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One Day on Larapinta Way: Top Sights

If you have a car and only a day to spare, these are my recommendations for a Larapinta Way road trip.

Picture of Standley Chasm in West MacDonnell Nationsl Park
Standley Chasm captured by @elevatedblooms

Preparing for Larapinta Way

It’s 5 a.m. and absolutely pitch black out on the road. Sean is ready to run 65 kilometres of the Larapinta Track. I’m in a tracksuit and a puffer jacket, hoping there is coffee at the start line. Nothing seems to be out here; the headlights don’t penetrate the darkness, and they barely illuminate a meter out from the road, let alone hint at the rest of the landscape.

There is no light pollution here; you leave Alice Springs after dark, and 10 minutes later, there is nothing.

I spy the turn-off for Standley Chasm and head down the 8 kilometre track to the trailhead to drop off Sean at the start line of the West Mac’s Monster Ultramarathon (a 65-kilometre run).

I’ve been here before, packed into a tour bus with 38 children on a school camp in 2018, but everything appears different when you’re responsible for teenagers. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Winding along the track, the first light appears on the hills. They’re low and eerie. Jagged and rocky faces appear on both sides. I hadn’t realised we were in such a steep landscape until this moment.

The start line involves overly caffeinated runners and their under-caffeinated, rugged-up crews.

 

Just 30 minutes later, a Welcome to Country by elders, then a cacophony of cowbells, and they’re off, keenly winding their way through Standley Chasm for the run back to Alice. 

I’m also heading back to Alice, but I’m driving out. I stop to watch the light creep up the surrounding mountains that I had no clue were there before.

I spent at least half an hour taking photos, watching the light play across the ranges hidden from me only an hour ago.

Crewing someone on an ultra marathon gives you much time to kill. Apart from a planned meeting with Sean at Simpsons Gap around noon, having the rest of the day free allowed me to host his parents on a tour.

The intervening 12 hours leave ample time to explore the Larapinta Way.

 

Simpsons Gap captured by @elevatedblooms on IG

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Photo by @elevatedblooms on IG

These are my recommendations if you have a car and one day:

Stop #1

Drive to Ormiston Gorge, 10 a.m. The furthest drive-in point from Alice Springs is about an hour and a half in the car.

This drive was breathtaking; the West MacDonald’s landscape evolves as you travel down Larapinta Way.

The rolling hills morph into sheer cliffs, punctuated by vast expanses with the occasional wild horse poking out of the bushes, plus lots and lots of red dirt.

Ormiston Gorge, like many landmarks of the Northern Territory, is very unassuming as you turn off, but after parking, you see walls of the gorge rising above the River Gums.

When you walk into the gorge, it’s so big that it’s a cliched statement, but the sheer size of the cliff edges will leave you speechless.

We spent about half an hour staring at the cliff edges, watching the reflections along the water before returning to the car.

 

Stop #2

The Ochre Pits 11am. The “drive back” to Alice from Ormiston, our second stop was the Ochre Pits. The Ochre Pits were one of my favourite stops. The natural pigmentations in the cliff edges can’t be captured on film.

It’s a short walk to stand with the colours of Australia. Ochre from these particular pits were traded and shared all over Australia and are incredibly special.

I expected something more minor. I also thought the colours would be faded.

However, preservation and care for this area must be commended as you walk along the walls of colour, immersed in the diverse reds, yellows, oranges and purples.

 

Photo by @elevatedblooms on IG



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A woman standing wearing a hat admiring Simpsons Gap
@elevatedblooms on IG admiring Simpsons Gap

Stop #3

Simpsons Gap noon—time to meet Sean, who by this stage has run about 40 kilometres. We drove the hour to Simpsons Gap to wait for him to run into the checkpoint.

While we had been comfortably driving in the car, he had been slogging away in the rocky, undulating hills of the Larapinta Track for the past 6 hours, and it was about midday.

Simpsons Gap is typically a quiet affair, but during event days, there are trail crews, runners, cowbells and fanfares. We refuelled Sean with fluids, chips and a chocolate bar and sent him off for the final 25 kilometre leg to Alice Springs before we leisurely strolled to “the gap”.

Simpsons Gap, named after the explorer, is home to the most spectacular Red River and Ghost gums I’d ever seen on the dry river beds. Their twisted and gnarled trunks frame the red cliffs magnificently as you walk towards the divide.

Despite many people there, The Gap never seemed “busy.” it’s such a large expanse and so much bigger than it seems that everyone is dwarfed by the two rising rocky outcrops from the reflective pool in the middle of the gap.

Going later in the day allows you time to cool off in the shade and leisurely spot rock wallabies watching from the cliff walls and high peaks above. 

 

Stop #4

Standley Chasm: 3 p.m. Returning to the daylight in the chasm was surreal after I’d arrived in the dark some 10 hours ago. This place, hidden under a fantastic light, was now bathed in a golden glow. We just made it in.

I would not recommend turning up right at 3 p.m. as we almost missed the cut-off, but I would recommend the afternoon walk out to the chasm. The entry fee for Standley Chasm goes towards preserving and protecting the area.

There is also a great campground there!

Standley Chasm is an oasis, and it has these beautiful palms as you wander into the chasm. The walk itself is pretty special. It’s this rocky path that follows a creek bed winding further and further into the rocks. The walk will only take you about 15 minutes, but the finish is the “show stopper”.

The chasm is narrow, only about 50 metres long and not even 5 metres wide. The end is blocked by a rockfall, and looking up, two sheer walls of rock form the chasm. With the late time in the day, the hills and cliffs beyond were gold and orange.

The chasm was shaded, and everything had this golden hour feel. I loved this place. It was beautiful to stand and bask in the light.

My favourite place in the West MacDonnell’s remains Standley Chasm—a piece of paradise.

After this, we returned to Alice Springs for the arrival of Sean. He finished the Monster Mac in around 12 hours at the Telegraph Station, 65 kilometres from Standley Chasm.

Photo of @elevatedblooms on IG
Photo by @elevatedblooms on IG

I was so lucky to have time to explore this trail while he was running. I had no clue the Larapinta was so diverse in each of its stops- it’s not all the same “red cliffs” but instead filled with unique landmarks that leave you speechless.

You can easily do four to five milestones properly in a day with a car along Larapinta Drive.

I recommend driving out as far as we did; Ormiston Gorge and the Ochre Pits are unique.

Sean ran in the Standley 65km Ultra in a running festival called the West Mac’s Monster, which has many distances, all following the Larapinta trail. This festival usually runs in May, and I followed him on May 21, 2023. This festival is famous for running circles and is an incredibly challenging but rewarding run, whichever distance you choose.

Remember to pack your sense of adventure, respect for nature, and an open mind as you set out to discover the West MacDonnell Ranges. Leave only footprints behind as you traverse the trails and immerse yourself in the pristine wilderness of the National Park! We would love your feedback – we encourage you to share your experiences, questions, and suggestions in the comments below. 

You can always get more inspiration for other National Parks to visit by following @northerhq or get your West MacDonnell National Park daily fix @westmacdonnellnationalpark

*Cover image is by @elevatedblooms on IG.

Picture of Simone Farmer Birkenbeil

Simone Farmer Birkenbeil

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