MacDonnell Ranges – Overview & Things to See and Do
Overview – West MacDonnell’s
You’ll be inspired by the scenery of the West MacDonnell’s, washed in sunburnt oranges, maroons and purples, these rocky ridges contain chasms and gorges of rugged scenery.
Each of the West MacDonnells’ chasms and gorges has its own unique character and scenery. At Simpsons Gap, walk to the permanent pool and possibly catch sight of the rock wallabies that live in the gap’s rocky ridges. At midday, stand in Standley Chasm as it lights up in fiery oranges reflected by the overhead sun. Plunge in for a swim at the picturesque waterholes at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge.
Visit the Ochre Pits, which desert Aboriginal people used as a quarry for ochre, a valuable traditional material used for paintings and ceremonial body decorations.
Covered by the West MacDonnell National Park, vehicle access is via Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive. West from Alice Springs, there is a new unsealed Mereenie Loop Road connecting Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon) with the West MacDonnell Park from the direction of Uluru National Park to the southwest.
Simpsons Gap is also accessible via a sealed bicycle track beginning opposite Flynns Grave, 7 km from Alice Springs along Larapinta Drive. The road west to Glen Helen is fully sealed and Larapinta Drive is sealed to within 35 km of Hermannsburg.
Things to See & Do – West MacDonnell’s
Larapinta Trail: An exciting long distance walking track through the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges, and across the heart of Central Australia. Established as part of the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory’s development of the world-class West MacDonnell National Park, the Trail is an extended walking track running approximately 250 kilometres along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges – from Alice Springs west to Mount Sonder, Mount Razorback and beyond.
Eight sections of the Trail were opened by mid 1997 with the remaining sections to open as completed in the next two or three years. At present the Trail offers over 150 kilometres of track through this ancient and fascinating arid landscape.
John Flynn’s Grave Historical Reserve (0.3ha/7km): This tiny Reserve is the resting place for the ashes of the Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Flying Doctor Service and the Australian Inland Mission. The grave is on a low hill at the foot of the MacDonnell ranges with a sign detailing some of his achievements.
Simpsons Gap National Park (30950ha/18km): Steep-sided ridges, huge Ghost Gums, timbered creek flats and scenic rocky gaps make this Park an excellent introduction to the MacDonnell Ranges. Rock-wallabies are often seen here, especially in the late afternoon. The Park is best seen on foot and several walking tracks give a choice of a short or longer walk. The long-distance Larapinta Trail can be joined from here. Range guided tours are available daily. For bookings phone (059) 55 0310. The park is open from 8 am to 9 pm daily.
Standley Chasm (50km): This spectacular Chasm owned by Aborigines of Iwupataka is a blaze of red when hit by the midday sun. A 1500 metre walk takes you from the kiosk to the Chasm and is best enjoyed early morning or afternoon when less crowded. Open 8.30 am to 4.30 pm daily. An entrance fee applies.
Ellery Creek Big Hole Nature Park (1766ha/93km): High red cliffs, a large waterhole, and a sandy creek fringed by River Red Gums make this Park one of the region’s most popular swimming and picnic areas.
Serpentine Gorge Nature Park (518ha/104km): The main feature of this Park is a narrow, winding gorge which has been cut through the range. Semi-permanent waterholes block both ends of the gorge, but visitors prepared for a cold swim can get past to enjoy some beautiful scenery. This is a quiet, bus lover’s Park, deliberately undeveloped, and although it is accessible by conventional vehicle, the track is rough and stony.
Ormiston Gorge And Pound National Park (4655ha/132km): Ormiston Gorge is one of the many spectacular features of the MacDonnell Ranges. In summer, its deep waterhole is a welcome relief from the heat, and in cooler times the walking tracks through scenic Ormiston Pound are popular with visitors.
There is a small general campground for tents, campervans, and caravans and a larger campground for big groups and coach tours. Drinking water supplies are unreliable, so bring plenty of water with you.
Glen Helen Gorge Nature Park (386ha/133km): Here the sandy bed of the mighty Finke River squeezes between sandstone walls at the start of its journey to the Simpson Desert. Most visitors take a 20 minute stroll down the riverbed to the Gorge and many will enjoy a swim there. This semi-permanent waterhole is important to the survival of the area’s small fish. Camping isn’t allowed in the Park, but accommodation, water, camping and picnic facilities are available at nearby Glen Helen Lodge.
Redbank Nature Park (1295ha/161km): Deep icy waters block this narrow cleft in the range. You can best enjoy the eerie stillness and pastel colours of the flood smoothed rock walls floating through the gorge on an air mattress. Ghost gums on steep slopes along the creek contrast with the shrubland and spinifex around the carpark. The gorge is a 25 minute walk from the carpark.
What To Do
Camping: Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek, Big Hole and Redbank Gorge provide basic facilities. Serpentine Chalet provides camping sites with no facilities. Commercial facilities are available at Glen Helen Lodge, including caravan sites and motel accommodation. Camping fees apply and are payable at each camping area.
Fireplaces are provided at most sites, however at some sites free gas BBQ’s replace open fireplaces. At Serpentine Gorge all fires are prohibited in this special zone.
Swimming: The Park offers a number of permanent waterholes ideal for swimming during summer. These are Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge, Redbank Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge. Swimmers should be aware that most swimming holes are extremely cold. Prolonged exposure, even during summer, can result in hypothermia. Beware of submerged logs and rocks.
Walking: The best way to experience the spectacular views in this Park is through walking. There are numerous marked trails ranging from leisurely to adventurous. Short marked walks with interesting information about the natural and cultural environment of the NT are available at each site.
Sections of the famous Larapinta Trail run along the Park and offer extended and overnight bushwalks. Prepare well when walking. Sturdy footwear, a hat, sunscreen, loose fitting clothing and plenty of drinking water are recommended. Avoid walking alone and minimise physical activity during the hottest part of the day, especially in summer.
Walkers planning extended and overnight walks are strongly advised to notify a Ranger, friend or reliable person of your intended route and plans. Please do not forget to advise of your return.
Continue west and you will travel on a road winding to the south and come to Tyler Pass, a place to stop for spectacular views of Tnorala / Gosse Bluff, a 5km crater created by a comet 142.5 million years ago.
Swinging back to the east along Larapinta Drive, visit Hermannsburg, the birthplace of famous artist Albert Namatjira. where a faithfully restored 1870s Lutheran mission, showcases Namatjira’s and other local artists’ work.
Outside Hermannsburg, travel 4×4 through the Finke River, thought to be the world’s oldest watercourse.
The Finke Gorge National Park is best known for Palm Valley, which contains groves of unique and beautiful palms that are remnants from millions of years ago, when Central Australia was lush with tropical forests.
Overview – East MacDonnell’s
When you head into the East MacDonnell Ranges, you’re heading into gold and gem country. As well as being as picturesque as the West Macs, the East MacDonnell Ranges also offer the opportunity to go horse and camel riding at Ross River Homestead, to step back into the Territory’s history and the goldrushes at Arltunga Historical Reserve and the Arltunga Historical Pub, and to fossick for zircon, garnet, beryl, apatite and tourmaline at Gemtree.
Eastern Arrernte culture has a long history in this region and a significant site is Corroboree Rock, where ancient manhood and initiation ceremonies took place. N’Dhala Gorge with its ancient rock carvings and petroglyphs is another interesting site. The alluring colours of the East Macs – mauves and misty blues set against clear blue skies – give the region an air of tranquillity, so you’ll find it very easy to wind down and relax.
Access to the East MacDonnells is via the Ross Highway which is sealed for the first 75kms to Ross River Homestead (closed 2005). Before Ross River there is a turnoff to Arltunga At this point the road is unsealed but is usually in good condition.
4WD tracks extend from Arltunga to Ruby Gap Nature Park, and from before Ross River Homestead to N’Dhala Gorge.
Things to See & Do – East MacDonnell’s
Emily And Jessie Gaps Nature Park (695ha/13km): These two creek-worn gaps in the MacDonnell Ranges have Aboriginal significance, and are popular local picnic spots.
Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve (7ha/48km): This small Reserve protects a rock outcrop of significance to Aborigines. A sign and short walk will help visitors to appreciate the area and most will spend about 45 minutes here.
Trephina Gorge Nature Park (1771ha/85km): Attractive MacDonnell Ranges scenery including huge River Red Gums, sandy creek beds, semi-permanent waterholes and towering bluffs guarantee an enjoyable experience. There are five marked walking tracks to explore, taking from 45 minutes to 6.5 hours to complete. Campers often use this Park as a base for day trips eastwards to Arltunga or N’Dhala Gorge. The Park’s ten small campsites don’t suit large caravans and as the camping area is often full from June to September, campers should be prepared to go on the 21 kilometres to the Ross River Resort.
N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park (501ha/98km): Ancient Aboriginal rock carvings are sheltered by the rugged walls of two gorges. The carvings and varied plant life can be seen on a short walk. A number of cypress-pine trees grow along the exposed slopes. Accessible to 4WD vehicles only, the dirt & sandy road can be rough in places.
Arltunga Historical Reserve (5506ha/111km): Gold was first discovered in this most isolated of goldfields in 1887. You can explore the stone ruins, scattered workings, gravestones and go down into a mine (bring a torch). The police station and gaol have been restored, and a visitor centre displays the fascinating history of the area. Camping is available in a private caravan park next to the Reserve. Allow at least four hours to explore Arltunga.
Arltunga : Officially Central Australia’s first town, Arltunga was established as a result of the 1887 gold rush with fortune seekers travelling a perilous 600 kms from the Oodnadatta railhead, often on foot. Mining activity continued in the area for 30 years with the town reaching a peak population of 3,000 people. Today you can relive the heyday of Arltunga at the historical reserve, where the remains of mines, old miners camps and stone buildings (some of which have been restored), are preserved for the public to explore. Located 110 kms east of Alice Springs, the reserve can be reached easily in a two-wheel drive vehicle along the Ross Highway. Camping is not permitted, however admission is free and the visitors centre is open from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily.
Ruby Gap Nature Park (9257ha/140km): In 1886 Ruby Gap was the scene of a rush by miners seeking rubies which later proved to be worthless garnets. It is one of the beautiful gorges along the Hale River which winds through the Park, and it is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles only. This undeveloped Park provides a special outback camping experience.
Gemtree : 140kms north-east of Alice Springs, on the Plenty Highway, you can experience the excitement of finding your own gems at the Central Australian Gemfields of Gemtree. An oasis in the semi desert mulga country, Gemtree has everything you need to make fossicking easy, and tag-a-long tours depart daily including an experienced guide and all fossicking equipment. Back at the park, one of the on-site gemcutters can turn your stones into beautifully facetted gems, and there is also a large display of local gems in the rough, cut and set into jewellery pieces. Entry is $40 per group of 1-4 people, including guide and fossicking equipment, and it is open from 8:00am to 6:00pm daily.