West MacDonnell National Park

Glen Helen Gorge, West MacDonnell National Park, Steve Strike / Tourism NT
Barbecue Bike riding Disabled Drinking water Swimming Toilets Wildflowers Aboriginal site Accommodation Camping area Information Lookout Picnic area Ranger Walking

Introduction

The weathered MacDonnell Ranges rise abruptly from the flat terrain of central Australia, an ancient landscape of parallel ridges sculpted by the elements over millions of years. In one of the oldest and driest regions of the world, hidden gorges and waterholes in West MacDonnell National Park provide a refuge for plants and wildlife, while the range tops are cloaked in spinifex and hardy drought-tolerant shrubs.

Fact file

Access

From Alice Springs via Larapinta and Namatjira drives; from Kings Canyon and Yulara via Mereenie Loop Rd

Best season

May to September

Location

Stretches 170 km west from Alice Springs

Park information

  • PWCNT Alice Springs (08) 8951 8250
  • PWCNT Ormiston Gorge (08) 8956 7799
  •  

Permits

Permit required for Mereenie Loop Rd, which passes through Aboriginal land; available from Alice Springs Visitor Centre (08) 8952 5800 or Kings Canyon Resort (08) 8956 7442; permit required at some campsites

Size

206 110 ha

Visitor information

Alice Springs (08) 8952 5800

Glen Helen Resort (08) 8956 7489  

Featured Activities in the National Park

  • Cycle to Simpsons Gap with the family

    Walk around Ormiston Gorge and Pound

    Paddle down Redbank Gorge on an air mattress

    Watch the sun set over Mount Sonder from Glen Helen

    Hike a section of the Larapinta Trail and enjoy the views from the top of the range

See Also

A look at the past

John McDouall Stuart named the MacDonnell Ranges in 1860. The mineral-rich region with sweeping plains of native grasses soon attracted miners, pastoralists and, later, missionaries. Alice Springs waterhole, initially the site of an Overland Telegraph station in the early 1870s, was the catalyst for founding the town of Alice Springs nearby.

Aboriginal culture

The Arrernte people have lived in this area for more than 30 000 years and the MacDonnell Ranges play a major role in their mythology. The desert people lived well here, constantly walking the country to gather food from underground larders, picking fruit and seeds and hunting animals and birds. Over generations they accumulated knowledge about plants and animals and where to find water. Conflict arose when Europeans arrived and vied for the best watering areas. Bloody battles ensued and during the dispossession that followed, many Aboriginal people were sheltered by missionaries and influenced by Christianity. Today there are important Dreaming trails and sacred sites in the ranges, still visited for ceremonial purposes.

Natural features

Some 850 million years ago central Australia was covered by an inland sea; around 600 million years ago giant earthquakes caused massive uplifting to form the chain of mountains now known as the MacDonnell Ranges. Steady erosion by wind and water has carved out spectacular gorges and canyons, some of which retain pools of water throughout the year. Steep-sided narrow chasms such as Redbank, Glen Helen, Ormiston and Serpentine gorges intersect the ‘west Macs’, as they are known locally. At 1380 metres, Mount Sonder is a landmark of the park and the fourth highest peak in the Northern Territory. The 1531-metre Mount Zeil in the extreme north-west of the park is the highest peak in the ranges.

Native plants

Eucalypt and acacia trees dominate the lower terrain of the park while mallee, mulga and spinifex grasses cling to the dry rugged hills. The range is a refuge for rare and threatened plants and up to 40 species can be traced back to times when central Australia was wetter and covered in lush rainforest. These ancient species include the MacDonnell Ranges cycad (Macrozamia macdonellii) – found at Simpsons Gap, on the cliffs around Ellery Creek Big Hole and in the north of the park – maiden hair fern, skeleton fork fern and mountain hakea. Some common trees include the desert she-oak, river red gum, corkwood and coolibah. Here, too, is the beautiful smooth white-barked ghost gum (Corymbia aparrerinja), which appears often in Aboriginal mythology and was made famous in the paintings of Albert Namatjira. After heavy rains the desert comes alive with wildflowers including Sturt’s desert pea, the desert rose, native hops and daisies.

Wildlife

With Europeans came a variety of feral animals, including cats, foxes, rabbits, horses, donkeys and camels, which either preyed on small mammals in central Australia or severely degraded their habitats. Twelve mammal species have disappeared from the region since European contact and others, such as the bilby, rufous hare-wallaby, mulgara and black-footed rock-wallaby are endangered. The latter has dramatically declined since the 1930s; it has vanished completely from Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park.

Red kangaroos, other rock-wallaby species, goannas and a variety of other reptiles are still common in the west MacDonnells and the park has more than 160 bird species. Emus, spinifex pigeons, painted finches, western bowerbirds and dusky grasswrens are common, while at places like Ellery Creek Big Hole, river red gums are home to western ringnecks and pied butcherbirds. Zebra finches, honeyeaters and pigeons drink from the rock pools alongside waterbirds such as grebes, darters and white-faced herons.

Introduction

Walking, cycling and 2WD touring are good ways to become acquainted with the park while an aerial view from a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter is stunning. Swimming is possible at many waterholes but the water can be extremely cold.

Bushwalking

Walks are numerous and the descriptions here are a brief guide only to what is available in various sections of the park.

Simpsons Gap

This part of the park, 18 kilometres from Alice Springs, is open daily between 5am and 8pm. There are several well-marked trails including Ghost Gum walk (15 minutes return), a short trail that starts at the visitor centre and takes in the vegetation of the area. Cassia Hill walk (1.5 km, 1 hour return) leads through clumps of witchetty bush and mulga and rewards with views over Simpsons Gap and the surrounding country. Woodland Trail (17 km return) passes through woodlands of mulga and leads to Bond Gap, a narrow chasm with an ice-cold pool. This part of the national park can be busy during the peak season, but the gap has a permanent waterhole and there is the opportunity to see the black-footed rock-wallabies that live in the boulder-strewn gorge. There is a small campsite but it is only for those walking the Larapinta Trail.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

There are easy walks around this large waterhole, 92 kilometres from Alice Springs. It is a beautiful place to swim, picnic and to view the birdlife. If you want to swim across to the small sandy ‘beach’, take an inflatable li-lo for safety, and so that you can float back on the still, deep water, marvelling at the blueness of the sky. The Aboriginal name for the site is Udepata and permanent water made it an important meeting place for the Arrernte people.

Serpentine Gorge

A walking track from the carpark takes about 25 minutes to reach this desert oasis with its icy-cold waterhole. The water attracts birdlife, including tiny fairy martins, and insects such as dragonflies skim across the water’s surface. The narrow gorge extends for about another 2 kilometres and there is an easy, well-marked trail that leads to a lookout. There are special Arrernte ceremonial places on the western cliffs and in the gorge itself.

Ochre Pits

For thousands of years, Aboriginal people gathered red and white ochre from the banks of a sandy creek at this site, 110 kilometres west of Alice Springs. The ochre was used for medicinal and cultural purposes.

Ormiston Gorge and Pound

Located 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs, Ormiston Gorge and Pound is a popular destination with a near-permanent waterhole; the pool is around 15 metres deep at its southern end and framed by sheer 300-metre-high cliffs. The Pound is a huge rock-walled amphitheatre almost 10 kilometres across. There are a number of walks including Waterhole Walk (500 metres, 5 minutes one way), a short stroll from the carpark around the waterhole; Ghost Gum Lookout walk (20 minutes one way); and Ormiston Pound walk (7-km circuit, 3–4 hours), which winds around the slopes of the gorge, descending to the floor of the pound and returning along the gorge past the waterhole. The long-tailed dunnart and central rock-rat were rediscovered here in 1996.

Redbank Gorge

Located 165 kilometres west of Alice Springs, the Gorge walk (2-km, 1.5 hours return) is a short hike up a stony creek bed from the carpark to the gorge, which is little more than a small slit between two towering quartzite walls. During dry periods a path of fine sand marks the bottom of the gorge and it is easy to walk through but at other times a deep pool of icy water greets visitors. It is advisable to swim in wet suits or to take an air mattress to navigate the waters. Redbank Gorge marks the beginning of a marked trail to Mount Sonder (16 km return, 6–7 hours), which lies to the east.

Larapinta Trail is an award-winning walking trail (223 km, several weeks) considered one of the best in the world. It runs along the backbone of the west MacDonnells, from the old Telegraph Station just north of Alice Springs to Mount Sonder, in the north-west of the park, and is divided into 12 sections. People with basic bushwalking experience can easily traverse section one from Alice Springs to Simpsons Gap but some other sections are more difficult. It is recommended that walkers register with the Overnight Walker Registration Scheme (1300 650 730). For further details contact PWCNT (08) 8951 8211 or visit the website (www.larapintatrail.com.au).

Cycling

A sealed bicycle path leads off Larapinta Drive, opposite John Flynn’s Grave, 7 kilometres from Alice Springs. The path, stretching some 17 kilometres to Simpsons Gap, is even and well formed, suitable for the whole family, and winds through desert habitats that contain river red gums, witchetty bush and mulga.

Scenic touring

Drive west from Alice Springs along Larapinta Drive, past Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm and turn right onto Namatjira Drive. Named after the renowned Aboriginal artist, the road winds through spectacular scenery with rolling escarpments and layered sandstone walls, reminiscent of many of the painter’s works.

Campsites

Arenge Bluff camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this basic site overlooking Arenge Bluff is 10 km west of Simpsons Gap. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Birthday Waterhole camping area

A high-clearance 4WD is required to access the trailhead. This site is on the Larapinta Trail 18 km west of Standley Chasm. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Brinkley Bluff camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this bush camp with no facilities is 10 km west of Standley Chasm. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Bush camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this basic camping area is between Ellery Creek and Rocky Gully. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Ellery Creek Big Hole camping area

This campsite is on the Larapinta Trail. It is also popular with those not hiking and is accessible with conventional 2WD vehicles. It is a short walk from a permanent waterhole surrounded by river red gums. There... Find out more


Finke River camping area (walk-in camping)

This trailhead for the Larapinta Trail has no vehicle access. It’s 4WD to Finke River Two Mile camping and then a walk. The camping area has water and toilets, but you need to bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Finke River Two Mile camping area

On the Larapinta Trail, this very basic site has no facilities and vehicle access is 4WD only. It is reached north of Namatjira Dr between the Glen Helen Resort access and the Finke River crossing. After heavier rains... Find out more


Fringe Lily Creek camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this basic campsite is between Windy Saddle and Rocky Saddle, and is 5.1 km from Hugh Gorge. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Ghost Gum Flat camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this camping area is 7 km from Hugh Gorge. There are no facilities and you must bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Hilltop Lookout camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this bush campsite has no facilities but a great lookout. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Hugh Gorge camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, high-clearance 4WD vehicles can gain access to the carpark here, which is 15 km west of Birthday Waterhole. There is drinking water but no other facilities. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Hugh Gorge Junction camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this basic campsite is 3.5 km from Hugh Gorge. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Jay Creek camping area (walk-in camping)

This is a section trailhead on the Larapinta Trail, and 4WDs can reach to within 1 km of it. There are gas BBQs, toilets and drinking water.... Find out more


Millers Flat camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this site is 9 km west of Jay Creek. It has no facilities and you need to bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Mulga Camp camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, Mulga Camp is 13 km west of Simpsons Gap. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Ormiston Gorge camping area

On the Larapinta Trail, this popular campsite can be reached by conventional 2WD vehicles and has good facilities. The site is 7 km off Namatjira Dr, 128 km west of Alice Springs. A number of walking trails start and... Find out more


Redbank Gorge camping area (bush camping)

This bush camping area is for walkers on the Larapinta Trail only. There are no facilities: bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Redbank Gorge – Ridgetop camping area

This campground is on the Larapinta Trail, 3.5 km north of Namatjira Dr, 152 km west of Alice Springs. Vehicles can access this site but 4WD is recommended. Bring drinking water. Note: no generators are allowed. This... Find out more


Redbank Gorge – Woodland camping area

On the Larapinta Trail, this camping area has large sites amongst mulga shrubs. There are facilities including a free gas BBQ. It is the trailhead for Section 11. Bring drinking water.... Find out more


Rocky Bar Gap camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this site is 15 km west of the Finke River trailhead and has no facilities except drinking water. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Rocky Gully camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, Rocky Gully, with toilets and water, is 15.3 km from Ellery Creek. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Section 4 & 5 Junction camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this bush camping area has no facilities. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove. It is between Birthday Waterhole and Mintbush Spring.... Find out more


Serpentine Chalet camping area

This 4WD-access camping area is off Namatjira Dr. No generators are allowed and you need to bring firewood, a gas/fuel stove and drinking water. Quiet and secluded, it has dispersed bush camping sites along the track to... Find out more


Serpentine Chalet Dam camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this bush campsite requires a 4WD to access the carpark. It is then a 750 m walk to the camping area. Bring a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Serpentine Gorge camping area (walk-in camping)

This trailhead is 14 km west of Ellery Creek Big Hole. The campsite is located about 500 m along the trail from the carpark to the gorge. The view from the lookout further along this trail is quite spectacular and... Find out more


Simpsons Gap camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this camping area is only available to walkers of the trail. ... Find out more


Stuarts Pass camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, this camping area 3 km from Brinkley Bluff has no facilities. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


Wallaby Gap camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, just 300 m from Wallaby Gap, this site is 13 km west of Alice Springs Telegraph Station.... Find out more


Waterfall Gorge camping area (walk-in camping)

On the Larapinta Trail, Waterfall Gorge has no facilities and is 1.6 km from the nearby lookout. Bring water and a gas/fuel stove.... Find out more


See Also

comments powered by Disqus