National Parks in Australia are not that similar to those in the US. First, there are more than 500 national parks in Australia. Often there are multiple parks bordering one another, rather than one large park. Then the term “national” is perhaps misleading. Each state runs the national parks within its borders and there is no “National Park Service” as in the US. By comparison, the US has 58 National Parks and 124 National Monuments (of which 65 are related to natural features (not cultural).
The most apparent, perhaps glaring difference between US and Australian national parks is the lack of facilities and staff in Australian parks. We visited perhaps 20+ parks in Australia during our recent 70-day trip and could not identify more than two or three individuals who appeared to be “rangers” in the American sense – with a good knowledge of the park they worked in. While most Australian parks have informational signs and nearly all have good to excellent trails, some with informational plaques, visitor centers with personnel that you can ask questions to are rare. Surprisingly, this can be true even in parks where there are large numbers of visitors (e.g. the 12 Apostles Marine Park in Victoria).
Visitor Centers, where they exist, are generally an aggregation of a gift shop and restaurant facilities. The gift shops, while selling some books and materials generally related to the park or to at least natural history, tend to focus on items that have little to do with the park itself. Educational displays related to the park were evident in relatively few parks.
Thus, when you arrive at a national park, do not expect to find someone who can answer any questions you might have. If you want to know what to see or visit in your day (or half-day) that you have available you had better be good at reading the park brochures or pdf’s in advance.
Another aspect of many Australian parks is that they often have excellent hiking trails, many with very well-engineered trails passing through canyons or having scenic lookouts that must be very costly to construct. One trail we walked was being reconstructed with perhaps 50 pallets of large stones (each too heavy to lift) that were being transported by helicopter to remote parts of the trail!
The trail construction in Australia differs from that in the US, with very little use of “switchbacks”. Rather there are innumerable steps going straight up or down a slope, or ladders if the slope is too steep. One trail in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney had more than 1000 steps to descend, and a similar number to ascend. This was the most common trail form in Australia; presumably it minimizes the walking distance or trail erosion, but makes it very difficult or impossible for those with weak knees to hike. Those we saw on the trails were obviously fit for the most part, but one wonders how many people never take such trails at all. The trail difficulty, combined with some clearly hazardous conditions (that one would not see on US trails without warning signs), means that relatively few people visit such trails.
The Australian National Parks, in our opinion (some may disagree), appear focused on conservation of the landscapes and biota, and much less focused on public education and development of awareness of the natural world. The reader should review the various websites of the park services of the various states to obtain a better idea of their functions.
As a caveat to our comments above, we recognize that Australia has a population something like 14 times smaller than the US, but with a similarly large number of parks. It is not feasible to have the same facilities as at US parks, given the much smaller tax base for operating them.