The drive from Uluru to Kings Canyon is one of the most spectacular in the world. Full of red dirt, long straight roads and incredible orange sunsets.
The road, known as the Red Centre Way, is a 1135km loop from Alice Springs that takes in Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Watarrka, Kings Canyon and the West MacDonnell Ranges. The drive includes mostly sealed roads. But you will get one short stretch of unsealed road to soak up that red-dust driving experience.
In August the Ball family took on this epic Northern Territory Road trip as a multi-generation holiday.
Grandparents, Robyn and Wayne hired a RAV4 at Ayers Rock Airport and booked hotels along the way. Parents Louise, Alex and the four kids travelled in a LandCruiser with a caravan attached.
The plan was to drive from Uluru to Kings Canyon and back again.
Here are their tales, from multi-generational perspectives.
Robyn and Wayne have driven the Red Centre Way from Uluru to Kings Canyon a number of times. Wayne first visited in the ’70s before the Ayers Rock Resort was built. Both Robyn and Wayne came for work conferences before they retired. After retirement, they came back to the Red Centre Way on their grey-nomad lap of Australia.
“It’s a place we’ve been to many times before, but this time we enjoyed it from a different perspective,” Wayne says.
The landscape has stayed the same, but newer facilities made the trip a “really enjoyable place to take a holiday with kids”.
The Field of Lights, an art installation of 50,000 lights in a space the size of seven football fields near Uluru, was an absolute highlight.
“We watched the colours change over Uluru with the lights coming on in the foreground while the sun set behind us over the desert,” Robyn says.
“I thought that was magic, we were all enthralled by the whole experience.”
Robyn and Wayne travelled light: a small suitcase and couple of day packs. They hired a car and booked hotels close to where the kids were staying.
“At all the places we stayed, from Uluru to Kings Canyon, we found so many accommodation options,” Robyn says.
“We saw people with just a little one-man tent, powered sites for caravans and cabins.
“I was surprised at how clean all the public and campground facilities were. There are also more upmarket options if you want to pay a bit extra. We came by car this time and the roads are great. You don’t have to carry all the extra camping equipment if you don’t want to, because you can stay in places where it’s all provided.”
The parents’ perspective
With four kids and a caravan in tow, Louise and Alex quickly became experts on roadtripping with kids. Alex says you should plan to make the most of every day.
“Start at sunrise and end at sunset, it’s the only way you’re going to fit everything in,” he says.
Plan ahead to make sure you’ve always got hot clothes, cool clothes and plenty of water.
“Even in winter, when the temperatures are lower, it’s so dry out here that we went through more water than we’d expected,” Louise says.
“At Kata Tjuta, we packed a picnic dinner to eat at the viewing area while we watched the sunset. I was able to completely relax and enjoy watching the colours in the rocks change and the stars start to appear because we all had jumpers, jackets and Aerogard to hand. It meant that, as the sun and temperatures dropped, none of us needed to head back to the car quickly, so we really got to make the most of the evening.”
Be mindful that everyone moves at a different pace, especially when three generations travel together.
Most of the walks and experiences along the Red Centre Way will have different options based on ability and energy levels.
“At Kings Canyon; we split the group for the morning,” Robyn says.
“Those who wanted a harder hike could tackle the spectacular and initially very steep Rim Walk. The littlies and anyone looking for a more leisurely morning could do the Kings Creek Walk among the birds in the cool of the canyon floor.”
Understand that driving paces differ too.
“On both the bitumen and dirt road, our car with the caravan travelled a little bit slower than the car without the van,” Alex says.
The couple made sure they kept a safe driving distance and set meeting points.
“Next time we would put a handheld radio in each car to communicate and point out things on the side of the road or things the other car might not have seen.”
The trip doesn’t have to be expensive. Alex and Louise have been travelling for a year so they are budget-conscious.
“We took advantage of the free activities – Ayers Rock Resort, has didgeridoo-playing and bush yarns, at Uluru the free guided Mala walk was a fantastic experience that fit perfectly into our budget,” Louise says.
“We did splash out and do a few paid experiences along the way, too – I loved Pyndan Camel Tracks and the Earth Sanctuary stars and damper evening in Alice Springs.”
Alex’s favourite was dinner at The Old Drovers Camp at Kings Canyon.
“To sit on that ridgetop, watch the sunset and toast marshmallows on an open fire after a delicious meal that we didn’t have to cook ourselves… I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world with work, but Drovers Camp was one of the best places I’ve ever spent an evening. It was stunning.”
Food is often one of the hardest things about a family holiday. Louise says catering was easier and cheaper with the van.
“I could do breakfast in the van and pack lunches for us while we were out and about. On the days when we wanted a treat, they were easy to find. Mum and Dad ate out and had a bit more luxury and a bit less organising to do each day – but they also didn’t have all the facilities we had in our van. As a group, being able to self-cater or eat out pretty much everywhere worked really well for us all.”
The kids’ perspective
For the kids, the highlights were the experiences and attractions. But in a different way to the adults.
Over the space of a week, the kids learnt about desert reptiles at Ayers Rock Resort’s Red Desert Reptile Show. They stood next to a wedge-tailed eagle at Alice Springs Desert Park, and rode a camel through the desert at Pyndan Camel Tracks. They even spotted wild brumbies grazing by the side of the road.
When you’re on holidays, you can stay up late to watch the sunset and even later to spot shooting stars and admire the swirl of the Milky Way at night. The kids loved looking at the surface of the moon through the telescope at the Earth Sanctuary in Alice Springs. They found the Southern Cross while toasting marshmallows over the fire at The Old Drovers Camp at Kings Canyon.
When adults consider the Northern Territory, they think of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Standley Chasm, Kings Canyon and the West MacDonnell Ranges. For the kids, finding and playing among rocks of all sizes, shapes and colours along the Red Centre Way proved equally as interesting. They spent an hour with an unlimited supply of pebbles skimming stones at Finke River in Glen Helen Gorge.
If you’re thinking of doing a NT road trip from Uluru to Kings Canyon – here’s a few more stories to read.
Janeece Keller is the founder and editor of Family Travel. She mostly travels with her husband and two young kids. She has a large blended family that lives in Australia and Europe. She has visited 52 countries and lived on 3 continents. From camping to luxury resorts Janeece tries to make sure her family has diverse holiday experiences each year. She is an avid hiker and ocean swimmer who loves good food, margaritas and heading off the beaten path.