Exploring the Gawler Ranges National Park

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Even though I grew up not too far away, visiting the Gawler Ranges National Park always seemed daunting. It is remote and rugged, and not much about it is easy. But I recently had the chance to visit, and here’s all you need to know.

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Why visit the Gawler Ranges National Park

A kangaroo in Gawler Ranges National Park

The Gawler Ranges National Park is relatively new, only declared in 2002. This is a great area to visit if you want to enjoy the outback.

It’s a place to enjoy nature, and to learn a little about how harsh this land was for the early settlers. The views across the park show small granite hills dotted about the landscape of red dirt, saltbush and small scrubby trees.

There are some rare plants and animals in the national park, including the elusive Yellow-Footed Rock Wallaby. During your visit you can enjoy bushwalking in many parts of the park, and you can stay at the designated campgrounds.

Getting to the Gawler Ranges National Park

The Gawler Ranges National Park is around 600-650km from Adelaide on the northern side of the National Highway A1 that takes travellers from Port Augusta across to Ceduna. It can be accessed from Kimba, Wudinna or Minnipa.

I drove in from Minnipa, so the loop I discuss below goes from there, but you could start it anywhere. If you also come from Minnipa, stop in to see Pildappa Rock (above) on the way.

Gawler Ranges National Park sits on the traditional lands of some of the Barngarla, Kokatha and Wirangu people who are known collectively as the Gawler Ranges Aboriginal People.

Prefer to visit Gawler Ranges National Park with a guide? Take a look at the tours offered by Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris

Things to know about Visiting the Gawler Ranges National Park

You will need to pay a park entry fee before visiting the park or during your visit. One place to do it is to drop cash into the locked boxes around the park, like the one above at the Shearing Shed.

The easiest way to do it though is online here before you arrive. Note that it is best to assume there is no phone service in the park, so you almost certainly won’t be able to do it once you are there.

Gawler Ranges National Park is also covered by the annual Multi-parks pass which is a good option if you are visiting lots of parks over the year.

The weather here can be extreme during summer, and I don’t recommend this as a time to visit unless you are keeping a close eye on the weather forecast.

I was there on a day when it was in the high thirties and it became difficult to enjoy some of the areas as it was too hot.

There had been a lot of recent rain, so the park was particularly green, and I didn’t want the miss the opportunity to see it. The heat brings flies too, which can be very annoying if you aren’t used to them.

Gawler Ranges National Park is solely a 4WD area. All the roads are unsealed, and just a little rain can quickly make them impassable.

Some of the areas are very sandy, so ensure you know what to do if you get bogged and to always carry a shovel.

Always check the national park website before your visit for any closures or restrictions. It’s a good idea to stop at the information shelter as you enter the park too, as currently notices will be posted there too.

Please remember that dogs are not allowed in most Australian national parks, and also that there are no bins provided. Please take all your rubbish home with you to dispose of.

Things to see in Gawler Ranges National Park

When I visited, we came in on the road from Minnipa. We first took the track up to the Organ Pipes. From there we backtracked and then started a loop that took us past Old Paney to the Paney Homestead and Park Office.

We now went north, up to Kolay Hut and the Pondanna Outstation. The section of road from Pondanna back to the Yardea Road was especially rough during our visit, and it would not have been passable for anything other than a high-clearance 4WD.

Even though the day we visited was hot, we saw plenty of wildlife around, mostly the usual kangaroos and emus with some wedge-tailed eagles overhead, but also a few lizards too.

Thankfully, no snakes, but I am sure they are around so be aware.

Here are some of the highlights we saw along the way.

Organ Pipes

The Organ Pipes are probably the best known of the natural attractions in Gawler Ranges National Park. There are a little off the main track, and then require a 400m hike to get there, but it’s worth the effort.

Make sure you wear sturdy footwear for the hike, because I can confirm that wearing thongs makes it much harder!

(Yes, I know better, and I was kicking myself, but I had changed cars and left my hiking boots in the other car – it had been too hot to wear them all day)

What you will see is a short gorge lined by columns of rock. These columns were created over 1500 million years ago by volcanic lava. The columns towering all around you is incredible to see.

There are some sections that are great for scrambling over too, kids will especially love visiting.

This area is also where you are most likely to see the Yellow-Footed Rock Wallabies. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk, but you may be lucky to spot one at any time of the day.

Peterby Rockhole

When I arrived here, I sort of went “Huh? Where are the rockholes?” but on reading the sign it all made sense. I had in my wind a waterhole, but rockholes are completely different and were actually quite common in this area in the past.

These large flat granite areas were often used to capture and store water after rains. The Aboriginal people used the natural dents and divots to harvest the water.

Once European settlers arrived, they ofter built channels to direct the water running off the rock and small dams to collect it in (although that didn’t happen here).

Stone Dam

The name Stone Dam pretty much gives away what you are going to find here – yes, a stone dam! This dam was built in the early 1900s and shows exactly how desperate the early setters were to try to store water after the rare rains.

While the above photos is showing the outside of the dam, on the other side there was a small pool of water, no deeper than about a foot. This was after recent rains that caused never-before-see flooding not too far away.

Old Paney

When I saw the Paney name on the map I assumed this was going to be the surname of the pioneering family that first settled here, so it was interesting to learn that “panel” is the local Aboriginal word for “hill spring”.

As you walk around the current homestead (believed to have been initially built in the 1870s) learn about some of the early settlers and their interactions (not all good!) with the Aboriginal people already here.

There are some short hikes around the area that leave from here to more historical places of interest such as the graveyard and the old stockyards.

Paney Shearer’s Quarters and Shed

Stop at the Paney shearing shed and take a look at a genuine working shed. You will find lots of information about the shed itself, the yards and the local wool industry. Admire the original wool press while you are here too.

Located nearby is the current Paney homestead and the National Parks Office. We did not see anyone around during our visit, so I am not sure if it is permanently staffed or not.

This area is also where you may just get a little phone coverage if you are with Telstra.

Kolay Hut

Kolay Hut is not much more than an old cottage that is now used as a campground area. There are toilet facilities here, and this could be a good location to stop and have that packed lunch you brought with you.

Kolay Mirica Falls

Another granite outcrop not too far from Kolay Hut is the site of the Kolay Mirica Falls. I was hoping to see a little water flowing, but we were out of luck since it had been a couple of weeks since all the rain.

There were a few pools in the rocks and it was fun to poke around and explore.

While we didn’t do the hike, you can leave from here to climb to the Mount Fairview summit, which is one of the highest points in the national park.

This is a 5km return hike and is rated as difficult, so should only be attempted if you are well prepared.

If you are staying in the Gawler Ranges National Park, this would be a great stop around sunset, as the sun would bounce right off these rocks and it would be all sorts of colours.

Pondanna Outstation

Pondanna Outstation is another of the original station buildings left in the Gawler Ranges National Park. In recent years it has been renovated and is now available for visitors to stay in.

It’s a four bedroom house that can sleep eight people. Find more details over on the National Parks website.

The area around the Pondanna Outstation was probably the prettiest during our day. There was a lot of green here, and it would have been a lovely spot to spend a few days.

There’s not a lot to do here, but there is a short heritage walk to help you explore and learn about the history of this site.

Conical Hill Lookout

The stretch of road from Pondanna outstation to the Conical Hill lookout was easily the worse of all the roads we used in the park. You will definitely need 4WD to get here.

The lookout gives a great view toward the west across ancient landscapes that were formed around 140 million years ago. This area was all underwater, and now consists of ancient sand dunes.

Gawler Ranges National Parks Campsites

Apart from the cottage at Pondanna Outstation, there are also six campsites within the Gawler Ranges National Park, some are caravan friendly, the others are camping only.

The campsites all have a toilet, but that’s it, you will need to be totally self-sufficient otherwise, including bringing your own firewood and water. I didn’t see all the campsites, but if I was going to camp there, I liked the look of Kolay Hut.

Details for all the accommodation options can be found here.

Get your camping supplies here at BCF before you go. Click & collect or free delivery over $99

Spending more time on Eyre Peninsula? Try these posts
Eyre Peninsula Road Trip
Exploring the West Coast of South Australia
Things to do in Port Augusta

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Josie sitting cross-legged in a garden
About the author

Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred, living here for her whole life. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.