Best Things to Do in the Red Centre

Sunset at ANZAC Hill in Alice Springs

So, you’re coming to Central Australia to explore the Red Centre. You know that you are definitely going to see Uluru, but you’re not sure about what else there is to do. That’s okay, because I’ve grown up in Alice Springs and I can point you towards some of the best things to do in this region.

Things to know before you go

The Red Centre is great if you love being outdoors. Many of the activities and tourist sites that I’m going to share with you will involve some form of hiking or long-ish drives, so be prepared. You need to also be aware that many of the sites in this area require a 4WD to access. As I do not have a 4WD, I will mostly be sharing locations that can be easily accessed in a 2WD or that I have accessed using a local tour company.

Be warned that this part of Australia can get very hot in summer months (November – February), easily reaching the low to mid 40s (that’s degrees Celsius), and can have subzero temperatures in the winter (June – August). I should also note that autumn and spring are basically non-existent and last a couple of weeks at best, so keep that in mind when planning your trip. Lastly, make sure that you take warnings about outdoor activities seriously. Sadly, a tourist from Germany died earlier this year after attempting to go hiking in the middle of summer which IS NOT recommended due to the extreme temperatures. If you do go hiking, even if it is only for a short walk, take plenty of water, listen to your body, and tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.  

Around the Town

Sunset at ANZAC Hill in Alice Springs
The Desert Park

The Desert Park is the Alice version of a zoo and it is a must see. The Desert Park covers three desert habitats: the woodlands, sand country and desert rivers. Within each of these habitats you will find animal enclosures and cultural presentations. My favourite area within the park is the desert rivers habitat. It’s calm and cool amongst the trees and you get to see water, which isn’t a common site.

The Reptile Centre

The Reptile Centre is like a mini version of The Desert Park, except its entire focus is obviously on reptiles. They have daily handling shows where you get opportunities to handle various lizards and snakes, so it’s great for children.

Sunrise or Sunset at ANZAC Hill

The ANZAC Hill memorial was unveiled in 1934 to honour the local men who went to fight in World War I (you can actually see the graves of some of these locals at the Memorial Avenue cemetery). It is located in the centre of town, and you can either drive or climb to the top. It’s not very tall or steep, and is the premium location for sunset and sunrise viewings over the town.  The photograph above was taken from the car park of ANZAC Hill.

Sunday Markets

The Sunday Markets are held down the Todd Mall once a fortnight and feature foods and local crafts and products.

Aboriginal Art Galleries

Alice Springs is well known for its Aboriginal Art and has over 10 Aboriginal art galleries featuring the work of local artists. If you can’t find anything you like in any of the galleries, take a stroll down the Todd Mall where you will see locals selling their artwork on the church grass. This is actually pretty cool since you get to talk to the artist themselves about their artwork and your money goes directly to the artist.

Climb Mt Gillen
Looking up at the rocks I need to scramble to reach the summit of Mt Gillen.
About to climb those rocks to to reach the top of Mt Gillen

Mt Gillen is one of the most iconic geological features of Alice Springs. You can find views of Mt Gillen all around town, especially on top of ANZAC Hill which is the premium sunrise and sunset viewing location in town. However, if you want a truly amazing sunrise or sunset view, you have to climb Mt Gillen. This is hike is not for the faint-of-heart as it is very steep and at times slippery, and requires you to engage in some rock scrambling at the end to get to the top. And while it can be exhausting, the views are worth it. You can read more about my experience climbing the mountain here.

Picnic at the Telegraph Station

The Telegraph Station was built in the late 1800s and was the first European settlement in Alice Springs. It is a popular picnic spot, and provides access to a number of hikes and mountain bike trails. You can find more information here.

Get Outdoors

Emma sitting at a natural rock window on Section 10 of the Larapinta Trail
At the start of Section 10 of the Larapinta Trail
Hot Air Ballooning

There are few things more beautiful than floating over the scenery of Alice Springs in a hot air balloon. Despite my recently developed reservations towards hot air balloons, I actually went on my first hot air balloon ride here in Alice for a friend’s 18th birthday. It was such an amazing experience seeing the sun light-up the red landscape of the region. There are two companies you can go with: Outback Ballooning and Spinifex Ballooning.

Visit a Water Hole

Being over 2,000km from the nearest beach is one of the downsides to being in Alice Springs in the summer, so it’s lucky that we have four permanent waterholes within a 2 hour drive. Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen are located among the West Macs and are three of the four only permanent swimmable waterholes in the area. The fourth waterhole is Red Bank Gorge, and the only reason I don’t mention it is because it requires a 4WD to reach, and is known for water scorpions and water snakes! You can camp at each of these waterholes and complete short hikes. See the NT Tourism site for more information.

  • Ellery Creek Big Hole – located 80kms west of Alice Springs
  • Ormiston Gorge – located 135ks west of Alice Springs, 55km up from Ellery
  • Glen Helen – located 130kms west of Alice Springs

These waterholes are really deep (Ellery is thought to be 13 metres deep!) and are dark and freezing, even in the dead of summer. Make sure you are careful when swimming at them, and as tempting as it might be, don’t jump off the rocks because we just simply don’t know what is beneath the water.

Hike the Larapinta Trail

The Larapinta Trail is a 223 kilometer hiking track that progresses along the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges and was voted by National Geographic as one of the top 20 hiking destinations in the world. The trail starts at the Telegraph Station in Alice Springs and ends at Mt Sonder and is divided into 12 sections. You can either complete the trail in one attempt, or you can break it into a series of smaller day or overnight hikes. I’ve only completed section 10 of the trail, but I’m looking forward to completing more sections during this year’s hiking season. For more information about this trek, visit The Friends of the Larapinta Trail or The Larapinta Trail Website.

Explore the West MacDonnell Ranges
The Adventurer's Way road sign

The Larapinta Trail and the waterholes mentioned above are all located along the Western MacDonnell ranges, but they aren’t the only locations to see and explore in this area. If you choose to follow Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive up to Glen Helen, you will also get a chance to see Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, Serpentine Gorge and the Ochre Pits. Many of these locations are steeped in local Aboriginal Culture and make a beautiful and educational experience. For more information visit the Northern Territory Parks site.

Explore the East MacDonnell Ranges

The East Macs are often forgotten in favour of the West Macs, but that’s okay, it just means you’ll have fewer people in your photos. The East Macs are not as popular as because there are no longer any permanent waterholes (long-term residents tell me Emily and Jesse Gaps used to be the best swimming locations) and because the entire route is not sealed, meaning you will need a 4WD to access anything past Trephina Gorge. You can access the Ross River resort on a single lane, sealed road.

Along the East Macs you can visit Emily and Jesse Gap which are located only 14km out of town and provide picnic facilities and are home to sacred Aboriginal art works. You can also visit Corroboree Rock and take a 20 minute walk around this dolomite rock which is sacred for Aboriginal men’s business. One of the best features that can be accessed by 2WD (check road conditions to be sure) is Trephina Gorge. It hosts a semi-permanent waterhole and sheet cliffs and two camp grounds. If you have access to a high clearance 4WD and an experienced driver you can visit N’Dhala Gorge to see some ancient Aboriginal engravings, the Arltunga Historical Reserve which was the first town built in Central Australia after the discovery of Gold, and Ruby Gap Nature Park which was named after the abundance of rubies in the area. Jokes, it was named Ruby Gap mistakenly after garnets were found there.

Festivals and Events

The Beanie Festival

This is my all-time favourite festival, and I never miss it. The Beanie Fest is held in June each year and was initially designed to upskill local Aboriginal women and raise money for various community projects. It has since expanded and become a well-known Alice Springs event. At the festival you can find beanies and scarves of all shapes, sizes, colours, and patters. The reason why I love this festival so much is because I ALWAYS manage to find the strangest beanie to add to my collection.

Parrtjima Festival of Light

The light festival is held annually to celebrate and promote local Aboriginal culture and language through music and lights. It is a sensory overload, and an amazing experience, and is one of my favourite local festivals, closely following the Beanie Fest. It is held at the Alice Springs Desert Park and is a free event. You can find out more about this event, including dates, at the Parrtjima Light Festival website, and you can read about why I love this festival here.

Wide Open Spaces Festival

The WOS Festival is held annually in May and is a three day festival celebrating music and desert culture. It is held at Ross River Resort. I attended in 2017 and had every intention of going again this year, only to discover they were taking the year off. If you don’t enjoy being around hippies, this isn’t the place for you. Maybe visit Ross River resort another time?

Blacken Open Air

This one isn’t for everyone, but if you are a lover of heavy metal music, you’ll feel right at home at this 3 day long festival. You can find more information on their website here.

It’s become a sad reality for Central Australia that many tourists bypass Alice Springs in favour of flying straight into ‘The Rock’ because it is more convenient, and sadly, cheaper. Our town appreciates your visit as we do rely on the tourist dollar. So if you are thinking of visiting this area of Australia, remember Alice Springs and consider dropping by.

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