The complete guide to Carnarvon Gorge National Park
#NoFilter and #NoFillers required. On our fourth gig together, Queensland’s ageing rock star – Carnarvon Gorge National Park – proves she’s just as stunning now as the day my seven-year-old-self first met her. This time round, she’s also more lush, more mystical, and even more popular than I remembered. And, thanks to a lifetime ban on double malted Milo milkshakes, she was also a lot easier for my little Corgi legs to conquer.
With four trips over four decades under my belt, I reckon I have won the rights to pen a complete guide to Carnarvon Gorge and why it should be on everyone’s bucket list. Here goes.
First up, what is Carnarvon Gorge National Park?
Named by Major Mitchell (the explorer, not the galah!) after a medieval town in Wales noted for a great grey castle, the 298,000-hectare Carnarvon Gorge National Park is smothered in boulder-strewn creeks, prehistoric Cycads, and open Eucalypt forests. Located 720 km north east of Brisbane, the drawcard here is a 30 km long ravine of jaw-dropping natural beauty. It’s a place where shallow artesian springs flood ankle deep water across the base of the gorge and towering sandstone cliffs – the youngest 27 million years old – flank its sides. Here and there, remnant rainforests pop into view.
For millions of years, this special place has been a biosphere of some 200 species of birds, 60 different mammals, 22 kinds of frogs and 90 types reptiles. (Thankfully, none of them crocs!) This is Noah’s ark of the Australian bush and a place where Kingfishers swoop past tents in the morning, echidnas waddle across tracks, and platypuses play in the swimming holes, oblivious to the goggle-eyed humans watching them from the nearby banks.
In a nutshell, Carnarvon Gorge is Queensland’s Avatar.
What to do: hiking
Get walking. Carnarvon Gorge is home to a Great Walk and at least half a dozen shorter trails that take you to places like Baloon Cave and Mickey Creek Gorge. Check out our guide to the best day walks or read on to get the top three picks below
1.The Big Day Out (14 – 23km, 5 – 8 hours)
The high point of every visit is the 20 or so kilometre return trek that polkas its way along the base of the gorge. The best plan of attack is to walk as far as you can until you reach the end of the lower gorge. Then snake your way back to the entrance, taking in the big-ticket attractions like the lush green Moss Gardens, the soaring Amphitheatre, and the Art Gallery. Without venturing into these sideshow alleys, the round-trip hike is a fair 14km, but it’s more likely that you’ll do at least 20 – 23km of walking as you branch left and right. Don’t miss:
- The Amphitheatre: Push yourself up the steep climb, through the vertical hole into a mollusk shaped canyon. And just sit quietly.
- Moss Garden: This is a botanical ark with elk horns, tree ferns and a lush carpet of moss feeding off artesian water that drips through the porous rock.
- The Aboriginal Art Gallery. Want to see GoMA (Gallery of Modern Art) in the bush? A 30-metre long wall of ochre stencils shows outlines of hands, tools and animals. These are as vivid now as the day they were painted.
Tip: To get the most out of your Lower Gorge Walk, sign up for a tour with a master ecologist; Simon Ling and his gang at Australian Nature Guides. Based out of Carnarvon Gorge since 1997, Simon knows the off track, secret side gorges that only his tours are permitted to enter. At $55 per person, this is the best way to deep dive into the ecology of the region.
2. Boolimba Bluff (6.4km, 2 – 3 hours)
Graduates of those ridiculous Step Classes of the 1990s will love this hike. The three-hour return trip factors in hundreds of steps (some steep and some requiring a ladder) to get to the lip of Boolimba Bluff. And guess what? it’s worth it for the sheer panorama over the opposing ridge. Do it in the morning – and meet the sunrise – and then head back to camp and relax.
3. The Great Walk (87km)
Okay, this one is still on my bucket list – but I do know that it requires experience, planning, great packing, and rock-solid bush knowledge. It’s also remote, taking hikers out of the Lower Gorge and across plateaus and valleys of the Consuelo Tableland and Mount Moffatt Section. Permits are an absolute must and only six handed out each day. If you prefer waking up to a barista-made hot skinny piccolo, this is probably not for you.
What else can you do?
Over hiking? Thankfully there’s a raft of other things to do.
Heli Central Tours: In less than ten minutes you can be soaring above the sandstone cliffs, spotting the Twin Sisters and the Three Sisters and getting a geography lesson from the pilot. Tours start from $99 pp for ten minutes, minimum two people.
Guide to the Galaxy: When the nearest town is more than 100km away and it boasts a population of just 300, there’s no chance of light pollution affecting this big sky country. Sign up for one of the nightly astronomy tours with Takarakka Bush Resort ($25 for adults for one hour) or Australian Nature Guides Star Struck Tour ($40 for a 1.5 hour including 15 minutes of telescope time) and explore the stunning solar system above.
Night Safari Tour with Australian Nature Guides: Greater Gliders, owls and Microbats are just three of the dozen or so animals you are likely to spot on the 1.5 hour, one km walking tour that departs from the Visitor Information Centre. It costs $25 per adult.
Family Dinner: Tired of eating camp food, then book in for a Takarakka two course roast dinner in a convivial outdoor pop up restaurant. At $25/adult and $15/child, it’s a great diversion from the sauso sizzle in front of the tent.
Fine dining at the Lodge: Even Bear Grylls needs a break from steak and potatoes. And we bet if he came to Carnarvon Gorge, he’d be hot footing it to the Carnarvon Wilderness Lodge where an inventive chef rustles up fine dining daily. Don’t believe me? Consider this menu: Torpedo prawns with Ponzu dipping sauce for starters, a three hour Slow Cooked Lamb Roast for mains, and home-made mocha profiteroles as a finisher. Sign up!
Where to stay:
Park your pillow in one of these five spots for as little as the cost of a large latte.
1. Carnarvon Gorge National Park
If Carnarvon Gorge is Eden, then this national park campsite is the Promised Land with sloping green grounds and front row seats to a rock escarpment that is so insty worthy, you might even opt out of the walk. Here kookaburras and kingfishers play hide and seek among the ghost gums and possums sneak along finger thin branches at night. Best yet, with a few football ovals of space to house just 30 campsites, its super peaceful all day and all night. The downside – no hot showers. Eep. Cold is an understatement.
Cost: This is the cheapest option at a smidge under $7 pppn. Be warned, it’s only open in the Easter, Winter and Spring Queensland holidays, and you need to book well in advance to nab a much-coveted spot.
Who’s it for: die-hard nature lovers fully kitted out with camping supplies who prefer to wake up to expanse, nature …. and a cold shower
Warning: Keep your tent unzipped at your own peril. I returned from a hike to find a kangaroo foraging in my sleeping bag and a trail of roo poo to mop up.
2. Sandstone Park Camp Site
Five kilometres and five-minutes drive from the park entry is Sandstone Park Camp Site, a working cattle farm that offers some of the most striking panoramas of the big bluff. As you would expect from a cattle station, this place is big. The 41 unpowered sites are spread over 50 acres meaning you will probably need to coo’ee your neighbor to get their attention.
Cost: $20 per night for unpowered sites
Who’s it for: Pet lovers and self-sufficient campers in need of a dump point and a beautiful bluff.
Bonus: Located outside the national park, this is the only place that welcomes pets. Further, the clever folk have set up day kennels to mind the fur-kids while the human parents tackle the walks.
3. Takarakka Bush Resort and Caravan Park
The Disneyland of all parks, Takarakka offers just about every range of possible pillow option: powered and unpowered campsites, permanent tents with and without en-suites, cosy cabins, cottages, and smartly designed studios that would nicely swap for a city getaway.
The resort has been designed for people who love people and mingling starts at nightly ‘town hall’ gatherings and continues around the camp kitchens and open fires. Those who love their creature comforts will be happy to note there are well serviced bathrooms with (thoughtfully) sizzling hot showers and a store selling fuel, basic groceries, pre-wrapped sandwiches, souvenirs and the all-important post 23km hike reward: icecream!
Cost: Starts from around $36/night for an unpowered campsite up to $215/night for the Kookaburra Studios.
Who’s it for: families looking for a community feel, couples who don’t want to camp, people who love people. What it’s not for are those who want to get away from it all.
Bonus: Takarakka Bush Resort overlooks a stunning creek that is literally peppered with platypuses. Rise at dawn and stand quietly by the river bank (alongside a gaggle of people still in pyjamas) and you can spot the oddest of creatures blissing out in the clear creek water.
Warning: School holidays turn this slice of paradise into a grand central playground. Some 70,000 visitors make their way to Carnarvon each year and by my count, many of them stay here.
4. Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge
The folks here were well ahead of their time, building permanent safari tents and cabins years before the term “glamping” was coined. This is the premium end of the Park, with cabins and permanent tents (with ensuites) popping up around the ancient cycads.
Cost: Starting from $215 a night in peak season.
Who’s it for: folks who want the finer things in life served with a slice of peace.
Bonus: The lodge has the only pool – a must in the warmer months – and the only licensed restaurant in the region offering some impressive fare. Even if you don’t overnight at the Lodge, it’s worth togging up (changing your thongs for a pair of Vans) and treating yourself to the nom nom meals. But get in early … if it’s school holidays, this place also proves super popular.
5. Wallaroo Outback Retreat
Eight teepee tents, six bathrooms, two rustic firepits and an incredible timber lodge built from wood milled from the land make this the most unusual Carnarvon Gorge escape. Located on a 71,000-acre property in the Carnarvon Ranges, an hour outside the main national park, this campsite, is the brainchild of Pauline and Justin, a couple who grew up in the region. The station is dotted with cycad-filled gorges, Aboriginal Rock Art, incredible rock formations like The Sphinx and Arch Rock.
Cost: $120 per night minimum two night stay with a camp oven dinner at $30 per adult. Alternately, hire the venue for the day for $250.
Who’s it for: Nature lovers who want to avoid the well-trampled trails and reconnect with themselves. Also, for those who enjoy camping, as long as it comes with a king-sized bed, hot, hot showers, and a zone exclusive only to their inner circle. The retreat can only be booked by one group, irrespective of the size of that group.
Bonus: Sign up for Boobook Ecotours for an amazing (air-conditioned 4WD!) day trip to the Ax Factory, the Rainbow Cave and Arcadia Gorge. Boobook’s trained guides are laser-eyed and are known to spot a Huntsman spider on a tree 20 metres away just by the glint in their eyes.
Warning: Can only be booked out by a single group booking – so get in early.
How to get there
You need at least three full days at Carnarvon Gorge, four or five to pause and reflect on its beauty and two days to get there and back from Brisbane. If you can stretch your flex days why not tackle Carnarvon as part of our 10-day Best of Queensland Road Trip. If not, a six-day getaway from Brisbane will do the trick, stopping at Roma on the way up and Chinchilla or Dalby on the way back. Factor in about nine hours of driving each way and a few hours to meander through the cute country attractions like the Jondaryn Woolshed and The Big Rig Night Show. The road is mostly sealed, although I managed to pop a tyre in the final stretch of gravel. Not fun when the nearest ‘servo’ is in Roma.
Anyone super short on time can take a commercial flight from Brisbane to Emerald and then hire a car for the three-hour drive south to Carnarvon Gorge.
Warning: Avoid driving at dawn or dusk or you may bump noses with a ‘roo or a cow. That’s just not fun especially when they have right of way.
When to visit
The winter months are best, however, the Winkel family’s first foray to Carnarvon was in December when the temperatures got as high as 32 degres. We summer kids fared okay – apart from some angry chaffing of the thighs – by dipping in the streams. Be warned most campsites are closed over the hot season. Check this out before you leave.
What to take
Insect repellent, good walking shoes (hiking boots not needed), a tyre repair kit or spare tire (mandatory!), lots of fuel, and rubbish bags if you are camping in the national park.
So there you have it. A complete guide to one of the Queensland’s prized locations – and there’s not one beach in sight.
Psst! Still hungry for some Great Walks, then check out this guide.