Meander north through some of Australia's finest wine country into the wide-open spaces of the Wheatbelt to have lunch before heading into sparse but beautiful outback country. The route back to Adelaide cruises through the heart of the southern Flinders Ranges and a string of pretty towns.
This road trip takes around six and a half hours each way (depending on where you stop for the night and what sightseeing you choose to do). There's a stretch of gravel road and some creek crossings between Blinman and Parachilna. It's generally 2WD accessible and is arguably the best part of the trip. The road from Wilpena to Blinman passes through the national park, so remember to book a Flinders Ranges National Park vehicle pass before you go (there are other options, but online is easier and mobile coverage can be patchy in the northern Flinders Ranges).
Try to avoid driving any of this road trip in the dark. All sorts of wildlife gather on the roadside. In some stretches, there are so many animals that it's no longer cute, it's actually dangerous. That said, it is possible to drive at night but you'll have to drive very, very, very carefully.
Once in the northern Flinders, you'll find a wide range of accommodation options. From resorts and bed and breakfasts to caravan parks and cabins, and plenty of glamping and camping options. There are a few restaurants and pubs dotted around Hawker, Wilpena Pound and Parachilna, most notably the Prairie Hotel. Bring supplies if you're planning on cooking for yourself because you won't find much in the way of fresh bread, meat, or fruit and veg to purchase in local stores. It's the outback.
The route and the towns
Starting in Adelaide, head north to the Gawler by-pass and make your way onto the Horrocks Highway. Follow the road all the way to the top of the Clare Valley. The Clare Valley is packed with tiny hamlets and beautiful vineyards. For advice on how to enjoy the Clare Valley, check here!
John Horrocks (far north and Flinders Ranges pioneer), and his camel - Penwortham, Clare Valley
Keep heading north from Clare and turn onto RM Williams Way. This skirts around the western side of the Flinders Ranges through the classic country surrounds of Jamestown and Orroroo. There's a few cafés, pubs, takeaways and parks (especially if you packed lunch from home) to stop for lunch in Clare, Spalding, Jamestown, Orroroo and Hawker, depending on your timing. As the highway leaves Orroroo, it begins to follow the course of an old railway line that once connected Peterborough and Quorn. Steeped in history and now overgrown, it looks old. It's hard to believe the line was closed only 30 years ago. The remains of old iron rail bridges, freight cranes and goods warehouses still dot the landscape alongside the line as a testament to the role railways once played in opening the outback. This excellent Weekend Notes article is a beautiful tribute to the district and its railway history. Keep following the road through Carrieton to Hawker and the towering northern Flinders Ranges will soon beckon in the distance.
When you reach Hawker, turn right off the Outback Highway into the tiny settlement of Hawker (or not if you'd like to go the other way around the loop). Hawker is a focal point of the loop because it's the most convenient place to fill up on petrol. Hawker has a caravan park and cabins, bed and breakfast accommodation, a hotel, and a couple of shops. Among the attractions and curious things to see in Hawker are the Jeff Morgan Gallery, the old Hawker railway station (now the well-regarded Old Ghan restaurant), and the Hawker Seismograph Station.
Hawker Hotel Motel (By Peripitus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4941139)
Here's where the road trip begins to get up close to the awe-inspiring walls of Wilpena Pound as they dominate the landscape. You'll pass Rawnsley Park Station, which hosts resort and campground style accommodation to base yourself for the night under the imposing Rawnsley Bluff. Not far from here you'll enter Flinders Ranges National Park and you'll need to pay for a vehicle permit to pass through. Getting a pass is easy to do with a credit card on the web as mentioned earlier. You can also get entry and camping passes at Wilpena Pound. Passes are 'included' if you're staying at Wilpena Pound Resort.
Surreal afternoon sun over the Arkaba Hills between Hawker and WIlpena Pound
It's easy to spot the turn-off to Wilpena Pound. Head inside for a look at one of the best resort complexes in the region. Wilpena Pound Resort has all sorts of accommodation from resort rooms to glamping and camping with facilities that include an impressive tourist complex, restaurant, bar, pool, large well-stocked store, and fuel and firewood.
For the quintessential Wilpena Pound experience, I'd recommend taking the regular minibus service from the main building that heads through the gap into the pound itself. You can have a picnic and explore the ruins of the old homestead. Read the stories of the settlers and check out the seemingly improbable spring fed creek and pool. Climb a little way up the inside wall of the pound for an expansive view. For the more adventurous, the quintessential experience may look more like the hike to St Mary Peak.
Creek through the gap at Wilpena Pound and the 'Cazneaux Tree'
Leave Wilpena Pound and continue north, turning left onto Flinders Ranges Way. Not far from the turn-off is the entrance to a carpark where you can view the Cazneaux Tree. Standing here, you'll realise why this iconic panorama of Wilpena Pound with the old tree in the foreground is yet another reason photographers and road trippers find the region so enchanting.
Keep your camera handy and allow time to stop at the scenic landmarks along the road to Blinman, Like Hucks and Stokes Hill lookouts and the 'Great Wall of China'. This stretch of road is where you are most likely to see a wedge-tailed eagle. Wildlife is abundant here. If you look, you'll spot emus, kangaroos, and wallabies.
After driving through such an epic landscape, rolling into Blinman feels like stepping back in time. The Blinman mine runs tours daily. Check the details here. It's a good time for lunch and the North Blinman Hotel offers hearty pub meals. The Blinman General Store has a small range of grocery items and a simple and delicious takeaway style menu. It's also one of the best places in the world to try a quandong pie. Quandong tastes like rhubarb to me but sweeter.
Main Street Blinman
Be careful when selecting your route out of Blinman and make sure to follow Parachilna Gorge road to Parachilna (Hint: It's a little bit back down the road to Wilpena). The road turns to gravel but don't worry, you'd know by now if the route was blocked through signage around the area. If the weather was bad enough, you probably wouldn't have been allowed this far north. The weather is rarely that bad, but it can flood sometimes. It's the outback.
You'll arrive at the outpost of Angorichina before long. Angorichina Tourist Village is a working outback station with a well-stocked general store, fuel, vehicle spares and cabin and dormitory accommodation. One of the great walks in South Australia, the Blinman Pools Hike, begins here.
Stunning scenery surrounds the road as Parachilna Gorge cuts a deep path through the ranges to the plains. This section of the drive features some exciting creek crossings. There's free camping throughout the gorge for self-sufficient campers. On leaving the gorge the road spills out onto the plains and follows a long and dusty straight into the far horizon, toward the settlement of Parachilna.
Wide open spaces
This tiny settlement consists of the well known and loved Prairie Hotel and its outbuildings. That's about it. During the day, stop in for a drink and a Feral Antipasto Platter (think emu pate, kangaroo mettwurst and goats' cheese) amongst other pub classics.
Chill with a drink on the verandah if the flies aren't too bad - Prairie Hotel, Parachilna
Dinner at the Prairie Hotel is a special experience worth staying the night for. Arrive as the sun sinks over the endless western plain and enjoy fine dining before staying the night in one of the varied accommodation options, from basic budget to high-end luxury. The Prairie Hotel has a menu second to none in the region and commands worldwide attention from serious foodies. The highly recommended Feral Mixed Grill featuring emu filet mignon is a star amongst other delights. Sit inside the restaurant and admire the sophistication of this tiny hotel in the middle of nowhere, or sit outside and soak in the classic Aussie outback pub scenery and experience. Check here for more details.
Windmill along the Outback Highway - Moralana
Head south on the Outback Highway toward Hawker. Not far from Parachilna you will come across the intersection of the Moralana Scenic Drive and the entrance to Merna Mora Station. Merna Mora Station has farm stay cabin and camping accommodation on a working farm at great rates in beautiful surroundings. The Moralana scenic drive is an excellent 2WD (high clearance advised) accessible route back to the Flinders Ranges Way along the southern ramparts of Wilpena Pound.
Western wall of Wilpena Pound - Flinders Ranges SA
By now you'll probably need to stop for fuel at Hawker again. It's still some distance to Quorn and even further still to a 24-hour servo. After refuelling, head back onto the Flinders Ranges Way towards Quorn. Keep going straight ahead at the junction with RM Williams Way and not long after you'll find a short dirt road turn-off to follow if you'd like to check out the ruins of Kanyaka Station. It's a photographer's delight and for them, there are many more photogenic old ruins and stunning vistas across the Willochra Plain toward Quorn.
Once the centre of the continental railway network in WW2, Quorn was a hive of activity as people came and went in their thousands. The main street has four or five old pubs and three of them are still going! Quorn is a great place to stop for lunch. There's some great shade and facilities right by the railway station. The town is home to the Pichi Richi Railway, one of Australia's most popular steam railways, which operates regularly. We seem to see giant steam trains in action every time we are there! Quorn has a supermarket, chemist, cafes, and all the other mod cons not found further out in the outback.
Main Street Quorn
Pichi Richi Railway - Quorn
Southern Flinders Ranges
Heading south from Quorn follow the signs along the Horrocks Highway (B82) to Wilmington. The once barren landscape changes to gentler farming territory and you'll pass through beautiful small towns like Wilmington, Laura, and Melrose before reaching Clare to complete the loop.
Laura - The home of the best ice-cream in the world
Stay another night in the northern Flinders Ranges
Stay another night just to have dinner at the iconic Prairie Hotel.
Take the 28km Moralana Scenic Drive.
Three and half hours north of Parachilna are the outback outposts of Lyndhurst and Marree. See where the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki tracks leave the bitumen to snake through the desert.
The Blinman Pools hike is an easy half-day walk from Angorichina Station car park along a tranquil and isolated creek bed featuring crystal-clear spring-fed pools and waterfalls.
Kangaroos and emus especially dawn and dusk and night. There's plenty of wildlife to see!
Wedge-tailed eagles mostly seen feeding on fresh roadkill by the roadside. The big ones are impressive.
Flies are abundant up here during the day for most of the year. Bring a fly veil to wear over your hat or a wide rimmed cork lined hat otherwise be prepared to wave flies away all day.
Your fuel gauge It's a long way between fuel pumps out here.
Your supplies nothing worse than reaching your destination to find you forgot the bottle opener. Plan ahead.
Local shop opening and closing times in the Flinders The Prairie Hotel has a summer closure period. Most stores close early in the evening.