The Gibb River road is nearly 700km long, without factoring in even leaving the track. By the time you’ve visited the main attractions, you can easily do 1500 - 1800km. Most of the attractions are within 30-50km of the Gibb River Road itself, and the driving adds up quickly. However, to visit the Mitchell falls, you have to make a substantial detour off the Gibb River road in distance, time and difficulty. It begs the question; is the Mitchell Falls worth it?
About the Mitchell Falls
At 80 metres tall with 4 stages of water flow, the Mitchell Falls is truly a sight to behold. Even from a substantial distance away, you can clearly hear the roar of water as it cascades from level to level. Despite the effort required to get to the Mitchell Falls, its very popular, and photographed by thousands of visitors every year. Located in the Mitchell River National Park, you can access the falls in two ways; walk, or fly in by helicopter.
What's the cost of visiting the Mitchell Falls?
Once you get off the Gibb River road, most people spend at least 2 nights to see the Mitchell falls, and that is if you are doing it relatively quickly. You will spend the majority of one day getting to Mitchell Falls, which leaves one full day to do the walk and enjoy the area, before you head off again after your second nights sleep. You can camp at the DPAW Mitchell Falls camp ground, or some people drive in from King Edward campsite, but it makes for a very long day.
Wear and tear on your 4WD (and trailer?)
I'll say there are 3 sections of road to consider on the way to the Mitchell Falls. The first is from the GRR to Drysdale Station, which is usually in fairly good condition. From Drysdale Station to the turn off to the Mitchell Falls the road is worse, and would be considered very average corrugations by many. After turning onto the Mitchell Plateau track, you'll come to King Edward River, and have to cross it. If you are early in the season make sure its not flowing too quickly, or too deeply. Expect it to be in between 30cm and 90cm; ensure your 4WD has an air intake well above this!
The final track into the Mitchell Falls is non gazetted, and is the worst track we did on the GRR by far. The sign says allow 3 to 4 hours to drive the 85km, and some people take even longer than that. The corrugations are decent sized, the track is narrow and it winds back and forth a lot, with trees close to the edge. This makes it very hard to sit at a reasonable speed, which is why it takes so long.
A lot of vehicles suffer damage on this road, whether its just things loosening up, or flat tyres, or damaged suspension. Your 4WD will take its fair share of abuse on this track. We visited in mid May, and were told that the road was in fairly reasonable condition. Give it 6 weeks or so though, and they said the road would be shocking (not something I’d want to do!).
I would not consider taking a trailer of any sort up this track unless you are 100% confident in its strength. The rangers often have to fly in spare parts for vehicles and camper trailers that break on the way, and its not cheap.
By this stage on the Gibb River road, you are going to be paying in between $2 and $2.20 for diesel fuel. Factoring in the extra 400 odd kilometres, and the average fuel economy of a fully loaded 4WD, you are looking at about $130 - $180. In fuel alone. Then, you’ve got the camping fees (which are very reasonable, at $10 per night per adult), and a likely helicopter ride (which a lot of people make use of!).
Hired vehicles (and maybe your 4WD) are not insured
One thing that a lot of people don't realise is that some insurance companies will not cover a 4WD if it is on a non gazetted road. You won't see many hired 4WD's out at Mitchell Falls, and that's because they aren't covered to be there. If you have an accident in a hired vehicle up there, you are likely to be liable for repairing it. Before you commit to visiting, make sure your insurance company will cover you should something go wrong.
A big walk
The walk to the Mitchell falls is quite long in comparison to the others you will do on the Gibb River road. It is not overly difficult (bar a few rock steps and inclines), but being so long there's a good chance you will be sore the next day! The sign says 4 – 6 hours return. We walked to the falls early in the morning in just over an hour and a half, and going back it might have taken 2 hours. We stretched the return section much longer than 2 hours though, by stopping at a number of places to take photos, swim and relax.
Most people opt to walk one way and fly back (you can easily get on a helicopter, just speak to the operators before heading off!). I'm told a flight over the Falls is spectacular, and sure beats a long walk!
You will get wet feet on the last part of the Mitchell Falls walk. Take your boots off, and cross the rocks in bare feet. Just take your time; some of them are slippery.
I'd been told about the helicopters at the Mitchell Falls before we went, and was prepared for them. When we were there, 3 helicopters were flying back and forth on a regular basis, and their helipads are quite close to the campers, so expect a lot of noise from them, all day long. It's not going to kill you, but it certainly takes away from the atmosphere of an otherwise completely quiet and amazing place.
What else do you need to know?
You cannot swim beneath the Mitchell Falls. It's believed an aboriginal serpent lives there, and its very hard to get to anyway. Swimming is allowed above the falls, and in a decent sized pool, although its not very deep.
Get going early in the morning if you are walking to the falls. The sooner the better; as soon as you can see, you want to be walking. The walk back in the middle of the afternoon was much more tiring in the heat! Take plenty of water for the walk too.
There's not a whole heap you can do at the actual falls themselves. You can see them in the distance, check them out from a few vantage points and then head back to the pool you crossed. We spent a couple of hours there soaking it up, but expected to be able to do more at the actual falls themselves.
Whats good about it then?
The Mitchell falls is a stunning place. To see water cascading down 4 levels with the mist creating a perfect rainbow is something else. There are a myriad of different places you can stop at along the way if you walk as well, which in their own rights are worth visiting. Swimming at the top and bottom of Little Merten falls is amazing, as are the spa's in the river. There are a few places to stop and look at Aboriginal artwork, which is stunning too.
The campground is nice, with plenty of room and big sites. It’s got hybrid toilets which are clean and tidy, decent fire places and a section of road that you can stop along to collect fire wood on the way in. The animal and plant life is pretty unreal too, with many species only found in the Kimberley present. The rangers are super friendly, and there is plenty of information in pamphlets and brochures at the day use area.
Is it worth the detour then?
I feel if you have the right expectations, its worth the time and cost to do so. However, you do need a decent 4WD, patience, enough time and some extra money. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and whilst you are in the area, its worth the drive. Have you been to the Mitchell falls? What did you think of it?