While most travellers in Central Australia have heard of the West MacDonnell Ranges, few realise that there is in fact an easterly half of this incredible mountain range. The East MacDonnell Ranges or Tjoritja stretch for 150km east of Alice Springs and hide much less visited ridgelines, walking trails, gorges and Aboriginal rock art.
The real highlight of exploring these parts of the ranges are the lack of crowds and the incredibly peaceful campgrounds. While you can see some of the main highlights in a day trip from Alice Springs, I would certainly recommended spending at least a night out there to explore some of the walks in the area.
Keep reading for my guide to the East MacDonnell Ranges and make sure you don’t miss the East Macs on your next visit to the Northern Territory!
How to get to the East MacDonnell Ranges
The East MacDonnell Ranges stretch for 150km east of Alice Springs. Most of the sights are easily reached off Ross Highway that runs straight out to the ranges from town. It’s sealed all the way to Ross River Resort, although it becomes quite skinny after Corroboree Rock.
Trephina Gorge Nature Park is 5km on an unsealed road off Ross Highway and was easily accessible by 2WD when I visited. It’s corrugated but you don’t need a high clearance vehicle or 4WD.
If you want to explore beyond Trephina Gorge and Ross River, then you will need a 4WD. N’Dhala Gorge, Arltunga Historical Reserve and Ruby Gap are 4WD accessible only. You’ll have to check road conditions before setting out, as rain can make them impassable. Technically, Arltunga Historical Reserve can be accessed by 2WD vehicles, however the 33km on unsealed road can be rough.
Read next: 10 best things to do in Alice Springs
When to visit the East Macs
As with much of Central Australia, the months from May until September are considered the best time to visit due to the more moderate temperatures. Outside of these months, you can expect much warmer weather and heavy rain at varying times, so you must be prepared, carry enough water with you and check road conditions before setting out.
In saying that, the beauty of exploring the East MacDonnell Ranges means that they’re hardly ever crowded. So, even if you visit in high season, you’ll still get to enjoy the places in serenity compared to the West Macs.
Where to stay in the East MacDonnell Ranges
If you’re travelling in a van or any sort of camping setup, then I can highly recommend you spend at least a night at Trephina Gorge. There are four campgrounds inside this nature park. Three of the campgrounds are close together and accessible for 2WD vehicles.
- Trephina Bluff Campground: Quieter spot with beautiful rock walls towering above the campground
- Trephina Gorge – Panorama Campground: Mainly designed for caravans with large sites up to 20ft. Close to the walking trails.
- Trephina Gorge – Gorge Campground: The most popular campground and suitable for all vehicles and camping setups. Close to the walking trails.
If you have a 4WD you can also access the John Hayes Rockhole Campground inside the nature park. There are a few sites here in a remote bush setting, with toilets. You need a high clearance vehicle to access it.
If you’re looking for something more comfortable, then you can opt to stay at the Ross River Resort on the Ross Highway, just a bit further from the Trephina Gorge turnoff. They offer powered and unpowered sites, basic bunk bed accommodation and rustic cabins. It gets great reviews for the friendly managers and good facilities. They also have a pub for meals and drinks. Find their website here.
You’ll also find basic bush camping facilities at Ruby Gap and N’Dhala Gorge, which are both 4WD only.
Essential information for visiting the East MacDonnell Ranges
The East Macs aren’t part of a national park like the West MacDonnell Ranges. However, there are various smaller nature parks that make up the East Macs. These include the Emily and Jesse Gaps Nature Park, Trephina Gorge Nature Park and Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve.
Park entry: It’s free to enter all parts of the East MacDonnell Ranges. There are no park passes required. However, camping fees apply if you wish to camp in Trephina Gorge or any other place.
Phone reception: There is very limited phone reception out in the East MacDonnell Ranges. It starts to fade after you pass Emily and Jessie Gaps Reserve and you definitely won’t get any reception at Trephina Gorge. Ross River Resort has Wi-Fi at extra cost and limited Optus coverage.
Road conditions: Ross Highway is sealed all the way out to the Ross River Resort. It’s in good condition and is a regular two lane highway until just before Corroboree Rock. From there onwards, the sealed highway becomes a narrow single lane road but is still in good condition. Some of the attractions such as Trephina Gorge is accessed on unsealed rods. Conditions change after heavy rain, so you should check the current status before heading out.
Fuel: The only access to fuel is at Ross River Resort. However, you shouldn’t need to refuel if you’re coming from Alice Springs and just heading to Trephina Gorge and back for the day or weekend. But if you’re planning further trips out to Ruby Gap and Arltunga, you can fill up at Ross River Resort.
Drones: Unlike the West Macs, the East MacDonnell Ranges is mostly a drone free zone, even if you have a permit. However, you can fly it outside of the designated nature parks and reserves.
Leave no trace: There is no rubbish removal services out in the East Macs, so you need to carry all your rubbish back out with you. There are toilets available at most day visitor areas and campgrounds.
Navigation: All walking trails are signposted with arrows. However, it’s best if you have Maps.Me or another offline GPS app if you plan on doing any longer hikes like the Ridgetop Walk.
Things to do in the East MacDonnell Ranges
If you’re heading east from Alice Springs, here are the sights and attractions of the East Macs in order along the Ross Highway.
Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park / Yeperenye
Distance from Alice Springs: 14km on sealed road
Access: All vehicles
The Arrernte people believe that giant caterpillars called Yeperenye formed the ranges and the area around Alice Springs. At Emily and Jessie Gaps you can admire unique Aboriginal rock art that is associated with these dreaming stories that hold significant value to the Arrernte people. To respect the Traditional Owners wishes, it’s asked that you don’t photograph or touch the art but simply admire it and try to understand the stories by reading the information boards provided.
Both the gaps are just on the left side of the Ross Highway if you’re heading east. There’s limited parking at both sites, but it’s worth a quick stop to see the rock art before continuing to Trephina Gorge.
There is also a newly opened walking and cycling trail connecting Emily Gap (Anthwerrke) and Jessie Gap (Atherrke), called the Yeperenye Trail. The 7.2km one way trail is a great way to appreciate more of the nature park and was built by hand by local Aboriginal workers.
Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve
Distance from Alice Springs: 48km on sealed road
Access: All vehicles
Corroboree Rock is a sacred men’s site for the Arrernte people formed more than 800 million years ago. The unique dolomite structure stands out as you drive towards it off the highway.
There is an easy marked trail that takes you around the rock and back to the carpark. Please stay on the trail as the park is a sacred site. Photographs are allowed but no drones.
Trephina Gorge Nature Park
Distance from Alice Springs: 77km
Access: Mostly all vehicles, but 4WD access only to John Hayes Rockhole
Widely considered the main attraction of the East MacDonnell Ranges, Trephina Gorge was definitely one of my favourite places in Central Australia. It’s characterised by dramatic gorges, ridges and walking trails. It also has a couple of beautiful campgrounds, which I can highly recommend you stay for at least one night.
Once you turn down the Trephina Gorge road, the last 5km are on an unsealed road all the way to the main trailhead and campground. This is where you can find many of the Trephina Gorge walks and beautiful lookouts. It’s accessible by 2WD but is a bit corrugated. There are some great things to see and do in Trephina Gorge Nature Park and you can easily spend a couple of days there.
If you have a 4WD, you can also access the John Hayes Rockhole which is the first spot you’ll come across on your way to Trephina Gorge. A high clearance track leads to the permanent water hole and campground, as well as, a couple of short walks. The Chain of Ponds walk is a 3.5km loop that is a challenging trail up to a lookout and then back around the waterhole and down to the carpark. It requires some decent rock scrambling but is a fun hike.
If you continue towards Trephina Gorge instead, you’ll come across the largest ghost gum in Australia just on your right off the road. It’s estimated to be over 300 years old and is worth a quick photo stop.
Once you reach Trephina Gorge, there are some great walks to do, which I’m going to outline a bit further below. You’ll also find the three campgrounds there, which are in beautiful bush settings with stunning views of the gorge walls.
Find NT Parks brochures and maps here.
Trephina Gorge walks
Trephina Gorge Walk: The easier of all the walks, this 2km loop can be done in either direction. If you go clockwise, it first heads up on top of the gorge rim and then back through the sandy creek bed. It should take around 30 minutes to complete.
Panorama Walk: This 2.5km loop is slightly harder but offers an incredible view over the area that I highly recommend. I completed this clockwise which meant a steep climb to begin with up to a lookout with 360 degree views of the East Macs. From there, you follow the ridge down a little and then back to the carpark on a more gentle trail. If you’re camping at Trephina Gorge, I would recommend you head back up at least to the lookout at sunset for spectacular views.
Ridgetop Walk: For keen hikers, this long day hike is worth doing if you have the time. Technically a 10km one way hike from John Hayes Rockhole to Trephina Gorge or vice versa including a stop at Turners Lookout. Or, you can make it a complete loop by walking back along the road for a big 18km day. I started the walk from Trephina Gorge and followed the trail up onto the ridge which offers beautiful views all along towards Turners Lookout.
From Turner’s Lookout, the trail dips down and eventually meets up with the Chain of Ponds Walk. You can either take the left hand trail which is easier, or the right hand trail rock hopping down along John Hayes Creek. I took the right track and had fun climbing down through the rocks. You’ll come to a spot where you can look down over the rockhole, but the trail actually climbs steeply up and around it further before descending to the carpark (this last bit was actually the most difficult). If you car shuffled with a 4WD to John Hayes then you can end there, otherwise you’ll have to walk back along the road like I did for 8km to Trephina Gorge.
Read next: 8 of the Best Walks in Central Australia
N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park
Distance from Alice Springs: 96km
Access: 4WD only
N’Dhala Gorge is home to ancient petroglyphs and rock engravings that trace through the history of the Arrernte people. There are an incredible 6000 engravings in the gorge estimated to be up to 10, 000 years old, with plenty to explore along the 1.5km return trail. The gravings tell a similar story to what you’ll find at Emily Gap about the Yeperenye and other ancestral beings.
The drive in is 4WD only beyond Ross River Resort with some creek crossings. There’s a campground out there too if you want to escape all the crowds completely and sleep under the stars.
Arltunga Historical Reserve
Distance from Alice Springs: 114km
Access: Unsealed road accessible to all vehicles depending on current conditions
Arltunga is known as Central Australia’s first town. Although it’s been abandoned now to ruin, the ghost town is still an interesting place to visit. While the long drive requires 33km on an unsealed road, you’re free to explore the area once you arrive.
The town once supported around 300 people during a gold mining boom in the area which lasted until 1913. You can explore the old mines and mining camp, as well as some of the old stone buildings still standing today. The police station and old gaol have been recently restored so you can see what it looked like in its heyday.
Hale River Homestead at Old Ambalindum
Distance from Alice Springs: 124km
Access: 4WD only
Just further on from Arltunga Historical Reserve, this old homestead is open for visitors on the famous Binns Track. They offer camping, powered sites and self-contained accommodation on the old 1900s property.
It’s a great spot to escape it all on a remote station and camp somewhere safe on the Binns Track. Check out their website here.
Distance from Alice Springs: 143km
Access: 4WD only
At the end of the road, Ruby Gap is the last destination in the East Macs and another 4WD only spot. The area is so-named because of the purple coloured garnets which were mistaken for rubies back in the 19th century. You can still find some of these in the sand around the gap, but it’s not permitted to take any of it with you.
The nature park has a number of gorges and even a swimming hole at Glen Annie Gorge if the water is deep enough. This gorge is just a 2km walk from the Ruby Gap campground and is worth the effort, as it’s the largest permanent waterhole in the East Macs. It’s not a marked trail but you only need to follow the riverbed.
The drive to get to Ruby Gap is a rough 4WD track. The last 50km requires a lot of sandy and dry creek beds. You should definitely make sure that you’re prepared for a remote adventure if you plan on heading out there.
Find an NT Parks map and more information here.
Where to next?
If you’ve got a bit of time in Alice Springs? 10 Best Things to Do in Alice Springs
Heading out to the West Macs? A Complete Guide to the West MacDonnell Ranges
Travelling to the Red Centre? The Ultimate Guide to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park