Sunday, 21 April 2019

Frenchmans Peak (Cape Le Grand National Park)

A short but excellent mountain walk in Cape Le Grand National Park, this walk explores the distinctively shaped Frenchmans Peak. Initially skirting the edge of the mountain, the trail then steeply climbs up an modified route along the granite peak to the summit. Featuring an impressively large cave and grandstand 360° views of Cape Le Grand and its incredible coastline, this a must do walk in the Esperance area

Distance: 3 km (return)
Gradient: A continual ascent and then descent, with generally steep gradients that can require scrambling
Quality of Path: Almost entirely a slope up rocky and unmodified terrain, with some boardwalk and purpose built trail near the start of the walk
Quality of Signage: Generally well signed and clear, with a good trailhead and clear directional arrows along the way
Experience Required: Bushwalking Experience Required
Time: 1-2 Hours
Steps: Many
Best Time to Visit: Anytime of year, so long as the rock is not wet. This walk would be very dangerous in wet weather.
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees apply.
Getting There: The trail starts at the Frenchmans Peak car park. From Esperance, take Fisheries Rd east and then turn right onto Merivale Rd. Continue on Merivale for 25 kilometres, and then turn right onto Cape Le Grand Rd and then left onto Lucky Bay Rd. Car park is on left side of road

Having successfully completed the Le Grand Coastal Trail in the morning and early afternoon, Alissa and I stopped for a late lunch before heading out again to complete Cape Le Grand's other major walking trail - Frenchmans Peak. Having completed the similarly named Frenchmans Cap Great Bushwalk in Tasmania at the end of 2018, Alissa and I were keen to check out its smaller Western Australian cousin - especially since the steep granite peak features an impressive cave just beneath its summit.

From the car park, the trail skirts around the peak as it makes its way through the surrounding heathlands, and at one point crossing a wooden bridge over an ephemeral creek.

With the trail circling the mountain slightly to reach the ascent, Alissa and I could see the silhouettes of walkers making their way down the steep slope which reminded me of the iconic ending scene from Ingmar Bergman's arthouse classic The Seventh Seal.

Sharing its name with a great Tasmanian mountain, the trail also features some boardwalk which is a far more common feature of trails in the Apple Isle than in Western Australia.

Leaving the boardwalk behind, the walking on granite began, initially following low outcrops of only gentle steepness.

From the gentle ascent, the trail began to rise up more steeply while still being relatively easy going. That being said, the summit was not right in front of us and we could see that there would be a lot of very steep walking in our near future.

Passing through a small pocket of heathlands, the trail's steepness dramatically increases. Alissa - never a fan of super steep walking on granite due to her fear of heights - was obviously not very excited about the climb ahead.

The climb is admittedly very steep, and it didn't help that the area had experienced a lot of rain in the last few days and had a few wet sections along the ascent. While it was not dangerous at the time of our visit, I would question the safety of trying to climb Frenchmans Peak in wet weather as it would be extremely slippery. Similar to its Freycinet National Park counterpart Mt Amos, this is a walk best saved for a nice, sunny day.

While not the most grippy surface known to man, following the markers and picking the most stepped way to go meant the walking was safe and straightforward enough that we encountered a lot of families enjoying the walk. While we often assume children cannot do some of the more difficult walks in national parks, their lower centre of gravity often means that these kinds of walks are a little easier for children than adults.

Continuing up to the summit, the trail increased in steepness, however natural indentations in the rock created an informal series of steps that were slightly easier to walk up.

About three-quarters of the way up Frenchmans Peak, Alissa and I stopped to take in the views of the surrounding landscape. While the summit views would be even more impressive, it was cool to see some of the spectacular beaches we had visited earlier in the day with Thistle Cove clear visible above, with Lucky Bay just beyond it.

The trail levelled out as it reached an overhang that I initially thought might be the famous cave. While impressive and reminding me strongly of the caves seen along the Boyagin Rock Walk GPS Route, this was not the cave I had pictured, and I began to wonder if the cave could only be reached off-track.

Heading beyond the overhang and around the corner up to the summit, I could see the entrance to the cave just the left and within easy reach. Alissa was not interested in the cave and pushed on to the summit while I went off to explore.

The cave is impressively large; much larger than I had expected to be honest. Strewn with large boulders, the cave is large enough that I would not be surprised if the Aboriginal people in the area had used the cave for shelter as it would make an outstanding base of operations if you were living a nomadic lifestyle. It also made me wonder how often the park rangers find people camping up here, which - based on their somewhat over the top response to a couple camping on Mt Le Grand - would probably be frowned upon.

The cave features a massive cairn within it. It has become increasingly trendy to hate on cairn building, and I had to wonder if some of the more extreme anti-cairn zealots would want to come in and push the cairn over. Given its size, it would be massive effort on their part.

After enjoying the cave, I began the final push up to the summit. This is a relatively straightforward and moderate ascent, with some easy scrambling. A large group headed down as I was ascending, and Alissa and I had the summit to ourselves. 

Looking down from the summit, Alissa and I could see the car park below. The view down to the car park was very similar to the way the car park is visible from the summit of Bluff Knoll.

The best thing about Frenchmans Peak however it is grandstand 360° views of the the entire park. Having just completed the Le Grand Coastal Trail, it was awesome being able to see the entire coastline from Rossiter Bay to Le Grand Beach laid out in front of me.

After enjoying the grandstand views, Alissa and I made our way back down the granite peak. The return journey follows the same route as it did heading up, and Alissa and I were surprised to find the walking down to be easier than the climb up - even if we did wish at times that we had trekking poles to help with balance.

While less epic than the multi-day nature of Frenchmans Cap in Tasmania, Frenchmans Peak was an excellent short mountain walk in Cape Le Grand National Park. The mix of 'achievable challenge' climbing up the granite slope, the massive cave and the spectacular panoramic views of the Cape to Grand coastline make this a must do walk, and a great way for visitors doing the Le Grand Coastal Trail to get a real sense of the coastline as seen from above. As with the Le Grand Coastal Trail, I really appreciated that the challenge of the walk had not been dumbed down for the masses in spite of its extreme popularity - a refreshing change from the usually excessive risk aversion common in Western Australia. A highly recommended walk.


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