The closest mountain range to Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges is the tallest mountain range in Central Australia. The MacDonnell Ranges are split into two sections known locally as the West Macs and East Macs. Each section has its own set of attractions.
The West MacDonnell Ranges boast swimming holes and gorges while the East Macs hold great cultural significance. With rocky red cliffs and deep gorges, there are endless opportunities in the MacDonnell Ranges for hiking, swimming, and camping.
We spent a week exploring this region in June during our half-lap of Australia. Having experienced every gorge and attraction first hand, we’ve outlined all of the can’t-miss spots to visit in the MacDonnell Ranges.
The MacDonnell Ranges span 644 km and are located in the Northern Territory in Australia. Straddling Australia’s Red Centre, the Ranges surround the outback town of Alice Springs. To the west of Alice Springs are the West MacDonnell Ranges and naturally, to the east are the East MacDonnell Ranges.
The mountainous zone covers many protected areas. These include Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, Trephina Gorge Nature Park, N’dhala Gorge Nature Park, and Yeperenye/Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park.
Opening Hours, Passes, and Permits
West MacDonnell National Park and the East MacDonnell Nature Parks are open year-round. However, heavy rainfall in the wet season (November-April) can cause road closures so always double-check park openings before your visit.
All of the MacDonnell Ranges parks are free to visit with the exception of Standley Chasm. It’s privately owned and costs $12 per adult to enter. No special permits are required to enjoy the parks.
Best Time to Visit
The cooler months are the best time to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges. You probably don’t want to be hiking in January heat so plan your trip between April – September. The shoulder season is especially nice for enjoying the many swimming holes.
How to Get to the West MacDonnell Ranges
You can easily access West MacDonnell National Park via Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive from Alice Springs. Both roads are sealed and attractions start just 15 minutes from town.
If you’re coming from the south near Kings Canyon, you’ll need a permit to access the unsealed Mereenie Loop along the Red Centre Way. The permit for the Mereenie Loop is $5 and can be purchased at the Alice Springs Visitor Centre or Kings Canyon Resort.
For those visiting from other parts of Australia, you can fly into Alice Springs and hire a car from there. There are daily flights from Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, and other major cities.
On a Tour
Whether driving or flying into Alice Springs, joining a West MacDonnell Ranges tour is a great option. This full day tour hits all the highlights and includes transportation from Alice Springs.
How to Get Around
The easiest way to navigate the MacDonnell Ranges is by car. You don’t need 4WD to do a West MacDonnell Ranges self-drive but you will if you plan to hit the East Macs too.
We recommend joining a 4X4 Tour of the East MacDonnell Ranges for a full day of exploration.
Things to Do in the West MacDonnell Ranges
At the far west end of the MacDonnell Ranges, Redbank Gorge is a beautiful gorge and chasm. The road there is unsealed so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended to reach the start of the trail. From the car park, follow the 2 km walking track to a stunning waterhole at the foot of Mt Sonder. Along the way, look out for the many species of plants and animals that call the gorge home.
Swimming is permitted in the gorge but brace yourself for freezing cold water! After your swim, you can camp at one of the two Redbank Gorge campgrounds and enjoy basic facilities.
Mt Sonder Lookout
Take a break on your way to Glen Helen Gorge to admire the sweeping views of Mt Sonder. The lookout is just off of Larapinta Drive and shows the area’s beautiful scenic landscape. If you’re an early bird, try and catch the sunrise here—or if you’re like us, a sunset is great too!
Ormiston Gorge is a fantastic base camp to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges with great hikes and a beautiful swimming hole. There are a couple of walks starting from the visitor centre:
- Ormiston Pound Walk – Grade 3, 3-4 hours, 8.5 km walk follows the full circuit from the Information Shelter, meandering around scenic slopes, returning along Ormiston Gorge via the main waterhole.
- Ghost Gum Walk (2.5 km) – Grade 3, 2.5km loop walk,1.5 hours. This beautiful trail starts off steep with some 200 steps to climb to the Ghost Gum Lookout. The trail then continues along the path around the western side of the Gorge and returns via the main waterhole.
- Ghost Gum Lookout (1.2 km) – Grade 3 walk to the top of the lookout
- Waterhole Walk (300m) – an easy short trail to the base of the Ormiston watering hole.
Alternatively, spend the day cooling off in the swimming hole. Ormiston Gorge showcases much of the geology that makes the MacDonnell Range so special. Plus, the campground at Ormiston Gorge is the perfect place to spend a couple of nights under the stars.
Glen Helen Gorge
Soak in the stunning sandstone landscape of the region from Glen Helen Gorge. Here, you’ll see some of the tallest peaks in Central Australia as the Finke River cuts through them. On hot days you can take a dip in the refreshing waterhole, located just a 10-minute walk from the road.
The rich shades of yellow and orange will guide you into the Ochre Pits. Here, along the creek banks, vividly coloured stones frame a nice picnic area that’s great for a lunch stop. Learn about the history of the Ochre Pits and how local Aboriginal people have used its pigment for centuries.
Lined by red river gums, Serpentine Gorge is a narrow gorge located about 100 km west of Alice Springs. The site is surrounded by rocky cliffs and is a great spot for birdwatching in the West Macs. Note that 4WD is recommended on the unsealed track to Serpentine Gorge.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
One of the most popular sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Ellery Creek Big Hole is an amazing waterhole. Perfect for swimming, hiking, and camping, Ellery Creek offers spectacular views of red cliffs and winding creeks. The water in the gorge is always very cold and can be uncomfortable even on hot days.
Access to the gorge is via a sealed road, however, the last 2 km is unsealed.
Aside from the swimming hole, there are also a couple of walks at Ellery Creek for those looking to stretch their legs.
- Dolomite Walk (3 km loop walk – 1.5 hrs) is the most popular trail at Ellery Creek. It winds through the geological formations caused by massive floods. The walk is fairly easy, but has some steady inclines.
- For avid hikers, there is Ellery Creek Loop Walk (32.3km loop – 3 days) which forms a part of the Larapinta Trail
Considered a geological icon of Central Australia, Standley Chasm is a worthwhile stop in the West Macs. Follow the 1.2 km walk along the creek bed to see dramatic views of the 80 m chasm. The entire area is incredible for birdwatching, wildlife viewing, and bush walking.
Standley Chasm, or Angkerle Atwatye, is a culturally significant place to the local Aboriginal people and is managed by a local Aboriginal group. Tourist access to Standley Chasm requires an entry fee of $12 per adult. There’s also a campground on-site for tents and caravans. Sites start at $18.50 per person.
Simpsons Gap is one of the most notable gaps in the West Macs. It’s known to be a hotspot for Black-footed Rock-wallabies and rare vegetation. Hiking is a great way to explore Simpsons Gap along the 3 scenic trails.
- The Ghost Gum Walk is an easy 15-minute trail through the trees.
- Cassia Hill is a 1.8 km trip overlooking Simpsons Gap and the surrounding range.
- For a longer walk, the Woodland Trail spans 17 km all the way to Bond Gap and forms a part of the Larapinta Trail.
Larapinta Trail is one of Australia’s most iconic bush walking tracks. The trail follows the ridge of the West Macs and covers 223 kms split up into 12 sections. The trail passes through every sight and attraction in the West Macs, making it the ultimate route to explore the West MacDonell Ranges.
Hiking the trail requires a lot of planning and preparation, as all camping/cooking equipment, food, and other essentials must be carried with you on the trail. Hiking the Larapinta Trail is most often done over the course of 2 -3 weeks, although there are many opportunities to extend the journey by splitting each section into smaller chunks.
Things to Do in the East MacDonnell Ranges
Trephina Gorge Nature Park
Surrounded by sparkling quartzite and towering red river gums, Trephina Gorge shows the beauty of the rugged East Macs. The nature park is great for a day trip from Alice Springs where short walking tracks are plentiful.
Enjoy an easy walk on the Gorge Stroll (500m) or spend an hour along the creek’s edge on the Trephina Gorge Walk (2 km). After your hike, cool off in the waterhole and spend the night at the campground.
John Hayes Rockhole
Following the scenic Ridgetop Walk from Trephina Gorge, stop at John Hayes Rockhole for a dip. It’s surrounded by birds and other wildlife and has a campground on site.
The Chain of Ponds Walk (3.5 km) that starts at the John Hayes Rockhole car park, was actually our favourite hike of the entire MacDonnell Range. The trail offers spectacular views and has some fun and challenging bits with climbs and scrambles. It’s well worth the stop!
If you are traveling with a 4WD vehicle you can drive right up to the John Hayes Rockhole Campground, otherwise, it’s a BIG all day hike following the Ridge Top Walk (4-5 hrs one way) to get there from Trephina Gorge.
The N’Dhala Gorge is unlike any of the other gorges in the range. It’s covered in ancient Aboriginal art with petroglyphs and carvings dating back thousands of years. Walk the 1.5 km trail that meanders through the gorge and shows a stunning display of rock carvings.
Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve
Marvel at the sight of an ancient dolomite rock at Corroboree Rock. Sitting like an obelisk, the rock was formed millions of years ago and holds great significance to the local Arrernte people. Follow the trail along the base of the rock to view a piece of history.
Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park
The closest outback stop in the East Macs, Emily and Jessie Gaps are small gaps with sacred heritage. There are short walks around the two gaps where you can see Aboriginal rock paintings. No photography is allowed in/around the Gaps to preserve the sacred nature of these sites.
Where to Stay in the MacDonnell Ranges
There are a few designated campgrounds scattered around West MacDonnell National Park. For camping with basic facilities (drop toilets and picnic tables), check out Ellery Creek Big Hole and Redbank Gorge. Camping is $4 per person per night and must be paid in cash on-site.
If you fancy showers and flush toilets or are traveling by caravan, Ormiston Gorge is the best option. Camping is $10 per person per night and sites are first come first served. There is also camping at the Standley Chasm and the fee to enter the Chasm is a bit cheaper if you are camping on site, so it’s worth considering.
For bush camping without facilities consider Serpentine Chalet and Finke 2-Mile. They offer 4WD sites for $4 per person per night.
And if you want to camp in the East MacDonnell Ranges, we recommend spending a night at Trephina Gorge. Camping is $4 per person per night and includes basic facilities.
Other Accommodation in Alice Springs
If you don’t want to camp, there are NO other options for West Macdonnell Ranges accommodation. Your best bet is to stay in Alice Springs and day trip on a tour or self-drive.
How Long to Stay in MacDonnell Ranges
You’ll want to spend a minimum of 3 nights in the MacDonnell Ranges but a week would be great. This way, you can take your time exploring the gorges and relaxing by the swimming holes on hot days.
Tips, Advice, and FAQs
Where should I stay in West MacDonnell Ranges?
Camping in the West Macs is a must! Ormiston Gorge has the most facilities with showers and flushing toilets but Ellery Creek Big Hole and Redbank Gorge are great options too.
Do you need a 4WD for West MacDonnell Ranges?
No, the majority of West MacDonnell National Park can be accessed without 4WD. However, some tracks leading up to the gorges are unsealed. In addition, a number of areas in the East Macs are only accessible with 4WD, including our favourite spot – John Hayes Rockhole.
To see all the sights and attractions of the MacDonnell Ranges, we recommend joining a 4WD Tour!
Where can I camp in the West MacDonnell Ranges?
Camping in the West MacDonnell Ranges is available at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Redbank Gorge, and Ormiston Gorge. If you have 4WD, you can also camp at Serpentine Chalet and Finke 2-Mile.
What is there to do in MacDonnell Ranges?
The best things to do in the MacDonnell Ranges are hiking, swimming, and camping. Walk along the ridge of the mountains before cooling off in a refreshing gorge.
What should I bring with me to the West MacDonnell Ranges?
A few things you can’t leave home without are sunscreen, comfortable walking shoes, and a swimsuit. You’ll also want lots of drinking water and cash for camping fees.