Kings Canyon often comes as an afterthought to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. While everyone’s seen photos of Uluru before, you don’t see as many images of the spectacular Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. But a visit to this stunning canyon in the Red Centre is very much an essential part of any Central Australia road trip.
Located just 300km north of Yulara and Uluru, it’s a long but worthwhile addition to any detour off the Stuart Highway. The towering sheer walls of the canyon and otherworldly rugged ranges that make up Watarrka National Park are some of the most scenic parts of the Northern Territory. It’s also home to incredible trails that are often included amongst some of the best walks in the country.
If you’re wondering how to visit Kings Canyon from Uluru and explore this beautiful landscape, I’ve put together this guide from my trip to the Red Centre so you won’t miss a thing.
About Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon
Watarrka National Park covers over 70, 000 hectares across the western end of the George Gill Range. It’s known for rugged rock formations, natural rock holes and towering gorges and cliffs that have formed over hundreds of millions of years. The area is the traditional land of the Luritja and Arrente people and the national park is jointly managed by the Traditional Owners and Northern Territory government.
While the national park covers a large area, it’s Kings Canyon that is the highlight for many people. The sheer red rock walls of the canyon rise over 100m above Kings Creek to a unique plateau of rugged domes. This is the main part of the park that is open for exploring, as well as the natural Kathleen Springs.
When to visit Kings Canyon
As with any other place in Central Australia, the cooler winter months are considered the most ideal time to visit. The days are clear and warm, while the evenings tend to cool down to a comfortable temperature. This makes it perfect for walking and exploring.
In the warmer months from October until April, the days can see some serious heat and some of the walking tracks can be closed for safety reasons. If you do visit in the warmer months, try to get out at sunrise and sunset time, and seek shade or shelter during the hottest part of the day.
How to get there
Most people visit Kings Canyon before or after Uluru and Kata Tjuta. You can easily see both attractions on a road trip off the Stuart Highway, southwest of Alice Springs. The nearest airport is at Yulara/Uluru or Alice Springs, from where you’ll have to drive to reach Watarrka National Park.
From Uluru: From Yulara near Uluru, you have to drive back along the Lasseter Highway until the turnoff to Kings Canyon. Then, you can take the Luritja Road which leads to Watarrka National Park. This is 300km all up on sealed roads and is easily doable in a day.
From Alice Springs 2WD option: For 2WD vehicles from Alice Springs, you have to travel south on the Stuart Highway and then turn down the Lasseter Highway at Erldunda Roadhouse. Continue until the turn off for Kings Canyon and take the Luritja Road to the national park. This option is quite long at 473km, but all on sealed roads.
From Alice Springs 4WD option: The other option is to head west from Alice Springs on either Larapinta Drive or Namatjira Drive through the West MacDonnell Ranges, which are both mostly sealed. However, to continue travelling after Hermannsburg or Glen Helen, you must obtain a permit. This is known as the Mereenie Loop Drive and it is unsealed and heavily corrugated. You can get a permit at the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre, Hermannsburg petrol station and Kings Canyon Resort.
Prefer a coach transfer instead? Check out this luxury coach transfer between Alice Springs and Kings Canyon.
Yulara to Watarrka National Park: 302km or 3.5 hour-drive
Erldunda Roadhouse, Stuart Highway to Watarrka National Park: 273km or 3-hour drive
Alice Springs to Watarrka National Park via Erldunda Roadhouse: 473km or 5-hour drive
Alice Springs to Watarrka National Park via Mereenie Loop: 332km or 4.5-hour drive
Essential information for visiting Watarrka National Park
You do not need a parks pass or any other entry pass to visit Watarrka National Park. It’s completely free to explore on your own.
The park is open all year round. However, closures of some walking tracks may occur on hot days in summer, so make sure to explore early in the day if you arrive on an extremely hot day.
If the forecast is 36 degrees or above, the Kings Canyon Rim Walk is closed after 9am. This means you must start BEFORE 9am. Otherwise, you could complete just the south wall walk section instead, which is closed after 11am on hot days.
The only accommodation available inside the national park is at Kings Canyon Resort Campground.
There is only very limited phone reception at Kings Canyon Resort for Optus and Telstra, although it hardly worked very well with so many people there. There is free public Wi-Fi at the Kings Canyon car park although it’s limited.
The road through Watarrka National Park is sealed and suitable for all vehicles. This means anyone can reach the main carpark area for the Rim Walk as well as Kathleen Springs further down the road.
The only facilities inside the national park are at Kings Canyon Resort. There you will find a fuel station, general store and café. Otherwise, you can also get fuel and food at Kings Creek Station, just outside the national park.
Where to stay in Watarrka National Park
The only accommodation available inside the national park is at Kings Canyon Resort Campground. Otherwise, there is the Kings Creek Station just outside the park boundary. Options are limited, but there are a variety of accommodation styles to suit everyone. I stayed at both places and had a nice time, although the convenience of Kings Canyon Resort is that you’re closer to the walks.
Kings Canyon Resort and Campground
Kings Canyon Resort is the only accommodation inside Watarrka National Park. It’s conveniently located just 10km from the main carpark for the walking trails, so it makes for a great base from which to explore.
It’s perfect for those travelling with a van, as they offer plenty of powered and unpowered sites. Powered sites are allocated, while unpowered campers can pick a spot practically anywhere. I’d recommend making a booking for powered sites in high season between May and September, but you’ll always get unpowered without a booking. Unpowered starts from $25 per person per night.
Their facilities and amenities are great. Plenty of toilet, shower and laundry blocks scattered around, plus they have an outdoor pool and a petrol station and cafe on site. They also have a great sunset viewing platform where everyone congregates at the end of the day. The view is beautiful and there’s usually a food van there selling some drinks and snacks.
For those looking for more comfort, they have lodge rooms (for backpackers and budget travellers), resort rooms (for comfort seekers) and glamping (for a unique luxury experience). Prices vary, but bookings are ideal if you’re travelling in peak.
Kings Creek Station
If you’d rather something a bit more rustic, this working station just outside the national park boundary offers a nice alternative place to stay. They’re located just 38km from the main car park for the walks, so it’s not too far to drive if you want to base yourself at the station instead of the resort.
They have a large area for powered and unpowered camping. All sites are numbered and allocated on arrival. I secured an unpowered site without making a booking, but for powered sites it’s recommended to call ahead if you’re travelling in high season. It’s a beautiful bush setting, with toilets and shower blocks within easy reach from most sites. Unpowered starts from $25 per person per night.
They also have fuel and a cafe onsite for guests and those just passing through on their way to Kings Canyon.
For something different, they also have bush tents, which are permanent canvas cabins. Or for a truly unique experience, they offer secluded luxury glamping, which isn’t cheap but looks like such a romantic outback stay if you want to splurge.
Things to do at Kings Canyon
The best way to see Kings Canyon is on foot. There are a number of walking trails in Watarrka National Park, with varying grades. The Kings Canyon Rim Walk is the one that everyone comes to do, and it really is the highlight of many people’s visit. However, it’s worth taking the time to explore the other trails too.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk
Distance: 6km loop | Time: 2-3 hours | Difficulty: Moderate
This is the most popular thing to do at Kings Canyon. The spectacular Kings Canyon Rim Walk is often rated as one of the best walks in Australia. And while I wasn’t sure that it would live up to this expectation at first, it certainly is a stunning walk atop the dramatic canyon that packs a lot of punch in a 6km loop.
The walk is best completed in a clockwise direction. This means that you begin with a steep climb up some rocky steps to the top of the plateau. This is certainly the tougher part of the walk and is why it’s only recommended for fit people. Although, plenty of people complete it with a varying degree of fitness, including a lot of young kids, so don’t let it put you off!
Once you reach the top of the plateau you’ll start to see the spectacular view of the canyon. The trail follows the rim right around the top before descending down to the carpark again along some more steep, rocky steps.
Walking along the rim, you’ll get various beautiful viewpoints, although there are no barriers, so be careful how close you get to the edge. There is a famous viewpoint, which is a short detour off the main trail about 2km from the start. It requires a walk across a metal bridge, but you’re rewarded with a full panorama over the canyon. It can get quite crowded on top of this viewpoint, so be careful.
Just a bit further after this, the trail dips down to a little oasis. This is what’s known as the Garden of Eden. There is a worthwhile detour here to a permanent waterhole that is sacred for the Traditional Owners. You’re not allowed to swim, but it’s a peaceful spot that not many people visit.
Then, there are some wooden stairs to climb back up to the top of the rim. As you work your way around the other side, there are a couple of spots that offer some of the best views of the canyon on your right. For the last 1.5km, the trail makes its way down to the carpark again, passing by the Giles Track intersection. This part of the Rim Walk is often referred to as the South Wall walk, as you can complete it as an out and back option if the full Rim Walk is closed.
Prefer to do a guided walk? Check out this half-day guided Kings Canyon Rim Walk instead.
Kings Creek Walk
Distance: 2.6km return | Time: 45mins | Difficulty: Easy
This relatively flat and gentle trail follows the creek through the middle of the canyon. While a little rocky, it’s accessible for most people, although wheelchairs can only access the first 700m.
At the end of the walk, you’ll come to a viewing platform from where you can look up at the canyon walls and see people walking along the rim walk above you. While it’s short, the trail does offer a different perspective of the area and is worth doing.
Kathleen Springs Walk
Distance: 2.6km return | Time: 45 mins | Difficulty: Easy
Before you reach Kings Canyon on Luritja Road, Kathleen Springs is a nice spot inside Watarrka National Park. The natural water hole is an important place for the Traditional Owners and there are some information boards along the trail explaining Aboriginal culture and dreamtime stories linked to the area.
The trail is a very flat and easy walk through a beautiful part of the national park. It’s suitable for everyone and is wheelchair accessible. While it’s not permitted to swim, it’s a very peaceful spot that people often enjoy spending a few minutes to listen to the birds.
Kathleen Springs is also the start/end of the Giles Track, which goes all the way to Kings Canyon.
Distance: 22km one way | Time: 7-8 hours | Difficulty: Moderate-Hard
If the Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell Ranges seems a little too long for you, then the Giles Track offers a nice overnight hike or long day walk in Watarrka National Park. The 22km well-marked trail traverses the ranges from Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs. it can be hiked in either direction. There is also an access point about halfway along at Reedy Creek/Lilla car park, which is not far from the designated camp spot on the walk.
The 22km hike is not overly difficult. Once you climb up onto the ridge top, it then follows it along on an undulating track which is not incredibly hard. However, it is overly exposed and it’s not advised to attempt it in hot weather over 35 degrees.
You can complete the full one way hike in a day, if you can organise a car shuffle or pick up from the end. Otherwise, it’s recommended to complete it as a gentle overnight walk. There is a recommended camping area at Reedy Creek, which is around 8km from the Kings Canyon car park. However, you can technically camp anywhere along the ridge, if you prefer. There is no reliable water source, so make sure you carry more than enough for your hike.
As I was travelling on my own, I couldn’t get picked up at the end, so I opted just to do a section of the Giles Track as a day hike. I started from the Kings Canyon car park and followed the trail as far as Reedy Bluff which is about 5.5km. From there, I turned around and headed back again. It offered some beautiful landscapes, although the views were not as dramatic as those on the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. Still, I only passed two trail runners the whole time, so it’s a nice quiet alternative for a day walk in Central Australia.
Find a Giles Track map and more information here.
How long to spend at Watarrka National Park
It’s possible to explore Watarrka National Park in 24 hours and many people only stay one night there on their Red Centre Way drive. However, it’s always best if you can enjoy a place a little longer and two nights makes things a little more relaxing.
If you only have 24 hours at Kings Canyon, then you can drive up from Uluru and stop at Kathleen Springs on the way. You can stay at the Kings Canyon Resort and then complete the Kings Canyon Rim Walk early the next morning, before moving onto your next destination.
If you have two days, then you can include some of the other walks as well. If you drive up from Uluru in the morning, you can head out and do the Kings Canyon Rim Walk and Kings Creek Walk in the afternoon. The next day, you can attempt part or all of the Giles Track. On your last day, make sure you stop at Kathleen Springs before leaving and heading to your next destination.
Where to next?
- The Ultimate Guide to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
- 8 Best Day Walks in Central Australia
- The Ultimate Red Centre Way Road Trip Itinerary
- 10 Best Things to Do in Alice Springs