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The Larapinta bike trail: West MacDonnell Ranges

Alia Parker's picture
Alia on the Simpsons Gap bike path, MacDonnell Ranges. Cycle Traveller

The desert peaks and hidden gorges of the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory are nothing short of spellbinding. Cutting east to west through Alice Springs, this ancient range stretches for 644km and is easily accessible by sealed road.

One of the best ways to discover the range is by hiking the famous Larapinta Trail, which explores 223km of its western section. It's a tough slog over steep terrain. But cycling alongside these mountains is much easier, and also very rewarding. Indeed, when we rode part of it in 2014, a large number of exhausted hikers exclaimed they wished they had thought of cycling it instead!

Map of the Larapinta Trail bicycle route. Cycle TravellerThe route

  • Location: West MacDonnell Ranges, NT
  • Distance: 380km return
  • Days: 5+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Terrain: Flat to undulating
  • Road surface: Sealed (some dirt on side trips)

This short route is a return trip along Namatjira Drive. The return journey, including side trips, is about 380km and can be done over five days (if you're fit) or up to nine days if you would like to take it slower. Adding in a few days along here will give you more time to swim the gorgeous water holes and hike up to lookouts.

The great thing about this stunning route is that the return journey east will feel different to the trip west. This is because the mountain ranges transform when seen from the opposite angle. Adding to that, there are plenty of sights along the way, and we recommend skipping a couple on the way west and saving them for the return journey to mix it up a little.

Standley Chasm, MacDonnell Ranges. Cycle Traveller

Here's a suggested five day itinerary, but for maximum enjoyment, explore it at your own pace:

Day 1: Alice Springs to Standley Chasm – 64km

Follow the bike path alongside Larapinta Drive west out of Alice Springs. As you near the end of the town, you'll see a roadside tourist stop marking John Flynn's Grave on the southern side of Larapinta Drive. This is important for two reasons: one, it's a nice stop to remember the 'father of the Flying Doctor service', and secondly, because it also marks the start of the Simpsons Gap bicycle trail, which starts opposite on the northern side of the road. This wonderful bike trail gets well off the road and snakes for 17km through the West MacDonnell National Park to Simpsons Gap.

There are some short walks from Simpsons Gap as well as picnic tables, water and gas BBQs, however, camping is not permitted here.

From Simpsons Gap, return to Larapinta Drive and continue west, then take the turnoff to Standley Chasm. This is a gorgeous chasm and a popular rest stop for Larapinta Trail hikers as there is a little cafe here. The cafe provides discount dinner and breakfast packages if you order ahead. You can camp here (tents only) and refill your water bottles. Make sure to do the short walk to see the chasm as it is quite lovely.

Day 2: Ellery Creek Big Hole to Glen Helen Resort – 100km

Returning to Larapinta Drive, you'll travel about 6km to an intersection. Turn off onto Namatjira Drive (don't continue on Larapinta Drive). This is a big day. Of course, you may choose to break it up by staying at Ellery Big Hole, but we're saving that one for the way back. It's also worth noting that there is rough 'bush camping' available (no water) at Serpentine Chalet, which is about 8km west of Serpentine Gorge, if you would like to camp there instead. There's not much at Serpentine Chalet – an abandoned tourist accommodation site built in 1958. It's a few kilometres up a dirt road, but you'll find numerous places to bush camp along the road to get there.

Cycling Namatjira Drive, Northern Territory. Cycle TravellerOn the way to Glen Helen, take a break at the Aboriginal Ochre Pits, which sit just a little off the main road. It's here that the Aboriginals mined ochre, which was a valuable material mixed with emu fat to create paint used in ceremonial body decoration. The ochre here was considered to be of particularly high quality.

Glen Helen is a former cattle station that has transformed into a 'bush resort' that offers camping and meals. It sits near a permanent waterhole, which is home to abundant bird life and also makes a nice place to swim. It's another scenic area with great views of the impressive Mount Sonder, which reaches 1380m.

Day 3: Glen Helen to Ormiston Gorge via Redbank – 62km

Today we reach the furthest point on this little trip. From Glen Helen, continue west for 24km then take the turn to Redbank Gorge. For those who have plenty of time up their sleeve, there is camping and water at Redbank. However, it also makes a nice spot to have lunch and a swim in the lovely narrow gorge. For those interested, you can also hike up Mount Sonder from here. Allow a good break here because it is a lovely spot.

When you're ready, it's time to head back east. This time, turn off into Ormiston Gorge, where you can camp the night. There is also a small kiosk here serving snacks and drinks. Ormiston Gorge is another lovely spot along the MacDonnell Ranges and there are also plenty of bush walks that leave from here as well.

Swiming holes along MacDonnell Ranges.Day 4: Ormiston Gorge to Ellery Creek Big Hole via Serpentine Gorge – 48km

Today is a short day of cycling to allow plenty of time to stop off at Serpentine Gorge on the way to Ellery Creek Big Hole – both lovely swimming holes with bush walking options. Ellery Big Hole – located 2km off the main road along a dirt road. Here, the creek cuts its way through the MacDonnell Ranges to form a scenic gorge and waterhole where you can swim, camp and restock your water. There are also gas BBQs available.

Day 5: Ellery Creek Big Hole to Alice Springs – 105km

Today is a big day with no more sights to see other than the gorgeous scenery that lines the route itself. Of course, if you have time you can always stop in again at the lovely Standley Chasm to break the trip up and perhaps do some more bush walking. Make sure to rest up when back in Alice Springs and check out it's great Aboriginal art galleries and cafes.

When to ride

The best time of year to cycle this route is in the dry season between May and August when the days are warm, nights are cool and there are less flies around. The worst time of year is between October and January when temperatures soar and dehydration becomes a risk.

Cycle Traveller cycling the MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory.Things to know

There is limited tap drinking water along the trail, although you will come across natural water sources in the gorges. Treat all water before drinking. There are no supermarkets outside of Alice Springs, so bring food and snacks with you. Cooked food is available at Standley Chasm, Glen Helen and there is a snack kiosk at Ormiston Gorge. If you need bike parts or a bike mechanic, there are a number of bike shops in Alice Springs. It's also a great mountain biking area, so you may want to tap the local knowledge for some good trials if you're game.

How to get there

Other than driving the very long Stuart Highway between Port Augusta and Darwin, you can also fly, bus or train it to Alice Springs. Planes fly daily to Alice Springs airport and The Ghan train travels between Adelaide and Darwin. A number of bus companies run to Alice, but check their policy on bringing bikes on board before booking.

More info

Comments

This article was a great find. I've long thought of hiking the Larapinta, but with a son more into cycling than hiking this would be a good option for us. We have mountain bikes and carry gear for overnight rides. We usually try to stay off roads and favour trails that don't support cars or are likely to have very little traffic. I was unsure after reading the article, is it on the main road, or along a side trail? If on the road, how busy is it? Great blog by the way!

I returned from this trip last week. Went as far as Redbank Gorge and an early morning ascent of Mt Sonder under stars as the ancients would have seen them, in time for sunrise and incredible views. The road was definitely 'undulating' but fairly undemanding. Cars were generally courteous (some cars and caravans pull back in too soon though), but wear the most luridly fluoro clothing you can and use the whole of the lane. Took a fuel burner for food but there are some good 'food breaks' at Standley Chasm, Glen Helen Gorge and a kiosk at the magnificent Ormiston Gorge.I put my photos on the 'cloud' (if this is permitted).

https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0DJ0DiRHhBTTO

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