Alice Springs, Australia
Credit: Juliet Coombe / Getty Images

Alice Springs, Australia

The central Australian city of Alice Springs has become synonymous with Uluru (also called Ayer's Rock), the iconic copper-colored megalith splashed across the front of postcards in Woolworths from Sydney to Perth. But, as closely associated as the casino town and the photogenic chunk of sandstone may be in the collective unconscious, a 290-mile drive southwest through the high desert awaits hikers who fly to Alice Springs Airport looking for the heartbeat of Oz. It's best to have a plan before going on a walkabout.

The first thing any local will tell you is that you'd better stock up on liquids and gas. There aren't many place to pull over in the so-called "Red Center." The classic stop is Curtin Springs, a motel and cattle station near where motorists turn west onto the Lasseter Highway. The next attraction is Mount Conner, a micro-mountain jutting up from the plains, 70 miles short of the main event that locals like to call "Fooluru" in honor of the foreigners who return to town holding pictures of themselves posing in front of the wrong geologic formation.

A steady line of coaches, jeeps, and Winnebagos caravan along the highway just short of Uluru. Drivers hope to catch a glimpse of the rock before sunset from the official Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parkviewing spot northwest of the landmark. Some succeed. Some succeed the following day.

Uluru isn't disappointing, but its global celebrity does seem a bit arbitrary until evening arrives and the rock changes from gleaming amber to dusky blue. The view is ominous and lovely in equal turns. It can also be peaceful if you make an effort to get past the champagne-swilling crowd and find a private view. This isn't easy, but the Outback is a big enough place that you're always a short hike away from solitude.

From Mala car park not far from the lookout, a trail takes trekkers around Uluru's six-mile perimeter. Head here around 6 pm to watch the sunset then retread the path in the morning in search of ancient watering holes and Aboriginal rock art. The controversial $21 million Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing point southeast of the rock offers a lovely view, but it feels more like a continental breakfast buffet than full-on wilderness.

Then there's the spiritual debate: To climb or not to climb? It's a reasonable question, but the scramble toward the 1,142-foot summit is more treacherous than controversial. The mountain's steep gullies, crossed by chain-link hand supports, have claimed almost 40 lives over the years. Leaders of the Anangu tribe politely ask visitors not to scale their sacred site and only 20 percent ignore the warning – down from 74 percent in the early nineties.

Climbers spend the evening bragging in the bars around Uluru, reveling in the pure Australian essence of their achievement instead of worrying about karmic backlash. It is true that the place is no longer the exclusive domain of the Aborigines, but it is very old, very beautiful, and very far away from practically everything. It shouldn't be taken lightly.

More info: Etihad and Qantas and Virgin Australia fly direct from California to Ayers Rock Airport. On the ground, Adventure Tours Australia operates a series of Uluru explorer trips which start from AUS $305 for one night. If you plan to organize everything yourself, a three-day National Park permit costs AUD $25, a six-person cabin tent costs AUD $155 a night, and car rentals cost from AUD $84 a day. You won't need one, but, if your budget allows, upgrade to a 4X4 so you can get off the main road.