My Top 7 Things to Do – Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia

Last Updated on May 6, 2021 by Red Nomad OZ

Mt Sonder from the Larapinta Trail, via Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia
Mt Sonder from the Larapinta Trail, via Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia

For a good time, spend a few nights at Central Australia’s Ormiston Gorge and surrounds.  On our stay, we managed 6 fun-filled days (and nights)!  Here’s how!

A geologist’s fantasy, the long line of Central Australia’s Western MacDonnell Ranges stretches out across the desert plains from Alice Springs.  It’s full of spectacular scenery, gorges, rivers, mountains and rock formations.

135 km west of Alice Springs, Ormiston Gorge’s 300 metre (985 feet) walls tower above Ormiston Creek. The doubled-over double layer of quartzite folded into itself has made the gorge’s walls significantly higher than those of the other gorges in the region. Its location in the surrounding ranges means superb panoramas, wonderful walks and a marvellous base from which to experience the region.

Here’s my guide to 7 FAAABULOUS experiences to have within a 10km radius of Ormiston Gorge!

1 Sunrise at Ghost Gum Lookout:

Ghost Gum at Ghost Gum Lookout, Ormiston Gorge
Ghost Gum at Ghost Gum Lookout, Ormiston Gorge

‘Oh, you’ve missed the sunrise,’ she said, smirking with a particularly smug condescension. It almost – but not quite – masked the unfortunate inanity of her claim.

Wouldn’t I have noticed if I’d been climbing the steep, narrow and rocky track to the lookout in the total darkness of the pre-dawn night?

No, the sun-drenched landscape was a dead give-away. I clearly HADN’T missed the sunrise!

I’d just experienced it in a different spot.

Secure in the superiority that one-upmanship brings to the uninformed, the couple descended into the chill of the Gorge.  They were hung about with the several thousand dollars worth of photography paraphernalia that would prove their sunrise claims and show off their ‘serious traveller’ credentials.

Unused to such mindless competitiveness before breakfast, I got out my trusty single lens/single SD card/single battery/no tripod camera.

Even though the sun had ALREADY RISEN, the fine view from Ghost Gum Lookout above the towering walls of Ormiston Gorge was just begging for some amateurish clichéd landscape shots …

Dingo at Sunrise
Dingo at Sunrise

As the ALREADY RISEN sun continued to ascend, the chill of the cold Central Australian desert night wore off. I wondered if the Camp Bore had left yet. The previous night, he’d set everyone straight about a number of diverse topics at the communal Barbecue area.  Then he’d inadvertently ‘entertained’ everyone in the campground with a DVD on ‘Super-loud’ setting presumably to counteract his deafness. And early this morning, he’d treated a fellow camper, foolish enough to admit to not having heard the dingos the previous night with a howling dingo impersonation.

Then way down in the gorge beneath us, I sensed a movement. After the Camp Bore’s strangled yodelling it was quite a surprise to see the dingo moving so quietly and surely along the water’s edge.

Hunting for fish.

No, really. Every year as the waterhole dries out, more and more fish compete for less and less oxygen in the shrinking pools. Then along comes a dingo in search of some easy pickings and scoops them out!

We may have ‘missed the sunrise’.

But in a superb combination of poetic justice AND childish satisfaction (that gave my inner child an unkind shiver of glee) WE saw the dingo.

Na na nana nah!

2 Ormiston Gorge and Pound Walk

Ormiston Gorge Walls, Central Australia
Ormiston Gorge Walls, Central Australia

This extraordinary 7 km loop trail passes through a cross-section of Ormiston Gorge’s scenic highlights.  Then there’s the possibility of swimming or wading through the ice-cold water of Ormiston Creek towards the end of the trail.  That’s just part of the fun.

But don’t let this – or anything else – stop you from attempting this 3-4 hour hike. In my opinion, even though we didn’t spot the Spinifex Pigeon family that EVERYONE ELSE saw, it’s one of the best medium length walks in the country!

If this teaser pic isn’t enough, click HERE to see what happened when WE did the walk!

3 Larapinta LITE:

The Ormiston Gorge and Pound walk is a mere detour on the 223 kilometre/12 section hike through the West MacDonnell ranges that forms the demanding Larapinta Trail. Difficult terrain, extreme weather and a remote location mean it’s not for the faint-hearted – or under-prepared.

But lack of training, portable camping equipment or energy needn’t prevent a ‘Larapinta Lite’ experience! Part of an official section of the trail connects Ormiston Gorge with Glen Helen Gorge, a few kilometres away by road.  It’s quite probably one of the easier sections of the trail to attempt.

Just can't have too much spinifex ... Larapinta Trail, between Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge
Just can’t have too much spinifex … Larapinta Trail, between Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge

We ventured a few kilometres down this section of the track.  Past staggering views of Mt Sonder and the Pound we finally reached a lookout point with the stunning red cliffs of Glen Helen gorge in the distance. After a fruitless search for Rufous Crowned Emu Wren, we returned the way we’d come vowing that next time we’d organise a pick up at Glen Helen Resort and walk all the way.

BUT … far more importantly, now I can add the Larapinta Trail to the list of major walks I’ve ‘attempted’!

Because no one takes my list seriously anyway!

4 Glen Helen Gorge:

Glen Helen Gorge Walls, Central Australia
Glen Helen Gorge Walls, Central Australia

The region is so crowded with spectacular gorges, travellers wishing to avoid the risk of becoming ‘all gorged out’ are often tempted to bypass a couple of them!

Glen Helen Resort Piano
Glen Helen Resort Piano

But skipping Glen Helen Gorge would be a mistake.

Not just because of the spectacular Gorge itself, either. The Glen Helen Resort offers meals and accommodation, along with tours, helicopter flights, fuel and gas. As well as a well stocked bar.

And you can’t have too much RED Rock, right?? There’s more about Glen Helen Gorge HERE!

5 Mt Sonder Lookout:

Mt Sonder Lookout, via Glen Helen, Central Australia
Mt Sonder Lookout, via Glen Helen, Central Australia

Mt Sonder isn’t the Northern Territory’s highest mountain – that honour goes to Mt Zeil – but it’s (arguably) the most picturesque!

Finke River from Mt Sonder Lookout
Finke River from Mt Sonder Lookout

And as a real Larapinta trekker told us after climbing the mountain on the previous day’s hike – ‘it’s a better view OF than FROM’!

There’s something about its Namatjira-esque blue folds that draws one towards it.  But we (fairly easily) resisted the impulse to climb it and instead opted for the Mt Sonder Lookout a short distance west of Glen Helen.

It’s a fine view in its own right.  And there’s an added bonus because you’re looking across the ancient bed of what is known as the world’s oldest river – the Finke.

6 Ormiston Gorge Campground:

Ormiston Gorge Campground, Central Australia
Ormiston Gorge Campground, Central Australia

The collection of campers at the Ormiston Gorge campground during our 6-night stay would have defied any B-grade movie casting director to create a better ensemble.

So much so that hanging out at camp was as entertaining as anything else the gorge had to offer.

Well, almost!

I guess you know you’re getting older when listening to the young couple 6 months into a year travelling Australia gives you a whole new perspective on young-love-speak. Sure, the “’Hi Baby’/’Hey sweetie!’” combo wasn’t that unfamiliar – but after spending only 5 minutes apart??

Then the dialogue as they prepared to leave.

‘Hey sweetie, have you packed the bedding?’ ‘Sure, babe.’ ‘There just seems more room than usual.’ ‘Well, maybe I just folded them differently.’ ‘You must have packed them in a particularly awesome kinda way!’ ‘Yeah sweetie.’ ‘So do you fold them up, honey?’ ‘No, I just throw them in, babe.’ ‘I’m flabbergasted!’ ‘Hey, why don’t we make X’s favourite meal when we catch up?’ ‘Babe, that’s a GOLDEN idea!’ Education and entertainment all in one, we were sorry to see them go.

But replacing them was Broken Hill artist, Eric McCormick whose vibrant works beautifully capture the magic of the desert. Eric took our breath away with a catalogue of his works inspired by a visit to Spain’s Rio Tinto. We also enjoyed several entertaining chats over the communal barbecue.

The aforementioned Camp Bore spoke so loudly we all knew that he and his longsuffering wife had spent the best part of 5 years on the road. At the rate of one new campsite every few nights, I wondered how many people he’d potentially annoyed and irritated during that time.

Campground & Amphitheatre from Ghost Gum Lookout Trail, Ormiston Gorge
Campground & Amphitheatre from Ghost Gum Lookout Trail, Ormiston Gorge

Then there was the couple with such a faulty sense of direction that when trying to find the Gorge and Pound walk they’d ended up somewhere else altogether. We tried to explain how to access the Larapinta segment we’d done, but they couldn’t find it. I wonder whether they even knew they were at Ormiston Gorge?

With hot showers and free barbecues, the $10 per night per person rate seemed quite reasonable for a site within cooee of the gorge and all its attractions. But the camp hosts still spent a good part of their day in a losing battle to keep the freeloaders from hogging the amenities the rest of us had paid for. In a vain attempt to keep the solar-heated hot water for those who’d paid for it, the showers were locked from 10am – 4pm each day.

Except on the hosts’ day off when the amenities were left open all day. Word gets around – a steady stream of campervans and clapped out old cars headed in, showers apparently ran hot all day and the water was well and truly cold by the time we returned from our daily adventures.

Ghost Gum Lookout Trail, Ormiston Gorge
Ghost Gum Lookout Trail, Ormiston Gorge

Is it something in the air? Or water? Or does this strange and magical place attract the quirky, off-beat and downright bizarre?

And if so, what does that make US?

7 Ghost Gum Loop at Sunset:

Ghost Gum Loop Trail at Sunset, Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia
Ghost Gum Loop Trail at Sunset, Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia

The Ghost Gum Lookout is part of a longer loop walk along the Gorge’s western wall.  The trail descends into the gorge and returns by rock-hopping along the creek bed. Whether or not you attempt the whole loop, it’s well worth reaching the lookout in the very late afternoon.

Ghost Gum Lookout - and sign!  Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia
Ghost Gum Lookout – and sign!  Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia

Because looking across the gorge from the lookout is very different to the sunrise ALREADY RISEN SUN view as the setting sun lights up the Eastern wall.

But … far down the gorge and deep in the silence of sunset, the dingo lurked again!

Still Life with Dingo, Ormiston Gorge Sunset
Still Life with Dingo, Ormiston Gorge Sunset

Read More about Central Australia:

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  1. It makes us look forward to more travel experiences in the future, Those destinations have been on my ‘must see’ list.

    1. It’s a great place to hike, Agness – the best time to go is during the cooler months from May to September. The Aussie winter is from June to August, but while nights can be cold in Central Australia, daytime temperatures are usually pleasant and mild. Hot day time temperatures can be experienced any time outside winter, but try to avoid the summer months of December to February!

  2. @PDP – HAha, I’ll trick you one day and do a short one!!! I’ve decided to be amused by camp bores from now on because they make such good blog-fodder!! And thank you for your kind words about my photos – one does ones’ poor best …
    @Iris – Oh, that’s a LOOOOOONG time!!! Sounds like your best bet is to get Ingo to play the game – maybe you could show him my blog so he realises it is his DUTY to play – and WIN! Good luck!!

  3. Red, guess you´ll have to wait some… let me calculate… 26 years at least if you want me to find out! 😉
    Or until I win the lottery (which´d mean I must play the lottery, which I don´t).
    Or you can convince Spouse to play in “who becomes a millionaire”, I´m pretty sure he´d come quite far, but he doesn´t listen to me…

  4. Wow, brilliant post Red, exactly the right length to finish a cuppa tea! Seems to me every ‘group’ situation is allocated a ‘camp bore’! In a small way they can be entertaining in their ability to get people talking. Absolutely love the dingo pictures, did not know they ate fish.. Seeing your images and knowing you don’t have a fancy big camera always reaffirms my belief in the skill of the photographer not the equipment they use.

  5. @diane b – We were as surprised and enthralled as you! It’s a VERY easy landscape to photograph …
    @Sallie – At least I can look back and laugh at the Camp Bore!! AND pay him back by writing about him with the sure knowledge that even if he DOES stumble across my blog, he won’t recognise himself!
    @FruitCake – Yep, these folks sure had a bad case of the ‘thingies’!!!!
    @Jill – Hahaha, every trip there’s at least one BAD night!! Ours was at Timber Creek where some drunken loser in a van next to us simultaneously played Elvis on his car stereo and Redgum in the van. But I think I’d almost rather him than your student group!!!
    @Jerry – Thank you!
    @Greg – I look forward to seeing what fiascos emerge from your Larapinta experience. As for National Backhander Day, I think it’d work as an election platform!!!!

  6. @Andrew – Spam gone now! And sadly, there IS an honesty box!!!! I guess not paying for a shower frees up your cash for other essentials like alcohol!!
    @Kath – Cool, my work is done!! The whole region really IS worth a visit – but OG is our favourite place in it!! And just think what I’M missing – snow, cold and rich Genevans!!! I’ll leave it to you to decide which of us has the better deal …
    @LONDONLULU – Yeah, I know! But it’s nice to have the affirmation!!
    @darlin – The first trip anywhere is often just a reconnaisance trip! It was for us, and now after several years, we returned to ‘do’ it properly!
    @Iris – I’m sure there IS a story behind the piano – but I don’t know what it is! You’ll have to find out for me!! And that’s why I’m here – lots of guidebooks focus on the big attractions (because that’s what most people want to see). I just tell you where I’ve been and what I liked & you can decide for yourself if you want to see it!
    @SFlaGuy – Tile store, huh! Your blog shows you took a bit of a detour via a mud bath full of hot chicks!! Now lets see how many more visitors you get …

  7. Now we’re talking! Thanks for a heads up to that area, as hopefully I’ll be on the Larapinta Trail in a months time.

    Photographer oneupmanship? I reckon I’ve met the version of that person in hiking. There’s always someone who proclaims that they’ve had a better experience. I declare that they’re worthy targets for ‘National Backhander Day’ 🙂

  8. we travelled through the West McDonalds a couple of years ago. Such spectacular scenery. I am looking forward to going back again one day when we have more time. I have not so fond memories of a Uni groups last night of their 2week study trip at Glen Helen campsite….not much sleep that night!
    Fabulous pics as always Red!

  9. Obviously people can be thingy about sunsets. Some people are just thingy about anything. And some people… well, some people are just thingies.

  10. It sure is a unique landscape and seems to attract unique sight see-ers. I can’t believe the freeloaders story. That is so so so crass. Your shots are enthralling.

  11. “Na na nana nah!” :-)))
    Really, Dingos go for fish?!
    Is there a story behind that piano with all those shoes?
    Yep, so sad some travellers misuse reasonalble-priced offers of solar showers. Can´t remember where that was, they were de-installed due to misuse.
    And it was rather cold
    People really threw rocks from the lookout?! Sad you need a sign like that!
    Awww, really, we were in no hurry back then in 1999, we just didn´t KNOW about those places! The “lonely Planet” was not the help it should´ve been.
    How do you find out about all those beautiful places?
    Still great to travel with you virtually 🙂

  12. I was so close to this area and never had a clue about it… next time! I couldn’t have spent the week or so to take it all in as I was there doing my placement, next time it’s going to be sheer pleasure and now I know about this it’s going on my “must see” list.

    BTW I take your list seriously! 😉

    Have a wonderful week Red, cheers.

  13. Wow – Times 7!!! I feel utterly claustrophobic lately. Thank you so much for bringing the world down under to my little computer. It’s my only break from scraping and painting on my little money pit house. I feel totally refreshed now and ready to hit the tile stores.

  14. Those destinations have been on my ‘must see’ list for a while now, so thanks for sharing it with me so that I can have a tiny taste of what I’m missing. Love the dusty boots and had no idea that dingoes were fisherfolk!

  15. Oh, spam attack above. Lovely photos and scenery, as always, but how cheap are people to not pay a couple of dollars for facilities? I think an honesty box might encourage people to pay, or maybe I overestimate people.

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