Stuart Highway Road Trip – Adelaide to Darwin & Vice Versa

by | Last updated Jan 14, 2024 | Northern Territory, Road Trips | 2 comments

The grainy photo above is me on the Stuart Highway road trip circa 1980s – first time I visited

 

The Stuart Highway runs through the middle of Australia from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Port August and Adelaide in South Australia. An Adelaide to Darwin road trip going up or down the middle is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in Australia. It is one of the longest and sometimes loneliest highways in Australia offering some incredible vast landscapes, interesting little towns and lots of native fauna and flora to discover. It is one of the most memorable Australian drives I have done. Are you ready to discover your own Stuart Highway road trip.

If you ever ask a Northern Territorian how long it will take you to get to a place don’t be surprised if they reply ‘it should take you a six pack’. The joke is, you never worry about actual distance as it doesn’t mean much, it’s how many beers you can consume along the way that matters. Strict drink driving laws have changed this!

 

Best way to travel the Stuart Highway

 

The best way to travel the Stuart Highway is in a vehicle. Your vehicle could be a 2wd car, 4×4, a van, or a car towing a caravan. If you don’t have one you can always rent one. Check out pricing and availability here on Discover Cars. If you don’t have a vehicle, you could catch a bus – though this will probably be between the major centres. Or you could go on a tour. However, this road trip itinerary Stuart Highway is designed for you driving yourself

 

The Stuart Highway Facts & Essential Tips

 

  • The distance Adelaide to Darwin is 3030 km (1883 miles) which would take around 31 hours to drive direct doing 100km per hour with no stops. I think a Stuart Highway road trip is best savoured over a couple of weeks with many stops!
  • Avoid driving at night as this increases the chance of accidents, especially with wildlife and watch out for animals on the road, especially in the early morning and late evening when they are often feeding.
  • Be careful of road trains (trucks pulling a number of trailers) which can be travelling at high speeds – they take a long time to stop and cannot deviate as quickly as cars.  
  • Much of the Stuart Highway is remote with few facilities along the way – plan each day ahead to be aware of stops, toilets, and fuel. And I would suggest you stop every time you see one as you don’t know how long it will be till the next one. And sometimes there may  be no fuel! Or the toilet is occupied! Even though there are roadhouses nicely spaced along the highway, I would suggest you consider carrying extra fuel, plenty of water and some food.
  • Make sure you have roadside assistance and the appropriate insurance so that you can get help when you need it. And do some quick checks on your vehicle yourself before setting off.
  • Phone signal can be weak or non existent so download a GPS map offline such as Google Maps or Maps.Me.
  • Also download WikiCamps. This great app, costing $9.99 provides details of the local caravan parks and free camps for those wanting to free camp along the Stuart Highway.
  • Don’t forget to obtain national park passes for your trip. Check which parks and reserves require a pass here. It’s wise to have purchased and downloaded these onto your phone or printed a copy beforehand.
  • The Stuart Highway is a sealed road, but there are plenty of unsealed roads you could drive. Only go off-road if your vehicle is equipped to do.

 

Best Time of Year to Drive the Stuart Highway

 

You can drive the Stuart Highway at any time of the year. If you plan on being a ‘tourist’ wanting to see everything along the Stuart Highway, including a few side trips, I would recommend planing this road for the Northern Territory dry season, the winter months from April to October. This is when you will get warm days and cools nights – great for sightseeing.

Of course you can drive this road during other times of the year. During the summer months (December to February), this is the ‘wet season’ up north and sometimes the highway can be flooded. Plus, temperatures can be extremely hot, I mean, so hot you can’t go out in the sun hot! And if you are like me, this hot weather makes it hard to enjoy the sites – particularly those that are outside, which most are. And I find nothing worse than walking in hot weather, sweating, swatting flies while trying to enjoy the great outdoors!

 

Stuart Highway Road Trip – At a Glance

Map of Stuart Highway - Adelaide to Darwin and vice versa.

This map, reproduced from my travel guide ‘Live Work and Play in Australia‘ shows you the route of the Stuart Highway between Adelaide and Darwin. As you can see, you can go up or down the middle of Australia on this road trip. For the purposes of this post, we are travelling up the Stuart Highway starting in Adelaide and ending in Darwin. I will detail all the best things to do on the Stuart Highway that you could add to your own Stuart Highway road trip itinerary. I’ve also made suggestions on how long to spend in each place, but, that is really up to you how long you spend, as different things will interest different people and it also depends if you have time limitations to this drive.

 

Adelaide to Darwin Road Trip Itinerary: Stops on the Stuart Highway

 

There is plenty to see and do when driving up or down the Stuart Highway through Central Australia. Use my following suggestions to help you plan the best ever trip through the Red Centre.

 

Adelaide

 

Start in Adelaide. Time in Adelaide: 2-3 days

Adelaide is the laidback capital of South Australia. Some things to see and do in Adelaide include:

  • Walk around Adelaide CBD and shop till you drop in Rundle Mall shopping precinct
  • Visit Adelaide Botanic Garden
  • Check out Adelaide Central Market and Chinatown
  • Catch the tram to Glenelg Beach
  • Go on a tour of Adelaide Oval, or get a ticket to a game of cricket during the summer months or AFL during the winter months
  • Get great views from Mount Lofty Summit
  • Day trip to McLaren Vale Wine Region or Barossa Valley Wine Region – book a day trip to Barossa Valley here.
  • Visit the German town of Hahndorf.

 

Read more: What to See and Do in Adelaide

Pig statues in Rundle Mall, the main shopping precinct in Adelaide.

Rundle Street Mall, Adelaide

 

Port Augusta

 

Distance Adelaide to Port Augusta: 309 km (192 miles) or 3 or so hours
Time in Port Augusta:  It could be a lunch spot on way to Coober Pedy which is 5 hours or so further on, or spend 1-2 days here.

Port Augusta is a small coastal town in South Australia. Mostly known for its fishing, canoeing, sailing and a spot to spot dolphins. There are also some great parks and gardens to relax in or view the city’s art galleries.

 

Where to Stay in Port Augusta

Port Augusta has a number of accommodation options for the traveller. For those towing a van and wanting a caravan park check out the Big4 Discovery Park Port Augusta Caravan Park here. If looking for a cheap motel room for the night check out the Augusta Budget Motel here.

 

Quick Stop at Salt Lakes on Stuart Highway

 

About 2 hours north of Port Augusta along the Stuart Highway near Woomera on the way to Coober Pedy, break up the drive with a visit to the Salt Lakes. You feel like you are on the moon instead of in the desert!

Salt Lake SA in distance on Stuart Highway.
Salt Lake up close on Stuart Highway.

Salt lakes near Woomera – a great stop on your Stuart Highway road trip

 

Coober Pedy

Distance Port Augusta to Coober Pedy: 540km (335 miles) or 6 hour drive
Time in Coober Pedy: 2-3 days

 

Coober Pedy is one of the most unique towns along the Stuart Highway, and in Australia. It is known as the ‘opal’ capital of Australia, and the world, and is where many have come to mine opals to make their fortune. The name Coober Pedy is a mispronunciation of an indigenous term meaning “white fullas in holes”, after the historical “opal-rush” of prospectors looking to get rich quick by digging up pretty gems. The town is quirky and bizarre with most of its building built underground as havens from the extreme heat. As you approach Coober Pedy, you will start seeing mounds of soil and holes in the ground made by miners. As featured in Mad Max, Pitch Black, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Mortal Kombat (2021), the barren desert cannot be missed.

 

Things to see and do in Coober Pedy include:

  • Visit Old Timer’s Mine
  • Get a photo at the Coober Pedy sign
  • Go on a opal mining tour
  • Take a tour of underground houses to see how the locals live – there is an underground church too!
  • Head to Breakaways for a sunset over the outback
  • Check out the drive-in cinema
  • Visit the kangaroo orphanage
  • Enjoy a cold beer with the locals
  • Stay in an underground hotel – though I found it a little claustraphic with no windows!

 

Where to Stay in Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy offers the weary traveller a variety of accommodation, from free camps to caravan parks to underground digs. If seeking a caravan park check out the Oasis Tourist Park. But to experience life underground in Coober Pedy, stay in underground accommodation – check out the Underground Motel and the Desert Cave Hotel. There are plenty more places with underground rooms which can be found through Booking.com.

Coober Pedy sign at sunset.

It’s also the only major town between Port Augusta and Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway, making it an important stop for travellers. It becomes a pretty lonely outback highway quite quickly as you leave Port Augusta and head for Coober Pedy. In fact, the only stops between the two towns are Spud’s Roadhouse at Pimba and Glendambo Roadhouse. Both offer fuel, food and accommodation.

If you want to stop en route for the night, Spud’s Roadhouse request a $5 donation to camp overnight with toilets and showers. I also had good Optus phone reception there. Glendambo have a caravan park next to the pub with powered and unpowered sites, for around $30 per night.

 

Erldunda Roadhouse

 

Distance Coober Pedy to Erlunda: 488km (303 miles) or 5 hour drive

From Coober Pedy, it’s just under 400 km to the Northern Territory border – WOOHOO! Then another 100 km or so to the Erldunda Roadhouse. Many stop here as it is an ideal place to stop for the night on the Stuart Highway. You will be able to get fuel and food and can park up the van for the night. Erldunda Roadhouse is on the corner of the Stuart Highway and Lasseter Highway. Lasseter Highway is the highway you follow to Yalara to see Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). You could do it now, though you might arrive late at Yalara – not ideal for setting up camp.

 

Yalara – Uluru and Kata Tjuta

 

Distance Erlunda Roadhouse to Yalara: 270 km (168 miles) taking just under 3 hours
Time spent in Yalara: 3 days

Note: You will need a national park pass to enter Yalara. They are currently $38 for a 3 day pass and you can purchase one online here.

Lassiters Highway is part of the Red Centre Way linking this area. Read my 8 day Central Australia itinerary here. Don’t mistake Mt Connor for Uluru as you are driving. Mt Connor is flatter. Yulara is the main town and when you get there you will find a few shops and plenty of accommodation.

 

What to see and do in and around Yulara:

  • Walk around Uluru. The Uluru base walk is 10km – walk or cycle. You can book a base walk here.
  • Definitely get up early to see the sunrise over it and definitely go to one of the viewing platforms to watch the sunset. Maybe get a birds eye view from the sky in a helicopter.
  • See the Field of Lights
  • Dine outdoors under the stars
  • Do a day trip to Kata Tjuta and walk the Valley of the Winds
  • Day trip to Kings Canyon or on leaving Yulara head to Watarrka-Kings Canyon National Park on Luritja Road – it is part of the Red Centre Way. Or head back to Erlunda and up the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs.

Uluru Formerly Ayers Rock Is An Iconic Australian Rock Sitting In The Red Centre Of Centre Australia. This Massive Red Rock Sits In The Red Dirt And Today Has A Beautiful Blue Sky.

Uluru – Ayers Rock

Kata Tjuta Formerly The Olgas Are 36 Domes About 58Kms From Uluru. Walk Through The Domes.

Kata Tjuta – The Olgas

Where to Stay in Yulara

Plenty of accommodation options in Central Australia. If camping, check out the Ayers Rock Resort. The Ayers Rock camp ground has a choice of tent sites, air-conditioned cabins and powered and unpowered sites for caravans, motor homes and camper trailers. If after a hotel check out the Lost Camel Hotel, Outback Pioneer Lodge and Outback Pioneer Hotel. For a bit of luxury in the centre of Australia check out Sails in the Desert and Desert Gardens Hotel which boasts rooms with a view of Uluru.

 

Side trip to Watarrka – Kings Canyon National Park

 

Distance from Yulara: 304km (188 miles) or 3.5 hour drive
Time in Kings Canyon: 2-3 days

Some people do a side trip to Kings Canyon, then return to Lassiters Highway however, you can go to Kings Canyon then continue on the Red Centre Way to Alice Springs. This is what I chose to do. So head back along Lasseter Highway and then take the turnoff towards Watarrka National Park on Luritja Road.

 

Where to stay at Kings Canyon

 

The main place to stay at Kings Canyon for exploring the national park is Kings Canyon Resort. It has a large caravan park, toilet and shower blocks and a swimming pool – just what I love! If you aren’t camping and want a hotel room, there are private rooms available. There is also a petrol station, restaurant and basic shop on site. More details on where to stay at Kings Canyon in my 8 Day Central Australia post here.

 

What to See and Do at Watarrka / Kings Canyon

  • Definitely do the 6km Kings Canyon Rim walk
  • 2.6km Kings Creek walk
  • 2.6km Kathleen Springs walk
  • Sunset from Kings Canyon Resort viewing platform

 

Read more about visiting Kings Canyon in my 8 day Central Australia post.

Kings Canyon Is A Massive Canyon Where You Can Walk Around The Rim And See Into The Canyon Below.

Kings Canyon rim walk

Garden Of Eden Is A Luscious Pond With Rocks And Native Plants At The Bottom Of Kings Canyon.

Garden of Eden, Kings Canyon

Alice Springs

 

Distance from Watarrka National Park to Alice Springs: 332 km or 3.5 hour drive via Larapinta Drive. If driving this way, you might want to stop a couple days in the West MacDonnell Ranges — more on that later. Or head back to Lasseters Highway and follow to Erldunda Roadhouse, then turn left and continue on up the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs.
Time in Alice Springs: 2-3 days

 

Alice Springs came into existence in 1872 when the Telegraph Station was built connecting communications between Adelaide and Darwin. Today, it is a vibrant hub in the middle of Central Australia with a Alice Springs population of about 30000 people. You will find it roughly in the middle of Australia – 1500 km roughly from Adelaide and the same from Darwin. And Alice Springs is definitely worth a few days visit.

 

Best Things to See and Do in Alice Springs

 

  • Check out the main shopping mall – Todd Mall
  • See the original springs
  • Explore and discover the history of Alice Springs at the Old Telegraph Station Historical Reserve
  • Go to the top of ANZAC Hill for glorious views over Alice Springs and the West MacDonnell Ranges
  • Learn about schooling at School of the Air
  • See the Royal Flying Doctor Service and why they are so important in Central Australia and Australia
  • Visit a camel farm and maybe have a ride on one
  • See native animals
  • Visit Flynns Grave
  • Day trip or overnight trip to West MacDonnell Ranges – check out these trips.
  • Day trip or overnight trip to East MacDonnell Ranges

 

Read next: Best things to see and do in Alice Springs for a few days here

Alice Springs was established when the Old Telegraph Station began. Visit the old buildings of the Old Telegraph Station Alice Springs.

Old Telegraph Station Historical Reserve

View over Alice Springs and MacDonnell Ranges from the top of ANZAC Hill.

View over Alice Springs from ANZAC Hill

Where to Stay in Alice Springs

Towing a van check out the Heritage Caravan Park. If after a bed in a hostel try the Alice Springs YHA, located only 300m from the centre of town. It is built within the grounds of an historic outdoor movie theatre. For a budget to mid-range hotel try the Aurora Alice Springs offers good value only 300m from town. There is also the Desert Palms. For a bit of luxury try the Quest Alice Springs.

 

Tennant Creek via Karlu Karlu – Devils Marbles

 

Distance Alice Springs to Devlis Marbles: 403 km (250 miles) or 4 hour drive
Time spent at Devils Marbles: 30 minutes to 1-2 hours
Distance Devils Marbles to Tennant Creek: 96 km (60 miles) or 1 hour drive
Time spent in Tennant Creek: 1-2 days

Another must see on the Stuart Highway is Devils Marbles. This is a sacred site known as Karlu Karlu in the language of the Traditional Owners the Warumungu people. The area is strewn with boulders and is one of the most unique sights in the Aussie outback. It is definitely worth stopping here as a rest stop to get a few photos on your way to the next stop of Tennant Creek. If you want to stay at the Devils Marbles to see a fabulous sunset and sunrise the next morning, there is a basic campground at the site.

It is a popular place to stay so book a spot in advance. Or check out the Devils Marbles Hotel and Roadhouse.

Tennant Creek is just under 100km on from Devils Marbles and most head here.

Tennant Creek is the seventh largest town in the Northern Territory, and is located on the Stuart Highway, just south of the intersection with the western terminus of the Barkly Highway. Often referred to as ‘3 ways’ as at this intersection there are 3 ways you can go. South to Alice Springs, North to Darwin and East to Queensland.

 

What to See and Do in Tennant Creek

 

  • Discover the towns rich Aboriginal culture
  • Visit the site of Australia’s last gold rush in the 1930s at the Battery Hill Mining Centre.
  • See the Borella Exhibit about Albert Chalmers Borella, the Northern Territory’s only Victoria Cross recipient, awarded in 1918
  • Have a swim at Lake Mary Ann
  • Visit the Tennent Creek Telegraph Station

 

Where to Stay in Tennant Creek

If towing a van check out the Outback Caravan Park Tennant Creek. For a room in a budget hotel check out Goldfields Hotel Motel. For more accommodation options in Tennant Creek, NT visit Booking.com.

 

Mataranka

 

Distance Tennant Creek to Mataranka: 567 km (352 miles) or around 6 hours
Time in Mataranka: 1-2 days

 

On the long journey from Tennant Creek to Mataranka, you will pass through a number of towns in xyzzy and Daly Waters before arriving at Mataranka. You may want to stop in Daly Waters to enjoy a meal and a drink at its well-known pub. The pub is a quirky place decorated in corrugate iron and crammed with decades of memorabilia which is fun to check out. You could stay here as the pub offers accommodation ranging from safari tents to cabins and camping. However, I chose to drive the 170km taking a couple of hours to Mataranka as I was itching to get in one of its famous hot springs.

If you ever wanted a day of relaxing, do it in a Mataranka hot spring. There are a number of natural thermal pools and swimming spots in the dense monsoon forest. Such a treat relaxing!

 

Where to Stay in Mataranka

A couple of places to stay in Mataranka is the Mataranka Roadhouse or the Territory Manor Motel and Caravan Park.

 

Katherine

 

Distance from Mataranka to Katherine: 108 km (67 miles) or just over an hour drive
Time in Katherine: 1-2 days, or longer if exploring Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) and doing other day trips to Edith Falls and Litchfield National Park.

 

Katherine is the fourth largest town in the Northern Territory of Australia. Because it is located along the Katherine River it is known as the place where ‘The outback meets the tropics. I didn’t find that much of interest to do there but it is a great base or jumping off point for a side trip into Nitmiluk National Park to see Katherine Gorge – home to many gorges, natural swimming holes, waterfalls and Aboriginal rock art. There are a number of great hikes to do here, if you are into hikes.

You can book a day trip into Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls here.

rel=”sponsored”You can book a day trip to Litchfield National Park here

Katherine is also where the Great Northern Highway from Western Australia links to the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory. So if going to Western Australia, you would turn left here.

 

Side trip: Litchfield National Park

 

Distance from Katherine to Litchfield National Park: 255 km (158 miles) or 2.5-3 hour drive
Time spent in Litchfield National Park: 1-2 days

It would be a shame not to visit Litchfield National Park when you are virtually driving straight past it along the Stuart Highway. You will need to turn left off the Stuart Highway onto Crater Lake Road then left onto Batchelor Road and follow the signs. It’s only a couple of hours away from Katherine and less from Darwin. Litchfield National Park is gorgeous and has plenty of waterfalls, natural swimming holes, magnetic termite mounds and gorgeous rock faces to visit and enjoy.

 

Where to Stay in Litchfield National Park

There are also a couple of great campgrounds inside the park.

 

Darwin

 

Distance to Darwin from Katherine: 317 km (197 miles) or just over 3 hours of driving – this is direct from Katherine and not side tripping into the Litchfield National Park.
Time spent in Darwin: 2-3 days

You’ve made it to Darwin! WOOHOO – having driven some 3000 km from Adelaide.

Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territory and the northernmost end of the Stuart Highway. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit to see and do in Darwin including:

  • Take the Darwin Hop-on Hop-off bus around the cities main sites.
  • Enjoy a Mindil Beach Sunset Market (if on) or just enjoy the beautiful sunset
  • Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory – I particularly loved the Cyclone Tracy Exhibit.
  • Discover Australia’s part in defending Australia during WWII at the Darwin Military Museum
  • Kick back at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
  • Enjoy swimming, eating and drinking at Darwin Waterfront Lagoon

 

Read more: What to see and do in Darwin

 

Golden sunset over East Point, Darwin, NT.

Enjoy a gorgeous Darwin sunset at the end of your Stuart Highway road trip

 

Where to Stay in Darwin

If towing a caravan and want to set up at a caravan park, check out Big4 Howard Springs Holiday Park. For a bed in a hostel, on Mitchell Street, near the Transport Centre and in the hub of bars and nightlife of Darwin is Darwin Hostel. It has air conditioning and a pool – two musts when visiting Darwin. Check pricing and availability for Darwin Hostel here. For a budget hotel check out the Travelodge Darwin Resort.

 

Side trip: Kakadu National Park

 

Distance from Darwin to Kakadu: 150 km or 2 hour drive

Kakadu National Park is one of 20 UNESCO World Heritage Listed places in Australia and is a must on any trip to Darwin. Book a day tour to Kakadu here

Read More: Best Things to See and Do in Kakadu National Park

 

How Long to Spend Driving Adelaide to Darwin

 

I’ve saved answering this question till last. I thought you’d want to know what you can see and do along the Stuart Highway first and then you can calculate how long to spend driving Adelaide to Darwin road trip or Darwin to Adelaide road trip.

To see everything on my Stuart Highway road trip itinerary, you will need at least a month. Of course, you can miss things making the time to drive from Adelaide to Darwin faster or, you can go as slow as you like.

 

Are You Ready to drive the Stuart Highway road trip from Adelaide to Darwin?

 

More Epic Road Trips in Australia

The Great Ocean Road, Victoria
Hume Highway Road Trip – Melbourne to Sydney

 

2 Comments

  1. Sonia

    These look like great suggestions to break up this road trip!

    Reply
    • Sharyn McCullum

      Surprisingly there is plenty to see and do along the Stuart Highway – you just need to deviate off the road most of the time!

      Reply

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Bells Beach Surfing Recreation Reserve Sign shaped like a big white wave with Sharyn McCullum On the Great Ocean Road.

G’Day! Sharyn here, an Aussie loving discovering Australia. Let me show you around so you can discover Australia too.  Read my story here.

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