The Ultimate Central Australia Road Trip – The Red Centre Way

Are you thinking about doing a Central Australia Road Trip? Have you always dreamed about visiting the Red Centre, watching the sunset over Uluru or hiking Kings Canyon? Are you interested in indigenous art and culture, or learning about the geology, plants and animals of this region?

We’ve road-tripped the Northern Territory several times in the last three years. In mid 2022 we did a budget trip in our self-converted Campervan, and in March 2023 we did a Central Australia Road Trip in a hire car, staying at some of the best accommodation in the region. Whatever style of Central Australia Road Trip you’re planning, you’ve come to the right place.

Central Australia is a vast desert region, also known as the Red Centre, due to the colour of the landscape. This region is home to the rugged mountains and gorges of the East and West MacDonnell ranges, the World Heritage Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, rich aboriginal culture and abundant wildlife.  This is the heart of Australia! 

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Uluru Sunset

Best time to visit Central Australia

The best time to visit the Red Centre is during the cooler winter months, between May and September.  Daytime temperatures will be between 20-30 degrees, though the nights can be surprisingly chilly, as in any desert environment.  

We did a Central Australia trip in July and also in March. It was definitely more comfortable in July, however, with the better weather comes more visitors. You’ll need to plan ahead if visiting in the popular months.

Central Australia Road Trip

Getting there

By Air

You can fly to Alice Springs or Yulara (the “town” at Uluru) from any major city in Australia. If you’re planning to visit Central Australia from overseas, you’ll need to connect via Sydney, Melbourne or Cairns if you’re going straight to Ayers Rock (Yulara). There are more connections to Alice Springs, but no international flights.

By Car

There are not many (sealed) roads that lead in to the Northern Territory.  The main North South Highway, the Stuart Highway, passes through Alice Springs on its way from Adelaide to Darwin.

From Sydney or Melbourne to Alice Springs you would drive to Adelaide and then join the Stuart Highway.  If you’re doing a Brisbane to Alice Springs road trip the best route is via Mt Isa, into the Northern Territory and then south down the Stuart Highway. From Perth you cross the Nullarbor into SA and then head north up the Stuart Highway

Australia is a big country, and all of these drives will take you several days. Be aware if you’re checking a map, you may find a route that looks shorter, but if the road is unsealed, it may end up taking you a lot longer!

Central Australia Road Trip Map
Click on Map Image for directions

Getting around Central Australia

Central Australia is a big region with not many people around. There is very little public transport. The best way to get around Central Australia is by car – this is the ultimate Australian Road Trip.  

If you’re flying into Alice Springs or Yulara, you can hire a car at the airport.

Check car availability and pricing across multiple hire companies.

If you’re not keen on driving yourself, there are plenty of Central Australia tours to choose from. You’ll find tours departing from Alice Springs or Uluru.

The Red Centre Way

The “Red Centre Way” is a series of sealed roads that connect Alice Springs to the main attractions in the area. Lasseter Highway connects Alice Springs with Yulara, and the Luritja Road goes to Kings Canyon.  Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive head west from Alice and into the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja National Park).  All these roads are sealed and in good condition.

Red Centre Way, central australia road trip
Mereenie Loop Road, Red Centre Australia

The Mereenie Loop

There is one section of road west of Alice Springs that sometimes catches unwary drivers out.  Beware!!  The Mereenie Loop is a section of the Red Centre Way road connecting the Larapinta Drive to Luritja Road.  

Looking at a map, it would make perfect sense to leave from Alice, head west, and loop around to Kings Canyon via this road.  However, there is almost 200km of unsealed road, which can be fine to drive, but it can also be awful. 

Be warned that if you ask Google Maps to direct you from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon it will most likely direct you to go this way.  Speaking to locals, we understand a lot of travellers have been caught out heading down this route completely unawares.

When we drove the Mereenie Loop in July 2022 it was pretty nasty.  There were a lot of corrugations, and even more sharp, jaggedy rocks.  The 200km took us around 4 hours to drive.  The key when driving this sort of road is to let your tyres down and find a speed that will allow you to glide over the bumps and corrugations.

However, the scenery along this road is special, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see wild brumbies, donkeys and maybe even camels.  We saw ONE donkey only. (We often joke that NAS doesn’t stand for Nigel And Sue, it stands for “No Animals Seen”)

You will require a pass to drive along the Mereenie Loop. You can purchase your permit in Alice Springs at the Visitor Centre, Kings Canyon Resort or the Hermannsburg General Store. The pass costs $5 and is valid for 3 days.

In short, if you have a capable 4wd vehicle, the Mereenie Loop is an adventurous addition to your Red Centre Road Trip.

Where to Stay on a Central Australia Road Trip

There is accommodation for all budgets in Central Australia, from campsites and caravan parks, to hostels and simple motels, right up to luxury five-star resorts.  In many of the popular spots, unique accommodation is provided, like the beautiful luxury Safari Tents at Kings Canyon.

Kings Canyon Safari Tent, Central Australia Road Trip
kings canyon safari tent, central australia road trip
Kings Canyon Safari Tent, Central Australia

There are National Park campsites available in both the East MacDonnell Ranges, and the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja National Park), otherwise known as the West Macs.  These sites can be booked online at Parks NT.  There is little internet coverage outside of Alice Springs or Yulara, so it’s worthwhile booking before you go.

We did some Free Camping in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Much of the “empty” land is Aboriginal owned and wild camping is not allowed. You can find official Free Camps on the WikiCamps App

Top things to see in Central Australia

Alice Springs

Alice Springs (or “The Alice” as its affectionately known) is the gateway to the Red Centre.  While a lot of visitors come to the Alice and leave quickly to go check out the more popular sights, the town certainly has a few must-see attractions itself.  

It’s also the only place with any half-decent shops for well over a thousand kilometres. If you’re on a long road trip, this will be a great place to re-stock your provisions, or get any repairs done to your vehicle.  We had tyres repaired here, we also picked up some electronic computer/camera equipment we needed.

Kangaroo Sanctuary, Alice Springs,
Alice Springs, Central Australia Road Trip
outback ballooning, hot air balloon, central australia

West MacDonnell Ranges – Tjoritja National Park

The West Macs are not high in stature, but loom large over the vast red landscape of Central Australia.  A rugged mountain range with an interesting geological story, cut by deep gorges and refreshing waterholes. Home to ancient plant species and animals.  The West Macs has some of the best hiking in Central Australia, including the 200 odd km long Larapinta Trail.

Some of our favourite spots to visit include:

Simpson’s Gap
Standley Chasm
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Ormiston Gorge
Ochre Pits
Serpentine Gorge
Redbank Gorge

Read our full West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary recommendations HERE.

Check out our West Macs video HERE

Simpsons Gap, Northern Territory, West MacDonnell Ranges

East MacDonnell Ranges

The East MacDonnell Ranges are way less visited than the West Macs, and we’re really not sure why.  We spent a week exploring this area in 2022 and loved it! 

Some of our highlights of the East MacDonnell Ranges include:

Corroboree Rock – a culturally significant area for aboriginal men, and an important meeting place.  To the uninitiated it is stunning as a geological marvel, a strange rocky outcrop with several holes through it.

Trephina Gorge – known for its laid back bush campsite and incredible hikes.  

N’dhala Gorge – one of the best collections of Petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) we have seen anywhere – the entire place is like a vast open air museum.

Find out more in our Complete Guide to the East MacDonnell Ranges

You can check out our East Macs adventures on our Video Guide HERE

hiking east macdonnell ranges

Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park)

Don’t be surprised if Kings Canyon ends up being your favourite place in the Red Centre. The Kings Canyon Rim hike is one of our favourite hikes in the country.

The majestic red cliffs of Kings Canyon have to be seen to be believed. The walls of the canyon tower 100m above the creek below and were formed over 400 million years ago. The red colour of the cliffs is actually just a sandy coating – the Mereenie Sandstone itself is actually white. You can see the white stone in several places where parts of the soft sandstone has broken off. We were fascinated by the layering of the stone.

The Kings Canyon Rim hike is around 6km and will take you 3-5 hours, depending on how many photo stops you take! There are a couple of optional detours you can take, one to Cotterill’s Lookout which is where you’ll find the best views down the canyon. The other is to the Garden of Eden, where you’ll find a permanent waterhole and several species of rare plants. This waterhole is sacred to the local indigenous people so swimming is forbidden. You may however, splash your face with water if you’re feeling hot.

If you’re not feeling up to the full Rim Walk, there are several shorter hikes which also allow you to get up close to the Canyon.

kings canyon rim hike

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

The imposing image of Uluṟu (Ayers Rock) is one of the quintessential images of Australia. What we weren’t prepared for was the feeling, the energy of this place. It really is a special spiritual place.

Watching Uluṟu change colours at sunrise or sunset is a special experience. You will find designated car parks for sunrise and sunset. Be aware that the sunset viewing car park fills up very quickly so we advise getting there early to snag your spot. Set up your camp chairs or a picnic blanket, grab your wine and snacks, and enjoy the show.

During the day there is plenty to see and do around Uluṟu, from hiking around the base of the rock, to indigenous tours and workshops, even helicopter flights.

We do recommend spending a few days at Uluṟu. Also make your way out to Kata-Tjuṯa (The Olgas) to experience some of the beautiful hikes out there.

You can read our guide to the Best things to do in Uluru HERE

For our full run-down on Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa, check out our video guide HERE

Suggested Central Australia Road Trip Itinerary 

This Central Australia itinerary starts and finishes in Alice Springs, so it’s good if you’re flying in and hiring a car, or if you’re arriving with your own vehicle.  You could start and finish this itinerary in Uluru, just change the days around.

Day 1 Arrive Alice Springs

Check out the town, stock up on provisions, and maybe watch the sunset from Anzac Hill.

Another evening option is the Kangaroo Sanctuary (only operates on certain days) where you can cuddle a joey and learn about the important work done to rescue orphaned joeys (baby kangaroos).

Look for Alice Springs accommodation and check availability HERE

Day 2 Alice Springs

Another day to spend in the Alice, check out the Botanic Gardens (have a coffee at the Bean Tree Café) and look for a Euro (wallaby).  Perhaps check out the Old Telegraph Station or the Arukuleun Arts Centre.  We can definitely recommend the Alice Springs Brewing Company for a cold beer and hot pizza for dinner. If you’re staying at one of the main caravan parks just out of town, the brewery is only a short walk away.

Day 3 West MacDonnell Ranges

Leave early for a full day of checking out the Gorges and Waterholes in the West Macs.  This is a beautiful drive as you follow the ridgelines along.  It’s pretty much a straight road out to the West Macs with only ONE turnoff.  At the Y Junction, turn right.  The left road takes you to Hermannsburg and Palm Valley.

If you’re camping there are a number of places for camping in the West MacDonnell Ranges, from free camps to National Park campsites (book online in advance).  The Glen Helen Resort, which offered cabins and campsites, has been closed for a while due to a lack of water supply.

Day 4 Drive to Kings Canyon

There are two ways to get to Kings Canyon from the West Macs.  The easy but longer route is back via Alice Springs on the sealed road, then down the Stuart Highway to Erldunda Roudhouse, then along the Lasseter Highway and Luritja Drive.  

Alternatively, if you’ve stayed somewhere in the West Macs and have a 4wd, you can consider driving the “Mereenie Loop” which includes a 200km unsealed section.  You will need a permit to drive this road, in 2022 this cost us $6.  The permit is available in Alice Springs, Hermannsburg or Kings Canyon.

There is a free camp about 25km before the Kings Canyon Resort along this dirt road called Ginty’s Lookout. You will find a variety of accommodation from Campsites, to Cabins and luxury Glamping Tents at the Discovery Kings Canyon Resort. There is also accommodation available at Kings Creek Station.

Another alternative route from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon is via the Ernest Giles Road.  Looking at a map it seems the obvious choice however, this road is unsealed and can be very corrugated.  What you save in kilometres, you may not save in time.

Day 5 Kings Canyon

Spend a full day exploring the natural wonder of Kings Canyon.  The Kings Canyon Rim Hike is one of our favourite hikes in Australia.  We did this hike twice when we visited in July 2022, and again when we visited in March 2023.  The route closes at 9am on days where the temperature is forecast to be above 36 degrees Celsius.  When we visited in March the forecast was for 38 degrees so we decided to do the hike for sunrise. This was the best decision and we highly recommend it.

In the afternoon drive down to the Karrke Aboriginal Experience, one of the best tours we have done anywhere, and a great introduction to Indigenous culture and how these people lived off the land for millennia.

Day 6 Kings Canyon to Uluru (Yulara)

If you’re feeling energetic, get up early again and hike up the King’s Canyon South Wall for sunrise before driving to Uluru.  We actually thought the sunrise was even better from this side of the canyon.

The drive from Kings Canyon to Yulara passes through more desert and sand dune country.  You’ll drive along the Luritja Drive for 125km until you meet the Lasseter Highway again.  Shortly after turning onto the Lasseter Highway, you may think you have spotted Uluru, but this will be Atila, Mount Conner, also known as Fool-uru. (Don’t worry, you won’t be the first to be fooled.  Both Nigel and I were fooled the first time we saw this odd shaped “mountain”)

The only place to stop for food and fuel along this drive is at Curtin Springs.  I can report their veggie burgers with chips are absolutely delicious!  The views of Mount Conner are pretty good from here too.

Arriving at Yulara (the town at Uluru) is almost surreal.  It’s like an oasis in the desert, and the huge monolith looms overhead, beckoning you to come closer for a look.

Yulara is centred around the Ayers Rock Resort.  There is a variety of accommodation here, from 5 star resorts to a campground.  There are several places to eat, art galleries, tourist information, even an IGA supermarket.

Check Hotel availability and pricing HERE

Day 7 – 8 Uluru

We strongly believe every Australian should visit Uluru at least once in their lifetime.  It really feels like the spiritual heart of Australia.  There is actually a lot to do here, both once-in-a-lifetime tours (that can be expensive) and plenty of free activities too.

Here’s some of our favourites:

Sunset at the Uluru Sunset viewing area (free)
Ranger-led Mala Walk (free)
Valley of the Winds hike (free)
Mutijulu Waterhole (free)
Sunrise at the Kata Tjuta dune viewing platform (free)
Walk/cycle around Uluru (free – or can hire bikes)
Maruku Dot Art workshop
Sunset Helicopter flight
Field of Light
Sounds of Silence Dinner

Check out the full list of our favourite Things to do in Uluru.

Day 9 Yulara to Alice Springs

The drive from Uluru to Alice Springs passes back along the Lasseter Highway to Ghan (Erldunda Roadhouse) and then heads north back to Alice Springs.  There’s a possible side trip to Rainbow Valley along this journey although that is down 40km of unsealed road. Check the road conditions before you depart.

Watch our Central Australia Road Trip video

Click HERE to watch our latest (2023) Central Australia Road Trip video on YouTube. You can also watch our Central Australia Vanlife video series from 2022 HERE

Top Tips for a Central Australia Road Trip

What to pack for the Red Centre

Pack plenty of cool comfortable clothes. The outback is very casual, and even at the Sounds of Silence dinner at Uluru, people were dressed in smart casual. You’ll need a good pair of walking shoes if you’re planning to do some of the many hikes available in the area.

Take a wide-brimmed hat and a fly net! Even in the cooler months, there can be a lot of flies around.

Driving distances in the Red Centre

The distances between fuel stops are a lot longer than you might be used to, and fuel at some of the road-houses is very expensive. The most we paid was $2.89/l for diesel. Make sure you leave Alice Springs with a full fuel tank!

Installing a Fuel finder App might be helpful, but remember to check it while you are still in range (see below on Mobile phone coverage)

Food and water in the Red Centre

The variety is available food is good in Alice Springs, and you can get almost anything in the supermarkets. However, once you leave the Alice, the variety of food choices goes down, and the prices go up! If you are vegetarian, vegan or on a limited diet, you may struggle (or eat a lot of hot chips!)

We learned to always have plenty of snacks in the car, fruit, nuts, chips etc.

Make sure you carry plenty of water. It’s a very dry environment and you will get dehydrated even in cooler weather.

Mobile phone coverage in Central Australia

Outside of Alice Springs and Yulara, mobile phone coverage is very limited. You might find a few bars of 3G around the roadhouses, but in peak times the towers struggle to keep up. Kings Canyon Resort is particularly bad, however, the service at the actual canyon carpark was much better.

In the West Macs you’ll find a couple of booster dishes where you can stand and supposedly get a better signal. This might be strong enough for calls, SMS and emails, but not really for browsing or social media.

We both have Telstra phones, and we did hear from some other travellers that they got better reception in Optus in some places.

FAQs

How many days do you need for a Central Australia Road Trip?

While it would be possible to see the Red Centre in a week, we recommend spending at least 10 days driving the Red Centre Way. The distances are probably longer than you think, and there is a lot to see.

Do you need a 4wd for the Red Centre?

It is possible to visit all the main attractions in Central Australia with a 2wd vehicle. There are sealed roads from Alice Springs to the West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluṟu. You will require a 4wd vehicle if you wish to drive on the Mereenie Loop or to visit Palm Valley and some of the other side attractions

How many days do you need at Uluṟu?

We recommend spending at least three nights at Uluṟu, which will allow you plenty of time to see the sunrise and sunset from the various viewing spots, as well as exploring the area and learning about the fascinating culture.

Do you need a pass to visit Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park?

Yes, you will need to purchase a pass to visit the park. The pass costs $38 for 3 days, and you can extend the pass free of charge at the entry gate. Passes are available online or at the entry station. We purchased our pass online, and saved it to the Wallet on our iPhone. Your pass will be checked, as there is an entry barrier to get into the park.

What time does Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park open?

The opening time of the park depends on the sunrise time. Be sure to check the time with your accommodation or the visitors centre. We made the mistake of turning up too early and had to wait at the gate for around 30 minutes! (We weren’t alone)

Do I need a pass to visit NT National Parks?

Since 3 April 2023, a valid permit is required to visit the National Parks in the Northern Territory. This pass costs $10 per day, $30 for 2 weeks, or $60 for an annual pass. You can purchase your pass online at the Park Bookings website. NOTE: Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is a federal park, and a separate entry permit applies for this park.

Looking for hidden gems?

If you liked the West MacDonnell Ranges but would prefer less people, check out the East MacDonnell ranges for great hikes, and a beautiful peaceful campsite.

If you have a high-range 4×4 vehicle, don’t miss Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park – this was one of our favourite places in all of Central Australia.

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