When visiting Central Australia, walking may not be on the top of your to do list. While the beautiful sights like Uluru and Kings Canyon are usually what most people go to visit, the region actually has some of the best day hikes in Australia.
The incredibly stunning landscape of the Red Centre is often best appreciated at walking pace on an exposed trail along a rocky ridgeline or across the flat arid desert. It can be tough going sometimes, but these walks will give you epic views across the heart of Australia. So, don’t forget to pack your hiking boots on your Red Centre Way road trip and get ready to hit some of these trails that I outline below.
If you’re a keen hiker, here are the eight best day walks in Central Australia.
About Central Australia and the Red Centre
Central Australia and the Red Centre are two names given to the southern half of the Northern Territory. This area is considered the heart of Australia geographically speaking and includes some of the country’s most recognised natural landmarks, including Uluru and Kings Canyon.
The only major town in Central Australia is Alice Springs, which is conveniently located as a good base to explore much of the Red Centre. It’s commonly explored on a road trip, with vast distances between towns, roadhouses and attractions.
While it’s known for its rugged arid landscape, there are plenty of rocky gorges and gaps, as well as, permanent water holes that defy the odds to provide water for the native wildlife throughout the dry winter.
It’s also an area that has been home to Aboriginal people for thousands of years. The Arrernte people are the Traditional Owners of the area around Alice Springs, including the West and East MacDonnell Ranges. While the Anangu have traditionally called the area of Uluru and Kata Tjuta home and the Luritja people have lived around Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon.
When to visit Central Australia
The best time to go hiking in Central Australia is during the dry winter months, between May and September. This is when the days are clear and the temperatures are more moderate. While it can still be warm during this time, the mornings are usually very cold and temperatures rarely go above 30.
Outside of these months, the weather can be extremely hot and even experience heavy rain. It’s not recommended to hike in summer in the Red Centre, unless you’re prepared to get up before the sun rises and be finished before mid-morning.
How to get to Central Australia
Central Australia is very remote, located halfway between Adelaide and Darwin. It’s usually explored on an extended road trip that takes you along Stuart Highway from the south of the country to the north. Alice Springs is the only major town in the Red Centre region and is easily reached by road on the highway. From there, you can take road trips out to various parts of Central Australia, including to all of the walks mentioned below.
If you want to take in the highlights of Central Australia, including all of the walks mentioned, you can follow my Red Centre Way road trip itinerary.
Adelaide to Alice Springs: 1534km or a 17-hour drive
Darwin to Alice Springs: 1497km or a 16-hour drive
Alice Springs to Uluru: 446km or 5-hour drive
However, if you prefer to fly, you can reach Alice Springs from most cities around the country on daily flights. The Alice Springs airport is a 15-minute drive outside of town.
Best day walks in Central Australia
If you’ve packed your hiking boots, then you’re in for a surprise. Central Australia has some of my favourite day walks in the whole country. The arid, rugged landscape makes for some truly unique views and memorable hikes that are unlike anywhere else in Australia. Plus, it also allows you to appreciate some of the famous natural landmarks of the Northern Territory at a slower pace and from lesser seen vantage points.
Here are 8 of the best day walks in Central Australia, that I have personally tried and tested myself. You’ll find some practical tips below for each hike, from my time exploring the Northern Territory.
Read next: The Ultimate Day Hike Packing List
1. Uluru Base Walk
Start/finish: Mala car park
Time: 3 hours
Ascend: 35 metres
The Uluru Base Walk is a classic must do activity at Uluru. The flat trail takes you around the entire perimeter of the giant monolith. It’s on this long 10km trail that you really appreciate its size and various sides.
While there are a couple of access points to the trail, it’s recommended to begin the walk from the Mala Car Park, which is down to the left as you approach the Cultural Centre in the national park. The trail is very easy to follow and can be walked in any direction.
Along the way there are some significant sites to stop and appreciate with information boards to help you learn more about this ancient landscape and the Anangu people who call it home.
There are rock art examples, a permanent waterhole and gorge, which are all connected to important dreaming stories. If you want to to learn more, there is a free ranger guided walk on a short section of the base walk beginning in the Mala Car Park, which is definitely worth doing.
2. Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta
Start/finish: Valley of the Winds car park
Time: 2-3 hours
The Valley of the Winds walk is definitely the best hike to do at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The loop trail takes you through the incredible sandstone domes that make up Kata Tjuta. It’s the best way to really grasp the beauty and scale of the place.
There are two lookouts on the walk, Karu Lookout and Karingana Lookout. The latter, Karingana, is the real highlight of the whole hike and is worth the effort to reach. The hike is graded moderate and there is a couple of steep sections, so sturdy hiking boots are definitely recommended and it’s ideal if you have a decent level of fitness.
The trail begins from the car park and heads for Karu Lookout first. This is an undulating trail that offers some beautiful initial views. You’ll reach the first lookout just after a kilometre, before you begin to head down into the valley and creek bed.
The trail is marked with arrows, which you need to follow as you climb through the middle of the huge sandstone walls towering above. There is a very steep section up from the creek bed, but it’s only short, and is where the views really start to become impressive.
The trail then climbs up to Karingana Lookout at a mostly gentle incline. Once you reach this saddle between two domes, you will have spectacular views in both directions. There’s plenty of room there to stop and relax for a bit and have a snack.
From there, you can see the trail heading down steeply over some rocky stairs to the bottom of the valley again. Then it becomes slightly easier as it takes you around before joining back up with the trail before the Karu Lookout again.
The last 1km is on the same trail you took at the start and is a gentle end to a memorable walk.
Note: If you want to shorten this, you can simply walk out and back the same way to Karingana Lookout. However it’s worth doing the full loop.
3. Kings Canyon Rim Walk
Start/finish: Kings Canyon Car Park
Time: 2-3 hours
Arguably the best walk in Central Australia (although I would say that Ormiston Pound Walk is as good, if not better!), the Kings Canyon Rim Walk is definitely one of the best things to do in the Red Centre. The spectacular trail allows you to take in all the beauty of the incredible Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, another of the famous natural landmarks of Northern Territory.
The loop trail takes longer than expected, mostly because of the large number of viewpoints along the way. However, there is a notoriously steep climb to start and steep descent to finish, but it’s all worth it in the end. It’s recommended to complete the Kings Canyon Rim Walk in a clockwise direction.
The hike begins with a steep climb up some rocky steps to get to the top of the canyon rim. There are views to admire all the way, as you then follow the arrows as it takes you along the top. About 2km in from the start, you’ll come to an optional detour to a lookout, which offers 360 degree panoramic views. However, be careful as there are no barriers and it’s a very long drop down to the canyon floor.
The trail then continues along and drops down into a little oasis, known as the Garden of Eden. There is another worthwhile detour here to a permanent waterhole that is sacred to the Traditional Owners and is usually a very peaceful spot to have a break.
Some wooden stairs take you back up to the top of the canyon rim, where you trace it along to the South Wall. This offers some of the best views of the canyon itself and the sheer rock faces.
The last 1.5km of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk takes you down towards the car park again, passing by the intersection with the Giles Track. You’ll have to descend down some steep stairs again to get back to the start.
4. Giles Track in Watarrka National Park
Start/finish: Kings Canyon and Kathleen Springs
Distance: 22km one way
Time: 7 hours
One of the least known hikes on this list, the Giles Track is a long day walk in Watarrka National Park. The 22km marked trail connects Kings Canyon and Kathleen Springs. The downside to this hike is that it’s one way, so if you’re planning on doing the entire walk you will need to arrange a car shuffle.
NT Parks recommend to break the Giles Track up into two and complete it as an overnight hike. There is an unofficial camping area at Reedy Creek, although there are no facilities as such. You can also access Reedy Creek from Lilla car park, if you want to exit the trail early.
However, the 22km walk can easily be completed in a day, if you start early. The trail is not overly difficult, as it mostly follows the top of the plateau and is well marked with frequent arrows.
Another option is to simply complete just a shorter part of it. Considering I was travelling on my own, I opted to start at Kings Canyon and walked to Reedy Bluff, which was about 5.5km along, before returning the same way. This was still a really nice half day walk and offered stunning views.
To start from Kings Canyon, you have to follow the end of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk up to the South Wall and then take the Giles Track at the marked intersection. At the other end, it descends down to Kathleen Springs car park 22km later.
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5. Ormiston Pound Walk
Start/finish: Ormiston Gorge Car Park
Time: 3-4 hours
This is one of my favourite day hikes in all of Australia… I know, that’s a big call. But it truly is spectacular and takes you right through Ormiston Gorge, offering views across Ormiston Pound and beyond in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Ormiston Gorge is considered the highlight of the West MacDonnell National Park just outside of Alice Springs. While there’s a few short walks there, it’s the 9km Ormiston Pound Walk that takes the cake for being the must do walk.
The trail follows the Larapinta Trail for a short while running parallel to the road, before deviating to the left. It then steadily climbs for 2km to a saddle, with some nice views starting to show themselves as you go. From there, you have the option to head up to a lookout on top of a ridge to your left. Do it and thank me later.
You can follow the ridge along as far as you like, but I recommend doing the 500 metres to the small tree on the top from where you have 360 degree panoramic views over Ormiston Pound. It’s the perfect spot to stop and have a rest.
Back at the saddle, the trail climbs down into the pound floor and crosses it towards Ormiston Gorge. You’ll cross a dry sandy creek bed and then enter the gorge. The last 2.5km you won’t find many arrows but you just need to follow the gorge back to the car park.
While the panoramic views from the ridge were breathtaking, the incredible sight walking through the gorge is almost just as beautiful. You will come to a spot where you have to cross some water, which varies depending on recent rainfall. When I did it in July it was only mid-shin deep, but the water is freezing!
You’ll finally make it back to the main swimming area where most day trippers hang out. It’s recommended to complete this walk in the morning to avoid any heat.
6. Brinkley Bluff
Start/finish: Standley Chasm Car Park
Time: 7-8 hours
While this is quite an unusual addition to the best walks in Central Australia, it’s definitely worth tackling if you’re an experienced hiker. The walk up to Brinkley Bluff is technically a section of the Larapinta Trail, but is a great day hike if you want to get a taste of what the epic long distance trail offers.
Brinkley Bluff is an incredible ridgeline where some independent Larapinta Trail hikers dry camp in between official camps. It’s often considered a favourite spot on the entire trail by many end to enders, simply because the view is pretty epic.
The trail begins at Standley Chasm and follows section four of the Larapinta Trail which is marked with blue arrows. The official trail starts a bit down the road from the kiosk and follows a dry creek bed as it climbs steadily almost immediately. After 5km you’ll come to Reveal Saddle which offers a quick rest stop before some tricky walking for the next 4.5km.
There are a few false summits and skinny and rocky sections to navigate, but the views continue to improve and you’ll likely stop for photos (and to catch your breath) every few steps. After around 10km and about 4 hours of constant climbing, you’ll finally reach the top of Brinkley Bluff.
There’s a nice flat plateau there to rest and explore the different vantage points. You have complete 360 degree panoramic views and it’s one of the best views on the entire Larapinta Trail. If you’re day hiking, then you have no choice but to return the same way which makes it a decent 20km day. Start early for this one.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to the Larapinta Trail
7. Mount Sonder
Start/finish: Redbank Gorge Car Park
Time: 4-5 hours
Technically another section of the Larapinta Trail, Mount Sonder or Rwetyepme is the fourth highest mountain in the Northern Territory. It measures 1380m high and marks the end of the Larapinta Trail. It’s an out and back walk that begins and ends at Redbank Gorge.
You have to cross the dry creek bed just passed the Larapinta campground and then take the trail on the left at the intersection heading up to the summit. The trail basically starts ascending immediately and it’s quite relentless for the 8km to the top. The good news is that the trail is quite exposed which means you get ripper views all the way.
After 2.5km you will come to what’s known as Mount Sonder lookout. If you’re short on time, you can simply return from this point which makes it a nice 5km hike. Otherwise, keep climbing on up for another 5km to reach the very summit.
From the summit, you can look out across the entire West MacDonnell Ranges and take in the incredible beauty of the Red Centre.
Most Larapinta Trail hikers complete the Mt Sonder hike at sunrise, which obviously means a very early start. However, the view at sunrise (or sunset for that matter) is one of the best you’ll ever see. There’s camping available at Redbank Gorge if you need to stay the night. Read more about Redbank Gorge in my guide to the West Macs below.
8. Ridgetop Walk
Start/finish: John Hayes Rockhole and Trephina Gorge
Time: 5-6 hours
Probably the most underrated hike on this list is the Ridgetop Walk at Trephina Gorge Nature Park. Located in the much less visited East MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs, this day hike is right up there with one of my favourites in the Northern Territory.
The day walk is technically a one way trail of 10 kilometres connecting John Hayes Rockhole with Trephina Gorge. Similar to the Giles Track above, that means it requires a car shuffle to complete. Even more inconvenient is that John Hayes Rockhole is only accessible with a 4WD so it can make it quite difficult.
However, if you want to make it a loop from the more accessible Trephina Gorge car park, you can walk 8km back along the unsealed road through the park to get to your start point. That’s what I did anyway and is a great option for solo hikers.
I started from Trephina Gorge and followed the marked trail as it ascended above the gorge onto the ridge. The views are quite stunning as you climb along the ridge. After 5km you’ll come to the detour for Turner’s Lookout. It’s just 400m and is certainly worth it for a sweeping panoramic vista.
Back on the main trail, the views start to slowly disappear from this point as you slowly descend down to John Hayes Creek. Once you finally hit the sandy creek bed, you have to turn left and continue until you meet up with the Chain of Ponds walk (another walk in the East Macs).
This gives you two options. Either take the left option which is an easier descent down to John Hayes Rockhole. Or, take the right trail and rock hop your way down through the gorge. This option is quite fun, although make sure you continue following the arrows, as the trail isn’t always as obvious here.
Once you reach the bottom car park, you’re other back at your car that you shuffled around or you still have another 8km to go. For the latter hikers, you’ll have to head out following the dirt road and then turn left once you reach the main road until you finally end up at Trephina Gorge car park again. This last 8km back along the roads is flat, so it shouldn’t take very long.
It’s definitely an underrated hike and one that I would highly recommend to any keen walkers heading to the MacDonnell Ranges!
Essential hiking tips for Central Australia
- These trails are all well-marked with arrows, often colour coded with other trails in the area. If you prefer some added reassurance while you’re hiking, I can recommend Maps.Me for a basic GPS app.
- Stay hydrated and carry enough water with you for your hike. This is especially important in desert areas like the Red Centre where you won’t come across much, if any, water along the way.
- Check the weather report before setting off. It’s best if you can be prepared for the type of conditions that you will likely face. The Red Centre can be hot all year round, with freezing mornings and overnight temperatures in winter. Make sure you’re prepared for the heat, if it’s predicated to be over 30.
- Be sun smart and make sure you have a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm and even a UV resistant shirt to protect your skin from the sun. With limited vegetation, these trails tend to be quite exposed to the elements.
- Leave no trace! This fragile arid environment in Central Australia needs to be protected as much as possible. Carry all of your rubbish out with you, including toilet paper.