Home of the globally iconic Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), the southern part of the Northern Territory – locally known as the “red centre” – is an otherworldly experience in one of the most remote regions on earth. The harsh, dry climate features geological wonders, eons-old indigenous cultural heritage, and long outback roads amid deep red sand. While it is possible to fly directly into Yulara Airport at Uluru, you’d really be missing out a huge chunk of this great region. The best way to experience this region is to rent out a 4WD car or 4WD camper in Alice Springs and take the road less travelled through this amazing region for an experience you’ll never forget! For the purpose of this itinerary we’ll assume you’re renting out a 4WD camper, however the majority of locations have hotel/motel rooms available (albeit at a premium price in many locations, so be forewarned if this is your preferred travel style).
Day 1 – Alice Springs
After arriving in Alice Springs, collect your vehicle. The best place to get a 4WD camper is from Apollo – you can usually rent a great vehicle like the Trailfinder Camper for around $1,000 for 1 week (remember that this is the majority of both your transport and accommodation costs, so while it sounds like a high cost it ends up being quite affordable, particularly for 2 people). If you have time, explore the surrounds of Alice Springs like the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and Alice Springs Desert Park. Alternatively, if you’ve arrived early and have the time for it, Owen Springs Reserve is a great way to spend your first day in the red centre. Around an hour out of Alice Springs, Owen Springs Reserve can be traversed by high clearance 4WD vehicles. It takes around an hour and a half to get through the reserve before rejoining the highway to get back to Alice Springs – be well informed and read up on what you need and what to do here. For sunset, you can’t go past Anzac Hill, before retiring to a camping ground or caravan park near Alice Springs.
Day 2 – Alice Springs to Yulara
The first big day of driving but with plenty of incredible sites to stop off at in between, today you’ll travel the sealed and well-maintained road from Alice Springs to Yulara, the main (and for most people, only) place to stay near Uluru. If taken directly, the trip is only around 4 hours (450km), but head off early so you can enjoy the many unique places to stop off along the way – some of which are accessible by 4WD only.
Heading south from Alice Springs, the first stop off is just under an hour south of Alice Springs. Turn off at Rainbow Valley and follow the 27km 4WD track to the valley for a real treat – this one isn’t in the guide books! Head back to the highway and continue south for another half hour before turning right toward the Henbury Meteorite reserve to see the craters of meteorites that hit nearly 5,000 years ago. Extraordinarily, the local indigenous people still tell stories of fiery devils raining down from the sun in this area.
Back to the highway, another hour south you will find Erldunda Roadhouse – the first and only roadhouse on this trip. Take the opportunity to fill up with petrol (trust us, regardless of how expensive it is, you’ll be glad you filled up here and didn’t wait until Yulara where prices are nearly double the price back in Alice Springs). Follow the signs to the Lasseter Highway and Uluru (this is important – going the wrong way will take you to Adelaide!) for the remaining 2.5 hours of the journey. After another 90 minutes on this highway, you’ll reach the lookout for Mount Conner. You’ll know it when you see it, as it is often referred to as “fooluru” for its similar appearance to the famous rock from a distance. When stopping off at the lookout, take the opportunity to go across the road and up the red sand dunes for an incredible lookout over a vast salt flat.
Finally, continue down the highway for another hour to reach Yulara. Check in to the Ayers Rock Campground (or, depending on your budget, one of the many accommodation options of various levels of luxury).
Day 3 – Uluru
Uluru is one of Australia’s most recognisable natural landmarks and is an incredible place to visit. There are a variety of walking tracks and activities in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park that allow you to view Uluru from different perspectives and learn about the surrounding fauna and flora, geography and its cultural significance. Uluru is just as impressive up close as it is from afar. The best way to get up close is the full base walk (around 10km) to see different sides and dimensions of the rock. There are shorter walking tracks available to suit different abilities.
Uluru changes colour throughout the day depending on the location of the sun. The most popular viewing times are sunrise and sunset when Uluru’s colour turns different shades of reds, oranges, browns and purples, which is a stunning sight against the desert landscape. There are a number of special viewing areas around the national park to maximise the experience and picture opportunities. You should also visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre for different demonstrations and workshops with local indigenous artists which are scheduled throughout the day.
Day 4 – Kata Tjuta
Dedicate today to exploring Kata Tjuta, the less appreciated sister of Uluru. Located around 50km or 30min from Uluru is a series of large rock domes, gorges and crevasses. There are a range of walks to explore Kata Tjuta. The two most popular treks are the Walpa Gorge Walk (2.6km) and the Valley of the Winds walk (7.4km). Be mindful that the Valley of the Winds Walk may be closed between December to February when temperatures are extreme, and that longer walks should be started in the morning before it gets too hot. Don’t miss the Kata Tjuta sunrise and sunset viewing areas which offer a magnificent panoramic view of the domes and are a great way to start and finish your day.
Day 5 – Yulara to Watarrka (Kings Canyon)
Take an easy morning today, exploring any part of Uluru that you’ve missed out on, or perhaps participate in a cultural activity run by the Ayers Rock Resort. When you’re ready, head out for the 3 hour drive to Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon). The drive is reasonably straight forward – around an hour and a half down the road you drove to get to Yulara, then take a left turn onto Luritja Road and head down the narrow but quiet and sealed road for 160km to get to Kings Canyon Resort where you can camp for the night.
Make sure you get there before sunset for two reasons – (1) the roads can be dangerous around twilight and after dark with wildlife on the roads, and (2) you won’t want to miss the stunning sunset over Kings Canyon, viewable from Kings Canyon Resort with a wine and cheese package available from the local pub.
Day 6 – Watarrka (Kings Canyon)
Spend today exploring the extraordinary Watarrka (or Kings Canyon) National Park, located around 300km or 3 hours drive from Uluru or Alice Springs. Kings Canyon is best known for its Rim Walk. This 6km walk is challenging but the panoramic views of the canyon and surrounding landscape are well worth the effort. It is recommended to start the walk early, carry sufficient water and wear a hat, sunscreen and proper footwear. For a less strenuous and quicker trek, try the Creek Walk to explore the valley of the canyon. Kings Canyon Resort is close by, so stay there for another night to watch the sunset and gaze at the extraordinarily clear and vivid night sky. Also located at the resort is Thirsty Dingo Bar which is a popular place for guests to gather and enjoy a meal and drink.
Day 7 – Mereenie Loop – Kings Canyon to Glen Halen
Today you’ll head north from Kings Canyon to tackle the Mereenie Loop from Kings Canyon to Glen Halen. It will be both the most challenging day of driving and also the most rewarding. But first of all you’ll need a permit as you’ll be driving through aboriginal-owned lands – thankfully these are available for a very reasonable $5 from the reception at Kings Canyon Resort. Note that this road is suitable for 4WD vehicles only and should only be attempted in dry conditions – the friendly folks at Kings Canyon Resort will be happy to help inform you of current conditions. Also make sure you have plenty of fuel (and yes, it’s expensive – treat it as your reward for being in one of the most remote locations on earth!) and supplies as you’ll likely not have another chance to stock up until you arrive in Glen Halen.
The drive is tough but scenic with around 260km of unsealed 4×4 track. It is also a road that takes you through a region of incredible cultural diversity, with 10 distinct indigenous languages spoken in areas you’ll pass through. After 150km on Larapinta Drive, turn left toward Glen Halen on Namatjira Drive for another 100km or so.
Once you turn onto Namatjira Drive, you’ll be heading into the impressive MacDonnell Ranges, the mountain range that encompasses Alice Springs itself. There are a range of gorges and gaps that make for excellent stop-offs along the way. Before arriving in Glen Halen you’ll have the opportunity to turn off to Roma Gorge and Redbank Gorge before continuing your journey. Allow 8 hours for the trip to ensure a truly rewarding experience.
Day 8 – Glen Halen to Alice Springs
Today’s the final day of this epic week long trip through the Australian outback. Make your way back to Alice Springs through the MacDonnell Ranges – a total of around 150km or an hour and a half driving. On the way, you can stop off at some incredible West MacDonnell Ranges locations including the Ocre Pits, Standley Chasm, and the famous Simpsons Gap.
That’s the end of the trip, so thanks for reading! If you do this trip yourself or you have your own experiences in this amazing part of the world, please leave a comment below and let us know how it went! And just a reminder to follow us on social media – (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). If you have more time in the Northern Territory, make sure you check out our posts from up in the top end – including our itinerary for a one week road trip in the top end, as well as posts on Litchfield, Kakadu and Darwin.