Alice Springs, or "The Alice," as it's known locally, lies in the center of Australia 815 mi/1,310 km north of Adelaide and in the middle of nowhere. In other words, it's a great introduction to the Outback. Built around a telegraph station opened in the 1870s, the town once relied on Afghan camel teams to deliver supplies—once a year.
Today, it's teeming with all the trappings of modern life, including indoor malls, fast-food restaurants and scores of tourist shops. Many visitors, most of whom fly into Alice Springs, use it as a base from which to explore the country's vast interior. The steady influx of tourists hasn't tamed all of the town's quirkiness, however. Every September local residents still race homemade bottomless boats in a dry riverbed at the annual Henley-on-Todd Regatta.
We recommend spending at least a day in town to see the School of the Air (the country's first school taught over the radio), the Royal Flying Doctor Service (headquarters of the Outback's fly-in medical service) and the Old Telegraph Station (now a historic preserve that includes Alice's spring, where you can take a dip). The Alice Springs Desert Park is a must-see. You'll never look at deserts the same way. The area's natural history, geology and Aboriginal culture are recounted at the Central Australia Museum. Several galleries showcase quality Aboriginal art, much of it produced by local artists.
Two camel farms offer hour-long to weeklong treks into the MacDonnell Ranges, the desert hills surrounding Alice Springs. Hikers can explore ancient water holes, rare palm trees and unusual wildlife by walking the Larapinta Trail. An excellent bike trail also winds from Alice to Simpsons Gap. We highly recommend a trip to one of the nearby working cattle stations (most have overnight accommodations).
Escorted tours on buses, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles offer other options for exploring the Outback. It's possible to visit Uluru National Park as a day trip from Alice Springs—a four- to five-hour drive southeast. (We recommend, instead, that travelers spend at least an overnight there to allow time to view the rock and the nearby Olgas/Kata Tjuta.) Be aware that it can get dangerously hot (up to 120 F/50 C) in the Outback November-March. It's best to plan most strenuous outdoor activities during the cooler months.