Most people who visit Central Australia swing via Kings Canyon and Uluru by going up and down the Stuart Highway. And if you’ve got a 2wd vehicle that you want to keep off the dirt then that’s the best way to go. But if you’re lucky enough to have a vehicle that’s happy to go off the bitumen, then read on, because the Mereenie Loop is a much more adventurous and interesting way to explore the area!
The Mereenie Loop technically really only covers the route from the West MacDonnell Ranges to Kings Canyon, but most people use it to describe the journey that encompasses Alice Springs west through the MacDonnell Ranges, then across to Kings Canyon (often with a little detour to Hermannsburg & Palm Valley), and on to the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, then back up the Stuart Highway to return to Alice Springs (or the other way around if you prefer).
If you do the full loop from Alice Springs return via the West Macs, Palm Valley, Kings Canyon and Uluru/Kata Tjuta you’ll cover roughly 1330km of which only around 150km is dirt. If, however, you want to cover all those same areas and return to Alice Springs without any dirt roads, you’ll cover more like 1700km. So, not only in the Mereenie Loop more fun, it’s also a short cut that prevents a lot of boring backtracking up and down the Stuart Highway.
The West MacDonnell Ranges
We started our journey in Alice Springs, after coming down the Tanami Track from Broome. We relaxed in Alice for a few days, then headed west towards the beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges. These ranges are easily accessible from Alice Springs, and the road is sealed the whole way through. There are a number of great gorges to access, including many picturesque (but freezing cold!) swimming holes, and some excellent camping options ranging from free stops, to low cost national parks, to camping areas with hot showers. Many people choose to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges as a day trip from Alice Springs, but if you have the time we recommend spending a few nights and exploring it properly. We loved this area so much we wrote a whole post about it, so feel free to check it out for more information.
After leaving the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park it’s well worth popping in to check out Gosse Bluff. This beautiful crater was formed roughly 142 million years ago when an asteroid roughly 600m wide crashed to Earth. You can spot the Gosse Bluff Crater from various lookouts along the road, but it's much better up close and personal. It’s around about 10km of dirt access road, and there is a short walk once you get there up onto the rim of the crater for excellent views.
Hermannsburg & Palm Valley
After stopping in at Gosse Bluff you have the option of detouring out to Hermannsburg & Palm Valley before carrying on to the Mereenie Loop. Hermannsburg is a good place to stock up on any supplies needed at the grocery store, and pick up your Mereenie Loop permit. And if you’re interested you can visit the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct in the old Lutheran Mission.
For us the main attraction was Palm Valley. We’ve heard people recommend this place time and time again on our travels, so we definitely wanted to see it for ourselves. The Palm Valley Campground can be found down a short, relatively unchallenging dirt track. The campground here is one of the best national parks campsites we’ve ever stayed in. It features large shady sites, flushing toilets, hot showers, and communal firepits, and costs only $6.60 per adult per night which is excellent value. And it’s a great place to drop your caravan or camper before you tackle the last few kilometres to Palm Valley, because the last section is definitely 4x4 only. You’re going to want some decent clearance on your 4x4 too, as there is a bit of rock hopping and some decent sized potholes (which may or may not be full of water) to navigate before you actually reach the valley. But hey, that’s half the fun!
Palm Valley is named after the Red Cabbage Palms that are mysteriously found here despite being found nowhere else in Central Australia. How they got here remains a mystery, making the valley a very unique place to explore. There are a number of walks to do in the area, and we recommend both the loop walk out at the valley itself, as well as the lookout walk. Both have a shorter or longer version, depending on how energetic you feel.
The Mereenie Road
This is the dirt section of road that gets you down to Kings Canyon without backtracking. Now, we’ve heard some pretty wild stories about this section of road, but we found it absolutely fine. If you’re used to travelling on the dirt then you probably will too, although it will obviously depend on the conditions at the time. If, however, you’re used to sticking to the blacktop, then you may find this road a little challenging. Be prepared for some corrugations, lower your tyre pressures and just take your time – there’s no rush! You do also need to grab a permit before travelling on this road. Details below.
Kings Canyon, or Watarraka National Park, can be found not long after completing the dirt section of the Mereenie Loop. Before reaching the national park you’ll find the Kings Canyon Resort, which is where most people choose to camp. It doesn’t come cheap, but they have the monopoly of being the only place in the area other than the Kings Creek Station, a little further down the road.
The thing to keep in mind when choosing where to camp to explore Kings Canyon is this: on days where the temperature is forecast to reach higher than 36 degrees they close the Kings Canyon Rim Walk at 9am. So if you want to do this walk (and in our opinion there is almost no point visiting Kings Canyon if you don’t) and the weather is warm, then you need to camp somewhere close enough to be able to access the park nice and early in the morning.
For us the forecast was 41 degrees, so we commenced the walk at 7am, and finished it just before 11am (with a 5 year-old who walked the whole way). By the end it was getting extremely hot, so in retrospect we should have started even earlier! The Rim walk is said to be 6km, but there are two detours off the main walk to a lookout and the Garden of Eden waterhole that most people do, so in reality you’re looking at over 8km. The first part of the walk is a steep climb, but after that it’s not particularly challenging. There are plenty of sheer drops though, so make sure you stay a good distance from the edge to avoid catastrophe, and then just enjoy the stunning views as you make your way around the top of the canyon.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
After Kings Canyon it’s a three hour drive out to Yulara and another 4.5 hours from there back to Alice Springs, with nice sealed roads the whole way (and in some parts a 130km/hr speed limit!) There is so much to see and do in the Uluru area, that we can’t fit it all in here. Instead, check out the article we wrote about how to make the most of your time there.
Our tips for the Mereenie Loop
Make sure you fill up your fuel tank and any jerry cans in Alice Springs, as prices get very high once you get out to Kings Canyon and Uluru. We also topped up at both Glen Helen Gorge and Hermannsburg on our way through, as they were both cheaper than Uluru/Kings Canyon. Use an app like FuelMap to check prices before you go so you know the best places to fill up.
Grab your Mereenie Loop permits at either Glen Helen Homestead, or at the grocery shop in Hermannsburg. Or if you’re coming from the south you can grab one at the Kings Canyon Resort. They’ll set you back $6.50 per vehicle, and are valid for three days.
Watch out for brumbies! There is a big, healthy population of them around the Hermannsburg, Palm Valley and Mereenie Loop area.
Take your time. Sure, you could do this loop in three or four days if you really had to, but personally we chose to take two weeks and make the most of it. After all, it’s a long way from anywhere, so if you’re making the effort to head out, you might as well do it properly!
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