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  • Writer's pictureGlenna

Camping in the MacDonnell Ranges

After waiting out some rain in Alice Springs, we were searching for some good hiking and camping in the Red Centre. We had a few days to kill until our friends arrived to explore Uluru with us. With a little research we discovered Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park and decided to go camping and hiking off-grid for a few days. There are currently no amenities out this way, so be sure if you're camping in the MacDonnell Ranges that you have plenty of drinking water, food, and fuel and can provide your own shade as there's not much to be found out this way.

All of the turnoffs are well-signed, but make sure you do a little research before you go as there's no mobile service out here!

Simpsons Gap

Drive time from Alice Springs: 25 mins

The closest spot to Alice Springs, Simpsons Gap gives you a taste of things to come. There’s a short walk to the gap, which contains a little water during the dry season. You cannot camp or swim here, but the rock formations are stunning.

Simpsons Gap MacDonnell Ranges
MacDonnell Ranges Simpsons Gap
Simpsons Gap
Simpsons Gap Red Centre
walking into Simpsons Gap

From Simpsons Gap you can walk sections 1 or 2 of the Larapinta Trail.

Standley Chasm

Drive time from Alice Springs: 40 mins

Standley Chasm is the second stop in the West MacDonnell area, although there is an entry fee as this land is privately owned. We were surprised by the amount of infrastructure here after driving through a whole lot of nothing. There are bathrooms and a cafe, and you can pay to camp here, although it’s literally a parking lot. Entry to the gorge is $12 and camping is an additional $6.80 per person.

After paying your entry free and guzzling down a cold drink, you'll push through a metal gate and walk along a hot, dry trail for about 15 minutes before getting to the chasm.

Standley Chasm trail

If you're in the chasm around midday, you'll spot the orange glow in the distance.

hiking trail Standley Chasm
camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Standley Chasm

While we got some cool photos here, if you’re short on time and/or funds consider skipping this one in favour of Ormiston or Redbank Gorge.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour

Ellery Creek is a popular swimming spot as it's not too far from Alice Springs. It's icy cold, and you can venture further into the submerged canyon if you're brave!

camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Ellery Creek Big Hole
Ellery Creek Big Hole camping in the MacDonnell Ranges
camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Ellery Creek swimming

We met one of the locals on our way back to the ute... This goanna slithered across the trail while we waited patiently.

Ellery Creek goanna

There is camping available here for $6.60 per person. There's not much shade in the campground, so be sure if you'll be staying here you bring some kind of shade cover or plan on spending time under the shelters.

From Ellery Creek you can access sections 6 and 7 of the Larapinta trail.

Serpentine Gorge

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour, 10 minutes

This gorge isn’t anything special, but the lookout hike is well worth your time! It's not far but it's very steep with lots of steps. Take your camera!

camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Serpentine Gorge trail
camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Serpentine Gorge hiking
camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Serpentine Gorge lookout trail

Neil Hargrave Lookout

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour, 10 mins

We read about this spot on a blog, and stayed here because Wikicamps and the travel blog we read claimed it had Telstra reception so we could do some work. What we think they meant was that it has a little amplifier box if you need to make a phone call. Oh well!

camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Neil Hargrave Lookout

The sunset here was glorious, and so were the stars.

camping in the MacDonnell Ranges astrophotography

It was quite windy, something to keep in mind if you're not in a hard-sided camper. You may only camp here for 24 hours, and there is no bathroom.

Ormiston Gorge

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour, 30 mins

Ormiston Gorge would logically be next but we did this one last because Bobby had planned a surprise engagement! See the post here.

camping in the MacDonnell Ranges Ormiston Gorge

You can camp at Ormiston Gorge for $10 per person. There more amenities here than most of the other campgrounds, with showers and BBQs. The water hole is quite close to the camping, about a 5 minute walk away. There’s also a loop hike to the lookout and then down to the gorge.

From Ormiston Gorge you can access sections 9 and 10 of the Larapinta Trail.

Mount Sonder Lookout

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour, 25 mins

This lookout is gorgeous at sunset, and a favourite engagement photo from our session with Lisa Hatz Photography! There's a free 4WD camp just past here, Finke River 2 Mile Campground. We didn't get the chance to camp here, but it looked beautiful.

Mount Sonder Lookout MacDonnell Ranges Alice Springs

Glen Helen

The Glen Helen Lodge and gorge were closed when we were here. This means there's no petrol out this way. Take a spare fuel canister, or be sure you have enough to make it back to Alice Springs.

Redbank Gorge

Drive time from Alice Springs: 1 hour, 45 mins

The furthest point on this tour is by far the best. If you’re short on time, we’d recommend driving out to this one straightaway.

This was our favourite spot for camping in the MacDonnell Ranges. We camped at the Woodland Camping Area, which has toilets, firepits, picnic tables, and BBQs. There's also a camping area on top of the ridge, which is great for sunset but can be more windy. Cost is $3.80 per person.

There's a hot, sandy, rocky scramble ahead of you. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the gorge. There's no official trail, just keep aiming toward the distant gap in the cliffs.

Redbank Gorge hike camping in the MacDonnell Ranges

You come over the last pile of rocks to see the water, which doesn't look super appealing but is icy cold. There are warnings at the trailhead about the risk of hypothermia, even in the middle of summer. There's also no shade here, so cover up on the hike and in the water to avoid overheating.

Redbank Gorge pool
Redbank Gorge swimming hole
Redbank Gorge Redbank Gorge hike camping in the MacDonnell Ranges

If you're brave or hardy enough to stand the water, head back into the gorge for some beautiful slot canyon views.

We were told you can keep going for about 40 minutes before reaching an impassable wall, but we were too cold to go that far! We'd recommend wearing a rash guard or wetsuit (really, we're not kidding) and bringing along floaties if you want to do a lot of exploring.

Return or Keep Going?

After our engagement at Ormiston we headed back to civilisation to celebrate, but you can turn camping in the MacDonnell Ranges into a full loop (by traveling to Gosses Bluff Crater, Palm Valley, and Finke Gorge National Park), or add on Kings Canyon and travel down to Uluru.

Camping in the MacDonnell Ranges is a great way to see the best the Red Centre has to offer. Even if you don't have time to spend a few nights out this way, head out to some of the closer spots for some good views and maybe a swim! Subscribe or follow us on social media to see more photos from the Red Centre and the Top End.



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