Most people visit the Red Centre to visit Uluru, and believe me it’s well worth a visit. But there’s an awful lot more to the Red Centre than the Big Rock it’s famous for, and one of those fantastic destinations well worth a little bit of your time is the West MacDonnell Ranges.
The West MacDonnell National Park runs for 161kms west of Alice Springs. The road is sealed, and the majority of the park is easily accessible for all types of vehicles. As such, many people choose to explore them as a day trip from Alice Springs – and if you aren’t camping then this is probably your best option. But if you have a few days free, and you’ve got a tent/camper/caravan then we highly recommend devoting a bit more time to this beautiful area.
There are a number of fantastic gorges within the West MacDonnell National Park, many of which are suitable for swimming, and many which have excellent camping areas. To help you decide which ones to visit, let's cover the most popular ones starting at Alice Springs and working our way west.
Simpsons Gap is only 18km from Alice Springs, making it one of the most visited spots in the park as it’s a quick and trip out for a visit. It’s only a short walk from the car park to the gap, and if you’re quiet and observant, you may be lucky enough to spot some rock wallabies. There is a small waterhole, but it’s not a designated swimming area. There is no camping here, but there are toilets available.
Standley Chasm is unique in the West MacDonnell Ranges in that unlike all the other gorges in the park, this one has it’s own fee to visit. And at $12 per adult to access this chasm via a 2km walk, we decided to give it a miss.
Ellery Creek Big Hole
A picturesque swimming hole only a short walk from the car park makes this a popular spot. There is plenty of space to spread out, relax and have a picnic, and swimming is allowed. You can also camp at Ellery Creek – camping will set you back $5 per adult per night, and there are toilets and non-potable water available.
This beautiful gorge has two short hikes you can take to explore the area more fully – there is a 1.3km waterhole walk that takes you down the bottom of the gorge, or a 1.1km relatively steep lookout walk which rewards you with fantastic views of the gorge once you reach the top. This is not a designated swimming spot, and camping is not permitted unless you are hiking through on the Larapinta Trail.
If you’ve never seen Ochre Pits before, it’s well worth a stop to check these ones out. Not only is the ochre visually stunning with colours of yellow, red, orange, white, black and even purple to be found in the soil, but there is a lot of history here. Indigenous Australians have been using the ochre here for thousands of years for many different purposes including painting, ceremony and medicinal uses.
One of the more popular walks in the area, and for good reason. Ormiston Gorge is a beautiful little waterhole, with swimming permitted. You can access it via a short easy walk from the car park, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can do the roughly 9km Pound Walk that takes in the surrounding area, follows along down the gorge, and ends at the swimming hole where you can have a much deserved swim to cool off. It took us about 4 hours with our five-year-old, including many rest stops and some time allowed for swimming. And we even spotted a huge Perentie catching, killing and swallowing a smaller water monitor whole!
You can camp at Ormiston Gorge, and the campsite here is one of the few in the area with a hot shower, plus toilets and costs $10 per adult per night. This one can get very popular in peak season, so get in early if you want to grab a spot!
Glen Helen Gorge
One of the larger waterholes, this deep swimming area is great for an afternoon swim, although like all the gorges the water temperature tends to be on the freezing side! We spent some time here floating around on a rubber ring and just generally relaxing by the water. If you’re feeling adventurous you can also swim up the gorge for further exploration.
The Glen Helen Homestead Lodge is right by the gorge and offers powered campsites, a café, and has fuel available. If you’re carrying on towards Kings Canyon via the Mereenie Loop then definitely consider filling up here – fuel was 30 cents a litre cheaper than at Kings Canyon.
Finke River Two Mile
Our preferred camping area, the Finke River Two Mile is directly opposite the turn off to Glen Helen Gorge and is a fantastic free camping spot. We spent 3 nights here using it as a base to explore the ranges, and it’s one of our all time favourite free camps. We relaxed by the river, playing Klop in the riverbed, watched a movie under the stars, had a campfire, and watched some pretty amazing lightning shows. This camping area has over 3km of riverside camping area to choose from, and although the river was very low when we visited, there was still enough water for a bit of a swim. There is plenty of shade, although watch out for falling branches from those river gums. It is advertised as 4x4 only, but if you’re careful and stick to the higher parts of the river you may be fine with a 2wd. Just walk it first and check it out to see if you think it’s accessible for your vehicle. And although it’s a free camp it’s still national park, so no pets and you’ll need to bring in your own firewood.
Perhaps less popular than some of the other gorges with many day trippers ending their journeys at Glen Helen. Yet this gorge was actually one of our favourites in the ranges. It was lovely and quiet, had a great swimming hole down a short hiking track, and the part we enjoyed the most was that you could swim across the main swimming hole and explore further up the gorge. Just beware – it was so quiet that an older German man had taken the opportunity to do a bit of skinny dipping and got busted by us when we arrived at the swimming hole!
The important stuff
The vast majority of the West MacDonnell Ranges is national park, meaning dogs are not allowed. But fortunately the NT has no national park entry fees, and their camping fees are extremely reasonable, so it’s a good budget friendly place to visit.
Bins are few and far between, so be prepared to take your rubbish out with you.
There are a few water points in the park, but don’t expect it to be potable. Best to take your water in with you.
There is sporadic Telstra signal through the ranges, and even some areas of Optus coverage. But also expect large parts to have no coverage at all.
Showers are few and far between – only available at Stanley Chasm, Glen Helen Homestead Lodge, and Ormiston Gorge, and of course the campsites with showers tend to cost a little more.
Fill up on fuel in Alice Springs before you leave as fuel just keeps going up in price the further out you get! The only fuel option within the ranges itself is at Glen Helen Homestead.
Outside of designated national park or privately run campsites there are also a couple of free 24 hour stops on the main road which are often a great option with fire pits (and often firewood!) and bins generally available. And some of them have beautiful views. The NT is fantastic in that their roadside free camps are generally clearly marked with signs stating 24 hour overnight stays are allowed.
The West MacDonnell Ranges are well worth a visit on their own. But if like most visitors to the Red Centre you are also planning on visiting Kings Canyon and Uluru, then the West Macs are really just the start of the journey. From Redbank Gorge if you have a 4x4 you can carry on west around the Mereenie Loop and continue on with your adventures, which is exactly what we did. But that is a story for another day.
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