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A 48-Hour West MacDonnell Ranges Adventure

Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is around 160 km west of Alice Springs, and is home to several stunning chasms, gaps, and gorges that comprise the grand West MacDonnell Ranges. It has scenic hikes for all fitness levels, including the famed Larapinta Trail, magnificent swimming holes, and excellent camping grounds.

You can take a refreshing dip in one of the park's permanent water holes. Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Redbank Gorge, and Glen Helen Gorge are the bigger waterholes.

There are various recognised MacDonnell Ranges walks that range from easy to difficult. The Larapinta Trail, which spans 223 km across the park, provides extended and overnight bushwalks for fit, experienced, and well-prepared trekkers.

If you only have two days to experience the MacDonnell Ranges, here is an itinerary for your West MacDonnell Ranges adventure. 

Simpsons Gap

Simpsons Gap

Day 1

Start at Alice Springs -> Simpsons Gap -> Standley Chasm (lunch at the cafe, tour option here) -> Ellery Creek Big Hole -> finishing the day at Glen Helen Gorge.

Alice Springs

Alice Springs sits at the heart of Australia's ochre outback, surrounded by hauntingly beautiful mountain ranges. From the ancient desert to the Aboriginal culture woven into the very fabric of life here, this town, dubbed "Alice" by the locals, embodies the typical Australian character. Alice Springs is the perfect base for all your Red Centre activities, no less than what's planned in this itinerary.

Simpsons Gap

The first stop along the West MacDonnell National Park, Simpsons Gap is a 20-minute drive from Alice Springs. A black-footed rock wallaby may be seen along the walking track or at the permanent waterhole at dawn or night.

At this significant spiritual place, several dreaming trails and stories intersect. Many short trails traverse through the area's natural vegetation, including ancient ghost gums, and lead to spectacular range views.

Standley Chasm photography

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm, also known as Angkerle Atwatye, is a natural wonder that cuts through the quartzite rock of the West MacDonnell Ranges, just west of Alice Springs. The small opening was produced by rushing floodwaters over thousands of years, creating an alleyway through rock walls as high as 80m.

You can wander around the chasm and take in the striking contrast between the hard red granite and the lush green cycads that thrived in this harsh environment thanks to a little but constant water flow. Learn from the local guides on a tour about culture, flora, fauna, and the regions geology.

This is the perfect spot for some morning tea or lunch depending on the time of day you have reached Standley Chasm. With a fully equipped café there is everything from freshly baked scones to burgers and milkshakes available.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

In the West Macs, Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of the most popular and attractive camping, trekking, swimming, and picnic areas. The West MacDonnell Ranges feed this beautiful waterhole, bordered by substantial red cliffs and the sandy Ellery Creek. 

This waterhole, recognised as a globally significant geological landmark, was carved out by thousands of years of massive floods. To see the surrounding landforms, take the 3-km Dolomite trek, or if you've got a floaty and an eagerness to swim, take a dip in the probably cold water.

Ellery Creek 131816

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge is an excellent site to see in the West MacDonnell Ranges. You can cool off in the water which provides a haven for local species. The gorge is located in the western portions of the West MacDonnell Ranges, approximately 132 km from Alice Springs.

The scenery around Glen Helen is breathtaking; the first thing you see when you arrive is a massive sandstone wall. The area features views of Mount Sonder, one of Central Australia's highest points, which changes colour depending on the light.

The ranges divide at Glen Helen Gorge to make space for the Finke River. During the hot summer months, all nine species of fish, as well as migrating waterbirds, seek refuge in this permanent waterhole. The Finke River continues to the Simpson Desert from here.

Dinner and Stay at Discovery Parks - Glen Helen

If you are looking for  accommodation in the West MacDonnell Ranges, choose Discovery Parks - Glen Helen, the only such facility within the West Macs. With 25 motel rooms and an enormous camping ground with both powered and unpowered sites, you can enjoy outback hospitality. Use the excellent facilities, including a restaurant, bar/bistro, swimming pool, and outdoor patio with spectacular views of the Glen Helen cliffs.

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Day 2

Head west to Redbank Gorge -> then begin heading back east via Ormiston Gorge -> the Ochre Pits -> Serpentine Gorge -> and return to Alice Springs.

Redbank Gorge

It is a beautiful gorge and chasm that serves as a haven for a variety of endangered plant and animal species. It is a popular stop for Red Centre Way travellers and is located 156 km west of Alice Springs in the West MacDonnell Ranges, at the base of Mount Sonder.

Swim in the chilly, deep water of the near-permanent waterhole during the two-kilometre, 1.5-hour return trek from the car park along the creek bed to the gorge. The Woodland and the Ridgetop campgrounds both provide basic camping facilities.

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge is an excellent area to cool down and explore the towering red walls, as well as the native plants and wildlife. It is accessible via cemented roads and is located 135 km west of Alice Springs in the National Park. A near-permanent waterhole in the gorge is great for swimming, especially during summer.

The Ormiston Pound Walk is a three to four hour circuit that begins at the kiosk and takes you through the pound's rocky slopes and level floor before returning along the gorge via the main waterhole. The area is home to a diverse range of natural fauna and flora, including relict plant species from Central Australia's tropical past.

Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge

Ormiston Gorge swimmer

Ormiston Gorge

Ochre Pits

Explore the West MacDonnell Ranges to witness the vibrant colours of the mineral Ochre Pits, which have been mined by local Aboriginal people for years. Ochre comes in a variety of earthy hues, including white, yellow, orange, red, and brown. It's a significant aspect of Aboriginal culture and is commonly used in rock art and ceremonial painting.

The pits are a colourful ochre outcrop on the banks of a sandy watercourse 110 km west of Alice Springs. The location has an information shelter that explains how, why, and when the Ochre Pits were used.

Serpentine Gorge

Serpentine Gorge is a shallow gorge located 100 km west of Alice Springs in the West Macs. Follow one of the many well-marked pathways through the valley in the cool shade of river red gums, or climb to the lookout above the cliffs for panoramic views of the rough geology of the MacDonnell Ranges and a sequence of semi-permanent waterholes.

During dry periods, the nearby waterholes dry up, leaving Serpentine Gorge as the only remaining waterhole in a vast area. Birds will flock from the surrounding countryside, which can be easily watched by sitting quietly along the waterhole's edge.

Ochre Pits

Ochre Pits

West Macs FAQ

Luckily for us, in Central Australia the only place you can find a crocodile is at the reptile centre. Being in the centre of Australia makes it a little tricky for crocodiles to get here.
The West MacDonnell Ranges are directly west of Alice Springs. You can access them via Larapinta Drive and then Namatjira Drive as you head west out of town. They extend west for roughly 170 kilometres before looping back around via Hermannsburg.
The West MacDonnell Ranges are accessed via the sealed roads of Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive, meaning a 2 wheel drive can access them. Some of the stops along the West Macs do require an all-wheel drive or 4 wheel drive.
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