Karijini National Park, with its dramatic gorges, world-class plunge pools and colourful terrain, is one of Australia’s finest national parks – if not the world. A trip here is a highlight of any visit to WA and it’s the sort of place that ends up being a lifetime highlight as well. Be warned, it is a trek to get here – you don’t just add it on to the itinerary as a side trip – but all the park’s major attractions are accessible in a 2WD. If you have a chance to come here, take it.
If your idea of the Outback is a dusty, dry desert, Karijini’s rugged terrain and red mountains will change that instantly. The Hamersley Range runs through the park, boasting both WA’s tallest mountain, Mount Meharry (1,249m), and the second-tallest, Mount Bruce (1,234m). The contrast of the bright-red mountains and almost neon- green hills, covered with spinifex and shrubbery, is awe-inspiring. At 627,422ha, the park is WA’s second largest (after Karlamilyi), and there are plenty of escarpments, plateaux and gorges for hiking, plus some spectacular plunge pools that could go up against the world’s best.
What to see and do in Karijini National Park
West to east, the major sites here are Fern Pool, Fortescue Falls, Three Ways Lookout and Circular Pool. There are car parks at Fortescue Falls and Circular Pool, and Dales Gorge has a campground. Hiking trails link or pass all four sites; a combination Class 2 and Class 3 hike on the edge of the gorge, or a Class 4 hike into the gorge itself.
From Fortescue Falls car park, it is about a 1.2km (Class 3/4) hike down into the gorge to the spectacular freshwater Fern Pool. It’s a fantastic place for swimming – there’s a waterfall pouring down from a long shelving ledge, and greenery around the other three sides. You can also go up under and behind the waterfall for a unique viewpoint. If you enter the water, please do so quietly and respect the land’s Traditional Owners. The Creation Serpent is said to live here – having arrived after travelling through the Pilbara landscape, its movements creating the waterways. En route to Fern Pool you’ll pass Fortescue Falls – another glorious swimming spot, highlighted by a long waterfall that slides its way down red rockface; the stepped appearance of the rock to the right of the falls adds drama to the scene. From here, there’s an optional 800m (Class 3) detour to Fortescue Falls Viewpoint, where a viewing platform gives a beautiful aerial vantage point of the falls.
Given its location, on a 4×4-only track off Banjima Road, Kalamina is not one of Karijini’s ‘headline’ gorges – but the crowds are often thinner, making it a good option if you are looking to break away from the pack. Though not as deep as others, the gorge is still accessed by a Class 4, 3km return trail which leads down to the permanent pool, with a seasonal waterfall – Kalamina Falls. Walking along the gorge floor is not as demanding as the other hikes; you will pass rockpools and some colourful rock walls, until you reach the end point at Rock Arch Pool.
Weano Gorge is often downplayed, but for our money Handrail Pool – your reward at the end of the Lower Weano Gorge hike – is one of the most spectacular plunge pools in the country, if not the world. If you are able to negotiate the Class 5, 1km walk – do so. It starts off easy, but don’t be fooled – there are steep, slick descents, narrow passageways and, at times, you have to walk through water – an elderly man slipped and died here in April 2021. As grumpy as you may feel on the difficult and slow trek down, all is forgotten once you get your first glimpse of Handrail Pool – so named because of the handrail you grip as you descend. The deep, steep, red, orange and pink rockface walls contrast with the brilliantly coloured water, occasionally making a green-tinted border where the two meet. The water’s small waves reflect off the walls of the gorge, and there is an echo when you speak.
Accessed from the same car park as Weano Gorge, Hancock Gorge is home to the immensely challenging Spider Walk – so named because to get through the passageway, you have to stick your legs and arms out to the sides of the narrow chasm like a spider. There are rock steps, uneven ground and you will have to negotiate through water. Kermit’s Pool, the end point, is beautiful but can feel narrow, and the colours darker than the other pools, surrounded by steep walls.
The Class 5,3 km walk through Joffre Gorge leads to the incredible Joffre Falls – almost perfectly centred at the end of a narrow gorge, as if it knows it’s the showpiece. The falls seem to curve towards the bottom like someone slouching into their chair. When you’re at the bottom of the gorge, your vantage point can make it seem like you’re standing at the bottom of a giant tin can. If you don’t want to do the hike, there is a lookout just 100m from the car park.
Disconnected from the other popular gorges in the park, Hamersley Gorge – in the northwest, and accessed on a different road – is a somewhat gentler gorge than its cousins. The rock here has some distinctive geology behind it and looks almost diagonally patterned in parts down the long face to the water.
There are some waterfalls here, plus a fabulous swimming plunge pool, and the gorge is significantly wider – which gives broader views and permits a less claustrophobic feeling. The walk down is also a bit more relaxed – a Class 3, 400m hike that almost feels like a stroll compared to some of the other gorges.
The ‘Four Mountains’
Though the Stirling Range in the Great Southern gets all the attention, WA’s tallest mountains are actually in the Pilbara, close to Karijini’s gorges. The state’s second-highest peak at 1,234m, Mount Bruce is very accessible from Karijini Road, near the western entrance to the park. There are three walks here, the shortest of which is the Marandoo View Walk (Class 2; 500m), with views out over the mine site. The Honey Hakea Walk (Class 3; 4.6km) has good vistas of the surrounding mountains and scrub, while the Summit Walk (Class 5; 9km) takes you to the top with even grander panoramas of the craggy Pilbara mosaic. The views into Karijini and out to the Marandoo mine site make this a great spot for contemplation and reflection about the yin and yang of the economic use of the land that powers the state’s economy and the livelihood of its residents, in stark contrast against the geographic beauty and cultural value of this landscape. If you can’t get to Millstream-Chichester, it is worth doing this one for the views.
Mount Meharry (1,249m) pips Mount Bruce as tallest mountain by only 15m, but it is considerably more challenging to reach this peak. You can drive to the summit along a difficult 4×4 track – accessed from Juna Downs and the Great Northern Highway – but call the visitor centre ahead of time for conditions and information.
There are two other peaks that are good for climbing – Mount Nameless and Mt Sheila, both outside Karijini near Tom Price. Mount Nameless (1,128m), also known as Jarndunmunha, looks over the town like a sentinel, its shape somewhat similar to a right triangle; you can drive to the summit in a 4×4, or hike up (Class 4; 4.5km) starting from the speedway. The summit affords views of the town and mine site. Smaller Mount Sheila (987m) is north of Tom Price – again 4×4 only – and about 40km west of Hamersley Gorge – access is via the private Tom Price Railway Road, so you will need to get a permit first from the Tom Price Visitor Centre.
Travel to Karijini National Park
From Perth you have two options, both about 1,500km; the Great Northern Highway inland through Cue and Newman, then across Karijini Road to the park’s entrance; or take the coastal road past Carnarvon, turning off at the famous Nanutarra Roadhouse. The coastal route is slightly longer; both options have fantastic scenery once you get to the Pilbara and if Karijini is your main destination you may want to take one road up and the other back. Regardless, if coming from Perth direct to Karijini/Tom Price you will need to make this a two-day drive – do not think about driving this route at night – and, as such, it may make sense to take the coastal route since there are far more accommodation options as you pass through Geraldton and Carnarvon.
Integrity Coach Lines does the job in 27 hours going up from Perth, and 32 coming back to Perth, starting at A$596 return to/from Tom Price. Qantas flies from Perth to Paraburdoo Airport (1hr 45mins; from A$378), 9km from Paraburdoo and 71km from Tom Price.