Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Cradle Mountain Summit (Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park)

Arguably Australia's most famous mountain, the track to Cradle Mountain is considered one of Tasmania's Great Day Walks. Starting at Dove Lake, the most pleasant route passes Lake Lilla and the beautiful Wombat Pool before rising up to Marions Lookout and Kitchen Hut via the Overland. Following a fun rock hopping scramble, the view from the summit of Cradle Mountain is spectacular on a clear day. A must do iconic Australian walk

Distance: 12 km (return)
Gradient: A steep climb to Marion's Lookout, and a very steep scramble to the top of Cradle Mountain. Relatively gentle otherwise, with a moderately steep descent to Waterfall Valley
Quality of Path: Very clear and well maintained. Much of this section is under boardwalk, however some stretches along rocky paths are highly uneven. Scrambling is required on the Cradle Mountain side trip. 
Quality of Signage: Largely well signed, with clear signage at junctions with other trails
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 5-6 Hours, including lunch
Steps: Many steps, both formal and informal
Best Time to Visit: Spring-Autumn
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply. 
Getting There: The trail starts at Dove Lake. If arriving early, it is possible to drive right to the Dove Lake car park, however for most of the day access is restricted to a shuttle bus service. Take the C132 to Cradle Mountain Rd and either drive into the park via Cradle Mountain Rd and then Dove Lake Rd if arriving early enough, or park at the visitors centre for the shuttle bus. 

One of the biggest disappointments in of our otherwise outstanding Overland Track adventure in 2016 was the fact that I didn't quite make it to the summit of the Cradle Mountain. Just as I was reaching the top of the track and with the end almost in sight, clouds blew in with some seriously strong winds and prevented me from making it all the way. Although the blow of failing to reach the summit was softened by being able to summit Mt Ossa and our subsequent good luck when it came to the mountains of the Walls of Jerusalem Circuit and Frenchmans Cap, climbing to the summit of Cradle Mountain was a bit of unfinished business I really want to clear up on a future visit to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. With clear skies after our completion of the Dove Lake Circuit, it became pretty obvious that this was the day to summit Cradle Mountain.

After signing into the walking registration station at Dove Lake, Alissa and I made our way along the track to Marions Lookout.

Initially following the Dove Lake Circuit in a clockwise direction, the route to the summit deviates westwards as it follow signage towards the Overland via Wombat Pool (or Wombat Poo as the mildly vandalised sign indicates).

From Dove Lake the track descends a series of steps through cool sclerophyll forest.

At bottom of the descent, the track crosses a small creek that drains Lake Lilla.

While less grand than Dove Lake or as picturesque as Wombat Pool, Lake Lilla would be a beautiful lake in any other part of Tassie, especially given the rocky cascades of the creek draining it. At the time of our visit, the creek was little more than a babbling brook but would be much more impressive after some serious rainfall.

From Lake Lilla, the track rises sharply towards Wombat Pool.

Lake Lilla and Dove Lake can be seen quite clearly from this higher vantage point, with Cradle Mountain visible in the background.

While we failed to see any wombats at Wombat Pool, the small lake was an early highlight of the walk. With pines growing along its shores, Alissa and I were reminded of the beautiful tarns and lakes of Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

Passing the lake, the track continues its climb towards Marions Lookout. The track is really steep in parts, with the rock hewn into very rough steps that would be considered unsafe in more risk averse states like Western Australia.

After climbing the steep rock steps, the track continues to climb to a lower lookout point beneath Marions Lookout.

Just before reaching the steep climb to Marions Lookout, I reached the trail junction with the Overland Track. From here Alissa and I would be heading through familiar territory as we would be following the Overland to Kitchen Hut.

After waiting for Alissa to catch up, the two of us began the memorably steep climb to Marions Lookout. For walkers doing the Overland Track, this is the famous climb that makes the journey from Ronny Creek to Waterfall Valley one of the hardest days of the entire walk.

Along the climb, walkers are privy to excellent views back over Crater Lake. On our previous visit, Alissa and had arrived one week after some pretty serious snow falls and as a result Crater Falls were flowing well. As a bit of an omen for the dry and devastating Summer of bushfires to come, Crater Falls were not flowing at all.

After clinging onto the chains along the ascent, Alissa and I reached the outstanding viewpoint of Marions Lookout. Other than the boat house viewpoint along Dove Lake, Marions Lookout would have to be one of the most iconic views of Cradle Mountain, especially given it is the first reward for a climb on the Overland Track.

After spending a bit of time taking in the views at Marions Lookout, the track continue along boardwalk through low alpine vegetation to Kitchen Hut.

From Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain looks a lot more peaky than it appears from up at this point. Instead of a horn-like shape, the mountain looks like a longer spine jutting out of the landscape.

Just before the side trip to Cradle Mountain, the Overland stops at Kitchen Hut. The first hut seen along the Overland Track, walkers are not encouraged to stay in Kitchen Hut unless in an emergency. the hut is regularly used by Overland Track in the walking season by walkers as a rest spot for lunch on the first day, however it can be more regularly used for overnight stays in winter where inclement weather can force walkers to cut things short. Kitchen Hut is well known for its unusual two door structure. This is due to the fact snowfalls can be so heavy in winter than the lower door is often buried in snow, with the shovel at the upper level used as a tool to dig an opening for the top door!

Still recovering from Frenchmans Cap, Alissa didn't feel like tackling Cradle Mountain so I pressed on ahead without her. While I would have tackled the summit at a slower pace with Alissa so as to not go to far ahead, I decided to push it as hard and fast as I could up the mountain.

The first section of the walk is a steep climb along a series of steps before the track turns right to take a more gradual ascent along the scree and boulder fields. Having done the walk before, I had a clear image in my head of what to expect all the way, and having a lot of experience scrambling none of what lay ahead fazed me. I felt sorry for a couple who were well prepared with all the right gear but clearly had no experience with this sort of stuff as they struggled slowly along the track. While I find it relatively easy compared to the harder walks I've done, this is definitely not an easy walk per se - especially if this is your first rodeo. 

Once you round the corner, the track rises up a boulder field. From this point on, the track is an almost continuous scramble, however while scrambling automatically makes a trail a Class 5 walk, the scrambling is fairly straightforward and easy as far as scrambling goes.

The most difficult aspect of the walk if you're doing Cradle Mountain for the first time is that there are a number of false summits. After the first bit of scrambling, the track rounds a corner and then starts climb up even further. Pushing myself as fast as I could, I overheard a lot of walkers cursing at the sight of the next unexpected climb. Having just had the significantly harder climb of Frenchmans Cap just a few days earlier, I was finding this a breeze and was almost throwing myself from boulder to boulder. Some of the other hikers were quite amazed by my speed, confidence on the rocks and the fact I was doing it with a camera around my neck the whole time!

The most demoralising false summit experience occurs just before the last push to the summit as the track dips down considerably and then continues up and around.

The views from this part of the walk are quite spectacular. While there are plenty of columnar dolerite formations along the ascent, being able to look across the way at one of Cradle Mountain's lower summits provides some really excellent examples of these dolerite pillars, including a cairn-like formation as featured in the middle of the photo above.

After the dip, there is a slightly awkward move that requires walk to climb up and over the rocks with less than optimal hand holds. At the time I last did it in 2016, I thought it was a lot more challenging, however attempting it again two years later, it definitely seemed easier than the hard part of Frenchmans Cap. After this awkward section it is a continuous climb up the boulders to reach the much flatter rock hopping to the summit.

The last time I attempted Cradle, I cleared the last climb and was on what I thought was the home stretch to the summit cairn when the weather changed drastically. Strong winds and cloud blew in, reducing visibility and blowing with such ferocity that I didn't feel safe to continue any further. I was extremely pleased that the weather had remained agreeable the entire day, and I made my way to the summit cairn. On my previous visit, I had assumed the jutting out promontory pictured above was the summit, however the track actually turns to the right to the true summit of Cradle Mountain.

At last, after feeling the bitter (and bitterly cold) disappointment of failing to get to the summit of Cradle Mountain in 2016, I could finally tick it off my peak bagging list!

On a good day, the view from the summit is truly outstanding. As you would expect, the nearby Barn Bluff is the dominant feature, however most of the other great mountains of the Overland Track like Mt Ossa can be clearly seen. In the far distance, the proud visage of the mighty Frenchmans Cap can be seen.

The cairn makes identifying all the mountains a fairly easy task as it names most of the famous ones. Being able to see where Frenchmans and Walls of Jerusalem are in relation to Cradle Mountain was a great way to put it all into perspective, and I really wished Alissa had been up here with me to reminisce about all the places we've been. 

After enjoying the summit views, I began the descent of the mountain. Climbing down was a fairly easy experience and I made it down fast enough to have completed the entire climb up and back in 90 minutes - a good hour ahead of the time suggested by Parks and Wildlife. I felt really bad for the couple who I had seen struggling up the mountain as they hadn't made it much further when I was on my way down! 

I will say that I do regret pushing down the mountain as fast as I did, as my knees were screaming from being over stressed and shocked by every step running down. Considering I was still feeling the effects a month later, it is something I won't be repeating!

Reunited with Alissa, the two of us made the journey back to Dove Lake. Along the way we were fortunate to run into an echidna as it casually walked across the track! Echidnas are usually fairly shy creatures, but here in Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park they must be extremely used to human activity as this one seemed quite unperturbed by the small crowd that had gathered to watch it go about its day. 

Just before Marions Lookout, I looked back towards Cradle Mountain and had a flashback to 2016 as I took a photo from almost the same spot that ended up being one of the 'iconic' photos from our trip. What a difference two years makes - compare the above photo with the original from 2016

Wanting to go for the fastest way down, Alissa and I took the very steep Marions Lookout Track towards Dove Lake instead of returning the way we came up. 

This is some seriously steep descending and there are chains along the track almost all the way to prevent walkers from falling. This was fine for us as we made our way down, but it would not be a super pleasurable ascent from Dove Lake!

While less scenic than the route via Wombat Pool, it was nice to get another view of the area. It was cool to be able to see Lake Lilla and Dove Lake from this alternate angle, as well as the Eucalypt forest growing along the slopes of Marions Lookout. 

Back down on the Dove Lake Circuit, Alissa and I passed the boat house for a second time that day. This was a real teachable moment in a lot of ways as the entire area around the boat house was crowded with way too many tourists all trying to get their happy snap of Cradle Mountain. The effect was that the scene was completely ruined - no one taking the classic 'boat house and mountain' photo would have had anything usable as there would be people taking selfies in the photo! I was really glad we had arrived when we did first thing in the morning, as I was able to get the classic photo without the tourist hordes. 

With my previous attempt having been thwarted, I was really glad to have been able to have a second chance at ticking Cradle Mountain off my peak bagging bucket list. While iconic and famous, Cradle Mountain definitely lives up to its reputation as the walk itself is a fun and enjoyable experience if you like rock hopping and scrambling; this is a really engaging climb that will reward you with outstanding views along the way and from the summit. One of my favourite mountain day walks in Australia.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, very useful since I am heading over next month and had heard it was really difficult - from your helpful pics it looks like a fairly standard, if long, scramble. Looks quite similar to some Munros that I have done, but looks great fun !