Right in the middle of Australia, in the middle of a vast desert outback is the small city of Alice Springs. Alice has long been considered the gateway to Central Australia’s amazing Red Centre region. Surrounded by the mountains of the MacDonnell Ranges on either side of the city, with a gap that allows the traffic to flow through the middle, Alice Springs has so much more to explore than meets the eye.
For a long time, Alice Springs thrived on the fact that it was the only airport in Central Australia. It was the only way to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. However, since the opening of the Ayers Rock Airport in 2013 tourism has been a little on the decline in Alice Springs, with visitors choosing to fly directly into Ayers Rock and avoid the 6 hour drive through the desert.
But we’re here to show you that Alice Springs is not to be avoided. It holds so much natural, untouched beauty, with some of the Red Centre’s best gaps and gorges only a short drive away. It’s home to some truly amazing attractions, like the Kangaroo Sanctuary. It’s a city in the middle of the desert that shouldn’t be missed on any Central Australian itinerary.
For those of you who like road trips, natural attractions and adventure, here’s everything you need to know about Alice Springs.
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How to get to Alice Springs
There are now regular flights to Alice Springs Airport flying direct with Qantas from most major cities in Australia, with Virgin Australia also offering direct flights from Darwin and Adelaide.
If you’re driving, Alice Springs is pretty much right in the centre of Australia, and about a 16 hour drive away from the closest major cities. There are regular petrol stations, roadhouses and small towns along the major highways that connect Alice Springs to both Darwin and Adelaide, but fuel stops can still be long distances apart. Make sure you prepare for your trip by knowing where all the fuel stops and road houses are before you leave to avoid any issues.
Make sure you stop at the Welcome to Alice Springs sign on the way from the airport or Stuart Highway to the city. You can’t visit Alice without snapping a photo here.
Where to stay in Alice Springs
You can find every level of accommodation in Alice Springs, from desert luxury accommodation to free camping grounds.
For luxury hotels head straight to Lasseters – Alice’s only casino complex with rooms decorated in Aboriginal art and beautiful views over the MacDonnell Ranges. There are also several comfortable and affordable hotels in the area including the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Desert Palms.
If you’re travelling with a caravan or campervan, we can highly recommend the Big 4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park. The park was big and spacious, and offers all sorts of fun activities for guests including pancake breakfasts on Sundays, didgeridoo shows on Saturdays, cheese and wine night on Fridays and local live music on Wednesdays. The facilities were clean and modern and it was really just a lovely place to stay. You can find out more about the park at their website here.
West MacDonnell Ranges: There are lots of different campgrounds to stay in around the West MacDonnell Ranges including at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge. The campgrounds have a small fee for camping, which is paid in cash at the grounds ranging from about $5 to $10 per person depending on the site. Make sure you bring the exact money because there is no change there. Most of the campgrounds include facilities such as flushing toilets, BBQ facilities, fire pits, picnic tables and shades.
There are also a couple of great free camps within the West MacDonnell Ranges, including the Neil Harvey Lookout that we stayed at (in the image above). This spot was also one of the only places in the ranges that had Telstra reception available.
What to do in Alice Springs
To make the most of your visit to Alice Springs, check out some of these attractions that make the city so unique.
Visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary
One of the very best things to do in Alice Springs is a tour to the Kangaroo Sanctuary. Home to some of the most adorable joeys and toughest red kangaroos you have ever seen. The Kangaroo Sanctuary was actually featured on a Discovery Channel show called Kangaroo Dundee, where founder Brolga explains his unique life rescuing and raising these beautiful little kangaroos.
To find out more about our full experience, check out our complete post on The Kangaroo Sanctuary for all the gorgeous pictures and a guide to visiting this iconic spot.
Explore the MacDonnell Ranges
Surrounding Alice Springs and stretching for miles across the land in both directions are the MacDonnell Ranges, full of beautiful secluded gorges, waterholes, hiking trails, incredible views, 4WD tracks and camping spots that make you feel like you’re completely immersed in nature.
In the West MacDonnell Ranges some of the highlights include Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge. Embarrassingly, we didn’t even know about the MacDonnell Ranges the first time we visited Alice Springs and it was the best surprise. We didn’t have enough time to explore them properly the first time we visited, but you can bet that we spent quite a few days hopping through all these different spots on our recent visit. They are all completely unique and so beautiful, try to visit as many as you can.
Over in the East MacDonnell Ranges there are fewer spots to visit, but they are just as great! Check out Trephine Gorge Nature Park and the John Hayes Rock Hole, Emily’s Gap, Jesse’s Gap and Ross River.
Visit the Alice Springs Desert Park
The Alice Springs Desert Park is an environmental education park teaching visitors about the native animals and plants that can be found in the barren desert environment of Central Australia. It is also a leader in conservation of this environment though research programs, as well as their public education.
Take a walk around the Desert Park for a great insight into many of the different environments that make up the desert landscape, including rivers, sandy country and woodland. There are all kinds of exhibits to explore with lots of very unique birds that we have never seen before. One of our favourite exhibits though was getting up close to some of their iconic thorny devils. They are SO MUCH SMALLER in real life than we would have expected, roughly less than 15cm at full length!
The Desert Park is open from 7:30am until 6pm each day, with last entry at 4:30pm. Admission costs $37 per adult, with discounts for children, families and concession.
Alice Springs Desert Park || 871 Larapinta Drive, Alice Springs || (08) 8951 8788
Check out the National Transport Hall of Fame
There are a few different museums make up the National Transport Hall of Fame, including the Old Ghan Heritage Railway and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. As you walk around the different rooms of the museums you can find trucks and train memorabilia that date back through the years, showing the evolution of transport in Australia. There are some of the first trucks that ever took to the highways, including a few with wooden wheels!
They also have one of the first trains that ran along the Ghan Railway line, which was originally called the Commonwealth Railways. You can walk through the different cabins of the train to see how much things have changed since their original build. It’s a great insight into the way goods make their way across our huge vast country.
National Transport Museum || 92 Norris Bell Drive, Alice Springs || (08) 8952 7161
See the views from Anzac Hill
Head up to Anzac Hill to see views across the whole city of Alice Springs. It’s a great place to see how big the city actually is, including the gap in the middle and the MacDonnell Ranges on either side. You can either drive up to the lookout point, or if you’re feeling a little more active you can take the stairs from the street.
Rainbow Valley Conservation Park
Head to Rainbow Valley Conservation Park at sunset to see this unique rock formation light up in all different colours as the sun goes down. Right at sunset, for only a very short period of time (less than 10 minutes), the rock lights up into the brightest red glow and is absolutely beautiful.
Rainbow Valley is about 80 kilometres south of Alice Springs, before you take a 20 kilometre dirt road to the car park. The signs say 4WD only and the track can be pretty soft in parts, so make sure you’re prepared for the conditions.
Detour to Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon lies half way between Alice Springs and Uluru and is the perfect desert detour to explore more of the Red Centre. The canyon is brimming with soaring red rock faces, overlooking palm forests below and is home to over 600 species of plants and animals, along with the Luritja Aboriginal people who have lived here for 20,000 years.
There are lots of different ways to experience Kings Canyon, including the popular Rim Walk (which takes 3-4 hours along a 6 kilometre track), or you can explore from the back of a camel, the heights of a helicopter or by quad bike. It’s a truly unique piece of Australia that shouldn’t be missed.
Where to eat in Alice Springs
If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in Alice some of our favourites included:
Monte’s Lounge – for a very unique, outdoor, circus feel with a large beer garden and no walls, Monte’s Lounge is a great place to grab a drink, burger and a booth and watch the footy or dance the night away to a live band.
Alice Springs Brewing Co – the only brewery in Central Australia, head to Alice Springs Brewing Co. to check out their locally brewed craft beer and snacks, for the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Alice.
The Juicy Rump – offering a spacious deck and beer garden right beneath the beautiful MacDonnell Ranges inside the Lasseters Hotel.
Barra on Todd Restaurant and Bar – with the widest variety of barramundi dishes, Barra on Todd was Alice’s first seafood inspired restaurant. They also offer live music from local bands each night.
Where is Alice Springs?
Alice Springs is actually right in the middle of Australia, and is a really really long drive from anywhere. In fact here’s how far away it is from the other capital cities around the country:
- Darwin: 1498 kilometres (931 miles), 15 hours and 7 minutes
- Adelaide: 1539 kilometres (950 miles), 15 hours and 47 minutes
- Melbourne: 2250 kilometres (1833 miles), 23 hours and 45 minutes
- Perth: 3605 kilometres (2240 miles), 30 hours
- Sydney: 2750 kilometres (1708 miles), 29 hours
- Brisbane: 3005 kilometres (1867 miles), 29 hours
- Canberra: 2,557 kilometres (1589), 27 hours
What else can you find in Alice Springs?
Alice is the only real town in Central Australia, and definitely the only places you can find things like kmart, restaurant options and a shopping centre. In Alice Springs you can also find most major Australian banks, lots of ATMs and currency exchange. There’s a big Coles and Woolworths in the centre of town to stock up on food, supplies and snacks before you take off on the next leg of your journey, as well as auto stores if you need car supplies, and lots of general stores you would find in a shopping centre.
Take note of the alcohol restrictions in Alice Springs
Alice Springs has severe alcohol restrictions, which can often come as quite a shock to visitors. In Alice you can only purchase take away alcohol (from bottle shops, etc) between 2pm and 9pm Monday to Friday and then 10am and 9pm on Saturdays.
On Sunday you can only buy alcohol at the Todd Tavern Drive Thru or Gapview Hotel Drive Thru (both between 10am and 9pm). Additionally, you can only purchase one bottle of port, sherry or cask wine per person per day and only after 6pm. Something to keep in mind if you were hoping to stock up on drinks before continuing on your journey.
For more information, a great place to learn more about Alice is the local tourist information centre. You can find the Central Australian Visitor Information Centre right next to the public library and you can grab a free copy of their magazine The CeNTral Visitors Guide.