Rainbow Valley: The Ultimate Guide

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

We couldn’t believe our eyes.

A camper van with interstate number plates pulled into the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve’s car park.

The people got out of their car, took a few snaps, got back in…

…AND DROVE AWAY!

Gary and I were stunned.

Why even BOTHER turning off the main highway and driving 20km on a rough dirt road if you’re only going to spend a few minutes at a place – and then leave?

Were they just lazy?

Or did they simply not know how much there was to see and do at Rainbow Valley?

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Northern Territory, Alice Springs

Sure, Rainbow Valley is a small Reserve compared to the West MacDonnell National Park or nearby Owen Springs Reserve, but it’s a place packed with things to see and do – which is why you’ll see so many outback locals here.

So if you’re thinking Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve is just another outback happy snap – think again

We’re going to change your mind about that forever. You’ll be begging to jump in your car and stay the night here.

See & Do

A visit to Rainbow Valley is not JUST about the famous rock formation.

There are several short walks, along with photography, birding, natural history and Aboriginal culture to discover.

The Reserve is small but remarkable for several reasons:

  • It is the ONLY weed free conservation area in central Australia. You won’t see any buffel grass here.
  • Thanks to the lack of weeds, the reserve has a very high level of biodiversity: over 400 plant species, 110 bird species, 20 mammal species, 46 species of reptile and three species of frog have been recorded
  • There are two species of plants, the beautiful Rainbow Valley Eremophila and a species of saltbush, Atriplex sturti, which grow nowhere else in the Northern Territory.

It’s also well-situated, being only an hour’s drive from Alice Springs. The Reserve is perfect for an overnight camp out or even sunset drinks.

Natural History & Birding

If you’re a geology nerd, or you’d just like to know a little bit more about the famous formations here, then this section is for you.

The coloured sandstone feature and surrounding rocky outcrops are about 350 million years old. They’re composed from a rock called Hermannsburg Sandstone.

Mushroom3

Hermannsburg Sandstone is very soft, and is easily eroded by wind and water – which is why the Reserve’s rock formations are so striking.

The red and ochre colours for which the Reserve is known comes from iron deposits contained within the sandstone oxidising as they are exposed to the air and staining the underlying white sandstone.

As these sandstones are very soft, Parks & Wildife discourages people from climbing on the formations.

If you’re a birder, then we definitely recommend that you check out Rainbow –especially after there’s been some rain. As we’ve said above, over 100 bird species have been seen at Rainbow Valley. Head over and do the Claypan Walk (see below).

You can also try a birding tour with the Aboriginal Tradition Owners. Learn more about that here.

Photography

Rainbow Valley is one of those ‘must-do’ places for serious outback photographers. It’s not hard to see why.

The ‘feature’ (that’s what rangers call the big sandstone rock formation), is of course the main attraction for most photographers.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

Capturing its colours throughout the day, at sunset and even at night inspires many people to visit.

One of the best times to take that perfect shot is at sunset, when there’s a few thin clouds in the sky. The clouds act like a natural filter, adding striking reds to the sunset.

Walks

There are two official walks at the Reserve – both are quite short and will not take you more than hour.

The first walk is the one that goes to Mushroom Rock.

This is a 1km long loop walk which goes to a large, strikingly coloured boulder, featuring wind eroded windows and caves.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

As the walk is a loop, you’ve got the choice of walking out along the edge of the claypan, or from the interpretation shelter, and meandering along the path that traverses the low sand dune via Jack’s Lookout (where there’s chairs to soak up the view).

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

I really recommend that you take the dune walk and sit atop Jack’s Lookout for a few minutes.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

The Aboriginal Traditional Owners built this walk themselves in 2010.

The lookout is named after Jack Kenny, the patriarch of the one of the local Aboriginal families who was the keeper of many sacred dreaming stories and songs for this area. Jack passed away in 2001, and is fondly remembered by many people around central Australia.

Mushroom Rock is a favourite with photographers. It’s not hard to see why.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

Rain and wind have eroded caves, windows and overhangs in the soft sandstone boulder.

The brilliant blue sky contrasts with the colours of the rock – so you can see why it’s great for photos.

Once you’ve spent some time admiring Mushroom Rock, return either along the claypan’s edge, or head left and up over the dune past Jack’s Lookout.

Rainbow Valley’s other walk is the Claypan Walk.

The ‘official’ walk is a loop of about 1.1km, and leads you along the edge of the claypans, and then doubles back on itself.

Rainbow Valley, Alice Springs, outback Australia

This gentle walk takes you along the claypans fringing Rainbow Valley’s main sandstone formation, through some very interesting terrain.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

If you’re here after rain, you might see the claypan full of water. If you’re really lucky and there’s a lot of water, you’ll see rare shield shrimps and even a few small fish species.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

Of course, you’ll see plenty of waterbirds here, too, after rain.

Walking further along, you’ll soon see that there’s actually a second claypan, joined to the first by a small channel. Fringing the claypan are Coolibah trees. This is a perfect place to look for birds first thing in the morning.

Budgies often breed in these trees –so listen out for them.

Budgerigar, outback Australia

As you come towards the end of the ‘official’ claypan walk, you’ll see that an ‘unofficial’ track continues on.

If you wish, you can walk all the way around the claypans, directly along the base of the main sandstone formation, and then return to the carpark along the track that leads you back from Mushroom Rock.

Aboriginal Culture

Rainbow Valley should be EVERYONE’s list if you want to learn about Aboriginal Culture from living Aboriginal people.

To begin with, Rainbow Valley is jointly managed by Aboriginal Traditional Owners and the NT Parks & Wildlife Service.

When you first get to the reserve, go to the interpretation shelter near the car park and take good look at the information there. It tells you a lot about Aboriginal culture.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

The Reserve’s name in Southern Arrernte (Pertame) is ‘Wurre’. To say it properly, you’ll need to do two things:

  • roll your ‘Rs’ like in Spanish or Indonesian,
  • say the ‘U’ sound like the ‘oo’ sound in ‘wood’: Woo-RRAH (NB. it’s the Australian ‘oo’ sound being described here).

At the interpretation shelter, you’ll be able read the story about how joint management came about – you’ll also discover that many of the Aboriginal Traditional Owners live close by.

So here’s a little secret about Rainbow Valley which MOST people miss or simply aren’t aware of:

The Traditional Owners of Rainbow Valley run cultural tours here.

Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours

They’ll take you to places that you’d never usually have access to. These tours show you cultural practices, stories, rock art and other archaeological sites that you just can’t see or even learn about on your own.

No, you won’t get any didgeridoo playing –because Aboriginal people in central Australia NEVER used didgeridoos- you’ll get the real story from Aboriginal people who still live in and around Rainbow Valley.

You’ll learn about the traditional and contemporary culture of the Pertame (southern Arrernte) and Luritja people. You’ll even taste some proper bush tucker (traditional Aboriginal foods).

So BEFORE you plan your trip to Wurre, check out Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours, run by Traditional Owner, Ricky Orr and his family.

We really encourage you to book a tour and support local Aboriginal people.

Camping

Rainbow Valley used to have a tiny campground that got very crowded – especially with the ever-increasing popularity of camper trailers.

Those days are gone.

With the help of the Traditional Owners, there’s a big new campground at Rainbow with plenty of room for camper trailers.

Campign at Rainbow Valley, Alice Springs

In fact, there are TWO campgrounds at Rainbow now – the original one adjacent to the claypan, and the new one behind the sand dune.

Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Alice Springs, outback Australia

During the winter months, the claypan campground still gets busier than the dune campground, so get here EARLY if you want to camp there.

Facilities

Both campgrounds have communal fire pits, but you’ll need to collect your firewood on the way in. We suggest collecting it in the Mulga woodland, about 8-10km in from the Stuart Highway.

Mulga wood is quite hard and burns for a long time – it’s one of the BEST types of wood for warm, long lasting fires.

There are drop toilets at both campgrounds. The front campground has a few free gas BBQs along with tables and chairs set in shelters.

There is NO water and no rubbish bins, so you’ll have to bring your own water and take all your rubbish with you when you leave.

Camping fees per night are: $3.30 per adult; $1.65 for children; $7.70 for families.

Getting There

Recommended vehicle: 4WD recommended; 2WD is ok as long as you don’t mind corrugations.

Camper trailers/caravans:  Easy access for off-road campertrailers and caravans; but take care if your trailer or van isn’t an off-road model.

Total Distance: 210km return from Alice Springs

Time Required:  Around 1 hour from Alice Springs, each way.

Rainbow Valley is just over 100km south of Alice Springs. The well sign-posted turn off is located on the Stuart Highway, about 10km north of the Stuart’s Well Roadhouse (former home of Dinky the Singing Dingo).

The Rainbow Valley access road is 20km of corrugated, wide dirt road. There is nothing tricky about this road which would require you needing a 4WD other than LOTS of corrugations (i.e no sand dunes or sandy creek crossings).

The first 5km or so of the road in are deceptively smooth.

After these first 5 kilometres, there is a series of sharp bends – be careful on these as they sneak up on you. Another thing to watch out for here is overseas tourists who seem to think it’s ok to drive on the right hand side of the road (the WRONG side!).

If you’re an overseas tourist – DO NOT drive on the right just because there’s no one around – it’s not only dangerous – it’s illegal.

Once you’ve passed the bends about 8-10km along, you head into some beautiful mulga woodland – and the road gets corrugated. This is where you should stop and collect firewood if you’re camping.

Soon the landscape opens out into low dunes and desert oak country. Every now and then you get a glimpse of Rainbow Valley itself.

Once you’re closer to Rainbow, you’ll spectacular views of the famous rock formation.

From there, it’s only a few minutes and you’re pulling up in the carpark.

Further reading: NT Parks & Wildlife Commission

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3 Comments

  • Reni says:

    Wonderful post. We loved everything about the Rainbow Valley. That’s why we went there three times already.

    The story at the very beginning sounds familiar. We have seen that too. People arriving at the Rainbow Valley, taking a picture and leaving again. They did not even walk 20 Meters. What a pity. There is so much to see at the Rainbow Valley.

  • Katrina says:

    Hi Amanda,

    Thank you for another wonderful post. We’ve got a plan to travel from Darwin to Adelaide this June, so I am reading all articles, hints and tricks (actually, everything!) on your website, as I believe it is the BEST website to get a real knowledge about Travel Outback.
    Will double check if the rental company allows to drive there, but if not, I am sure that I will find things to see and to do around Alice Springs.

    Thanks again and safe travels.
    Katrina.

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