Heading to the Red Centre? What parks not to miss after your time in Uluru or Alice Springs, Australia.
Some of the best sights a destination has to offer are just outside the typical boundaries a tourist may travel, and Palm Valley and Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory of Australia are just such destinations. Get away from the Uluru crowds at either national park, and enjoy the wildlife, red rock and water features of the desert. There are several ways to arrange the trip, but planning for a few days between Uluru and Alice Springs will allow you the chance to see what the interior has to offer beyond the famous rock formation. Our Red Centre trip began in Uluru and ended in Alice Springs, and could easily be done in the reverse.
Kings Canyon offers a variety of creature comforts and makes for a destination in itself, while Palm Valley is rugged and rough, with only a campground for amenities. But, make no mistake, both are a true highlight of Red Centre, and any venture traveler would be remiss on passing up the opportunity to visit them.
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Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park
Located four hours from Uluru, and six hours from Alice Springs, Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park is fairly easy to access via rental car, camper van or tour bus and offers lodging, food, and some amazing stargazing. Adding about two and a half hours to your drive (one way) to or from Uluru and Alice Springs, make the trip departing in the morning, and after arrival, spend the remainder of your day enjoying a short bushwalk, or orienting yourself to the park and canyon. Hike the canyon in the early morning the next day, or stay a couple of days to enjoy other treks, desert 4-wheeling or a sightseeing flight.
Kings Canyon Resort
The Kings Canyon Resort offers a variety of lodging options, including camping, caravan/camper sites, basic lodge or hostel rooms, and full amenity resort rooms. A convenience store and gas station are also on site. With the varied choice in lodging style, the resort provides something for all types of travelers making their way to/from Uluru. We chose private basic lodge rooms to save a few dollars but still enjoyed a comfortable bed and quiet room. Multiple dining options are available at the resort, including a full-service restaurant, bar, and grill. Guests are also free to use barbeques on site to prepare their own meals. As a splurge, one evening, check out the resort organized tasting menu under the desert stars.
We arrived in Kings Canyon in the late afternoon after completing a sunrise tour at Uluru. The drive is beautiful between the two parks, and we sight brumbies (wild horses), camel and other wildlife along the way. If you like to photograph wildlife, keep your eyes open along the roads at both dawn and dusk. Camel and brumbies come out to graze when the heat is down, though we did sight brumbies in the mid-afternoon as we neared the resort.
Upon arrival at Kings Canyon, we checked into our basic lodge room then headed to the canyon and take the short walk into the base and creek areas to orient ourselves for the next day. The canyon is simply stunning at sunset. The red rocks appear to soak up the setting sun and illuminate in shades of crimson unseen in the typical mid-day blaze. Returning to the resort just before dark, we dined in the resort restaurant then found a quiet spot to set up and watch the rising stars. What a show! With little light pollution from the resort and no surrounding towns or cities to spoil the night view, the stargazing is simply unlike anywhere else we have traveled.
On our second day in Watarrka, we to hiked the rim of the canyon in the early morning. The 6k rim walk raises 100m above the canyon floor and offers expansive desert views. We stop several times throughout our hike to simply take in the sights of the desert, the color variants in the rock, and snack on a bolder overlooking it all. As the rim walk meanders through large rock formations and domes, we enjoy the long peaceful views of nothing but desert.
Though we did not do so, travelers who choose to stay on at the resort for more than one night should enjoy the other bushwalks marked on the park map, or take a 4-wheeling or desert flight excursion. The vastness of the Australian desert deserves a bit of extra time that we wish we had, but our schedule forced our move on from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs and then Palm Valley.
Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park
Located just a two-hour drive from Alice Springs, venturers are rewarded with a fantastic landscape that surely The Land Before Time was set in. Simply spectacular, any trip to Uluru or the Alice Springs area is incomplete without taking a day to see Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park. And, depending on your sense of adventure, an equally fun part of the excursion is simply getting there.
Relatively little is said about Palm Valley in guidebooks and travel sites. The park authority calls it, “a remarkable oasis” on its signage, and other than a few guidebook words of encouragement that it’s less traveled, yet a highlight of the Northern Territory, we found it to be under-represented as a worthwhile destination. Despite reading little about it, we decided to take a chance and spend one of our days in Alice Springs getting there. We depart town in a high-clearance 4WD drive SUV, with our tank full and with some emergency supplies. This is the Outback. You need to be fully gassed up and prepared for a day in the desert. See links below to Finke Gorge National Park tips regarding 4WD vehicle travel.
Finke Gorge National Park and Palm Valley are accessible 138km west out of Alice Springs on Larapinta Drive. We pass an abandoned windmill and several old water storage towers, harkening scenes of tumbleweeds from old American western movies. Just before the park entrance, the Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg offers us a bite to eat and tour of the old Lutheran mission. Art lovers shouldn’t miss this stop. Hermannsburg was once home to artist Albert Namatjira, and the Manse on site contains a gallery showing local artists.
Continuing on to Palm Valley just south of town, we followed the signs and turn off the main road. Driving conditions started to get fun at this point. Packed red dirt, sand, and exposed rock become the route. Largely following the Finke River bed, signs and markers are occasional, but if you keep an eye out, visible. In some areas, we needed to watch for traces of vehicles gone before us to ensure we were headed the right direction, and look for stakes set in the rock to indicate the road boundary. We bounced off boulders and fjord water crossings. Nothing beats four-wheeling in the Outback, and this track is a good taste of what it can be like.
Just the nature of the drive had our expectations set high for what Palm Valley promises to be. When we arrived, it beat them. The valley is a photographer’s dream, with the light streaming into the canyon and a pre-historic backdrop that makes the view simply incomparable. Not only is it beautiful, but it is also ecologically interesting. Home to the red cabbage palm, only about 3,000 adult specimens exist today and are protected by the government. A variety of other palms and vegetation line the floor of the canyon, crowding pools of water along the Palm Creek bed. It truly looks like a scene from The Land Before Time, it’s the kind of beauty that words have a hard time depicting. Only by going and seeing for yourself can you understand how Palm Valley feels as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Dingoes! Yes, Palm Valley has dingoes. If you are really, really lucky, you may even spot a black dingo, far less common to see, but known in the area. My first close encounter with a dingo in the country was right here, and I got some fantastic shots just before dusk. Stay near water sources at dawn and dusk for the best chance of a sighting. Do not feed or otherwise disturb them, and watch from a distance. They are really special to see.
We imagine that due to the difficulty in getting here, we would see relatively few other people on our visit and enjoy a peaceful afternoon exploring the park trails. We did not stray from worn paths and rocks to avoid the risk of stepping on any juvenile cabbage palms. There is a campground with showers and toilets in the park, so be assured you won’t spend an entire day using bush facilities.
Overnighting in the campground is by the honor system, with a daily fee registration box, and some campsites are river fronting. If you like to camp, I recommend staying a night and enjoying the multiple tracks for hiking available in the area. Each is well worth the short 1 to 2 hours they take to complete. If bushwalking is your thing, trekkers can hike well into the park following several creek beds to your content, but make sure to bring enough water for as many nights as you plan to stay out of the campground. There is no food or supplies available, so you must also be sure to bring enough of these. Pack out what you pack in, and remove your own trash.
While Palm Valley is completely accessible by a confident driver with a little sense of adventure, this day trip is not recommended to those who prefer city outings and are not confident in remote areas outdoors. The requirement of a proper 4WD vehicle for this trip is imperative and be sure you are gassed up before leaving town. The Palm Valley track can flood when the river is up, so also be sure to check road conditions before you depart and do not attempt to fjord fast running or deep water. Vehicles must also cross large but smooth boulders, so having the proper 4WD SUV with clearance is also a must. On a day trip, be sure you are able to return to the main road before dusk. Check with your rental car agency, many have this requirement. If you are not confident you can make it on your own, I suggest not missing out and instead of finding a local tour operator to take you. Finally, a healthy appreciation for all the risks of touring Australia is needed for any trip Downunder. Aussies take it seriously, so should you.
The suggested itineraries are below. Spend an extra night(s) in either park for a relaxed pace and to enjoy more of what the Red Centre has to offer.
Overnight itinerary for camping:
Day 1: Depart Uluru in the morning, overnight at Kings Canyon Resort or campground
Day 2/3: Depart Kings Canyon in mid-morning for Palm Valley, an overnight camp in Palm Valley campground
Day 3/4: Depart Palm Valley for Alice Springs mid-afternoon.
Overnight itinerary for hotel accommodations:
Day 1: Depart Uluru in the morning, overnight at Kings Canyon Resort or campground
Day 2: Depart Kings Canyon in the mid-afternoon, overnight in Alice Springs.
Day 3: Depart Alice Springs early in the morning for a day trip to Palm Valley, return to Alice before dark.
- Finke Gorge National Park Fact Sheet