Owen Springs Reserve is one of outback Australia’s lesser known parks.
Many websites and guidebooks don’t even seem to know it exists, and skip over it altogether.
This is a real shame because Owen Springs is a huge reserve of 150,000 hectares that’s ideal for campers, 4WDers and birdwatchers.
Of course, that’s where you get the benefit of our local knowledge!
Located only a half hour’s drive from Alice Springs, Owen Springs is perfect if you really want to get away from the crowds.
What’s more, there’s a little known waterhole with a fabulous camping area only 5km off the Stuart Highway that many tourists just whiz right past!
Whilst Owen Springs is not as spectacular as the nearby West MacDonnell National Park, it’s a place where you can do some birdwatching, hiking, camping, 4WDing or check out some history – and never be very far from civilisation.
For us, it’s also a very special place.
It’s not only the park where Gary had his first posting as a senior ranger, it’s also the place where we fell in love (but that’s another story!).
On this page, we’re going to take you on a personalised tour of the Reserve, show you what you can see and do, tell you when is the best time to go and share some of the reserve’s secrets with you.
Owen Springs History
Owen Springs Reserve was opened to the public in April of 2003, and has a unique place in Central Australia’s history.
Owen Springs was formerly a pastoral station (a cattle ranch), and was one of the first places to be proclaimed as a pastoral station in central Australia.
One of the more famous owners of the station was the cattle king, Sir Sidney Kidman. Owen Springs was the first property Kidman purchased in the Northern Territory.
The Old Owen Springs Homestead was the equal first homestead built in Central Australia in 1872 (equal first with Undoolya, just east of Alice Springs).
It was located adjacent to the Old Telegraph Line and sits along the route taken by the explorer John McDouall Stuart in the 1860s. McDouall Stuart was the first person to cross the Australian continent from south to north.
He did this in a quest to establish a route for the Overland Telegraph Line, which was to give Australia its first telecommunications connection with the outside world.
Stuart and members of his party, William Kekwick and Benjamin Head, were the first white men to travel through the country around Owen Springs Reserve. Upstream of where the old homestead now sits, they discovered a large waterhole that they named ‘Owen Springs’.
Even though the Overland Telegraph Line was only completed in August 1872, a cattleman named William Gilbert arrived from South Australia to establish a cattle station (that’s a ‘ranch’ in Australian!) here in the very same year.
The ruins of Gilbert’s first homestead are located about 18 km along the 4WD track which travels through the Reserve. They are easily accessible to the public.
If you’re able to, stop and take a look around at the remains of the old buildings. There are plenty of interpretive signs which tell the story of the homestead.
The main house (pictured above) is in relatively good condition given its age, however the other buildings aren’t as well-preserved.
If you’re keen on seeing things that others miss, or feel like a bit of outback archaeology, walk back across to the main 4WD track near the turn-in to the homestead, cross over the track (to the west) and you’ll find the remains of the Aboriginal stockman’s camp.
All that remains of this camp are scattered mounds and stone foundations that only the very observant will notice.
Climb a small nearby hill (directly south of the stockman’s camp) and you’ll find one of the very few Aboriginal stone hawk hides left in Central Australia.
A hawk hide was used by Aboriginal people to catch hawks or other birds of prey. It consists of a stone ring roughly 1 metre (3 feet high), which had a roof of sticks on top. People would hide inside and dangle a piece of meat on a stick out the top of the hide.
When hawks or other birds saw the meat, they would swoop down, and were captured or killed for food.
If you’re interested in history and want to learn more about the first pastoralists in central Australia, then Owen Springs Reserve is the place to visit.
The crowning feature of Owen Springs Reserve is the Waterhouse Range, which for Western and Central Arrernte people carries some very special spiritual significance.
The name of this range in Arrernte is Urehne Pwetere (oora-NUH poot-ER-ruh), also called ‘the skinny hills’ colloquially by Aboriginal people.
The name ‘Urehne’ actually means ‘fire here’, whilst ‘pwetere’ is a reference to skinny hills. The James Range (the next range of hills to the south of the Waterhouse Range) is colloquially known as ‘the big hills’ as they’re a lot wider than the Waterhouse.
The fire which the name ‘Urenhe’ refers to is a Men’s Dreaming story associated with a magic fire that came all the way from up near Papunya, chasing two brothers who’d killed their father’s totem animal.
Much of the story is restricted to initiated Arrernte men, as are many of the sacred sites along the Waterhouse Range, so we’re not permitted to share it here.
Like many dreaming stories in outback Australia, the Urenhe story has a strong basis in reality. During lightning storms in Central Australia, the Waterhouse Ranges are often struck by lightning.
There are several other important Dreaming stories which cross the Owen Springs Reserve: one about a possum ancestor, a women’s sacred story about two sisters who were chased by a would-be lover all the way from Uluru, and a story about two groups of bats.
The bat story is one we can share as it’s quite well known. It also links Owen Springs with Rainbow Valley.
A group of bat men from Rainbow Valley flew up to the northern part of Owen Springs Reserve (right near the intersection of Namatjira and Larapinta Drives) and did battle with a group of Owen Springs bat men.
The Owen Springs bat men lived in the unusual caves in this location (again, this story has a basis in reality).
Both groups of bats fought a fierce battle which some people say went all the way up to Stuarts Pass at the base of Brinkley’s Bluff. The Owen Springs bat men were defeated, and the Rainbow Valley bat men flew triumphantly back to their homes to the south.
The surviving Owen Springs bat men slunk off to their caves in defeat.
With so many Dreaming stories and sacred sites on the reserve, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Waterhouse Ranges are rich with rock art, stone artefacts, occupation sites, and other signs of Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal people have lived and worked on Owen Springs since time immemorial, and continue to visit, camp, hunt and travel on the reserve today.
How to Get There
There are TWO way to access the Reserve, one is 4WD only, the other is 2WD.
The first way to access to the Reserve is to travel 50km (half an hour) west of Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive. This will take you to the northern entry point of Owen Springs, and you’ll be able to have fun driving through the whole Reserve on the 4WD track.
It is accessed by a sealed road to the entry of the reserve and then an unsealed 4WD only road that takes you through the reserve.
We really do mean 4WD here.
Please don’t try to drive your 2WD sedan on the track which runs through the reserve.
Gary has had to pull far too many tourists out of the sandy Hugh River bed in the middle of Lawrence Gorge (including folks in hired 4WDs who DIDN’T know how to actually put their vehicles into 4WD!).
You can also access the southern end of the reserve about 66km down the Stuart Highway and drive the 5km in to visit Redbank Waterhole.
If you are careful, a 2WD and campertrailers/offroad vans can easily get in here and enjoy this fabulous campsite.
However, without a 4WD you cannot continue on to the north and drive right through the Reserve.
The track is generally accessible all year round except in times of heavy rain and subsequent flooding.
View Owen Springs Reserve in a larger map
Owen Springs Reserve has no facilities and provides a true outback camping experience in the bush.
The Reserve has two camping areas providing informal opportunities to camp in a bush setting.
Redbank Waterhole is a fabulous free camping area located right next to the Hugh River, on the southern end of the reserve.
Whilst the waterhole is not permanent, it is resplendent with tall river red gums on its banks and your pick of glorious shaded, grassy camping spots. If there’s water in the waterhole, then you can go swimming as well.
What’s more, Redbank is dog-friendly. It’s one of the few places you’re allowed to take a dog on NT national parks.
To get to Redbank Waterhole, head south on the Stuart Highway (as if you’re going to Ayers Rock or Adelaide) for 65 km. Enter Owen Springs Reserve where you see the brown sign. Redbank is only 5km off the Stuart Highway, and is easily accessible for travellers heading along the highway.
You can bring a high clearance camper trail and even a 2WD in here, provided you’re careful and don’t mind a few bumps.
The other camping area on Owen Springs is HUGE.
It’s the entire area located within Lawrence Gorge which runs through the Waterhouse Ranges (The Waterhouse Ranges are a prime feature of the reserve as almost the whole range is contained within the reserve).
There are a couple of signs which tell you where camping is permitted. Once you see them, you can literally camp anywhere you like.
You’ll find lots of great campsites along the Hugh River, out in the central pound area, or right near Haunted Tree Bore (where Mueller Creek joins the Hugh River).
We’ve spend several Easter weekends here, just chilling out, birdwatching, reading, swimming and relaxing with friends.
Now here is the best bit about camping at Owen Springs: no camping fees are payable here so you can really set up camp and make the most of your visit.
Our advice: Owen Springs Reserve is best in the peak winter (May-August) season. If there is water around all the better but you don’t need it to enjoy the scenery and feel the impressive solitude of this place.
Owen has a staffed ranger station and a Territory Parks Alive interpretive activity may operate April to October if numbers permit. You can also download the self guided tour of the reserve from here.
What to Do:
Whilst Owen Springs Reserve might not have spectacular, big-name gorges, it has a lot to offer those who are adventurous: bush camping, 4WDing, off-track hiking, and birdwatching. There’s several geocaches on the reserve as well.
If you’re not so adventurous, the 4WD track through the reserve makes a fabulous half day loop from Alice Springs and return (about 140km round trip).
The track through the park exposes the 4WDers amongst us to differing conditions.
One minute you are driving along an unsealed track and the next you’re in the river bed of the Hugh River.
As I’ve said there are also many great camping spots where you can simply just chill. If there is a bit of water around then you can go for a paddle or in some spots like Redbank Waterhole, you might be lucky to find enough water to swim in!
I’ve seen many visitors sitting at the waterhole or their camp just reading a book. You couldn’t get better scenery or a more relaxing spot.
If you’re feeling energetic and you don’t mind walking off marked tracks then the Waterhouse Range might suit.
I’ve gone walking up onto the top of the Range from within Lawrence Gorge and been rewarded with outstanding views to the West Macs in the north and south out over sand dunes, simply magnificent.
Don’t forget to look carefully in the gorges and gullies around the Waterhouse. The observant person will be rewarded with some great Aboriginal rock art.
Please consider your fitness and walk prepared with plenty of water, a hat and sturdy shoes.
You can read more about Owen Springs Reserve by visiting the NT Parks and Wildlife Service’s page here.
When to Go:
Owen Springs Reserve is a place that you can go anytime of the year, but the cooler months really are the best time to visit.
Camping and walking aren’t much fun when it’s hot so it’s best to visit from April-October, when it’s a bit cooler.
It’s an easy day trip from Alice Springs and if you don’t want to camp you can easily do the drive through the reserve from one end to the other and return to Alice Springs in a day.
To truly feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere though, why not camp a night or two? You won’t regret it.
If you’ve visited, or even better camped at Owen Springs Reserve, why not share your experience and tell others what’s great to see or do on the reserve in the comments section below?
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West MacDonnell Highlights
- West MacDonnell Ranges – Don’t miss the outback’s best gorges, waterholes and scenery
- Ellery Creek – Visit a cool, permanent outback waterhole
- Ormiston Gorge – The outback’s most photographed waterhole. See why.
- Simpsons Gap – Only 20 minutes from Alice Springs. A great place for families.
- Serpentine Gorge – Escape to one of the least known, gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges