Some researchers have suggested that Aboriginal people did not live in the gorge permanently, due to defensive concerns and lack of food resources, whilst others suggest that permanent occupation was not allowed due to the gorge being considered sacred. The dreamtime stories tell a tale of the Rainbow Serpent which made the gorges, and resides in their permanent waterholes to this day.
Ludwig Leichhardt was the first European explorer to pass nearby and make note of the ranges, during his expedition to Port Essington in 1844. Two years later, Thomas Mitchell passed to the west of Carnarvon Gorge. It was Mitchell who named the Carnarvon Range after Caernarfon in Wales. The reports of pastureland and good water carried back to the colonies brought settlers to the area, and began a period of bloody conflict between settlers and Aboriginals.
By the late 1870s the newcomers had prevailed. Local Aboriginals sought refuge on properties run by those sympathetic to their plight. Subsequent years would see many forcibly removed from their homelands and transferred to government and church run reserves and missions. The latter process of removal is considered by some to have been, culturally, more destructive than the direct conflict that preceded it.
The farming of cattle and growing of crops remains a vibrant industry around Carnarvon Gorge but, since 1932 when it was gazetted as a National Park, such activities have no longer been allowed in the gorge itself. In 1974, the Ka Ka Mundi area which had been heavily grazed for about a century, also became part of the park. In place of the grazing of cattle, a tourism industry has grown. Over 65,000 visitors per annum make the trek to Carnarvon Gorge, in a pattern of visitation that echoes that of the original Aboriginal groups - no permanent occupation, but regular pilgrimage to a widely recognised place of significance.