When travelling to or around Australia, chances are that Uluru / Ayers Rock is on your bucket list! But the area has a lot more to offer than “just” a big red rock in the middle of nowhere. Whether you’ve got an extended weekend or two weeks time for the area, you won’t get bored, especially if you take The Red Centre Way Tourist Drive.
We recently travelled through the area as part of our big loop around Australia and it was stunning! All the Gorges, Gaps, Chasms and Canyons are plentiful and spectacular, while the West MacDonnell Ranges provide for some mesmerising sunrises and sunsets. Since we went in wet season (summer), we were also able to enjoy the refreshing water holes along the way.
If you’re planning to visit Uluru or Alice Springs, allow yourself at least five days and go for a drive around the area, taking all The Red Centre Way has to offer. It’ll be even better if you’ve got a 4WD capable car, so do consider this if you’re planning to buy or hire a vehicle.
Read our blog post on buying a car in Australia.
First of all, here’s a map of the area to give you a general idea:
We went from Alice Springs via the northern part of the loop (Highway 2 via Mount Zeil) to Gosse Bluff (close to where Highway 2 meets Highway 6 again), then on to Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park) and finally down to Uluru / Kata Tjuta National Park (near Yulara). We were also planning to go to Hermannsburg, Finke Gorge and Palm Valley (southern part of the loop), but due to heavy rain and flooding on the day we were planning to go, we left this bit out and drove straight to Kings Canyon from Gosse Bluff. This whole area is classified as the Red Centre Way.
Starting in Alice Springs, the following was our itinerary. The kilometres indicate, how far the turn off is from Alice Springs:
Alice Springs to Uluru via the Red Centre Way
Simpsons Gap (16km)
Simpsons Gap is just a short drive from Alice Springs and gives you a good taste of what’s to come. You can park almost right next to it, it’s only a short stroll of about 200 metres each way.
Standley Chasm (40km)
This one is the only place apart from Uluru / Kata Tjuta which you have to pay for. But don’t worry, it’s only AU$10 and well worth it. Sadly, this is the only one we did not visit due to time restrictions.
Ellery Creek Big Hole (88km)
The Ellery Creek Big Hole is accessible by a short dirt road and a super short walk from the parking lot. This spot is guaranteed to have water in, as it’s quite deep and very shaded.
Serpentine Gorge (99km)
Serpentine Gorge is one of our favourite place in the West MacDonnell Ranges. It is a bit of a walk, but nothing major. The waterhole is located about a kilometre each way from the carpark.
But if you’re only going there, you’ll miss out on the best bit: The lookout is about another 15 minutes up some steps and is more than worth it. On the way up and down you can enjoy sweeping views over the rolling hills of the ranges.
The viewing deck at the top rewards you with a panorama of the canyon-like Serpentine Gorge.
Ormiston Gorge (128km)
Ormiston Gorge is another fantastic spot with a really picturesque waterhole at the bottom and an impressive lookout up at the top. It’s also a popular place to go camping for a night, and it’s even got a little kiosk at certain times of the week.
It’s only a few minutes from the carpark to the waterhole, which is a must do when travelling the Red Centre Way.
Also from the carpark, a 20 minute walk will take you up to the lookout over Ormiston Gorge:
Glen Helen Gorge (132km)
This gorge is quite a bit wider than most others and is located just south of the road, rather than north. It also has a considerable amount of water in it for most of the year, so you can go swimming in it.
You can stay at Glen Helen Resort, which is just next to the gorge. There are basic supplies as well as fuel available here as well. If you’ve got a 4×4 capable car, you could also drive into the Finke River bed on the other side of the highway. The first bit is usually accessible for all cars with at least a little bit of ground clearance, but don’t venture too far down if you haven’t got 4WD. You can camp there for the night, but there are no facilities.
Mount Sonder Lookout (133km)
We stayed over night in the river bed of Finke River, which is almost right next to Mount Sonder lookout. Thus, we were able to watch sunset as well as a gorgeous sunrise from this lookout. It’s a great place to spend the first night of the trip!
Redbank Gorge (151km)
The last one of the gorges and gaps before the road turns south. The drive down to it gets a little rough towards the end, but it’s fine for all cars. The walk takes about 30 to 40 minutes each way. Depending on water levels, it can be a bit of a scramble along the edge of the riverbed, but once you get there it’s worth it.
Redbank Gorge is perfectly swimmable. You can go for a refreshing swim up a very narrow part of the gorge for quite a while, a bit like a slot canyon. It is recommended to take a floating device like a rubber tube to rest on.
Tylers Pass (Gosse Bluff Lookout) (176km)
It’s easy to miss this turn-off, but make sure not to! Drive up Tylers Pass for a couple hundred metres, and out of nowhere, an absolutely enormous meteor crater appears on the horizon. It’s called Gosse Bluff (or Tnorala) and the crater walls rise more than 150 metres from the flat surrounding land. The crater also measures more than 5,000 metres across!
Gosse Bluff (191km)
You can drive inside the actual crater as well! The road isn’t great towards the end, but does the job. From the parking lot, there are a couple of very short strolls to some vantage points if you’d like to take a photo, but you do get the best views from outside of the crater.
From now on, as you’re leaving the West MacDonnell Ranges, stops are getting less frequent and the road turns into dirt. It can get very corrugated out there, but in dry weather the road surface should be solid enough for all sorts of cars.
Unfortunately, when we went, it rained the whole way from Gosse Bluff to Kings Canyon and after about half an hour, the road had turned into an endless stretch of red mud and water which wasn’t easy to navigate and extremely slippery too!
Kings Canyon (357km)
Watarrka National Park (or Kings Canyon) is the highlight of a trip along the Red Centre Way. It’s a long way from anywhere, but well worth it. The road between here and Uluru is actually paved all the way, as it’s getting more and more popular to travel between the two.
Kings Canyon Resort offers you all sorts of things. From camping to luxury accommodation, fuel or other necessities, everything is available here – often for outrageous prices though. Unpowered camp sites are AU$40, rooms between AU$200 and 400 a night, fuel for more than two dollars a litre and so on. The helicopter flights for AU$95 seem to be the only reasonable thing here!
Kings Canyon offers some amazing walks. The most popular one is the Rim Walk, which takes you in a loop right around the rim of the canyon and allows for some spectacular views all along the way. It should take about 2 to 3 hours to complete, depending on fitness and photo stops. There are other walks too, for example along the river into the canyon, which is a lot shorter and easier. Keep in mind on days with a maximum forecast of 36°C or higher some walks close as early as 9:00am.
Once you’re done with Kings Canyon, as you keep driving south, there is also Kings Creek station about half an hour further down the road, which also offers fuel and some supplies as well as a restaurant.
Mount Conner Lookout (554km)
Mount Conner is a prominent mountain about 100km east of Uluru, south of the Lasseter Highway. Apparently, Mount Conner is also known as Fooluru for fooling travellers into thinking it’s Uluru! You can only get to Mount Conner with a guided tour, but the roadside lookout does the job if you’re just passing by.
Probably the most famous landmark of Australia, along with Sydney Harbour. Uluru (or Ayers Rock) is a must see, and it’s even more spectacular during a good sunrise or sunset. National Park entry fee is AU$25 per person for a 3-day pass and covers both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
You’ll be staying in the tourist village of Yulara. Again, from unpowered campsites to modern luxury lodges, there is an array to choose from. The prices are quite bad, especially in high season.
Don’t underestimate the driving times in the park. To get to the sunrise viewing deck in time for sunrise, plan on leaving your accommodation in Yulara no later than 40 minutes before sunrise.
A great thing to do after seeing the sunrise is the Uluru base walk, which takes you all around the rock in about 3 hours. You might think it’s just the same all the way, but the truth is far from that! It’s well worth checking out, as you’ll be rewarded with lots of different perspectives and vibrant colours as well as some ancient rock paintings. Walks can close as early as 8:00am on days forecasted to be 36°C or above.
Even though for some reason it’s still allowed, please respect the local people and don’t climb Uluru.
Kata Tjuta (708km)
Don’t miss out on this. A lot of people only go and see Uluru, but Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas) is just as amazing. Quite a few people even prefer it to Uluru, because of its more rugged shape. It’s something not to miss out on, and well worth the 45 minute drive (or about an hour each way from Yulara). Kata Tjuta has got a sunrise and a sunset viewing area too.
The Valley of the Winds is a great walk to get up close to this impressive rock formation, but it will also be closed early on days with high temperatures. Sadly, when we visited the walk was closed all day due to very high temperatures.
From Yulara, you can easily travel back to Alice Springs in a day since there is not that much to see along the way. Make sure to check out Rainbow Valley on the way though, which is located about an hour south of Alice Springs, 22km off the Stuart Highway along a (fairly corrugated and sandy) dirt track. When we went, it hadn’t rained in a while and people went down the track in 2WD cars just fine, but be sure you know the conditions if you don’t have a 4WD vehicle. This is what Rainbow Valley looked like during a late summer afternoon:
There is a campsite right next to the carpark too, what a great setting to watch the sun go down!
So there you have it, our epic guide to driving the Red Centre Way from Alice Springs to Uluru!
This is a simple quote that sums it up pretty well: “If you can’t afford travel insurance, then you can’t afford to travel.” It’s really that simple. You may be thinking, nothing ever happens to me, I’ll be fine. Please don’t take the risk. Accidents happen all the time which may not always be your fault.
The price you’ll pay for insurance is a hell of a lot less than a hospital bill or the purchase of a new laptop/camera that was stolen.
We always travel without insurance, and quite frankly we’d feel nervous and anxious if we didn’t. The insurance provider we always use is World Nomads.
Read our review on why you need travel insurance with a more in-depth explanation about why we use this awesome company!
Have you driven the Red Centre Way? Or planning to? Comment below, we’d love to know!
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