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Cape Range National Park
North West Cape and Exmouth, Western Australia
The Cape Range National Park in Western Australia spans the northwestern edge of North West Cape, fringed by beautiful desert-paradise beaches where the clear sparkling water of the Indian Ocean is sheltered and calm and thriving with tropical marine life.
This national park, in combination with the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park which adjoins it out to sea, is one of the most fantastic natural places I've ever been to.
As it's part of the remote and isolated Australian outback coast, it has only become a popular tourism destination quite recently, so the environment both on land and under the water is pristine and healthy.
There is an $11 fee per vehicle for entering Cape Range National Park. For more information on fees, camping facilities and how to get there, click on the Exploring Cape Range National Park - Visitor Information page.
Whether you camp out under the stars for several nights or just visit for the day, you'll get to see a huge range of native Australian wildlife including kangaroos, emus, wallabies, snakes, goannas, euros and birds of prey.
For many people, the number one reason for exploring the Cape Range National Park is to snorkel the Ningaloo Reef from the many glorious white sand beaches. These are some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, and in water just a metre or two deep you can swim with tropical fish and sea turtles, view coral gardens and maybe even spot a reef shark.
Other popular activities in the Cape Range National Park include fishing, kayaking, surfing and bush walking.
A Bit More About the Ningaloo Reef and the Cape Range National Park's Coastline:
The Ningaloo Reef is 300km long. It fringes the coastline of the North West Cape, from Exmouth all the way down past the Cape Range National Park to Amherst Point (near Carnarvon). Right the way along this coastline the reef forms protected lagoons where tropical fish and coral thrive within just metres of the beaches.
It's unusual for such an extensive coral reef to grow so close the shoreline of a continental landmass like the Ningaloo Reef does. At its closest point to the shore, it is only 100m from the beach. You'll notice this at Turquoise Bay and the Oyster Stacks - two of the best snorkelling sites in the Cape Range National Park.
The entire reef is protected as the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park. It's a pristine marine environment - one of the healthiest tropical reef systems in the world, in fact - because it's isolated from civilisation right on the edge of one of the vastest, most empty deserts in the world.
Beaches of Cape Range National Park
The Cape Range National Park has some of the most picture-perfect, idyllic beaches in Australia. These include Turquoise Bay, which is quite well-known as a stunning paradise of blindingly white sand and shallow turquoise water with extensive coral gardens a short swim offshore.
There are also rocky areas, surf beaches and even places where mangroves grow.
This whole stretch of coastline is an underwater wonderland for snorkelling, no matter how good or bad a swimmer you are.
In safe, shallow water close to the beach, you'll be able to see turtles, reef sharks, rays, coral and a mind boggling variety of colourful fish. This is what makes the beaches of the Cape Range National Park so special (along with the pure-white sand, warm crystal clear water and remoteness from civilisation).
The Cape Range National Park is long and thin, running north-south along the western side of the North West Cape down as far as Yardie Creek. Along the western edge are the beaches and the Ningaloo Marine Park, and not far inland the land rises abruptly and dramatically from the flat coastal plain into the Cape Range.
The Cape Range landform (the backbone of the North West Cape) is a steep gorge-cut ridge that was formed by the land buckling upwards along a faultline. It's composed of sedimentary rock, mostly limestone, and is riddled with caves and sink holes.
In places you can see fossils of a coral reef that lived forty thousand years ago. This was part of a very similar environment to the present-day Ningaloo Reef, but back then the sea levels were much higher.
The rocks and soil of this arid desert environment are and red and dry, and the tough vegetation that survives here is mostly dull grey-green in colour. But at the end of winter there's a spectacular, colourful wildflower display.
Canyons and Gorges of the Cape Range National Park
The Cape Range is cut through by deep gorges, formed by the land "cracking open" as it was uplifted, and then being cut deeper by water run off.
Yardie Creek Gorge has the only permanent river on the whole North West Cape, Yardie Creek. It is a peaceful place, with the red limestone walls of the gorge reflected in the cool, dark water of Yardie Creek. On the ledges and in caverns live blackfoot rock wallabies.
A walktrail follows the northern ridge of the gorge a few hours upstream. This is an excellent walk for spotting red kangaroos, though you'll need binoculars to have much chance of seeing the wallabies.
Another way to explore the gorge is to hop on the boat tour that runs daily. You'll get to see the rock wallabies and will hear commentary about the natural history of the area. Alternatively, if you're not one for tours and commentary, you can paddle up by yourself in a kayak hired from Exmouth.
Mandu Mandu Gorge has a rough walk trail up the dry river bed, up the side of the gorge and back along the top of the ridge. You'll see a wonderful view of the ocean from the top.
The two other easily accessible gorges are over on the eastern side of the Cape Range. Even though they're separate from the rest of the national park, try not to miss seeing these gorges because they have the most spectacular scenery and views.
Each one offers a different perspective on the landscape. At the Charles Knife Canyon the road follows the top of the ridge, so you're looking down into the vast empty canyon from up high, whereas the Shothole Canyon Road follows the dry river bed deep in the valley.
The Thomas Carter Trail is a walking track linking the Thomas Carter Lookout at the end of Charles Knife road to the Shothole Canyon. It's five kilometres long but pretty challenging, as it passes through some very rough country where temperatures get extremely hot in the middle of the day. I definitely recommend walking it in the early morning or later on in the afternoon, and carrying more water than you think you'll need.