Ormiston Gorge is my favourite place in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This incredible gorge on the Red Centre Way just west of Alice Springs is spectacular to say the least. The towering red walls of the ranges give way to an almost-permanent waterhole at the sandy bottom, which is often called Central Australia’s “beach”.
While enjoying the cold water and beautiful view of the gorge shouldn’t take too long, there are some fantastic walks and viewpoints in the surrounding area which are worth taking the time to do. There’s also a kiosk and campground at Ormiston Gorge making it a place you can easily spend a couple of days.
After visiting the gorge three times now as both a hiker on the Larapinta Trail and as a tourist in my van, it’s safe to say that I know the gorge pretty well. Below is my essential guide to visiting Ormiston Gorge with all the information you’ll need to know.
Where is Ormiston Gorge?
Ormiston Gorge is located in the West MacDonnell National Park or Tjoritja. It’s just 135km or 1.5 hour’s drive west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
You can easily reach it by taking Larapinta Drive, then Namatjira Drive until you come to the turnoff for Ormiston Gorge. It’s accessible on a sealed road all the way in, so any vehicle will be able to access it. It’s one of many spots worth checking out in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
About Ormiston Gorge
Ormiston Gorge is known as Kwartatuma by the Western Arrernte people.
The Ormiston Gorge Waterhole is the semi-permanent water you can find at Ormiston Gorge. The water is cold all year round, so it’s very refreshing on a hot day (although rangers will even warn you of hypothermia, which seems crazy but real).
Around the waterhole, there is plenty of sand to relax on, although with limited shade. You can also scramble further along and over the rocks to get deeper into the gorge. You can usually find some more swimming spots and sandy banks with less crowds the further you go.
There are some great walks at Ormiston Gorge as well. I’ve detailed them all further below, and I think it’s worth doing at least the Ghost Gum Walk to really grasp the scale of this incredibly beautiful place. Otherwise, you can have a picnic and enjoy the spectacular views of the gorge all afternoon long.
Essential information for visiting Ormiston Gorge
Entry: There is not entry fee or park pass required for Ormiston Gorge or the West MacDonnell Ranges. However, there are camping fees which are $10 per adult per night.
Road conditions: Ormiston Gorge is accessible on a sealed road from Alice Springs, and open to all vehicles.
Parking: There is a large car park at the main visitor area, near the kiosk. From the car park, the gorge is only a few hundred metres away.
Phone reception: Optus has decent 3G phone signal at Ormiston Gorge although it can drop out occasionally. There is no Telstra reception.
Drones: Drones are allows in the West MacDonnell National Park. However, you must get a free drone permit prior to flying, which can take a couple of days to process.
Trail navigation: The Ormiston Gorge walks in the area are well marked with large colour coded arrows. Larapinta Trail is blue and Ormiston Pound Walk is orange.
Swimming: Swimming is allowed at Ormiston Gorge and there are no crocodiles like in the Top End which is nice! However, the water can be freezing even on hot days, and it’s not overly deep depending how much recent rain the area has had.
Safety: If you’re planning on doing the Ormiston Pound Walk, it’s best to do this early in the morning to avoid the hot sun in the middle of the day. Take plenty of water with you as well, as you won’t find any on the trail.
Leave no trace: There are limited rubbish removal services, so you’re expected to take all of your rubbish out with you. There are public toilets available near the car park.
Sunset and sunrise spots: If you’re a keen photographer, there are two great spots to be for sunrise or sunset. The Ghost Gum Lookout is best at sunset when you can capture the last light on the gorge and it’s not too far from the campground and car park. If you’re up for a big hike, then you can head up to the lookout on the Ormiston Pound Walk which is around 3.5km one way from the campground. It’s stunning at sunset or sunrise, and is worth the effort. More on these walks below.
Ormiston Gorge facilities
Kiosk and café: The lovely kiosk is open from 10am to 4pm every day and sells coffee, tea, smoothies, cold drinks, scones, toasted sandwiches and pies. People rave about the scones and their coffee is pretty good too. They also sell some souvenirs in the shop.
Picnic area: There are shelters with tables and BBQs free to use for day visitors and campers scattered throughout the area.
Toilets and showers: There are public toilets near the kiosk and toilets and hot showers in the campground.
Ranger guided walks: From May until August there are free guided ranger walks at Ormiston Gorge. Running in the afternoon every second week, they last about 60 minutes and teach you a bit more about the area, including the wildlife found in the Red Centre.
Ormiston Gorge campground
Ormiston Gorge camping is opposite the visitor day parking area and on your left as you drive in. There are around 20 sites all unpowered, with a centrally located toilet and shower block. You’ll also find a shelter with a BBQ and table for campers use.
Sites vary in size from big enough for a small van up to caravan and car set ups. The ground is dusty and a bit rocky, with limited shade on some sites. The lower sites are flat but the upper spots tend to be a bit on a slope, so you’ll want to try and grab a lower site if possible.
It operates on a first come first served basis and you pick your own spot when you arrive. The kiosk (privately managed) has nothing to do with the campground (run by NT Parks) and it works on an honesty box system. You’ll find envelopes and the price list at the entrance to the campground. You must fill in your details, place the correct cash amount in the envelope, tear off the permit slip, put the envelope through the slot and put the permit on your dash.
It’s currently $10 per adult per night, $5 per child or $25 for a family with up to two adults and four kids as of 2021.
If you’re visiting between June and August, expect the campground to be full most days. It’s best to arrive at 10am when people are leaving or at least before lunchtime if you want a decent spot. When I was there in July, there was only a couple of vacant spots by 11am.
Outside of these months it’s much quieter and you can almost always get a spot until mid to late afternoon. When I was there another time at the end of September, there was only a handful of us staying the night mid-week.
Larapinta Trail hikers generally have a separate camping area towards the back of the day visitor area, but outside of June-August they’re able to camp in the main campground as there’s much fewer tourists then.
Ormiston Gorge walks
If you’ve brought your hiking boots, then you should definitely head out on the Ormiston Gorge walks. If you have the time, I would recommend to complete them all, as it’s the best way to really admire the entire gorge area.
Ormiston Gorge Waterhole Walk
300m || Easy
This short, paved walk takes you from the car park to the main waterhole and gorge. Everyone can complete the 300m walk, with it being wheelchair accessible too.
At the end of the path, there are two ways to get down to the sand. The first one takes you straight to the sand from where you can get a nice view of the gorge and water. The second one is just a bit further and gets you down closer to the water.
Ghost Gum Walk
2.5km || Moderate
This loop walk is a great way to see more of the gorge from a different perspective. The trail takes you from the car park up to the Ghost Gum Lookout. This platform offers incredible views across the ranges, as well as down into the gorge itself.
From the platform, you can continue along the side of the gorge wall before eventually descending down to the water. From there, you have to scramble over boulders and wade through the creek bed (requiring you to get a little wet!), as you make your way back to the main waterhole and beach.
The 2.5km loop is definitely a popular choice and is perfect for families.
Ghost Gum Lookout
1.5km || Moderate
Another option if you’re just looking for a nice view or sunset location is to simply head up to the Ghost Gum Lookout and then return the same way. This makes it just 1.5km return and is best at sunset or sunrise. The short climb to the lookout and platform is on a well-formed track with a decent elevation that’s made a little easier with some stairs. It should still only take around 10-15 minutes to get to the top from the campground.
Ormiston Pound Walk
9km || Moderate
This is probably one of my favourite day walks, which is a big call I know. But this 9km loop is an absolutely incredible hike that packs a lot of punch into a short distance.
The walk begins from the car park and heads along the Larapinta Trail for a little while parallel to the road. It then turns off and begins to climb steadily until you reach a saddle between the ridges at the 3km mark. From the saddle there, you should take the detour up to the lookout on top of the ridge to your left.
You can basically follow the ridgeline up as far as you like, but it’s worth walking the 500m to the very top of the ridge for 360 degree panoramic views across Ormiston Pound and the West MacDonnell Ranges. I spent a while up there soaking it all in, it’s truly one of the best views you’ll get.
From there you have to climb back to the saddle and track junction and continue on the trail which takes you down into the pound. Once you hit the bottom of the pound floor, the trail is mostly flat from there on but it continues to impress with the views.
You’ll cross a very sandy section and then enter into the gorge. This last 2.5km or so through the gorge is spectacular. The high red walls tower way above your head and the colours are just so beautiful. There’s no designated trail through the gorge, you simply have to follow the sand and rock hop your way along.
Once you reach the first sign of water, you have to ford your way across and then walk back over the rocks all the way to the main waterhole and beach area. The water level will depend on rainfall and when you decide to do this walk. When I did it in July, I only had to ford across that one section of water that was about mid-shin deep but it can be higher or lower depending on the year.
This incredible walk takes about 3 hours for fit hikers, including breaks to take photos and the detour to the viewpoint. if you don’t have time, you can also shorten it by just heading up to the viewpoint and returning the same way which would only be around 6.8km return. However, I highly recommend you complete the full loop to appreciate how spectacular the gorge really is.
Read next: 8 Best Day Walks in Central Australia
Ormiston Gorge is one of the highlights of the Larapinta Trail. This 223km long distance walk passes right through Ormiston Gorge, and most hikers camp the night there as it’s the trailhead for sections 9 and 10. If you’re interested in undertaking the entire trail, read my experience here.
Otherwise, there are actually two other overnight walks from Ormiston Gorge which are restricted to very experienced bushwalkers who have navigation skills.
30.6km || Hard
Mt Giles is the third highest peak in the Northern Territory at 1389m and is tucked behind Ormiston Pound. There is an unmarked and undefined walk that leads from Ormiston to Mount Giles summit. The 15.3km one way hike is usually done over 2-3 days return.
The “trail” turns off the Ormiston Pound Walk and then heads towards Mt Giles. Camping is recommended in the creek bed, but there are no facilities whatsoever. You must be able to navigate completely in remote backcountry environments as there is literally not a trail to follow (I saw two hikers heading off the Pound Walk en route to Giles and I can confirm they were just walking through the scrub!).
However, it’s said to be one of the most rewarding multi-day hikes in the Northern Territory.
18km || Moderate-Hard
Another beautiful remote walk from Ormiston Gorge is to Bowmans Gap. The 9km one way walk is only medium graded and takes around 3-4 hours one way.
This walk also leaves off the Pound Walk towards the gap on an unmarked and undefined track. While it’s possible to complete in one long day, rangers recommend you extend it to a 2 day hike.
Find the official map and information for both walks here.
Exploring more of the West MacDonnell Ranges
There are plenty of gorges, gaps and walks to do in the West MacDonnell Ranges. While Ormiston is definitely one of the highlights, you should try and check out some of the other top spots:
- Ellery Creek Big Hole: 49km from Ormiston Gorge
- Standley Chasm: 104km from Ormiston Gorge
- Simpsons Gap: 125km from Ormiston Gorge
- Redbank Gorge: 36km from Ormiston Gorge