The Larapinta Trail is a bit of an epic with 223km of breathtaking Northern Territory trails to cover. It’ll strengthen your body and open your mind with its smorgasbord of classic Australian landscapes — from swimming holes in deep gorges to mountainous heath to the remains of ancient rainforests. Caitlin Weatherstone hiked the whole thing (without using any single use plastic!) and has the lowdown on this iconic Aussie trail.
The Larapinta Trail in the Red Centre is known as one of Australia’s toughest multi-day hikes. It runs 223km west from the township of Alice Springs along the spines of the West MacDonnell and Chewings Ranges in Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, which is jointly managed by the Northern Territory Government and Arrernte Traditional Owners.
Some of the 12 sections are accessible by road, and with over 35 campsites to pick from you can do it ‘choose your own adventure’ style in a few days or tackle the whole thing over a few weeks.
The Larapinta Trail can be completed end to end (E2E) starting from the east or west (the trail guides are written east to west and I did it ‘backwards’, west to east).
It’s recommended that you undertake the Larapinta Trail in the cooler months between April and October in 12-18 days. The latter may allow for a more enjoyable experience, only hiking around 15km per day. You’ll be rewarded with incredible views from over 1,000m altitude, refreshing swimming spots, gorges to explore and an amazing insight into central Australia’s unique geology, ecology and history.
Highlights Of The Larapinta Trail
- A gruelling (and rewarding) hike you’ll never forget
- Mars-like landscapes of the ‘West Macs’
- Swimming in magical, freezing desert waterholes
- Epic views of Central Australia and its surprising lushness
- Connection to the natural and cultural wonders of Tjoritja, which according to traditional Arrernte stories, was formed by giant caterpillars (download the app for the full story, told by an Aboriginal elder).
- Water containers to carry up to 10-12L — you’ll need about 0.5-1L of water per hour of walking
- Wholesome and lightweight food in minimal packaging
- Emergency beacon (Satellite phone, EPIRB, SPOT or InReach)
- Cold weather gear — the temperature can drop significantly at night
- Hot weather gear— Even in winter, the temperature can be in the 30’s during the day
- Head torch — early morning or early evening hikes are a good way to escape the heat
- Gaiters and/or long pants — Spiky spinifex is not your friend
- Sturdy, tough hiking boots — the terrain is brutal
- Fly veil — I inhaled three flies before I finally gave in and put it on
- Electrolytes — I had two lots per day plus heaps of water and still felt dehydrated
Important Things To Know
- The heat and keeping hydrated (aka staying alive) are the biggest issues on the trail. There are water tanks placed at every trailhead (every 15-30km), as well as toilets. Do not rely on natural water sources as most are semi-permanent
- For E2E trekkers, you can organise food drops every 3-5 days at Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek and Standley Chasm
- Due to the central Australian heat, you really need to be off the trail and/or somewhere with shade between the hours of 12.00pm-4.00pm each day, especially in the warmer months (September-May)
- You can get all your hiking info and maps from the NT Government’s Larapinta Trail website
- You don’t need to buy hiking permits, although you will need to pay for camping at some designated spots ($5-$20 cash)
- There is some mobile phone signal at most high points above 1,000m on the trail, but don’t rely on it. Take an emergency beacon too.
- There are swimming spots at some of the gorges every few days (some you can swim in, some you can’t) but be aware that the water is actually freezing cold
- Flash flooding can occur on the trail in the warmer months, which can make any river bed go from bone dry to a raging torrent in a few hours. Be aware of this when camping in ‘dry’ creek beds
- There are no bins along the trail, so you need to pack out what you take in
- Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is brimming with significant cultural areas to the local Arrernte people, and Aboriginal artefacts are common sights along the trail. Please do not souvenir, touch or move any artefacts.
How To Get There
Depending on which sections you plan on walking, you can self-drive, hitch a ride or go with one of the several tour companies that transfer hikers to either end of the trail (although you can just walk to Section 1 from Alice Springs if going east-west). Transfers will need to be organised well ahead of time as phone signal on the trail is very patchy and not reliable and there is no public transport to/from section 12.
Experienced. Most of the hike is graded at a ‘moderate-difficult’ rating due to the rough terrain, steep sections and long, hot days. There are three sections that are rated ‘difficult’ — sections 9, 5 and 4. You’ll need a good level of fitness and remote bushwalking experience to complete the trail.
Sections 12, 11 & 10
Redbank Gorge – Finke River – Ormiston Gorge
15km (S12) + 26.3km (S11) + 9.1km (S10)= 50.4km
Car Access Points
Redbank Gorge (4WD), Glen Helen and Ormiston Gorge.
- Mt. Sonder summit walk (1,300m) — The NT’s 4th highest peak and the trail’s highest
- Redbank Gorge walk and swim
- Ormiston Gorge swim and a treat from the kiosk
Mount Sonder and back is the first section (or last, depending which end you start from), which is actually a side track off the Larapinta Trail, so you’ll need to come back via Redbank Gorge again. This really needs to be tackled either early morning or late afternoon and allow 6-7 hours total. At the summit, you’ll be rewarded with epic views of Mt Zeil to the west, NT’s highest peak (1,500m), Tjoritja and the Larapinta Trail to the east.
Stay at Redbank Gorge overnight and allow some time to do the gorge walk (about 1 hour) and have a swim. Section 11 is a long one and includes another big incline to 1,000m, so it’s better taken on over 2 days with a stay halfway at the Rocky Bar Gap camp. There’s a nice spot to rest and watch the local wildlife at Davenport Creek too (and it might even have a bit of water in it!).
Sections 9, 8 & 7
Ormiston Gorge – Serpentine Chalet Dam – Serpentine Gorge – Ellery Creek
28.3km (S9) + 13km (S8) + 13.1km (S7) = 54.4km
Car Access Points
Ormiston Gorge, Serpentine Chalet Dam (4WD), Serpentine Gorge, Ellery Creek
- The views of Mt. Giles from Heavitree Range (1,000m)
- Inarlanga Pass — a great lunch spot in the shade
- Serpentine Chalet Dam swim — a 10min walk north from the campsite
- Counts Point lookout views
- Serpentine Gorge’s beauty (no swimming allowed)
- Ellery Creek Big Hole walk and swim
Section 9 is one of the longest and most difficult sections of the trail and is better spread between 2 days. It is made more difficult by having no reliable water sources for almost 30km. Carry lots of water on this section (I carried 11L and drank it all) and leave well before sunrise! Sections 8 and 7 are fairly quick and easy (about five hours each) and could be combined into a big day out, or spread over 2 so you can enjoy the views longer from Counts Point. Don’t forget to have a quick dip in the old dam near Serpentine Chalet Dam’s campsite.
Sections 6, 5 & 4
Ellery Creek – Hugh Gorge – Standley Chasm
30.3km (S6) + 14.9km (S5) + 16.7km (S4) = 61.9km
Car Access Points
Ellery Creek, Hugh Gorge, Birthday Waterhole, Standley Chasm
- A rest and swim at Ellery Creek Big Hole
- Camping at Hugh Gorge Junction
- Views of Paisley Bluff from Razorback Ridge (1,000m)
- Spencer Gorge’s peace and shade
- Rocky Cleft’s geology and vegetation
- Views from Brinkley Bluff (1,209m)
- Standley Chasm (entry fee to Traditional Owners)
Section 6 takes you on a long, undulating and uneventful 30km across the Alice Valley from the West MacDonnell Range to the Chewings Range. Though, it does get you to sections 5 and 4 which have some of the most scenic (and difficult) parts of the trail including Razorback Ridge and Brinkley Bluff. A must do!
Camping at Hugh Gorge Junction and on top of Brinkley Bluff would be ideal, although you’ll need to stock up on water for this. If you’ve only got a few days to explore the Larapinta, I’d definitely recommend these sections!
Sections 3, 2 & 1
Standley Chasm – Jay Creek – Simpson’s Gap – Telegraph Station (Alice Springs)
13.6km (S3) + 26.2km (S2) + 24.7km (S1) = 64.5km
Car Access Points
Standley Chasm, Simpsons Gap, Telegraph Station/Alice Springs
- A well-deserved meal and ice-cream from the Standley Chasm shop
- The friendly rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap
- Views from Hat Hill Saddle and Euro Ridge
- The satisfaction of completing the Larapinta Trail!
Section 3 takes you along Jay Creek, a tributary of the largest drainage system in central Australia and the trail’s namesake, the Finke River (‘Lherepirnte’ in local Arrernte language). You can either stay low or shoot high to over 1,100m and back down again. Heck, why not go high? You’ve come this far! Sections 2 and 1 are mostly in the undulating lowlands and are both long sections. They could be smashed out in 2 days or 4 depending on the temperature and how early you leave. Telegraph Station is the final destination, and it’s only a short 20min walk south on the Todd River to get into the township of Alice Springs.
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