The Ultimate West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary 2024

Are you planning a trip to Central Australia and looking for the ideal West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary? You’ve no doubt heard that the “West Macs” are a must-see destination in the Red Centre. Maybe you’re wondering how many days you need to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges? Can you do a day trip from Alice Springs to the West Macs?

We’ve visited Central Australia twice in the last year, on a multi-day road tip in our campervan, and also on a shorter fly/drive trip. We’ve done both the multi-day trip and a day trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges. In this post we will give you all the best info on where to stay, what to see, and things to do in the West MacDonnell Ranges.

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Red Centre Way

Getting to the West MacDonnell Ranges

IMPORTANT NOTE: As of April 1, 2023, visitors to National Parks in the Northern Territory require a Parks Pass. You can purchase this pass online HERE. (NT residents do not need a Parks Pass).

The West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja National Park) stretch 150km to the west from Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Flights to Alice Springs depart from several Australian capital cities. You can check availability and best pricing HERE.

You’ll need a vehicle to visit the West Macs, unless you are planning on doing a guided DAY TOUR. If you are flying into Alice Springs, you can hire a car from the airport. Compare prices and book HERE.

From Alice Springs, simply head west along Larapinta Drive. After Standley Chasm, you will come to a fork in the road, take the right turn down Namatjira Drive. You’ll be driving on the Red Centre Way, and there are several photo opportunities under the Red Centre Way sign.

Alice Springs to West MacDonnell Ranges Map

Where to stay in the West MacDonnell Ranges

A visit to the West Macs is one of the best day trips from Alice Springs. However, if you have the time, its definitely worth spending a couple of days out here.

The Glen Helen Resort is the only commercial accommodation in the West MacDonnell Ranges. The resort has a range of accommodation options, from tent sites, powered caravan sites and cabins. *Please note, due to concerns with water supply, Glen Helen Resort is not currently taking bookings (as at August 2023).

If you’re set up for camping in the West MacDonnell ranges, you’ll find several campsites within the national park.

  • Ellery Creek Big Hole Camping – 2wd access
  • Ormiston Gorge Camping – 2wd access – no bookings, pay at the kiosk, first in first served.
  • Redbank Gorge Camping – 4wd access
  • Finke River Two Mile bush campground
  • Serpentine Chalet bush campground
  • Hugh River bush campground

You can book these campsites via the NT Parks Booking service online.

There is a private campground at Standley Chasm which is operated by the aboriginal community, book and pay at the kiosk.

If you’re looking for free camping in the West MacDonnell Ranges there are two official sites – Point Howard and Neil Hargrave Lookout. There are no facilities at these free camps and you may stay for 24 hours max.

West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary

This West MacDonnell Ranges Road Trip Itinerary covers Alice Springs to the Redbank Gorge and back to Alice along the same road. There are options to either come back via Hermannsburg/Palm Valley or continue on to Kings Canyon along the Mereenie Loop if you have a 4×4 vehicle.

This itinerary is perfect if you are camping, either in a tent or campervan/caravan. If you’re staying in hotel accommodation in Alice Springs, check out our one day West MacDonnell Ranges self drive itinerary.

Day One – Alice Springs to Ellery Creek Big Hole

Heading west from Alice Springs, you’ll pass the Aureleun Arts Centre and then the John Flynn memorial. John Flynn was the founder of the Royal Flying Doctors Service. The original stone on this memorial was one of the Devils’ Marbles and was taken without permission of the traditional owners. After a period of negotiation lasting decades the stone was replaced with a local stone and the original marker was returned to Karlu Karlu (the Devil’s Marbles)

Simpsons Gap

Located just 17km from Alice Springs, Simpsons Gap is the first you will arrive at along the Red Centre Way. There is even a paved cycle path from Alice Springs if you’re feeling really energetic!

The indigenous Arrente people know Simpsons Gap as Rungutjirpa. They associate the area with several of their creation stories. As such, the permenant waterhole is sacred to them, and swimming is forbidden here.

If you’re very lucky, you will spot black-footed wallabies amongst the rocky cliffs here. We haven’t been so lucky either time we’ve visited!

Simpsons Gap, West MacDonnell Ranges

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye) is one of those places you’ve probably seen pictures of, and wondered if it could actually be that amazing. Yes. Yes it is! The rock walls of this chasm are 80m high in places, and at their narrowest, only 3m wide.

The walk to the chasm follows a small creek and there are several rare plants here, including the MacDonnell Ranges Cycad (Macrozamia macdonnellii) that have survived here for millenia.

Some say the best time to visit Standley Chasm is around midday when the sun is shining directly into the chasm. We visited both at midday and just before sunset and honestly, we preferred the chasm later in the day – probably because we had it to ourselves then.

Sadly, some people skip over Standley Chasm as there is now an entrance fee ($12). The area is owned and managed by the local community who are responsible for the upkeep of the walking trail and running the kiosk. The kiosk is not only a way for the community to earn a living, it is also an important training facility for younger community members.

In addition to the kiosk, there is a campground here which even has some powered sites. There are also toilets, showers and washing machines here. The sites are not bookable, and you pay at the kiosk. Fees are $18.50 pp for the first night (this includes the chasm entrance fee which is normally $12). Additional nights are $10. The bonus with camping at Standley Chasm is that you have access to the chasm after the kiosk has closed and the crowds have left.

Standley Chasm, west macdonnell ranges itinerary
Standley Chasm midday

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of the largest and most popular waterholes in the West Macs. But this area is so much more than just a swimming hole! You don’t need to be a geologist to be fascinated by the rock formations around here that have taken hundreds of millions of years to form.

One of our favourite things to do at Ellery Creek Big Hole is the 3km Dolomite Walk. The walk crosses the dry river bed, and leads up to view a rocky outcrop, and then back through the bush to another outcrop before rejoining the river. Nigel thought the second outcrop looked like Godzilla!

Ellery Creek Big Hole, Dolomite Walk, West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary
ellery creek big hole, west macdonnell ranges itinerary

There is a campsite at Ellery Creek Big Hole, with unpowered sites, and toilets. You will need to book the campsite before you head out, as phone and internet reception is patchy at best in the West Macs.

You can also camp for up to 24 hours at Point Howard Lookout. This free campsite does not have any facilities, apart from a fresh water tank (boil before drinking). We stayed at this campsite and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.

Day Two – Ellery Creek Big Hole to Ormiston Gorge

Ochre Pits

The Ochre “Pits” is a large cliff area with swirls of coloured ochre, which has been mined by the indigenous Arrente people for hundreds of years. The white, yellow and red ochres have been used for ceremonial body painting as well as general paintings and even health uses.

This is a men’s site, although women are allowed to mine ochre here with special permission from the men. While the ochre may be mined by the traditional owners, they do ask that visitors don’t touch the cliffs or take any of the ochre away.

Serpentine Gorge

Serpentine Gorge may be one of the less-visited gorges in the West Macs, but it certainly isn’t any less spectacular, especially from the lookout above. There is a permenant waterhole at the base of the gorge, and a beautiful walking trail to a lookout at the top of the gorge.

We loved this short walk and the views from the top. Serpentine Gorge sees way fewer visitors than nearby Ormiston Gorge, so it’s a good place to go if you prefer solitude.

Ochre Pits, West Macdonnell ranges
serpentine gorge, west macdonnell ranges
Serpentine Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges

Day Three – Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge is one of the most popular gorges in the West Macs. It is sometimes referred to as Central Australia’s “beach”. The sandy banks of the permenant waterhole here are very popular with day-trippers and campers alike.

You’ll want to spend a bit of time here, as there are some great walks and a lot to explore. We recommend spending two nights here at the campsite.

You can book the Ormiston Gorge Campsite in person at the kiosk, but be aware, bookings are on a first come, first served basis, and the campsite gets very busy in the peak season (June to September). We arrived at 11am and snagged one of the last sites.

If you’re camping at Ormiston Gorge, you will enjoy great facilities, including BBQs, toilets and warm showers! The closest free camp is the Neil Hargrave Lookout, around 20 minutes drive east. There are no facilities at this campsite.

Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges

There are a couple of great hikes at Ormiston Gorge, including the 9km epic Ormiston Pound Walk. If you do this hike, be aware that there is a water crossing near the end. Depending on the time of year the water can be VERY cold. This was probably our favourite of the West MacDonnell Ranges walks.

If you don’t have the time for this walk, we definitely recommend hiking up to the Ghost Gum Lookout for beautiful views up the gorge. This 1.6km walk goes up a series of steps before arriving at the lookout. You will feel like you’ve walked into an Albert Namatjira painting, with the lone ghost gum dominating the scene.

ormiston gorge, west macdonnell ranges itinerary

Day Four – Ormiston Gorge to Alice Springs via Redbank Gorge

After spending a full day at Ormiston Gorge return to Alice Springs. Before you go, there is one more gorge we recommend visiting:

Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge is one of the prettiest gorges we visited. The road in is a little rough, and at the time of writing is only open to high clearance 4×4 vehicles. You can check the Northern Territory website for up to date info, or ask other travellers!

The walk into the gorge is quite tricky though, as there are a lot of rocks you need to climb over. The views at the end are well worth it. You can also swim here – floatation devices are recommended

redbank gorge, west macdonnell ranges

One Day West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary

If you don’t have your own vehicle, or prefer a guided tour, Emu Run operates a day tour of the West MacDonnell Ranges from Alice Springs. .

It is possible to see the West MacDonnell ranges in a day. Be prepared to leave Alice Springs early, and make sure you have plenty of drinking water and food, and that your car’s fuel tank is full.

We would recommend visiting Simpson’s Gap early in the morning (which will also mean you have the best chance to see the black-footed rock wallabies), then head to Standley Chasm for morning tea.

Have lunch and a swim at Ellery Creek Big Hole before heading to Ormiston Gorge. Do the hike up to the Ghost Gum lookout before having another swim and relaxing at “Central Australia’s Beach” before heading back to Alice.

If you have time, you may like to drop in to the Ochre Pits on the way back to Alice Springs.

Watch our West MacDonnell Ranges travel film

Click HERE to watch our West MacDonnell Ranges video on YouTube:

Essential Information for the West MacDonnell Ranges

IMPORTANT NOTE: As of April 1, 2023, visitors to National Parks in the Northern Territory require a Parks Pass. You can purchase this pass online HERE. (NT residents do not need a Parks Pass).

Driving in the West MacDonnell Ranges

You shouldn’t have any problems driving in the West MacDonnell ranges. The roads to all the main attractions are sealed. The only gorge where a 4×4 is recommended is Redbank Gorge.

Do make sure your car’s fuel tank is full before you leave Alice Springs. The only place to get fuel in the West Macs is at Glen Helen Resort (and the prices are usually quite a bit higher there)

Food and Water

Visitors to the West MacDonnell Ranges are requested to bring their own drinking water. You will find water tanks at various places within the park, including some of the campgrounds, but this water should be boiled before use.

Therre are basic cafe’s at Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge, and a restaurant at the Glen Helen Resort. We took our own food and prepared meals in our campervan, although we did enjoy the famous scones at Ormiston Gorge cafe.

Phone and Internet coverage

Phone and internet coverage in the West MacDonnell Ranges is patchy at best. There are a couple of Telstra “boosters” in carparks by the waterholes, but we didn’t find them strong enough for much more than a text message.

We’ve read recent reviews of Glen Helen Resort on WikiCamps saying their wifi is not reliable at all either.

FAQs

Do you need a 4WD for West MacDonnell Ranges?

The short answer is no. The roads are sealed to almost all of the gorges, the only exception being Redbank Gorge. We didn’t put our vehicle into 4×4 mode at all.

If you’re planning to continue to Kings Canyon via the Mereenie Loop, you will need a 4×4 to drive this section of road. You might also like to visit Palm Valley and Hermannsburg before heading down the Mereenie Loop road.

Do you need a permit for West MacDonnell Ranges?

Yes. From 3 April 2023, a valid NT Parks Permit is required to visit the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja National 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 for the West Macs?

While many people take a day trip to the West Macs, we do recommend spending a few more days there. We recommend a 3-4 day West MacDonnell Ranges Itinerary to really see all the sights and be able to do some of the walks.

Where to Next?

If you’re looking for somewhere quieter than the West Macs, the East MacDonnell Ranges is just as spectacular, but with way fewer visitors.

If you have a 4×4, consider driving the Meerinie Loop to Kings Canyon

Any Questions?

Simply leave us a comment below and we will get right back to you.

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