The Ultimate Karijini National Park Survival Guide
Karijini National Park is an incredible, raw and remote destination in the Pilbarra Region of Western Australia. It’s a semi-arid desert, a place of extreme temperature fluctuations- freezing cold winter nights, scorching hot winter days and massive, heavy rainfall in the summer wet season.
It’s a National Park that’s famous in Western Australia for its long, wild gorges- gorges that hide the life and vegetation of this arid land, and provide awesomely scenic walking and hiking routes to natural swimming pools and panoramic lookouts.
I spent 3 months living and working in Karijini National Park, at the Karijini Eco Retreat. I spent a lot of time exploring, hiking and swimming, so I decided to put this knowledge together to create this, The Ultimate Karijini National Park Survival Guide.
The Ultimate Karijini National Park Survival Guide
The following guide to Karijini National Park will explain exactly how to get there, what to do, where to stay, when to go and how to make the most of your trip! As always though, if there’s anything I’ve missed, or if you have any updated travel information then please comment below, to keep everyone as informed as possible!
Where Is Karijini National Park?
Karijini National Park is a huge protected area in the Pilbarra- a region in the North West of Western Australia- and is the second largest National Park in WA, covering over 6000 square kilometres of land.
It’s a long way from the state capital Perth and transport options in and out of Karijini National Park are extremely limited. The remote location in the Pilbarra- a region of semi-arid desert- makes it challenging to reach, but it is well worth every effort and difficulty!!
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Karijini National Park?
The Pilbarra experiences wet and dry seasons. The wet season- which is also the low season – runs roughly from late October through to March and the dry season- also peak season- runs from March through to October.
The summer months can be intensely hot and humid, and this is not the time to visit, unless you enjoy a good tropical storm and potential cyclones. The national park tends to quieten down operations during the low season. Camp sites can close and gorges can be too dangerous to enter. The danger of flash floods and violent storms are very much real this time of year.
The best time to visit is the dry season, when rainfall is almost non existent. These are the cooler months too, and this is when things can get busy- especially during long school holidays. During the real winter months of July and August, temperatures can fluctuate wildly. I found the days to be hot and the nights to be freezing, at some points reaching below zero. Cooler temperatures made walking easier of course, but made swimming a lot more difficult in the icy water! The BEST time to visit is the end of the dry season, just before the rain, when swimming is great and walking is still possible.
How To Travel To Karijini National Park
Most travellers will visit Karijini National Park as part of a road trip around Western Australia. The easiest way to get here- and the only way to really get around once you are in- is to have your own transport. However, driving here from anywhere takes a long time, and the distances and time needed should not be underestimated, especially by those unfamiliar with the vast nature of Australian roads.
There is absolutely no public transport to Karijini and there is no public transport within Karijini. It is not possible to take a bus here unless part of a a multi day, organised tour. There is also no airport at Karijini, but there are flights to the nearby airstrip at Paraburdoo, and from here vehicles can be rented. Again, no public transport from the airport. A few travellers I met in the park had success hitch hiking, some even dared cycling here.
Travelling By Car From Perth And The South
The most direct route into Karijini from Perth is via the Great Northern Highway, which eventually leads all the way to Darwin. This is a sealed highway which travels inland, but the route is sparsely populated with few large towns or roadhouses along the way. Travelling this way, ensure you are prepared and load up on fuel where ever possible. The last stop for fuel on this route is Newman, where there are also large supermarkets available for supplies. This is a journey of 1,500 kilometres, and would need to be broken up over several days each way.
Travelling By Car From Darwin And The North
From the the North, and Darwin, Broome or Port Hedland, the easiest option when driving is to follow the Great Northern Highway South. The last fuel stop here before reaching Karijini is at Auski Roadhouse.
Travelling By Car From Karratha
From Karratha, there are two driving options. If you are travelling in a four wheel drive vehicle there is a mining road which leads directly from Karratha to Karijini, via the equally beautiful Millstream-Chichester National Park. This road requires a special permit, which is easy enough to arrange at either the Karratha Visitor’s Centre or the Tom Price Visitor’s Centre. Check the road conditions before travelling this route, but this road when open is only 350 kilometres long.
In comparison, the second route from Karratha is almost 600 kilometres long along the sealed North West Coastal Highway towards Port Hedland, then turning off south onto the Great Northern Highway. This route requires no permits and can be driven in a two wheel drive vehicle.
Travelling By Car From Coral Bay, Exmouth, Carnarvon Areas And The West Coast
Many travellers will include Karijini National Park as a stop on a road trip along the West Coast, travelling up from Perth towards Shark Bay, Carnarvon and then Exmouth. From these destinations, the easiest route to get to Karijini is to follow the North West Coastal Highway to Nanutarra Roadhouse, where you can then turn off towards Paraburdoo and then Tom Price.
Availability Of Fuel And Supplies When Driving To Karijini National Park
The Pilbarra is remote and lightly populated. Driving distances can be huge, and usually follow long straight roads with few opportunities to refuel and resupply.
There is NO FUEL within the boundaries of the National Park itself for general purchase. The Karijini Eco Retreat have limited quantities available, but this is not intended for sale, just for emergencies, so be well prepared for this and stock up on fuel before entering the park. Distances between gorges and campsites can be long too, so factor this in. It is wise to have a Jerry Can to avoid long drives to the nearest fuel stations.
Aside from the Karijini Eco Retreat where there is a restaurant and bar serving drinks and food – be prepared to pay Outback prices though- no shops or services exist within the National Park either.
The closest town to Karijini is Tom Price, a journey of at least one hour depending on your location within the park. This is a small rural town of only around 2000 people, but this is the regional hub! There’s one supermarket- a Coles- a few restaurants, petrol stations, mechanics as well as a library and medical centre.
The other option for fuel is Auski Roadhouse, again a detour from the park itself, and fuel here tends to be more expensive than in Tom Price. Auski is located on the way up to Port Hedland, at least an hour’s drive depending on your location.
Do I Need A Four Wheel Drive Vehicle To Visit Karijini National Park By Car?
The short answer to this question is no. As noted in the driving directions above, it’s possible to take sealed roads into Karijini National Park and to explore the vast majority of the area in a two wheel drive. The longer answer to this question though, is that a four wheel drive would certainly make things easier and open up certain areas to you, although I would say it is not necessary.
While most of the roads are now sealed, the roads that lead to some gorges are still gravel. They are not four wheel drive tracks though and can be navigated with caution by two wheel drive cars. If you have a rental vehicle though, you MUST CHECK with your rental company if you are allowed on the unsealed, gravel roads here, as many companies do not allow it, and frequently when working within the park, I found many disappointed travellers who couldn’t take their rental camper vans or cars to certain gorges.
These gravel roads are graded at the start of the season, and when things get busy- which they will- the roads see a lot of traffic. They can become very corrugated, bumpy and rough in places, so a four wheel drive will inevitably make these journeys easier, but a two wheel drive will still suffice- it’ll just be a bit bumpier!
Flights To Paraburdoo
The nearest airport to the park itself is at Paraburdoo. This is a two hour drive away- roughly 140 kilometres. There are several direct flights every day to Perth with Qantas.
At the airport it is possible to pick up a rental car- mostly mining vehicles- although you are looking at a few hundred Australian Dollars per day. Hertz Rental Cars operate out of Paraburdoo.
A private tour company, The Flying Sand Groper, can arrange transfers to and fromParaburdoo into the surrounding area, although these are by no means budget.
Guided Tours To Karijini National Park
If you don’t have your own transport, there aren’t too many options for getting to or around Karijini unfortunately.
There are several companies which stop off at Karijini, from basic backpacker tours with Aussie Wanderers or Intrepid to higher end coach tours with large companies like AAT Kings.
Within Karijini, day tours can be arranged around the gorges with a local company Lestok Tours. The Tom Price Visitor’s Centre can help book their tours in advance, and the day trips take in the highlights of Karijini if you don’t have your own transport to get around. In my experience they didn’t run all that frequently, and weren’t particularly good value, so book in advance and only use as a last resort. It is also possible to book tours of the nearby mining sites near Tom Price through Lestok Tours, certainly a different alternative to hiking gorges!
West Oz Active Tours
West Oz Active get a special mention as they run the best tours around Karijini. These guys are an adventure tour company focusing on canyoning, and they have access to parts of the National Park that you can’t otherwise make it to. Their tours are for the physically active and involve swimming, climbing and hiking. In peak season their tours can sell out so try and book in advance. You can do that HERE.
Karijini National Park is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. There’s little light pollution and some of the darkest skies in Western Australia.
The Karijini Eco Retreat began running regular tours for the 2018 season, taking in the night sky in small groups with keen guides. It’s best to enquire directly as to the availability, and which nights they run.
Accommodation In Karijini National Park
Within the National Park there are two accommodation options, the Karijini Eco Retreat and Dale’s Campground. Free camping outside of these two places is not allowed, and the Rangers will regularly patrol and fine people they catch doing this. A great App to check on camp sites and reviews is Wiki Camps. I’d highly recommend investing a few dollars into purchasing this.
The Karijini Eco Retreat
The Karijini Eco Retreat is actually where I spent 3 months working! This is a campsite, and also a Glamping establishment offering Deluxe Eco Tents and Dorm Style Cabins. The tents are aimed at a luxury market, and generally sell for upwards of $300 per night, while camping is a flat fee of $20 per person.
Campers have access to solar powered hot showers and gas BBQ’s. There’s also an onsite restaurant and bar, serving gourmet, outback style food- kangaroo and crocodile! This is the only restaurant for miles, and it’s not cheap but with limited tables, this can get busy and bookings are essential.
During the busy months and especially during school holidays I would honestly suggest booking as far in advance as you can, especially if wanting to camp here as spaces are really limited and there’s no overflow.
The Eco Retreat is around 1 hour’s drive from Tom Price, and the last 3 kilometres of road in are unsealed gravel and this can get corrugated and bumpy.
This is where the West Oz Active Tours begin and the place to catch a Stargazing Tour in the evening. Staying at the Eco Retreat also provides easy access to Joffre’s Gorge- a ten minute walk away- and Weano and Hancock Gorges.
There’s more about the gorges below!
Dales Camp Ground
Dales Camp Ground is the official National Park camping ground, located around 1 hour away from the Karijini Eco Retreat. There are a lot more camping spots here, and if the official sites get full they open up the nearby airfield as overflow. This can’t be booked in advance, so get there nice and early to secure a spot. Camping here costs $10 per person, per night and facilities are limited to toilets and a few BBQ’s only.
The camping area is near to the Karijini Visitor’s Centre, an interesting place with exhibits and history on the area, and it’s also walking distance to Dale’s Gorge.
The Auski Roadhouse is situated on the highway heading North, and it’s a good spot to replenish if you are over on the Eastern side of the park- rather than driving to Tom Price- although things are of course more expensive, as it’s more remote.
Basic accommodation is available here, in the form of camping spots and porta cabins- known as Dongas in Australia.
There are a few options in Tom Price for accommodation, including camping and caravan spots at The Tom Price Tourist Park- this is just outside of town, and is the best value- or the run down bar and hotel that is the Tom Price Hotel Motel.
The Best Things To Do In Karijini National Park
Okay, so now for the part of this Survival Guide that you are really interested in: the best things to do in Karijini National Park!
There is a lot to do. Heaps as the locals say. From hiking and swimming to exploring abandoned asbestos mine sites- that last one you can stay away from if you want too… – there’s a lot happening in Karijini National Park.
When out hiking in Karijini National Park it’s imperative to be prepared. Start early, and take plenty of water. The danger of heat exhaustion is very real and can be fatal. Sadly, a tourist did die on one of the mountain hikes when I was working at the Eco Retreat, and several others had to be rescued from gorges by the emergency services. I’m not trying to put any one off, just wanting to reinforce how dangerous this landscape and climate can be for those who underestimate it.
This is the gorge by the National Park camping ground, and it’s one of the most accessible and easy to access. It’s great for swimming and easy hiking, but that also means that during school holidays it’s busy with kids and families!
Metal stairs lead down from the camp ground to the beautiful, terraced Fortescue Falls below. From here, turn right and it’s an easy walk to Fern Pool. This is always the warmest swimming area, as it gets the most sunlight throughout the day- or maybe because of all the kids swimming there…
Walk the other way, and at the bottom of Fortescue Falls is a 2 kilometre walking trail which leads through the gorge and to Circular Pool at the far end of Dales. The hike is easy enough, and Circular Pool is a great place to swim and relax. At this end of the gorge though, the hike to the top again is rather steeper than at Fortescue. A short hike along the gorge edge will take you back to the day area, or you can follow the gorge in the other direction to reach the camping ground.
Difficulty: Medium – Hard
Joffree Gorge is the site of a spectacular, cavernous waterfall that in the wet season erupts with flash floods under the weight of the Pilbarra Summer storms and in the dry season is the perfect place to swim.
Right next to Karijini Eco Retreat, the walk from the restaurant to the gorge edge only takes 5 minutes through the red dust. From the lookout point, you can walk all the way around for awesome views above the waterfall itself and to a second viewing platform on the other side- a walk of about half an hour- or you can descend down into the waterfall itself.
The walk down isn’t very long but you have to be physically able to scramble and occasionally climb over rocks and boulders, which is why it is rated a Class 5 walk- or the most inaccessible walk on the rating scale. It’s not crazy difficult though as long as you watch your step.
Turn right at the bottom of the gorge, and you reach the waterfall. In dry season, you can do this without getting wet if you want to. Turn left at the bottom of Joffre Gorge, and that’s where the fun really begins. A short descent takes you into the deep ‘Olympic Swimming Pool’, which leads for 300 metres to an island further down the gorge. Climb out here and you can walk to the edge of a massive drop. The view is awesome, but be careful as the water can be cold. At least person got stranded on the island in my time there and had to be rescued.
Kalamina Gorge is half way between Dales Gorge and Joffre Gorge. The road here isn’t sealed, but the gravel isn’t too bad most of the year and can be tackled with a two wheel drive. Kalamina Gorge is the quiet Gorge. There aren’t the spectacular caverns or the swimming pools of the other gorges, but it is the best gorge to get away from the crowds and to find some peace and quiet.
The walk is 3 kilometres return, with a gentle slope leading down to the creek bed. It’s an easy stroll, and you just keep walking along the shallow, bottom of the gorge until you meet the big pool at the end.
Knox Gorge was possibly my favourite gorge in Karijini. It’s also another underrated walk and again much quieter than the ones nearer the campsites. Knox is spectacular, a gravel road leads to a high lookout that offers sweeping views over the red rocks below.
The walk down is challenging in places, there’s a scree slope leading to the bottom which is loose and steep, and walking to the spectacular chasm like end of the gorge involves some scrambling and edging your way along small drops and cliffs.
Difficulty: Medium – Hard
Weano Gorge is a 14 kilometre drive along an unsealed, gravel road from the Karijini Eco Retreat. This is one of the most popular gorges to hike, it starts off nice and easy, a gentle descent of Class 4, before turning into a more challenging Class 5 walk. Where the trail gets more difficult, there is the option to return to the gorge top, or to carry on. If you carry on, the only way forward is through waist deep water, so be prepared to get wet.
At the end of Weano Gorge is Handrail Pool, a huge swimming area almost fully enclosed by the gorge walls high above. It’s spectacular, and gets its name from the metal rail that was installed leading down to the water to stop so many accidents on the slippy rocks here.
Hancock Gorge is accessed from the same car park as Weano Gorge. This is the most challenging hike in the Karijini National Park that can be attempted without guides and prior permission from the Rangers.
A steep, almost vertical metal ladder leads directly down into the gorge from the edge. From here it’s an easy walk along the creek bed, but before long the only way forward is to either swim or edge your way along the solid rock that forms the gorge wall. This is where accidents happen, if they happen anywhere, and it’s a long way back out again…
Make it past the first obstacle and you reach the Spider Walk, a narrow confined gap that leads to Kermit’s Pool a beautifully coloured swimming area surrounded by high rocks. From here, there’s no way forward unless you have a guide and expertise, and it’s all the way back to the start again through the water and along the sketchy rocks for most of us…
Hamersley Gorge is the most colourful gorge in Karijini. It’s also very different to the others. Most of the gorges are narrow, confined and deep, whereas Hamersley is open and wide, displaying exposed rock of layers of iron ore and minerals.
It’s a mission to get here, the gorge is at least 2 hours drive away from the camping areas right on the edge of the park- showing you just how large this area really is!- and the only way in is along unsealed roads.
Once there, a short walk down into the gorge brings you to a lovely swimming area and waterfall, while a swim along the river will take you into a spectacular area of rocks and colours.
If these gorges weren’t adventurous enough for you then get really off the beaten track with an adventure to Wittenoom, an old asbestos mining town that was abandoned decades ago.
This isn’t for everyone, blue asbestos is deadly and for years it was mined openly here- the reason the town was shut down and wiped off the map by the government- but the area has some of the most spectacular, and the quietest gorges in Karijini. If you don’t mind braving the asbestos risk- to be straight, there is asbestos in EVERY gorge at Karijini- then it’s the perfect spot to camp out. It’s a long journey from anywhere else in the park, but the creepy ghost town is a bizarre sight in the middle of a semi arid desert and the scenery and wildlife is more flourishing and abundant than anywhere else I saw in the area.
Punurrunha (Mount Bruce)
Punurrunha, also known as Mount Bruce, is the second highest mountain in Western Australia. It’s 1234 metres high, and the hike to the summit is absolutely epic, offering incredible views over the whole Hamersley Range.
The walk takes at least 6 hours on average, covering 10 kilometres there and back. In the arid climate of Karijini it’s advisable to start early, and to take as much water as you can- there’s no supplies on the way up. The start point is only a half hour drive from the Karijini Eco Retreat along mostly sealed roads.
If climbing the second highest mountain in Western Australia isn’t enough for you, then you can always tackle Mount Meharry. This is the highest mountain in WA, although it’s actually only 15 metres higher than Mount Bruce.
Mount Meharry is further afield though, and generally requires a four wheel drive to get most of the way up to the summit, before walking the last few kilometres. Permission is required from the Rangers, or West Oz Active run occasional tours to the summit.
If you still have the energy to climb one more mountain, then head to Tom Price where an easy two hour ascent will bring you to the top of Mount Nameless, the mountain with no name that shadows the mining companies of Tom Price below.
There are spectacular views from the ridgeway and out over the sprawling Rio Tinto buildings. From Tom Price, to drive to the base of Mount Nameless you head towards the Caravan Park, before following the dirt road towards the mountain. It’s easily done in a two wheel drive.
The Wildlife Of Karijini National Park
Wherever you choose to hike in Karijini National Park, there’s always wildlife to see. Emus can be spotted running across the plains, as can kangaroos and even the occasional wild camel.
In the colder months, the wildlife tends to hibernate but when things start to warm up again the animals and especially the insects and reptiles begin to emerge. It’s not uncommon to find huntsmen spiders on your tent door or golden orb spiders swinging from the roofs, while even at the Karijini Eco Retreat a Mulga (a brown snake, one of the deadliest in the world) slithered through the restaurant.
It’s all part of life in the Pilbarra, and treat the wildlife with respect and you will be alright. Just ensure you carry a torch around at night and wear boots when hiking.
Karijini National Park really is remote, and most of the area receives zero telephone signal. The only areas with any signal- including 3G coverage- are the Mount Bruce Car Park and Tom Price. Everywhere else gets no reception, and there is no WiFi available at either the Karijini Visitor’s Centre or at the Karijini Eco Retreat.
National Parks Pass And Entry Fees
Karijini National Park requires visitors to purchase entry permits. A single pass costs $12 per vehicle and is valid for the duration of your stay within the park. If you are going to multiple parks, it is possible to purchase an annual pass for the duration of the year, including entry to the majority of National Parks in Western Australia.
All Photos And Words By Richard Collett
I spent several months working at the Karijini Eco Retreat as part of my extensive travels around Western Australia, and I have tried to make this article as detailed as possible based on my experience here. However, things can change, and to help keep this article as up to date and informative s possible, if you notice any mistakes or changes then please let me know in the comments, so we can keep this as a great resource for future travellers!
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