If you’re planning a trip to Alice Springs and Uluru, you absolutely MUST allot some time to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges.
If you’ve never heard of the West Macs, I don’t blame you at all (I hadn’t either until a couple years ago… and I’ve lived in Australia for nearly 7 years!). There’s not much promotion of the region simply because it’s not much of a tourism cash cow. It’s a national park with a handful of basic, budget-friendly campgrounds and a couple of cafe kiosks – no hotels or organized activities or villages providing fuel and groceries to speak of.
Which makes it a frugal frolicker’s paradise!
The West MacDonnell Ranges (or Tjoritja, which is their Aboriginal name) can either be traversed by hiking the 223km Larapinta Trail, or by driving west from Alice Springs and ideally basing yourself at campgrounds in the national park (so that you can spend more time exploring and less time commuting back and forth from Alice).
To give you some idea of time and space here, the closest point of interest, Simpsons Gap, is only about a 20 minute drive from Alice Springs, while the furthermost point of interest, Redbank Gorge, is nearly 2 hours away. And not to spoil it for ya, but the best sights are the ones that are furthest away from town, so don’t even consider skipping them on account of not being bothered to drive that far. Just camp out that way and you won’t have that much to drive each day.
I based myself at Standley Chasm solely because it’s the only location in the park with mobile phone reception and I needed it for work, but if you don’t need to be connected I’d advise camping at either Ellery Creek or Ormiston Gorge, which are more centrally located. You need two full days MINIMUM to see all of the sights I’ve outlined in this blog post, but more time is better if you can swing it.
From east to west, starting near Alice Springs, here’s everything worth checking out in the West MacDonnell Ranges:
Simpsons Gap (Rungutjirpa)
The most popular site in the West MacDonnell Ranges is, naturally, the one closest to Alice Springs: Simpsons Gap.
Simpsons Gap is very popular amongst Alice Springs residents, particularly as a sunset picnic spot. It’s quick and easy to reach from town (a 20min drive), but IMO it pales in comparison to what awaits as you go further into the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Simpsons Gap is essentially a gap between two mountains in the West MacDonnell Ranges, as most of the gorges in this area are; however, it doesn’t have a picturesque swimming hole like the others do. Depending on the time of year and how much rain has fallen, there will usually be a small waterhole here. When I visited in June 2021, it was a small stagnant pond; when I visited in April 2006, there was no water here at all.
You might be lucky enough to catch a black footed rock wallaby around the ranges here if you visit closer to sunset time.
More On Visiting Simpsons Gap
Getting there: It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the car park to Simpsons Gap, which you’re fine to do in sandals.
Distance from Alice Springs: 24km / 22min
- Ghost Gum Walk – an easy 15min loop walk
- Cassia Hill Walk – a moderate 1.5km / 1 hour return walk with great views above the ranges and the gap
- Woodland Trail – a 17km / 7 hour return walk to Bond Gap and back
- Hat Hill Saddle – a moderate 4.2km / 2 hour return walk to the saddle (this is part of section 1 of the Larapinta Trail)
Facilities: Toilets, BBQs, water
Mobile reception: Yes (+ there’s free wifi)
Best time to visit: They recommend visiting Simpsons Gap in late afternoon for the best light; however, I found this time of day to have mixed lighting on the rock and tricky to photograph. Instead, I’d recommend visiting either right before sunset or at midday for more even lighting.
The turn-off to Simpsons Gap.
Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye)
Next up heading west through the West MacDonnell Ranges is Standley Chasm, which is the only site in the national park that’s 100% Aboriginal-owned and run (by the Western Arrernte people). They do charge for admission into the chasm, but they also offer excellent facilities for visitors, including toilets, showers, and a cafe that’s nice enough to chill at for awhile. Every single one of the staff I encountered was SO nice and helpful, which was a refreshing change of pace from many recent caravan parks we’d stayed at.
Standley Chasm is a dry gorge with walls reaching 80m in height. It’s deep and narrow, which means that there’s a short period of time each day where sunlight reaches it (around midday). The chasm looks its best and most vibrant red from 11am-1pm, so aim to visit when the sun is directly overhead. You can walk through the chasm and back pretty easily – that is, if there’s not a tour group inside and if you’re wearing decent shoes (the ground is very rocky).
There’s not much else to see here, so you don’t need to spend much time at Standley Chasm unless you want to hike (and there is better hiking to be done elsewhere in the West MacDonnell Ranges, so if I were you and I weren’t camping here, I’d do a quick visit around noon and move on).
Standley Chasm around noon.
Is it worth the $12 admission? Maybe. I personally didn’t love it as much as I did some other gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges, but I’m glad I saw it. There’s much more value in it if you opt to camp here as well (more details on that below), because admission is included in your camping fees and you can go back and see it on multiple days without paying again.
If you do camp at Standley Chasm, be aware that they close the entry gate after the chasm closes for the day (which is at 5pm). We raced back after sunset around 6pm on more than one occasion and thankfully the gate was still open every time, but I wouldn’t risk returning after 6pm unless you let them know in advance that you’ll be late.
Standley Chasm in late afternoon.
More On Visiting Standley Chasm
Getting there: It’s an easy 1.2km / 15 minute walk (one way) to Standley Chasm from the entry gate, which is a little rocky but can still be done in sandals (though the chasm itself is very rocky, so you’ll probably want sturdy shoes to walk through it).
Distance from Alice Springs: 50km / 37min
Cost: $12 per person to enter the chasm
- Angkerle Lookout – A 3km / 1.5hr return walk to the back of Standley Chasm, which is part of section 3 of the Larapinta Trail. This blog post will tell you everything you need to know about it. At the Standley Chasm kiosk, the walk is rated as difficult and noted as being 2 hours return.
- Bridle Path Loop Walk – A moderate loop walk that takes just over an hour to complete and meets up with section 4 of the Larapinta Trail. Alternatively, you can just walk up to the Larapinta Valley Lookout and back like we did, which takes 20 minutes return.
Camping: Yes, there’s paid camping allowed in the car park. It’s not the nicest or most peaceful stay with cars coming in and out all day, but it’s convenient and you have access to free showers, toilets, and a free washing machine.
It’s $18.50 per person which includes admission into Standley Chasm; if you stay more than one night, the rate goes down (i.e. you only pay once for admission to the chasm). For us, it worked out to be $20/night for a powered site, plus one-time admission to the chasm which we could enter throughout our entire stay.
Powered sites are an additional $5 per night. There are only a handful of these available, so I’d recommend e-mailing to book in advance of your visit. If you want an unpowered site, you don’t need to book ahead.
Facilities: A kiosk with really excellent food and coffee; toilets, water
Mobile reception: Yes
Best time to visit: Midday to see the chasm lit up bright orange; late afternoon for softer and more even light (and to avoid the crowds).
Ellery Creek Big Hole (Udepata)
The scenery really starts to take a turn for the dramatic when you get further west in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is where you’ll find the first major swimming hole after you leave Alice Springs. There’s a little peninsula that juts out in the middle of it, which is well worth walking out on for both photo ops and better views through and beyond the gorge.
I highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning, when the water is still and the light isn’t bright yet. Usually around this time, you’ll get to enjoy a beautiful reflection of the gorge on the water.
We visited in late morning, when the sun was nearly overhead and washing out the entire gorge with harsh light, and there were constant little ripples in the water from the breeze. Photography was definitely a challenge!
This is an excellent spot to fly a drone – just make sure you’ve applied for a permit beforehand, and that you’re not flying over any other people (another reason to go early, so you can be there without anyone else around!).
More On Visiting Ellery Creek Big Hole
Getting there: It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the car park, very flat and easy to walk in sandals
Distance from Alice Springs: 90km / 1h2m
- Dolomite Walk – A 1.5hr / 3km loop from the car park
Camping: Yes – $4/person cash only payable via the honesty box, and first-come, first-served. Campground is accessible to caravans.
Mobile reception: No
Best time to visit: Early morning, when the water is still and the rock reflection is most visible
Serpentine Gorge (Ulpma)
Of all the gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges, I’d say Serpentine Gorge is the least interesting to visit. The waterhole here is small and un-swimmable, and the gorge doesn’t get much sun at all so it’s dark and shady. We visited in early/mid afternoon and were shivering cold just sitting in there. I almost didn’t bother taking any photos (but then I remembered that I’m a blogger and it would be a sin not to!).
View from Serpentine Gorge lookout.
Don’t write Serpentine Gorge off just yet, though, because the hike up to the lookout is VERY worth doing. From the top, you can enjoy a much nicer view of the gorge as it’s lit up by the sun.
However, the highlight for me was the view in the opposite direction, out over the West MacDonnell Ranges. This was the best view of the ranges that we found anywhere. I’d say mid-to-late afternoon will give you the best light over this landscape. Don’t miss it!
More On Visiting Serpentine Gorge
Getting there: The last 3km of the road into Serpentine Gorge is unsealed, so 4WD is recommended (though the road wasn’t in bad condition, so you’d probably be fine driving slowly in a 2WD vehicle if the road isn’t wet). From the car park, it’s a 1.1km / 20min walk one-way to the gorge waterhole, some of which is quite rocky so be sure to wear proper shoes.
Distance from Alice Springs: 102km / 1h9m
- Serpentine Gorge Lookout Walk – This walk is better than the gorge itself! It’s a moderate, 15-minute walk each way, and at the top you have views of the gorge from above (which are better than the ones from below) plus views of the West MacDonnell Ranges and the landscape around the gorge.
Camping: No, but there may or may not be camping at the nearby Serpentine Chalet Bush Camp. There’s not much info about it online apart from that you’ll need 4WD to reach the campsites, it’s free, and there are no facilities.
Mobile reception: No
Best time to visit: Anytime for the gorge; mid-to-late afternoon for the lookout
The Ochre Pits is one stop in the West MacDonnell Ranges that isn’t actually a gorge, but a colorful cliff face along the bank of a creek.
Ochre is a natural material that Aboriginals use in ceremonies; it’s like an earth-colored powder you can use to make paint and dyes.
It’s worth a quick stop at the Ochre Pits to have a look at the colorful swirls on the rock, before venturing on to the next gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
More On Visiting The Ochre Pits
Getting there: It’s just a few minutes’ walk to the dry creek bed, where you’ll find the Ochre Pits. It’s doable in sandals, but you might want proper shoes for walking on the rocks in the dry creek bed.
Distance from Alice Springs: 112km / 1h14m
Mobile reception: No
Best time to visit: Anytime
Ormiston Gorge (Kwartatuma)
If you only have time to do one thing in the West MacDonnell Ranges, let it be Ormiston Gorge.
Ormiston Gorge has it all: a ridiculously picturesque gorge, a swimming hole with an actual BEACH beside it, an excellent lookout point, and one of the best short walks in all of the West MacDonnell Ranges (the Pound Walk). Plus, it’s got a cafe that serves coffee and lunch.
It’s the kind of place you can’t help but wile away an entire day at. Sunbathing in the sun felt AMAZING in the middle of winter (and in the middle of the country!), but lots of people opted to laze in the shade or go exploring through the gorge instead – it’s all possible here.
I loved this place so much I wrote a whole blog post about it: Ormiston Gorge: A Beach in Outback Australia!
Scheduling Ormiston Gorge in as one of several gorge stops in a day definitely wasn’t enough for me, so I returned a couple weeks later on a day trip from Alice Springs specifically just to visit this one place.
If I were to do this trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges again, I think I’d camp at Ormiston Gorge so that I could have as much time as possible to explore the gorge and surrounds and observe it in varying light conditions. It’s an absolute haven for photographers.
Speaking of photography, Ormiston Gorge is another great drone spot – the only trick is getting there when no one else is around! Another reason to stay overnight and camp here.
More On Visiting Ormiston Gorge
Getting there: It’s an easy 500m walk from the car park to the gorge, doable in sandals or with a wheelchair or stroller.
Distance from Alice Springs: 135km / 1h30m
- Ghost Gum Lookout – A short walk up to a viewing platform above the gorge (it’s listed as 45min return, but only took me 25min). This one’s a must-do! The view from directly over the swimming hole and into the gorge is phenomenal, and the view out toward the ranges in the distance is excellent. Visit in the morning if you want to see the gorge walls lit up, or in late afternoon to see the surrounding landscape in ideal light.
- Ghost Gum Walk – From the viewing platform, you can continue on along the gorge rim and down into the gorge, and walk back through the gorge to finish the walk. It’s a 2.5km loop walk from the car park.
- Ormiston Pound Walk – An 8.5km loop walk that passes through the ranges and down into Ormiston Pound before looping back through the gorge. This hike is STUNNING and was rife with wildflowers and birds when I did it in June. Of all the walks available in the West MacDonnell Ranges, this is my top pick – DON’T MISS IT! More details in my Ormiston Gorge blog post.
Camping: Yes, $10/person per night, cash only, first-come first-served. Campground is accessible to caravans.
Facilities: Toilets, showers (for campers only, unlocked in the evening), cafe kiosk
Mobile reception: No
Best time to visit: Anytime. The gorge looks different throughout the day, so it depends on what you’re looking to photograph. I’d recommend early morning or late afternoon for the Pound Walk, and morning or early afternoon for the gorge and swimming hole.
View from Ormiston Gorge Ghost Gum lookout.
Glen Helen Gorge (Yapalpe)
I think that Glen Helen Gorge is the most majestic of all the West MacDonnell Ranges gorges.
You catch a glimpse of it from the main road and then, as you get closer, it just gets more and more impressive. The size! The shape! The reflection!
When we visited in June 2021, the main road in was closed off and Glen Helen Lodge (which previously served as a hub of sorts in the West MacDonnell Ranges with its accommodation and petrol station) had been closed since August 2020, thanks to COVID. It is now under new ownership and slated to re-open in mid-August 2021 as a Discovery Parks property. When it does, the road to the gorge should be reopened.
In the meantime, you can still access Glen Helen Gorge by parking just before the road closure and following the marked walking path. The path leads to a small patch of sand on the water’s edge, but you’re surrounded by tall grass so it’s not easy to seek out any other views of the gorge up-close.
This gorge is just begging to be paddled through, whether by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. I’ll definitely be paddling here on my next visit, once it’s fully reopened!
Also worth noting: no drones are allowed at Glen Helen Gorge, even if you have a permit, because there’s an airport closeby.
More On Visiting Glen Helen Gorge
Getting there: When we visited Glen Helen Gorge in June 2021, the main road in was closed off and an alternate walking path in place to access the gorge. It’s a 15min / 800m walk one-way from the alternate car park to the gorge, partially along a rocky creek bed so proper shoes are needed.
Distance from Alice Springs: 132km / 1h26m
Camping: Will be available at the new Discovery Parks – Glen Helen starting on 13 August 2021, along with motel rooms if camping’s not your jam.
Facilities: None (however there likely will be, once Discovery Parks opens)
Mobile reception: Not really (no Telstra, and spotty Optus signal)
Best time to visit: Mid afternoon is when you get the best light on the gorge walls (just don’t go *too* late, because the shadows start to descend on the rock).
Redbank Gorge (Yarretyeke)
Of all the West MacDonnell Ranges gorges, Redbank Gorge is the one that takes the most effort to get to. But I promise you it is VERY worth it, so whatever you do, don’t skip this one!
Once you turn off the main road onto Redbank Gorge Road, you’ll drive 5km down a bumpy dirt road, so you’ll need a 4WD vehicle. Then after you pass the campgrounds, there is a very steep rocky hill leading down to the car park – if you’re anything like me, you may mutter “oh sh*t” upon realizing that you have to actually drive down it. But it’s really not that bad if you’ve got 4WD and the road is dry.
Redbank Gorge is an absolute stunner! It looks a bit different to the other gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges, and the rock reflections here are just beautiful. Most visitors probably aren’t aware that you can swim through the gorge to several small little pools (definitely Karijini vibes, if you’ve been there then you know what I mean!). Since the water is COLD year-round, the best thing to do is float through the gorge on a lilo or a floatie of some sort.
I came armed with my own floatie and would have gone for it, had we not been “greeted” by dozens of dead fish along the edges of the waterhole. It stank to high heavens just standing nearby taking photos, but beyond the stench I just didn’t feel comfortable inserting myself into water that a bunch of fish had died and decomposed in. Like, was it something in the water that contributed to their death?
More On Visiting Redbank Gorge
Getting there: It’s a 2km / 45min return walk from the car park to the gorge, much of which involves walking and scrambling on large rocks along the dry creek bed.
Distance from Alice Springs: 156km / 1h45m
- Mt. Sonder Lookout – A 5km / 2.5hr return hike from the car park, which rewards you with a stunning view of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Camping: Yes – $4/person cash only, and first-come, first-served. There are 2 campgrounds at Redbank Gorge: Woodland and Ridgetop (Ridgetop is closer and boasts fabulous views out toward the gorge). They are accessible to off-road caravans.
Mobile reception: No
Best time to visit: Around midday to see the rock lit up orange; otherwise early morning or late afternoon will offer more even/flat light and reflections, and the rocks will appear more maroon/purple in color.