop of red cliffs.
There are a number of short walking trails through the park, such as the half-hour Shady Creek Circuit from Florence Falls up to the parking lot.
Parts of the park are also home to thousands of 2m-high (6 1/2-ft.) "magnetic" termite mounds, so called because they run north-south to escape the fierce midday heat. A display hut and a viewing point are 17km (11 miles) from the park's eastern entrance.
Warning: Most of the park's swimming holes are regarded as crocodile-free; the same is not true of the Finniss and Reynolds rivers in the park, so no leaping into those!
To get there from Darwin, head south for 86km (53 miles) on the Stuart Highway and follow the park turnoff on the right through the town of Batchelor for 34km (21 miles). A number of minicoach and four-wheel-drive day trips run from Darwin. Katherine-based tour operator Travel North (tel. 1800/089 103 in Australia, or 08/8971 9999; www.travelnorth.com.au) runs a day tour to Litchfield that starts in Darwin and ends in Katherine, a convenient way to combine sightseeing and transport if you plan to visit both. It costs A$199 adults and A$179 children 5 to 15. Crowds of locals can shatter the peace in Litchfield on weekends, especially in the Dry season, but the park is worth visiting, crowds or no crowds. Entry to the park is free.
Roads to most swimming holes are paved, although a few are accessible only by four-wheel-drive. In the Wet (approximately Nov-Apr), some roads -- usually the four-wheel-drive ones -- may be closed, and the Wangi water hole may be off-limits due to turbulence and strong currents. Check with the Parks & Wildlife Commission (tel. 08/8999 4555) before you leave Darwin during this time.
A number of locations in the park have basic campsites. The camping fee per night is A$6.60 for adults, A$3.30 for kids under 16, or A$15 for families of two adults and four kids. A kiosk at Wangi Falls sells some supplies, but stock up on fuel and alcohol in Batchelor.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.