A Red Centre road trip is a rite of passage for every Australian, but for most young people the adventure hovers in the lower section of the buckets list with ‘I’ll do it one day’ scrawled next to it.
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Countries on which these adventures take place who have occupied and cared for these lands and waters for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.
We believe it’s a helluva experience to do NOW; not to wait until the grey hairs take over and you’ve got a caravan in the shed. Grab your friends and go – from exploring swimming holes you’ve only seen in your wildest dreams to uncovering the cultural fabric that defines Australia, you’ll be gobsmacked and deeply inspired by what you find there.
We’ve outlined an itinerary for a nine day road trip (i.e. maximising one week off work). This serves as a rough guide only – there are many ways to skin a dingo so play around with this itinerary to suit your fancy.
5 Tips for a Red Centre Road Trip
Start and finish in Alice Springs – It’s the best place to hire a car, stock up, and party.
Camp – To truly connect to the land, you’ll need to sleep on the earth. Plan accordingly.
Be safe – Plan your trip, don’t drive at night (animals are rife), fuel up often, carry heaps of water and if you get stuck, don’t leave your car!
Hire a 4WD – They’re ideal for convenience and comfort.
Tunes – Don’t you dare set forth without a humdinger of a playlist locked and loaded.
Day 1 – Arrive at Alice Springs
Distance: 15km airport to Alice
If you dropped a pin into the middle of Australia, odds are you’d be somewhere near Alice Springs. It’s an oasis set beneath the stunning MacDonnell Ranges, proudly one of the most remote settlements on Earth. Far from being a place for travellers to just fuel up, the city has a lot more to it than many would think (more to be explained on this later).
We recommend picking up your rental vehicle from the airport and driving the 15 mins into town to chill before D-day. Grab some dinner in the courtyard at Monte’s Lounge and get a good night’s kip in before tomorrow’s big drive.
Day 2 – Alice Springs to Uluṟu
Distance: 500km (including detour to Rainbow Valley)
This is the biggest day of driving on the whole trip so it’s recommended to start early and make the most of it! About 75km south of Alice along the Stuart Highway is a turnoff to the Rainbow Valley, a cheeky 40km detour along an unsealed road that leads to the first of many spectacular rock formations.
Back on the highway you’ll stumble across the Stuarts Well Roadhouse. Up until recently you may have heard the dulcet tones of a singing dingo on approach to this re-fuelling stop, but sadly ‘Dinky’ drifted to Dingo heaven in 2014 alongside his repertoire of 80s classics.
Roadhouses have outback culture dripping from the ceiling; they’re exciting and essential pit stops for any passing traveller, with or without the lure of musically gifted quadrupeds. Erldunda Roadhouse is 200km from Alice Springs at the crucial intersection with the Lasseter Highway, presenting the last opportunity for mobile reception before reaching Uluṟu.
As you continue venturing west, you won’t be the first person to prematurely shoot for the Uluṟu money-shot when you see Mt Conner. Also known as Fool-uru, it’s a sneaky little teaser of what’s to come.
Although accommodation around Uluṟu isn’t exactly cheap, there’s a campground with more amenities than you’ll ever need (seriously there are several fridges!), so we reckon this is the best value for money. Plus we are explorers, we love the tent life!
There’s an alternative camping spot 40km east of Uluṟu – it’s free and legal but it has very little in terms of amenities so it’s best suited to the entirely self-sufficient campers.
Read more: Remember to leave no trace!
Day 3 – Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
It’s actually impossible to put the experience of Uluṟu into words. The fact that it’s an enormous rock is unlikely to surprise you, but its sheer scale when up close and personal is really quite extraordinary. Its energy is immense and we strongly recommend spending a couple of days here to experience it in a variety of ways.
A sunrise camel ride is a brilliantly different introduction to Uluṟu and is well worth the early start and marginally sore arse. As you ride your desert ship through soul-warming red earth, you’ll reboot your brain with factoids about camels and the local area from your guide, providing plenty of impressive small-talk ammo for your next strained conversation.
Throwing yourself out of plane is another unique way you can experience the rock, and as adrenaline levels re-calibrate at sunset, it’s a great opportunity to check out the Field of Light, a trippy art installation made up of 50,000 kaleidoscopic lights. As the star veil takes over above, you’ll be thanking your lucky ones that you booked a trip to The Red Centre.
Afterwards, head on over to the Pioneer BBQ near the campground, a humming outback pub where you can buy raw meat and veggies to cook as you see fit!
Note: You’ll need to buy your National Park Pass ($38 for up to three days).
Day 4 – Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
Swing those legs out of bed before the kangaroos fart – it’s another early start to catch the rock as the sun pops from the horizon and it begins an incredible morphing of colour.
There are a few walks you can do at Uluṟu but our pick of the bunch would be the 10.6km base walk, a 3.5 hour stroll that soaks up the magnitude and Aboriginal significance of the site. Prepare to be surprised by the intricacies of the rock, the variety of vegetation that surrounds it and waterholes within. Best to start early in the morning to avoid the high heat of the day!
You can even hire a bicycle if you feel like giving the quads a workout and seeing it from the speed and comfort of a saddle sofa.
The Cultural Centre within the park is a must for visitors to understand the spiritual importance of this World Heritage Area through the eyes of the Traditional Custodians, the Anangu people.
Often overlooked by its giant neighbour, Kata Tjuṯa is a huddle of 36 enormous rocks only a 50km drive away from Uluṟu that have a network of walking trails woven through them. The Valley of the Winds is a 3 hour walk and our top choice.
Please note! If the temperature reaches 36 degrees or higher, signage urges you not to walk any further than the first lookout, as the rest of the trail is too strenuous and remote to continue in the heat.
Day 5 – Uluṟu to Kings Canyon
It’s a meaty drive up to Kings Canyon today so after a chilled brekkie get back on the highway the way you came before turning left onto Luritja Road.
Next to the Kings Creek Station is a 2km dirt road down to the Wanmarra Community, where an enlightening Aboriginal cultural tour takes place. Called Karrke, this experience is like an hour turbo lesson in the ways the Traditional Owners have lived alongside the land for tens of thousands of years and continue to today. You’ll learn that the bush is a pharmacy, hardware store and pantry and their ingenuity and respect for nature is deeply humbling. (Karrke is restarting tours in February 2022.)
Oh, and you’ll eat an obligatory witchetty grub!
In terms of sleeping, you can pay to camp, with facilities at Kings Creek Station or Kings Canyon Campground (a motel option is also available) or go proper bush style and pay diddley-squat at Ginty’s Lookout.
Day 6 – Kings Canyon to Glen Helen
You guessed it, another early rise and head torches on for this sunrise Rim Walk at Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, a morning that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
The 6km trek starts from the car park and immediately ascends 500 steps to move up towards the rim. As sweat drips and daylight creeps, the magnitude of your surroundings will become clear and with it a feeling of utter wonder.
It’s non-negotiable – you really have to do this trek.
It gets hotter than a camel’s crotch during the summer months which is another reason to only do this walk in the early morning. No seriously, if the temperature is forecast to exceed 36 degrees, the gate to the track will close at 9am! So get in quick.
Make sure you pack a head torch, snacks, plenty of water, and camera for this challenging and highly rewarding climb.
Read more: How To Hike in Hot Weather
Back in the car and onto the iconic Red Centre road trip section: red earth, big skies, and horizon opening emptiness: the Mereenie Loop.
The road conditions here are suitable for 4WD only and can vary greatly depending on the recent weather, with corrugated surfaces making the experience considerably tougher. Driving safely at a higher speed (80-90km/ph) can help to glide over these corrugations.
But if rain is on the forecast for your drive (or there’s been a lot just be you arrive), best to avoid this rugged and remote road!
Read more: How To 4WD For Beginners
Once back onto asphalt you’ll be floating through the winding roads of Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges where after a bit of rain, the flora pops from the red sand in brilliantly proud contrast. Don’t miss the Gosse Bluff lookout to add a worthy addition to your Insta feed.
Glen Helen is a recommended stopover for three reasons:
1. There’s somewhere to camp (and glamp if you’re feeling flash)
2. The first of many EPIC wild swimming holes is found here
3. The unassuming restaurant here will serve you up the finest outback meal known to humanity
If you’d rather save your pennies, you can pitch up on the Finke River at Two Mile Campground with a DIY meal and a stubbie.
Day 7 – Glen Helen to Alice Springs
If you enjoy frolicking in swimming holes that are tucked away in pockets of desert paradise, you’re gonna have fun on this stretch. Today is waterhole day.
Read more: Staying Safe Around Swimming Holes
There are a few to choose from too, but our favourites are Kwartatuma / Ormiston Gorge and Udepata / Ellery Creek Big Hole, both easily accessible from the main road, Namatjira Drive, and guaranteed to blow your mind before you return to the civilisation of Alice Springs.
Alice has a lot more to it than meets the eye and one thing’s for sure, it’s got a lively nightlife with a number of bars and clubs to shake your tail feather in. After catching sunset at Anzac Hill, head to Epilogue Lounge for a raucous night out.
Day 8 – Alice Springs
Now you can finally enjoy a hungover lie in!
Nah, just kidding. We’d strongly recommend doing the sunrise hot air balloon trip to provide an alternative and peaceful way to see the desert. If your head and stomach can handle the energy injection, then you can always swap the balloon for a chopper!
If you survived the morning, we’d suggest checking out the Alice Springs Desert Park in the afternoon, but save something for your final night because an evening at The Earth Sanctuary is the perfect way to end your road trip.
This eco-resort just outside the city is the brainchild of the Falzons – three enterprising brothers and their Dad who since 2000 have built up the quirkiest of outback escapes, a series of experiences that are focused around sustainability and re-connecting to the land.
You’ll make damper, throw spears, drink bushtucker brew (a quandong craft beer called ‘Red Centre Devil’), have a private astronomy tour, visit their art gallery and who knows what else!
Day 9 – Fly Home
Distance: 15km to Airport
All good things must come to an end. Head for brekkie in town before catching your flight home. Fingers crossed you get a window seat to catch one last glimpse of The Red Centre.