My favourite spot in the East MacDonnell Ranges was Trephina Gorge. This incredible area is defined by stunning sheer quartzite cliff faces and sandy creek beds, which can be explored on foot on various walking trails.
Trephina Gorge is also a popular camping area east of Alice Springs, and offers a much more peaceful place to stay compared to the busier West MacDonnell Ranges. While many people tend to skip the East Macs on their trip to Central Australia, I would highly recommend you add it to your itinerary. Its rugged terrain is far less visited and provides a great sense of adventure.
If you’re planning a trip out to Trephina Gorge Nature Park in the East MacDonnell Ranges, then this guide covers everything that you need to know about a visit.
Where is Trephina Gorge?
Trephina Gorge Nature Park is located inside the East MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. It’s just a 77km drive east of Alice Springs on the Ross Highway and you’ll come to the turnoff and entrance to the nature park.
From the Ross Highway it’s a further 9km to reach the main car park area at Trephina Gorge. The first 4km is a skinny sealed road, and the final 5km is an unsealed road. It’s in relatively good condition, although a bit corrugated. Most 2WD vehicles will make it in without any trouble, although you should check the conditions after heavy rain.
About Trephina Gorge Nature Park
The nature park is home to two gorges, Trephina Gorge and John Hayes Rockhole. The former is wider with a sandy creek bed and panoramic views from the top of it’s ridge, while the latter is a skinny, rocky gorge with some semi-permanent waterholes that attract a range of wildlife.
The nature park is also home to the largest ghost gum in Australia, which you can easily check out on your way through the park. You’ll find it on your right between John Hayes Rockhole and Trephina Gorge.
The two most popular activities in the park are walking and camping. There are a few Trephina Gorge walks which are worth doing during your time there, with options from short and easy strolls to longer day hikes. You’ll also find a few camping areas in the park offering a wonderful escape from the crowds in Alice Springs and the West MacDonnell Ranges.
As part of the broader MacDonnell Ranges, which is known as Tjoritja to Traditional Owners, Trephina Gorge is an important place for the Arrernte Aboriginal people. The land was given back to the Traditional Owners in 2008 and is leased to the NT government to be run as a nature park.
Essential information for visiting Trephina Gorge
Entry: There are no park passes required for Trephina Gorge, however, camping fees apply if you plan on staying the night. Camping fees are $4 per adult per night.
Road conditions: The dirt road into the gorge is usually in good condition and accessible for 2WD vehicles. However, John Hayes Rockhole is 4WD accessible only, on a rough track that requires a high clearance vehicle.
Phone reception: You won’t find any phone reception in Trephina Gorge Nature Park. However, some Telstra reception can be found on top of the ridge lines if you’re doing some of the walks, but I wouldn’t rely on it.
Trail navigation: All the trails are well marked by coloured arrows. However, if you prefer to have a backup app, I suggest Maps.Me which works well with the trails here.
Drones: Trephina Gorge Nature Park is a drone free park, meaning that you cannot fly drones even if you have a permit.
Swimming: John Hayes Rockhole can be open for swimming after heavy rain in summer, with various swimming holes. In winter, the water levels are much lower. However, the water is freezing all year round, so don’t spend too long in there.
Fires: Fires are allowed in permitted pits, however, you can’t collect firewood within the park so you need to bring your own.
Leave no trace: There are no rubbish bins in the park, so make sure you take all your rubbish out with you. You’ll find toilets at Trephina Gorge Campground and John Hayes Rockhole Campground.
Trephina Gorge camping
Camping at Trephina Gorge is definitely a highlight of a trip to the East MacDonnell Ranges. You’ll find four campgrounds inside the nature park to choose from, with one being 4WD only.
All four campgrounds work the same and are on a first come first served basis. There’s an honesty box system checked regularly by rangers. You can pick whatever site you like and then fill out the details on the envelope, before placing the correct change in there and putting it back in the box.
The campgrounds are basic bush camping, with toilets and no other facilities.
Current Trephina Gorge camping fees are: $4 per adult, $2 per child or $10 for a family of up to two adults and four children.
Trephina Gorge – Gorge Campground
This is the main camping area located towards the left hand side of the main car park and trailhead for Trephina Gorge. It’s suitable for all vehicles and camping setups, with about 20 sites available.
Trephina Gorge – Panorama Campground
Just to the right side of the main car park and trailhead at Trephina gorge is this second camping area which is suited to caravans and larger buses. While they’re larger sites, anyone can use them if you prefer it to the other areas.
Trephina Bluff Campground
Just before you reach Trephina Gorge, this campground will be on your right and offers a quieter alternative. There’s room for about six spaced sites and it offers beautiful views of the quartzite gorge walls towering above the camp. It is a bit further away from the start of the walks though if that’s what you plan on doing.
John Hayes Rockhole Campground
This 4WD only campground is right by the swimming hole at the other end of the park area. You will come across the turnoff for this campground a few kilometres before Trephina Gorge on your left. It’s a short 4km drive, but does require a high clearance vehicle. There are a couple of nice walks which start from there, such as the Chain of Ponds Walk.
Trephina Gorge Walks
There are some great walks in Trephina Gorge Nature Park. Of course, I highly recommend you try to get to them all, although there is one decent hike that is best reserved for fit walkers.
If you’re short on time, you could knock off a couple of these shorter walks in the same day, particularly, the Trephina Gorge Walk and Panorama Walk which leave from the same trailhead.
Trephina Gorge Walk
2km || Easy
This walk is short but allows you to explore more of Trephina Gorge and it’s sandy creek bed. You can complete the loop anyway that you like, but I chose to do it clockwise. Leaving from the trailhead it heads off to the left and climbs above the gorge for a short while.
You then walk along the top admiring beautiful views down into the gorge, before you start to follow the arrows down to the sandy creek bed. You then follow the creek back to the start. It’s a pretty easy walk with a slight elevation gain, that shouldn’t take too long if you’re short on time.
If you’re lucky, you might spot a Black-footed Rock Wallaby in the rocky gorge, particularly at sunset time or if there’s water present.
2.5km || Moderate
A slightly harder walk, but one that offers even better views, this one is definitely worth your time and effort. I also completed this clockwise which gets the harder incline out of the way first.
The trail heads off from the main trailhead and crosses the creek bed to the opposite side of the gorge. Follow the trail that zig zags up to the top for incredible panoramic views of the ranges and Mordor Pound in the distance. You also get great views over the campground all the way up, so you can easily stop for a few breaks.
From the top, the trail heads down slowly along the ridge and then winds its way down to the creek bed again. It should take less than hour with a couple of short breaks and is best in the early morning or late afternoon light.
I also walked back up to the top of the ridge again for sunset which was SO worth while. There was no one else up there and probably one of the most memorable sunsets from my time in the Northern Territory.
Chain of Ponds Walk
3.5km || Moderate-Hard
This walk begins at John Hayes Rockhole, so it’s only accessible to those with a 4WD or hikers doing the longer Ridgetop Walk. It’s recommended to do this anti-clockwise, which begins with a relatively easy walk up to a beautiful lookout above the rockhole.
The trail then continues and meets up with the Ridgetop Walk from Trephina Gorge. You then have a bit of rock scrambling down through the gorge which is not overly difficult until the end. You will come to a spot that looks down at a waterhole below. Form here, the trail climbs up to your right which requires a bit of hard scrambling, before finally descending down to the car park. Make sure that you follow the arrows!
If you want an easier version, you can simply walk up to the lookout and return the same way.
A longer walk
If you’re a keen hiker, then I highly recommend the Ridgetop Walk. This long day hike takes in the best of the whole nature park so it’s a good day out, with incredible views and some fun rock scrambling.
10km one way or 18km loop || Hard
The ultimate Trephina Gorge hike, this day hike is one of the best in Central Australia. It’s a one way trail connecting John Hayes Rockhole and Trephina Gorge, so it requires a car shuffle if you want to complete the 10km hike with a friend. If you’re solo hiking like I was, then it requires an extra 8km walk back along the road to return to your car and/or campground.
You can complete this hike in either direction, but considering I was staying at Trephina Gorge I started from there. The hike begins by following the Trephina Gorge Walk up on top of the gorge. You’ll then see the turnoff for the Ridgetop Walk on your left.
Once you hit that trail, it climbs for a while to the top of the ridge. The views get better as you climb and continue to be incredibly spectacular as you follow the ridge right along. After 5km, you’ll come to the Turners Lookout detour. It’s worth walking the 400m to the panoramic viewpoint at the edge of the range.
It’s a perfect spot for a snack break, although it can be very windy. You’ve got to retrace your steps to the main trail and then continue towards John Hayes Creek. The next 2km are a relatively steep descent to the creek, as the expansive views slowly disappear.
Once you hit the creek bed, you have to turn left and follow it until it meets up with the Chain of Ponds Walk. You have two options here. You can head left and follow the easier trail down to the car park, or you can take the right trail which rock hops down through John Hayes Rockhole back to the car park.
I took the right hand trail which takes you down through the skinny and rocky gorge with some small waterholes. It was a lot of fun and completely different to the first half of the trail. Only about 500m from the end, you’ll come to a spot that overlooks a steep drop down to the main waterhole. The trail heads sharply to your right and requires you to climb up the rocks until you reach the top of the gorge.
It then heads down to the car park and campground. Follow the arrows and you’ll be okay, but the trail can be hard to follow these last few hundred metres as it climbs down steeply.
Read next: 8 Best Day Walks in Central Australia
If you’ve parked a car there, then it’s the end of the hike. Otherwise, I had the 8km walk back along the dirt road to Trephina Gorge. This last part is mostly flat so I was able to complete it in less than two hours, so it’s not all bad. The whole 18km hike took me five hours, including a few short breaks.
Alternative car park option for John Hayes Rockhole: If you don’t have a 4WD but still don’t want to walk the 8km back to make this a loop, there is some parking available at the turnoff for John Hayes Rockhole. This means you would only need to do an extra 4km on top of the 10km, instead of 8km.
Exploring more of the MacDonnell Ranges
If you want to continue exploring more of the East Macs such as Corroboree Rock and N’Dhala Gorge, then check out my guide to the East MacDonnell Ranges.
On the other side of Alice Springs, you can explore the more popular West MacDonnell Ranges which is also equally beautiful. Check out my guide to the West MacDonnell Ranges.
If you have a bit of time in town, then I have a post on the best things to do in Alice Springs.