Kings Canyon is a very remote semi-arid canyon in Watarrka National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia and the pinnacle of the experience is the outer rim walk.
Kings Canyon from the south east section soon after sunrise, note the hikers on the peak of the far side – click on image for a larger view.
The area is so remote that there is no mobile phone coverage and no internet (although some WiFi is apparently possible at the resort).
Bird lovers will love the range of pretty birds – particularly at the resort and in the valley of the canyon, while raptors rule the upper areas of the canyon – although on my walk I did not see an eagle.
There are several species of lizards that you are likely to see – both at the canyon rim and in the resort “rim walk” areas.
The outer rim canyon walk
Unlike many other canyon experiences such as the Grand canyon, you don’t have to be superman to climb from the valley floor to walk around the outer rim walk and then descend back down to your car in under 4 hours,
The moderate grade 6km walk usually takes around 3.5hrs for most people even if they are taking photos, although for your fitness capability, you do need to be capable of walking up 10 flights of stairs and back down again and even younger children could do this walk (although I would keep them on a short leash to ensure they don’t fall off the cliff), and most reasonably capable 60yr olds could do it.
Despite it being remote, its popularity means that you are unlikely to be doing the walk alone (lots of international tourists) unless you are silly enough to start the walk late in the morning when the sun becomes very hot and unrelenting. The rangers close this walk around 11am if the forecast is for over 36degC temperatures. There are several radios located so you can call for help if you do happen to break an ankle or get heat exhaustion.
The best time to start the walk is before sunrise, leave the resort about 45-50 minutes before sunrise after having breakfast in the restaurant (it opens about 1.5hrs before sunrise to allow this). The last half of the walk is very exposed in full sun without shade and exposed to the wind, although on days of light winds the breeze makes the walk more enjoyable.
What you need to take:
You will need a sun hat, shorts, sturdy runners or walk boots, light shirt, 2 x 600mL water bottles, sunscreen, a snack, and of course your cameras (no tripod needed, but you should have a wide angle zoom, preferably also an ultrawide to 14mm field of view – I took my Olympus mZD 7-14mm f/2.8, Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 and Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 with EC14 teleconverter attached with 2 OM-D cameras – the E-M5 and E-M1 both attached to a waist belt, although the design of this waist belt resulted in its mechanism self-unscrewing and the E-M1 with 7-14mm lens falling 1m onto rocks but thankfully only its lens hood suffered minor damage – message to self – add Locktite glue to these screw points!). I also took a trekking pole although this was not really needed on the generally hard rock, although it did provide some assistance and extra stability.
Worried about my advice to the French tourists following who may have misunderstood my photographic hints and directions and gone too close to the edge.
The walk takes you from the valley up some 500 steps made by rocks (should take about 10 minutes or so) to a plateau around the rim of the gorge where there is initially some greenery interspersed with the occasional white ghost gum tree amidst orange-red sandstone very picturesque landscapes.
Ghost gum on the plateau near the start of the walk around the rim.
Ancient remnant sea bed ripples in the sandstone (some areas also show trilobite fossil remnants).
Very soon you find yourself near the edge of the sheer cliffs (hopefully just after sunrise) although after the very unfortunate recent accident where a young tourist fell to her death trying to get a shot of herself on a ledge at the top of the cliff edge and slipping, the rangers who patrol the walk keep reminding everyone to stay at least 2m from the edge for their own safety – thankfully the edge is not fenced.
One then descends down wooden stairways to cross a wooden bridge which leads to an optional but well worthwhile side walk to the “Garden of Eden” valley with a semi-permanent waterhole (not for swimming) where one can have a brief stop for a snack (remember though to take all rubbish back with you).
Descent into the valley of the Garden of Eden soon after sunrise
Garden of Eden waterhole.
From here you retrace your steps back to the wooden stairs and ascend back to the top of the rim marking close to the half way mark and the start of the very exposed section so it is a good time to apply sunscreen if you haven’t already done so.
The Garden of Eden valley from the south-east rim showing the cycads which are said to be 400 years old and where we spotted a kangaroo from a distance.
The walk now takes you around the rim of the canyon to the south rim with its very sheer cliff faces before walking further southwards away from the canyon to return to the car park where there is shelter, toilets and drinking water (although you should have taken at least 2 x 600mL bottles of water per person for the hike).
A waterhole at the eastern part of the rim.
The walk is well marked but it is possible to miss the arrows when distracted by the scenery and lose the track but any sensible person would then retrace their steps back to the marked tracks so a map or GPS is not needed.
How to get to Kings Canyon
Although one can drive there from the capital cities by car or bus, most people would fly to Alice Springs or Uluru airports then hire a car or take a tourist bus.
The road trip from Uluru’s resort village of Yulara is 305km taking some 3-3.5hrs on good bitumen highway all the way.
The road trip from Alice Springs has 3 main routes – the 474km longer but quicker all bitumen Lasseter Highway route, or 2 more interesting unsealed routes (these unsealed routes you may not be able to do by hire car or tourist bus). One option is the 200km unsealed Mereenie Loop Road which starts after you leave historic village of Hermannsburg, the other option is the unsealed Ernest Giles Road which takes you past some meteor craters.
When to go
Peak season is the Australian Winter months although starts in April and ends in October. These times are usually characterised by more pleasantly warm days, clear skies, no rain but cold nights often to sub-zero temperatures in the middle of winter due to the cloudless nights which are amazing to observe on a night without the moon so the Winter Milky Way can be observed in all its glory away from light pollution.
An advantage of the summer months for the photographer are less people, cheaper accommodation rates, more unpredictable weather with possible dramatic clouds and storms and lovely balmy warm nights of 21degC minimums and longer days BUT the days are much hotter with maximums usually around 36degC and may be well above 40degC although unlike the tropical north humidity is generally still low at around 30% as long as there is not the rare heavy rains from the tail of a tropical cyclone.
Flies can be problematic all year round from sunrise to sunset, more in some areas than others though.
Mosquitoes are only an issue around waterholes, and even then not a great problem.
As the best time to start the walk is before sunrise, you will need to sleep the night before nearby.
The main resort is Kings Canyon Resort which is ~7km from the carpark but has excellent accommodation facilities ranging from camp ground, to lodges, to standard rooms and even deluxe rooms with spa baths, offering 24×7 reception as well as excellent restaurant food with friendly staff, a nice swimming pool, petrol station and general store.
Kings Canyon Resort air conditioned deluxe room spa with a view.
Resort sunset viewing area where one can grab a drink and relax as the sun sets on the ranges – here a tourist couple just happened to share a kiss under the tree as I took this image.
Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge
Kings Creek Station – a large camel breeding station with petrol available and lodgings.
The Kings Canyon valley walk is a short flat 1hr return walk alongside the creek bed to a seated area near a waterhole from which you can observe the birds as well as see the hikers as they pass the 1hr mark on the north cliff face, and the hikers as they walk atop the southern cliff face.
View of walkers atop south wall from the valley using a telephoto lens.
The Kings Canyon southern rim walk is a shorter version of the rim walk but does not give you access to the east or northern parts of the rim.
The Giles walking track is a 2 night 22km walk from Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs.
Kathleen Springs is some 20km south of Kings Canyon by car and offers a 1hr return flat walk through a shallow valley which was once a cattle station and thus one passes remnants of the cattle yard fencing and finishes at a waterhole before returning to the car – this can be a hot walk in the sun with annoying flies.
Mt Conner from the highway lookout en route to Uluru – a typical mesa formation which is near Curtain Springs Station.
Salt pan from the Mt Conner lookout – these are what prevents a more direct highway route from Uluru to Kings Canyon.