If you haven’t seen the Red Centre, you haven’t seen Australia! If you think that Central Australia is nothing but a red desert with the Ayer’s Rock (Uluru) right in the middle, you are only partially right. Today I want to show you the less-known region of the Red Centre of Australia – West MacDonnell Ranges, which we visited as part of our 5-week Australian trip with kids.
West MacDonnell mountain ranges is a stunning region that you really should include in your Red Centre itinerary. Sadly enough, most visitors to the region seem to head straight to the famous Uluru (Ayers Rock), without realising what they’re missing. I hope this post will inspire you to spend at least a day exploring the most beautiful parts of West MacDonnell National Park.
The West MacDonnell mountain ranges are simply gorgeous! There are many gorges, one more beautiful than the other; waterholes where you can swim (yes, swim in the desert!), hiking trails and a great variety of flora and fauna. It’s a real oasis in the desert!
West MacDonnell mountain ranges is pretty big area with lots to see and some gorges are really easily accessible. However, we were traveling in Australia with young kids (twins of 3 and a 5-year-old, at that time) and only had one day in West MacDonnell NP. You cannot possibly see everything in just a day, especially if you are visiting in the summer season as we did (we travelled in November)… We therefore did a lot of research before our trip, to make sure we wouldn’t miss the most beautiful places of West MacDonnell ranges.
We decided to concentrate on the most beautiful gorges of West MacDonnell Ranges: Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge. If possible, we would try to go to the Glen Helen Gorge and the Redbank Gorge as well. Here is what our West MacDonnell road trip itinerary looked like. Find out!
TIP: This is a self-drive West MacDonnell itinerary. If you don’t have a car, it is possible to book an organised West MacDonnell day tour from Alice Springs. It brings you to all the most beautiful gorges of West MacDonnell ranges mentioned in this post.
Our first stop was at Simpsons Gap, just half an hour drive from Alice Springs. It was still early in the morning and there was just one other car there when we arrived at the parking ares near Simpsons Gap.
We made a nice short walk to the gorge between the mountains and all the way to the waterhole. It was already 32°C and we are glad the walk was easy and took just a few minutes.
Kids didn’t seem to mind the heat. They were running around, jumping over the rocks and looking for wildlife. We saw just one rock-wallaby in the distance and that’s also the only wildlife we got to see in West MacDonnell NP.
Our next stop was the famous Standley Chasm. It is one of the most impressive places in the Central Australia and one you should definitely not miss.
You have to pay a small entrance fee in order to visit Standley Chasm. It’s aboriginal sacred land and there are many rules of dos and don’ts.
Standley Chasm is a very special place, indeed, with some 3000 year old trees and a fascinating landscape.
You have to hike a bit in order to get to the gorge. It’s a short walk, about half an hour return, but with young kids and high temperatures it took us a bit longer.
If you are wondering if you can hike to Standley Chasm with young kids, yes, it’s definitely possible. All three our boys could do this walk just fine. We had to carry the 3-year-olds for a short while on the way back, but the 5-year-old could do it all by himself. Just make sure you wear closed shoes as terrain is pretty rough with lots of loose stones.
We had read that the best time to visit the Standley Chasm is at around noon, when the sun lights up the gorge and colours it bright orange. So we got there before noon and stayed for a while in order to see this spectacle.
We found that the gorge was very impressive all the time we were there and we couldn’t tell much difference when the sun lit it completely, but it was definitely amazing! The kids found plenty to keep themselves busy with – they were playing with the stones and seemed to be oblivious to the beauty of the place.
Back from the walk, we had a picnic and and then bought some delicious local ice cream at the small café at the entrance of Standley Chasm. Mango swirl aboriginal style in the middle of outback Australia – incredible!
Our last planned stop for the day was Ormiston Gorge. This was also the busiest place we visited in West MacDonnell. There are lots of facilities here, a camping, and a paved path all the way to the gorge. We could even use a stroller for the little ones!
Ormiston Gorge has a big waterhole and quite some people were sunbathing and swimming here. When I say lots of people, I mean a lot for the area – some 20-30 people in total. The rest of the day we hardly saw anyone…
You really have to go swimming here – it’s a perfect place to relax after the whole day of sightseeing in the heat of Australian desert. We spent quite some time here. The boys just couldn’t get enough and kept on going back in the water. It’s better than any swimming pool! What a view!
In case you wonder, there are no crocodiles here and it’s perfectly safe to swim at Ormiston Gorge. I wouldn’t go jumping off the rocks as some local teenagers were doing though…
We also took a short walk further down the gorge and the views were simply amazing!
However, it was really hot by now and the kids were tired, so we decided not to do any more hiking with them today. We called it a day and head to our hotel at Glen Helen.
Glen Helen Gorge and Glen Helen Lodge
The Glen Helen Lodge and camping is located in a very picturesque setting, but the hotel itself is rather basic. However, there is no other accommodation option anywhere around, so you just have to take it the way it is. I have to add that the food was very good and the atmosphere was nice too!
My family decided to stay by the pool, but I was still fit and took a short walk (10-15 minutes) to the Glen Helen Gorge. It was so beautiful and very tranquil here, definitely worth the effort.
Next morning, before we left the West MacDonnell Ranges, we decided to visit one more place – the Redbank Gorge. We went there first thing in the morning, before it got too warm, but it was still a challenge.
The Redbank Gorge hike is supposedly an easy family-friendly walk of 20 minutes one way. It has to be a very fast family to do this walk in 20 minutes!
The track is very badly indicated and not really well maintained. We were the only ones here and were somewhat worried about getting lost in the desert in the heat. It was terribly hot with temperatures over 36°C in the morning already. At the end, we gave up looking for a marked path and just followed the dry river bed towards the gorge.
The kids were doing their best and were determined to reach the gorge, but after more than half an hour walking, we decided to turn around. It’s a really tiring walk for the little kids and the heat was getting unbearable!
My husband went back to the car with the kids and I continued to the gorge alone. It took me another 10 minutes to get there, and I walked really fast. The Redbank Gorge was nice to see, but I found that the walk to get there was just not worth it.
I would definitely recommend visiting the Redbank Gorge on a colder day; the day we visited it was simply a torture! If you go there, take a picnic and your swimming gear – it’s nice to be able to cool off after a walk in the desert.
Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits
The following gorges are also worth a visit if you have more time in the West MacDonnell Ranges: Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits.
The famous Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of Central Australia’s most pristine waterholes, another great place to go for a swim.
When traveling with children we always choose to see more at fewer places rather than try to see everything. But if you are traveling without kids or are visiting West MacDonnell Ranges in a colder season, you can definitely visit a couple of more gorges in one day. You might not have much time left to do all the hiking and swimming, but it’s definitely possible.
Palm Valley at Finke Gorge National Park
Palm Valley is another beautiful place and definitely worth a visit if you are in West MacDonnell NP. Please note that while all the previously mentioned places can easily be reached by a regular car, you definitely need a 4×4 vehicle and a good map of the area if you plan to drive to the Palm Valley.
Palm Valley is located quite a bit off the main road, between Glen Helen and the Kings Canyon. If you want to visit Palm Valley on your way from Glen Helen to Kings Canyon, you should count the whole (very long) day for it.
TIP: Palm Valley can also be visited with an organised 4WD day tour from Alice Springs. Due to its remote location, I would definitely recommend this option rather than driving there with your own vehicle, especially if you have no experience driving in the outback.
West MacDonnell Ranges itinerary and most beautiful gorges on the map
Below you can see our map, indicated each of the most beautiful gorged of West MacDonnell Ranges. Start your day in with a short walk at Simpsons Gap (easy to reach, nice place for families). Then head to Standley Chasm for the sun-lit rocks at noon.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is the best place for swimming. If you have the time, visit Serpentine Gorge where you can climb the hill for great views of the area. Ochre Pits is a sacred aboriginal site and also worth a short stop. Ormiston Gorge is probably the most picturesque gorge and also a great place to swim. Glen Helen Gorge is really beautiful at sunset, and is within a short walking distance from hotel or camping.
Redbank Gorge is the most secluded gorge, and more difficult to reach, so if you only have one day in West MacDonnell NP, I would skip this one.
Practical information for visiting West MacDonnell Mountain Ranges
Below you can find practical information and some tips for visiting West MacDonnell Ranges.
Accessibility and driving
As already said, the gorges of West MacDonnell Ranges are easily accessible and can be done as part of a road trip between Alice Springs and Glen Helen or even as a day trip from Alice Springs.
The road between Glen Helen and Alice Springs is sealed. Total distance, without the turn-offs to the gorges, is about 130 km (80 miles).
You need a 4×4 and a pass in order to drive the Mereenie Drive – the road between Glen Helen and Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon) – as it goes through aboriginal lands. This permit can be acquired at Glen Helen. I would strongly discourage anyone from driving this road in a regular car – we saw one and they were driving at 20-30 km/h. I still wonder whether they reached the sealed road by dark…
How much time do you need to visit the gorges of West MacDonnell Ranges
One full day is a minimum time you need to visit the West MacDonnell Mountain Ranges. I would have liked to stay a day longer! If you like hiking and want to explore the area more, you can easily spend a week in the area.
Facilities and practical advice
There is a petrol station at Glen Helen and you should definitely fill up the car before heading further towards the Kings Canyon.
Make sure you pack some food and lots of water with you before leaving Alice Springs or Glen Helen. You are in the Australian Outback, so travel well prepared.
Where to stay
If you are visiting West MacDonnell Ranges just for one day, you can stay in Alice Springs and make a day trip to the area. We stayed one night at Alice on Todd Apartments in Alice Springs and then the following night at the earlier mentioned Glen Helen Lodge. This is the only accommodation option in this area, so unless you are planning to camp, you really have to reserve long in advance.
If you are camping, you can also opt for one of the other campings in the area. Camping area at Ormiston Gorge looked pretty nice too, although I would go to Glen Helen for the views and for the restaurant. The food was absolutely delicious!
So, this was our experience visiting West MacDonnell Ranges in Australia’s Red Centre. Do you have any questions? Feel free to leave a reply below.
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