Day and multi-day walks - West MacDonnell Ranges to: Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge
Trek along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges to attractions such as Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge. This epic chain of day walks stretches more than 223km from the old Alice Springs Telegraph Station to Mount Sonder and Mount Razorback. Stand on ancient escarpments and look out over vast ochre-coloured landscapes. Visit sites sacred to the Arrernte Aboriginal people. Scramble down sheltered gorges, swim in cool waterholes and sleep under a sea of stars. Outback camping is one of the trail's highlights, along with the diversity of desert habitats, native birds, animals and nearly 600 species of rare flora. Tailor your walk along 12 sections, which range from effortless to arduous and have four wheel drive access. Or give yourself three weeks and challenge yourself on the end-to-end trek.
At a glance:
Trek along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges to attractions such as Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge.
Get a feeling for the Trail’s varied terrain on this scenic, 24km (15 mile) trek. You don’t need to be an Olympian, but there are some steep and challenging ascents. Start at Alice Springs Telegraph Station, where the stone buildings housed the region’s first Europeans. Take in sweeping views of Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges from Euro Ridge, dip your hands in Scorpion Pool and Fairy Spring and climb over Hat Hill Saddle. Rest at Wallaby Gap, where the sandy creekbed is shaded by walls of red rock. Camp here or at the tourist hub of Simpsons Gap, where you might spot black-footed rock-wallabies at dusk. You can shorten your journey by starting or finishing at Geoff Moss Bridge. Alternatively, do the 17km (10.5 mile) return trip from Geoff Moss Bridge to Wallaby Gap and back.
Walk this 25km (15.5 mile) section in a day or stop halfway at Mulga Camp, around three hours past the tranquil bush setting of Bond Gap. Wander past creek beds and gum trees to the deep water hole at Spring Gap, then follow a sandy water course to the picnic area of Jay Creek. See one of Central Australia’s few brushtail possum colonies and rock outcrops more than 2 billion years old. Camp overnight at Hamilton Downs Youth Camp. Soak up the glorious colours of the outback sunset, then marvel at the clarity of the Milky Way.
Winding 13.6km (8.4 mile) through steep and rugged terrain, this section requires a good level of fitness and lots of planning. There’s also a low route if you’re more an ambler than an athlete. Walk back to Jay Creek and on to the large, sun drenched pool of Fish Hole, also a sacred Aboriginal site. Continue through gentle Acacia scrub to Tangentyere Junction, then take either the high or the low road to Millers Flat. Camp overnight here or at Standley Chasm, where the red rocks tower against a backdrop of blue skies, white ghost gums and olive cycadees. The chasm walls and boulders alight with fiery intensity in the midday sun.
You’ll need to be in good shape to take on this 17.7km (11 mile) overnight section. Walk around Standley Chasm before the crowds of midday tourists arrive, exploring cycads, ferns and river gums. Walk along the high quartzite ridges of the Chewings Range to the summit of Brinkley Bluff for breathtaking views in all directions. You’ll need to be sure-footed for the sharp, zig-zagged descent down the Bluff to Stuart’s Pass, an upper branch of the Hugh River. Pass Mintbush Spring and follow the river valley to Birthday Waterhole, a semi-permanent river pool fringed by slender River Red Gums.
Test your lungs and legs on this challenging 16km (10 mile) overnight section. It’s an easy walk over a small saddle to picturesque Spencer Gorge, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. From here it's strenuous boulder-scrambling to Windy Saddle, where the views invite you to rest your aching legs and stop for lunch. Make your way along the rocky spine of Razorback Ridge before weaving down into the arid, alien-looking Linear Valley. The starkness is only slightly alleviated at Rocky Saddle, where a few gum trees sit atop a ridge. Walk past spinifex along the sandy bed of ancient watercourses to Hugh Gorge, where you can swim in deep waterholes and set up camp in the shade.
You and your hiking boots will be an old married couple at the end of this 31.2km (19.4 mile) overnight section. Stamina is compulsory. Cross through the woodlands and spinifex of Alice Valley, looking out for painted firetails and different species of wren. Weave through shrub to steep Rocky Gully, where you can rest for lunch or set up camp for the night. Trek over the high quartzite ridges of the Chewings Range to picturesque Ellery Creek Big Hole. The large, gum-fringed waterhole and sandy creek is circled by high red cliffs. As well as a popular picnicking and swimming spot, it’s an internationally significant geological site. Check out some of the interesting formations on the three km Dolomite walk. Then settle back and watch the gum trees sharpen into silhouettes at dusk.
The climb is as tough as the elements, but you can tackle this 13.8km (8.6 mile) section in a day for a real sense of achievement. The moonscape rocks dotting the trail offer a history lesson stretching back billions of years. See classic views of the Central Australian desert and an abundance of native birds, including the elusive Spinifexbird. Arrive at Serpentine Gorge, where you can camp next to the clear water beneath plenty of shade. Cool down with a short walk along any of the gum-lined, signposted walking trails. Head to the lookout for a sky-high view of the narrow, winding gorge and its semi-permanent waterholes.
This challenging 13.4km (8.3 mile) walk rewards your exertion with exhilarating views of the high quartzite ridgelines, so iconic to the West MacDonnell Ranges. Do the steep climb to Counts Point, where you can look out over the Alice Valley along the ridgeline and see Haasts Bluff, Mt Sonder and Mt Zeil - the Northern Territory’s highest point. From here it’s a giddy descent into Serpentine Chalet Dam past water tanks and an island of bushes and shady trees. The section requires a drop off and pick up at either end. While Serpentine Chalet Dam is only accessible by high clearance four wheel drive, you can walk a little further past the ruins to the two wheel drive area. Alternatively, do the 6.3km (4 mile) Arrernte walk to the Ochre Pits, which can be reached by two wheel drive.
Load up on water and prepare to trek 28.6km (17.7 mile) through the rugged heart of the ranges. Walk to the Ochre Pits and marvel at the layers of soft, vivid-coloured rock that the Western Arrente Aboriginal people have mined for ceremonial decoration for thousands of years. Stop at Inarlanga Pass before doing the five hour trek over Heavitree Range into rocky, sunset-coloured Waterfall Gorge. Despite the name, this campsite is the only one without a reliable source of water. Continue on past Base of Hill to the massive towering walls of Ormiston Gorge, where you can camp overnight.
If your calves have been aching just reading about the Trail’s more difficult sections, this 9.9km (6 mile) section offers relative relief. Walk over rolling limestone hills and along the mostly sandy Finke River to Glen Helen Gorge, where the river parts the West MacDonnell Ranges. The permanent waterhole here is a sanctuary for the Finke’s nine species of fish and migrating waterbirds. Afterward, enjoy a well-earned cool drink or ice-cream at Glen Helen Resort.
This first half of this difficult 25.2km (15.6 mile) overnight section meanders across low spinifex-covered hills in the dramatic shadow of Mt Sonder. Cross the Davenport River and climb a hill to Mt Sonder Lookout. From here you weave downwards through shady, tranquil Rocky Bar Gap and along Mt Sonder’s southern flank. Look out for the knobbly black rock that date back millions of years to when this landscape was tropical. Spot an array of birds as you pass through relatively dense mulga and mallee vegetation before exiting the woodlands.
You’ll enjoy classic mountain-top glory on this 15.8 km (9.8 mile) return walk to the top of Mt Sonder. At 1,380 metres (4,500 feet), it is the icon of the West McDonnell Ranges. The climb is slow, steady and strenuous. But the grand, panoramic views of ranges, plains, valleys and salt lakes make it all worthwhile. On a clear day, you can even see out to the crater of Tnorala (Gosse Bluff). In September and October you’ll see Mountain Hakea covered with vibrant pink wildflowers. Imprint the vast desert vistas in your memory and camera on the return walk to Redbank Gorge. From here, you can be collected for the bumpy four wheel drive back to Alice Springs.