Hiking the Red Centre
October 26, 2019 • Toby Ley
6 min read
At long last, the controversial climb to the summit of Australia’s most famous monolith has now closed, due to the ever-present cultural significance that surrounds the landmark. Whatever your feelings on the subject, there’s no doubt the closure of the iconic Uluru climb has left a void for the masses of visitors flocking to the Red Centre, as many visitors don’t seem to know where else to head. The good news is that there’s no shortage of great walks throughout the region to turn your attention to instead.
While there’s great things to be said about the Uluru Base Walk – the most obvious and immediate alternative to the climb – it’s where I suspect most visitors will now turn. Personally, and along with many others I suspect, I prefer a trail a little less trodden with a bit more challenge; a rewarding few hours spent exploring the very best the Outback has to offer, from the ever-present spinifex that carpets arid Australia, to the red soil plains, rolling dunes, sandstone cliffs, ancient rocky ranges, spectacular formations and soaring views of the harsh but beautiful landscape.
Any walk in the Red Centre is going to be better in the cooler months, I don’t think I need to tell you that. Still, temperatures can soar at just about any time of year, and many popular walks will close before midday if it gets too hot. With that in mind, start early, take plenty of water and you can’t go wrong – although personally I’m a sucker for what the late afternoon light does to these landscapes.
1. Valley of the Winds
Visible from Uluru, Kata Tjuta, or more commonly known as the Olgas, can seem downright deserted at times, especially compared to the former. The spectacular range of towering red boulders is best explored by the 7km Valley of the Winds walk. The track clambers up a tight valley beneath a tumble of monolithic boulders, stained with great black streaks and honeycombed with caverns and erosion, to a lookout wedged between two of the great mounds.
There’s only a glimpse of the expansive valley beyond, but the track drops down there soon enough. Wildflowers, spiny grasses, stony mounds and a ring of great red boulders paint the iconic landscape. While the climb up to the lookout can be challenging, the rest of the walk is gentle enough, but it can still take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on your fitness level.
2. Kings Canyon and the Giles Track
The 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk is one of the most spectacular walks in the centre, climbing to a fractured plateau of sandstone domes, great red cliffs and the lush greenery and sacred waterhole of the Garden of Eden. It’s tackled by countless visitors every year, and yet only a fraction of them even seem to be aware of the Giles Track, let alone walk it.
Granted, the 22km track from Kathleen Springs to the canyon is hardly a casual afternoon stroll, but it is a fantastic option for anyone preferring a longer, quieter and no less spectacular track. It’s most often done as an overnight walk, but as the track is reasonably flat and easy-going for most of its length, it’s easily accomplished in a day by fit walkers. Isolated and brimming with the ruggedly wild scenery synonymous to this land, there’s a good chance you could have it all to yourself.
3. Ormiston Pound
A side trip to the 223km Larapinta Trail, Ormiston Pound is simply one of the best and most unexpected views I’ve encountered in Australia. The 9km loop rises gradually through barren, rocky hills and spinifex-dominated valleys, only to climb a sudden ridge as the ground falls away into the pound. An enormous amphitheatre-like valley fringed by distant hills and jagged ridges, a sea of spinifex and dry rivers carving the floor, all painted in vivid outback shades of ochre-browns, yellows and reds.
It’s another walk I had almost entirely to myself, which is surprising considering the Pound is easily accessible by 130km of sealed road from Alice Springs. You feel very small walking through the valley, dwarfed by the vast, ancient landscape, the entirety of which can easily be explored to your heart’s content. The final section involves rock hopping through a spectacular gorge dotted with small waterholes and pale ghost gums, and occasionally there's enough water for a swim, if it’s warm enough.
4. Palm Valley
The shortest and easiest of these walks, but too good not to mention. Palm Valley is a stunning section of Finke Gorge National Park, about 150km from Alice Springs. Palm Valley itself, and the campground there, is accessed by an easy 4WD-recommend road from Hermannsburg. The beginning of the walking trails require another 4km of low-range driving to access, although this can just as easily be walked to make a full day trek.
Read more: Central Australia: a seven day itinerary
The 5km Mpulungkinya Walk follows a small river through a narrow valley, crowded with groves of rare red cabbage palms and small waterholes sometimes filled with intriguing shield shrimp, before crossing the rocky plateau back to where you started. It’s easy enough if you take it slow, with a bit of creek-hopping and a small climb, and there’s great views of this underrated bit of country.
5. Trephina Gorge
As far as the Red Centre goes, the East MacDonnell Ranges are often overlooked in favour of their cousins to the west. Trephina Gorge, Ruby Gap and N’Dhala Gorge all hide some great scenery, and even greater opportunities to explore.
In Trephina Gorge National Park, about 75km from Alice Springs, the Trephina Ridgetop walk is a 9km one-way hike that can be started from either the Gorge or Rockhole campgrounds, and can be turned into a loop by walking the sealed road between them. It’s a great, reasonably-challenging walk with a true sense of remoteness. There’s stunning views over the east MacDonnells, and the dry gorges are occasionally filled with enough water to form cascading rockholes.
6. Mt Sonder
At 1380m, Mt Sonder is the Northern Territory’s fourth highest peak, and stands as the western end of the Larapinta Trail, although it serves as a great walk in its own right. It’s a 15.8km return hike to the summit, and while it’s undoubtedly tough, once you’ve climbed the first steep section, it’s a relatively gradual climb.
You spend most of the walk slowly ascending a series of exposed ridges carpeted in mallee and native pine, meaning that while the sun and wind can be a bit full on, so can the sweeping views of the incredible West MacDonnell Ranges in just about every direction. The trail can be reached 150km from Alice Springs, along the mostly sealed Namatjira Drive. If you’re feeling particularly keen, it’s a popular walk to be at the summit for sunrise, as long as you don’t mind setting out at 3am.