This five day circular drive from the legendary outback city of Alice Springs is one of the country’s best. An unforgettable road trip adventure through the red centre of Australia taking in all of the outback’s iconic sites, including Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon and the many gorges, waterholes and other natural wonders of the monumental West MacDonnell Ranges.
It’s an epic drive through an equally epic landscape, but you don’t need to rough it – these days, staying in the desert can be as luxurious or as rustic as you want to make it.
Hero image credit: Tourism Western Australia
Day 1: Alice Springs to Glen Helen Gorge
2hr | 133km
Keep your bathers and your walking shoes handy because you’ll use both on today’s drive through the West MacDonnell Ranges (aka the West Macs), where it’s one beautiful gorge and wild swimming spot after another. First stop is Simpsons Gap, around half an hour’s drive west of Alice Springs along Larapinta Drive, where you can take a short walk along the sandy bottom of the canyon.
Standley Chasm, another spectacular gap in the rocky range, is just 40 minutes down the road – the cafe here does great scones and home made ice cream. Turn onto Namatjira Drive and waterhole hop your way to Glen Helen Gorge via Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge and Ormiston Gorge.
Enjoy a dip in the pool while watching the sunset light up the walls of the gorge at Glen Helen Resort, which has motel style rooms and dorms, as well as caravan and camp sites, a bar and restaurant.
Day 2: Glen Helen to Kings Canyon
3hr | 238km
It’s a bit of a dusty drive when the bitumen runs out just west of Glen Helen, but the scenery more than compensates. Pull over for a look at the view of Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) at Tylers Pass. This huge crater was formed by a comet more than 130 million years ago.
Kings Canyon – part of Watarrka National Park – dominates the landscape; the flat topped rocky range is 270m deep. The best way to see it is from above, so you could treat yourself to a scenic helicopter flight. There’s a sunset viewing platform at Kings Canyon Resort although the best views are actually from the caravan park.
Kings Canyon Resort has luxe resort rooms, budget lodge rooms with shared bathrooms and a caravan and campground. There’s a pub, shop, petrol station and licensed restaurant on site as well.
Day 3: Kings Canyon to Uluru
3hr | 321km
Get up early and tackle the three hour Rim Walk before it gets too hot. There’s a steep 20 minute climb at the start but the rest of the trail, which winds around the edge of the canyon, is pretty easy and the views are sensational (if a little vertigo inducing). If that sounds too energetic, there a lovely one hour walk along the canyon floor, or join an Aboriginal Cultural Tour with Karrke and learn about bush tucker and language and try your hand at making some traditional arts and crafts.
It’s an easy three hour drive to Uluru with bitumen all the way. Don’t get fooled by Mt Conner – this huge flat topped mesa is often mistaken for Uluru by first time visitors. Curtin Springs is a great spot to stop for lunch or a cold drink – they also make paper and jewellery from local grasses and run paper making tours twice a day.
You'll start to see your first glimpses of Uluru about 50km or so from Yulara, the resort village closest to the rock. Watching the dying sun paint Uluru orange, red and mauve is a must do, so join the crowds at the sunset viewing area (but make sure you allow plenty of time to get there as it’s 20km from the resort). Or, do it in style from atop a dune at the Sounds of Silence dinner before enjoying a buffet meal of fresh barramundi, lamb, kangaroo and emu steaks, as well as desserts and wines. After dinner, the lanterns are dimmed, the port poured and the legends of the southern sky are explained by a local astronomer.
For a more intimate experience, Tali Wiru caters for just 20 guests at a time, serving Champagne and a four course table d'hôte dinner with matching wines followed by cognac around a fire while listening to Indigenous stories. Neither are recommended for children under 10 and both are expensive, but they are absolutely worth the splurge.
When it’s time to rest your head, Ayers Rock Resort has five accommodation options for varying budgets. The five star Sails in the Desert, Desert Gardens (some rooms have views of Uluru), family friendly Emu Walk apartments, the Outback Pioneer Hotel for those on a budget, and the pet friendly Ayers Rock campground.
Stay an extra day at Uluru – there’s plenty to do and, after all, you’ve come a long way. Watching the sunrise from the back of camel is a fantastic way to start the day. Spend some time learning about the significance of the landscape for the traditional owners, the Anangu, at the Culture Centre, and explore the many walks, waterholes and rock art galleries around the base of the rock rather than climbing it against the wishes of the Anangu (the climb will be permanently closed in October 2019).
Day 4: Uluru and Kata Tjuta
1hr 30min | 127km
Kata Tjuta, 53km from the resort, with its huge, weathered domes, is just as impressive as Uluru. The 7.5km Valley of the Winds walk follows a rocky trail past sheer rock faces and unusual formations to a magnificent lookout, or opt of the much shorter hike into Walpa Gorge.
Day 5: Uluru to Alice Springs
5hr | 460km
It’s an easy drive to Alice on the sealed Lasseter and Stuart highways, but it will take at least five hours. Stop for lunch at the Erldunda Roadhouse and say hello to the emus and kangaroos in the animal enclosure, or try a camel burger from Stuarts Well Camel Farm about 90km south of Alice Springs.
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