We had never heard about the MacDonnell Ranges until our first visit to Alice Springs and the Red Centre in 2017. As soon as we found out about the ranges and the beautiful gorges and waterholes that lie within them, we realised that we had not given anywhere near enough time to our visit in Alice Springs. Since that first visit three years ago, we couldn’t wait to return and explore more of this amazing region. On our first visit we only had the time to stop at Ellery Creek Big Hole. This time around, we weren’t making the same mistake. We dedicated a whole week to exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges and the Red Centre Way, and it was one of the best decisions we have ever made.
Known to the locals as Tjoritja, the West MacDonnell National Park stretches from Alice Springs all the way along the iconic Larapinta Trail. This part of Central Australia is sacred for many reasons to it’s traditional landowners, but is just as beautiful and significant for any visitors. The Aranda people are the traditional owners of Alice Springs and the West MacDonnell Ranges, and are spiritually connected to this land through their creation stories. The Yeperenye creation stories tell the tale of an ancestral spirit in the form of a giant caterpillar that moved through Alice Springs, creating the entire landscape, including the ranges.
It is estimated that the MacDonnell Ranges are 340 million years old, forming when two tectonic plates collided, causing rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface to thrust upwards towards the sky. Over time wind and water have exposed the skeleton of what was once a giant mountain range, thought to be much larger than what we see today.
There are no fees to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges or any of it’s beautiful sites, however there are camping fees at some of the spots along the way.
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When to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges
Central Australia is best visited in the winter months, from April to October when the temperatures aren’t at their extreme. Expect temperatures around the low 20° range throughout this time, with plenty of sunshine to give you the best conditions for walking and exploring. Visiting during the summer months can mean consistent temperatures above 40°C.
Quick note: Alice Springs and the Northern Territory run on Central Australian time, which is half an hour later than the East Coast.
The Larapinta Trail
We can’t write a post about the West MacDonnell Ranges without mentioning the Larapinta Walking Trail. This is not for the faint of heart, the Larapinta Walking Trail is over 230 kilometres long, made up of 12 individual trails, connecting all the different gorges, waterholes, lookouts and places to see within the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Starting in Alice Springs, at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the Larapinta Trail is ranked one of the top 20 walks on the planet and is a very unique experience in Central Australia. The different trails that make up this epic walk cover all different levels of difficulty, with different facilities available along the way. Make sure you do a lot of research before you set off, so you know what to expect along this hectic trail. The Larapinta Trail ends at the highest point of Mount Sonder.
If you’re not up for completing the whole walk (and we don’t blame you, that is not our cup of tea), you can instead choose to do one or a few smaller sections of the walk. Many of the trails will start or finish at each of the gorges, so you can just enjoy a specific part of the walk. We have included the sections of the trail below that connect to each of the spots there are to visit in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Can’t miss spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges has so many great spots to visit. There are waterholes surrounded by the towering cliffs of the ranges, scenic walks throughout the park, stunning lookouts and all kinds of landscapes. Here are some of the top spots to check out during your visit.
Location: 18 kilometres west of Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive.
One of the most prominent gaps in the West MacDonnell Ranges, we were surprised by how how much we loved Simpsons Gap. A beautiful little spot, surrounded by a sandy bank, Simpsons Gap is the first stop along the Red Centre Way from Alice Springs, only 20 minutes out of town. It’s one of the lesser talked about spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges, which is maybe why we were surprised by how beautiful it was.
There is a permanent waterhole here, although swimming is not allowed at this site. If you visit at dusk or dawn there are often black-footed rock wallabies along the walking trail and sandy bank into the gap. There are also a few different short walking trails around the gap, introducing you to some of the flora and fauna of the area.
Aboriginal history: To the local Arrernte Aboriginal people, Simpsons Gap is known as Rungutjirpa and was the mythological home to a group of giant goanna ancestors. Because of this, it is an important spiritual site, with many dreaming trails and stories based here.
When to go: Simpsons Gap is beautiful at all times of the day, so there’s no matter what time you visit you’re sure to capture some beautiful images.
Camping: Camping is allowed at Simpsons Gap for Larapinta Trail walkers only in the designated camping area.
Larapinta trail: From Simpsons Gap you can walk sections 1 or 2 of the Larapinta Trail.
Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye
Location: 1 Jay Creek Road, Standley Chasm
A truly breathtaking spot along the Red Centre Way, Standley Chasm is just amazing. It’s one of the most unique places to see in Central Australia and since it’s only 40 minutes from Alice Springs, it’s an easy trip if you only have time to visit a couple of spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
After a short walk through the surrounding bushland, entering the chasm is quite a mesmerising experience. The rock walls are so tall, stretching 80 metres high into the sky and changing colours throughout the day, depending on the sun position during your visit. Every time you visit you are treated to a different experience, with the colours of the chasm offering a different view every time you visit.
Aboriginal history: Known as Angkerle Atwatye to the local Western Arrernte people, the name means “the gap of water” and is an important cultural site of women’s dreaming. Traditionally, the local women would come here to collect bush medicine and perform sacred rituals. The signs along the walking trail to the chasm can give you more of an insight into the local plants here and how they were used to in traditional medicine.
When to go: For a short time around midday the sun shines right on top of the chasm, so that both sides of the chasm light up in beautiful colour. Visit at around 12pm for this beautiful natural light show and minimal shadows.
Fees: Standley Chasm is privately owned, so there is an entry fee of $12 per adult.
Camping: Stay overnight at Standley Chasm’s own camping ground, which offers powered or unpowered campsites from $18.80 per person. The fees include access into the chasm (which means it’s really only $6.80 per person a night), as well as a bathroom, laundry and kitchen facilities. If you’re camping here please be aware that alcohol is not permitted here as you are on Aboriginal owned land and is prohibited by law. Gates are open from 8am to 5pm each day.
Find out more at standleychasm.com.au
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Location: Namatjira Drive, 90 kilometres west of Alice Springs. The last 2 kilometres are unsealed, but flat and easy for any car.
One of the most popular places in the West MacDonnel Ranges is Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s only about an hour away from Alice Springs, so it’s a very popular place for locals looking for a weekend day trip and can be very busy on the weekends and during school holidays. It’s one of the prettiest and most easily accessible places in the park and also a favourite of kayakers and paddleboarders who want to explore a little further through the rocks.
The waterhole has been carved out from thousands of years of massive floods, and is considered a very significant international sight. Explore more of the region and the insane landscape by embarking on the Dolomite Walk (3 kilometre loop, 1.5 hours) from the car park. The walk is a small part of the Larapinta Trail along an unsealed path, returning you to the car park when you’re done.
Aboriginal history: Known as Udepata to the Central and Western Arrernte Aboriginal people, the permanent waterhole that is here made it a special meeting place for local Aranda people on the fish and honey ant dreaming trails.
When to go: Visit around midday to early afternoon, when there are the least shadows over the waterhole.
Camping: There are camping spots available for any kind of camping including caravans, campervans, tents and camper trailers. The fee is $6.60 per adult per night, with discounts for children and families. Bring cash for the box at the campsite, no change available.
Larapinta Trail: From Ellery Creek you can access sections 6 and 7 of the Larapinta trail.
Neil Hargrave Lookout
A great free camping spot along the Red Centre Way, the Neil Hargrave Lookout takes you above the ranges, with 360 views over the surrounding landscape. You can camp here for free for 24 hours and there are even a few fire pits around to make yourself a nice campsite. Treat yourself to a beautiful sunset and sunrise while you’re here, the views can’t be beaten!
This is one of the only spots along the way with phone reception (Telstra only, not sure about other phone providers), although you might have to stand in the designated spot next to the satellite dish to make it work. Since we have a Celfi-go in our van we were able to get full bars of reception and had no issues using the internet like usual.
Location: Namatjira Drive, 110 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
Next up along the trail is the Ochre Pits. This site is still used by the local Aboriginal people, who have mined the ochre here for thousands of years. The walls of the pits are a beautiful rainbow of red, orange and yellow and is used for ceremonies, dance, decorations and in burial rituals throughout Australia. It’s a lovely sight to visit, only a short walk from the car park, and an interesting spot to learn more about how the traditional locals use the land.
Aboriginal history: In traditional Wastern Arrerntre society ochre was used almost daily, but many of it’s uses (including those in traditional medicine) have been replaced these days by more modern practices. However, it is still used these days in religious ceremonies and for decoration.
When to go: Visit in the morning to early afternoon to see the pits walls lit up in a rainbow of colours.
Camping: There is no camping at the Ochre Pits.
Location: Namatjira Drive, 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
This might have been our favourite stop in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Ormistion Gorge makes your jaw drop the closer you get to it, with a sandy bank leading up to a deep waterhole, surrounded by tall red rock faces. Ormiston Gorge was kind of like the ultimate beach of the desert, with a great surrounding shoreline, shady trees and the perfect place to base yourself for a relaxing day in a desert oasis. The waterhole here is “mostly permanent”, only drying up throughout periods of extreme drought.
For an amazing view over the waterhole, follow the Ghost Gum walking trail to the lookout above the gorge. Although it looks insanely high from down inside the gorge, the walk has been carved out at a pleasant incline, making it not too difficult or steep. It’s easy to do in your thongs (of course, our preferred hiking footwear), and offers some really incredible views of the site. Definitely highly recommended.
Aboriginal history: Known as Kwartatuma, this is also a sacred sight to the Western Arrernte people. The locals tell a dreaming story here of a group of emus who came to the waterhole from the east and a man who hunted them while they visited.
When to go: Visit in the morning to see the waterhole and surrounding cliffs drenched in sunlight for the best photo opportunities. We visited at around 10am on a Sunday morning and had the whole place to ourselves.
Camping: Camp sites are available to suit caravans, camper trailers, tents and campervans and are allocated on a first come first serve basis. A night at Ormiston Gorge costs $10 per adult per night, with discounts for kids and families. Bring cash to pay at the campground.
Larapinta Trail: From Ormiston Gorge you can access sections 9 and 10 of the Larapinta Trail.
Glen Helen Gorge
Location: Namatjira Drive, 139 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
Continue further along the Red Centre Way trail to find Glen Helen Gorge. We thought that Glen Helen Gorge was kind of like a gap and a gorge all mixed into one. You can see the gap in the ranges as you’re driving along the road, and it is even more impressive in person when you get there.
The gap at Glen Helen Gorge is actually where the ranges part to make way for the Finke River. The waterhole here is permanent and is an important place in Central Australia for all kinds of migrating birds, as well as 9 species of fish that are found in the Finke.
Aboriginal history: The traditional landowners at Glen Helen believe that this special swimming spot is the home of the ancient and powerful Rainbow Serpent, and regard it as off limits.
When to go: Glen Helen Gorge can be visited at any time of the day, as there are no surrounding cliffs to create any shadows.
Camping: This is where you can find the Glen Helen Lodge, the only real accommodation spot within the West MacDonnell Ranges. There are motel style rooms available, as well as a large campground with powered and unpowered sites. Glen Helen also has a fuel stop, small store, swimming pool and bar/bistro if you’re looking for some food.
Larapinta Trail: Section 10 of the Larapinta Trail ends at Glen Helen Junction.
Location: Namatjira Drive, 157 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
Redbank Gorge wasn’t even actually on our list of spots to visit in the West MacDonnell Ranges, but we saw the sign for it decided to check it out as well. It’s the last gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges, the most difficult to get to, and in my opinion, by far the most beautiful.
There’s a 1.5 kilometre walking trail that leads you to Redbank Gorge. The trail takes you across a sandy bank, before a scramble over many many rocks, before you arrive at the most perfect little waterhole, surrounded by some of the most beautiful red rock cliffs. It was such a great spot, really one of the most beautiful waterholes we found in Central Australia. We especially loved the random palm trees that appeared to be growing in the cliffs, where did their roots grow?!
Aboriginal history: The Western Arrernte name for Redbank Gorge is Yarretyeke and is another special place in the ranges due to it’s permanent waterhole. The dreaming story that is connected to this gorge is about the euro (small kangaroo) ancestor who travels through these lands. However, this story is only shared with initiated Aboriginal men, so that’s all we know.
When to go: Visit around late morning to early afternoon to see the surrounding cliffs in their most beautiful colours. We were there at around 1pm and thought it was the absolute perfect time to visit!
Camping: There are two different campgrounds here, one called the Woodland and the other the Ridgetop. They both have basic facilities, including fire pits, toilets and picnic tables. It’s only $5 per person to camp here, bring the correct change with you.
Tips for exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges
Whether you’re going to one specific spot in the West MacDonnell Ranges or trying to visit them all, there are a few things to remember on your visit:
- Pay attention to all signs you see throughout the park and at gorges, camping sites and day areas. They will let you know if there are any restrictions on swimming, fires, camping etc in each location, as they are all different.
- Most of the time waterholes have extremely cold water, even on scorching hot days. If you’re planning to take a dip make sure you keep warm, as hypothermia is common for those who spend too much time in the water, even in summer.
- Waterholes are also changing throughout the year and can have submerged logs and rocks under the water. Don’t jump, dive or swing into the water, especially if you can’t see what’s underneath you.
- Make sure you always take all of your rubbish with you whenever you stop, to help keep the environment beautiful and clean.
- Droning is permitted at some of the sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges, but it the Northern Territory does require a free permit for drone use in national parks.