The Red Centre of Australia. It’s one of our nation’s iconic regions, up there with The Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu. It’s impressive and vast. Chances are when you picture it, you think of bright red desert sand and one giant rock in the ground… Uluru. You’ve probably also heard of stunning areas like Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) or Kings Canyon. The West MacDonnell Ranges is the lesser-known but equally impressive region that often misses out on the limelight.
Stretching out 161 kilometres west of Alice Springs, the ranges are a treasure trove of gorges, stunning scenery, impressive geological formations, the fascinating culture of the indigenous Arrente people, and some of the best hikes and short walks in the country.
Within easy reach of Alice Springs, most of The West MacDonnell Ranges highlights are accessible by 2wd, followed by a relatively short and easy walk. This makes for a family-friendly and stress-free destination. Navigation is also simple as all of the attractions are well signed, short diversions off Namatjira Drive. If you have a 4wd, read on as there are a couple of locations for the more adventurous.
Although many people visit them on a day trip by self-drive or as part of an organised tour, we’d recommend planning to spend a little more time there to get the most out of it. Depending on how flexible your itinerary is, anywhere between 3-5 days would be ideal.
If you’ve got limited time, here are some of our favourites to help you build your short-list. Ormiston Gorge was our favourite hike, which was challenging but rewarding. A steep stair climb from the car park leads you to the lookout at the top of the gorge before descending slowly down the western edge to the valley floor. From here, you cross over to the opposite side (which can include getting wet, so be prepared) and then return back to the central car park. The return walk does have either a short swim or some challenging rock-hopping.
Our hot-tip with this one is to do it in reverse. The advantage here is that you get the most challenging part out of the way early (and therefore know you can make it) and means your ascent to the lookout is much more gentle. It also means the hike builds along the way, with the lookout being the reward at the end, with only a short walk down the steep staircase to return to the car park.
Our other favourite stops were Standley Chasm, Redbank Gorge, and The Ochre Pits. Just be aware that Standley Chasm does charge an entrance fee, as it’s privately owned by the Traditional Owners. All other park areas are free to visit, although camping fees do apply in some areas; more on that later.
The best swimming is at Ellery Creek Big Hole and Ormiston if it’s warm enough to swim during your visit. Glen Helen Gorge is also a good option for swimming if you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter. When it comes to lookouts, other than Ormiston Gorge, it’s worth a climb to the top at Serpentine Gorge for stunning views of the main range as well as up the gorge itself.
Most of the walks in the area are reasonably short (many of them are less than 1km) and have easy to moderate difficulty. The West MacDonnell Ranges is also home to the famous Larapinta Trail for the more adventurous. This 223km multi-day hike traces its way along the northern side of the range. As it visits all of the easily accessible attractions along the way, it can be completed with assistance from others in your travel party. Alternatively, there are companies set up to support hikers.
If you’re planning on a multi-day visit to the area, there are multiple camping options available to suit tent, car-based, camper trailer, and caravan camping. We loved free bush camping during our visit, and it remains some of our favourite camping to date. Our picks were Hugh River and Finke 2-mile (one of our top 3 campsites in 2021) camping areas; you need to be self-contained for these sites as there are no facilities. The national park offers camping at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, and Redbank Gorge, which all have basic facilities. Ormiston Gorge’s camping area also has showers, flushing toilets, and a small kiosk. Glen Helen Lodge is your only option if you’re looking for motel-style or caravan park sites.
Standley Chasm provides a cafe, some basic supplies (mainly for hikers on the Larapinta trail), a small camping area with showers, toilets, laundry facilities, and limited powered sites. There is limited space available, and the camping area consists of a gravel parking area and a small lawn area. That being said, it’s excellent value for money if you’re doing the walks there. We had a peaceful and relaxing night there during our visit, and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful.
The best time to visit The West Macs is in the cooler months (April – September). Ensure to keep an eye on the weather as roads can be closed if there’s a lot of rain. (Although that would be spectacular to see). There is no fuel or drinking water available so plan carefully.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and have a 4wd, Birthday Waterhole is located further from Hugh River where we free camped. Allow 1 hr each way to enjoy this permanent waterhole with much less chance of having to share it with anyone. Further along Namatjira Drive is Roma Gorge, the last gorge at the western end. Again, allow 1hr each way.
Once at the western end of the West MacDonnell Ranges, one option is to return to Alice Springs the same way you came. Alternatively, you can complete a loop back to Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive through Hermannsberg (which we’d highly recommend). The third option is the unsealed (4wd recommended and permit required) Mereenie Loop to Kings Canyon. Stop at Tylers Pass Lookout for spectacular views if you decide to return via Larapinta Drive. The next stop is the incredible Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) Conservation Area (4wd recommended, although not required) and the impressive remnants of a meteor strike. Once on Larapinta Drive heading east towards Hermanssberg, the 4wd track and camping area at Palm Valley is not to be missed.
The popular Boggy Hole 4wd track through to Ernest Giles Rd is a great way to extend the adventure. You can continue to Kings Canyon and either return to Palm Valley (via the Meerenie loop) or head south to Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
If the West Macdonnell Ranges isn’t on your must-see list when visiting the Red Centre and Alice Springs, it should be! The West Macs were an absolute highlight of our travels during 2021. We cannot wait to get back and hopefully tackle the Larapinta trail one day. Whether it’s for a day or two, or a week, make sure you visit this incredible part of the country.