These are Australia's most beautiful outback towns
The back of beyond
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Gateway to the barren and bewitching Red Centre and important Aboriginal cultural center, Alice Springs is the ultimate outback town. As the closest town to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and King’s Canyon, it is a bustling desert region with plenty of places to shop, stay and eat. It’s also got plenty of attractions of its own, including the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the world’s largest classroom – The School of Air.
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Cultural highlights here include seeing the central Australian Aboriginal art on display at the Araluen Arts Centre and learning about the Arrernte people at the Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre. The Riverside Walk goes along the banks of the Todd River to the old Telegraph Station, which was founded in 1871 and is the town’s original European settlement.
Marree, South Australia
This dusty central South Australia township is where two famous outback tracks begin – the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks, but it’s a worthy place itself. Its charms are small but sweet – the lovely Marree Hotel is heritage-listed and the old railway station, which opened in 1884, was a stop on the original Ghan Railway line. There are also scenic flights to see the mysterious Marree Man, a modern geoglyph of a giant man that was etched into the arid land owned by the Arabana people. No one knows who did it or why.
The 320-mile (515km) Birdsville Track from Marree reaches the frontier town of Birdsville in southwestern Queensland. The historic drover track showcases the outback scenery in all its dusty and desolate glory – the atmospheric ruins of the Carcory Homestead (pictured) are a popular stop off. Birdsville has a population of 115, and has a friendly and lively outback pub.
Stranded on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert, with the plains of Sturt’s Stony Desert to the south and Channel Country to the north, is a hardy but welcoming community in this remote area. The billabong on the edge of town is a place to cool off with a swim, kayak or to watch the spectacular outback sunsets, while the nearby Big Red Sand Dune offers another excellent sunset view. It’s the setting for an annual music festival and in September the tiny town usually teems with 6,000 race goers during the Birdsville Races, known as the Melbourne Cup of the Outback.
Leonora, Western Australia
Set in the Goldfields-Esperance region in the state’s southwest, Leonora was one of WA’s boom towns during the gold rush of the 1890s. Its high street retains its historic charm with wide verandas, quaint shopfronts and classic turn-of-the-century hotels. The town’s heritage trail and more historic buildings in Gwalia, just to the south, teaches visitors about Australian gold rush history. The ghost town was once the site of a gold mine, which was managed by a young Herbert Hoover before he went on to become the 31st President of the US.
Cue, Western Australia
Established in 1893, Cue is another picturesque gold rush town with plenty of well-preserved stone buildings (including an old jail and gentlemen’s club) and characterful places to stay. It’s also a prime spot to see the wildflowers, which spring up after the winter rains across the rust-red plains of the Gascoyne-Murchison region from July to October. But the town’s major attraction lies 30 miles (48km) to the west – Walga Rock. This huge granite monolith is of deep cultural and spiritual significance to the traditional landowners and its cave houses an extensive gallery including 10,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art.
Oodnadatta, South Australia
The Oodnadatta Track – a traditional Aboriginal trading route – begins at Marree in South Australia and travels roughly northwest for 385 miles (620km) through the tiny town of Oodnadatta before looping back to the Stuart Highway at Marla. Once a stop on the original Ghan Railway, tiny Oodnadatta has a pub (in the Transcontinental Hotel, which is owned by the local Aboriginal people), the hard-to-miss Pink Roadhouse, post office and an intriguing little museum in one of the town’s old railway station buildings.
William Creek, South Australia
Situated along the unsealed Oodnadatta Track and within the world’s largest working cattle property, Anna Creek Station, is remote outpost William Creek. It’s the smallest town in the state and mostly a stop-off for people visiting Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, a vast salt lake. Beers at its beloved tin-roofed pub, the William Creek Hotel, is a popular pastime. There are also scenic flights from the township over the lake and beyond to Wilpena Pound.
Lightning Ridge, New South Wales
Visitors usually go down into a working opal mine to try fossicking for the prized gem in this quirky outback town. Set within the scorched land of far northwestern New South Wales, it sprung up around the rare black opal industry. As well as opal mines and stores, other highlights are soaking in the free Artesian Bore Baths, outdoor pools filled with naturally heated water from the Great Artesian Basin, the John Murray gallery, and Bevan’s Cactus Nursery.
Katherine, Northern Territory
Sat on the rugged banks of Katherine River, the laid-back town of Katherine is a popular pit stop for roadtrippers driving from Western Australia to the tropical north. After soaking up the town’s hot springs, visitors usually explore the stunning Nitmiluk (or Katherine) Gorge, a cluster of 13 gorges that is of great importance to the Jawoyn Aboriginal people. There are also waterfalls, ancient rock art and astonishing wildlife.
Tennant Creek, Northern Territory
Set on the main route from Darwin down to Alice Springs, there’s lots to recommend pulling over and staying a while in this blink-and-you-miss-it township. The Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre showcases indigenous art and stories of the Warumungu people’s legends. Other highlights include an old gold mine and the historic telegraph station, which provided Australia with its first line to Britain. Just nearby is one of the outback’s iconic rock formations, Karlu Karlu (the Devil’s Marbles) – beautiful at sunrise or sunset.
Stranded far west in the dusty and dry interior of the vast state, Longreach can be a shock to the system. The surprisingly large and thriving outback town is also big on attractions. Top activities include bumping along the old Longreach-Windorah mail route in a restored stagecoach, drawn by five stock horses, cruises on the Thomson River and learning about life in rural Australia at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre. There’s also Australia’s first ever passenger aircraft on display at the Qantas Founders Outback Museum.
Cobar, New South Wales
Cobar’s excellent Great Cobar Heritage and Visitor Information Centre is packed with local memorabilia. Set between Dubbo and Broken Hill, the characterful country town has a clutch of handsome historic buildings, including a courthouse and the late 19th-century Great Western Hotel, complete with exquisite veranda. Mount Grenfell, on the way out of town, offers some of the best examples of rock art in Australia.
Coober Pedy, South Australia
Opal mining town Coober Pedy is the archetypal gem in the rough. Mind-bendingly remote, blisteringly hot and with a lunar-like landscape, there’s not much to keep visitors above ground. But, on closer inspection, there are doors hidden in the sandstone. Most of its population live underground in “dugouts” to escape the intense heat. Churches, bars, bookshops and even hotels are also tunneled into the rock.
Coober Pedy, South Australia
Not surprisingly opals are an obsession here. Hand-dug Old Timers Mine, which dates from 1916, is a popular attraction, while a guided tour of Tom’s Working Mine reveals why the rainbow gems are so special. Above ground, the gloriously retro Coober Pedy Drive In is one of the last surviving drive-ins in Australia. But for more striking landscapes, the colorful low hills of The Breakaways and the spectacular Painted Desert don’t disappoint.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia
Deep into WA’s goldfields region is one of Australia’s most famous frontier towns with lots of character and a colorful history. The gold-rich twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder are a mine of information when it comes to the gold industry (Kalgoorlie produces 10% of the world’s gold) both past and present. Many beautiful buildings remain from its 19th-century gold rush days, including its heritage hotels, museums and the Questa Casa Bordello, one of the world’s oldest working brothels.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia
Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit is a sight to behold – there’s a public viewing platform that gazes down the huge terraced hole in the earth which is the biggest gold mine in Australia. There are plenty of audio tours, emcompassing 50 sites, that explain what life was like for the early prospectors. Visitors usually flock to the charming Palace Hotel, built in 1897 – it was the first hotel in the state to have electricity. Take a look at Australia’s most eerie abandoned buildings.
Menzies, Western Australia
Most people follow the road north from Kalgoorlie and on to Lake Ballard – a vast salt lake with strong connections to the Aboriginal Seven Sisters’ dreaming story. It also has the country’s largest outdoor art installation, Inside Australia by Antony Gormley. En route is Menzies, another mining town in the state’s bountiful goldfields region. Once a bustling gold-rich town home to 5,000, today just 235 people live here. But there are plenty of points of interest and exquisite turn-of-the-century architecture to admire.
Daly Waters, Northern Territory
This tiny settlement, which lies on the Stuart Highway from Katherine to Darwin, is all about its pub. Literally. But it’s a beauty. Picture an outback pub and tiny Daly Water’s hotel is it: corrugated tin roof, screens, overhanging porch and walls lined with memorabilia from travelers who pass through. This being the Northern Territory, there’s plenty of wild caught barramundi on the menu. There’s also an airstrip, constructed around 1930 to service the Daly Waters Airmail run, which was later used as an RAAF base in the Second World War.
Kununurra, Western Australia
An oasis-like town on the banks of the Ord River, Kununurra is at the eastern end of the legendary Gibb River Road, an unsealed track which traverses 410 miles (660km) through the beautiful wilderness of the Kimberley region. It’s a beaut of a base to explore East Kimberly. Water is the main attraction here with the town’s name derived from Aboriginal language meaning big water. Days here are all about exploring the area’s striking waterways.
Kununurra, Western Australia
The laid-back town is relatively modern – it was established in 1961 as a service center for the Ord River Irrigation scheme – and as a tourist hub it has plenty of cafés, hotels and campsites. Highlights include canoeing down the river to spot freshwater crocs (the small, less scary variety), wallabies and lizards sun-baking on the banks; a hike up Kelly’s Knob to watch the sun set over the majestic hills; a cruise around Lake Argyle, and marveling at the beehive-like rock formations in nearby Mirima Hidden Valley National Park. See more of Australia’s most beautiful national parks here.
Mount Magnet, Western Australia
A remote red dirt town, Mount Magnet is the longest surviving gold mining settlement in Western Australia and rich in historic and natural attractions. The 22-mile (35km) trail from the town center (complete with Art Deco façades and charming old pubs) reveals the area’s old and modern goldmine sites, as well as Warramboo Hill where the region’s rugged granite rock formations are on display.
Melrose, South Australia
Tibooburra, New South Wales
A 17-hour drive northwest of Sydney, Tibooburra is in “Corner Country” – set near the borders of NSW, Queensland and South Australia. As with others, the small town has been affected by NSW’s worst-ever drought in recent years. The hardy locals at the friendly Family Hotel are happy to chat about life in the outback though. Meanwhile the vast surrounds of the Sturt National Park showcases 450-million-year-old granite tors, plus a section of the dingo fence, the world’s largest man-made fence.
The immaculately preserved gold rush architecture of this town in Victoria’s High Country is a big draw, as is its connection to one of Australia’s most infamous historical figures. Bushranger Ned Kelly was thrown in jail here before being sent to Melbourne to hang. Today, the town is very much a picture of respectability with over 30 National Trust-listed buildings and a reputation for independent stores, bakeries and microbreweries. There are great restaurants too including renowned chef Michael Ryan’s lauded Provenance.
Highlights in the town are The Burke Museum and Historic Precinct, a living history museum that walks visitors through the town’s gold rush history. It features the area’s most significant buildings, each bringing their stories to life, including an audio re-enactment in the old courthouse of the committal trial which sealed Ned Kelly’s fate. There’s usually a walking tour around the sites associated with the bushranger.
This lonely little town is famous for a few remarkable reasons – firstly it’s where Australia’s most famous song, Waltzing Matilda, stems from. Banjo Paterson is said to have been moved by the suicide of a shearer at the nearby Combo Waterhole and first performed the song in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel in 1895. It’s also where the world’s only evidence of a dinosaur stampede is recorded – the Dinosaur Stampede at Lark Quarry Conservation Park. The nearby Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum has an impressive collection of fossils. See more of the world’s best dinosaur destinations here.
Silverton, New South Wales
Location for seminal 1970s movie Mad Max, the diminutive dusty town (population 60) had its heyday at the turn of the century when it was the site of a short-lasting silver mine. Today, though, it usually draws filmmakers and tourists with its outback charm – all red dirt, blue skies and aesthetically-pleasing dilapidated buildings. Silverton is a popular day trip from nearby Broken Hill. The Mad Max Museum and the Silverton Gaol Museum are usually high on visitors’ itineraries.
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Encircled by striking outback landscapes, there’s remote and then there’s Broken Hill. The National Heritage listed mining town lies 710 miles (1,142km) northwest of Sydney, 520 miles (837km) northwest of Melbourne, and 320 miles (515km) northeast of Adelaide. But with historic buildings (including the Palace Hotel, one of Australia’s most iconic outback pubs and location for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), a rich mining history and indigenous heritage, it’s packed with charm.
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Established to house hard-living miners, Broken Hill is also an unlikely creative hub drawing artists with its incredible light and arid beauty. The town boasts an impressive 30-plus galleries (including the Broken Hill Regional Gallery, which opened in 1904). The wonderful outdoor sculpture park, the Sculpture Symposium in The Living Desert Reserve, features 12 massive sandstone sculptures created by artists from around the world as well as local artist Badger Bates.
Now discover the world’s most beautiful small towns
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