Family Adventure, Part 5: The MacDonnell Ranges

Georgina Burden — 18 July 2019
On the road with the family, living out of a camper trailer, exploring the NT desert. Does it get any better than this?

Australia is home to some truly spectacular locations, places like Cape York, the Kimberley, the Victorian High Country and the Simpson Desert. 

But as travellers, we like to find the places to which not many other people venture. So, for us it was a no-brainer to head straight into the thick of it amid the MacDonnell Ranges that surround the red dirt city of Alice Springs. 


The East MacDonnell Ranges is a place many people skip, due to a misapprehension that the western side is better. Our family recently proved otherwise. 

We started at the Emily and Jesse Gaps, both home to some of the world’s most fantastic rock art, including the Caterpillar Dreamtime story of how Alice Springs was disgorged into being by the Gods. We then continued to the mind-blowing, 800 million-year-old Corroboree Rock, a sacred men’s site for the local Arrernte Aboriginal people. The place is literally bursting at the seams with evidence of Earth’s first organised societies.


Trephina Gorge has plenty of great campgrounds suitable for all camping styles, from tents to camper trailers. From your campsite base, there are numerous short walking options, such as Trephina Gorge walk, Trephina Creek Ramble or the Gorge Stroll. As well, there are also longer walks, like the Ridgetop Walk that will reward you with a panoramic view from the top of the range, and some, such as Chain Of Ponds walk, that will lead you down into the water holes. You can also go swimming in the John Hayes Rockhole, but after long periods without rain, the waterhole can dry-up, so it’s best to travel to Trephina Gorge during the cooler months to avoid extreme heat as well as enjoy the promise of its refreshing flowing waters.

Another stunning spot is the Arltunga Historical Reserve just East of Trephina Gorge. Artlunga is an abandoned town that was formed during the 1887 goldrush. There are several walks on offer in the reserve that take you back in time, incorporating the old police station, mine sites, cyanide works and old miner's homes. Walking among these 100-year-old ruins quickly divulges Artlunga's colourful history and offers an insight into how gold was extracted, back in the day. 


One of the more remote areas of the East MacDonnell Ranges is Ruby Gap. A 4WD is a must-have when travelling to this isolated gorge. But unfolding the camper trailer alongside the stunning river in the soft sand gleaming with small flecks of ruby red garnets makes the challenge of getting here all worth it. Ruby Gap may be remote and isolated but that is just the sort of thing our family is attracted to — off the grid camping spots. There is very little here in the way of facilities and designated walking trails; however, we followed the river for a few kays, exploring its trajectory, searching for garnets in the sand and rocks.

Ruby Gap is the perfect place to settle down for a week to simply enjoy the Australian bush. However with this stunning spot being so remote, it is vitally important to be properly prepared prior to jumping in the 4WD and heading of on, what will be, I can assure you, a wildly fantastic adventure.

Recovery gear is a must-have for inevitable encounters with soft, sandy terrain. Soft sand out there will swallow your vehicle. It pays to have a decent first-aid kit and a way of calling for help, such as a sat phone or a PLB, in case things turn seriously pear-shaped. 


After we managed to drag ourselves away from Ruby Gap, we were soon west-bound for the well know West MacDonnell Ranges, in search of more stunning gorge walks and riverside campsites. We were like kids in a candy shop with so many gorges to stop at. Every five clicks we were jumping out of the 4WD to go and check out another postcard-perfect gorge. 

Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge, Redbank Gorge, the list goes on — there is just so much to see in the West MacDonnell Ranges. All these gorges are abundant with wildlife, from goannas to black-footed rock wallabies, wedge tailed eagles to tiny little skinks. It has the lot.

Simpsons Gap has a permanent waterhole which attracts flocks of wildlife, which is the reason why you can't swim in its inviting depths, no matter how hot it gets. Simpsons Gap is one of the stops on the Larapinta Trail, a 230km long walk that runs along the spine of the range. It's divided into 12 sections to make it a bit more achievable. You can do a few sections, or even just one, if time is scarce.

Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of most popular camping, swimming and walking spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges, for good reason. It is genuinely spectacular. If you’re anything like us, and not fans of freezing cold water, then pack either a wet suit or a kayak and not bathers. Another amazing site is Serpentine Gorge, which has a fantastic steep climb up to a lookout that gives way to spectacular views over the ranges. It is well worth the climb. We could have stayed up there for hours just taking in the view both over the range but also further up into the gorge as well. 

Something that many visitors miss is the ochre pit. Ochre is a huge part of Aboriginal culture. Certain colours of the rock are very valuable and are traded all across Australia. Ochre is used for all sorts of things depending on the colour. It's also used to protect wood from termites, which are abundant in the area. 

We ventured deeper into the ranges and came across something that we’d been looking forward to for a long time: Ormiston Gorge. Our parents had been here many moons ago and we were all keen to take a look and, especially for them, to see how much it had changed. The short walk down into the gorge varies depending on recent rainfall in the ranges.

Like a lot of campers out there, we like to find free campsites wherever we’re going, mostly to save money but also because 90 per cent of the time they're the best ones. So the Finke River Two Miles 4WD Camp was, for us, an ideal spot to set the trailer up next to the river and light up a small fire. This campground is definitely 4WD-only. We witnessed a few unsuspecting travellers getting caught out in the soft sand. Right across from Glen Helen Gorge and resort, it’s a perfect base camp for a few days.


Kings Canyon, no doubt a name you’ve all heard before — and for good reason, it's a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives. 

Because, with one in a million views from up at the top of the gorge and heaps of awesome history and rock formations within it, how could you not bust out the hiking boots and take a good look? The red ancient rock walls rise 100 metres from the creek bed up to a rocky plateau. The canyon itself is home to a bunch of rare fauna and flora, including the MacDonnell Ranges cycad.  

You aren’t allowed to camp in the Watarrka National Park which is where Kings Canyon is located. However, you are allowed to camp at the Kings Canyon Resort which is a hop, skip and a jump from the canyon.


With tired legs and enough red dirt in the camper to sink a ship, Kings Canyon marks the end of our MacDonnell Ranges adventure; and what an adventure it was. There is no way that you can miss out on the East and West MacDonnell Ranges, not when there is so much to see and do. You’re bound to have a blast hiking the trails and exploring the cool depths of the gorges and gaps. It seems like around every corner there is something new to see, something spectacular. With winter now well and truly upon us, it’s the perfect time of year to pack up the kids, fill up the trailer and head on out to the MacDonnell Ranges – you wont forget it! 


macdonnell ranges northern territory nt travel destination family