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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Family-Friendly 2-Week Australian Outback Road Trip (Explorer's Way) Itinerary

Updated: May 31, 2022

A large part of our 3-week Australian road trip was taking the Explorer's Way route on Stuart Highway through the middle of the country. As an outsider when initially looking at Stuart Highway through the core, it can be a bit intimidating. After all it is the second LONGEST road in the country; there aren’t many services; and it is over 3,500+ km of driving and 35+ hours. Despite this, it is an iconic Aussie road trip that gives you a feel for the country that most foreigners don’t really experience. By the time we left Port Pirie, just north of Adelaide, we had 2 weeks on the road to Darwin. One thing that you’ll notice is that a lot of itineraries for this trip look very similar, especially for the southern portion. This is mainly because there aren’t a lot of choices of places to stop, other than the obvious places. However, some itineraries had 9 hour driving days scheduled in, so this might offer a glimpse of a possible itinerary with young kids in mind. We hope this 2-week Australian Explorer's Way Road Trip itinerary might give other families ideas as they start to build their own journey through the Outback along the Stuart Highway.

Day 1: Port Pirie to Coober Pedy
Distance: 630.7 km | Time Driving: 6 hr. 33 mins.

This was one of the longer driving days. We decided to stay in a campsite just south of Port Pirie the night before, in order to get the 3.5 hours between there and Adelaide out of the way. We stayed at a ‘By Donation’ campsite called Bowman Community Campsite and it was probably one of our favorite free ones of the trip! They had good toilet facilities and a nature-based play space for kids. It had a playground & even a little wooden kitchen that the kids loved playing 'house'!

Once you reach Port Augusta, you are basically in ‘no man’s land’ from that point onward. Therefore, make sure to stock up on groceries & fuel in either Port Pirie or Port Augusta to avoid the ‘Outback mark-up” on prices. From Port Augusta to Coober Pedy I think there was maybe only 1 town we hit in the 6.5 hours of driving! However, there are lots of road side rest stops you can stop at for breaks or making lunch. If you aren’t able to make it all the way to Coober Pedy, then there are several areas where you could pull over to camp for free if you choose; there just are no services.

Little girl with the Australian Outback stretching out before her, just north of Port Pirie, South Australia.
Stopping at one of our first rest stops in the Australian Outback just north of Port Augusta.

Many people will add in a stop at Flinders Ranges. However, it was a bit off the highway we were taking north from Adelaide and we found out that several of the roads in that area were closed due to flooding at the time; so we skipped that section. However, it looks like a spectacular region if you have the time & ability to go.

Coober Pedy is a mining town & is unique stop on the road trip! There are still Opal working mines here and houses & hotels have been made from the underground mines. These underground homes serves a dual purpose in that it can get really hot in the summer – sometimes up to 55 C! Therefore, living underground helps keep them cool. A popular thing to do here is to stay in one of the cave hotels or Airbnbs. However, we had just spent a night at a hotel in Adelaide, so we decided to just utilize one of the free campsites. Once we reached the town, we stayed at the free campsite at Old Timers Mine, which is part of their parking lot. It is basic, but they leave their bathrooms open that you can use during the stay.

Day 2: Coober Pedy to Erldunda
Distance: 488.3 km | Time Driving: 5 hrs.

Another popular thing to do in Coober Pedy are the mine tours. In exchange for the free campsite, we decided to visit the Old Timers Mine museum. They had an old mine that you could explore on your own self-guided tour. Part of the museum also showed some examples of the cave houses. It was affordable too; at only $15 AUD ($10.40 USD/$/13.44 CDN) adult and $5 ($3.47 USD/$4.48 CDN)/child. However, there are some other working mines you can tour as well. One suggested to us was Tom’s Working Mine. However, they only had guided tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and we were a bit late checking out of our campsite, so the timing didn't work for us.

Two children on front of the Land Cruiser rental as we cross into the Northern Territory with the sign behind them
Crossing into the Northern Territory from South Australia

Then it was another long drive of 5 hours to Erldunda. A lot of people will just go the rest of the way to Uluru, but that was a bit too long for us, so we stayed at the Erldunda Campsite at the corner of the Stuart Highway & the Lasseter Highway (which takes you to Uluru). They had a great playground where the kids made some friends & a wildlife park with some camels & emus.

Day 3: Erldunda to Ayer’s Rock/Uluru
Distance: 267.7 km | Time Driving: 2 hr. 46 min.

The following morning, we drove the rest of the way to Uluru. I always thought the Stuart Highway went right by Uluru, but it is actually off the main highway by 3.5 hours. In total, heading over to Uluru and to King’s Canyon added 7 hours to the drive. However, it is one of Australia’s iconic spots that if you are that close, you have to detour to!

Britz Rental Land Cruiser in front of Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia
Arriving at Uluru in our rental Land Cruiser.

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park includes access to Kata Tjuta and Uluru. It was one of the only National Parks that we had to pay for admission. It was $38 AUD ($26.35 USD/$32.25 CDN) per adult – kids under 17 years old were free. However, the pass gives you access to the park for 3 days.

Family of four in front of Uluru in Northern Territory, Australia.
Family shot in front of Uluru.

We arrived at Uluru right after lunch and headed to the Culture Center to learn more about the Anangu people, followed by visiting the base of Uluru for a walk around part of it. (It is no longer possible to hike on top of Uluru, as that was stopped in October 2019, due to the spiritual significance of Uluru to the aboriginal people.) We took the Mala Walk which is 2 km return. This was a nice hike that allowed you to see a few different cave paintings and took you to the Kantju Gorge. There you can see a watering hole & stains on the rock from where water flows from the top of the rock during rainfall. There are also options to explore around Uluru with a camel trek or on bike; of course, both options do have a cost to them.

The main problem we ran into during our visit was that we were on the edge of the summer season when the black flies can be thick. Therefore, hikes were a bit more challenging with the kids because they didn’t like the flies buzzing in their face & ears. A fly net around the head would have been a good idea, as bug spray didn’t deter them. As we didn't have any, we used t-shirts to cover their heads & ears, which helped them last a bit longer. However, a couple days later we decided to invest in some nets, which made a world of difference.

One of the most iconic things to do at Uluru is to watch sunset & sunrise (and at Kata Tjuta as well). This is because as the lighting changes, the rock appears to change colors from its bright orange hues. However, both sunset & sunrise during our time there was overcast & cloudy, so we didn’t get quite the presentation that you can sometimes get.

Camping Near Uluru

You’d think with how big of an attraction Uluru is, there would be ample camping opportunities. However, camping is not permitted in the National Park & the ONLY campsite near the National Park is Yulara-Ayer’s Rock Resort Campsite. The resort area includes several hotels as well, but the campsite is quite large. However, it was one of our more expensive campsites at $70 AUD ($48.50 USD/$63 CDN) per night for an unpowered site. They had several amenities in the resort area including a gas station, IGA Grocery Store, free kids activities at some of the resort areas & restaurants. It was basically like a little town. From our campsite we could also access Naninga’s Lookout for a view of Uluru. As it was overcast & not worth driving the 40-minute round trip to the park for sunset & sunrise, this was where I was able to watch it.

Day 4: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to Kings Canyon
Distance: 321.8 km | Time Driving: 3 hr. 23 mins.

We spent the morning driving to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) to check out the views. It is about a 40-minute drive from Yulara-Ayer’s Rock Resort and is within the park boundaries. A stop at the Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing was definitely worth a stop for some photos of it afar.

Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas from viewpoint in Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park.
Kata-Tjuta ('The Olgas') from the Kata-Tjuta Dune Viewing Point.

We headed to Walpa Gorge trailhead. It is an easy & short hike of 2.6 km to the back of the gorge & back. However, we ran into the black flies again and it took a bit for the kids to power through and stop complaining about them.

We made sure to hit the grocery store at the resort area & refuel before starting the drive to Kings Canyon. If you have a large enough fridge, it is definitely a better idea to stock up on as much food as possible prior to the road trip, as it is quite a bit more expensive here. A bag of grapes was $10 AUD ($6.93 USD/$8.96 CDN) and the cheapest loaf of bread was almost $6 AUD ($4.16 USD/$5.37 CDN). However, if you need food you don’t really have a choice. We got the bare minimum we needed for the next 24 hours prior to our arrival to Alice Springs.

We stayed the night in a bush-like campsite at Kings Creek Canyon. It was the first place we were able to have a campfire. However, the black flies were thick in the morning, so we opted to just eat breakfast at the restaurant that morning, which set us back about $30 AUD ($20.80 USD/almost $27 CDN), but it was worth it for the sanity! It was also the catalyst to make the decision to buy some fly nets to cover our heads.

Boy roasting marshmallow on campfire at King's Creek Station Campsite near King's Canyon, Northern Territory, Australia
Roasting a marshmallow at Kings Creek Station Campsite.

Day 5: Kings Canyon to Ormiston Gorge
Distance: 242.7 km | Time Driving: 2 hr. 33 min.

Kings Canyon could easily be compared to the Grand Canyon and it was impressive. One of the best ways to check it out is by hiking. There were two different options for hikes – one is the Kings Creek Walk on the canyon floor that is 2 km return and takes less than an hour to hike; and the second is the Canyon Rim Trail, which is 6 km. The signs said the Rim Walk would take 3-4 hours to hike and we didn’t have that much time, so we opted for the canyon floor walk. [However, we later noticed that many of the hikes say they take a lot longer to hike than in reality. Another family said they did it in 2.5 hours, so likely we could have done it.] At the end I climbed up the initial part to get some views from above. It definitely looks like it would be a great hike & probably one of our biggest regrets about our visit.

View of King's Canyon from Upper Rim, King's Canyon, Northern Territory, Australia.
View of Kings Canyon from Upper Rim.

However, that being said the canyon floor walk was great as well. It was amazing to see the ghost Eucalyptus trees & the plant growth on the floor due to the water collecting & less harsh desert conditions in the middle of the canyon.

After visiting Kings Canyon, you can either take the sealed highway back to Alice Springs or you can take one of the dirt roads that takes you to the lower Mereenie Loop Road. (To access ONLY paved roads to the Mereenie Loop Road you have to access from Alice Springs, which would be many miles of backtracking.) The unsealed road felt authentically Australian with red dirt, but there was quite a bit of washboards in the road, so it was a bit of a slower & bumpy ride at points - even in a 4WD vehicle.

Land Cruiser on the red dirt roads to Mereenie Loop Road in Northern Territory, Australia.
Taking the dirt roads to Mereenie Loop Road.

One issue we ran into for camping once we reached Mereenie Loop Road was the ability to book campsite. Quite a few of the Northern Territory State sites have been converted to an online booking system & the actual campsites aren’t manned. However, we didn’t necessarily know where we were going to end up when we had Wi-Fi access a couple nights before at Yulara; then we never got a decent signal after that. Therefore, we couldn’t make a booking online, so we were on a bit of a search for a campsite that would work for the night. We finally found one at Ormiston Gorge, where you could still do it the old fashion way of leaving your payment in the locked box.

Britz Land Cruiser with rooftop tent at Ormiston Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia.
Camping at Ormiston Gorge.

Day 6: Ormiston Gorge to Alice Springs
Distance: 135.6 km | Time Driving: 1 hr. 29 mins. (without stops)

Most of this day was spent checking out the various spots in West MacDonnell National Park along the road into Alice Springs. There were SO many amazing spots on this road that really impressed us and ended up being one of our favorite areas of our time in the Red Centre. We could have easily spent another day in the area checking out the other spots on the road.

Below are the four spots we stopped at. There were also some pretty amazing camping spots that were right along the river bed, like at Finke Creek (see previous day note about campsite booking system in the Northern Territory though).

Ormiston Gorge Hike

We started off our day doing this hike at Ormiston Gorge and it was probably one of our favorite hikes in Australia. We did the Ghost Gum Walk trail which was supposed to be a 2.5 km loop trail. However, we later found out that the only way to access the other part of the trail is to swim in the cold water, which it wasn’t warm enough to swim when we were there in early May. Therefore, it ended up being a out & back hike from the waterhole, which took us took 2 hours, including some time to hang out at the water.

Family near watering hole at Ormiston Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia
View from below at Ormiston Gorge.

The hike takes up you up to the Ghost Gum Lookout on the edge of the gorge & provides great aerial views of the surrounding area. Then you follow the trail down one side of the gorge to the waterhole and the area along the creek. There are large rocks to climb & explore around and it is impressive to see the Eucalyptus trees growing off the side of the cliff walls.

Serpentine Gorge

This gorge is just down the road from Ormiston Gorge and was of special significance to the aboriginal people. They believed that it wasn’t safe to swim in as the eaglehawk might attack them, so no swimming is allowed there. The hike is about 1.3 km out & back and took less than an hour to complete. The hike isn’t as impressive as Ormiston Gorge as you just follow a service road, but the watering hole is a nice area to just take in the peacefulness and views.

Boy hiking towards Serpentine Gorge in Northern Territory, Australia.
Hiking towards Serpentine Gorge.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Closer east to Alice Springs is Ellery Creek. This is just a short little jaunt from the car park to the water – probably took about 10 minutes to walk there and you can swim in this spot. There was a swimmer in the water while we visited, but it was a bit cool for our tastes, so we skipped it. But if you were there during warmer weather, it would have been a beautiful spot. It also looked like there were opportunities to kayak there.

Ellery Creek on Mereenie Loop Road, Northern Territory, Australia
Ellery Creek on Mereenie Loop Road

Simpsons Gap

Only about 15 minutes west of Alice is Simpsons Gap. This is another beautiful canyon area and easily accessible from the parking lot – it probably took only about 5-7 minutes to access it. There is a river bed that was dry, but I imagine looks quite different during the wet season.

Simpsons Gap on Mereenie Loop Road near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia
Simpsons Gap on Mereenie Loop Road near Alice Springs.

If you have more time, some other places that would be worth checking out are: Glen Helen Gorge, Redbank Gorge or Standley Chasm.

We spent the night in Alice Springs at Heritage Campsite. We had been told by some others that there was some unrest in Alice Springs; however, we decided to just stay there for the night and didn’t have any issues. Plus, we were in need of some extra amenities like showers & laundry. It was even more strongly suggested than other areas we stayed to make sure your belongings were locked up at night; but honestly you probably should do that anywhere. However, the kids were pretty excited to make friends with another Aussie boy who was traveling around Australia and a little girl. They had an absolute blast.

Day 7: Alice Springs to Tennant Creek / Threeways
Distance: 508 km | Time Driving: 5 hr. 5 mins.

This was another day of mostly driving. We were a bit later to check out of the campsite, as the kids really enjoyed playing with their new friends, so we didn’t hit the road until almost 11 a.m. Shortly after leaving Alice Springs, we passed the Tropic of Capricorn. Then a few hours later we passed by Wycliffe the UFO capital of Australia. We stopped at the gas station there for some photos of aliens and inside has newspaper clippings on the walls about UFO sightings.

It was mostly a day of driving, but we did stop at Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu), which was just off the Stuart Highway. They have a short 400-meter walk that you can take around the rock formations, which takes about 20 minutes. There are also a couple different other lookout trails as well.

We stayed in Tennant Creek overnight at one of the enclosed campsites. However, the town was a bit rowdy the night we were there. If you’re looking for something for something a little more peaceful, without driving all the way to Daly Waters, then there is a campsite just a bit north of Tennant Creek at Threeways.

Day 8: Tennant Creek to Mataranka
Distance: 572 km | Time Driving: 5 hr. 53 mins.

It was mostly a day of driving again for this portion, but there were lots of termite mounds to keep you entertained on the drive. Some of them are even dressed up in t-shirts or other gear!

We spent the night at Mataranka Homestead, which has a restaurant, cabins and a large availability of campsites. They had a restaurant/bar and even live music the night we were there. Plus, access to the hot springs was only a short walk away. The hot springs were impressive surrounded by tall palm trees. The water wasn’t too hot either – almost like bath water temperature!

Day 9: Mataranka to Katherine
Distance: 117 km | Time Driving: 1 hr. 14 mins.

We drove the short distance to Katherine and used it as a day to catch up on some things like groceries and hung out at the campsite. We stayed at Discovery Parks - Katherine (part of G’Day Parks) just outside of town. They had a pool that the kids spent the afternoon playing & meeting some new campsite friends.

Day 10: Katherine to Edith Falls
Distance: 63 km | Time Driving: 44 mins.

Our Katherine campsite was close to Nitmiluk National Park, which is home to the two main sights of Katherine Gorge & Edith Falls. We headed there to get a view of the Gorge before heading to the other section of the park to see Edith Falls. The most popular and best way to explore the Gorge is by boat tour or helicopter. However, as budget travelers, both of those excursions exceeded our budget, so we just headed to the Katherine Gorge lookout point located just past the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre. (We estimated a boat tour would have been close to $200 AUD for our family.) It was a short walk, less than a kilometer, and took less than 45 minutes return.

Viewpoint of Katherine Gorge at Nitmiluk National Park.
Katherine Gorge Viewpoint at Nitmiluk National Park.

We drove about 45 minutes north of Katherine on the Stuart Highway to the northern edge of Nitmiluk National Park to visit Edith Falls. The falls are only accessible from the other end of the park by a walking trail. We pre-booked online a Northern Territory campsite here so we went to explore the falls until it was time to settle in for the night. We really enjoyed our time at Edith Falls. There is a lower falls, but the more spectacular part of the area is the upper falls. So make sure to head up there where you are able to swim in the pools next to the large waterfalls. There is the Leliyn Trail 2.6 km loop track that gives you various views of the falls, as well as access to the upper pools. However, if you’re like us, we just decided to stop at the upper falls and then return on the same trail as it was hot. This significantly shortened the hike – so it probably only ended up being about a 20-minute walk up and then 20 minutes back. The pools up top were gorgeous! If you timed it right you might get some of the pools to yourself towards the end of the afternoon, when tourist groups have left & many guests are returning for the day.

Day 11-12: Edith Falls to Litchfield National Park
Distance: 257 km | Time Driving: 2 hr. 42 min.

This was our last major drive of our journey and it took us to Litchfield National Park. The Park has a wide variety of places to explore, including some waterfalls and even some off-road 4WD tracks. However, after we arrived, we realized that we were a bit too early in the season still. Several of the off-the-beaten path attractions were still closed or not accessible yet after being closed for the topical summer conditions. We came to find out that some of the spots, especially the water spots, have salt water crocodiles sneak in up the rivers during the wet season. Therefore, they have to ensure they have left or been cleared out before they can re-open. During our visit in the second week of May, it was still a bit too early. This was a sign of the sights that were open during our visit on May 10 (however, conditions/dates can vary from year-to-year):

Sign at Litchfield National Park showing which sights are open to visitors.
Visitor Access Sign at Litchfield National Park as of May 8, 2022.

However, even though we missed out on some of the sights and some of the 4WD roads, there was still lots to see & explore. We had the idea going in, that we might be able to do some hikes. However, the heat & humidity was a bit too much, so we mostly just headed to short lookout points and places where we could jump in for a swim.

We stopped at Tolmer Falls for a short walk out to the beautiful viewpoint. The water is not accessible here, however, as the caves are home to some endangered bat species.

We had also planned to swim & spend the night at Wangi Falls, but found out it was still closed for swimming, so we opted to go to Florence Falls for the afternoon. It was a perfect & picturesque spot for a swim, multiple waterfalls and even some pools the kids could explore. We even saw a water lizard on the rocks.

Our night at Wangi Campgrounds ended up being one of our most difficult nights of camping on the road trip. Not only was it the hottest it had been at night during our time sleeping in the rooftop tent, but it was the highest humidity & there were so MANY mosquitoes! (Or ‘mozzies’ as they are known here.) We all went to bed at 7:30-8 p.m. because we couldn’t even stand outside (with bug spray on) without getting attacked! I think we just had poor timing because the water was quite high & there was swampy areas around Wangi Falls, so it was a prime spot for the mosquitoes. However, it wasn’t a fun night of camping to say the least. The next day we debated back & forth about whether we should attempt our last night in the tent at Florence Falls campsite which we had booked. However, the overnight low was only going to be 24 C and we all didn’t get great sleep the night before. We decided to surrender & head into Darwin a day earlier than planned & get a room with AC for the night.

Wangi Falls at Litchfield National Park in May.
Wangi Falls at Litchfield National Park

For our last day at Litchfield, we checked out Buley Rockholes, which are the pools at the top of Florence Falls. There were a wide variety of swimming spots and it was a fun place to hang out.

Boy sitting on the edge of  Buley Rockhole in Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
Buley Rockholes at Litchfield National Park

Day 13-14: Litchfield National Park to Darwin
Distance: 142 km | Time Driving: 1 hr. 40 mins.

It was a relatively short last drive to finish our road trip on the Stuart Highway and arrive in Darwin. While in the city, we visited Crocodylus Park to see the crocodiles. (Darwin is one of the main areas you'll find saltwater crocodiles in Australia.) Many of the crocodiles have been rescued or were problems in the areas they were living, so they now reside here. They also had some other Australian wildlife including dingos, kangaroos, wallabies and reptiles/snakes. As part of your admission, they have several demonstrations, including a crocodile feeding, monkey feeding and a reptile demonstration. Make sure to confirm the times when buying your ticket. There is also a boat cruise you can take to see the jumping crocodiles as you go on the boat; but it was an extra $15 per adult and $9 per child, so we decided to forego that option. However, we felt we got a pretty good sense of the jumping of the crocodiles in the crocodile feeding demonstration.

If you’re in Darwin on a Thursday or Sunday evening between April to October, many locals recommend checking out the Mindil Beach Sunset Market! Here there are many tasty food vendors to choose from with live music! We grabbed our food from the vendors and then went to sit on the grass (or beach) to enjoy. The market is right up against the beach, so it is perfect for sunset views!

With how hot it gets here, it is odd NOT to see people out swimming. However, this is because there are very poisonous boxed jellyfish that inhabit the water there, so you have to avoid the water between October 1 to May 31.

We finished up our stay in Darwin by staying in hotels, due to the heat and humidity; but as with most cities in Australia, there are city-based campsites available if you choose!

Final Thoughts on the Road Trip:

Road tripping through the center of Australia was a great way to see and experience the country. However, probably the thing that surprised us the most was how hard it ended up being to get internet or cell phone reception. We figured there would at least be some spots on the highway where there would be some, but we barely had any connection from the time we left Port Pirie until we got to Alice Springs and then again to Darwin, unless we had Wi-Fi from the campsite. (We were using Vodafone Australia SIM cards.)

We also expected the prices to be higher in the interior because of the limited supply and cost to transport them, but the prices were still a shocker. The cost of fuel added up as well. On the coast, diesel was around $1.90-2.09 AUD per litre, whereas in the center it was $2.80 AUD per litre. (Early May 2022)

While we had driven much longer road trips down to Central America, this one just seemed like a lot more driving. I think mainly because there weren’t as many places to stop to break up the drives & we did it in a shorter timeframe. As much as we tried not to have longer than 5-6 hour drives per day, it still felt like we were on the road lots. Ideally, I think it would have been nice to have a bit more time to break it up and spend a few more days near Uluru and Mereenie Loop for a bigger break in the middle.

However, we LOVED experiencing the off-road and camping culture of Australia. There were so many Aussies we met on our travels that were doing 8-24 month trips around Australia; and everyone was super friendly and hospitable. The kids especially enjoyed meeting friends at the campsites and playing with them, as they didn’t have to worry about the language barrier. It was interesting to see the varying levels of campsites too. Everything from free (toilets included) to by donation to the full-service and full-amenity sites that were around $50-60 AUD per night ($35-42 USD/night or $45-54 CDN/night).

This iconic road trip through the center was one that allowed us to discover more off the beaten parts of Australia! It really pushed us to our limits in some regards; and created an even greater appreciation for the outdoors. By the time it was all said and done, we had traveled 5,740 kilometers all the way from Melbourne to Darwin and drove the length of Australia. It will be an adventure we always remember! If you’re interested in seeing the first week of our road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, then make sure to check out these two posts – The Great Ocean Road and Up to Adelaide.


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