An Adelaide to Darwin road trip is undoubtedly one of the best in Australia. Travelling from the southern coast all the way to the northern coast through the middle of the country offers an extraordinary way of exploring the vast landscapes that Australia has to offer.
The Stuart Highway is the main road that links Port Augusta in South Australia with Darwin in the Northern Territory. As one of the longest and loneliest highways in Australia, it’s an incredible adventure. Taking in the variety of desert landscapes from the Flinders Ranges and Coober Pedy to Uluru and Alice Springs, it’s one of the most memorable road trips I’ve ever done.
If you drive direct from Adelaide to Darwin, it’s just over 3,000km. So, it’s not a short little roadie. But if you take your time, you’ll be able to stop along the way at all the incredible things to do and see (which will also mean you’ll cover much more than 3,000km!).
I feel fortunate enough to have taken my first van on an Adelaide to Darwin road trip. A trip that took me about four months to complete at a slow pace. In this post, I’m going to detail all the best things to do on the Stuart Highway that you should add to your road trip itinerary. How long you decide to take is up to you, but never rush through the Aussie outback because there’s so much to appreciate about it!
Best Time of Year to Drive the Stuart Highway
While you can drive the Stuart Highway at any time of the year, I’d recommend planning this road trip for the dry season (winter months) from April to October. This is because the Flinders Ranges, Coober Pedy, Central Australia and the Top End all see extreme heat during the warmer summer months, plus the Northern Territory also experiences a monsoon season during summer.
Sometimes the highway can be flooded during the monsoon, so you should always check ahead if you’re driving at this time. Most of the swimming spots in the Northern Territory are also closed due to flooding and crocodile risk in the summer months, so it also limits what you can see and do.
Whereas in the winter, temperatures are moderate during the day with clear skies for the most part. However, it does get quite cold overnight, especially out in the desert at Uluru, Alice Springs and Flinders Ranges. You’ll have be prepared for all temperatures when travelling in winter.
Essential Road Trip Tips for the Stuart Highway
- Distances are vast on long straight highways like the Stuart Highway, with very little to look at, don’t forget to take frequent stops to rest and stretch your legs
- Avoid driving at night, as this only increases the chance of accidents, especially with wildlife
- Watch out for animals on the road, especially in the early morning and late evening
- Be careful of road trains and other large trucks which can be travelling at high speeds and are much larger than the trucks you’ll be used to on the east coast or elsewhere
- Much of the Stuart Highway is remote with little facilities along the way, so plan each day ahead to be aware of stops, toilets, and fuel
- Check fuel frequently, as sometimes the distances between fuel stations is long. However, there are roadhouses nicely spaced along the highway that you shouldn’t need to carry extra fuel at any time
- Make sure you have roadside assistance so that you can get help anywhere along the Stuart Highway at any time
- Don’t forget about obtaining national park passes for both South Australia and Northern Territory before departing so you can explore all the best parts on this road trip
- Download a GPS map offline such as Google Maps or Maps.Me, as phone signal can be pretty scarce especially on the remote highways and in national parks
Note: This post is really aimed at those travelling with a 2WD vehicle and for sticking to the main roads. If you have a 4×4, there’s many other variations you can add, such as the Oodnadatta Track (SA), Mereenie Loop (NT), and Arnhem Land (NT).
Adelaide to Darwin Road Trip Itinerary: Stops on the Stuart Highway
If you’re planning an Adelaide to Darwin road trip, there’s so much to see and do along the way. You can use these suggestions to help plan out your trip, depending on how much time you have. Here’s everywhere I think you should stop as you travel north from Adelaide to Darwin on the Stuart Highway:
Adelaide is the obvious place to start this road trip to Darwin. As the laidback capital of South Australia, it’s an easy city to explore with plenty of things to do in and around the CBD if you have some time. Located on the St Vincent Gulf, Adelaide is known for its access to beautiful parks, beaches, markets and festivals.
Whether you simply pass through Adelaide on your way from the east coast or plan to spend a couple of days checking out the city, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the friendly and vibrant vibe.
Some of my favourite things to do in Adelaide include:
- Adelaide Botanic Garden
- Adelaide Central Market and Chinatown
- Rundle Mall
- Glenelg Beach
- Morialta Conservation Park
- Mount Lofty Summit
- Belair National Park
- Onkaparinga River National Park
- McLaren Vale Wine Region
Side trip: Flinders Ranges
Distance from Adelaide: 440km or 5.5 hour drive
Lying north of Adelaide on the edge of the outback, the Flinders Ranges is one of my favourite places in Australia. With rocky, rugged ranges soaring out of the arid landscape for as far as the eye can see, it’s an imposing and spectacular sight.
While people short on time may prefer to skip the Flinders Ranges and head from Adelaide to Port Augusta to jump onto the Stuart Highway to Darwin, I HIGHLY recommend you allow at least a couple of days for the Flinders Ranges.
There’s actually a few different parts of the Flinders that you can explore. The obvious and most beautiful part is the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Centered around Wilpena Pound Resort, this stunning national park will blow you away with its beauty. From hikes to 4×4 drives and Aboriginal cultural tours, there’s plenty to do in the national park.
If you have even more time, then while you’re travelling down from Wilpena Pound to Port Augusta, stop in Quorn and explore parts of the Southern Flinders Ranges, including Mount Remarkable and Alligator Gorge. My individual posts have plenty more information about exploring the Flinders Ranges, including the 12 best hikes to do.
Distance from Wilpena Pound: 160km or 2 hour drive
The port city of Port Augusta has become one of Australia’s major road and rail intersections. Situated at the top of the Spencer Gulf and just over 320km from Adelaide, it’s a major thoroughfare as road trains, trucks, caravans, vans and cars pass through on their way north, west or east.
Port Augusta is the official southern end of the Stuart Highway, which continues north all the way to Darwin. At the same intersection, you’ll also find the Eyre Highway which continues west over to Western Australia, and the Augusta Highway which leads down to Adelaide. It’s also where the Flinders Ranges Way begins, heading up to Quorn, Hawker and Wilpena Pound.
There’s not a whole lot to do in Port Augusta. However, after coming from the Flinders Ranges, it can be a convenient place to stop for the night before heading up the more remote Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy.
If you have time to kill, check out some of these things in Port Augusta:
- Wadlata Outback Centre
- Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden
- Matthew Flinders Red Cliff Lookout
Distance from Port Augusta: 540km or 6 hour drive
What can I say, Coober Pedy is an absolute must visit on an Adelaide to Darwin road trip. As one of the most unique towns in all of Australia, the mining outpost is all things quirky, bizarre and beautiful. It’s well known as the Opal Capital of the World, with more than half of the world’s opals coming from the mines around the town. You’ll start to see mounds of soil and holes in the ground as you approach Coober Pedy from the south.
It’s also the only major town between Port Augusta and Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway, making it an important stop for travellers. It becomes a pretty lonely outback highway quite quickly as you leave Port Augusta and head for Coober Pedy. In fact, the only stops between the two towns are Spud’s Roadhouse at Pimba and Glendambo Roadhouse. Both offer fuel, food and accommodation.
If you want to stop en route for the night, Spud’s Roadhouse request a $5 donation to camp overnight with toilets and showers. I also had good Optus phone reception there. Glendambo have a caravan park next to the pub with powered and unpowered sites, for around $30 per night.
Once you arrive in Coober Pedy, you should plan to spend at least a couple of nights in town. Some of my favourite things to do in Coober Pedy, include:
- Old Timer’s Mine
- Sunset from The Big Winch
- Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park
- Stay in an underground hotel
Read next: 10 Unique Things to Do in Coober Pedy
Distance from Coober Pedy: 486km or 5 hour drive
From Coober Pedy, it’s just under 400km to the Northern Territory border. There’s only a couple of places to stop in between: Cadney Park Homestead and Marla. Cadney Park has a caravan park with sites between $30-40. They also offer fuel and food. Marla Roadhouse has fuel and a pub, plus a caravan park starting from $10 per person per night.
Once you cross into the Northern Territory, the first roadhouse is at Kulgera, with fuel, food and accommodation. Then you have Erldunda Roadhouse. This popular roadhouse is an ideal place to stop for the night on the Stuart Highway, as it’s at the turnoff for the Lasseter Highway which leads to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. They also offer food and fuel.
Side trip: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Distance from Erldunda: 250km or 3 hour drive
From Erldunda, you’ll want to take your first diversion off the Stuart Highway and onto what is referred to as the Red Centre Way. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a once in a lifetime destination and one of the most breathtaking places in Australia. An Adelaide to Darwin road trip would not be complete without a trip to Uluru and Kings Canyon.
Once you turn onto the Lasseter Highway, it’s only about 3 hours to Yulara, the main town and base for exploring Uluru.
A couple of spots worth stopping at along the way 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. In high season it’s worth booking in advance, otherwise you’ll be out in the overflow campground like me (although it is cheaper).
I would recommend allowing three days to really appreciate the park. There’s plenty to see and do, including:
- Free ranger guided Mala walk
- 10km Uluru base walk/cycle
- 7.5 km Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta
- Uluru car sunset viewing spot
- Uluru Sunrise Viewing Platform/Talinguru Nyakunytjaku
- Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Sunrise spot
Continue reading: The Ultimate Guide to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Side trip: Watarrka-Kings Canyon National Park
Distance from Yulara: 304km or 3.5 hour drive
As you continue on the Red Centre Way, you should allow another couple of days to explore Watarrka-Kings Canyon National Park. You have to head back along Lasseter Highway and then take the turnoff towards Watarrka National Park on Luritja Road.
The main place to stay and base for exploring the national park is Kings Canyon Resort. They have a large caravan park, 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.
A couple of days is generally enough to take in the canyon area. Here are the best things to do:
- 6km Kings Canyon Rim walk
- 2.6km Kings Creek walk
- 2.6km Kathleen Springs walk
- Sunset from Kings Canyon Resort viewing platform
Continue reading: How to Visit Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park
Distance from Watarrka National Park: 474 km or 5.5 hour drive
Alice Springs is the main town in Central Australia and an absolute must stop on the Stuart Highway. From Kings Canyon, you’ll have to head back to Erldunda Roadhouse and then continue on the Stuart Highway north to Alice Springs.
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 Alice Springs to explore the town and relax after some long driving days.
Then, allow at least another couple of days to explore the stunning West MacDonnell Ranges, and if you have time, the East MacDonnell Ranges as well.
Read next: 10 Best Things to Do in Alice Springs
Side trip: West MacDonnell Ranges / Tjoritja
An absolute highlight of any Adelaide to Darwin road trip is the West Macs. This incredible national park draws some similarities to the Flinders Ranges, with expansive, rugged mountain ranges soaring out of the desert.
The ranges also hide gorges, gaps and water holes that can easily be explored from Alice Springs. Most of the sights and attractions are all located on Larapinta and Namatjira Drive, making it easy to get around for all vehicles.
While you can technically head out there on a day trip, it’s worth staying at least a night or longer to really appreciate the true beauty of the area. There are national park campgrounds at Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge or you can also stay at the Glen Helen Resort.
Some of the highlights of the West MacDonnell Ranges include:
- Simpsons Gap
- Standley Chasm
- Ellery Creek Big Hole
- Ormiston Gorge and Ormiston Pound Walk
- Redbank Gorge
Side trip: East MacDonnell Ranges
While the West MacDonnell Ranges get all the fame, the East Macs are just as spectacular. Home to sacred Arrernte sites, deep gorges, water holes and some varied walks, you can easily extend your visit for longer than a day.
Most of the main attractions are off the Ross Highway, and can be done in one long day trip from Alice Springs. However, I would recommend camping at least a night, preferably at Trephina Gorge. This would give you more time to complete some of the walks as well, which I highly recommend.
Some of the best things to see in the East Macs are:
- Emily and Jessie Gaps/Yeperenye
- Corroboree Rock
- Trephina Gorge
- 10km Ridgetop Walk
Karlu Karlu-Devils Marbles
Distance from Alice Springs: 403 km or 4 hour drive
Another must see on the Stuart Highway is Devils Marbles. A sacred site known as Karlu Karlu in the language of the Traditional Owners the Warumungu people, this boulder strewn field is one of the most unique sights in the Aussie outback.
Especially spectacular at sunset and sunrise, this incredible landscape makes for the perfect rest stop as you travel from Alice Springs north to Katherine. There is a basic campground right at the site, making it one of the most popular places to stop. Book in advance if you want to secure a site. If you don’t get a spot, then try down the road at Devils Marbles Hotel and Roadhouse.
I camped here on my way north and south again. It’s worth exploring at sunset and again at sunrise to really soak in the incredible outback colours.
Distance from Karlu Karlu: 511 km or 6 hour drive
This famous little spot on the Stuart Highway is well-known for its pub. Built in 1930, the pub is a quirky place decorated in corrugated iron and crammed with decades of memorabilia, which road trippers love to stop and peruse.
The pub offers accommodation ranging from safari tents to cabins and camping. It can get crazy busy in high season, so arrive early if you want a spot. The meals and drinks are served all day at the pub, which is always bustling with people despite the tiny population surrounding it.
Distance from Daly Waters: 170 km or 2 hour drive
Mataranka has become one of the most popular stops on the Stuart Highway in Northern Territory all thanks to its famous hot springs. With natural thermal pools and swimming spots amongst a dense monsoon forest and campgrounds not far away, it’s definitely a highlight of any road trip.
Mataranka is the main town near Elsey National Park which covers the Mataranka Thermal Pools and Bitter Springs. It’s a small town with not too much to offer, but there are two main places that people stay.
Mataranka Homestead is right next to the Mataranka Thermal Pool and Rainbow Springs and is the more well-known spot. I stayed at Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping which is right near Bitter Springs Thermal Pool and a more rustic place. Either way, you should allow a night here to visit both springs and pools.
Distance from Mataranka: 115 km or 1.5 hour drive
Katherine is one of the largest towns in the Northern Territory. Located on the Stuart Highway south of Darwin, there are several incredible sights to see nearby which make it a must stop. Sitting on the banks of the Katherine River and on the outskirts of the expansive Nitmiluk National Park, it’s perfectly described as where the outback meets the Top End tropics.
While the town itself doesn’t offer a whole lot itself other than the Katherine Hot Springs, it does make a great base for exploring Nitmiluk National Park.
Side trip: Nitmiluk National Park – Katherine Gorge
Distance from Katherine: 30km or 30 minute drive
Nitmiluk National Park is home to the iconic Katherine Gorge, one of the main attractions in the Northern Territory. As the traditional land of the Jawoyn people, this national park is characterised by 13 connected gorges, Aboriginal rock art, and natural swimming holes and waterfalls that can be explored either on foot or by boat.
The Nitmiluk Visitor Centre is the gateway to the park and just half an hour drive from Katherine. You can either choose to stay in Katherine or there are also accommodation options right at the visitor centre if you want to stay closer and explore earlier in the morning (not a bad option to beat the intense heat).
While many people simply visit for a day, there’s actually plenty of things to do that you could explore for at least two days or longer. If you like hiking, there’s also a couple of multi-day hikes that I’ve done inside the park that are worth planning for too.
My favourite things to do in Nitmiluk National Park include:
- Katherine Gorge Boat Cruise (2 hours long)
- Butterfly Gorge Loop Walk
- 5-6 day Jatbula Trail Hike
- 3 day Southern Walks Hike
Distance from Katherine: 60km or 40 minute drive
As you leave Katherine and continue north on the Stuart Highway, there’s another stop which is technically still inside Nitmiluk National Park that is worth making. Edith Falls or Leliyn is a set of cascading falls and natural swimming holes in the western part of the national park.
Accessed off the Stuart Highway just north of Katherine, you can either do this as a day trip from Katherine or spend the night at Edith Falls in the campground. Seasonal swimming is allowed in the main pool at the base of the falls, as well as many smaller pools further up the river which are accessible on foot. In the wet season, it’s generally closed due to risk of crocodiles creeping in from the floods.
Not only is it a great swimming spot in the dry season, but there are also a couple of walks to do. Leliyn Trail Loop Walk is about 2.6km and provides access to smaller pools higher up the gorge. You can also head even further to Sweetwater Pool, which is 9km return. It’s worth spending a night in the campground, which is a basic bush camp right near the kiosk.
Read more: An Essential Guide to Edith Falls / Leliyn
Side trip: Litchfield National Park
Distance from Katherine: 280 km or 3 hour drive
If you enjoyed swimming in Edith Falls, then you’ll have an absolute blast in Litchfield National Park. As many people’s favourite national park in the Northern Territory, it’s a must visit. The ancient sandstone plateau of the Tabletop Range is carved out by tumbling waterfalls, natural swimming holes and magnetic termite mounds.
There are also a couple of great campgrounds inside the park, so you can stay the night and enjoy the swimming spots even when all the day trippers have gone. As you come up from Katherine, you’ll have to turn off the Stuart Highway to your left onto Batchelor Road which then becomes Litchfield Park Road.
You can then make a loop through the national park, stopping off at some of the popular spots like Florence Falls, Tjaetaba Falls, Wangi Falls, Buley Rockhole and The Cascades. You can then continue driving around through Berry Springs (an incredible natural swimming spot outside the national park), and back onto the Stuart Highway just south of Darwin. It’s a very worthwhile detour.
Staying a night at either Florence Falls campground or Wangi Falls campground is highly recommended, so you can really enjoy the national park and visit all the best spots. I stayed a week in the park, which was a nice and relaxing time after days of driving.
Now you’ve made it to Darwin! The capital of the Northern Territory and the northernmost end of the Stuart Highway. Darwin may be small compared to other cities in Australia, but it definitely makes up for it with character, atmosphere and culture.
I loved my month in Darwin and really came to appreciate the uniqueness of the NT. I definitely recommend at least a couple of days in Darwin itself. There’s actually come great things to do, especially in the dry season when the city comes to life with festivals and markets on almost daily.
But you’ll also want to leave enough time for one last side trip to Kakadu National Park. This is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Northern Territory and a must visit for at least a couple of days.
My favourite things to do in Darwin include:
- Mindil Beach Sunset Market
- Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
- Darwin Military Museum
- George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
- Darwin Waterfront Lagoon
Side trip: Kakadu National Park
Distance fro Darwin: 150 km or 2 hour drive
Kakadu National Park is one of 20 UNESCO World Heritage Listed places in Australia, in recognition of both its natural and cultural values. As the traditional home of the Bininj/Mungguy people, who have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years, it’s one of the most spiritual places in Australia.
It’s characterised by rocky escarpments, thundering waterfalls and floodplains of Arnhem Land. It’s also one of the most biodiverse places in the country, with millions of migratory birds and the intimidating saltwater crocodiles.
I highly recommend at least a couple of days to explore Kakadu properly. With a 2WD, you’ll be able to see most of the main attractions with a night spent at Jabiru, the main town in the park. Otherwise, with a 4WD, you’ll be able to explore much deeper into Arnhem Land and should allow more than a few days.
Some of the most favourite places to visit in Kakadu include:
- Ubirr Rock Art at sunset
- Mamukala Wetlands
- Cahills Crossing for croc spotting
- Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art site
- Nawurlandja Lookout at sunset
- Yellow Water Wetlands boat cruise
Read more: A Travel Guide to Kakadu National Park
How Long to Spend Driving Adelaide to Darwin
At a minimum you need two weeks to drive from Adelaide to Darwin, but even two weeks would not be enough time to actually see many of the sights and spend time enjoying all there is to do. I’d recommend allowing at least three weeks, but longer would be even better.
Allow at least a week to get from Adelaide to the Northern Territory border. Then, allow at least two weeks to travel from the border to Darwin, taking in the sights.
If you’re short on time, you could cut out Flinders Ranges, East MacDonnell Ranges, Mataranka and shorten your time in Nitmiluk National Park. But I’d recommend visiting all of these places if you can.
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