We hadn’t even heard of West MacDonnell National Park before we visited our friends in Wingellina, but Bec and Chris mentioned it was worth a visit so we decided to spend a few days exploring these ranges.
And geez, we’re sure glad we did! Unlike some of the other national parks, the West Mac ranges are very accessible.
You can get to some points in the park in under an hour from Alice Springs, and once you’re there some of the walking paths are even pram friendly.
It’s a perfect National Park to take young kids to, because many of the hikes are short and easy to do.
It’s up to you how long you spend there – you could do the highlights on a day trip or spend a couple of weeks hiking the Larapinta trail which traverses the entire park.
We decided to spend four days and felt that was the right amount of time for us as a young family.
Day one – Settling in at our West MacDonnell Ranges campground
The first day we took it easy and spent a couple of hours driving into the park and setting up at Ellery Creek Big Hole for our stay.
We got there around lunchtime and managed to snag the last spot in the campground. There are only about four parking spots big enough for caravans there, so we were very lucky. (We visited at the beginning of July, which is during peak season.)
The campground only costs $5 per adult a night (bargain!) and there are flushing toilet and BBQ facilities.
There are other options for camping in the park if you miss out on this spot. Ormiston Gorge is $10 a night per person but has showers as well as toilets.
Glen Helen Homestead is $14 a night unpowered, per person but they have other facilities such as a restaurant and bar.
If you have an off-road van, you can also stay at 2 Mile Campground for $3.30 per person, although it doesn’t have any facilities.
Personally, I felt Ellery Creek Big Hole was in one of the most picturesque spots in the West MacDonnell ranges, and it was a bonus that it happened to be one of the cheapest!
Once we set up and had lunch, we walked the five-minute trail down to the waterhole, which had stunning rock formations framing the gorge.
It was a little busy in the afternoon, but come dusk we had the place to ourselves and it was a serene place to relax and listen to the birds sing as the sun went down.
Day two – Glen Helen, Ochre Pits and Serpentine Gorge
Early the next morning we set off to Glen Helen Gorge, which is out the back of the homestead. There’s a short ten-minute trail that leads you along the drive river bed, ending up at the gorge.
Unlike some of the other gorges, you can see through the gap in the rocks to the bush beyond, which makes for a striking view. The rocks around the edge of the pool are shaped like sun lounges and we had fun relaxing like lizards on the rock and basking in the sunshine.
Next, we headed to the Ochre Pits. It is a sacred spot for the local Aboriginal people, who venture here to gather ochre to use as body paint in ceremonies and other traditional events.
Unfortunately, a fire came through the park last year, and this area has been largely affected, destroying the beauty of the surrounding bush somewhat.
Nonetheless, the red and brown ochre cliffs made a stark contrast against the blue of the sky and the green hues of the bush.
To wind up the day, we hiked to Serpentine Gorge. A 1.3km round trip carries you through sparse bushland up to the waterhole. Make sure you bring a hat, as a lot of the walk is in the sun.
This spot was possibly my favourite waterhole in the park, as the trees behind the water cast stunning reflections upon this pretty spot.
Close to the waterhole, the trail splinters off and up to a lookout point. The hike is really steep, but it only takes about fifteen minutes to get to the top. The views are worth the wobbly feeling you’ll have in your legs. This lookout point is said to harbour the best view of the park and you can see for miles across the sunburnt plains.
Day three – Ormiston Gorge
There have been quite a few hikes we’ve done now where Ruby has impressed us with her ability to walk kilometres on her own without complaint. Quite a mean feat considering she’s only two.
But alas, Ormiston Gorge was not one of those hikes.
Ruby wasn’t in the mood for walking from the outset, and as a result, this one-and-a-half-hour Ghost Gum loop walk took us nearly three hours.
For the beginning of the walk, you scramble over rocks and boulders lying across the dry river bed, which is a challenge as a fully-grown human, let alone a toddler.
I suppose that’s what put her off. Whatever it was, it was very slow going.
After the dry riverbed – which is a stunning hike in the middle of a canyon with birds of prey circling ahead – you can either continue on a large loop trail (adding 2 hours to the walk), or start heading back up the canyon rim.
We chose the latter, as Ruby wasn’t in the mood for a longer journey – and neither were we by this point!
Climbing up the canyon and along a steep path, you come to the rim. From here you can peer down into the canyon as you slowly climb further up and along the rim. At the end of this part of the trail, you come to a lookout where you can see down to where the waterhole is and across the length of the whole canyon.
After this, it is a rocky and steeply-steeped decent back down to the car park.
We loved the trail and I’m keen to go back when Ruby’s older so we can walk the complete track.
Day four – Standley Chasm and Simpsons Gap
On our final day at the park, we visited the two stops closest to Alice Springs while driving out.
Standley Chasm is privately owned, which means you do need to pay to enter. It costs $12 per adult and once you have your ticket you can walk along the path which takes you to the chasm. What is a chasm? Essentially, it is a gap between two giant rocks that have cracked and separated.
We got there around lunchtime, when the light was shining straight into the gap, lighting up the rocks into a bright red.
It was beautiful, but quite crowded as the trail is short to get there and once inside the chasm there’s not much room for people to spread out. I felt like it took away some of the magic of the place.
Finishing off our time in the park, we drove to Simpsons Gap. Along another short, ten-minute trail, you arrive at a spectacular waterhole. Once again, the waterhole is at the end of a dry creekbed and part of me would love to see it in the wet season when the river is flowing into the pool.
There is a path along the edge if the river is full, but we could hike on the riverbed and Ruby had fun scrambling up rocks and climbing small trees.
West MacDonnell National Park has been a highlight of the trip
After not even knowing about West MacDonnell National Park, we certainly made the most of our time there and are so glad we put it into the itinerary.
If you’re flying out to visit Uluru, make sure you add this spot to the list, especially if you’re travelling with kids.
What you need to know:
The best time of year to visit is between May and September. Any time outside of these winter months and it’s much too hot to enjoy the park.
You need to bring all of your water into the park, although if you are hiking the Larapinta there are water points for you. However, you’ll need to boil the water before drinking it, as it’s non-potable.
It’s free to enter the park! Although there are fees at most campgrounds if you plan to spend the night.
Check out this map for more details on the West MacDonnell Ranges: