If you’re heading to Central Australia, this Red Centre Way itinerary will help you see the very best that this region has to offer on an incredible road trip. The Northern Territory was made for driving holidays, with plenty of incredible sights and attractions taking hours to reach on remote outback roads. However, all the driving is rewarding with some seriously epic scenery and some of Australia’s most famous natural landmarks.
From Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the underrated West MacDonnell Ranges, a road trip on the Red Centre Way is definitely a highlight of any trip to the Northern Territory. I spent more than six weeks in Central Australia in my van, and I can say that it’s a place that every Aussie should visit one day.
I’ve put together this Red Centre Way road trip itinerary for anyone heading to the Northern Territory and wanting to explore the best places on a self-drive trip. Whether you’ve got a 2WD or 4WD, I’ve got you covered!
About the Red Centre Way
The Red Centre Way is the name given to the road trip connecting Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park with Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon, up to the West MacDonnell Ranges and Alice Springs. It’s considered one of Australia’s most iconic road trips, taking in some of the best sights in the Northern Territory.
While it’s usually described as a sort-of loop road trip, this is unfortunately reserved for 4WD vehicles as the Mereenie Loop requires a permit which is usually not given to a 2WD. However, it’s not the end of the world! This doesn’t mean that you get to miss out on a lot, it simply means that you have to drive a few more kms to get around to all the spots.
I’m going to detail my recommended Red Centre Way itinerary for 2WD vehicles below. If you have a 4WD, I will also include how you can complete the Mereenie Loop and head to a couple more sights as well. This itinerary is based on driving north from South Australia and finishing in Alice Springs, but you can easily complete this in reverse if you’re starting in Alice Springs.
Essential information about the Red Centre Way
Fuel: There’s not a whole lot of fuel stops on the Red Centre Way. You need to be aware of how much you have in your tank and where the next fuel station is. Most of the fuel can be found at roadhouses on the way. I’ve detailed the fuel available in the itinerary below to make things easier for your planning.
Phone reception: Another thing that is quite limited out in Central Australia! You won’t find a lot of phone signal at all on the Red Centre Way. Yulara and Alice Springs are the only places that you’ll find 4G network. Erldunda Roadhouse, Curtin Springs and Kings Canyon Resort have some Telstra and Optus reception (although not so reliable). In the West MacDonnell National Park, Optus has good reception at Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge, while Telstra has reception at Standley Chasm and Neil Hargrave Lookout.
Road conditions: The 2WD itinerary I outline below is all on sealed roads in good condition. The Mereenie Loop is the only part of the Red Centre Way that is unsealed, with about 150km on dirt road. It’s usually in pretty good condition with some corrugations. However, conditions can change after heavy rain. It’s best to ask at Kings Canyon Resort or the Alice Springs Tourist Information Centre for the latest updates on the road.
Permits: You will need a permit to drive on the Mereenie Loop, which is on Aboriginal land. A Mereenie Loop Permit is valid for three days and can be purchased from Alice Springs Tourist Information Centre, Kings Canyon Resort or Hermannsburg General Store. It costs $6.50 currently (in 2021).
Accommodation: You can opt for a range of accommodation on the Red Centre Way. Hotels and resorts can be found in Yulara, Alice Springs and at Kings Canyon Resort. Otherwise, outside of these places you’ll be limited to roadhouses and camping. Camping is definitely the most convenient way to stay on the Red Centre Way, whether you have a motorhome or tent, there are some great campgrounds.
Drones: You can’t use your drone in Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park or above Kings Canyon. However, you can fly your drone pretty much everywhere else on the Red Centre Way, including in the West MacDonnell Ranges, as long as you have a free drone permit which you can get online.
Walks: If you’re a keen hiker then Central Australia has some fantastic trails to check out on your Red Centre road trip. I’ve put together a guide to 8 of the best walks in Central Australia, if you want to add some decent day hikes into your trip.
Red Centre Way itinerary
If you’re driving north on the Stuart Highway from Coober Pedy in South Australia, your Red Centre road trip begins once you reach Erldunda Roadhouse on the highway. This is where the Lasseter Highway turnoff and detour to Uluru begins!
1. Erldunda Roadhouse to Yulara
Distance: 246km or 2.5 hour drive
Fuel: Curtin Springs Station, 160km from Erldunda Roadhouse
Erldunda Roadhouse is on the corner of Stuart Highway and Lasseter Highway. The roadhouse is known as the “centre of the centre” (one of the spots claimed as the very centre of Australia) and is where you leave the Stuart Highway and head west for Yulara and Uluru.
The roadhouse has fuel, a basic shop, hot food and cafe, bar, public toilets and accommodation. They offer motel units and camping sites with powered and unpowered options. The facilities are also pretty good, with a swimming pool, laundry and hot showers.
After stopping for fuel and food or even for the night, turn off down the Lasseter Highway and drive the 246km to Yulara. This highway is in good condition, with a number of basic rest stops to have a break along the way.
A couple of spots worth stopping at are: Mt Conner Lookout Rest Area, which offers a nice view across to Mt Connor or Atila, and Curtin Springs Wayside Inn, which is a fuel station, bar and restaurant.
Once you get to Yulara, there are plenty of accommodation options, restaurants and a few shops, including a fuel station. This is the main town from which you can explore Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
2. Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park
Obviously the highlight of any Red Centre Way road trip, Uluru and Kata Tjuta is the ultimate destination in Central Australia. Yulara is the main town and base from which you can explore the national park and is just 4km from the park entry station.
You’ll need a Parks Pass, which you can either buy at the entrance gate or online prior to your arrival. The pass is a three day entry pass which must be scanned every time you enter through the park station and costs $38. This means that most people make full use of the pass and stay at Yulara for three days.
However, a little known fact is that the pass can be extended to five days, free of cost. You just have to ask at the entrance gate on your third day, I you want to linger a little longer.
There’s plenty of things to see and do, including walks, viewpoints and tours. Some of my top recommendations, if you have at least three days in the park are:
- Free ranger guided Mala walk: A great 2km guided walk with a park ranger which leaves from the Mala car park at Uluru every day at around 10am.
- Uluru base walk: This 10km trail takes you around the entire base of the rock, and can be either walked or cycled.
- Valley of the Winds walk: The 7.5km moderate loop hike at Kata Tjuta is simply spectacular with incredible views of the dome sandstone rocks.
- Uluru car sunset viewing: The best spot to watch the sunset in the park, from the comfort of your vehicle. Get there very early for a good spot.
- Uluru Sunrise Viewing Platform/Talinguru Nyakunytjaku: The famous sunrise location at Uluru is located past the cultural centre and can be very crowded in high season.
- Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Sunrise: This purpose built platform at Kata Tjuta is actually nice at both sunrise and sunset, but is a lot more popular at sunrise.
I go into a lot more detail about some of these walks and viewing spots in my Guide to Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park.
3. Yulara to Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon
Distance: 304km or 3.5 hour drive
Fuel: Curtin Springs, 86km from Yulara
Once you’ve admired Uluru and Kata Tjuta for long enough, you can continue on your Red Centre Way to another famous natural landmark: Kings Canyon. From Yulara, you can easily drive there in half a day. You have to head back along Lasseter Highway and then take the turnoff towards Watarrka National Park on Luritja Road.
There’s not a whole lot to see on the way with the 304km journey taking you north across the desert. You will pass Curtin Springs again and then Kings Creek Station as you get closer to Watarrka National Park, if you need fuel or want to stop for some food.
After you enter the national park (there’s no parks pass required), you’ll come across Kathleen Springs on your right. This is a nice spot to stop and enjoy an easy 2.6km return walk to a natural spring to stretch your legs.
Once you continue your drive, you’ll see the turn-off for Kings Canyon and the main trailhead for the walks on your right. But if you continue a little further, you’ll finally come to Kings Canyon Resort, which is the only place with facilities and services including accommodation inside the national park.
They have a large caravan park area with powered and unpowered sites, a swimming pool and toilet and shower blocks. If you’re not a camper, then they also have resort accommodation with private rooms and glamping available. There’s a restaurant, petrol station and basic shop on site too for supplies. From there, you can easily explore Kings Canyon.
4. Kings Canyon and Watarrka National Park
Kings Canyon is one of the most incredible sights in Central Australia. The beautiful canyon is best explored on foot, with a couple of walking trails, including a rim walk which is one of the best hikes in the state.
It is conveniently only 10km between Kings Canyon Resort and Kings Canyon car park and walking trails. Most people spend just a night to have enough time to do the Kings Canyon Rim Walk, but if you’re a keen hiker, you can easily spend two nights and hit some more trails as well. The must do walks at Kings Canyon are:
- Kings Creek Walk: An easy 2.6km return trail into the canyon floor.
- Kings Canyon Rim Walk: A spectacular 6km loop walk is one of the best hikes in the Northern Territory with incredible views from the rim. It requires some steep climbing to begin, but is worth all the effort.
- Giles Track: A 22km one way trail connecting Kings Canyon with Kathleen Springs which can be done as an overnight walk or you can just do a section as a day hike.
If you want to read more about visiting King Canyon, then I have a guide to Watarrka National Park, with more information on these walks.
5. Watarrka National Park back to Erldunda Roadhouse (2WD option)
Distance: 274km or 3 hour drive
Fuel: None available after Kings Creek Station, 39km from Kings Canyon
If you’ve finished exploring Kings Canyon, this is where you have a couple of options depending on your vehicle. The Red Centre Way technically heads up to the West MacDonnell Ranges via the Mereenie Loop. However, this is an unsealed road and a permit is required as it travels through Aboriginal land. When I was there in mid-2021, they were only issuing permits to 4WD vehicles, which means that 2WDs must head back out to the Stuart Highway and up to Alice Springs.
This may change in the future, but if not, from Watarrka National Park you must drive back out to Erldunda Roadhouse on the Stuart Highway. This 274km drive follows the same roads that you drove in from, with very limited services on the way. You can either stop in Erldunda Roadhouse to camp the night or continue onto Alice Springs which is another 200km.
If you want to take the Mereenie Loop, keen reading below.
Alternative 4WD option: Watarrka National Park to West MacDonnell Ranges via Mereenie Loop
Distance: 226km or 3 hour drive to Glen Helen Gorge or 197km or 2.5 hour drive to Hermannsburg
Fuel: None until Alice Springs, but if you need to refuel you can detour to Hermannsburg (Glen Helen does not currently have fuel available)
If you have a 4WD or manage to secure a permit with a 2WD, then you can take the Mereenie Loop up to the West MacDonnell Ranges. This drive requires a permit which can be bought at Kings Canyon Resort and costs $6.50. The loop road continues past Kings Canyon Resort and heads around and connects onto Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive. The unsealed section lasts for around 115km and is fairly corrugated. The conditions can vary but it is graded a couple of times per year. You don’t technically need a high clearance vehicle, but it’s recommended for 4WD only as it can be rough.
After 150km, you’ll reach the major intersection at the western end of the MacDonnell Ranges. You can either continue straight to Hermannsburg and the Finke Gorge National Park (a 4WD only park) or turn left onto Namatjira Drive towards Glen Helen and the rest of the West MacDonnell National Park (accessible for all vehicles).
If you have a 4WD it’s worth checking out both the West Macs and the Finke Gorge National Park, if you can. The latter is far less explored and includes the incredible Palm Valley, with a great campground that is high clearance 4WD accessible only.
Fuel is a little concern for those taking this itinerary option. Once you leave Kings Canyon Resort, there is no fuel until Hermannsburg which is 197km, but if you plan on heading up to the West MacDonnell Ranges on Namatjira Drive instead, there is no fuel until Alice Springs. Unfortunately, Glen Helen does not have fuel at the moment, so you may have to detour to Hermannsburg to get some fuel before heading to the West Macs.
If you end up taking this route to the West Macs via the Mereenie Loop, you can skip the next two sections to number 8.
6. Erldunda Roadhouse to Alice Springs
Distance: 200km or 2 hour drive
Fuel: Stuarts Well Roadhouse, 108km from Erldunda Roadhouse
The drive along the Stuart Highway between Erldunda Roadhouse and Alice Springs isn’t all that exciting. The 200km stretch only has supplies available at Stuarts Well Roadhouse.
Alice Springs is the major town of Central Australia and a great base for exploring the MacDonnell Ranges. There’s everything that you’ll need in town, from caravan parks to hotels and plenty of shops, cafes and supermarkets. If you have the time, it’s worth staying a couple of days in town to check out the shops and cafes, before exploring both the West MacDonnell Ranges and East MacDonnell Ranges.
Read next: Best Things to Do in Alice Springs
7. Alice Springs to West MacDonnell Ranges
Distance: 133km or 1.5 hour drive to Glen Helen Gorge
Fuel: None available
The West MacDonnell National Park is one pf my favourite national parks. The incredible mountain range hides gorges, gaps and water holes that can easily be explored west of Alice Springs.
Most of the sights and attractions, are all located off Larapinta and Namatjira Drive, making it easy to get around the park for all vehicles.
While you can technically head out there on a day trip, it’s worth staying at least a night in either a national park campground or the Glen Helen Resort. There are campgrounds at many of the major attractions, including Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge. I would recommend staying up to three nights, which will enable you to explore the park at a slower pace and do some of the walks.
8. West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges known as Tjoritja are a stunning part of Central Australia, with most of the attractions accessible by 2WD vehicle. Some of the best spots to stop and check out include:
- Simpsons Gap: One of the prettiest gaps, Simpsons Gap is only 24km from Alice Springs.
- Standley Chasm: This towering chasm is a very sacred sight for the Arrernte people and a unique place to visit. There’s also a campground, kiosk and shop in the car park.
- Ellery Creek Big Hole: A popular attraction, this gorge and permanent water hole is a great swimming spot if you’re keen. There’s also a campground there as well.
- Ormiston Gorge: The highlight of the West Macs for many people, Ormiston is a stunning gorge and semi-permenant water hole with red rock walls that tower high above the sandy creek bed. There’s a wonderful kiosk, campground and some excellent walks to do there too.
- Redbank Gorge: A bit further along, Redbank Gorge is a lesser visited spot and a bit further off the road, but is worth a visit. It’s also at the base of Mt Sonder, which you can climb to the top for a beautiful sunrise.
I have a complete guide to the West MacDonnell Ranges if you want to read more about these spots and more.
9. Alice Springs to East MacDonnell Ranges
Distance: 78km or 1 hour drive to Trephina Gorge
Fuel: None available, unless you go to Ross River Resort, 19km from Trephina Gorge
Most people finish their Red Centre Way road trip once they’ve explored the West MacDonnell Ranges and head back to Alice Springs. However, I would encourage you to head out to the East MacDonnell Ranges as well. This more rugged and less visited part of the ranges is equally as spectacular.
Many of the sights are sacred Aboriginal places, so it’s a nice way to explore more of the local Arrernte culture. There are also gorges, water holes and some varied walks, so you can easily extend your visit longer than a day.
Most of the main attractions can be seen off the Ross Highway, and can be done in one long day trip from Alice Springs. However, as always, I. would recommend you camp at least a night out there, preferably at Trephina Gorge. Some of the best things to see in the East Macs are:
- Emily and Jessie Gaps/Yeperenye: Two gaps outside of Alice Springs where you can admire some unique Aboriginal rock art telling the dreaming story of Yeperenye.
- Corroboree Rock: A sacred men’s site and unique geological formation estimated at 800 million years old.
- Trephina Gorge Nature Park: An incredible park with two gorges, waterholes and some of the best walks in the area. Plus you’ll also find a few bush campgrounds to get away from it all.
If you have a 4WD you can spend even longer out there, with some other more remote places such as Ruby Gap and N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park to check out and camp at.
You can find more information about all of these places, plus the walks to do in my guide to the East MacDonnell Ranges.