The Explorers Way is a 3,000 km (1,860 mi) road trip from Adelaide, South Australia to Darwin, Northern Territory…or Darwin to Adelaide if you prefer driving south. No matter which direction you drive, you will cross through the red centre and the heart of the Australian outback.
While researching our Explorers Way trip, every itinerary we found was for a 4WD vehicle, which allows you to make some different itinerary choices. For all the other 2WD drivers out there, here’s our 2WD Explorers Way road trip itinerary.
Our Explorers Way 2WD Itinerary
Our Explorers Way itinerary assumes that you plan to visit Kings Canyon and Uluru while you are in the neighborhood – sometimes called the Red Centre Way. If you don’t, then just skip those days. Our detailed blog post on Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will help you determine how much time to spend there.
We also looped off the Explorers Way to enjoy the 735-km Nature’s Way loop through Nitmiluk National Park, Kakadu National Park, and Litchfield National Park. Again, if you are saving these amazing and worthwhile national parks for another trip, just cut those days from your itinerary.
Overall, our Explorers Way itinerary is meant for inspiration. You should customize it for your dream trip!
Day 1: Adelaide to Port Augusta
Today is your first day on the Explorers Way, but don’t expect much exploring. You’ll spend most of the day clearing Adelaide and environs.
Port Wakefield Bakery is a convenient stop with good food (pies and slices) and clean toilets. Plenty of service stations dot on this stretch. The drive winds through beautiful farmland, but no key sites to visit. Keep an eye out for the Lochiel Ness Monster in potentially pink Lake Bumbunga.
Port Augusta is a large town with a HUGE Woolworths and a Coles. You can stock up on supplies here. You won’t have this much selection again until Alice Springs.
We stayed at the Comfort Inn and Suites (click here for photos and current prices), a friendly and clean family-run motel perfect for a one night stay. It was cold in South Australia when we visited, but the Comfort Inn has a swimming pool that would be refreshing in hot weather.
Day 2: Port Augusta to Coober Pedy
Distance: 540 km
As you leave Port Augusta behind, you feel you’re properly on the Explorers Way. Today has a few good stops for stretching your legs or enjoying the view.
Take a detour 6-km off the Stuart Highway to Woomera, an artificial town built to house the workers for Australia’s experimental rocket program. In the 1960s, the town had a population of over 5,000. With only 120 people today, you feel the quiet of the remote location. We only stopped briefly to walk through the free Missile Park, but if you want a longer break check out the Woomera Heritage Centre.
A further 40 minutes down the road is Lake Hart a huge salt lake that you can walk onto! Stop here!
You should be in Glendambo by lunchtime. Don’t forget to refuel!
Between Glendambo and Coober Pedy, lies the Royal Flying Doctor’s emergency runway (aka The Stuart Highway), an Instagram-worthy photo op. We didn’t stop, but you get a great photo at what looks like a pedestrian crossing in the middle of nowhere.
This afternoon enjoy Coober Pedy. We recommend visiting one of the underground churches (we visited the Serbian Orthodox Church), touring an opal mine (we did Tom’s Working Opal Mine), and viewing the sunset from the Big Winch. Pizza at John’s is supposed to be the 5th best pizza in Australia. I would say the jury is out on that one, but I suppose everyone has their own pizza tastes.
Use the morning to wrap up any sightseeing in Coober Pedy. Then it’s time to hit the Explorers Way again.
The Dingo Fence is 50km outside of Coober Pedy. Keep your eye on the odometer and don’t blink. It’s gone in a flash if you don’t count the kilometers. The fence doesn’t have a sign so it pretty much just looks like a fence. As the longest manmade structure in the world, it is interesting to take note of.
Marla is a good stop for lunch with a grassy area for a picnic…and a grocery store!
The next stop is the South Australia / Northern Territory border. Don’t forget to stop for a photo op! If you skipped lunch in Marla, the large parking lot here is a good picnic spot.
Then onward to Kulgera, which holds the illustrious geographical position as the first and last pub in the Northern Territory.
From Kulgera, it’s an easy 45 minutes to Erldunda Roadhouse (click here for photos and current prices), which is an awesome roadhouse stop. Pool, playground, sunset viewing platform, kangaroos, emus, and typical roadside amenities. Highly recommended!
Day 4: Erldunda to Kings Canyon (Red Centre Way)
Distance: 270 km
Erldunda is where we peel off the Explorers Way and onto the Red Centre Way to visit Kings Canyon and Uluru. If that’s not your thing, skip ahead to Day 8 and head straight for Alice Springs.
Curtin Springs has fuel, food, toilets, and great views of Mount Connor. Don’t confuse Mount Connor with Uluru. You still have a long drive for Uluru views!
Kings Creek Station (click here for photos and current prices) was a great place to stay. The 2-person safari tents are perfect for non-campers. The playground was unique and we learned to play hide and seek in French. The convenience store and food options are limited but tasty. Bring any extras you need such as hiking snacks. Safari tents include an ample Bushman’s breakfast but eat early before the tour groups arrive.
After an early breakfast, head straight to Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. We recommend the 6 km Kings Canyon Rim Walk, but shorter walks are available. Learn more in our complete guide to Kings Canyon.
After the hike, drive to Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, which is the only game in town when it comes to accommodation – from camping to 5* luxury. The resort has an IGA grocery store well stocked with essentials, sandwiches, hiking snacks, etc. Expect to pay a “middle of Australia and there is only one shop” mark-up on groceries and gas.
For a dining splurge, we enjoyed the buffet dinner at Sails. The food was great for grown-ups and kids.
Everyone needs a park pass to enjoy Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. We HIGHLY recommend buying your pass online. If you have an online pass, you use the dedicated lane for park pass holders at the entry gate.
Start your visit at the Cultural Centre. Written and painted retellings of Dreamtime stories explain how Uluru and Kata Tjuta came to be as we know them today. This gives great context for seeing those formations in real life. Allow 30 minutes.
Next, walk or bike around the base of Uluru. We prefer biking the 11km route. The first part is a bit tough for littles with deeper sand, narrower paths, and more pedestrians. After the first one-third, cycling is much easier. Biking is great fun and a fantastic way to see all the different views around Uluru!
Responsible tourism: Please carefully note the spots around Uluru where photos/videos are not permitted for cultural reasons.
Tonight, experience the Field of Lights. If you choose a departure time after sunset, then watch the Uluru sunset from elsewhere beforehand.
Day 7: Uluru – Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta
If you enjoy the sunrise, then you will LOVE sunrise at Uluru or Kata Tjuta. Afterward, head to Kata Tjuta before the heat of the day for the 7.4 km (4.6 mi) Valley of the Winds hike. Plan on 3-4 hours.
Make sure to visit the Alice Springs Desert Park. We particularly recommend the raptor show. In the evening, watch the sunset from atop Anzac Hill.
Day 9 – Day Trip in the West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges are not on the Explorers Way, but when you’re this close why miss them? You can experience the key sites of the West MacDonnells on an easy day trip from Alice Springs. Make sure to visit Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen, and Ellery Creek. Start early to beat the crowds!
Day 10 – Alice Springs to Tennant Creek
Distance: 508 km
Today is a utilitarian day. You could press through to Mataranka, but that’s a 1075-km drive. We preferred to split the drive and take our time.
30 km north of Alice Springs you officially enter “The Tropics” when you cross the Tropic of Capricorn.
Wycliffe Well, the UFO capital of Australia, is a good chance to stretch your legs and spot an elusive UFO.
The next stop on the Explorers Way is Mataranka and its lovely natural hot springs. Bliss! If you have a chance, read “We of the Never Never” beforehand. You can even visit a recreation of the homestead while you’re here.
On the way, stretch your legs in Daly Waters. Visit its iconic pub and enjoy a few minutes on the tiny, but welcome playground.
Be CrocWise! North of Tennant Creek you are back in the saltwater crocodile zone. Only swim in designated areas.
We recommend staying at Bittersprings Cabin & Camping. The owners are extraordinarily nice and helpful! The Bitter Springs hot springs lie within walking distance. Remember to rent a pool noodle from the office as the water lacks buoyancy and it’s hard work to float! The warm water means no crocs. Yeah!
Day 12 – Mataranka to Katherine / Nitmiluk National Park
Distance: 110 km
I recommend one last dip in the hot springs before you head north to Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park. Katherine is a large town with a grocery store and a bustling visitor centre.
We camped in Nitmiluk Campground, but staying in Katherine would be fine too. If you do stay in the campground, keep an eye out for Esmeralda the harmless resident olive python.
FYI – The public free WIFI in Katherine is a mess. Don’t even bother trying.
Day 13 – Katherine to Cooinda (Kakadu National Park) via Edith Falls & Pine Creek
Distance: 300 km
If you want to skip Nature’s Way, then this is your jumping-off point. Head north on the Stuart Highway to Darwin to end your Explorers Way journey. If you want to include Nature’s Way, then keep following our itinerary.
The turn-off to Edith Falls lies 40 km north of Katherine. You drive another 20 km to the falls themselves. Once there you can swim and enjoy a short or long hike. You can enjoy this detour without committing to Nature’s Way.
Kakadu park pass. Buy your pass online before you arrive in the park. Alternatively, pick one up at the Katherine Visitor Centre. Everyone needs a park pass to visit Kakadu and they are difficult to get once you’re in the park.
Cooinda Lodge Kakadu (click here for photos and current prices) is the only accommodation option and offers camping, glamping, and rooms. Campers are welcome to use the hotel pool, which is a nice perk.
Day 14 – Cooinda (Kakadu National Park)
Start your day with a sunrise Yellow Water cruise. Yellow Water cruises sail all day, but we recommend sunrise for the colors and active wildlife. The Sunrise Yellow Water Cruise includes a post-cruise buffet breakfast at Cooinda Lodge.
In the afternoon, apply your sunscreen and bug spray and head out on the Animal Tracks Safari. You will work with a local aboriginal guide to harvest and prepare your dinner, which you enjoy as the sun sets over the wetlands. You can read all about our experience.
Booking required! The Animals Tracks Safari does book out. Make sure to reserve a spot ahead of time or risk disappointment.
Day 15 – Cooinda to Jabiru (Kakadu National Park)
Distance: 60 km
Start your morning at Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Cooinda. You could also visit the Cultural Centre on your first day in Kakadu, but we connected with the displays more after our Animal Tracks Safari.
If you need WIFI, stop at the Jabiru Public Library. The children’s section is surprisingly good for a small library. The kids enjoyed books while we did a few internet chores.
Merl campground is the perfect choice for camping (no powered sites). If you’re staying in a motel, Jabiru has several to choose from.
In the evening, head to Ubirr for the beautiful views over the floodplains and sunset. Be warned, this is a busy spot. Arrive an hour early to enjoy the Ubirr rock art on your way to the lookout.
Day 16 – Jabiru to Litchfield National Park
Distance: 300 km
We stayed at Litchfield Tourist Park (click here for photos and current prices), which is the closest accommodation to Litchfield National Park. Take advantage of the staff’s insider advice. You can also visit Litchfield National Park as a day trip from Darwin.
Day 17 – Litchfield National Park
Inside Litchfield National Park, visit the magnetic termite mounds, swim at the double waterfall at Florence Falls, and splash your way up Walker Creek. Wangi Falls is extremely popular with a snack bar and other amenities. When we visited, the swimming hole was closed due to a freshwater croc bite that morning. Nope, not kidding.
Day 18 – Litchfield National Park to Darwin
Distance: 120 km
This is your final day on the Explorers Way. Mark the occasion with a return to Litchfield National Park for a morning jumping and swimming at Buley Rockholes. Then it’s on to Darwin. Litchfield to Darwin is a short, easy drive on major highways. Now it’s up to you whether to travel onward to your next destination or explore Darwin.
WOOHOO! You made it! Congratulations on successfully navigating the sights…and roadkill…of the Explorers Way. You have crossed Australia south to north and seen some amazing countryside unique to Australia.
More Explorers Way Driving Tips
Do not drive in the dark. Take one look at all the roadkill and you will know why.
Stay fueled-up. Outback roadhouses and service stations can be long distances apart, even on a major road like Stuart Highway. Don’t get caught between them without fuel. We recommend fueling-up every time you pass a service station less than half full. Expect to pay more for fuel in the outback than in Australia’s larger cities.
Pass road trains carefully. They are LONG and take FOREVER to pass. Make sure you have an extremely long, clear straightaway before attempting to pass a road train.
Don’t count on phone reception. Mobile reception is usually non-existent until you are a few KMs away from a town or roadhouse.
Carry extra water. This sounds silly, but like fuel, you don’t want to have a car problem in the heat and get dehydrated. Throw an extra container of water in the car. You can always pass it on to another traveler in Darwin.
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