The best camping spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja)

Article from Unsealed4X4.

The West MacDonnell National Park (Tjoritja) stretches 161km west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and is one of the best camping routes in Central Australia. Why? Because we all know the best camping spots are right next to awesome swimming holes and the West MacDonnell Ranges is bursting with them!

What to expect from the West MacDonnell Ranges

Unless you drive like a maniac, wheel-lifting action isn’t the norm in the West MacDonnell Ranges. However, you can expect to find stunning waterholes with towering red gorges as a backdrop and more stars than you’ve ever seen. You can also expect to fall in love with Central Australia here. 

You’ll find a little off-road action if you camp at Finke 2 Mile and Redback Gorge, but more 4WD action can be found in the East MacDonnell Ranges. That’s a story for another day though!

Starting with my favourite, here are the best camping spots next to amazing swimming holes in the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Finke 2 Mile

West MacDonnell Ranges
Finke 2 mile Campsite in the West MacDonnell Range
Credit – Tourism NT & Jess Caldwell & Luke Riddle

Finke 2 Mile is a lesser-visited camp site in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This is probably because it has zero facilities and you need a 4WD to access it. In fact, it’s so lesser-known that when I camped for a few nights with the kids last year, I accidentally busted an elderly couple having a naked cuddle in the river. They were clearly not expecting other campers! Living the life, right?!

Camp right next to the ancient Finke River, which at around 350 million years old, is believed to be one of the oldest in the world. Flocks of budgerigars sing from the ghost gums lining the river and you don’t need to do anything here but relax between bouts of swimming and watching the birds.

Camping fees are supposed to be payable via an honesty box system however the box was missing when we visited. Nevertheless, take cash just in case. Finke 2 Mile is listed as a Category B campsite and the following fees apply:

  • $4 per adult
  • $2 per child (5 to 17 years)
  • $10 per family (2 adults and 4 children)

Find this picturesque campsite 132km west of Alice Springs, driving first along Larapinta Drive and then onto Namatjira Drive. No bookings are required and there is plenty of space to spread out.

Facilities: None.

Vehicle type: 4WD only.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

West MacDonnell Ranges
Ellery Creek Big Hole
Credit – Tourism NT & The Salty Travellers

Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of the most popular picnic and camping sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges as it’s the closest to Alice Springs. Only 90km west of Alice via Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive, Ellery Creek is the perfect day trip.

The waterhole is really quite beautiful the way it cuts through the red, towering cliffs and gives you a teaser of what’s yet to come along this camping route. Swimming here is a must-do but if you have time, hike the 3km Dolomite walk for great views.

Campsites are limited and are first-in-first-served. Camping fees are paid via an honesty box system found on the outside wall of the toilet block and as that Ellery Creek is listed as a Category B campsite, the following fees apply:

  • $4 per adult
  • $2 per child (5 to 17 years)
  • $10 per family (2 adults and 4 children)

Facilities: Gas BBQs, toilets, picnic tables.

Vehicle type: 2WD accessible.

Ormiston Gorge

Omiston Gorge
Ormiston Gorge
credit – Tourism NT/The Salty Travellers

Ormiston Gorge is one of the most photogenic water holes in the West Macs and can be found about 135km west of Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive. It really showcases the fascinating geology of the West MacDonnell Ranges but unfortunately, it’s one of the least private. The campsites are on the small side and are close together. If you can’t live without a shower or you’re just due for one, this is the place to be as there are hot showers here.

The swimming hole is stunning and can be found around 500 metres from the visitor centre and kiosk. Rise early to take a sweaty 20-minute hike up to the lookout for amazing views. Alternatively, hike the four-hour Ormiston Pound Walk. 

Here you can swim, hike, or just stretch out on your towel on the sand under the shade of the towering white gum trees. It’s just perfect!

Campsites are limited and are first-in-first-served. The campsite is privately operated and camping fees are paid via the honesty box system found at the entrance to the campsite. Campsite fees at the time of writing are:

  • $10 per adult
  • $5 per child
  • $25 per family 

Facilities: Gas BBQs, toilets, showers (hot and large enough to take kids in), picnic tables, kiosk.

Vehicle type: 2WD accessible.

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge
Glen Helen Gorge
credit – tourism nt/annie nguyen

Located right near Ormiston Gorge but on the opposite side of the main drag, Glen Helen Gorge features a dramatic break in the ranges that allows the Finke River to flow through, resulting in a particularly impressive landscape with towering cliffs. The landscape is around 800 million years old and has been home to the Western Aranda Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years.

Glen Helen used to be a commercial campground with great swimming, cabins and a spot to get food and drink. Unfortunately, it’s been closed since the beginning of the Covid pandemic.  The good news is that it’s been purchased by Discovery Parks and will re-open at the end of March 2022. 

When it reopens, Glen Helen Discovery Parks will offer a campground with powered and unpowered sites, motel rooms, a restaurant, swimming pool and an outdoor terrace overlooking the Glen Helen Cliffs.

Basically, this is where you’ll head when you’re sick of roughing it, need a washing machine and are hankering for a bistro meal.

Facilities: Toilets, showers, powered sites, restaurant/bistro

Vehicle type: 2WD accessible.

Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge swimming hole
Credit – Tourism NT & Jess Caldwell & Luke Riddle

Redbank Gorge is located at the far reaches of the West MacDonnell Ranges around 156km west of Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive. It’s my favourite swimming spot in the West MacDonnell Ranges.  


Because if you hike in with a floaty of some sort, you can wade up the swimming hole through the narrow gorge and float back down just for fun! Also, it’s absolutely stunning and when you arrive at the gorge itself, you really feel like you’ve adventured into somewhere remote and truly special.

The downside? 

The campsites are not beside the waterhole and you have to hike in to reach it. Normally it’s an easy 30 minutes walk to the waterhole through a mostly dry sandy riverbed and is no problem. However, when we did it last year, it took over an hour as recent flooding had washed away a thick layer of sand, leaving us to dodge deep water holes and scramble over rocks and boulders nearly the entire way. It was a lot of fun!

There are two campgrounds here, the Woodland and the Ridgetop. Campsites are first-in-first-served and camping fees are paid via an honesty box system. Redbank Gorge is listed as a Category B campsite, therefore the following fees apply:

  • $4 per adult
  • $2 per child (5 to 17 years)
  • $10 per family (2 adults and 4 children)

Facilities: Both sites have toilets, picnic tables and fire pits. Woodland Campsite has BBQs.

Vehicle type: 4WD only. The 5km track in from the main road is corrugated with washouts. 

West MacDonnell Ranges
Hiking into Redbank Gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges
Credit – Jessica Palmer

Best time to camp along the West MacDonnell Ranges

Most people will recommend the West MacDonell Ranges from April to September as it gets stinking hot in Central Australia during the warmer months. The wet season tends to run from November to April. 

However, the water holes are notoriously chilly so unless you enjoy hypothermia, I would personally stick to March to April and September to October when it’s still hot enough to jump in the chilly waterholes.

Getting to the West MacDonnell Ranges

Your jump off point for the West MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory is Alice Springs. There are no shops selling supplies or fuel along this camping route so you will need to make sure you stock up in Alice.

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