While the West MacDonnell Ranges may get more attention (and more visitors), the East MacDonnell Ranges (East Macs) are no less spectacular. If you’re visiting Central Australia and wanting to go further afield than the standard Alice Springs-Kings Canyon-Uluru loop, then look no further than the East Macs. We visited the area on a 2 day road trip, and loved it so much we extended for an additional three days!
The East MacDonnell Ranges stretch 150km east from Alice Springs. While you could definitely visit the area on a day trip, we strongly recommend spending a couple of days exploring this area.
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Getting to the East Macs
The East MacDonnell Ranges are located east of Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory. Both Virgin and QantasLink fly into Alice, from most Australian state capital cities. The road to Trephina Gorge is sealed almost all the way, apart from the last couple of kilometres to the campsite. You can hire a vehicle from the airport. Click HERE to check availability and pricing.
Do you need a 4×4 to visit the East MacDonnell Ranges?
While its an easy drive to Trephina Gorge in any 2wd vehicle, if you wish to head further east, a high clearance 4×4 is recommended. There are several creek crossings, which may be dry, but still rocky.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit anywhere in Central Australia is during the cooler winter months of May to September. The days will be warm but not too hot. Good for hiking!
We visited in June – July 2022 and it was actually quite chilly and we had a few nights below zero. We also visited in March 2023, and it was very hot during the day. I would think May would be the perfect time.
Where to stay in the East MacDonnell Ranges
Many people choose to stay in Alice Springs and make a day trip out to the East Macs. However, if you’re on a camping road trip, the campsites in the East Macs are beautiful and peaceful. We stayed a couple of nights in the Trephina Gorge Campsite. You will need to book online before you go, as there’s no phone or internet reception here. You can book at NT Parks website.
There are three separate campsites at Trephina Gorge: Trephina Bluff, Trephina Panorama and Trephina Gorge. All have basic facilities only – drop toilets and fireplaces. There was a volunteer camp host in residence when we stayed at the Trephina Gorge campsite. This is the closest campsite to the walking trails.
There is also a range of accommodation available at Ross River Resort, a further 10 minutes or so down the road. You’ll find powered and unpowered sites, a basic bunk house, and cabin accommodation with ensuite here. They also have a roadhouse with meals and fuel.
What to Pack
Central Australia is very relaxed, you won’t need your fancy clothes! Loose, comfortable clothing that you can layer will be your best bet. If you’re hiking, bring sturdy hiking shoes, as the surface can be very uneven in places. Bring a daypack with a water bladder, as it’s very dry here, even in the cooler winter months.
We both found our skin (and particularly our lips) became very dry in the desert environment. We found this both in the summer and the cooler winter months, so having lip balm was a god send.
Don’t forget your Travel Insurance – click HERE to get a quote for your trip.
Things to do in the East MacDonnell Ranges
Heading east from Alice Springs it is about an hour’s drive to Trephina Gorge. However, don’t rush! There are some great spots to see along the way, and if you have a 4×4, even more if you head further afield.
Emily Gap and Jessie Gap
Located on the left hand side as you’re driving out to Trephina Gorge, these gaps are significant to the indigenous Arrente people. There is some rock art to see at both sites, however, the Arrente ask that you don’t photograph it. There are small car-parks at both gaps, and they are worth a quick stop off.
This 800 million year old dolomite rock is very significant to the Arrente people and is a meeting site for men of the region. The rock itself is an imposing structure, dominating the landscape.
There is a walking trail around the rock, which gives you a great perspective. The walk takes around 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how often you stop for photos. We were fascinated by the geology here – you can even see holes going through the rock!
Trephina Gorge Nature Park
Trephina Gorge is the jewel in the East MacDonnell Ranges crown. Incredible hiking, peaceful bush camping, and aboriginal rock art make this area a nature lovers paradise.
Trephina Gorge was formed by the Trephina Creek. This creek is often dry, forming a sandy riverbed at the base of the gorge. The best way to experience Trephina Gorge is by the walks and there is a walk for everyone.
Trephina Gorge Walks
The Trephina Gorge Stroll is a 500m walk along the base of the gorge. It is an out and back walk. Depending on recent rains, you may find a waterhole, but there was no water when we visited in June 2022. While this is a flat walk, you will be walking along a sandy river bed, so it’s not really accessible for prams or wheelchairs.
As you walk into the gorge, keep an eye on on the left hand side for the indigenous rock art on the walls of the gorge.
The Trephina Gorge Walk is a 2km loop up the western side of the gorge. The walk begins with a steep climb along the edge of the gorge and up to a beautiful lookout down the gorge. Then you will head down into the gorge and walk back along the riverbank (rejoining the Gorge Stroll)
The Panorama Walk is a 2.5km loop that takes you up and around the eastern side of the gorge. Follow the red arrows and cross the riverbed. The walk then heads up the side of the gorge, following the cliff edges. It’s a bit steep and exposed in places but the views from the top are well worth it.
Ridge Top Walk
This is the longest walk in the area at 9km one way. The Ridge Top Walk links up the Trephina Gorge with the John Hayes Rockhole. However, you may choose to do as we did, and simply walk the out-and-back Ridge Top trail to Turner’s lookout, which is around 12.5km. This walk took us 3.5 hours (plus time for photos, snacks, rests etc).
Heading up the steep western side of the gorge (same path as the Trephina Gorge Walk) near the top you’ll follow blue arrows to the left, and continue walking uphill until the top of the ridgeline. What we loved most about this walk is how remote it is. From Turner’s lookout there are no signs of human habitation, as far as the eye can see. The views were just incredible.
You can continue walking to John Hayes Rockhole from here, but you’ll either need a second car to do a car shuffle, or to walk an additional couple of hours back to the Trephina Gorge Campsite.
Chain of Ponds hike
This 3.5km loop hike leaves from the John Hayes Rockhole carpark which is 4km off the main road into Trephina Gorge. You will require a 4×4 to get to this carpark, and the last few hundred metres are particularly bumpy. We chose to leave the van at the campsite and rode our Mountain Bikes to John Hayes.
We recommend you do this loop hike in an anti-clockwise direction. Doing so, you will begin with a short steep hike up to a lookout, then walk along the ridge before heading back down into the gorge.
We thought this was the best hike in the East MacDonnell Ranges. The red rock gorge was stunning, and the hike was challenging enough to be really exciting. Once the ponds started to appear it was even more epic! A couple of times we lost the trail, but soon found the arrow markers again and got back on track.
If you’re travelling in a 4×4 we highly recommend the trip out to N’Dhala Gorge. You’ll pass the Ross River Resort, and then head onto a dirt road or another 20km or so. This road is quite rough and there are a few sandy river crossings.
If you feel like camping at N’Dhala Gorge, there is a small campground at the carpark. The only facility here is a drop toilet. Make sure you book before you head out as there is no internet or phone reception at N’Dhala Gorge.
At N’Dhala Gorge you’ll find an amazing outdoor gallery with thousands of ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings). Some of the carvings were scratched into the rock, others were “pecked”.
There is a walking trail for around 1.5km from the carpark. You will come across a sign saying “End of Marked Trail” however, the trail does continue, and there are even more petroglyphs to be found. What we really loved about this area, is there were very few signs pointing out the artwork – it was like a treasure hunt trying to find them!
If you have a 4×4 and plenty of time, you may like to head further afield and visit Artlunga Historical Reserve, the site of Central Australia’s first town. Prospectors rushed here in the 1880s with the promise of gold. You’ll find historic buildings and remains of the town at Artlunga.
Further on you’ll find the Ruby Gap Nature Park, where “rubies” were found in the river. These were later discovered to be simply garnets. There is a campground and walking trails here.
Watch our East MacDonnell Ranges Video
Click HERE to watch our East Macs travel vlog from our visit in June/July 2022.
Essential Information for East MacDonnell Ranges
Driving in the East MacDonnell Ranges
The distance from Alice Springs to the Trephina Gorge is less than 100km, and the road is sealed most of the way. The last couple of km to the gorge itself and the campsite is along a gravel road. This road was a little corrugated when we went, however, we saw other campers in regular 2wd sedans.
The sealed road continues to Ross River Resort, but beyond it’s only recommended for high-clearance 4×4 vehicles. We can attest that the road to N’Dhala Gorge was definitely rough in places.
There is untreated water available at the Trephina Gorge campsite – its recommended to boil before using for drinking.
Phone and Internet Coverage
There is no phone or internet coverage in the East MacDonnell Ranges, other than at the Ross River Resort (Optus only). The Resort also has roaming wi-fi for guests.
We did get some (Telstra) signal at Turner’s Lookout on the Ridge Top Walk, but that’s a long way to walk to check your Instagram!
Do you need a 4×4 to visit the East MacDonnell Ranges?
The road from Alice Springs through the East Macs to Ross River Resort is sealed. The 5km access road to Trephina Gorge is gravel, but accessible to 2wd vehicles.
A 4×4 is recommended for visiting John Hayes Rockhole, and destinations further afield than Ross River Resort (N’Dhala Gorge, Artlunga and Ruby Gorge)
Do you need a permit to visit the East MacDonnell Ranges?
Yes. From 3 April 2023, a valid NT Parks Permit is required to visit the East Macs (Trephina Gorge Nature Park and N’Dhala Nature Park). The pass is $10 per day or $60 for an annual pass (price is for one adult). There are also concession and family passes available. You can buy your pass online at the NT Parks Booking website
How many days do you need in the East Macs?
We initially went to the East Macs for 2 nights, and extended our stay for another three! It’s such a beautiful area, the walks are excellent and the campsite is so peaceful. If you have plenty of time, we recommend spending 3 days at Trephina Gorge, and longer if you have a 4×4 to visit N’Dhala Gorge and the places further afield.
Where to next?
If you’re looking for more gorges, gaps and waterholes where you can swim, check out the West MacDonnell Ranges.
If you’re looking for another hidden gem, and have a 4×4, then check out the Finke Gorge and Palm Valley