Mount Sonder Sunrise Hike

Mount Sonder sunrise hike – Australia. A complete guide to one of the Northern Territories most spectacular and rewarding day hikes.

About Mount Sonder

Mt Sonder (Rwetyepme) is the highest point in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Standing at 1,380 metres (4,530 ft), it’s the forth highest peak in the Northern Territory. Found at the western end of the Larapinta Trail, the ‘Redbank Gorge to Mount Sonder and back’ is the 12th and final (or first) stage of this epic 232km walking track. Although not as famous or dramatic as other amazing rock formations we saw during our 14 Day Red Centre Road Trip like the iconic sandstone monolith of Uluru or the unmistakeable red domes of Kata Tjuta, the symbolic Mount Sonder still has a very distinctive shape. To the local Aboriginal people, it holds significance and they say the mountain profile is that of pregnant women lying on her back.

Mount Sonder at sunirse from the Mount Sonder Lookout
Mount Sonder at sunirse, taken the day before our hike)

Tip. If you want some lovely photos of Mount Sonder head to the Mount Sonder Lookout located just next to Finke River 2 Mile bush camping area. It’s a truly beautiful sunrise spot. Don’t confuse it with the Lookout of the same name found on this hike, the two Lookouts are in very different locations!

**Read the full blog – Fink River 2 Mile – The best bush camp in the West MacDonnell Ranges

Mount Sonder (Sunrise) Hike Information

Distance: 15.8km (return)

Trail Type: Return (start and finish in the same location)

Start Point: Redbank Gorge Carpark

Finish Point: Redbank Gorge Carpark

Duration: 4-6 hours return

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult (Grade 4)

Map: See below

The 12th and final stage of the Larapinta Trail (or first for those walking east), is not only for those on multi-day hikes or organised groups. It is also one of the most rewarding day hikes in Australia for independent travellers. Although it’s very accessible and only moderately difficult to summit, this amazing hike is often completely overlooked by those on their whistle-stop itineraries through the Red Centre – A big mistake in our opinion!

Its relatively short distance combined with the great infrastructure of the Larapinta Trail, makes this hike both a particularly popular and highly practical option for sunrise. Although it can be done throughout the day and for sunset, it was the appeal of a sunrise from Mount Sonder that got us out of our sleeping bags at 2am!

Mount Sonder Hike signage

The hike up Mount Sonder

The hike starts at Redbank Gorge Car Park. For those hiking independently, it’s a couple of minutes drive from either Woodland or Ridgetop Camping Areas at Redbank Gorge. There’s clear signage in the carpark pointing you on your way and a log book to sign before you depart. For obvious reasons, all signage photos on the ascent of our Mount Sonder Sunrise hike were taken either the day prior, or on the way down when it wasn’t pitch black!

Redbank Gorge Larapinta Trail signage

Leaving just prior to 3am we’d allowed 4 hours to ascend, as we didn’t know what to expect hiking in the dark. Overcautious, we allowed far more time than we hoped it would take, to make sure we didn’t miss sunrise. From the carpark you follow a short trail down to the riverbed from where you follow the blue arrow markers up Mount Sonder.

Don’t be confused when you reach the marker at the riverbed. With markers on both sides of the picket, the arrow for the Mount Sonder Hike is a little misleading! At the time of our visit, it looked like the arrow was pointing down the river towards Redbank Gorge, not across the riverbed. We were glad we’d done a quick recce the day before, so knew we were in fact supposed to head directly across the riverbed. There are markers in the middle too, but they can be hard to see. Don’t worry though, in the dark they reflect against the torch beams and are a lot easier to find.

The start of the Mount Sonder Hike

500m into the hike, you’ll reach a very important bit of signage. This sign points you in the correct direction for your desired hike. It’s pretty self explanatory, but make sure you’re paying attention or you maybe in for a surprise a few hours down the track!

Larapinta Trail signage sections 11/12

From here the path is very clearly marked and easy to follow even in complete darkness. This section is also used by those wanting to do the 2.3km walk up to the Saddle (Mount Sonder Lookout). There are stone steps along the way at the steeper sections on this first part of the track. In the dark with only a torch beam lighting up the track, it can be quite disorientating and hard to gauge distance and terrain. But you’ll know when you’ve reached the Saddle, when you come to below signage.

Mt Sonder Lookout Hike signage

If you’re doing the Mount Sonder hike for sunrise, this a good gauge on your ascent speed. If going by the signage at the start of the track and allowing 3.5 hours to ascend, it suggests it will take an hour to reach this lookout. Looking at our watches it became apparent we were definitely not going to need anywhere near the 3.5 hours to reach the peak at our current speed.

Once beyond the Saddle, there’s a small section of downhill switchbacks. But other than that, it’s a pretty easy and gradual incline from the Saddle til about 2km from the peak. At this point it became a little steeper, but still clearly-marked and not too challenging to follow to the top. Looking back, we could see little processions of snake like torch beams as tour groups made their way up. And even in the darkness, we could see silhouettes of the peak above, suggesting we were pretty close.

Reaching the peak

Reaching the Cairn (or summit marker), you’ll know when you’ve made it to the summit. Which, as it turns out is not technically the highest point of Mount Sonder. But regardless, it had taken just under two and half hours to ascend! Having allowed plenty of time (4 hours), just to be safe, it suddenly dawned on us (no pun intended) that we now had over 1.5 hours to wait until sunrise. With the temperature a mere 1° and a bitterly cold easterly wind blasting us, it was truly freezing. A situation exacerbated by the fact we had forgotten to bring our thermos’ of coffee up. At least we could see the sky was clear and we would get to see a sunrise. There was even Telstra reception from here, so something to do whilst we hunkered down to wait it out.

Well before the sun rose, the pre-sunrise twilight colours started to appear in the sky. They were amazing – a magical mix of purples, pinks and oranges. By this stage the groups (who’d timed their ascents a bit better than us) started to arrive to watch the spectacle too.

Twilight on the Mount Sonder Sunrise Hike

The Mount Sonder Sunrise

It was a great relief when the sun started to rise, worth the chilly and seemingly endless wait! Although the easterly wind continued to smash us front on, it was stunning and psychologically warming at least. However, trying to capture the moment on camera was not so easy, as our fingers were still numb from the cold.

Sunrise from Mount Sonder hike

As the sun rose over the horizon it started to bathe the higher peaks in the golden hour light. As it continued to rise it really started to light up everything around us. The vibrant colours of the reddish orange rock faces around us were particularly impressive.

First light on the Mount Sonder sunrise hike

Having hiked up in dark, the sheer beauty of our surroundings blew us away. It was absolutely stunning and a standout on our 14 day Red Centre Road trip and the undoubted highlight of our time in the West MacDonnell Ranges. With 360° panoramic views, everywhere we looked warranted another photo.

Golden hour light on the Mount Sonder sunrise hike

Bizarrely (well in our minds anyway) nearly everyone, (all the groups) descended almost straight after the sun rose, leaving only us and 4 others. But even the 4 other people didn’t stay much longer. I’m sure the particularly cold conditions played a part in their early departure. A guide up there told us it was one of the coldest mornings of the year! Either way, as the shadows lifted, the views just kept getting better and better. We couldn’t believe we had it all to ourselves but guess that’s one of the perks of hiking independently and having your own timeframe!

Views from the Mount Sonder summit

Slowly thawing, we had to get a photo of the two of us at the peak next to the cairn. With no one around to take it we braved putting up the tripod. Thankfully it didn’t blow over, despite the incessant wind that was battering us. There was even a visitor book up inside the cairn which you can fill out. We resisted the urge to write ‘underfloor heating would be nice’.

The cairn on Mount Sonder

The hike down

We could have stayed at the peak for a very long time. With vistas like this you definitely either forget about or push through the cold. Finally done taking photos, we decided we better start the descent. We had to get back to our Redbank Gorge Campsite, dismantle the tent and drive the next leg of our 14 day Red Centre Road trip to Ginty’s Lookout.

Mount Sonder sunirse hike views

Unlike the hike up (if doing the sunrise hike) the hike down Mount Sonder was a highlight in itself. On the way up it’s all about focusing on where you’re putting your feet, as you slowly ascend in pitch blackness. Totally dependent on your torch you really see nothing of the surrounding scenery other than what the torch beam touches. But on the way down it’s a completely different experience. Almost straight after starting the descent we had the camera out again!

Mount Sonder sunrise hike signage
Hiking down Mount Sonder after sunrise

The views just keep on coming on the way down. From the area with switchbacks in the middle of the trail there were more great vistas in all directions. We literally seemed to be stopping endlessly for more photos. What we thought was going to be a very quick descent, was taking decidedly longer than initially anticipated. But we were in no particular rush and with the now warmer conditions, there was no reason not to take it slow and enjoy the awesome scenery.

hike down Mount Sonder
Red centre scenery

When we finally got back to the Saddle on the way down, we were able to appreciate the views back up toward Mount Sonder that had been covered in darkness on our ascent. Looking back the way we had just come we could now understand the appeal of the shorter Mount Sonder Lookout Walk.

Mount Sonder lookout
Views facing back up the way we had come

Getting closer to Redbank Gorge, there’s a nice downhill section with some structured stairs all the way to the sign for the turnoff to Section 11 and the Larapinta Trail Camping Area. From this sign, it’s 500m back to the Redbank Gorge Carpark through the sandy riverbed and past the awaiting budgie cheering squad.

Coming down Mount Sonder
Budgies at Redbank Gorge

If you’ve still got the energy and time, head down to Redbank Gorge (2km return) for a dip. If visiting during the cooler months, the water will likely be pretty refreshing! And if you head down mid afternoon once the gorge is cast in shadow, it will act almost like an ice bath, as we discovered the previous day. Swimming through the freezing gorge was pretty chilly!

Redback Gorge in the afternoon

In summary

The Mount Sonder sunrise hike was quite simply stunning. Despite the early start and cold conditions, it was unquestionably a highlight of our 14 Day Red Centre road trip and our favourite moment in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Definitely a ‘must do’ for anyone with a good level of fitness who enjoys a scenic hike.

Where to stay for the Mount Sonder Sunrise Hike

For those hiking Mount Sonder independently, there are two nearby basic campsites at Redbank Gorge – Woodland and Ridgetop Camping Areas. Both cost $3.30 p/p as of May 2021 (though this is due to increase slightly after July 2021). As always make sure to arrive by early afternoon as these campsites fill up fast.

The Ridgetop Camping Area is quite small and has less campsites, less facilities, but has lovely views. The Woodland Camping Area is more spacious, with 13 large and clearly defined spots spread around a looped track. Each site had a fire pit and was surrounded by woodlands and birdlife. We opted for the Woodland site as we wanted a more peaceful spot for our early night prior to our Mount Sonder sunrise hike. Campsite number 11 was perfect for us as it was tucked away and was quiet and secluded.

For more info click HERE for a short and really useful video Travel Outback Australia have posted on their site. It describes the facilities and shows the settings of the two campsites.

Woodlands Campsite - Redbank Gorge

Useful information and packing essentials for the Mount Sonder Sunrise Hike

  • It’s important to consider your health, fitness and experience when choosing a remote and potentially dangerous walk like this.
  • As with all hikes (particularly any starting in the dark), make sure you know where you’re starting from and which markers you’re following. We always like to check it out prior to hiking, so there’s no last minute confusion and panic.
  • If hiking for sunrise or sunset check what time the sun is due to rise/set and plan your departure times accordingly. The sun rises a lot earlier and sets a lot later in summer. You don’t want to miss the sunrise or sunset because you got your timings wrong.
  • Always check the weather conditions prior to hiking and not just the temperatures! It can be very windy here at times and on rare occasions, fog and thick clouds can block out sunrise/sunset completely.
  • For a sunrise/sunset you’ll need a decent torch/headlamp. A back up is also recommended.
  • Bring water with you and make sure you have enough for the conditions. In the hotter times of day and hotter months, you’ll obviously need a lot more than we did on a cold sunrise hike in May.
  • The tank water provided by the Larapinta Trail Camping Area is for those hiking on the Larapinta Trail. Leave it for them as they rely on this water to complete their hike! For those like us coming in as day hikers, make sure you’ve stocked up accordingly prior to arriving at Redbank Gorge.
  • In mid winter, the temperatures can range between -5°c up to 30+°c. So come prepared with the right clothing.
  • Layer up for the cooler months (May to Sep). For our sunrise hike we were very grateful to have beanies, gloves and warm, lightweight jackets! A spare shirt and/or thermal in the bag isn’t a bad idea either. Watching the sunrise in a sweaty wet shirt after the hike up, can get pretty chilly.
  • If you’re organised, take a thermos of coffee up with you. We’d planned to do this, then completely forgot. When we saw groups arrive and tuck into a warm coffee, we were super envious!
  • For our May Mount Sonder sunrise hike, extreme heat was not an issue. But later in the day and at other times of the year, this is a very important consideration. The extreme heat can be deadly, especially for those without experience in such conditions. So plan and prepare accordingly.
  • As always leave no trace and take all your rubbish out with you and dispose of it correctly.
  • Decent footwear is important for this hike. Although boots aren’t required, I would recommend them, especially if hiking up in the dark for sunrise. Sturdy shoes with good grip should also be fine (Imbi never hikes in boots if she can help it and was totally fine in trainers).
  • You cannot book ahead at the Redbank Gorge Campsites, instead, it’s on a first-come-first-serve basis. So don’t arrive too late in the day to ensure you get a spot. This is especially important during holidays and weekends.
  • As we mentioned, campsite payment is done via the ‘honesty box system’. So make sure you have the correct change. Prices as of May 2021 were $3.30 p/p. However these prices are due to increase slightly as of July 1st 2021.

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