The complete guide to Carnarvon Gorge National Park
Picture an oasis in Queensland’s Central Highlands punctuated by towering sandstone cliffs, prehistoric cycads, more than 2,000 indigenous artworks and a biosphere home to some 200 species of birds, 60 different mammals, 22 kinds of frogs and 90 types of reptiles.
This is Carnarvon Gorge within the Carnarvon National Park, a culturally and ecologically significant area 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.
Here is everything you need to know to plan your next journey to this remarkable place.
How to see the Park
Get walking. Carnarvon National Park is home to a Great Walk and Carnarvon Gorge offers at least half a dozen shorter trails to places like the Rock Pool and Mickey Creek Gorge. Check out our guide to the best day walks or read on to get the top two picks below.
The Big Day Out (19.4km return, 8 hours)
The high point of every visit is the 20-kilometre return trek along the Main Gorge track that polkas its way along the base of the gorge to Big Bend.
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.
The beauty of the walk is that you can stop at any stage, simply pick a distance range that suits and set off. Most walkers aim for one of these highlights and use that as a lunch and turnaround mark:
Moss Garden (7km return): This is a botanical ark with elk horns, tree ferns and a lush carpet of moss that feeds off artesian water dripping through the porous rock.
The Amphitheatre (8.6km return): Push yourself up the steep climb, through the vertical hole into an open-topped cavern—one of Carnarvon’s most dramatic features…and just sit quietly.
The Art Gallery (10.8km return): This significant cultural site has more than 2,000 Indigenous engravings, ochre stencils and freehand paintings adorned across a 62-metre long wall of sandstone and is considered one of the best examples of stencil art in Australia.
Tip: To get the most out of exploring the Lower Gorge, sign up for a tour with master ecologist Simon Ling and Michelle Whitehouse from Australian Nature Guides. Based out of Carnarvon Gorge since 1997, they know the off track, secret side gorges that only their tours are permitted to enter. At $55 per person, this is the best way to deep dive into the ecology of the region.
Boolimba Bluff (6.4km, 3 hours)
The three-hour return trip from the visitor area is challenging and 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.
The best time of the day is sunrise, as the first flickers of light turn the white sandstone to hues of pink and orange. Pack a thermos for one of the most scenic morning coffees you’ll ever enjoy.
Please note this hike is quite physical and is around two hours one way. Only attempt if you’re feeling well and take the climb at your own pace – it’s never a race.
What else can you do?
Over hiking? There’s a raft of other things to experience.
Heli Central Tours: In less than 10 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 10 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 ($35 for a 1.5 hour experience) 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 cooking? 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.
Where to stay
Wallaroo Outback Retreat
Eight glamping tents, two rustic firepits and an incredible timber lodge built with wood milled from the land make this a truly unique and refreshing place to stay.
Located on a 72,000-acre cattle station an hour outside the main national park, Wallaroo Outback Retreat is the brainchild of Pauline and Justin MacDonnell.
The station is home to a plethora of flora and fauna including ancient cycads (some of the prehistoric plants on the property have celebrated their 2,000th birthday), Indigenous rock art, incredible rock formations like The Sphinx and Arch Rock and beautiful sunset spots overlooking the property and the neighbouring Arcadia Valley.
Cost: $120 per night minimum two-night stay with a camp oven dinner at $30 per adult.
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 and hot, hot showers.
Bonus: Sign up for Boobook Ecotours for an insightful (air-conditioned 4WD!) day trip around the property. 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.
Sandstone Park Camp Site
Five kilometres and five-minute’s 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 neighbour 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 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.
Takarakka Bush Resort and Caravan Park
The Disneyland of all parks, Takarakka offers just about every possible site 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: ice cream!
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.
How to get there
You need at least three full days at Carnarvon Gorge 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.
Roma is the gateway to Outback Queensland and a great stop to refresh for the night (after stopping in Toowoomba for coffee en-route from Brisbane).
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
Be warned most campsites are closed over the hot season. Check this out before you leave.
For the bag, be sure to pack insect repellent, good walking shoes (hiking boots not needed), lots of fuel, and rubbish bags if you are camping in the national park.
Still hungry for some Great Walks, then check out this guide.