Are you planning a Northern Territory Road Trip? The drive from Alice Springs to Darwin is one of the best road trips in Australia. It’s a long way – the distance from Alice Springs to Darwin is almost 1500km. This is definitely not a drive you would do in one day.
Perhaps you’re concerned that there’s not much to see and do on the road from Alice to Darwin. However, on this drive you’ll see some of the best of the Northern Territory as you drive from the desert of Central Australia to the tropical Top End. You’ll see natural wonders, historic landmarks, and just a couple of quirky stops too.
We did the Alice Springs to Darwin road trip in July 2022. Of course you can do this road trip in reverse too. In this post you’ll learn about all the best places to stay, things to do and see on this epic road trip. We’ll help you make sure you don’t miss a thing!
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How to drive from Alice Springs to Darwin
You’ll be driving on the Stuart Highway, the main north-south highway in Central Australia. You won’t need a 4×4 as the road from Alice Springs to Darwin is sealed all the way.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can rent a car or even a campervan. We travelled in our campervan and there are so many wonderful places to stay on this epic road trip.
Best time to visit the Northern Territory
As you drive from Alice Springs to Darwin, you will experience two quite different climates. Alice Springs has a desert climate, with hot dry summers, and cooler dry winters. Winter nights in Central Australia can drop below zero, and summer days can top 40 degrees.
Darwin and the Top End has a tropical climate, with warm dry winters and hot humid summers. The summer (green or wet) season is characterised by tropical storms. Darwin receives around 1700mm (68 inches) of rain each year, compared to only 283mm or 11 inches in Alice Springs.
We did this road trip in late July – early August, and it was surprising how the weather changed and got a lot warmer as we headed north. For this reason, we think the best time to do the Alice Springs to Darwin road trip would be in late Autumn. If you left Alice in May and arrived in Darwin in June you’d get the best weather in both places.
Having said that, we think any time from April to October is great in the Northern Territory.
Alice Springs to Darwin Itinerary
Before you start this road trip, there are plenty of things to do in and around Alice Springs. You might like to check out The Best Things to do in Alice Springs and our Central Australia Road Trip Itinerary for some ideas.
We recommend spending at least 5 days on the road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin but of course you could spend much longer. You will probably want to spend some additional time around Katherine and the Nitmiluk National Park. There are also a number of side trips you can do on this itinerary including Litchfield National Park and the world famous Kakadu National Park. This itinerary assumes that you have already spent some time in Alice Springs and Central Australia before heading north.
Day 1 – Alice Springs to Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles)
412km, 4 hours driving
Leaving Alice and heading north, the first place you may want to stop is the Tropic of Capricorn monument, 30km away. There is a free camp here, with 2 x toilets and a picnic table. The monument makes a good photo stop and coffee, if its that time already!
Next up is the giant sculptures at Alieron. The Anmatjere Man and Anmatjere Woman with child. These statues were created by artist Mark Egan. The Anmatjere Man stands 17m high, on the top of the hill overlooking the town. Also up on the hill is Alieron’s answer to Hollywood – a series of large letters spelling out the name of the town.
You can park at the Aileron Roadhouse and take a walk up to the statue. The views from here are incredible. On your way up you will walk through the A for Aileron.
When you come back down, don’t miss the Anmatjere Woman and child statue. This is located down the hill near the roadhouse. You can walk around these statues and marvel at their size.
Wycliffe Well – UFO Capital of Australia
This is definitely one of those attractions that you need to take with a grain of salt. Apparently there have been more UFOs sighted here than any other place in the country. The enterprising Roadhouse owner seized on this statistic (or did he make it up in the first place?) and put alien statues and other paraphernalia around the roadhouse.
When we visited in July 2022 it was looking pretty run down, and in fact the roadhouse itself is currently “temporarily closed”. We believe the aliens are still hanging around though.
Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles) Conservation Area
The Devil’s Marbles are a series of huge round granite rocks rising out from the desert. You will wonder how they manage to balance so precariously, and why they just appear here, in the middle of the desert.
The rocks are called Marbles as they are so round. To the traditional owners, the Kaytete, Warumungu, Warlpiri and Alyawarra people, they are known as Karlu Karlu, which means “Round Rocks”.
Cultural importance of Karlu Karlu
The rocks have great spiritual significance to the traditional owners. In 1953 one of the boulders was taken, without permission, to be placed over the grave of John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, in Alice Springs. This act upset the Kaytete and Warumungu people, and also the Arrente people around Alice who were concerned at it’s presence.
Over the following decades there were many discussions around the removal of this rock, and eventually in 1998 the rock was returned to it’s original place at Karlu Karlu. In 2008 ownership of the Karlu Karlu Conservation Reserve was handed back to the traditional owners.
There are signboards explaining how the rocks were created over millenia. The wind and rain weathered away the surrounding sandstone exposing the granite boulders to what you see now. The boulders continue to erode and crack, the landscape is continually changing.
There are walking trails around and through the rocks, and you can climb to a lookout. Please be aware that the rocks are sacred to the indigenous people, and they do ask that you don’t climb on them. While you are bound to see photos of people standing on rocks (or in the mouth of the one that looks like PacMan) – we found it more fun to take these creative photos.
The best time to see the Devil’s Marbles is at sunrise and sunset, as they change colour beautifully. For this reason, we found the Parks campsite (which is right behind the rocks) to be perfectly situated. This campsite can be booked online at the Parks NT website.
Where to stay at the Devil’s Marbles
Alternatively, you can stay at the Devils Marbles Hotel which is about 10 km to the south in the small town of Wauchope. The pub has powered and unpowered sites camping sites, and a range of cabin accommodation. There is a free camp (no facilities) out the front of the pub. Either way, this is a great place to stop in for a beer after today’s drive.
Please note: a valid NT Parks Pass is required for this park
Day 2 – Devil’s Marbles to Daly Waters Pub
502km around 5 hr 15 min driving time
Tennant Creek is the only significant town between Alice Springs and Katherine, and a logical spot to stop and stock up on any groceries you might need. There is a decent IGA supermarket in town. Other than food and fuel, Tennant Creek is probably not somewhere you really want to stop.
Daly Waters Pub
The Daly Waters Hotel is one of those “iconic” Aussie Outback pubs, that everyone doing a lap of Australia likes to stop at. The bar is decorated with memorabilia (including women’s underwear) that passing tourists have left, and just across the street is Tim’s junk yard, which is just that.
At 7pm the publican comes out on his motorised mobility scooter, followed by his horse, to tell his story. There is also live music to entertain the guests.
There is a large camping area surrounding the pub, with powered and unpowered sites.
To be honest, we found the Daly Waters pub overcrowded and over-hyped. The campsite was dusty and we felt squashed in. We do think it’s one of those places you should visit, but maybe just stop in for a beer and a look around.
Day 3 – Daly Waters to Mataranka/Bitter Springs
168km 1hr 45min driving
A short driving day today but be prepared to relax and enjoy the waters of Mataranka and Bitter Springs. The first thing we noticed on the drive north from Daly Waters was the appearance of trees again. We realised we had left the desert of Central Australia and were heading into the more verdant north.
The small town of Larrimah (popn 12) is famous for the Pink Panther Hotel, and the disappearance of local resident Paddy Moriaty. The pub boasts outback hospitality, friendly locals and great pizza.
However, while those locals may be friendly to travellers, it seems that many of them hate each other. In 2017, Paddy Moriaty left the pub and drove the 800m home, and he and his dog were never seen again. In 2022 the coroner ruled that his death was likely due to an on-going feud with his neighbour. His remains have never been found, and a $250,000 reward is still offered for information leading to a resolution in this case.
You can learn all about the case on the drive by listening to the Lost in Larrimah podcast.
After days (or maybe weeks) in the dusty desert, the thermal springs at Mataranka are a welcome rest for travellers. Mataranka also has a rich pastoral history, made famous in the book “We of the Never Never” which was turned into a movie in the 1980s. You can see the replica of the Elsey Homestead house set near the thermal springs carpark. (The house was actually moved here after filming).
Mataranka Springs is a beautiful place to stop and have a swim. The springs are fed from the underground water table and stay at a constant 34 degrees. A swimming pool of sorts has been constructed, with a sandy bottom. There are handrails and steps to assist people getting in.
The path from the carpark is accessible for prams and wheelchairs.
There are also several walking trails around Mataranka Springs, and the best thing, is its free to swim here.
You might be wondering which is better, Mataranka or Bitter Springs. We much preferred the hot springs at Bitter Springs as the waterhole has been left in its more natural state. You can float down the river for around 100m with the current. This is a great place to come with a pool noodle or other floatation device. Don’t forget your snorkel gear, as there are turtles and fish to spot in the water.
Our top tip for visiting Bitter Springs is to come at sunrise. You may get to see the mist (or is it steam?) rising from the water. More importantly, the water will be still and not churned up, so visibility will be much better. Bitter Springs gets quite crowded during the middle of the day.
Where to stay in Mataranka
There are caravan parks right at both Mataranka and Bitter Springs, which has cabins as well as caravan/camping sites. The best things with these parks is you will be walking distance to the hot springs.
There is also the Territory Manor Motel and Caravan Park closer to Mataranka. We stayed here for one night, it was great and they even had a resident band for entertainment in the evenings.
Day 4 – Mataranka to Katherine
108km 1 hr 10min driving
Katherine is the first large town on the drive from Alice Springs to Darwin, with a population of 6,000. It’s known as the place where “the outback meets the tropics”. There are some great things to do around Katherine and we definitely recommend spending a couple of days here.
On our last visit we were surprised to find a great café in Katherine. It’s called Peakabrew and is located just by the cinema. Big thumbs up for their coffee!
Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk National Park is one of the most spectacular places in the Northern Territory. The highlight is Katherine Gorge, which is actually made up of 13 gorges. The cliff walls of the gorge tower above you as you explore this ancient landscape.
You can visit the Katherine Gorge on foot, in a canoe, on a boat cruise or even a helicopter flight. Nitmiluk Tours operates boat tours into the gorge and also hires out canoes. There are a couple of places where you can swim in Katherine Gorge, one of the most popular is the Southern Rockhole (depending on the season).
Katherine Gorge Walks
Some of our favourite hikes in the Northern Territory are within the Nitmiluk National Park. From short walks to the 5 day Jatbula hike, there is something for everyone here. We really loved the hike to Butterfly Gorge and the loop up to Pat’s Lookout.
Top Didj Cultural Experience
On the way out to Katherine Gorge you’ll pass the Top Didj Art Gallery. Manuel Pamkal of the Top Didj Art Gallery and Cultural Experience is one of the best indigenous teachers we’ve ever met. We really enjoyed the Top Didj Cultural Experience. Manuel told us his story, taught us to paint in the northern style (using lines rather than the dots of central Australia), how to make a fire with sticks and how to throw a spear.
Oh and if Manuel looks familiar, you might have seen him on TikTok – he’s a bit of a celebrity! Top Didj Cultural Experiences operate during the dry season from April to October.
Katherine Hot Springs
The Katherine Hot Springs are located right in the town, just a short walk down steps from the car park. This is a great place to soak your tired muscles after hiking in Katherine Gorge.
Edith Falls (Leilyn)
Edith Falls is also in the Nitmiluk National Park, but around half an hour’s drive north of Katherine. This section of the park is known for its waterfalls and beautiful swimming holes.
There is a kiosk and a Parks campsite at the main swimming hole, but we really enjoyed the walk up to the upper falls and swimming there. There’s a few rocks you can jump off, if you’re brave!
Where to stay in Katherine
Within Katherine there are many places to stay, from Caravan Parks to motel rooms. If you’re looking for a luxury stay in Katherine Gorge, and some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, we highly recommend the Cicada Lodge. This boutique property offers only 18 rooms and is located just near the visitor centre at Katherine Gorge.
In addition to the NT Parks campsite at Edith Falls, there is a free camp just where you turn off the main road. This free camp is very popular and fills up quickly! We also liked it here as the phone and internet reception was much better here than at the Parks campsite.Check out our Guide to Katherine Gorge Nitmiluk National Park
Day 5 – Katherine to Darwin
317km 3hr 20min driving
The drive from Katherine to Darwin is only around 3 hours (gotta love those 130km speed limits in the NT!). The landscape changes again, as you drive through bushland. There are a couple of places to stop on the way.
This historic town is around an hour’s drive north of Katherine. The town was established in the late 1800s when there was a gold rush here, and there are still many historic buildings from that time in the town.
Just near Pine Creek you will pass the turn-off to Kakadu National Park. You may choose to head into Kakadu and loop around to Darwin that way. This will add an additional three hours of driving time, plus whatever time you spend in Kakadu.
Another hour up the road and you’ll come to Adelaide River. This small township has a rich military history, which you’ll see more evidence of as you drive further north. There’s a good military cemetery here where some of the victims of the bombing of Darwin in WW2 are buried.
Fun fact: Adelaide River has some of the cheapest fuel in the NT – apparently the two roadhouses have a bit of a feud and keep trying to undercut each other. Keep an eye on your Fuel Map App and if you’re lucky you might save 10-20c per litre.
You will pass the turnoff to Litchfield National Park near the town of Batchelor. You can loop around to Darwin via Litchfield, which will add an additional 1hr 45min to your driving time, plus the time you spend in Litchfield.
When we visited the Northern Territory, we drove straight to Darwin to restock (and get a few repairs on our van done, before doing a Road Trip loop from Darwin to Kakadu, then Katherine, then Litchfield and then back to Darwin. We spent several days in each of the parks.
After 1500km you’ll find yourself in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. We love the vibe of Darwin – there are so many things to do in Darwin, there are great bars and cafes here. It seems like there’s always something on, and it’s one of those cities we keep feeling drawn back to.
Driving from Alice Springs to Darwin
The distance is 1500km and there are a couple of things to be aware of before you set out. Firstly, although this is the main north-south road through the middle of Australia, it is very remote. You will find roadhouses with fuel and takeaway food every couple of hundred of kilometres, but other than that, there is not much out here. Make sure you top up your fuel before you leave, and carry water with you.
In the event of a breakdown, stay with your vehicle. You may not have phone reception, but it won’t be long before someone comes along.
You will encounter plenty of Road Trains along this drive, large trucks with 3 or 4 trailers on the back – these can be up to 50m long.
It is not recommended you drive between dusk and until after dawn – night-time is when most accidents with wild life occur. There are some BIG kangaroos out there, and you are likely to do considerable damage to your vehicle if you hit one. (Not to mention killing the kangaroo).
For much of the Northern Territory the speed limit is 130km/h. Always drive to the conditions of the road and your vehicle.
Phone and Internet
Phone reception is very sparse along this road, but you may find Booster Towers along the road. This is a place where you can stop and if you get really close to the dish you may get enough reception to make a phone call or answer a text message. Probably not enough to check your Instagram though!
National Parks Pass
From April 2023, all visitors to National Parks in the Northern Territory require a parks pass (NT residents excepted). You can buy your pass online or at a Parks office or visitor centre.
How long does it take to drive from Alice Springs to Darwin?
The drive from Alice Springs to Darwin is around 1500km and would take you at least 15 hours if you drove straight from A to B. Most people do this drive over 3-5 days.
Is it worth driving from Alice Springs to Darwin?
Absolutely! There are so many great things to see on the way, natural beauty, historic landmarks and a good share of outback quirkiness too.
Is the road from Darwin to Alice Springs sealed?
Yes, unless there are any roadworks (where speed limits will be reduced) the road is sealed all the way.
Do you need a 4×4 to drive from Alice Springs to Darwin?
If you’re sticking to the main road you won’t need any off-road capabilities. A regular 2wd car will be fine for this drive.
Is it safe to drive at night in the Northern Territory?
It is generally recommended to avoid driving at night (including dusk and dawn) due to the likelihood of wild-life on the road. You may also encounter wandering stock from cattle stations, as many times the stations are not fenced.