Planning a trip to outback Australia 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 young children. 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: from Alice Springs to Uluru and everything in between.
If you want to see all the musts of Australia’s Red Centre, then look no further – this itinerary brings you to all the nicest places in Central Australia. If you are on a tight budget, scroll all the way to the bottom for some suggestions for a budget trip to Australia’s Outback.
Our 6-day Australia Red Centre trip itinerary with kids
Australia Red Centre road trip itinerary map: Alice Springs to Uluru
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.
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 (here you can find the best deals for car rental) 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 the previous renters did, and we were set to go. 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 Uluru (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: Alice Springs Reptile Centre, Alice Springs Desert Park, The Kangaroo Sanctuary, The Royal Flying Doctor Service. You can also opt for Alice Springs Highlights Tour and see the best of Alice Springs in half a day. Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve is well worth visiting, especially at sunset. If you don’t have a 4X4 or don’t feel like driving in the outback, you can do this with an organised tour. West MacDonnell Ranges Day Trip is also possible from Alice Springs. We did it as a part of our road trip – see day 2 itinerary further.
TIP: Depending on how much you want to see and do in and around Alice Springs, you might want to add an extra day to your itinerary.
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.
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!
Practical information. 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.
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.
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.
Accommodation. 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.
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…
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 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.
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 Uluru 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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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!
More activities and experiences in Uluru
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:
- Uluru Sunrise or Sunset Camel Tour
- Uluru and Kata Tjuta Helicopter and Small Plane Tours
- Ayers Rock Skydiving
- Overnight Ayers Rock Camping Tour (Small Group)
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.
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. Update: Climbing of Uluru will be completely forbidden from October 2019.
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.
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.
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.
Uluru 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!
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 Alice Springs 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!
Check this out if you are looking for Australia road trip itinerary ideas!
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:
- 5-Day Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta 4WD Camping Tour
- 4-Day 4WD Camping Tour: Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon
- 3-Day Ayers Rock, Olgas and Kings Canyon Camping Safari
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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