Article from Travel Outback Australia.
How about a lazy Sunday afternoon, exploring stunning gaps, gorges, and waterholes?
Or an easy weekend checking out old gold mines or camping on wide sandy creek beds with friends?
The East MacDonnell Ranges (locals call them the ‘East Macs’) are very close to Alice Springs, and are easily accessible with an ordinary car.
This means they’re perfect for a day trip or a night or two enjoying the scenery, picnicking or camping.
Sound good? Then read through the pages in this section of the website to learn more.
The East MacDonnell Ranges stretch for 150km east of Alice Springs.
They’re really easy to get to.
You just head south from Alice Springs through Heavitree Gap for about 2km and then turn onto the Ross Highway (you’ll go over a bridge across the usually dry Todd River, and then turn right at a roundabout).
You can easily go out to Ross River Homestead or Trephina Gorge in an afternoon (about 160km return trip from Alice Springs).
Meals, a licensed bar and basic accommodation/camping are available at Ross River if you’re planning a lunch or an afternoon beer stop.
The East MacDonnell Ranges are full of history and culture, which is why we recommend that you take the time to explore them.
You’ll find lots of Aboriginal rock art at places like Trephina and N’Dhala Gorge, historic sites like Arltunga where you can explore an entire ghost town and check out old gold mines, and get away from it all at remote places like Ruby Gap and Ambalindum.
People are often surprised at what the East Macs have to offer -and we’ve heard people RAVE about Trephina Gorge’s shady and spacious camping area.
Each destination has something different to offer, and because they’re close to Alice Springs, you can see most of them easily in a day trip:
Emily Gap Nature Park:
(Pictured at the top of this post) Located just 10 minutes from Alice Springs, Emily Gap is a favourite local picnic spot, which has shady picnic tables beneath sprawling River Red Gums, and a toilet but few other facilities.
The main attraction is the Gap itself, which is an Aboriginal sacred site which includes sacred paintings. There’s often a shallow pool to wade across to get in to see the ochre paintings, and the Gap is also a sweet spot for birdwatchers wanting to see wild budgerigars nesting for several months after rain each year.
Jessie Gap Nature Park
Just 10 minutes further on from Emily, and is another Aboriginal rock art and sacred site.
There’s some shady picnic tables and BBQ pits scattered amongst some spreading native fig trees, and a long drop toilet here.
It’s a short walk 5 minute walk into the Gap itself along a shady creek. Make sure you check out the sacred paintings on the wall. The interpretive signage tells the story of the paintings. The name of the Gap in Arrernte is ‘Antwerrk (pronounced un-DOOR-kah).
There is no camping at either Emily or Jessie Gaps – you’ll have to travel back to Alice Springs or out to Trephina Gorge if you’re after camping.
Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve
Is another small reserve, located about 30 minutes out of Alice Springs.
Here, you can take a short (20min) walk right around another Aboriginal sacred site. There’s also picnic tables and toilets here. The interpretive signage tells a little about the significance of this place to Arrernte people, pointing out that there’s much which cannot be revealed as it’s restricted to senior Aboriginal men.
Corroborree Rock is also one of those places that makes for spectacular photos in the early morning or the evening – another reason why you should make the effort to visit the East MacDonnell Ranges.
Trephina Gorge Nature Park:
If you’re looking for one of the BEST camping areas in Central Australia, you’ll love Trephina Gorge. But you’ll also love it for its walking trails, rock art, dramatic ridges and bluffs.
Trephina Gorge is a 45 minute drive from Alice Springs. Only the last 6 km into the Gorge itself are gravel and you’ll find that they’re easily passable with an ordinary car.
On the way into the Gorge, you’ll pass the turn off to the 4WD-only campsite and swimming spot, John Hayes Rockhole, and a short detour to one of the outback’s largest and most photographed ghost gums.
The detour into see the ghost gum will take you about 30 seconds, and it’s well worth it just to take a picture like this:
Once you’re at Trephina, head past the campgrounds to the day use area. There’s picnic tables, toilet and water available.
There’s several short walks you can do once you’re here. The first one is an easy stroll down the Gorge itself. If you look carefully on the left hand side of the Gorge, you’ll find some more Aboriginal paintings that many people just walk right past!
The short (half hour) walk up to the lookout is well worth it to get a perspective on the dramatic gorge country around here. You can make this walk a longer hike back to John Hayes Rockhole (about 20km round trip), if you have the time.
But what we think is the BEST thing about Trephina are its campsites.
They are utterly gorgeous and a great place to set up camp and kick back for a couple of days.
You get a choice of two different camping areas (the Gorge Campground and the Bluff Campground), nestled beneath the striking ochre walls of Trephina Bluff. Both campgrounds have a large selection of campsites, nestled in shady woodland settings. Each campground has free gas BBQs, water, tables, fire pits and long drop toilets.
The entry to the Bluff Campground at Trephina, with a glimpse of the striking scenery you’ll see.
N’Dhala Gorge Conservation Reserve:
Located about an hour out of Alice Springs is this remote, 4WD only access park.
N’Dhala Gorge is a small, tucked away place that’s home to over 5800 Aboriginal rock engravings.
Yes, you read that correctly: 5800 engravings.
Part of the fun of visiting N’Dhala is the drive to get in. Most people visit the park from the turnoff near Ross River. It’s 16km to drive in, and you’ll see some of the most little-known, but most spectacular scenery in central Australia as you travel into the reserve.
The 4WD only track winds in and around the Ross River, crossing it numerous times. You’ll be treated to some shallow water crossings, as there’s an active spring right near Ross River Homestead.
You’ll also see some striking bluffs and cliffs that make for fantastic photography, especially in the late afternoons.
Once you reach N’Dhala, you’ll find a small bush campground (there’s tables, fire pits and a long drop toilet). If you’re planning on camping, you’ll have to collect your firewood BEFORE you reach N’Dhala as firewood collection isn’t allowed in the reserve itself.
It’s only a small campground with space for no more than about 4 vehicles. That shouldn’t bother you, as we’ve rarely seen more than two people camped here at any one time.
There’s a short walk up the Gorge, which passes many of the engravings and leads you up along a (usually dry) creekbed. It’s possible to continue this walk, and keep following the gorge up past the last lot of signs, then loop up and over the left hand ridge.
As we’ve said above, access is by 4WD only as there’s a lot of water and sandy crossings of the Ross River.
Arltunga Historical Reserve:
Alrtunga is the site of central Australia’s first gold rush and is now a large historical reserve that’s great for families.
I’m not going to lie: I love Arltunga because you can explore the old mines and there’s an entire ghost town there to check out as well. It’s one of the few places in Australia where you’re free to explore the real thing, rather than be held back behind bars, or visit a recreation.
Arltunga is surprisingly dry (it gets VERY cold in the winter time!) and when you visit the old gold diggings there, you really have to marvel at the toughness of the miner who cam out here, hoping to strike gold.
There’s a fabulous visitor’s centre there, with some hands-on displays of old mining equipment and an insight into the harsh reality for those who came here to looking for gold. You’ll also find toilest, a picnic area and free gass BBQs here as well.
If you visit Arltunga, we recommend that you set aside half a day. You absolutely MUST visit both the visitor’s centre and the Old Government Works (the site of the ‘ghost town’), explore the underground mine and maybe visit Joker Gorge as well.
Access is 33 km along a good gravel road (passable by ordinary cars), off the Ross Highway just before you reach Ross River Homestead.
Ruby Gap Nature Park:
In many ways, we’ve left the BEST until last.
Ruby Gap is one of the most beautiful, remote and little-known places in the outback – and it’s home to some of the most gorgeous scenery and waterholes we know of:
Ruby Gap Nature Park is most definitely for 4WDs only. It takes about 2 and a half hours to get in to the first part of the park from Alice Springs.
Head out along the Ross Highway, follow the signs to Arltunga, and once you’re at Arltunga, continue along the main road for a couple of kilometres until you see the signpost marking the 4WD track to Ruby Gap.
When we say 4WD only, we absolutely mean 4WD only.
You simply will not get an ordinary car anywhere near Ruby, as there’s creek crossings, ditches, sandy sections of track and gutters that will just EAT your 2WD sedan!
But the effort is worth it.
Ruby Gap was the site of a ‘ruby rush’ at the beginning of the 20th century. The ‘rubies’ turned out to be semi-precious garnets, however, and the miners soon left for Arltunga and caught gold fever.
Even today, the sandy bed of the Hale River glows crimson with garnets.
The scenery and remoteness are what you should come to Ruby Gap for. There are several gorges to explore and you can camp just about anywhere.
Of course, it’s bush camping, so there are no facilities.
As it takes a while to get in, we recommend that you plan to spend 2 nights at Ruby, so you’ll be able to explore both Ruby Gap and Glen Annie Gorge.
Read our full guide to Ruby Gap here, including video.
The great thing about the East MacDonnells is that there are a couple of options to extend your visit to a day trip.
Both are quite different and are round trips, recommended for 4WDs as they involve gravel roads with sandy river or creek crossings.
4WD Day Trip: Option 1
The first alternative is to turn off the Ross Highway about 40km out of Alice Springs onto the Binns Track (the turnoff is approx. 10km past Jessie Gap).
The sign here also says ‘Todd River Downs” and ‘Numery Station”.
What’s great about this side trip is that you get to drive a spectacular scenic route behind the ranges, winding through country where you can often see carpets of yellow poached-egg daisies, purple pigface and other outback wildflowers in spring.
After about half an hour, you’ll come to the turn off into N’Dhala Gorge.
Leaving N’Dhala, you’ll come to the Ross River – a wide, sandy creek crossing. There’s a couple of good shady places here that are a local camping secret!
A little further on around some bends, you’ll come to Ross River Station’s boundary fence (has a gate you’ll have to open and close behind you).
Soon after this, you’ll find a little water crossing of the Ross River – the last thing you need to negotiate before you reach Ross River Homestead.
Don’t be shy of the water here! It’s usually quite shallow, so drive through and make a splash.
4WD Day Trip: Option 2
The second alternative is a 300km round trip, easily done in a day, and is great if you’d like to try a little bit more of an adventure.
Once again, it’s round trip which you can either do by driving north from Alice Springs, along the Stuart Highway (yes, we really did say north!) for about 50 km, and turn off to the east along the Gardens Road.
You can also do this trip by driving out through the East MacDonnell Ranges along the Ross Highway, and turning off for Arltunga.
We recommend doing the trip this way, as you get to stop at many of the attractions we’ve written about above first, when you’re fresh, rather than after you’ve been driving for a few hours.
Or you can drive out through the East Macs via the Ross Highway and then follow the signs to Arltunga Historical Reserve, and onto then the Gardens Station and Old Ambalindum.
This route is a bit trickier, as the road gets a little rough when you’re travelling through the Gardens Station, but you have the opportunity to stop in at Arltunga (the old gold mining town) and to enjoy some bush hospitality at Old Ambalindum Station.
Accommodation, Sightseeing and More
Camping is available at Trephina, N’Dhala and Ruby Gap using the Parks and Wildlife Service’s honesty-based system. Facilities within the East MacDonnell National Parks vary from camping areas with free gas BBQs, picnic tables, toilets and water, to basic bush camping (no amenities at all).
No booking is required. Sites are on a first come, first served basis.
There are also several other places for camping and accommodation in the East Macs:
Ross River Resort offers camping, powered sites, budget accommodation, air conditioned cabins with ensuite and meals, cold beer and great hospitality.
Phone Toll Free: 1800 241 711
Hale River Homestead at Old Ambalindum Station is a working cattle station (ranch) which has campervan sites, camp sites and rooms in the Old Ambalindum Homestead, as well as 4-Wheel drive Touring.
To contact for info or bookings firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (08) 89569993
They also have a website: www.haleriverhomestead.com.au