Are you thinking of taking a road trip through the Kimberley on the Gibb River Road? Good on ya – it’s an ambitious but rewarding undertaking that will create memories to last a lifetime.
Traversing the Gibb River Road requires some careful planning to ensure a safe and hassle-free passage. This brief travel guide will equip you to set your Gibb River Road itinerary with information about the road’s history, how to prepare for your trip, what you can expect to see along the journey, and where you should stay.
What is the Gibb River Road?
The Gibb River Road is one of Australia’s most iconic outback roads.
Affectionately nicknamed “the Gibb”, it runs just under 700 kilometers between the towns of Derby and Wyndham. For the most part it’s an unpaved corrugated track that can only be traversed by 4x4s.
The Gibb River Road was originally constructed to transport cattle. Giant land grabs in the late 19th century brought in European settlers who set up cattle stations by the millions of acres (of course, with no regard for Aboriginal inhabitants).
The new settlements drove the need for infrastructure; namely, roads.
The Gibb River Road in its current form came to be in the mid-1960s when the southern section was constructed between Derby and Gibb River Station. Sections of the road existed prior to that.
Driving the full length of the Gibb is a real bragging right for many Australians. It is so rugged and remote that local shops sell all kinds of merchandise boasting “I survived the Gibb River Road.”
It’s the kind of road where anything can happen. For one, it’s only accessible during the Kimberley’s dry season between May and October. Multiple river crossings can be difficult to negotiate for inexperienced drivers. Passing vehicles can create major hazards with the amount of dust and rocks they kick up (read: poor visibility and broken windshields).
The trek isn’t for the faint of heart. But what you pay for in challenging driving conditions you get back in views.
Picture this: Shortly after turning onto the Gibb from Derby, the King Leopold Range begins to slowly emerge in the distance from flat, grassy plains. A large swath of this land was a shallow ocean some 360 million years ago, now taking the form of the Napier Range with eroding black and orange limestone and millions of fossils.
Sweeping vistas from roadside overlooks reveal Jurassic-looking landscapes. Distant mesas and meandering streams are ringed by bright green trees. Gorges that have been carved by millions of years of rain, wind, and surging wet season rivers make for ideal resting points and swimming holes.
Approaching El Questro Station – itself larger than the whole of England – the plains give way to bluffs that stretch in all directions. Everything seems to sit on a carpet of orange dirt. Eventually the track becomes paved highway as you exit the Gibb and make your way toward Wyndham and Kununurra.
Preparing for Your Journey on the Gibb River Road
Don’t let the fact that you need to do some advance planning for your journey be a deterrent. You don’t have to be an expert driver to conquer this stretch of outback, but you do need to be prepared. Here are some practical tips as you plan your Gibb River Road itinerary:
- Plan for at least five days to drive the full stretch of road and see all of its sights. (Five days does not include the trip back, which can be more quickly traveled on the paved Great Northern Highway.) Adding days to the itinerary will allow you to spend more time at each of the sights. Your best bet: take it slow and soak in all that the Kimberley has to offer!
- There are places to buy gear and provisions along the way. Load up in Broome or Derby (or Wyndham/Kununurra if you’re coming from the east), and restock halfway through the trip at Mt Barnett Roadhouse.
- Rest stops with toilets are few and far between, and service stations are even less common. Plan your fuel, provisions and toilet breaks accordingly.
- Firewood is available for purchase at some campsites, or you can find your own at rest stops along the road.
- You can find a helpful table of estimated drive times to the major sights and campgrounds here.
- Deflate your tires so the corrugation doesn’t cause them to burst.
- Securely connect all trailers/caravans before hitting the road. Avoid driving with one if possible.
- Go slow through river crossings – we saw at least one 4×4 that had misjudged the incline into the river, causing it to crash and need to be towed.
- The dust kicked up from passing cars can temporarily block your vision on the road. Use caution as you drive through clouds of dust, especially if there are other cars near you.
- None of the national parks along the Gibb River Road allow dogs.
- Many roads leading off of the Gibb are privately owned. With the exception of major roads and access roads to campgrounds and gorges, permission from landowners should be obtained before venturing off the beaten track.
- If driving isn’t your thing, many tour operators offer packages to see the sights of the Gibb River Road. I toured with Kimberley Wild and found it to be worth every penny.
What to See Along the Gibb River Road
Many of the Kimberley’s top sights are located just off the Gibb. Here’s a roundup of some of the prominent stops along the way.
The Boab Prison Tree
This tree is famous for its size and hollow center that makes it appear as if it could be a holding cell. In reality, the Boab Prison Tree wasn’t a prison – it may have been used in this was a handful of times but was never formally labeled as such. Still, it has become a tourist attraction and gives visitors the opportunity to learn about the Aboriginal history of the area by signs posted at the entrance to the tree.
Plan to spend 30 minutes to one hour at the Boab Prison Tree.
Tunnel Creek is a large cave carved out of the Napier Range that is known for being the hiding place of Jandamarra, a Bunuba man who led an armed resistance against European settlers.
As Aboriginal lands were being taken and Aboriginal people being forced into slave labor, Jandamarra fought to stall settlement and used his knowledge of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek to hide from police for more than three years while defending the land from settlers. He was eventually tracked down and killed at Tunnel Creek in 1897.
The cave is the oldest in Western Australia, and stretches for 750 meters beneath the Napier Range. It is an easy walk that is best led by a Bunuba guide who can relay the full story of Jandamarra. The slow-moving creek at the end of the hike makes for a lovely place to swim. Be sure to wear shoes and clothes that can get wet – parts of the cave require wading through ankle-to-knee-deep water.
Plan to spend at least two hours at Tunnel Creek.
Windjana Gorge is a large gorge cut straight through the Napier Range by the Lennard River. A short, easy walk from the Windjana Gorge campsite will lead you between the towering black and orange cliff walls (some reaching 100 meters high), along the banks of the river, past resting freshwater crocs, and onto a sandy beach area. Sunrise is particularly quiet and beautiful here, when nobody else is around. The trail continues past the beach, totaling 3.5 kilometers.
Plan to spend at least one hour at Windjana Gorge, or a few hours if you choose to hike the full 3.5 km trail.
Lennard Gorge is a short distance off of the Gibb River Road in King Leopold National Park. It is stunning, viewable from a platform after a 30-minute walk. Unfortunately there is no swimming in the gorge, but the landscape shows off some of the best of the Kimberley’s features.
Plan to spend at least one hour at Lennard Gorge.
Bell Gorge is also part of King Leopold National Park and is one of the Kimberley’s most famous gorges. After a moderate walk along a dry creekbed, you’ll approach Bell Gorge from the top of the waterfall where the stream seems to drop out of nowhere. Cool, clear swimming pools above and below the falls are great for cooling off. There’s plenty of rock scrambling around the falls for those who want to explore the edges of the gorge.
Plan to spend at least four hours at Bell Gorge, accounting for the roundtrip hike and taking advantage of the swimming holes. An entire day could be spent exploring/relaxing here if desired.
A small, charming gorge about 5km off the Gibb River Road. It is a lovely, almost mystical-looking waterfall with teal blue water. It looks like a water feature that someone would pay a landscaper to build in their backyard.
Plan to spend at least one hour at Adcock Gorge.
One of my favorite gorges of the trip, partly to do with how reflective the water was. It is another small gorge, but the waterfall is lovely and easy to swim to; a great spot to rest and spend some time. The short walk to the gorge along the creek is quite lovely, featuring smoothed red rocks from millennia of water rushing over them.
Be sure to walk to the right side of the falls to see a Wandjina painted on the rocks.
Plan to spend at least one hour at Galvans Gorge.
Manning Gorge is a large and impressive waterfall and red rock gorge at the end of a moderately long hike. I was surprised at the number of people at the waterfall after having been mostly alone at the other stops, save for Bell Gorge.
There’s plenty to do at Manning Gorge, and lots of space to spread out. Anyone feeling adventurous can climb on top of the waterfall, though most climb about halfway up and jump out into the deep pool at the base of the falls. There’s plenty of space behind the falls to tread water and watch the rushing water in front of you. Those looking to relax can lie out in a shady spot or take a dip in one of the many calmer pools around the falls.
The trail leading to Manning Gorge is long, but not too strenuous, though it requires some short but steep rock scrambles. Possibly the most distinctive feature is the martian looking landscape that is regrowing after a recent controlled burn, with spinifex grasses just starting to sprout green on the charred soil again.
Plan to at least a half-day at Manning Gorge, including the two-hour roundtrip hike.
El Questro Wilderness Park
You could pack a full itinerary just in El Questro. The expansive park boasts some incredible natural wonders that are worth spending extra time to see. The natural beauty of the area alone is worth the trip.
If you made me pick a favorite gorge on my trip to the Kimberley, it would be Emma Gorge. There are a few reasons for this: First, the hike in is stunning. It reminded me of the photos that I see of Zion National Park in the U.S. – sheer orange cliff faces, greenery everywhere, water making its way through the center of the gorge, lots of rock scrambling.
As you continue on the walk, the gorge tapers inward until you reach the waterfall at the end. Though it’s more of a drip than a rush in the dry season, it is still impressive due to its sheer size. The swimming hole is protected on three sides by large cliff faces, so the water is quite cool and is a deep shade of teal. A small hot spring burbles near the falls for those who want to avoid a chill.
Speaking of hot springs, Zebedee Springs are thermal springs with multiple levels of warm pools that flow down a hillside not too far from the main El Questro campground. It looks like an enchanted oasis with tall Livistona palms towering overhead. Only open until noon each day, it’s best to get there early to relax and feel the warm water flow over you.
El Questro also offers boat tours of Chamberlain Gorge, another area where a river has cut through the sandstone to create a lovely desert landscape. I did not to this, but it is an option for those staying in El Questro.
Plan to spend at least three hours at Emma Gorge including the hike, and at least one hour at Zebedee Springs.
Gibb River Road Camping & Accommodations
The campgrounds listed below will give you easy access to the main sights of the Gibb River Road. Again, I’ve listed them from west to east. Note that all tap water at campsites is drinkable unless a sign is posted indicating otherwise.
Windjana Gorge National Park Campground
The Windjana Gorge campground is conveniently located next to the trailhead to the gorge. The setting is stunning, with the Napier Range standing tall over the campground and stretching in all directions. Clear skies the night I stayed there made for great Milky Way photography.
The grounds themselves are fairly spartan but well maintained. There are shower facilities and ample toilet structures, but no powered sites. The Department of Parks and Wildlife manages the campground.
- Location: -17.4136, 124.941 (There aren’t really addresses on the Gibb, so coordinates work best for locating things). Turn right off of the Gibb River Road onto Fairfield-Leopold Downs Road and travel 22km to reach the campground. Signs will point you into the parking lot.
- Bookings: Pay at the campsite. Nightly rates are $13 for adults, $3 for children under 16.
Silent Grove Campground
Silent Grove Campground is where you should stay if you want to spend a night near Bell Gorge. It is about 10km from the gorge and is managed by the Department of Parks and Wildlife. There are shower and toilet facilities, but no powered sites.
- Location: -17.0669, 125.248
- Bookings: Pay at the campsite. Nightly rates are $13 for adults, $3 for children under 16.
Mt Barnett Roadhouse
Located near the halfway point of the Gibb River Road, Mt Barnett Roadhouse is a popular place to stop for fuel and supplies. After a couple of days on the road, it’s also nice to have access to some luxuries like fresh coffee and a prepared breakfast.
The trail entrance to Manning Gorge is located in the campsite, and you have to pay to access it whether you’re camping or not. Manning Gorge takes at least half of a day to hike, so camping here really becomes a given if it’s on your Gibb itinerary. A river that runs through the campsite is a great place to splash around during the day, and you can explore the rocky outcroppings around the campground and Manning Gorge trail if you are feeling adventurous (just don’t get lost!).
- Location: -16.716771, 125.927251
- Bookings: Pay your camp and entrance fee at the roadhouse.
- Phone: +61 8 9191 7007
- Facebook page
Ellenbrae is a lovely garden oasis in the middle of the Kimberley. A young family manages the station, and they are happy to fill you in on the history of the station and what life is like in such a remote area, especially during wet season when access to roads and supplies are cut off for months on end.
Be sure to try their homemade scones that they serve with whipped cream and jam. It’s worth stopping for the scones and the garden atmosphere alone, even if you don’t plan to camp. (Americans take note: Australian scones are more like what we consider fluffy breakfast biscuits. They aren’t the dense triangular scones that we’re used to, often with fruit inside and sugar crystals on top.)
Accommodation options include cabins and two different campsites. More information can be found on their website.
- Location: -15.958130, 127.062393, 70 kms past the Kalumburu Road and Gibb River Road junction. Large signs along the road will direct you in – you can’t miss it.
- Bookings can be made by email or telephone at firstname.lastname@example.org or +61 8 9161 4325.
El Questro Wilderness Park
El Questro has a full array of facilities, from campgrounds to “glamping” tents to luxury suites that run thousands of dollars a night. There are two campgrounds on the property, at El Questro Station and Emma Gorge. Both have a full range of facilities including powered campsites and showers with hot water (though a cold shower may be more desirable in the scorching heat).
A bar, restaurant and live music distinguish El Questro Station from the other campgrounds on the Gibb. I stayed there for two nights and each night had some form of entertainment, from live music to trivia. I didn’t eat at the restaurant and have heard mixed reviews about it. The river that runs through the campground isn’t as nice to swim in as Manning Gorge, but it is great for kids due to how shallow it is.
- Location: -16.008493, 127.980794
- Phone: 1 (800) 837-168 (Australia) (716) 276-0078 (US)
- Bookings can be made through the El Questro website.
The Final Word
A road trip on the Gibb River Road was a bucket list item for me, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to do it. It is absolutely worth the hassle to get to, because it gives you the opportunity to see a true wilderness area that is still mostly free from human interference.
If there’s additional information that would be helpful to add to this guide, please let me know in the comments or reach out via the contact page. I will continue to make updates to this post as needed.
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