Driving the West MacDonnell Ranges to Uluru, NT

Editorial Team — 14 June 2024
This 729km route is one of Australia’s great ‘must-do’ drives.

And linking together three of Central Australia’s drawcards — the West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park — it makes for a great outback camping trip. 

The drive

Stretching some 161km west of Alice Springs, Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is a vast and stunning section of the MacDonnell Ranges. The mountain range contains many spectacular gaps and gorges as well as areas of Aboriginal significance. Some of the attractions you shouldn’t miss on a journey through here include Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye, the Ochre Pits and the permanent waterholes at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen.

Ellery Creek Big Hole (Image Matt Williams)

Leaving Alice Springs, it’s bitumen all the way past Glen Helen Gorge via Larapinta Drive first, then on Namatjira Drive. From Glen Helen, the bitumen extends until you meet the dirt at what was once the Mereenie Loop Road, now the Red Centre Way. Before hitting the dirt make a quick stop at Tylers Pass for panoramic views across to Tnorala (Gosse Bluff), the impact site of an ancient comet.

You’re back on the bitumen at the boundary of Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon is the next stop. After Kings Canyon and King Creek, follow Luritja Drive to the Lasseter Highway. From this junction it’s 136km to Yulara — the gateway to Ulurand Kata Tjuta. If you don’t believe in magic, you may just change your mind after you witness your first sunset at Uluru. Allow yourself as much time as possible to explore this region.

Things to do

The Alice Springs-based tourist crowds generally thin by the time you reach Serpentine Gorge. The gorges further west in the MacDonnell Ranges are too far for day-trippers from The Alice and are actually much more dramatic than the better-known Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye.

Ormiston Gorge

The largest, most spectacular and colourful gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Ormiston Gorge, has a variety of walks — everything from a 15-minute stroll to the waterhole to an overnight hike to a bush camping area at the eastern end for a truly breathtaking view back across the pound. The three-hour Pound Walk, which is best done in the morning, climbs to a lookout atop the majestic cliffs. Then it meanders down into the pound and back along the cliff-lined creek bed to the main swimming hole. Discovery Parks – Glen Helen, in view of Mount Sonder, is currently temporarily closed.

Glen Helen GorgeViews of Mount Sonder (Image Matt Williams)

Catering for the very adventurous, Redbank Gorge is a narrow, 500m long chasm through the red quartzite range. Its icy waters are best explored on an air mattress — the extra effort is well rewarded. Watch out for snakes and slippery rock surfaces. The unusual ring of hills of Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) is thought to be the impact of an ancient comet. Access to the picnic area is recommended for 4WDs only, but there are good views of the bluff from the lookout at Tylers Pass. Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) is jointly managed by the Western Arrernte Aboriginal people and the Parks and Wildlife Commission, so please obey signage regarding access. Sheer sandstone cliffs, which reach more than 150m high in places, are the most impressive feature of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. 

Other areas of interest include the orange beehive rock formations of the Lost City and the cool, tranquil waterhole at the garden of Eden. There are several walks, with the most comprehensive being a full-day jaunt around the whole canyon. The less adventurous can opt for a walk to the top of the first climb, where there’s a great sunset view. Scenic helicopter flights operate from Discovery Resorts – Kings Canyon. 

Kings Canyon (Image Matt Williams) 

The resort’s campground is very good and there are first-class dining facilities as well. In the southern end of Watarrka National Park, a short, easy walk provides access from the picnic area, past some old stockyards, to the tranquil waterhole of Kathleen Spring. A two-day walk to Kings Canyon begins here too, passing a number of Aboriginal art sites along the way. Just outside the southern end of Watarrka National Park is Kings Creek Station. This privately-run station campground offers helicopter rides over Kings Canyon, as well as camel safaris and quad bike tours.

The Red Centre experience

There’s something special about seeing Uluru for the first time — rising majestically from the flat desert plain. The world’s largest monolith, Uluru has a real aura — particularly at dawn and dusk. Sunset and sunrise viewing areas have been built around Uluru, enabling large numbers of people to get that perfect photograph without destroying the fragile landscape. Allow yourself two days to fully experience this outback wonder and its timeless splendour. A must for any visitor is a walk to one of the numerous significant sites around the base of the rock, as is a visit to the architecturally acclaimed Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. 

Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), with its 36 towering domes that blaze a brilliant red against the deep blue desert sky, is in many ways equally as spectacular as Uluru. The domes rise almost 200m higher than Uluru. The first, and shorter, of the two walks takes about 40 minutes to meander up Walpa Gorge (Olga Gorge) where the sheer walls of these massive conglomerate domes give your neck a real workout. The second walk takes you deep into the Valley of the Winds where you can really appreciate the immense proportions of Kata Tjuta and begin to understand why the local Anangu people find this area such an awe-inspiring place.

Driving permits

The Central Land Council requires you to buy a permit to drive the Mereenie Loop Road. Permits are available from the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre, Glen Helen Lodge, Hermannsburg General Store, Kings Canyon Resort and the Alice Springs Central Lands Council. Prices vary from $5–$6. Head here for more information. 

Don't forget to organise your NT Parks Pass as well. Find out more here

Where to stay

Camping is available at several sites along the route:


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Northern Territory West MacDonnell Ranges Kings Canyon Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Caravan parks