Searching for traffic free roads, iconic Outback scenery, classic bush towns and a strong Indigenous presence? Then South Australia’s Flinders Ranges is your sort of place. Whether you camp under the stars or book into a luxury homestead, the drive from Adelaide to Wilpena Pound ranks as one of Australia’s great road trips.
Shaped by ancient geological forces, this desert landscape has long fascinated artists, explorers and adventurers. So tuck into a quandong pie, marvel at a wedge tailed eagle or take a scenic flight over Wilpena Pound. The possibilities, like the sunsets, are bigger and more spectacular out here.
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Day 1: Adelaide to Port Augusta
3hr 22min | 307km
Since this is the single longest leg of your journey, it’s worth getting an early start – especially if you’re driving in the warmer months. The first leg from Adelaide to Port Wakefield takes you past some of South Australia’s most productive market gardens.
The landscape becomes more interesting as you motor north; keep an eye open for the Tin Man, Flying Saucer and other community sculptures near Dublin. These eccentric creations date from the 1990s and are made from recycled agricultural machinery.
Port Wakefield marks the turn off for travellers heading to the Yorke Peninsula, but you’re continuing north to Port Pirie, passing one of Australia’s biggest wind farms sitting atop the dramatic Barunga Ranges. Hop out of the car at Crystal Brook for a selfie with the Big Goanna before driving 30km to Port Pirie.
Dating back to 1845, Port Pirie is best known for its giant smelter, but also offers a treasure trove of colonial architecture and intoxicating views of the Spencer Gulf. It’s also an ideal spot for lunch – you’ll find a warm welcome, healthy snacks and barista quality coffee at Safavi. If you’re travelling with kids, make a beeline to the regional arts and tourism centre to see Shakka the Shark or take a ride on the miniature railway. Cool off at nearby Solomontown Beach, which offers safe swimming and plenty of parking.
From Port Pirie, the road skirts the eastern shore of Spencer Gulf until it reaches Port Augusta, where the Outback meets the ocean. Steeped in Aboriginal history, this bustling regional centre has a wealth of things to do such as fishing, Indigenous cultural tours, water sports and, of course, the Pichi Richi Railway, a heritage steam train that runs from Port Augusta to Quorn.
Something of an institution in these parts, the Standpipe Golf Motel Inn is a well run country motel offering a range of rooms, from basic suites to two bedroom apartments and is equally famous for its in-house North Indian restaurant.
Day 2: Port Augusta to Wilpena Pound
1hr 53min | 160km
From Port Augusta, the road loops east before plunging into the far north of South Australia – a hard, dry but undeniably epic landscape that enticed and ultimately defeated so many 19th century European settlers. Despite their hard work and enthusiasm, the state’s fickle rainfall doomed most intensive farming in this country. Abandoned and lonesome stone farmhouses are a bitter reminder of their broken dreams.
Townships are few and far between in these parts. First stop is Quorn, a once thriving railway hub – make sure you stop for a slice of quandong (wild peach) pie at the appropriately named Quandong Cafe.
Hawker marks the beginning of the Outback proper so you’ll need to refuel before venturing further inland. Much of the country around here was carved up into huge pastoral holdings, but their heyday is long past. Arkaba, for example, no longer runs sheep and is now a conservation park, celebrated for its abundant birdlife. Located 22km from Hawker, this magnificent 24,000ha property offers luxury homestead accommodation, wildlife safaris and guided walking tours.
For an authentic taste of life on a working station, continue up the road to Rawnsley Park Station, one of the oldest pastoral leases in the central Flinders. Although the property now relies on tourism as much as wool, visitors can still watch sheep shearing demonstrations and enjoy a hearty meal at the Woolshed Restaurant.
For those who want to immerse themselves in Wilpena Pound – a giant ochre coloured amphitheatre of mountains dating back some 800 million years – you’ll need to drive another 25km into what is now a thriving tourist park. Expect a crowd during the school holidays.
Generations of South Australian families have spent their school holidays at the Wilpena Pound Resort and there is something touchingly innocent about the place, which includes a swish hotel, sprawling campsite and the Ikara safari camp.
Day 3: Wilpena Pound to Parachilna
1hr 58min | 145km
Thanks to its excellent facilities, walking trails and abundant wildlife, Wilpena Pound has cemented itself as the must do travel experience in the Flinders Ranges. The Pound, once used as a giant holding area for livestock, is of great significance to the Adnyamathanha people, who have lived here for at least 15,000 years. Their story of survival is celebrated in an interpretive trail at Old Wilpena Station.
Despite its fame, Wilpena Pound is only a foretaste of Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park – an astonishing sweep of eroded mountain ranges, dramatic gorges, Aboriginal rock art galleries and ancient fossils. The best way to appreciate the huge scale is to book an early morning scenic flight from Wilpena Pound.
To reach Parachilna, your final destination, you can either return to Hawker and rejoin The Outback Highway or, if you are a little more adventurous, drive north to Blinman and then cut across country to the Prairie Hotel. The latter route takes longer, but does mean you can explore the historic, semi abandoned township of Blinman (pop. 22), which offers underground mine tours in the cooler months.
Make sure you stop for a cold beer at the iconic North Blinman Hotel. Next stop is Parachilna Gorge, a good spot to see kangaroos and wedge tailed eagles and, occasionally, an elusive yellow footed wallaby. If the landscape here looks familiar, that’s perfectly understandable. Some of Australia’s most famous movies, such as Gallipoli, Robbery Under Arms and Rabbit-Proof Fence, have been shot in this part of the Flinders.
All journeys end at Parachilna’s most famous landmark: the Prairie Hotel. Despite its spectacular isolation, you’re likely to find travellers from every corner of the globe at the bar – and views of the Outback and the Flinders that will stay with you for many, many years. Plus, there’s a good choice of upmarket hotel rooms, cabins and campsites (powered and unpowered).