The Northern Territory’s hiking scene is dominated by the ‘Big 3’ – the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, and the Jatbula Trail and Tabletop Track in the Top End. Across three months in 2023, Stu O’Brien hiked them all. So, how do they compare?

 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Countries on which these adventures take place who have occupied and cared for these lands, waters, and their inhabitants for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

How long do they take?

Larapinta Trail – 231 km

Broken up into 12 sections, the Larapinta Trail is an absolute monster of a track. Snaking through Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges, the trail can be completed in as little as ten days (or 54 hours if you’re insane) or extended anywhere up to three weeks. Most hikers complete the hike in 12-16 days.

 

Jatbula Trail – 62km

The Jawoyn people, Traditional Owners of the Jatbula Trail, request that hikers complete the trail over a minimum of four nights.

At this unhurried and comfortable pace, visitors have ample time to enjoy the varied landscapes, appreciate the cultural artefacts and sites, and spend afternoons relaxing in the waterholes.

 

Tabletop Track – 39km

While it’s officially listed as 39km in length, there are several link tracks that lead to campsites and car parks, which brings the total distance of the Tabletop Track closer to 50km.

The Tabletop Track can be completed in two nights, however three or four nights are ideal and will give you more time to enjoy the waterholes and wildlife.

Read more: How To Hike in Hot Weather

What’s there to see?

The scenery across all three hikes is stunning and varies greatly between the Red Centre and Top End.

Larapinta Trail

Larapinta, deep in the heart of the Central Desert, has everything an avid hiker could want. The trail moves across barren desert landscapes, traverses rocky mountains of red and orange, and descends into valleys and gorges.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Australia’s 10 Deserts

 

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Standard Larapinta magic

 

There are dry river beds shaded by enormous ghost gums, and frigid waterholes and river crossings that can reach chest height after the rains.

The incredible sunrises and sunsets paint the sky in oranges, pinks, and purples, while stars light up the evening sky. The Larapinta Trail also boasts an abundance of wildlife including rock wallabies, kangaroos, dingoes, lizards, and cockatoos.

Read more: Capturing the Landscapes of the Larapinta Trail

 

Jatbula Trail

The enduring memory of most visitors to Jatbula is the spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes. Each campsite is set near cascading rivers where you can spend your afternoons swimming and frolicking under cloudless blue skies.

The trail itself passes through rich green bushland, and reaches some spectacular heights, with sweeping gorge views.

 

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The ever-impressive 17 Mile Falls, only accessible on the Jatbula Trail

 

Tabletop Track

The Tabletop Track, located inside Litchfield National Park, offers hikers a taste of everything. There are rocky outcrops, rivers, and waterholes, and diverse plant life including bush honey and ferns.

Wildlife lovers should look out for emus, water monitors, kangaroos, and sometimes, buffalo.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!

 

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Along the Tabletop Track – who knew there were so many waterholes in the NT?

How difficult are the hikes?

Larapinta Trail

The Larapinta Trail is – by a significant margin – the most difficult of the three hikes. The ever-changing terrain, elevation, scrambling, exposure, and length, all contribute to making it a physical and mental challenge like no other.

The 12 sections range from moderate to difficult, with the shortest being 9km and the longest, 28km. It’s not a hike for the faint-hearted.

 

Jatbula Trail

By comparison, the Jatbula Trail is a breeze. The paths are mostly flat, there’s ample shade, and at every campground there’s a swimming hole where you can wash off the dust and spend the afternoon relaxing.

The mornings are cool and the distances achievable, even by those with only moderate levels of fitness.

Read more: Staying Safe Around Swimming Holes and Waterfalls

 

Tabletop Track

The Tabletop Track sits somewhere in the middle. There are some harder sections where you’ll need to traverse rocky outcrops with minor elevation.

Exposure can also wear you down on this one. Over the course of a weekend, completing the Tabletop Track is a challenge, however over three or four nights it’s easily manageable.

Read more: How To Stay Safe in Croc Country

What sacred sites are there?

All of the ‘Big Three’ hikes offer visitors a chance to connect with local Aboriginal culture and appreciate the Traditional Owners’ spiritual connection to the land.

 

Larapinta Trail

Hikers on the Larapinta Trail can experience the different feeling of walking across men’s and women’s Country. On the Country of the Arrernte people, the Larapinta Trail fluctuates from smooth, grassy, rounded hillocks, the women’s Country, to rough and jagged ridges, the men’s Country.

 

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Tread softly over the differing forms in sacred male and female Countries

 

Significant sites along the trail include the Ochre Pits, Rutjumpa/Mt Sonder, and Udepata/Ellery Creek. At times, the track turns sharply, detouring around the most sacred areas, while the evening skies are an opportunity to connect with Dreamtime stories through the array of constellations.

 

Jatbula Trail

The Jatbula Trail is home to ancient rock art, with depictions of men, women, and animals. Throughout the entire Nitmiluk National Park there are more than 400 sites of cultural significance.

On day three of the Jatbula Trail, hikers pass by the Amphitheatre which is located in women’s Country but is open to all visitors. The Amphitheatre area showcases the best preserved rock art on the trail.

 

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Jawoyn cave art

 

Tabletop Track

Finally, on the Tabletop Track, Wangi Falls is a sacred site for Aboriginal women. Litchfield National Park is managed by several traditional custodians, including Marrathiel, Marranunggu, Werat, Warray, and Koongurrukun. Wangi Falls is open for all visitors to swim in, while other sacred sites are off-limits.

What are the facilities like?

The Larapinta Trail, unsurprisingly, has the most and best facilities. Some trailheads are located at major tourist sites and have showers, flushing toilets, BBQs, and even cafes.

Others offer little more than drop toilets and sheltered platforms but they are in great condition. All trailheads have cupboards for food storage and USB charging stations that may or may not be operational.

Food drops are available at designated sites and are essential if you’re walking end-to-end. There’s even 3G reception at high points along the trail.

The Tabletop Track and Jatbula Trail have only the most basic facilities. All campsites have drop toilets, while some sites on the Tabletop Track have hotplates. A café at Edith Falls – the finish line for Jatbula – serves hot food and coffee.

Read more: How To Purify Water in the Bush

Do I need to book?

Yes, it’s essential to book for all three hikes, with Jatbula and Larapinta being the most popular two. Bookings can be made on the Northern Territory Parks website.

The Jatbula Trail is so popular that tickets usually sell out in minutes of bookings opening each season. However, tickets are often resold online, usually at face value, so missing out initially often won’t mean that you miss out entirely.

 

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Bookings regulate overcrowding and resources on the NT’s Great Walks

 

Campsites on the Larapinta Trail have a limited capacity and water supply, so bookings are essential, or you’ll likely miss out. There’s more flexibility surrounding booking dates for hikers who speed up or slow down compared to the other two hikes.

Meanwhile, the Tabletop Track is often available for bookings at short notice however it can book out during the peak tourist season.

Which trail is right for me?

All of the ‘Big 3’ hikes are amazing experiences. Which one is right for you depends upon your fitness and hiking experience, the type of adventure you seek, and how much time you have.

The Larapinta Trail will challenge you physically and mentally, especially if you walk end-to-end. It’s an unforgiving trail, yet equally breathtaking and rewarding. Everyone who completes it says that it was well worth it. An alternative to hiking the entire trail at once is to do it in sections.

The Jatbula Trail is the total opposite. It’s completed at a much slower pace, with ample time to soak in the environment, connect and reflect, and spend your afternoons reading.

Read more: Why The Jatbula Trail is Perfect For Your First Multi-Day Hike

 

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Cool off at the Biddlecombe Cascades on the Jatbula Trail

 

The Tabletop Track can go both ways – you can smash it out in a weekend or take a few extra days and meander down all the link tracks, exploring the rivers and waterfalls.

Whatever your choice, they’re all unforgettable experiences, and deservedly the three most popular hikes in the Northern Territory.

This piece was brought to you by a real living human who felt the wind in their hair and described their adventure in their own words. This is because we rate authenticity and the sharing of great experiences in the natural world – it’s all part of our ethos here at We Are Explorers. You can read more about it in our Editorial Standards.