You’ve heard of the West Macs – the rocky range along which the Larapinta Trail runs, full of glorious locales for a freshwater swim. But what about the East MacDonnell Ranges? The West Macs’ mysterious sister, that hangs out on the other side of Alice Springs. What secrets is she hiding?

We acknowledge that this adventure is located on the traditional Country of the Eastern Arrernte people who have occupied and cared for these lands and waters for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them as the Traditional Custodians and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.


  • Chain of Ponds Walk at Trephina Gorge Nature Park
  • Ross River Resort – hello home-cooked meal and ice-cold beer!
  • Billions of budgies!


I recently had the privilege of adventuring across the East MacDonnell Ranges with photographer Renae Saxby, and we were gobsmacked at the utterly beautiful and surprisingly empty trails, campgrounds, and waterholes we found there. 

Most of the places in the East MacDonnell Ranges are best accessed with a 4WD. Roads are unsealed, often corrugated, and rocky, with sandy dry-creek crossings. 

Read more: How To 4WD For Beginners


Joker Gorge, Arltunga Historical Reserve


You can hike to your heart’s content at Trephina Gorge Nature Park. There’s a hike best done at sunrise, sunset, and every moment in between. You don’t need to walk far to enjoy the best the park has to offer but if you’re up for a challenge there’s certainly plenty to take on!

Here are my top picks for hikes in Trephina Gorge Nature Park;

Chain of Ponds

This 3.5km hike was an unexpected highlight of our trip. The trail climbs up to a lookout to give you a glimpse across the ranges and down into the gorge for what’s to come.

Soon the trail descends to a dry-river bed which quickly gives way to a ruby-red gorge with walls towering above you on either side. Come prepared to scramble as the last 1.5km of the hike navigates around large drop-offs and waterholes. The hike wraps up at John Hayes Rock Hole – perfect for a post-hike wash!

Read more: How To Hike in Hot Weather



Trephina Gorge Walk

Trephina Gorge Walk is a quick 2km hike that really packs a punch, especially during golden hour! The trail quickly ascends to walk along the rocky edge of Trephina Gorge, before taking a set of naturally spiralling stairs around a bend.

The trail soon descends into the gorge and sandy creek bed below. Don’t forget to turn around and take in the ridgeline and bluff behind you as the setting sun brings the rock to life!

Keen on a full day hiking extravaganza? Take the Ridgetop Trail from Trephina Gorge to John Hayes Rock Hole and combine the two hikes above into one!

Panorama Walk

The Panorama Walk is another quick 2.5km loop track that’s a great way to get the legs moving first thing in the morning. If you’re feeling up to it, start off with an ascent up the hill by Trephina Gorge for sweeping views back across the park and over to Modor Pound and Trephina Bluff.

The trail then slowly descends and wanders around a bend to land you back on the sandy creek bed of the gorge. Eyes peeled for birds, butterflies, and spiders!

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!


Although there aren’t quite as many swimming holes to choose from in the East Macs, no matter what day of the year it is, you’re not gonna get Ormiston Gorge all to yourself. But John Hayes Rock Hole is a different story. 

A short 100m wander from John Hayes car park, you’ll find this perfectly round rock hole encapsulated on both sides by high gorge walls with a sandy entrance waiting to welcome you into the freshwater. John Hayes Rock Hole is a quiet and peaceful place for relaxing and cooling off, and if you stumble upon it mid-week you’ll be cutting laps all by yourself. 

Read more: 5 Lesser-Known Waterholes of The Red Centre


John Hayes Rock Hole, Trephina Gorge Nature Park


If you’re lucky enough to be visiting the East Macs after a decent helping of rain, you might find a few more swim spots further up the gorge. Take the Chain of Ponds walk (the hint is in the name *taps nose*) up the gorge to suss out whether water’s flowing through the upper ponds. Be cautious though, there are definitely a few that the trail bypasses because clambering in and out seems damn near impossible. Best to stick to those right by the track.

Read more: Staying Safe Around Swimming Holes


I’m no certified twitcher but I do get excited when I wake to the tweeting of scores of bright Budgies as they busily duck, dive, and dip their way through River Red and Ghost gums. 

We witnessed Budgies in enormous numbers while pitched up in Trephina Gorge Nature Park, enough to delight anyone (and real-life twitchers might just lose it). The Red Centre has seen an abundance of rain in the last two years, which makes it the prime time to head there and check out the wildlife at its peak!



Explore History and Culture

Corroboree Rock

Half an hour out of Alice Springs you’ll find the turn off to Corroboree Rock, the remnant of an estimated 800 million year old rock strata that protrudes spectacularly out of the ground.

This is a sacred men’s site that’s still used in traditional culture today. Be sure to stay on the marked track during your visit as this is an official sacred site! 


Corroboree Rock | Photo thanks to Tourism Central Aus

Arltunga Historical Reserve

Did you know there’s an old gold mining village in the East Macs? Arltunga’s the name and you can check out what remains of the town and ponder life as a gold miner in the Central Australian heat. At its peak, around 400 diggers lived out here!

Arltunga Historical Reserve is one for the history buffs amongst us, but is certainly a fascinating drive with a couple more gorges in the area to check out as well. 

The old Police Station there is completely intact, with a gaol cell out the back bringing peak eerie vibes. The Government Works sounds a little odd but is pretty much the main street of town, with old stone quarters, machinery, the post office, and blacksmith shop scattered across the pebbled street.


The Government Works, Arltunga Historical Reserve

Yeperenye / Emily & Jessie Gaps

Your last stop on the way back to Alice Springs should be Emily and Jessie Gaps – just 20 minutes from the centre of town and perfect for a picnic.

The twin gaps form part of the caterpillar dreaming story about how Alice Springs was created and you can see rock art about it at Emily Gap. 

There’s also recently been a new 7.2km walking track built between the two gaps by the local Eastern Arrernte people, so definitely factor in time for a stroll. And if you’re there after rain, you might even stumble across a waterhole to cool off in.


Jessie Gap | Photo thanks to NT Tourism / Shanna McNaught


Much of the East Macs is an easy day trip from Alice Springs (which means you can be back in town in time for sundowners at Alice Springs Brewing Co if you want), but why not lap up having the place all to yourself?

This is a tough one to call so I’m going to offer you two options – and I’d personally opt for one night at each. 

Bluff Campground – Trephina Gorge Nature Park

Rolling into Bluff Campground in the mid-afternoon, the glowing orange of the bluff face, the sparkle of golden light through the gums and the soft, sandy creek bed combine to create a vista unlike any I’ve seen at a campground before. 

Although there are two other campgrounds within spitting distance of Bluff Campground, they don’t share the same afternoon spectacle that you get at Bluff. 

With space along the dry creek bed for tents, vans, campervans, and camper trailers, this campground caters for every Explorer. There are a couple of electric BBQs out there, a drop toilet, and at each campsite a fire pit and low-lying picnic table (my fav). 

Don’t forget! NT campgrounds need to be booked in advance, so secure your spot now!


Bluff Campground, Trephina Gorge Nature Park

Ross River Resort

If you’re keen on a little more comfort (and air-con) Ross River Resort is only 15 minutes down the road and is pretty much the Hilton Hotel of the East Macs (if your idea of luxury is a home-cooked meal and an ice-cold beer!). 

Surrounded by rolling, red ranges, Ross River Resort offers a campground and cute turquoise cabins by the equally turquoise pool. The Homestead is where you’ll find the reception, dining hall, bar and the most hospitable resort owners you’d hope to meet in your life. 

Renae and I were literally the only guests there (it was a Monday), so were doted on and presented with a two-course homemade dinner and fully-stocked beer fridge. Cheers to that!


Ross River Resort, East Macs

Essential Gear

  • 4WD 
  • Camping gear 
  • Your own water 
  • Food (no shops out here)
  • Hiking shoes 
  • Swimmers 
  • Towel 
  • Wide-brimmed hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Camera
  • PLB
  • First aid kit

How To Get There

The East MacDonnell Ranges begin a short drive east from Alice Springs.

Trephina Gorge Nature Park is an hour’s drive from Alice. 

Arltunga Historical Reserve is an 1.5 hour’s drive from Alice. 

Ross River Resort is at the end of Ross Highway an hour from Alice.

Photos thanks to @renaesaxby


Explore a little deeper into the heart of Australia – Get Out There into The Red Centre now!

Discover More in The Red Centre


Explore Now!