Hiking the Larapinta Trail End 2 End: West to East
The Larapinta Trail is easily one of the most incredible hikes in Australia. Located in the West MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory it meanders through breathtaking gorges and valleys, over exposed ridge lines and reveals how stunning our desert country really can be. There are many boutique companies out there that do organised trips (for big $$$) but I really think if you want to take the dive into longer self supported hikes, THIS IS THE ONE!
A Quick Overview
Distance: 223km from end to end broken into 12 distinct sections by water tanks and sleeping platforms. We took 10 days total but it is recommended anywhere from 12-18 days depending on your fitness and schedule.
Direction: Walk West to East (Redbank Gorge to Alice Springs telegraph station) or the opposite.
Best time to go: April - October which are the cooler months. Avoid Summer as it will be miserably hot. We started September 11th and had perfect weather, most camp spots to ourselves and were treated to unbelievable wild flowers!
Food: Food drop caches are available in 4 locations along the trail, so you don't have to carry all your food and can keep pack weight down.
Cost: Overall cost can vary for a self supported trip but will be anywhere from around $200-$500 for a drop off/pick up, $60 for your food cache key deposit (which you get $50 back upon returning) and around $60-70 per food box you get dropped off.
I will mainly focus on doing the entire end to end, West to East trip in this blog because that's what we did, however you have the option to only do a few sections if you are short on time/funds.
These are a must have resource before and during your hike as they have distance, topography, water resources as well as interesting information about the flora and fauna. They made decision making along our hike so much easier.
This series of 6 maps breaks the hike into 12 sections in order from EAST to WEST (i.e back to front from the way we ended up travelling). They are updated regularly and at the time of writing they are in their 6th edition.
Direction of travel: East to West or West to East?
We decided to get dropped out at Redbank Gorge and walk back to Alice Springs (West to East) because we hate being on a schedule. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS!
1. You don't have a date you have to finish because of a prearranged pick up. This means if you want to push it a bit, or go slower, you can!
2. This West - East direction means the harsh afternoon sun is at your back, not blazing into your eyeballs. It sounds simple, but it can be the difference between an enjoyable trip or not.
3. With this itinerary your first day is Mount Sonder which I thought was a really great way to warmup and kick off the trip. You never know how you will feel by the last day, and if Sonder was at the end you may skip it depending how you feel (which would be regrettable).
There are 4 separate food drops you can choose to use (or not) along the 223km.
Ormiston Gorge (store room)
Serpentine Gorge (shipping container)
Ellery Creek South (shipping container)
Standley Chasm ($5 extra fee at cafe)
These food caches allow you to restock supplies but also to add some little treats in as morale builders! We opted for Ormiston, Serpentine (because we took the northern route to Ellery) and Standley. They all have the same key which you rent from the Alice Spring Visitor Centre.
We honestly should've ditched the Ormiston resupply (pictured) as we could've easily carried the 4 days worth of food to Serpentine Gorge. We ended up stuffing our faces because we just had too much food. If you plan to do the trip in less than 12 days I would say you could do 2 food drops comfortably. There were a few people doing the trip through without food drops, but they were living on onion cup-a-soups and that's no trip I want to be a part of!
Companies charge anywhere from $60-70 for tub hire and drop off at your allocated locations. They will drop off the tubs for you to pack with food at your hotel the day before. We were lucky in that I had an uncle that lived in Alice. We went to Kmart, grabbed some $10 tubs for our food drops and for a case of beer Uncle Neil dropped us at Redbank Gorge via 3 food drop locations. If you know someone, or are good at making friends quickly this will save you $$$.
Choice of food along the trail is up to your personal preference. Scroggin, noodles, oats, chocolate, muesli bars and salami are our go to's. We had coconut water and canned peaches or pineapple at our caches for succulent treats. If you prepackage your food in ziplocks into daily rations this will help keep rubbish down.
You can buy cafe food (sandwiches, burgers, cold drinks, ice creams etc) at Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm as well.
Drop offs/pick ups
Logistically this trip is really well set up. There are so many companies now to get you out to Redbank Gorge to begin. To name a few: EMU RUN, OUTBACK ELITE, TREK SUPPORT. They will do your food drops as well. If you don't have a tight schedule you can hitch out to Redbank Gorge as it's a common tourist trail, you might just have to organise your food drops via one of the above companies.
Some of the companies will provide you with a key to access the food caches otherwise you will have to hire one from the Visitor Centre in Alice. This is $60 but you get $50 back on return.
Important things to note with the drop off companies:
Price often goes up per person (don't ask me why!)
Price to hire and drop food boxes are on top of the transfer fee.
Most companies only pick up from certain hotels. Check this so you don't book somewhere they don't service otherwise I have no doubt they will charge you for it.
Campsites and sleeping
Every section (apart from Redbank Gorge) has an established undercover sleeping platform. There are also very clear areas around these to put up your tent. We never slept on these platforms, only rested during the day and filled up water (as shown below). There are often mice around these huts ready to pounce at any food or silicone during your sleep. Also sleeping close to strangers is never going to be an enjoyable or restful night.
If you have a tent you can literally pull up anywhere on the trail if you have enough water to get you through. We mostly ended up in creek beds for our sleeps because they are more comfortable. I do regret not having at least one of those nights camped on a summit like Brinkley’s Bluff or Counts Point. Most summits have established spots for a tent behind man made rock walls. C'est la vie!
All the huts have a compostable toilet at them.
There is a water tank at every section hut as marked on the maps suggested above. These are very reliable and we saw park rangers checking them throughout the trip. Now, you should treat the water before drinking, but we didn't and we were fine, so that decision is yours.
Take out what you pack in. This includes toilet paper! There is a cafe at Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm that you can offload your rubbish. You can also leave it in your food tubs for collection. And leave the sleeping huts clean for the next person.
You cannot get lost on this trail! There are blue markers nearly every kilometre pointing the direction you should be going. If you haven't seen one in half an hour, you've somehow managed to go off trail. In saying this, always carry a PLB and med kit and let a few people know your plans and what date you intend to finish. Help will never be far away on this trail as the main highway is always directly to the South. If it is peak season there will be at least one hiker that passes you most days.
There is limited phone reception along the trail. Certain summits have reception as well as Ormiston and Standley Chasm. Don't rely on it.
We didn't see any dingoes or snakes but they are around, so be aware and stay away.
Fitness and knee health
Here's what you have to remember, you either pack light and travel fast, or pack heavy and travel slow. Meaning, the more days you take, the more food and water you will have to carry which will weigh you down and make everything more challenging.
Don't underestimate this hike. There is a lot of ups and downs which means some serious knee-over-toe positioning. Keeping your pack weight light (15kg or under ideally) is going to make for a much more enjoyable trip. Elise's knees copped a beating and she was popping Panadol and strapping them pretty much from day 2. A knee brace/guard could come in very handy!
Our 10 day trip breakdown
14.2 km: Redbank - Mount sonder return
We dropped most of our gear at the river bed and went up Mount Sonder light and fast the afternoon we got there. Redbank Gorge is worth the walk to for an afternoon swim, you could even sleep at the waterhole.
25.8km: Redbank - Finke River
There's a little waterhole about 2km before the Finke River sleeping hut that is worth a stop for a dip. You could also camp here knowing the drinking water will be 2km away in the morning.
12km: Finke River - About 3 km past Ormiston Gorge (where we had a resupply)
We stopped at Ormiston for a long time, eating, swimming and resting. Then late in the afternoon we decided to punch on to take some kms off the long hike that was coming the following day. This ended up being a rough camp, but a great decision.
26km: 3km past Ormiston Gorge - Serpentine Chalet Dam
My favourite day by far. It was challenging but the scenery was incredible!
13km: Serpentine Chalet Dam - Serpentine Gorge (resupply)
The food cache is a little walk from the campsite. There is no swimming allowed in Serpentine Gorge but it's not such a bad thing, worth the stroll from camp though.
13.1km: Serpentine Gorge - Ellery Creek North
Super relaxing and flat day if you go the northern route (recommended). It is worth spending half a day relaxing at Ellery Creek waterhole. (pictured)
30km: Ellery Creek - High Gorge
Long day but very flat. There's a water refill and camp half way through the day at Rocky Gully so you can travel light.
17.5km: Hugh Gorge - Stuarts Pass
Epic day through stunning gorges and over razor back ridges. Section 4/5 Junction isn't mind blowing so we pushed on to Stuarts Pass which was a comfortable creek bed and this set us up to hit the big mountain early the next morning for sunrise.
28.9km: Stuarts Pass - Jay Creek (via Standley Chasm resupply)
Big day with a nice few hours eating and resting at our Standley Chasm resupply. We didn't do the 'alternate high route' mainly because coming out of Standley you hit some serious height anyway.
50.9km: Jay Creek - Telegraph Station
I don't recommend combining these two final days together at all, but we wanted to push ourselves. We left Jay Creek at 2am and got into the Telegraph Station at 8:30pm. You can easily call a cab from here and get back into town. It was a big day and we were busted, but we had a comfy bed at the end of it so it was ok.
PLB or GPS system - We use a Garmin 66i
Backpack - 70 litres is ideal with a waterproof cover.
Solid hiking shoes/boots - You will need to have thick soled shoes that you have worn in. The terrain is rocky and your feet will get torn to shreds if your soles are too thin.
Trekking poles - A must for those downhills.
Tent - Light weight as possible with spare pegs. We used rocks a lot this trip because we were in creek beds. We had a single man tent each. Having a tent makes it easy to gauge how you are feeling each day and have the option to sleep on the trail wherever you want. We had two nights with rain so needed our fly.
Sleeping mat - As light weight as possible with repair patches. A stuff sack with jumpers in it works well for a pillow.
Sleeping bag - You'll want a 0 degree comfort rating at least as it can drop below zero at night. Use a stuff sack to compress it smaller.
Water bottles - 4 litres. We bought 2 x 1.5 extra litres of water at Ormiston cafe which came in handy. Carry water treatment as well.
Hat and sunglasses - Wide brim is a must. 100% UV protection sunglasses is ideal.
Fly net for hat - If you aren't a fly person.
Cooking, fuel and matches - There are no fires permitted on the trail. Jetboils and trangia systems work well and you can resupply your fuel in your food box.
Headtorch - With spare batteries.
Clothing: Long pants (spinifex will get you!), light long shirt (beats lathering sunscreen on), good socks, t-shirt, shorts, light weight jumper, rain jacket, buff, undies. We could rinse our socks t-shirts along the way at the waterholes.
Extras: Solar panel and chargers, toilet paper, wet wipes, personal hygiene, trowel, bowl, mug, spork, pocket knife, cooking pot, sunscreen, earplugs, garbage bags, med kit including plasters, Panadol, bite cream, strapping tape and bandages, cash.
Check on the official Larapinta trail website for any recent changes to the trail. There is loads of information on here.
We have stayed at the G'Day Mate caravan park every time we have gone to Alice. Linda is so helpful, we even called her on the day we were thinking we might finish and asked if she had a cabin. She left us out the key and gate number and we crawled into bed at 9:30pm.
This is such an enjoyable and easy expedition to plan that should be on every Australians list. If you have more questions, feel free to email me or touch base on social media. I'm always happy to help a fellow adventurer!
Adventure awaits, one life one chance.