Alice Springs is the perfect base from which to explore the heart of Central Australia. Whether you are looking for a simple road trip or a some more hardcore 4WD exploration, there are so many attractions within an easy day's drive.
Just a short trip are Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, the first highlights of the dramatic West MacDonnell Range. As you head further west you'll find even more spectacular gorges and intriguing sites like the Ochre Pits.
Continue exploring beyond the West MacDonnell Ranges to the astounding Kings Canyon. Even a short walk here gives amazing views over the sheer sandstone cliffs, but a helicopter tour gives the best views of these astounding rock formations.
Although not as well known as their western counterpart, the East MacDonnell Range is another destination jam-packed with amazing formations, like Emily and Jesse gaps, and significant Aboriginal sites. If you have more time, you can venture off the seal and explore the historic buildings at Arltunga.
It's a bit of a drive up the Stuart Highway to reach Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles but well worth the effort to see these dramatic boulders. The red glow of sunset really brings these granite formations to life. On the drive north you'll pass the giant sculptures at Aileron and the unique UFO Centre at Wycliffe Well.
An easy drive south along the highway is Henbury Meteorite Craters. There's an easy walk around the 12 craters to discover the impact of the meteorite crash about 4900 years ago. While you're in the area, book in to enjoy a camel ride through the arid landscape at Stuarts Well.
Only an hour's drive south of Alice Springs, Rainbow Valley is certainly worth the minor discomfort of the rough dirt access road off the Stuart Highway. As with a lot of the Red Centre's geological attractions, the magnificent red and ochre-coloured sandstone here really looks its best in the golden rays of a remarkable outback sunset.
The truly adventurous can tackle the unsealed road to Chambers Pillar, past the rock carvings at Ewaninga and relics of the Old Ghan Railway. The track in to this striking sandstone pillar is definitely 4WD-only.
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A once-in-a-lifetime trek along the spine of the spectacular West MacDonnell Range, the 223km Larapinta Trail is fast hitting the worldwide top hikes lists. End to end, the trail requires at least 14 days. But if you don’t have the inclination, time or ability to tackle the entire route, rest easy because the proximity to Alice Springs makes it simple to do smaller sections with no trouble. That said, the sections range from moderate to very hard, so you’ll need to be reasonably fit and well prepared to take on any of them.
The route is split into 12 sections that together run from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station as far west as Mt Sonder. Before you even head off, take a little time to explore the area’s early European history at the station.
The rugged track winds through the arid landscape, giving access to some of the West MacDonnell Range’s best-known features, including Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Serpentine Gorge, Ochre Pits and Ormiston Gorge. Another highlight is Counts Point, which provides distinctive views along the quartz ridges of Heavitree Range out to Mt Zeil and Mt Sonder.
The chance to wander along the ancient Finke River is a highlight of section 10, between Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Resort. At just over 10km, this section is one of the trail’s most popular day trips and takes just four to five hours.
If you are up for more of a challenge, then section 4, Standley Chasm return, will reward you with what is regarded as some of the trail’s best scenery. Allow eight to twelve hours to comfortably complete this 20km section, which is rugged, steep and classified as very hard.
The end point of the trail, Mt Sonder rewards the hiker with amazing 360-degree views back to the east across the West MacDonnell Range, west to Mt Zeil, north to the Tanami Desert and south to the Gosse Bluff crater. At 1380m Mt Sonder is the Northern Territory’s fourth highest mountain. In fact, the 15.8km section 12, Mt Sonder return, is another of the trail’s most popular day trips, even though it is a steep walk that is classified as hard. Be warned, you need to make a really early start on this walk.
As well as being sites of scenic beauty, many of the spots the trail visits are also sacred to the Arrernte people. For the traditional owners the land has song lines, or dreaming tracks, that tell the region’s cultural history.
Special campsites are provided along the route for use only by trail walkers. July is the busiest month on the trail, so if possible, try to walk in May, June or August instead. Just remember that winter nights will be very cold. In wildflower season you may even be lucky enough to see the arid countryside come alive with the bright blooms. The trail is very well-organised with options available for as much or little support as you want, including guided treks, transfers and food drops
The instantly recognisable shape of Uluru, bathed red by the setting sun as it sits majestically amid the surrounding sandy plain, is definitely one of Australia’s most photographed sights. Once known as Ayers Rock, Uluru always appears in overseas visitors’ lists of Australia’s top three attractions, usually alongside the Sydney Opera House and the Twelve Apostles. Yet no matter how many times you’ve seen images of this imposing 348m high monolith, nothing compares with standing in front of it for the first time. It’s a sacred site in Aboriginal culture and Tjukurpa stories tell how Uluru was formed by ancestral beings at the beginning of time.
Various sunrise and sunset viewing spots provide great vantage points to see the amazing colours wash over Uluru at these particularly special times of day. However, they can be very popular, so if you’re looking for a quieter way to enjoy the experience then take a walk to locate a more secluded viewpoint. One little-known viewing point with great vistas over the rock is accessed just a short distance from the Cultural Centre along the Liru Walk.
Walking really is the best way to get up close to Uluru, and a clockwise wander around the base on the Mala Walk is an excellent way to see the rock from every angle. At 10km this walk is one for those with plenty of time, as you’ll need to allow about three and a half hours to do the entire circuit. If you have less time, it’s possible to just do some shorter sections to highlights like Kantju Gorge and Mutitjulu Waterhole. The peaceful waterhole is a beautiful spot to sit and relax for a while and there are rock art sites to see as well.
As a sign of respect for the beliefs of the traditional owners, the management of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park asks visitors to not climb Uluru. As of October 26 2019, the climb to the top of Uluru will be permanently closed.
Another great option for exploring around the rock is to hire a bike from near the Cultural Centre and cycle around instead of walking. Or for an even different mode of transport, try a Segway tour. Whatever you choose, remember to head out early to avoid the hottest part of the day.
A great way to spend some time when it’s hot is to drop in to the Cultural Centre. Here you’ll learn about Anangu culture and the long history of the importance of Uluru to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people – the area’s traditional landowners. You’ll want to allow at least two hours to explore the centre, which includes art galleries and cultural displays. A must-do is a walk through the Tjukurpa Tunnel where you’ll be transported back in time with ceremonial songs, Anangu art and fascinating documentaries.
Another fun way to learn more about the area’s culture is to participate in a dot painting workshop with Maruku Arts. While you’re there you can also pick up a punu (wooden carving), painting or piece of jewellery as a special memento of your trip. Paintings are also available from Walkatjara Art, which is the art centre run by the Mutitjulu community.
The opportunity to see important rock art sites that show fascinating Tjukurpa stories is another big drawcard of a visit to Uluru. Along the Mala and Kuniya walks there are several rock shelters where visitors can get up close to these fascinating artworks. To gain an even greater understanding of the images you are seeing, take the ranger-guided Mala Walk.
For further insight into the culture and history of the region, take a guided tour. As well as walks there are a number of other ranger-guided activities on offer too, including tours around Uluru, bushtucker talks and presentations on the park’s animals. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime way to experience this amazing place you can take a tour on a camel, or even a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Thrillseekers can also take to the skies on a helicopter trip or go for a tandem skydive for unforgettable aerial views of Uluru.
Uluru is part of the World Heritage–listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is jointly managed by Anangu and Parks Australia. Park entry fees apply, and permits can be purchased online. There is no camping permitted in the park, with the nearest available at Yulara. It’s only a short drive on sealed roads from Uluru to Yulara, which has plenty of accommodation and restaurants as well as an airport.
An ever-present backdrop to Alice Springs, the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges stretch for more than 100 kilometres to both the west and east of the town.
To the west, this dramatic formation is protected in Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park. The first highlights you reach, just a short trip from Alice Springs, are a tantalising glimpse of the amazing gorges for which the ranges are renowned. Two of the most accessible sites, Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, are understandably also among the most popular.
As you head further west, you’ll find Ellery Creek Big Hole, which is a perfect spot to stop for a refreshing dip in the remarkable waterhole. Not far away is a popular picnicking place at Serpentine Gorge and the intriguing Ochre Pits site.
The gorges just keep coming as you continue west, with the towering walls of Ormiston Gorge and some welcome facilities at Glen Helen. Redbank Gorge, at the base of Mt Sonder, is another great spot to cool off with a swim after tackling some of the walks.
Over to the east of Alice Springs the East MacDonnell Range isn’t as well known as its western counterpart, but this can be a boon for travellers seeking to avoid the crowds. However, the area is still packed with interesting sites to explore, like Emily and Jesse gaps.
For an insight into the area’s Aboriginal history and culture, stop off at Corroboree Rock, which is a sacred men’s site. The rock art at Trephina Gorge offers another taste of this ancient culture. Beyond Trephina you’ll need a four-wheel drive, so this is a popular spot to stop for a picnic or camp overnight.
With a four-wheel drive it’s possible to explore some of the East MacDonnell Range’s lesser known attractions, including N’Dhala Gorge and Ruby Gap. With its numerous rock engravings, N’Dhala Gorge provides another insight into the Aboriginal history and culture of this area. If you’re up for even more exploration, then see the ruins of Central Australia’s first town at Arltunga. There’s also more mining boom history at Ruby Gap, which is only accessible to high clearance four-wheel drives.