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 part of Central Australia – West MacDonnell Ranges, which we visited as part of our 5-week Australian trip with kids. West MacDonnell mountain ranges was just a part of our trip to the Red Centre. Here you can find our complete Red Centre road trip itinerary.
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!
It’s a pretty big area with lots to see and some gorges are very easily accessible. We were traveling with young kids (twins of 3 and a 5-year-old, at that time) and only had one day to explore the area. You cannot possibly see everything in just a day with such young kids, so we concentrated on the most beautiful gorges: 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.
TIP: You can also visit West MacDonnell mountain ranges with an organised tour from Alice Springs.
The most beautiful gorges of West MacDonnell National Park
Our first stop is at Simpsons Gap, just half an hour drive from Alice Springs. It’s still early in the morning and there is just one other car there when we arrive. We make a nice short walk to the gorge between the mountains and to the waterhole. It’s already 32°C and we are glad the walk is short and flat. Kids are running around, jumping over the rocks and looking for wildlife. Don’t know if it’s the heat or the noise the kids make, but all the animals seem to be hiding. We see just one rock-wallaby in the distance and that’s the only wildlife we will get to see today.
Our next stop is 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 – 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. You can hike to Standley Chasm with young kids – all three 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. You should wear closed shoes as terrain is pretty rough – lots of loose stones, etc.
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. Mango swirl aboriginal style in the middle of outback Australia – incredible!
Our last stop for today is Ormiston Gorge. This is the busiest place we visit today – there are lots of facilities and even a paved path all the way to the gorge. We can even use a stroller for the little ones!
There is a big waterhole and quite some people are 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…
We all go for a short swim. The boys just cannot get enough and keep on going back in the water. It’s better than any swimming pool! What a view! And in case you wonder, there are no crocodiles here and it’s perfectly safe to swim. I wouldn’t go jumping off the rocks as some local teenagers were doing though… Maybe I’m getting old…
We take a short walk further down the gorge and the views are simply amazing! It’s hot and the kids are tired and we decide not to do any more hikes with them today. We head to our hotel at Glen Helen.
Glen Helen Gorge and Glen Helen Homestead Lodge
The Glen Helen Homestead Lodge and camping is located in a very picturesque setting, but the hotel itself is rather basic. There is no other 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 husband decides to stay by the pool with the kids, but I’m still fit and decide to take a short walk (10-15 minutes) to the Glen Helen Gorge. It’s beautiful and very tranquil here. I’m glad I made the effort.
Tomorrow we will be driving through the real outback so we fill up the car. Petrol prices are some 30% higher here than in Alice Springs and about double of Sydney prices. We know we are in the middle of nowhere.
Before we leave the West MacDonnell Ranges, we decide to visit one more gorge – the Redbank Gorge. We head there first thing in the morning, before it gets too warm.
The walk is supposedly an easy family 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 are the only ones here and are somewhat worried about getting lost in the desert in the heat. It’s terribly hot with temperatures over 36°C in the morning already. At the end, we give up looking for a marked path and just follow the dry river bed towards the gorge.
The kids are doing their best and are determined to reach the gorge, but after more than half an hour walking, we decide to turn around. It’s a really tiring walk for the little kids and the heat is unbearable!
My husband goes back to the car with the kids and I continue to the gorge (he knows me by now and accepts that I am nuts sometimes). It takes me another 10 minutes, and I walk fast. It’s nice to see, but I find that the walk to get there is just not worth it. I would definitely recommend visiting the Redbank gorge on a colder day, but 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.
What else to see and do in West MacDonnell National Park
Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits
The following gorges are also worth a visit: Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits, but we didn’t get to them.
When traveling with children we always choose to see more at fewer places rather than to see everything. But if you are traveling without kids or are visiting in the colder season, you can probably 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 the area. 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.
It’s located a bit out of the way, 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 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
Alice Springs – Simpsons Gap (easy to reach, nice place for families) – Standley Chasm (the sun-lit rocks at noon)- Ellery Creek Big Hole (best swimming) – Serpentine Gorge (climb for the views) – Ochre Pits (sacred aboriginal site) – Ormiston Gorge (most picturesque gorge, good swimming) – Glen Helen Gorge (beautiful at sunset, walking distance from hotel or camping) – Redbank Gorge (the most secluded gorge, more difficult to reach).
Practical information for West MacDonnell Mountain 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. The 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 take 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 in Alice Springs
There are many options when it comes to accommodation in Alice Springs. We stayed at Alice on Todd Apartments – a great choice for families with children. We stayed at this hotel twice – in the beginning of our Australia’s Red Centre adventure and at the end before flying out. Coming back after a week in the desert felt like coming home.
Where to Stay in Glen Helen
In Glen Helen you have too options – Glen Helen Homestead or camping. If you are planning to stay at the hotel, you should reserve well in advance as there is really no alternative.
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!
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