Despite being a vast empty desert, there are a lot of interesting and beautiful places that can be found in the Australian Outback. Taking a road trip is the best way to see Australia, as it gives you the freedom to go to wherever you want, whenever you want. Here are just a few highlights of what we saw during our road trip from Cooktown in Queensland to Perth in Western Australia:
Devil’s Marbles – Northern Territory
Located a few hours north of Alice Springs, this is a good spot to get out to stretch your legs and see some interesting geology. Here big red spherical-shaped granite boulders dot the landscape. Best time would be to come in the morning or evening as the soft light makes the rocks glow red. You can also spend the night here I believe.
Alice Springs – Northern Territory
Alice Springs. The funky little town right in the middle of Australia, hundreds of miles from nowhere. I actually really liked Alice Springs, it reminded me of the Australian version of Moab, Utah for anyone who has been there. We did a free walking tour offered by the folks at the information center and it was actually pretty interesting since you learn a little bit about the town’s history. There is also a large Aboriginal population here and you can go on tours to learn more about the culture or buy original Aboriginal artwork.
The MacDonnell Ranges – Northern Territory
Running west to east and right through Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Divided into two regions, both the East and West MacDonnell Ranges are worth spending some time in, although I found there was more to see and the scenery more spectacular in the West. These days these mountains would dwarf the Rockies or even the New Zealand Alps, but they are riddled with chasms and cool little swimming spots to cool off on a hot day. My favorite spot was Ormiston Gorge, which has a small swimming pond surrounded by giant walls of red and orange rock. We also spotted some dingoes here!
Uluru (Ayers Rock) – Northern Territory
Nearly exactly at the very center of the Australian continent lies the iconic big red rock (or “the remarkable pebble” as one Australian explorer called it). You would think that a big rock out in the middle of the desert really can’t be that special, but it is. Once you first see it, you just can’t stop looking at it. It’s massive, dominating your field of vision. The prime time to go is around sunset when all the hues of red and orange transform as the light changes. Watching the sunset at Uluru was my favorite part of the whole trip. There is also a nice 10 km hike you can do around the base of the rock.
Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas) – Northern Territory
About 50 kilometers away lies another massive and equally beautiful rock formation known as The Olgas (Kata-Tjuta in the local Aboriginal language). Rather than one big monolith, Kata-Tjuta comprises of several large rounded domes that rise out of the desert. There is a great hike you can do here called the Valley of the Winds walk which takes you through all the formations and little valleys between them. Be advised though, in the summer this walk can only be done in the morning hours as it’s closed during the daytime heat. And like Uluru, the sunset here is spectacular.
Both Uluru and Kata-Tjuta lie within the same national park, located about 5 hours south of Alice Springs. There is only one paved road going in and out, so it might be worth spending a few days here. From what I recall, entry to the park was $25 for a three day pass.
King’s Canyon – Northern Territory
I was a little disappointed with King’s Canyon. After having been to the American southwest and even parts of the MacDonnell Ranges just a few hours away, I think having the title as “The Grand Canyon of Australia” is an overstatement. It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would but it is still a cool place to visit if you’re going to/coming from Uluru and never seen a canyon before. The Rim Walk is a must-do if you’re into hiking as it takes you through some really neat rock formations. The hike can be a little difficult for some, especially in hot weather so if hiking isn’t your thing then it’s probably just best to save fuel and skip the canyon.
Coober Pedy – South Australia
We didn’t have a lot of time to check out Coober Pedy, but if you’re driving through the area you can see Australia’s famous underground town and the opal capital of the world. Roughly 95% of the world’s opals come from Australia and a lot of it comes from here. With all the mining nearby and often being succumbed to the perilous heat of the Outback, the town has developed this sort of underground theme and some of the buildings (including a backpackers hostel) is subterranean. An interesting little place to check out if you have the time.
Great Australian Bight – South Australia
Ah, the ocean at last! After two weeks of dirt, rocks, and termite mounds, it was refreshing to reach the Southern Ocean. Here the dusty, flat desert just simply ends—it plunges down into the vibrant blue sea. If there were any place in the world that could be the edge of the Earth, this would be it. The land just stops and it’s only ocean here all the way to Antarctica. If you’re here between May and October, you might be lucky and spot some elusive southern right whales as they do their annual migration!
Cape La Grande National Park – Western Australia
If you ever find yourself in southern Western Australia, you have to go to Cape Le Grande National Park. Some of the best beaches in the country can be found here, including Lucky Bay which is considered to have the whitest sand in all of Australia. The sand is so fine it also squeeks under your feet when you walk on it! It’s also a good place to spot kangaroos hanging out on the beach. Nearby is Hellfire Bay, another stunning white-sand beach on the fringes of a beautiful clear blue shallow bay. If you stick around for sunset, make the short climb up the summit of Frenchman Peak for the best views over the park.
The Wave Rock – Western Australia
Located just a few hours outside of Perth near the town of Hyden, this unusual rock formation is a good spot to stretch your legs and explore a little after a long drive. It’s a big wall of multi-colored granite that resembles a wave about to break, hence the simple name the Wave Rock!
These are just some of the many hidden wonders and treasures hidden in the Outback. These are all easily accessible by a 2WD car, but there are many other amazing places out there that can only be reached by 4WD and high clearance vehicles.