Day Trips from Alice Springs
The key attraction of a day trip to the MacDonnell Ranges is unspoiled natural scenery and few crowds. Many companies run coach or four-wheel-drive tours—half- or full-day, sometimes overnight—to the West and East Macs. Some options appear in “Organized Tours”in the “Alice Springs”section, earlier in this chapter.
The West MacDonnell Ranges
West MacDonnell National Park The 300 km (186-mile) round-trip drive west from Alice Springs into West MacDonnell National Park (www.nt.gov.au/westmacs) is a stark but picturesque expedition to a series of red gorges, semidesert country, and the occasional peaceful swimming hole. The 12-stage, 223 km (138-mile) Larapinta Walking Trail takes you along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges through some of the most unique and isolated country in the world. The hills, colors, birds, water holes, gorges, and the never-ending diversity of this trail will leave you spellbound by the beauty of Central Australia. The track stretches from the Telegraph Station in Alice Springs to Mount Sonder, past Glen Helen Gorge. Detailed track notes are on the website of the Parks & Wildlife Commission (www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/parks/walks/larapinta) and at the visitor information center in Alice Springs. Don’t attempt the walk in the height of summer unless you are very well prepared. For great tips, and other information, look up the Alice Wanderer website (www.alicewanderer.com.au).
From Alice, take Larapinta Drive west for 18 km (11 miles) to the 8 km (5-mile) turnoff to Simpson’s Gap, a water hole lined with ghost gums. Black-footed rock wallabies hop out on the cliffs in the late afternoon (so you may want to time a visit here on your way back to Alice). There are a couple of short trails here, including a .5 km (.3-mile) Ghost Gum circuit and a 17 km (11-mile) round-trip trail to Bond Gap. Swimming is not permitted. The place has an information center/ranger station and free use of barbecues.
Twenty-three kilometers (14 miles) farther down Larapinta Road, 9 km (5 1/2 miles) down a turnoff, is Standley Chasm ( tel. 08/8956 7440; www.standleychasm.com.au). This rock cleft is only a few meters wide but 80 m (262 ft.) high, reached by a 10-minute creek-side trail. Aim to be here at midday, when the walls glow orange in the overhead sun. A kiosk sells snacks and drinks. Admission is A$7 for adults and A$6.50 for children 5 to 14. The chasm is open daily from 8am to 6pm (last entry at 5pm; closed Christmas Day).
Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) past Standley Chasm, you can branch right onto Namatjira Drive or continue to Hermannsburg Historical Precinct. If you take Namatjira Drive, you’ll go 42 km (26 miles) to picturesque Ellery Creek Big Hole. Be warned: The spring-fed water is icy cold. A 3 km (2-mile) walking trail explains the area’s geological history.
Eleven kilometers (7 miles) farther along Namatjira Drive is Serpentine Gorge, where a trail leads up to a lookout for a lovely view of the ranges through the gorge walls. Another 12 km (7 1/2 miles) on are ocher pits, which Aboriginal people quarried for body paint and for decorating objects used in ceremonial performances. Twenty-six kilometers (16 miles) farther west, 8 km (5 miles) from the main road, is Ormiston Gorge and Pound ( tel. 08/8956 7799 for the ranger station/visitor center). This is a good spot to picnic, swim in the wide, deep pool below red cliffs, and walk a choice of trails, such as the 30-minute Ghost Gum Lookout trail or the easy 7 km (4 1/3-mile) scenic loop (allow 3–4 hr.). The water is warm enough for swimming in the summer.
Roadtrips to the East & West Macs
Facilities are scarce outside Alice, so bring food, drinking water, and a full gas tank. Leaded, unleaded, and diesel fuel are for sale at Glen Helen Resort and Hermannsburg. Wear walking shoes.
Many of the water holes dry up too much to be good for swimming—those at Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge, and Glen Helen are the most permanent. They can be intensely cold, so take only short dips to avoid cramping and hypothermia, don’t swim alone, and be careful of underwater snags. Don’t wear sunscreen, because it pollutes drinking water for native animals.
Two-wheel-drive rental cars will not be insured on unsealed (unpaved) roads—that means the last few miles into Trephina Gorge Nature Park and the 11 km (7-mile) road into N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park, both in the East Macs. If you are prepared to risk it, you can probably get into Trephina in a two-wheel-drive car, but you will need a four-wheel-drive for N’Dhala and Arltunga. The West MacDonnell road is paved to Glen Helen Gorge; a few points of interest may require driving for short lengths on unpaved road. Before setting off, drop into the Tourism Central Australia Visitor Information Centre for tips on road conditions and details on the free ranger talks, walks, and slideshows that take place in the West and East Macs from April through October. Entry to all sights, parks, and reserves (except Standley Chasm) is free.
Farther on is Glen Helen Gorge, where the Finke River cuts through the ranges, with more gorge swimming, a walking trail, guided hikes, and helicopter flights. Glen Helen Resort ( tel. 08/8956 7489; www.glenhelen.com.au) has a restaurant and offers scenic helicopter flights on demand (minimum two people) from A$55 per person.
Getting There If you are not driving yourself, you can arrange to be dropped off by Larapinta Transfers ( tel. 1800 722 111 in Australia or 08/8952 2111; www.larapintatransfers.com.au) at several stops in the Ranges. It costs around A$200 for two people for the return trip to Simpson’s Gap or Standley Chasm; A$290 to Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge or Glen Helen Gorge. The Alice Wanderer also does group tours.
Hermannsburg Historical Precinct An alternative to visiting the West Mac gorges is to stay on Larapinta Drive all 128 km (79 miles) from Alice Springs to the old Lutheran Mission at the Hermannsburg Historical Precinct ( tel. 08/8956 7402; www.hermannsburg.com.au). Some maps show this route as an unpaved road, but it is paved. Settled by German missionaries in the 1870s, this is a cluster of 16 National Trust–listed farmhouse-style mission buildings and a historic cemetery. There is a museum, a gallery housing landscapes by Aussie artist Albert Namatjira, and tearooms serving light snacks and apple strudel from an old German recipe. The mission is open daily from 9am to 4pm. Admission to the precinct is A$10 for adults, A$5 for school-age kids, or A$25 for families of four. The precinct is closed for 5 weeks in December and January.
Finke Gorge National Park Just west of Hermannsburg is the turnoff to the 46,000-hectare (113,620-acre) Finke Gorge National Park, 16 km (10 miles) to the south on an unpaved road (or about a 2-hr. drive west of Alice Springs). Turn south off Larapinta Drive just west of Hermannsburg. Access along the last 16 km (10 miles) of road, which follows the sandy bed of the Finke River, is limited to four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Heavy rains may cause this section of the road to be impassable. The park is most famous for Palm Valley, where groves of rare Livistona mariae cabbage palms have survived since Central Australia was a jungle millions of years ago. You will need to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle or take a tour to explore this park. Four walking trails between 1.5 km (1 mile) and 5 km (3 miles) take you among the palms or up to a lookout over cliffs; one is a signposted trail exploring Aboriginal culture. For information, call the Visitor Information Centre in Alice Springs before you leave; there is no visitor center in the park.
The East MacDonnell Ranges
Not as many tourists tread the path on the Ross Highway into the East Macs, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with lush walking trails, fewer crowds, traces of Aboriginal history, and possibly even the sight of wild camels.
The first points of interest are Emily Gap, 10 km (6 miles) from Alice, and Jessie Gap, an additional 7 km (4 1/3 miles), a pretty picnic spot. You can cool off in the Emily Gap swimming hole if there is any water. Don’t miss the Caterpillar Dreaming Aboriginal painting art on the wall, on your right as you walk through.
At Corroboree Rock, 37 km (23 miles) farther, you can make a short climb up the outcrop, which was important to local Aborigines. The polished rock “seat”high up in the hole means Aboriginal people must have used this rock for eons.
Twenty-two kilometers (14 miles) farther is the turnoff to Trephina Gorge Nature Park, an 18-sq.-km (7-sq.-mile) beauty spot with peaceful walking trails that can take from 45 minutes to 4 1/2 hours. The last 5 km (3 miles) of the 9 km (5 1/2-mile) road into the park are unpaved, but you can make it in a two-wheel-drive car.
N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park, 10 km (6 miles) past Trephina Gorge Nature Park, houses an “open-air art gallery”of rock carvings, or petroglyphs, left by the Eastern Arrernte Aboriginal people. An interesting 1.5 km (1-mile) signposted trail explains the Dreamtime meanings of a few of the 6,000 rock carvings, hundreds or thousands of years old, that are thought to be in this eerily quiet gorge. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must to traverse the 11 km (7-mile) access road.
The Ross Highway is paved all the way to Ross River Resort, 86 km (53 miles) from Alice Springs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.