The West MacDonnell Ranges are definitely one of my favourite places in the Northern Territory. I was first introduced to this spectacular landscape when I set off on a solo end to end journey on the Larapinta Trail in 2018. This time around, I was stoked to be back in the national park as a tourist rather than a hiker, and I was able to explore the more popular spots and campgrounds in my van.
Known to the Arrente people as Tjoritja, the West Macs stretch from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder and beyond in Central Australia. On the other side, the lesser visited East MacDonnell Ranges stretch in the opposite direction.
It’s estimated that these rugged ridgelines are hundreds of millions of years old and many people believe them to be some of the oldest mountains and rock formations in the world. It’s home to sacred sites for the Traditional Owners, the highest peaks in the Northern Territory, fun swimming holes and stunning vistas that will simply blow you away.
This comprehensive road trip guide to the West MacDonnell Ranges will help you plan the perfect adventure out to this special place near Alice Springs.
How to get to the West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges are easily reached from Alice Springs in Central Australia. Heading west from town, all you need to do is follow Larapinta Drive and then Namatjira Drive straight out towards the ranges.
All of the attractions and sights are located just off these roads, which are sealed and accessible for 2WD, for the most part. The closest West MacDonnell Ranges attraction to Alice Springs is Simpsons Gap which is just 25 minutes drive away. Whereas the furthest popular spot is Redbank Gorge, which is almost two hours drive from Alice Springs, so you’ll need more than a day to see everything.
The MacDonnell Ranges are part of the Red Centre Way road trip that connects Uluru and Kings Canyon with Alice Springs.
Read next: Best Things to Do in Alice Springs
When to visit the West Macs
Like most of Central Australia, it’s best to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges in the cooler winter months. From April until September, the temperatures are perfect for exploring, with warm days and cool nights. Visiting outside of these months, you may experience days over 40 degrees, as well as, severe rainfall.
However, winter is also the most popular time to visit, so expect a lot of people visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges attractions. The campgrounds are also very busy at this time, so it’s best to plan ahead and arrive early in the day. More on this below.
Essential information about visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges
Park entry: There are no park fees or park passes required for the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park. It’s completely free to visit. However, there are camp fees, starting from $4 per person per night. An exception to this is Standley Chasm, which is privately owned and managed by the local Arrernte people and has an entry fee.
Phone reception: Phone reception is pretty limited in the national park. You’ll find Telstra reception at Standley Chasm and Neil Hargrave Lookout. Optus now has a phone tower at Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge. There is also free Wi-Fi available at Simpsons Gap.
Road conditions: The main road through the national park is sealed, as are some of the roads leading to the popular places like Ormiston Gorge. However, a few spots are on dirt roads, which are usually in pretty good condition. Check the latest road conditions before setting out, as things can change after rain.
Fuel: There are no fuel stations once you leave Alice Springs and head into the national park via Namatjira Drive. However, you can find a fuel station on Larapinta Drive at Hermannsburg, if you need to refuel.
Swimming: The water holes in the West MacDonnell Ranges are not like the ones in the Top End of the Northern Territory. The water is cold all year round, even on hot days so it takes some courage to jump in. But they are croc free, which is nice!
Drones: Drones are permitted in many national parks in the Northern Territory, including the West MacDonnell Ranges. But you do need to obtain a free drone permit which can take a few days to be processed.
Leave no trace: There are limited bins available in the national park, so you must carry all your rubbish out with you. There are public toilets at the main day visitor areas at Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek and Ormiston Gorge.
Things to do in the West MacDonnell Ranges
Conveniently, all of the main attractions in the West Macs are off the same roads. This means that you only have to head out west and take short detours to the various gorges, gaps and swimming holes. Starting from Alice Springs and heading west, here are the best things to see in the West MacDonnell Ranges accessible by 2WD.
Distance from Alice Springs: 24km
Facilities: Toilets, water and BBQs
Camping: No, only for Larapinta Trail walkers in a separate designated area away from the gap.
Larapinta Trail: Section 1/2 junction
While there are plenty of “gaps” in the West Macs, there are a few that stand out. Simpsons Gap is the first attraction of the ranges that you come to after heading west from Alice Springs, and it’s a very pretty spot to explore. The place is known as Rungutjirpa by the Arrernte people and it’s an important cultural site for them related to many dreaming stories.
The walk from the car park to the gap is an easy, flat trail. There is a semi-permanent waterhole at the entrance to the gap, although you’re not allowed to swim there. I was lucky enough to spot a black footed rock wallaby there in the morning, but they usually come out around sunset time.
Simpsons Gap walks
There are a few short walks to enjoy at the gap as well. The Ghost Gum Walk is an easy 15 minute loop, or you can try the Cassia Hill Walk which is 1.8km with great views of the gap.
Prefer to cycle? There is a sealed bicycle path from Alice Springs (near Flynn’s Grave) to Simpsons Gap. The 17km trail is best done in the morning as there’s limited shade, but it’s a nice way to explore the ranges.
Standley Chasm / Angkerle Atwatye
Distance from Alice Springs: 50km
Facilities: Toilets, showers, washing machine, water, café/kiosk and shop
Camping: Yes, $18.50 including entrance to chasm. Powered sites available for an extra fee.
Fee: $12 entry ticket per person
Larapinta Trail: Section 3 / 4 junction
Standley Chasm is one of the most popular places to visit in the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s just a short walk of 1.2km along a flat trail from the car park, and you’ll come to the towering chasm which reaches up to 80m high. You can enter into the chasm but please obey the signs at the end that restrict you from going any further, as it’s an important cultural site.
Standley Chasm is known as Angkerle Atwatye to the Arrernte people, meaning the “gap of water”. It’s traditionally a women’s site where cultural rituals would be performed. The area has been returned to the Traditional Owners and the site, including the kiosk, cafe and campground is run by the local people.
The best time to visit Standley Chasm is at midday. This is when the incredible light show takes place and the walls of the chasm glow red as if on fire from the sun that sits directly above. Of course, this is also the busiest time and you’ll find plenty of other people trying to get their photo at the same time. Outside of this rush hour, it’s much more peaceful.
The café is a great spot to have some lunch. Their burgers are great, and they offer gluten free and vegetarian options. The campground is literally in the car park, while tents have some nice grass to pitch on. It’s not the most peaceful camping option in the West MacDonnell Ranges, but it can be convenient if you want to stay close to the chasm.
Funny story! When I went to Standley Chasm at midday, I was trying to get a photo with nobody else in the frame. I wasn’t the only one doing the same thing, and eventually a bunch of us ended up huddled at the chasm entrance waiting for that split second when nobody happened to be standing in the chasm. We waited over 45 minutes, but we finally got the shot when a couple of people kindly waited for us to click our shutters!
Standley Chasm walks
If you’re up for a bit of a walk, there are a couple of lookouts to check out. There is a short, steep walk behind the kiosk to a lookout over the parking area and ranges. You can ask the staff for the trail, which eventually connects onto section four of the Larapinta Trail.
The other option is a slightly longer walk along section three of the Larapinta Trail. As you walk towards the chasm from the kiosk, you’ll see the Larapinta Trail heading up on the left. This steep, rocky path takes you above Standley Chasm offering incredible views over the area. It’s about 1km to a nice viewpoint, but is a bit of a scramble, so take your time and wear decent shoes. You can continue up there for as long as you like, but be aware that it’s along the multi-day Larapinta, so you must return the same way to get back to the car park.
Point Howard Lookout
Distance from Alice Springs: 78km
Facilities: Non-drinking water, shelter and tables
Camping: Yes, free 24 hour limit
Not as popular as the Neil Hargrave Lookout further down the road, but Point Howard Lookout offers a nice view across the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s also a free camp, if you’re looking for a secluded spot with little facilities.
The sunrises and sunsets from there are incredible, so it’s worth staying the night if you’re looking for a place to stay free of cost. In my opinion, Neil Hargrave had a slightly better view, but either way both are pretty nice.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Distance from Alice Springs: 90km
Facilities: Toilets, water, shelters, tables and BBQs
Camping: Yes, $4 per person per night
Larapinta Trail: Section 6/7 junction
Ellery Creek Big Hole is a popular place to visit from Alice Springs on a day trip. The permanent waterhole amongst towering rock walls, is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon. Known as Udepata to the Arrernte people, the waterhole was an important meeting place for the local Aboriginal people.
It can be very busy during the day in high season, but is still quiet in the early mornings before 10am and at sunset time. So, if you plan on camping there, you get to enjoy the pretty spot without all the crowds. However, the water is freezing cold even on a hot day, so it takes a bit of courage to jump in. It would be a good idea to bring a flotation device to avoid being submerged in the water, with some people bringing along a kayak or something similar.
The last 2km to get to the car park is unsealed but in good condition for all vehicles. There are around 12 camping sites, which are usually taken before midday during high season. You pay the camping fee in cash with an honesty box and envelopes provided, which the rangers check regularly.
Ellery Creek walks
You can take the 3km Dolomite Walk which lets you explore the flora and fauna a bit more. It’s a moderate walk that should take around an hour and is a nice way to admire the ancient water hole.
Ellery Creek is also the half way point on the Larapinta Trail.
Distance from Alice Springs: 102km
Camping: No, Larapinta Trail walkers only at a designated spot nearby.
Larapinta Trail: Section 7/8 junction
Serpentine Gorge is rarely visited by tourists to the West Macs. The small gorge and waterhole isn’t as spectacular as the other spots on the Red Centre Way, but the short walk up to the lookout is the real highlight of a visit.
The gorge can be accessed on a 3km unsealed road that can be a little rough but doable in a 2WD if it’s dry (although not suitable for caravans and buses). From the car park, it’s just a 1km walk to the waterhole which is a peaceful spot, often shady and cool from the sun. However, you’ll want to make the trip up to the lookout, if you have the time.
Serpentine Gorge walks
The short 15-minute climb to the Serpentine Gorge Lookout is worth it for beautiful views over the gorge and across the West MacDonnell Ranges in the distance. You’ll likely have it almost to yourself, with very few people bothering to make the trip there.
Read next: The Ultimate Day Hike Packing List
Neil Hargrave Lookout
Distance from Alice Springs: 107km
Facilities: Non-drinking water, shelter and tables
Camping: Yes, free 24 hour limit
Between Ellery Creek and Ormiston Gorge, this lookout and free camp is a great spot to check out on a road trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges. The beautiful panoramic views look right across the ranges and it’s especially spectacular at sunset and sunrise.
There is a Telstra tower there, as well as fire pits, a shelter, and tables for a picnic. You’re permitted to camp there for a maximum of 24 hours.
Distance from Alice Springs: 112km
Facilities: Toilets and tables
Larapinta Trail: Detour off section 9
A bit further down the road, it’s worth stopping at the Ochre Pits if you have the time. The local Arrernte people have mined the ochre there for ceremonies for thousands of years. You can walk down to the pits, just 300m from the car park and see the incredible colours produced by the natural clay. It’s still used today, with local Traditional Owners permitted to mine the ochre for ceremonies and decoration. This doesn’t mean that anyone can take the ochre though, so please refrain from touching the rocks and clay.
Ochre Pits walk
You can also opt for the 8km Aranda walk if you’re prepared for a good day walk. It takes you from the Ochre Pits to the Inarlanga Pass, which is on the Larapinta Trail. This remote gorge is a highly sacred site for the local Aboriginal people who used it as the passageway through the West Macs on the way to ceremonies. While the 8km return walk is not overly difficult, you will want to carry plenty of water with you as it’s quite exposed.
Distance from Alice Springs: 135km
Facilities: Toilets, showers, water, café/kiosk, shelter, BBQs and tables
Camping: Yes, $10 per person per night
Larapinta Trail: Section 9/10 junction
What many people describe as outback Australia’s only “beach”, Ormiston Gorge is a completely unique spot in the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s also the clear favourite for many people, so be prepared to want to spend at least a full day there. It’s known as Kwartatuma by the Arrernte people, who have significant dreamtime stories related to the gorge.
It’s an incredibly stunning place that gets better the longer you stay and the more you explore. The main entrance to the gorge is just 500m from the car park on a flat trail accessible by everyone, including wheelchairs. Once you reach it, you’ll come to a sandy bank and the first waterhole at the base of towering red walls. While this might already have you in awe, it gets better!
You can simply park yourself on the sand and enjoy the water, but it’s worth heading out and exploring further. You can continue up through the gorge to find your own secluded spot, although you may have to wade through some of the cold water depending on the level. It can get quite busy between June and August, but if you stay the night in the campground, you can take a walk to the gorge in the early morning or late afternoon when all the day trippers have gone. I love it that much there that I’ve even written a whole guide just to Ormiston Gorge, if you’re planning a trip!
Ormiston Gorge walks
The Ghost Gum Walk is worth doing, as it takes you up to a beautiful lookout platform over the gorge and sandy banks below. It is a bit of steady incline to reach but is the best spot to be late in the day to admire the last light on the gorge. You can either head back the same way to the car park or around the gorge walls and down into the water for a longer 2.5km loop.
If you have even more energy, you can head out on the Ormiston Pound Walk. This 9km trail is one of the best day walks in Central Australia and gives you a little taste of what the Larapinta Trail is like. It takes you high up onto a ridge, which offers a truly spectacular panorama of the West MacDonnell Ranges. You then descend and walk through the length of Ormiston Gorge back to the car park, which provides a real perspective of just how magnificent this place really is. It’s best done early in the morning to avoid the heat. You may have to wade through a bit of water to get back through the gorge, but it’s a refreshing inconvenience!
Remote overnight hikes: Ormiston Gorge is also the beginning of two remote, unmarked trails which provide some real challenges for experienced bushwalkers. The more well-known overnight walk is the 30km return trip to the top of Mount Giles, the third highest peak in the NT. This 2-3 day hike is tough but rewarding and can be added on as a side trip to the Larapinta Trail as well. The lesser known option is Bowmans Gap, an 18km 1-2 day hike that is considered moderate, although you will need good navigation skills. Find out more here.
Glen Helen Gorge
Distance from Alice Springs: 133km
Facilities: Toilets, showers, water, camp kitchen restaurant and bar
Camping: Yes, $24 for unpowered and $30 for powered, plus cabin accommodation
Larapinta Trail: Detour from Finke River and section 10/11 junction
Just reopened as of August 2021, the caravan park of Glen Helen is being run by Discovery Parks with lots of improvements planned for the future. As the only kind of proper accommodation aside from camping in the West Macs, it’s a nice spot to relax for a day. The bar and bistro also serve up some good food and drinks out on the back deck, so you can enjoy the company of other travellers.
The campground is nice, with beautiful views of the red rock walls of the gorge. The powered section is right in front of reception near the visitor parking, while the unpowered is a bit more off to the right with slightly better views.
The gorge itself appears more like gap and is where the Finke River passes through. The permanent waterhole is popular for kayakers, and swimming if you’re really keen.
To access the best swimming, follow the dry rocky riverbed to the left of the reception area. While there are tracks heading off everywhere through the reeds, just know that you’re aiming for the right-hand corner of the gorge rather than the middle. You’ll have to cross over the river, although there are plenty of dry places to cross in winter, and then walk across the rocks to the corner of the gorge where you’ll find the deepest water. Unfortunately, there’s not really any signage or a proper track.
Finke River Two Mile
Distance from Alice Springs: 133km
Facilities: No facilities, must be self-contained
Camping: Yes, free
Larapinta Trail: Access to section 11, it’s not far from Larapinta Finke River Campsite
This free camping area is just further on and opposite the Glen Helen Gorge turn-off. The skinny, sandy track takes you out along Finke River, where you can camp anywhere by the water.
It’s recommended for 4WD only as the track is quite sandy, especially closer to the river. However, I did spot a 2WD van heading out there and apparently if you stick to the hard packed sand, it’s possible to get out there with a 2WD vehicle. If you want to try your luck, just be prepared, as even 4WD vehicles get bogged in the sand out there!
In saying that, many people say it’s one of the best camping spots in Central Australia. It is a very pretty setting, with swimming allowed in the river and some trees for shade. There’s no facilities whatsoever so make sure you carry all your rubbish out, including toilet paper.
Mount Sonder Lookout
Distance from Alice Springs: 133km
Swimming: No, unless you find your way down to the Finke River
This incredible spot is a lesser-known lookout on the Red Centre Way. Just 300m further down the road from the Glen Helen Gorge turn-off, is the Mount Sonder Lookout picnic area. It has beautiful views across to Mt Sonder, over Finke River and back along the West MacDonnell Ranges to the east.
There’s no camping allowed, but if you’re staying nearby at Glen Helen, Ormiston or Finke River Two Mile then I would recommend a visit to this lookout at either sunset or sunrise or both. The colours of the sky and the light against the ranges is absolutely incredible. If you want to see the orange glow of Mt Sonder, sunrise is your best bet.
Distance from Alice Springs: 156km
Facilities: Toilets, water, BBQs and tables
Camping: Yes, $4 per person per night at either Woodland campground or Ridgetop campground
Larapinta Trail: Section 11/12 junction
Redbank Gorge is often forgotten amongst most people exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s quite a bit further out and is often missed as many day trippers simply turn around at Ormiston Gorge and head back to Alice Springs. The Arrernte people call this place Yarretyeke and it is connected to special men’s dreamtime stories.
The gorge is accessed via a 5km dirt road. While it’s recommended for high clearance vehicles only with two creek crossings (usually dry in winter), plenty of 2WD vehicles make it in. It can be corrugated and rocky but if it hasn’t rained, most vehicles will be able to get there. However, there is a steep hill after the campgrounds that some low vehicles may not clear, so you can always park at the Ridgetop Campground and walk the 1.2km to the day visitor car park if you’re unsure.
From the car park and visitor area, it’s just a further 1.2km walk to the gorge itself, along a sandy river bed and plenty of rocks before you arrive at a little waterhole. The red rock of the towering gorge is one of the most beautiful places in the Red Centre, and you’ll likely get to enjoy it with far less people than other spots.
There are two campgrounds available which provide a very remote feeling with basic facilities. Woodland Camping Area and Ridgetop Camping Area, with the latter being closer to the gorge and offering sites with a view. Many of the sites are a little tight for big caravans, but small vans will be fine.
As the highest point of the West MacDonnell Ranges, the Mt Sonder walk is definitely a must-do. This very picturesque mountain, also known by its Aboriginal name Rwetyepme, stands tall at the western end of the ranges near Redbank Gorge. You can hike to the summit of Mt Sonder on a 15km return trail that is also the 12th and last section of the Larapinta Trail.
The trail begins from the Redbank Gorge car park or near the Larapinta Trail walk-in campground. You can either opt for the 5km return trip to the Mount Sonder Lookout or continue on for the full 15km return hike to the summit. It’s highly recommended for any keen hikers and is clearly one of the best walks in Central Australia.
It’s popular for many of the Larapinta Trail thru-hikers to complete the Mt Sonder section at sunrise, which is one of the most memorable parts of the whole trek. However, if you leave a bit later in the morning, you’ll likely have the summit all to yourself.
You can’t mention the West MacDonnell Ranges without mentioning the Larapinta Trail, as you may have gathered from above. This 223km long trail traverses the length of the ranges from Alice Springs to Mt Sonder. It’s widely considered one of the best long distance hiking trails in Australia, and even the world.
It takes you right by a lot of the places mentioned here, so it’s a completely unique way to experience the national park. I completed the trail solo in 2018 and it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done.
You can read more about my experience on the trail or about preparing for the hike. Otherwise, as mentioned above, some of these places take you to many of the trail’s highlights and you can easily opt for short day hikes and sections of the Larapinta rather than the whole thing. However, if you’re an experienced walker, the Larapinta Trail should definitely be on your hiking bucket list!
Where to stay in the West MacDonnell Ranges
The West MacDonnell Ranges have some great campgrounds to stay at to enjoy the serenity of the beautiful gorges in the evening and early morning. It works on an honesty system, where you fill out an envelope and place the correct change in the box. You can find camping at the following places:
- Standley Chasm (privately owned, powered and unpowered)
- Ellery Creek Big Hole (unpowered only)
- Ormiston Gorge (unpowered only, pictured above)
- Redbank Gorge (unpowered only)
If you prefer to free camp, then you can opt for Point Howard Lookout or Neil Hargrave Lookout for a beautiful view and remote bush setting. However, there are no facilities there so make sure you leave no trace.
For more of a caravan park vibe, the newly re-opened Glen Helen Discovery Parks is super nice. With motel rooms, unpowered and powered camping sites, plus plenty of amenities. It’s a great place to base yourself for exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges. Powered sites are around $30 per night, with discounts for G’Day Members.
How long do you need to see the West Macs
If you’re wondering how long to spend in the West MacDonnell Ranges, it depends how much you want to see. If you’re limited on time, you can easily explore some of the spots on a day trip from Alice Springs. However, to really get to see most of the places and head all the way out to Redbank Gorge, then you’ll want to stay at least one night out there.
I would recommend three nights in total, with one spent at Ellery Creek Big Hole, one at Ormiston Gorge and one at Redbank Gorge, if you’re camping. This way you can really get to see all the places in the West Macs and have time to relax as well.
Where to next?
Now that you’ve explored the West Macs, you’ll likely be looking for more places like it. So, head out east of Alice Springs to the East MacDonnell Ranges and you’ll be able to see the same incredible landscapes but with far fewer visitors. The East Macs are different, with less waterholes and less visitors but more rugged terrain. It’s worth heading out there if you have the time, with plenty of walks to do and some fun 4WD tracks.