VISITING THE WEST MACDONNELL RANGES – A COMPLETE GUIDE

West MacDonnell Ranges - Ormiston Gorge

The best places to visit in the West MacDonnell Ranges – Australia. Everything you need to know about visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges.

A trip to Central Australia simply wouldn’t be complete without visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges. We spent several days exploring this region during our 14 Day Red Centre Road Trip and decided to put together a guide to visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges, to help you plan the perfect trip!

About the West MacDonnell Ranges

The West MacDonnell Ranges are a mountain range which lie within the West MacDonnell National Park. Traditionally known as Tjoritja and locally referred to as the West Macs, the park spans over 161km west of Alice Springs. It’s a place of significant cultural importance, with a string of stunning gorges, waterholes and breathtaking views. The West Macs are also home to the famous Larapinta Trail, a multi day hike stretching 231km from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder. On top of all of this, there’s an abundance of native flora and fauna found here too.

Getting to the West MacDonnell Ranges

Most travellers visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges do so via the Larapinta & Namatjira Drives from Alice Springs. Following these roads west from Alice Springs, you’ll find yourself in the West Macs in about 15 minutes. Short unsealed roads shoot off the main roads, leading to some truely magical places. For the most part, these unsealed roads are accessible via 2WD, however some are 4WD access only.

It is of course possible to visit the West Macs from other areas. If travelling from Yulara, you can either drive to Alice Springs and onto the West Macs. Alternatively, take the Lasseter Hwy turning left at Luritja Rd. This will take you to Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon. From Kings Canyon, continue onto the Mereenie Loop and up to Redbank Gorge. You can then drive along the West Macs from Redbank Gorge to Alice Springs.

West MacDonnell Ranges Map

*Note: The Mereenie Loop is a 160km stretch of sandy unsealed road, best suited to 4WD vehicles. Read more about driving this road on our 14 Day Red Centre Road Trip blog.

Best places to visit in the West MacDonnell Ranges

There’a a bunch of amazing places worth visiting in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Whilst it’s a popular region to visit on a day trip from Alice Springs, we’d recommend taking a few days to explore the area if you have time. There is just so much to see and do! These are our recommended stops in order if travelling from Alice Springs.

Simpsons Gap

Simpsons Gap is the first place most people stop at when visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s a truely beautiful place and a great introduction to the West Macs. Referred to as ‘Rungutjirpa’ by the Arrente Aboriginal people, Simpsons Gap is an important spiritual site where several dreaming trails and stories cross.

From Alice Springs, it’s a 24km drive along the Larapinta Drive to reach the Simpsons Gap carpark. From the carpark, it’s a short and easy walk along a well maintained path down to the gap. As you near the end of the path, you’ll be blown away by the beauty of the deep gorge surrounding you. Along with a permanent waterhole, Simpson’s Gap is home to dozens of rare plants, several short walks and a range of native wildlife. If you visit at dusk or dawn, you may even spot a shy Black-footed Rock Wallaby in the area.

West MacDonnell Ranges - Simpsons Gap

We’d recommend allowing 1-2 hours to explore the area here. Access to Simpsons Gap is free and there are also free gas bbq’s, toilets and bins nearby.

Check out the full Simpsons Gap Fact Sheet for more information.

Standley Chasm

Located a further 33kms west of the Simpson’s Gap along the Larapinta Drive is Standley Chasm, another beautiful gorge worth visiting in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This place was different to what we expected in some ways, perhaps more beautiful. Aside from visiting the chasm itself, there’s a few short hikes which are worth doing as they offer awesome views of the area. Allow around an hour to visit the chasm and a few more hours is you want to hike to the viewpoints.

Check out the full blog – Visiting Standley Chasm: A complete guide

West MacDonnell Ranges - Standley Chasm

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Ellery Creek Big Hole is a ‘must see’ when visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges and was one of our favourite places in the Red Centre. It’s located about 90kms west of Alice Springs, past Standley Chasm.

Of course the gorge and waterhole is the main attraction here and for good reason. It’s absolutely breathtaking. And for this reason, it gets pretty busy with day-trippers hiking, picnicking, swimming and chilling by the banks of the water. So don’t expect to have this tranquil site to yourself during the day. Mornings and evenings are the quietest times to enjoy the Ellery Creek! If you have time, the 2.5km Dolomites Trail is a nice walk around the area and during our visit mid May visit, there was plenty of birdlife around too.

West MacDonnell Ranges - Ellery Creek

Serpentine Gorge

Located just over 100km drive from Alice Springs, roughly half way between Ellery Creek and Ormiston Gorge is Serpentine Gorge. Although not as impressive as the other gorges in the West Macs, this is still a nice place to visit. From the carpark, it’s an easy 1.3km walk along a dirt track to the gorge. In the hotter months, a quick dip here might be appealing! Our favourite part of Serpentine Gorge was hiking up to the lookout. Not many people made the effort to venture up here but the views from the top were seriously beautiful. There’s a picnic area and pit toilet near the carpark, but no campgrounds or other facilities.

West MacDonnell Ranges - Serpentine Gorge

Ochre Pits

If you have time, make a quick stop at the Ochre Pits, just 15kms west of Serpentine Gorge en route to Ormiston Gorge. Ochre is a mineral with various earthy tones, with cultural importance in the Aboriginal community. It has been mined for generations by the local Aboriginal people and has been used for a range of different things in everyday life. We found this an interesting place, but if you’re short on time, you could skip this stop.

Red Centre road trip - Orchre Pits

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge is another ‘must see’ destination when visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s located 136km drive from Alice Springs and is often the last place people stop on a day trip in the West Macs. The gorge is a short walk from the carpark via a well maintained path and is a great place to spend a day chilling and swimming. It was the busiest gorge we visited and we can totally see why! Much like Ellery Creek, the day trippers disappeared late afternoon during our visit, leaving the gorge completely empty for us to enjoy. The Ghost Gum walk was a highlight here for us, as it offered quieter views through the day and a different perspective of the gorge.

West MacDonnell Ranges - Ormiston Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Well, Glen Helen Gorge was a little surprise package for us. It’s another stunning waterhole which shouldn’t be missed when visiting the West MacDonnell ranges. Access to the gorge used to be via the Glen Helen Lodge. But since the lodge closed in 2020, many visitors think the gorge is also closed. We can confirm it’s 100% open and accessible via an alternative trail which starts where the road to the lodge is blocked off. Just follow the blue arrows for about 800m, negotiate your way across the partially dry river bed and tall reeds and you’re there. There wasn’t another soul in sight when we visited, just the way we like it!

West MacDonnell Ranges - Glen Helen Gorge

Finke River 2 Mile

2 Mile was our favourite campsite in the West Macs. It’s a true little slice of bush paradise which in our opinion, is totally worth spending a night at. For those taking their time visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges, camping along the banks of the Finke River offers a peaceful night away from the busy gorges. Mount Sonder Lookout is a few minutes away and is a perfect place to watch the sunrise over the Finke River. We loved our time here so much, we wrote a blog on it. Read the full blog – Finke River 2 Mile – The best bush camp in the West MacDonnell Ranges

West MacDonnell Ranges - Mount SOnder Lookout

Redbank Gorge

Towards the end of the West MacDonnell ranges and 157kms west of Alice Springs is Redbank Gorge. Most day trippers don’t make it this far but we are glad that we did! Not only is Redbank Gorge a stunning waterhole, it’s the gateway to section 11 & 12 of the Larapinta Trail and the incredible Mount Sonder. Access to the gorge is 1.2km via a dry riverbed, which requires a reasonable amount of rock hoping and scrambling. Of course it’s worth the effort, especially in the warmer months when taking a dip in the water will cool you down! We visited late afternoon when the gorge was almost entirely shaded which also cooled things right down. If you’re after a bit of sun, we’d recommend visiting earlier in the day. There’s 2 campgrounds here, making it a great place to stay before continuing on your Red Centre journey.

West MacDonnell Ranges - Redbank Gorge

Mount Sonder

Last but not least, we give you Mount Sonder. Our sunrise hike here was seriously beautiful and one of the best things we did whilst visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges. The hike starts from the Redbank Gorge carpark and is in fact section 12 of the Larapinta trail. It’s a tough slog up in parts, but totally worth every drop of sweat. The views from the summit were spectacular as were the views hiking down. You don’t have to do this hike for sunrise, however it’s best to head off early, before it gets too hot.

Read the full blog – Mount Sonder sunrise hike

West MacDonnell Ranges - Mount Sonder hike

Accommodation in the West MacDonnell Ranges

Camping is your only choice when it comes to accommodation in the West Macs. Campsites throughout the park range from bush camps with no facilities at all, to campgrounds with hot water shower and free gas bbq’s. Camping fees apply depending on the category of the campground and payments are generally made by cash via an honesty box at each site. More information on fees and facilities can be found via the NT gov website.

Finke River 2 Mile Camping Area and Serpentine Chalet offer free bush camping for those after a more rustic experience.

Tips for visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges

Planning on visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges? Here’s a few extra tips to help you out!

  • The best time to visit is during the winter months of May-September when the weather is cooler. Having said that, mornings and night can be super chilly often reaching below zero!
  • Winter is also the peak season and the busiest time to visit. If you want to enjoy the gorges and walks without the crowds, get up early and get there first! You’ll likely see some stunning sunrises too.
  • Take layers of clothing to keep you warm during the night/early mornings and to offer protection from the sun.
  • Make sure you pack sunscreen, a hat, sunnies, swimwear and towel.
  • There’s limited places to charge cameras, phones etc as not all campgrounds have power. If you’re spending a few days visiting the West MacDonnell Ranges, make sure you have the relevant car chargers and adaptors.
  • Although there are water tanks at most campgrounds, this water is generally untreated and reserved for hikers on the Larapinta Trail who rely on it. Leave this water for them and make sure you take PLENTY of water with you.
  • Apart from a cafe at Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge, there are no shops. You’ll need to stock up on supplies before you arrive, including water and ice.
  • The nearest fuel stations are in Alice Springs, Hermmansburg and Kings Canyon Resort.
  • There’s very limited phone and wifi reception in this part of the world. Apart from a few areas, we were completely offline most of the time.
  • Avoid driving at night. This is the outback and the West MacDonnell Ranges are still remote – remember the lack of phone service if you breakdown. There’s also a lot of wildlife in the are such as camels, brumbies and cattle which are unpredictable, especially at night.
  • As always, leave no trace. There are limited bins, so take ALL of your rubbish with you.

Like this post? Then pin it! Heading to Australia’s Red Centre? Pin this one too!

Planning a trip to Australia’s Red Centre? Check out our blogs to help you plan the perfect trip!

Olive Pink Botanic Garden – A must see for wildlife lovers in Alice Springs!

Our 14 Day Red Centre Road Trip

Trephina Gorge – East MacDonnell Ranges

Visiting Standley Chasm: A complete guide

Finke River 2 Mile – The best bush camp in the West MacDonnell Ranges

Mount Sonder sunrise hike

Walks in & around Palm Valley – Finke Gorge National Park

Palm Valley – Finke Gorge National Park

The best things to do at Uluru – A complete guide

Hiking the Valley of the Winds – Kata Tjuta

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