West MacDonnell Ranges

There is heaps to do in West MacDonnell Ranges.

Right in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre, West MacDonnell National Park is a beautiful place with its red cliffs, gorges and desert plants and animals.

Most people head to Uluru and Kata Tjuta and never get time to turn in here – which is only good if you want to do some bush camping with no crowds or fancy resorts and restaurants.
Car Driving Along Road Leading to Macdonnell Ranges in Background
Poster by AllPosters. Click on thumbnail to buy.

Handy ways to vist West MacDonnells




Geology of
West MacDonnell Ranges
The national park covers 39,300 sq km 160km west of Alice Springs. The ranges were lifted some 350-300 million years ago in an event that occurred between two geological provinces: the northern granites and metamorphic rocks; and the southern sandstone and folded quartzite zones. The extensive folding and faulting have formed some spectacular deep gaps and gorges, and built Northern Territory’s highest mountains Mt Sonder, Mt Zeil and Mt Leibig.

Male Scaling Cliffs Above River in the Macdonnell Ranges
Poster by AllPosters. Click on thumbnail to buy.

Climate and Vegetation
While a lot of the Red Centre is covered by very dry areas, West MacDonnell Ranges have a bit moister climate, which also means a bit more variation in plant life. Callistemons, gum trees, figs and cycads grow in its deep gaps and gorges, which often have permanent water. Spinifex grasses, acacias and mulga grow in the drier areas.

Dirt Road Through Mcdonnell Ranges West Macdonnell National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
Poster by AllPosters. Click on thumbnail to buy.

Australia Animals and Birds
Animals include euros and black-footed rock wallabies, dingos, and many nocturnal mammals such as dunnarts and native rats can be seen when spotlighting during the night. Birdlife is also abundant – over 200 species are known to inhabit the area, including budgerigars, western bowerbirds, painted finches, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos and the spectacular Spinifex pigeons. Nine species of frogs and about 100 species of reptiles are also found in the park.

Black-Footed Rock Wallaby (Petrogale Lateralis), Magnetic Island, Queensland, Australia
Poster by AllPosters. Click on thumbnail to buy.

Bushwalks and Scenic Drives
The West MacDonnell Ranges are popular with serious bushwalkers who hike the 223km Larapinta Trail as well as day-trippers from Alice Springs who come here to drive the scenic drives, swim, bicycle, picnic or barbeque, or do some bush camping.

larapinta trail
Larapinta Trail. by Tony Marsh via Flickr.com

Larapinta Trail
The long and popular bushwalking track Larapinta Trail starts from the historical Alice Springs Telegraph Station just north of Alice Springs. But most people are not up to such a long bushwalk so there is a sealed road parallel with the trail, where popular spots on the Larapinta Trail can be reached by car - which also gives an opportunity to hike only some parts of the Larapinta Trail. For keener walkers, there is the six day Larapinta walking tour.

larapinta drive
Larapinta Drive. by ed 37 ~~ via Flickr.com

Larapinta Drive
The first part of that sealed road is called Larapinta Drive, which starts west of Alice Springs. It first passes Mt Gillen and the Historical Reserve and the grave of John Flynn, the founder of Royal Flying Doctors’ Service; and later on your right hand side is the turnoff to Simpson’s Gap on the Larapinta Trail - a beautiful gorge where black-footed rock wallabies are often seen. As Simpson’s Gap is only 22km from Alice Springs, it is a popular spot for day-trippers. There is also a popular, 17km bicycle track from Alice Springs to Simpson’s Gap.

simpsons gap
Simpsons Gap. by Prince Roy via Flickr.com

Standley Chasm
Another 30-ish km west from here is one of the most amazing rock formations in the West MacDonnell Ranges - Standley Chasm with its 80m high rock walls around a narrow gap. There are toilets, picnic tables and drinking water here; and a small kiosk where you can buy snacks and refreshments.

standley chasm
Standley Chasm. by Jon Wiley via Flickr.com

Ellery Creek Big Hole
Further west, the Larapinta Trail turns south-east to Palm Valley and Finke Gorge National Park, but if you want to continue discovering West Macdonnell Ranges by driving, turn right onto Namatjira Drive, where your first turnoff on your right hand side (after quite a drive, 90-ish km from Alice Springs) is Ellery Creek Big Hole on the Larapinta Trail. Here you can have a cooling swim in a permanent waterhole with cool water. There is also a camping ground here, picnic tables, gas and wood barbeques, toilets and drinking water.

ellery creek
Ellery Creek Big Hole. by Hopkinsii via Flickr.com

Serpentine Gorge and Ormiston Gorge
Back on the Namatjira Drive, not far west from Ellery Creek is Serpentine Gorge with a camp site and wood barbeques, and further west are Ochre Pits - a source of paint for Aboriginal people. Another 25ish km west on the main road is Ormiston Gorge, one of the most beautiful gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges and one of the best places to see wildlife such as black-footed rock wallabies. There is a nice swimming hole, a ranger station, caravan and camping sites, picnic tables and toilets; and a few short walking tracks around the gorge. There are also gas barbeques and you can buy refreshments from a kiosk.

ormiston gorge
Ormiston Gorge. by Mark Wassell via Flickr.com

Glen Helen
Another short drive along the main drive is Glen Helen where there is a fuel station, accommodation and meals (even a bar and live music some nights of the week) in Glen Helen Resort, and north-west of it is the Glen Helen Gorge which gets beautifully red in sunsets. There is a 4WD camping site here; and right next door is Mt Sonder Lookout with some great views over the red landscape.

glen helen
Glen Helen. by Antoine 49 via Flickr.com

Guided Walks and Tours
There are many ranger-guided activities in the park, such as guided walks, helicopter flights, and half day and four-day organised tours from Alice Springs.

macdonnell ranges australia
Walkers. by Tony Marsh via Flicker.com

Here's a map of the West MacDonnell Ranges, where I have tagged the places that I mentioned on this web page. You can click on the tags to see what places they are, and double-click anywhere on the map to zoom it in and see the places closer. Drag the map to move around, and if you want to see the satellite image with Google Earth, click on "Sat" in the top right hand corner.

View Larger Map

Been to MacDonnell Ranges National Park?

Been to MacDonnell Ranges National Park?

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