Exploring Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)

About 330 km southwest from Alice Springs, spectacular Watarrka National Park encompasses the western edge of the George Gill Range. Its star attraction is the magnificent Kings Canyon with the deepest gorge in the Red Centre. Steep sandstone walls rise to a height of 100 m, sometimes appearing as if they were neatly sliced with a giant knife.

Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon Klomiz / photo modified

On the bottom of the canyon, permanent waterholes punctuate the dry landscape. In the upper part of the gorge, the Garden of Eden surprises visitors with its lush vegetation. Plants such as palms and ferns flourish here, the relics of a time when the area was covered in rainforest. On the plateau above the canyon is the Lost City, an area of red sandstone rocks weathered into beehive-shaped domes.

Steep walls of Kings Canyon
Steep walls of Kings Canyon Rupert Ganzer / photo modified

The park protects a rich diversity of flora and fauna. More than 750 species of plants have been recorded here, including desert oaks, acacia, eucalypts, and rare cycads and ferns. After the rains, wildflowers bloom, adding splashes of color to the red earth. Animals inhabiting the park include rock wallabies, dingoes, and a plethora of birds such as the crested bellbird, white-fronted honeyeater, and galah.

Galahs in Watarrka National Park
Galahs in Watarrka National Park Rupert Ganzer / photo modified

To the Aborigines, this area was a sacred site and a refuge in times of severe drought. The Luritja people came here to take shelter in the shady overhangs and gather around the waterholes. They decorated their dwellings and places of assembly with rock paintings and engravings, some of which can still be seen today. The Luritja named the area Watarrka, after an acacia tree found within the park.

In 1872, Ernest Giles was the first white man to see the dry riverbed, though not the canyon itself, which was 30 km away. Giles named it after his principal sponsor, Fieldon King. His favorable report brought many cattle farmers to the area, but the area has only been accessible to tourists since 1960, when English immigrant Jack Cotterill realized its potential as a tourist attraction and built a track to Kings Canyon.

Today, tourists flock here from around the world to see the rugged gorge, rocky domes, and palm-fringed permanent waterholes. Scenic flights and camel safaris are also on offer.

Hiking Trails

Hiker on the rim of the canyon
Hiker on the rim of the canyon Paleontour / photo modified

The park's hiking trails are a great way to experience the dramatic beauty of the landscapes.

The Canyon Walk

This 6 km loop walk starts with a steep climb to the top of the Canyon, before continuing along the rim. About half way along the walk is the Garden of Eden, an area of refreshing waterholes and lush riverine foliage. From here, hikers continue to the south wall of the canyon and down to the bottom of the gorge, past aboriginal rock paintings. The trail then descends back to the parking lot. Extreme care should be taken in the hotter months (September though May). At this time of year, hikers should consider shorter walks during the middle of the day. The Canyon Walk requires an average to high fitness level and takes approximately 3-4 hours.

The Kings Creek Walk

This 2.6 km return trip weaves along Kings Creek to a scenic lookout before returning along the same route. On the way, visitors can learn about the Aboriginal sites through interpretative signs. Suitable for hikers of all ages, the Kings Creek Walk takes about an hour and provides assisted wheelchair access part of the way.

The Kathleen Springs Walk

Recommended for families with young children and visitors with limited mobility, the 2.6 km Kathleen Springs walk leads to a peaceful spring-fed waterhole at the head of Kathleen Gorge. Along the way, hikers can learn about aboriginal culture and the cattle industry through interpretative signs.

Tips and Tactics

The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting Watarrka National Park:

  • Access to the Kings Canyon Rim Walk is restricted during periods of hot weather. On days when the temperature is forecast to be 36˚C or above, visitors wishing to undertake the Canyon Walk need to start their walk before 9am. Temperatures relating to these restrictions are based on Bureau of Meteorology forecasts at: http://www.bom.gov.au/nt/forecasts/precis.shtml
  • On days forecast at 35˚C or less, no access restrictions are in place, but the Parks & Wildlife Commission encourages hikers to set out early in the morning to avoid the heat.
  • Hikers should bring at least 3 liters of water per person and consider bringing a topographic map and compass, or a GPS. For long hikes, take basic first aid equipment, register the planned route and advise friends and family of an estimated return time. Sturdy walking shoes are highly recommended.
  • The Aussie sun can be strong. When heading out into the wilderness, wear sunscreen and a hat. Hikers should also seek shelter in the scorching heat of day and wear sunglasses to protect their eyes.
  • Take binoculars for a close-up view of birds and other wildlife.
  • Emergency Radios can be found along the Kings Canyon Walk and at the Canyon car park.
  • Camping is not allowed in the park, though accommodation is available at Kings Canyon Resort Caravan Park and Campground within the park boundaries.
  • Watarrka National Park is open all year round. The cooler months (April to September) are the most popular times to visit.

Getting there

By car from Alice Springs:

The Park is located about 330 km southwest of Alice Springs and is accessible via 2WD vehicle via Luritja Road from Yulara and Lasseters Highway.

An alternative route is via Larapinta Drive, through the West MacDonnell National Park, which connects to the new gravel Mereenie Loop Road (4WD recommended); or via Ernest Giles Road (4WD essential) and Luritja Road.

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