Australia Red Centre itinerary for the most complete road trip including all the highlights like Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, West MacDonnell ranges and more

Australia’s Red Centre Road Trip with Kids

In Australia, Inspiration, Oceania, Trip itineraries by Jurga19 Comments

Planning a trip to outback Australia with young kids was not an easy task. We wanted to see a lot, but had to take into account that we would be traveling with the three year old twins and a five year old. Nevertheless, we prepared our Australia Red Centre itinerary in such a way that it would bring us to the nicest places in the region, and then once we got there we would see how it went and how much we could actually see and do with such young kids. Despite the young age of our children and the extreme temperatures of over 40°C (1OO°F), we could see a lot. More than expected, actually. So today I am sharing our 6-day Australia Red Centre road trip itinerary with kids.

If you want to see all the ‘musts’ of Australia’s Red Centre (with or without kids), then look no further – this itinerary brings you to all the nicest places in Central Australia. Unless you are on a very tight budget. In that case, scroll all the way to the bottom for some suggestions for a budget trip to Australia’s Outback.

Australia Red Centre trip itinerary. Family road trip covering all the main highlights, like Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon and more

 

Our 6-day Australia Red Centre trip itinerary with kids

Australia Red Centre road trip itinerary map

Australia Red Centre Road Trip Itinerary Map

 

Day 1: Alice Springs

We left Sydney in the morning and after a very scenic flight of less than three hours we landed in a whole other world – Alice Springs.

Australian Outback aerial view from the plane

Australian Outback as seen from the plane

It was 2,5 hours earlier in Alice Springs (and we were still dealing with jet lag coming from Europe) and at least 10°C warmer than in Sydney. We quickly threw away the last apples and bananas from our hand luggage in the quarantine bins (for more info check our practical tips when traveling to Australia) and headed to the car rental stands.

We rented a 4×4 vehicle and the one they gave us was full of scratches and had a dented roof. This didn’t look promising! They explained to us that it was not the best idea to enjoy the sunset at Ayers Rock from the roof of your car as previous renters did, and we were set to go.

Do you need a 4WD car for the Red Centre and the Ayers Rock?

No, in principle you don’t need a 4WD vehicle in Australia’s Red Centre, since most of the main roads are paved. So if you are driving to Ayers Rock only, you can do it with any regular car as well. We rented a 4WD because we were planning to drive the gravel Mereenie Loop Road – read further for more info.

And back to Alice Springs…

We checked in at our hotel and then headed to the town centre which was completely deserted! No wonder, with temperatures around 36°C… And it was only spring – we visited early November.

After a while we found an air-conditioned shopping mall. It looked like the whole town was there, escaping the heat, just like us… We stocked up on water and food supplies for the next couple of days (there are not many shops in the outback, so it’s really a must!) and since there was not much exciting to do downtown, we headed back to our hotel where spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool.

I still don’t understand how it’s possible, but all the swimming pools in Australia’s Red Centre were freezing cold! The kids went swimming anyway, but we found it too cold and stayed on the side. 32°C in the shadow and the water too cold to swim – you have to experience it to believe it!

What to see and do in Alice Springs

There are quite some activities you can do in Alice Springs. Here are a few suggestions for you to consider:

TIP: Depending on how much you want to see and do in and around Alice Springs, you might want to add an extra day or even two to your itinerary.

Where to stay in Alice Springs

There are many accommodation options in Alice Springs. We stayed in Alice on Todd self-catering apartments and it was ideal for a family.

One of the nice things when traveling to Australia with a family is that there are so many well-equipped serviced apartments available everywhere. What a luxury to have several bedrooms, a separate living room and a well equipped kitchen when traveling with young children! On top of that, most apartments in Australia also have laundry facilities… The prices are very reasonable too: a 2-bedroom apartment is often much cheaper than two separate hotel rooms.

Day 2: Alice Springs – MacDonnell Ranges – Glen Helen

The drive from Alice Springs to Glen Helen is only 130km and the road is paved. However, there is a lot to see and do in the area, so we took an early start before it got too hot to do anything. Glen Helen was unknown to our GPS, but there is only one road in the dessert so you cannot really go wrong. We followed Larapinta Drive and then Namatjira Drive towards Glen Helen and visited West MacDonnell Ranges along the way.

Australia Red Centre family road trip itinerary

And so the adventure begins…

 

West MacDonnell Ranges

The West MacDonnell Ranges are simply stunning! There are hiking trails, beautiful gorges, and waterholes where you can swim… We visited Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge on the first day and the Redbank gorge on the second day, on our way to Kings Canyon. Read more about our day trip to West MacDonnell ranges with kids for more information and inspiration. Don’t miss this incredible place if traveling to Australia’s Red Centre!

Standley Chasm West MacDonnell ranges Australia

Standley Chasm was just one of the many highlights of West MacDonnell ranges

Glen Helen Homestead Lodge

We stayed at Glen Helen Homestead Lodge for one night. It’s a very basic accommodation, but there is really no other option here unless you return to Alice Springs. I have to add that the food was very good and the location simply spectacular. If we were to go back to Australia’s Northern Territory, I would book at least two nights at Glen Helen and take an extra day to explore the beautiful gorges of West MacDonnell ranges.

Day 3: Glen Helen – Kings Canyon

Mereenie Loop Road

There are two ways to reach Kings Canyon – Watarrka National Park. One is on the sealed road from Alice Springs, Stuart Hwy, Lasseter and Luritja Road. This would take you 6 hours from Alice Springs and about 8 hours from Glen Helen. The shorter road – the Mereenie Loop Road – is a gravel road through the real outback of Australia. The Mereenie loop road is recommended for 4×4 vehicles only.

We took the Mereenie Loop Road and it took us about 3hrs to get to Kings Canyon from Glen Helen. Three rather stressful hours, I have to say. You’re literally in the middle of nowhere: no houses, no shadow, only a handful of other cars and a desert as far as you can see. You do need to buy a Mereenie loop permit in order to drive this road. It can be bought in Glen Helen. And you shouldn’t attempt this road in a standard vehicle. We passed one and they drove so slowly that I don’t think they got there by dark. In any case, you cannot do this road with a rented car if it’s not a 4×4.

Road trip at Ayers Rock Australia

You don’t need a 4×4 if you just want to visit Ayers Rock, but it was a must for Mereenie Loop

 

The biggest part of the Mereenie Loop Road is gravel and it was in a pretty bad state when we visited. We found that driving faster made the ride smoother (go figure), but at 80km/h you just have to hope you don’t have to stop quickly as that would be practically impossible. The landscape was somewhat uninspiring along the road, but we got to see a wild camel crossing the road. Somehow I never realised that there were wild camels in Australia. How cool is that! We saw two other animals – a snake and a lizard. But no exotic lizards and no Red Kangaroo (remember Kangaroo Jack?) that we so much hoped to see in the outback…

Fuel is available at Glen Helen and at Kings Canyon, so fill up before driving the Mereenie loop road. It’s also a good idea to have water and some snacks with you. Petrol prices were 30% higher at Glen Helen than in Alice Springs and about double of Sydney prices. That’s the price to pay for traveling in the outback.

Driving Mereenie Loop Road Outback Australia

Mereenie Loop Road

Palm Valley

One place we had heard about, but didn’t visit was the Palm Valley in the Finke National Park. It’s home to the world’s oldest river, the Finke River and the Red Cabbage Palm, that is only found here.

You need a 4WD to access Palm Valley (which we had), but it’s also such a long drive that you’d either need to spend a night camping there or be prepared to drive for 10-12 hours through Australian outback in one day. Again, it’s not something for a family with very young kids. But I read that some people visit Palm Valley on the way from Glen Helen to Kings Canyon and so apparently it is doable. Another option would be to spend an extra night in Glen Helen and visit the Palm Valley as a day trip from there. A good alternative stress-free way to visit Palm Valley is by booking an organised day tour from Alice Springs.

Kings Canyon Resort

Kings Canyon Resort where we stayed for the night was a luxury oasis in the desert! We had two big deluxe rooms with a terrace and a whirlpool with a view over the mountains… What a difference compared to the hotel at Glen Helen! The swimming pool was also cold, but it was bearable and we spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool.

Bathroom with a view Kings Canyon Resort Australia

Bathroom with a view at Kings Canyon Resort

 

Day 4: Kings Canyon and Driving to Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park

Kings Canyon – Watarrka National Park

The most beautiful walk at Kings Canyon is the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. It’s a 3-4 hour strenuous hike and you have to take a very early start if you intend to do it. It’s recommended to start at sunrise, at 6-7 AM and on a hot day they close the starting point of the walk by 9AM.

With pain in our hearts, we decided not to do KingsCanyon Rim Walk with our kids. The 5 year old could have probably done it without too many problems, but we just didn’t want to take the risk of taking three little kids up there on such a hot day. Temperatures reached 43°C by noon! We could have carried one or even two children if need be, but there is no way we could do this with three kids…

Kings Canyon Australia with Kids

Tough choice. If you can, do both walks!

 

We chose to do the shorter walk at the bottom of the Kings Canyon instead – the Kings Creek Walk. It’s an easy yet spectacular walk between the red sheer walls of the canyon. Even the kids were impressed with the beauty around us.

 If you can, try to do both of these walks at Kings Canyon: the Rim Walk first thing in the morning and the Kings Creek Walk when you’re back down.

Afterwards we made a short walk at Kathleen Springs. This walk is easily accessible with a stroller, but not very spectacular. It’s ok if you are looking to fill your time here, but if you only do one walk, you better go for the Kings Canyon Rim Walk or Kings Creek Walk and skip Kathleen Springs altogether.

Kings Canyon Creek Walk

Kings Canyon Creek Walk

Kings Canyon to Ayers Rock Resort

In the afternoon we left the Kings Canyon and headed towards the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park.

The road from Kings Canyon to Uluru (Ayers Rock) is sealed. What a relief after yesterday! On the way to Ayers Rock Resort we stopped at Mt Connor outlook. The landscape is very impressive with bright orange/red sand all around you, Mt Connor in the distance and an endless dried salt lake on the other side of the hill.

Salt Lake at Mount Conner Lookout Outback Australia

Salt Lake at Mount Conner Lookout

 

Yulara – Ayers Rock Resort

After a long drive through the beautiful red sand dunes landscape, we finally reached Yulara with Ayers Rock Resort. Located only 15km from Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Resort looks more like a little village with several hotels and other accommodation, a swimming pool, a petrol station, several shops, restaurants and a small supermarket.

There are several accommodation options at the Ayers Rock Resort:

  • We stayed at Emu Walk Apartments for 2 nights. This self-catering accommodation is ideal for families with children.
  • The most luxury hotel at Ayer’s Rock is the 5* Sails in The Desert
  • A bit cheaper 4* accommodation – Desert Gardens Hotel
  • The best priced hotel at Ayers Rock is probably the Outback Pioneer Hotel
  • If all of the above are above your budget, the only other option is the Ayers Rock campground.

Sunset at Uluru – Ayers Rock

We decided to visit Ayers Rock at sunset. There are just a few areas where you are allowed to park and watch the sunset, so we headed to one of them. We found a huge car park that was full of cars and tourists. Some people were cooking dinner, some others were sitting on the roof of their cars (not a good idea, remember? :)) having a drink, somebody was singing… We counted almost 50 tripods and at least hundred camping chairs. Unbelievable! It reminded me of those images you see on the news when thousands of people gather together expecting the end of the world… What a circus!

And as it often goes when expectations are this high, the reality disappoints. If you are looking for a romantic sunset experience at Uluru-Kata Tjuta, you may want to go somewhere else than the designated ‘sunset parking’. The Olgas (Kata Tjuta) looked much nicer from afar, so that might be a good place, or the base of Uluru itself. It will definitely be quieter.

Ayers Rock at sunset

Ayers Rock at sunset

Day 5: Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park

We started the day early again. We wanted to try to do as much as we could in the morning – the daytime temperatures were simply not human! As if that was not enough, there were a lot of flies here. Swarms of flies EVERYWHERE. They were on your face, the lips, inside your nose and your ears. That’s something you don’t see on the postcards or in promotional movies… If I could give you one piece of advice it would be to bring a mosquito head net with you. They sell them in the area too, at about six times the regular price, but by the time you realise you need one, you are nowhere near the shops…

Driving in Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park

Driving in Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park

 

Hiking at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)

The Olgas, or Kata Tjuta, are extremely spectacular, in a way more special and maybe even more impressive than the Ayers Rock. They are bright red in the midday sun and the view changes constantly as you approach these amazing rocks.

Our first stop was at the Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Area. It’s only a short walk from the car (wheelchair accessible) and definitely worth a stop. Millions of flies though, so once again a head net would have been really useful!

View from Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Area in Outback Australia

View from Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Area

 

There are lots of beautiful hikes at Kata Tjuta and while not strenuous, they can become practically not doable in the desert heat, with or without kids. Some walks get closed at 9AM because of the heat, so if you plan to do any hiking, start very early.

Kata Tjuta or the Olgas in Australian Outback

Kata Tjuta or the Olgas as seen from a distance

 

Walpa Gorge Walk at Kata Tjuta

We chose Walpa Gorge walk since it was an easy short walk (2,6km, 1hr return) and we simply loved it! Phenomenal views along the way! If you are planning a trip to Uluru, make sure to visit Kata Tjuta as well! You can read more about our hike at Walpa Gorge with kids.

Walpa Gorge Walk with kids at Kata Tjuta Australia

Walpa Gorge Walk

 

The Valley of the Winds

The Valley of the Winds Walk is said to be the most beautiful walk of Kata Tjuta. It’s a strenuous long walk (7,5km, 4hrs round) and it’s definitely not for everyone, certainly not in high temperatures. We didn’t even consider it.

However, you can easily do a part of the walk up to the Karu lookout point (2,2km, 1 hr return). I went on my own (my family decided to have a picnic in the air-conditioned car instead) and it took me half an hour return (I do walk fast). It was definitely worth the walk!

Karu Lookout - The Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta Australia

Karu lookout – The Valley of the Winds

 

Special Ayers Rock activities and experiences

Hiking is not the only way to experience the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park.

Here is a short overview of some amazing things to do at the Ayers Rock:

Family trip to Red Centre Australia - Ayers Rock Uluru

And of course you have to take a family picture with the iconic Ayers Rock

 

Day 6: Uluru (Ayers Rock) and back to Alice Springs



We had seen Ayers Rock from a distance several times already – the classic view you see in all holiday brochures – but we found that it is so much more impressive from close by.

Uluru - Ayers Rock

Uluru – Ayers Rock looks very different once you get closer to it

 

Hiking at Uluru

 – Ayers Rock

There are several walks you can do at Uluru. You can opt for the Uluru Base Walk (10,6km, 3-4 hrs) that goes all the way around the Ayers Rock, or you can choose one of the shorter options – sections of the long walk.

All the walks at Uluru are easy as the terrain is flat. Well, all except one – Uluru climb. There is a path that goes up to the top of Uluru and we saw many people climbing the rock, but in principle it’s not allowed to do this as Uluru is a sacred aboriginal site, so we chose not to do it. If you decide to climb the Ayers Rock, there are chains to help you with the climb, but be aware that they are there for a reason – people have died on this walk in the past.

Is it worth to climb to the top of Uluru? No idea. We chose not to. I think that local traditions have to be respected. After all, you’re just a guest here.

Climbing the Ayers Rock Australia

Climbing the Ayers Rock Australia is dangerous and in principle not allowed

Uluru Base walk looked very nice, but it’s a long walk for a family with three young kids. Instead, we decided to drive around the Ayers rock by car. Of course, it’s not the same, but it’s definitely worth the short drive and it is a good alternative if for whatever reason you cannot do the long base walk.

If you like to get to know aboriginal culture a bit more, make sure to visit the Aboriginal Cultural Centre as well. It’s a bit busy though as this is where all the tour busses stop. But this is also the only place where it is busy in the Australia’s Red Centre. You’ll see no busses at Kata Tjuta, and you won’t meet groups of tourists on any of the walks. I am sure that most of the tourists never see any of the places I mentioned here, they just take the obligatory picture at the Ayers Rock, check their ‘bucket list’ and move on.

Uluru - Ayers Rock from the base walk

Uluru – Ayers Rock as seen from the base walk

 

Mala Walk to Kantju Gorge

Based on some recommendations we found before our trip, we opted to do the Mala Walk to Kantju Gorge (2km, 1,5hr return, wheelchair accessible) and it didn’t disappoint! Magnificent scenery all around! You have to see the Ayers Rock from close by to truly appreciate how special it is! It’s not ‘just a rock’ as someone told us before the trip. I would go back all the way to Australia to see it again and to explore this extraordinary region more in depth.

The Mala walk takes you to the profoundly peaceful Kantju Gorge. Sheer vertical walls and aboriginal rock paintings (Anangu rock art) make this walk really special. The kids enjoyed it a lot, and so did we.

Mala Wak - Kantju Gorge with kids

Kantju Gorge at the end of the Mala Walk

Mala walk at the Ayers Rock with kids

Looking for the Anangu rock art at the Ayers Rock

Australian Aboriginal Anangu rock art at Ayers Rock

Anangu Aboriginal rock art

 

Practical info: the Mala walk is flat and completely accessible for wheelchairs or strollers. This walk is partially in the shadow, so it can be done even when it’s really hot. Once a day (at 8AM or 10AM, depending on the season) you can join a free ranger-guided Mala walk, but the place was so peaceful that we definitely wouldn’t have wanted to share this experience with a group.

You can find more info in regards to Uluru and Kata Tjuta walks on the official website of Parks Australia.

Australia Red Centre trip with kids

Exploring the Ayers Rock

Mala Walk at Uluru with kids

Mala Walk

 

Ayers Rock to Alice Springs

In the afternoon we left the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park for a long drive to Alice Springs. The road from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs is sealed all the way and the drive is about 6 hours.

There is not much to see along the way, so we didn’t plan any stops. However, the first section of the highway has an amazing scenery. You drive through a spectacular landscape with red sand dunes as far as the eye can see. A truly phenomenal sight! At this point we realised that we didn’t take any pictures of the red sand, and so we made a short photo stop in the desert. It was over 45°C and my family proclaimed me mad for getting out of the car to photograph sand, but as far as I’m concerned, I would do it again!

Australian outback landscape

Australian outback landscape

 

Australia's red centre sand dunes

Sand dunes on the way from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs

Red sand dunes in Australian Outback

How incredible is that colour?!

Driving in Australia's Red Centre

This is what driving in Australia’s Red Centre looks like

 

In Alice Springs we stayed at the same hotel as on the first night of our trip in the Red Centre – Alice on Todd. It felt like coming home.

The next day we flew to Adelaide from where we continued our Australian trip with a visit to Kangaroo Island, Great Ocean Road and later also Tasmania. It was 20°C colder in Kangaroo Island than in the Red Centre, and it probably made the whole Red Centre experience even more special.

Australia is so big and there is so much to see that we are definitely planning to return one day. If there is one place I would definitely want to visit again, it’s the Red Centre!

Oh, and here are those Red Centre trip suggestions I promised for the budget travellers.

Australia’s Red Centre on a budget

If you have limited budget and don’t want to spend money on expensive resorts and 4WD rental, there are several multi-day camping tours available in the Red Centre. Most of them start and end in Alice Springs, which saves a lot of money and time. It might look not so cheap in the beginning, but if you consider the cost of a 4WD rental car, hotels and food, it is. Especially if you’re traveling solo or just with two people.

Here are a few highly-rated budget-friendly Australia’s Red Centre camping tours that I found:

If you are looking for even more options, here is the full selection of multi-day tours in Australia’s Red Centre (note that not all of these tours start and end in Alice Springs).

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The best Australia road trip itinerary for the Red Centre

Australia family trip itinerary for traveling to the Red Centre with kids

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Australia’s Red Centre Road Trip with Kids was last modified: February 3rd, 2017 by Jurga

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Comments

    1. Author

      It’s funny, Ari. My husband read this today and said he wants to go back after seeing the pictures… I hope you’ll get to experience it one day too!

  1. Will definitely be pinning this itinerary Jurga! Hopefully we will get to follow it though not when it is so hot!

    And yes it was worth getting out of the car for the shots of the red sand – stunning!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Tracy! And while you never know what kind of the weather you’ll get when traveling, I’d definitely recommend visiting the Red Centre in the cooler months.

  2. Wow such stunning pictures of Australia. I forget sometimes how beautiful my home country is and what a great trip you had with your famil. Love the Kings resort that you stayed it.

    1. Author

      I love Australia and not just for its beautiful landscapes. The lifestyle, the atmosphere, the weather… Wish we can go back and see some more of it one day, Mel!

  3. Inspiring! I don’t have kids of my own yet, but it’s almost every week someone tells me – do travel now, when you will have kids, all of that will be gone. I feel like printing your blog name on a little card to give to these people :)) All is possible and you are a living proof of that!

    1. Author

      Thanks Alina. 😉 I hear the same story all the time. It’s true that traveling changes once you have kids, but it doesn’t mean you cannot travel at all any more. In a way traveling with kids is even more enjoyable because you’re forced to slow down and – sometimes literally – have to stop and smell the roses.

  4. Oh my goodness the flies! I was hoping you’d mention them! To anyone reading this: PLEASE do yourself a favor and buy a hat she described. No words can convey what it’s like!

    I love the pictures and I totally don’t think you’re crazy for taking pictures of the sand! 🙂

    Thanks for such a comprehensive guide to the red center. We didn’t do half of this stuff mainly because it was just too hot!

    1. Author

      I did so much research before traveling to Australia with kids and not once did I read anything about the flies, so I wanted to warn the others, because – honestly – the flies are sooooo annoying… And I can definitely understand if you didn’t do much sightseeing, Shealyn. It’s really too hot for anything during the day in summer months. However, traveling with kids has one big advantage – they wake up so early in the morning, that we could always do a lot before it got unbearably hot. 😉

  5. I am planning to travel to Australia this year and I’m definitely adding this to the itinerary now! Thank you so much for all the details, they’re so helpful. I’m bookmarking your post for when I plan my trip 🙂

  6. I didn’t actually realise how big the Red Centre is, so much to see and do! Looks like you made the absolute most of your time there Jurga! Thanks for sharing your incredible itinerary, amazing photos too! 😀

    1. Author

      It’s not just the Red Centre that is so big, people often underestimate the size of Australia when they book a trip there, Priti. The distances are huge everywhere, and you have to be very careful when planning any itinerary to avoid driving for hours and hours every day without much to see along the way…

  7. This itinerary looks awesome! Will surely give it a try if given the chance. Great pictures too!

    1. Author

      Thank you Kathy! To me, Australia’s Red Centre is one of the places that shouldn’t to be missed in Australia!

  8. That’s Amazing! I have been in Australia for 6 months. I have enjoyed beaches and sightseeing but unfortunately couldn’t get chance to have Red Centre trip. Now I realize what I have missed there. Hopefully I could get a chance to visit Australia again. Thanks for sharing Jurga!

    1. Author

      6 months! Wow, lucky you. Australia is so big and there is so much to see, so no wonder you can’t see it all. But indeed, the Red Centre is so different from anything else, I would recommend it to anyone traveling Down Under. Maybe next time, Akshay!

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