Where we went: Cradle Mountain Summit, returned via Horse Track
When we went: Spring 2020
Estimated time to complete walk: 5-8 hours
Time spent on walk: 7 hours
Grade of walk: 4
Cradle Mountain National Park is one of the most famous and spectacular national parks in Tasmania. There are a range of hikes to suit every fitness level from the famous 5-7 day Overland Track to the easy, 2 hour, low-impact Dove Lake circuit, as well as several that can be completed in under an hour. Nestled in the central highlands, this towering, dolomite, cradle shaped eminence stands watchfully over a series of rare endemic plants, glacially formed lakes, and a happy, healthy wombat population. The summit sits 1545m above sea level; but only 600m from the Dove Lake carpark. Do not let this relatively moderate elevation fool you though – she is the most challenging Abel we have bagged so far. It is not safe in high winds or snow, so we recommend carefully checking all aspects of the weather report on the day of your hike and log your walks. Extreme caution should be exercised at all times and a good head for heights and boulder scrambling is essential. It is worth noting that, on the day we set out, we faced snow fall from the day before and the first day of a multi-day heatwave in the state the next. I am telling you this to make it clear to you that when a Tasmanian says to “prepare for all seasons,” they mean ALL. Wear layers and be sure they are good quality. My current favourite clothing item is my red, lightweight merino hoodie from Smitten.
Sommelier and I are early risers, which we hoped to use to our advantage. Private vehicles are not permitted in the park during shuttle bus operating hours (which was 8am-7pm while we were visiting – those hours are reduced in the winter months), but you can drive all the way to the Dove Lake carpark before or after those stated hours (keep in mind that it takes roughly 25mins to get to the end of the road though). As we were up before first light we hopped in the car hoping to catch a photograph of the mountain and boathouse bathed in sunrise. Sadly landscape photography’s model is an uncooperative mistress and we failed in this attempt for 2 reasons; there wasn’t a colourful sunrise this particular morning, and private access to the Dove Lake carpark is currently not permitted due to ongoing renovations. We resorted to plan B which was a frosty boardwalked stroll along the Ronny Creek track to say “gday” to the resident wombats and catch our first look at the summit, partly to make sure that the snowfall the night before hadn’t been too heavy, but also to take a quiet moment to commune with the mountain and get sense of our plan for the day ahead. Solitude in popular parks can sometimes be hard to come-by, so we cherished all the time alone that we had before we had to get out of the park and make way for the buses.
It was something of a roundabout morning as we returned to our hotel to take full advantage of our included breakfast before dressing for a big day of hiking, double checking our gear (mostly ensuring we had plenty of water and enough food and warm weather gear to survive the night in the event of an emergency-overstay-situation), and getting back into the park, this time parking at the visitor centre and catching the bus to Dove Lake. There is a café at the visitor centre where you can pickup some food if you have not made your own preparations. It was around 8:15am by the time we got to the visitor centre where we took advantage of a good loo stop, checked with parks staff that the snow from the night before was light enough that we would still be able to attempt the summit (they said to turn around if it hadn’t melted, but we should be good to go), they also presented us with a map, a picture of the summit track so we would have an idea of what to expect, and the advice that the “summit is saddle shaped” to which we mentally though “na-dur.” but more on this crucial note later. We also scrubbed our boots at the scrubbing station near the shuttle bus pickup zone. Boot scrubbing is an essential part of walking in Tasmania and is especially crucial in areas such as Cradle Mountain where the Gondwanaland plants grow in a healthy pocket of ancient forests frozen in time. Ensure that all dirt particles are removed from the treads of your shoes before setting out and maintain a healthy social distance from the plants, do not step off the boardwalks in areas where they exist, and do not step off the formed path in areas where there is no boardwalk. Sommelier and I scrub our boots at home and before every walk, but we also always take advantage of scrubbing stations when they are provided.
We were part of only 2 groups catching one of the earliest buses in, and our bus driver was thrilled that 100% of his passengers were attempting the summit that day. Apparently, it is not commonly attempted by day walkers; generally being favoured by people doing the Overland instead. This served to confirm our suspicions that this would be a particularly challenging affair. There are several paths that lead to the summit, with the 2 most common ones being Ronny Creek and Dove Lake. As we had already done Ronny Creek a little that morning and as the other party on the bus wanted to start from Dove Lake we decided to start from the lake as well. There are no wrong answers in this first phase of planning. Dove Lake is more direct, but steep, especially at the leadup to Marions Lookout. This makes for a great warmup and a good opportunity to get your head into heights/summits mode. Ronny Creek is a longer walk, but it is not as steep and has the added advantage of being the first part of the Overland Track which may serve to satiate some curiosity you might have about the journey.
There are walker’s registration books at Dove Lake (use them), and bathrooms. As we heavily hydrate before big walks we both needed a second loo stop. It was a little before 9am by the time we reached the Dove Lake boathouse, which is a small detour from the track we needed to be taking, but one we felt justified in, given that we had missed it this morning. The summit track circumvents the Dove Lake circuit, but as we had the whole area to ourselves (very unexpectedly) we did a small section of the track as a little warmup. before backtracking to the Marions Lockout path, which leads to the summit in due course.
We crossed through a small myrtle forest, skirted around Wombat Pools (saw a wombat who did not consent to being photographed) and generally enjoyed our gradually steepening leadup to the summit.
There are a lot of stairs along this trail. The last time we were here were relatively inexperienced hikers, certainly not very fit, and had climbed Mt Roland the day before so our bodies climbed only as far as Marions Lookout and only under extreme duress before we had to turn around. Fitter now, and with a much better idea of how to pace ourselves we reached Marions Lockout, with the aid of the chain-link assisted rock scramble which is a huge amount of fun, within the proposed 1.5 hours. We took a very small break at the lookout to appreciate the view that we had missed on our last trip (thanks to the weather).
From the lookout the path is formed, marked and relatively flat, offering beautiful views of Barn Bluff and Cradle Mountain, as well as all the little tarns that have collected over the wet season. The chipper calls of very happy alpine frogs rang out from every direction as our narrow path wove its way through the flat plains filled with cushion plants to the increasingly foreboding summit.
We reached Kitchen Hut within about 40 minutes and took the opportunity to use the toilets provided (heavy hydration in an area where stepping off the path is illegal can have downsides). Please note that there is no toilet paper at this long-drop facility (this is very common in national parks in Tasmania, always carry your own). Suitably abluted and eager to reach the summit by lunchtime we pressed on through almost-budding scoparia plants to the base of the Cradle, her spires suddenly looking much sharper towering from this angle.
The path onwards begins rocky with boulder scrambles developing as the path veers sharply to the right. There is a sheer drop to the right and Barn Bluff watches stoically as you ascend an increasingly large boulder field.
Sommelier and I both hike in Blundstone boots as they are Tasmanian made, offer good ankle support and have never let us down, but it is clear from scratches on the rocks that sometimes snow shoes and crampons are needed here. We were lucky that, while not all the snow had fully melted, there was no snow covering the tops of the rocks that we needed to traverse. We were very careful to check for slippery surfaces before putting all our weight on anything – we have a very strict 2-points-of-contact-with-rocks-at-all-times policy and we both constantly relay information on hand and footholds as we travel. The way up is marked with poles so that the safest path may be easily followed, these poles are not there for you to grab on to and many will not support your weight. I highly recommend not even trying, it only takes one loose hold to fall and it is a very long way down.
Up up up we climbed, overtaking the other group from the bus (who made incredibly good time getting there) at a narrow peak from whence the need for the advice “the summit is saddle shaped,” became apparent. The bastard-false-peak we had just reached is followed by a trough and then a second ascent over even bigger rocks. Generally I travel in front as I have a better eye for snakes and bush-lore (as well as being a slower walker and very prone to being distracted to a sudden stop by pretty flowers or interesting rocks), but we changed roles here so that Sommelier could assist my less flexible self over a few particularly challenging sections.
From here vegetation becomes surprisingly dense. This has fostered a healthy colony of very annoying small flying insects. Thankfully, though the way up continues, it tempers its enthusiasm for extreme upwards momentum, which was a relief to my disastrously lacking upper body strength and my sudden need to shoo away flies.
I assume the summit used to marked with a trig station, based on the remnants of a base that we found, but it is now marked with a toposcope, which is probably of far greater use, especially to those doing the Overland Track. There are views of Mt Ossa, Dove Lake, Barn Bluff and endless national park, the pale white path formed by the boardwalk standing in stark contrast against the deep greens of the cushion plants. From this lofty position the vaguely bird like shape from which Dove Lake presumably derived its name is visible (I think it looks more like a T-rex [edit: since posting I have learned that it is named after a surveyor of the park. The shape is a coincidence]) and the local currawong population can be witnessed merrily ‘skiing’ down the slopes using wind currents to carry themselves down in a dazzling display of their flying prowess. A lone wedgetail eagle flew a few circles overhead before disappearing from view. The air was very still at the summit, giving us a rare opportunity to eat lunch from any location, rather than having to seek shelter before snacks.
As is often the case with big boulder scrambles, especially those accompanied by a cliff-face, the way down is much faster and generally more terrifying (and relies heavily on the aid of the derriere). We were up, luncheoned, and down at Kitchen Hut again within 2.5 hours, which was a little sooner than we expected.
Happy to have a little more time in our budget we redrew our return plans to go along Horse Track to rejoin Ronny Creek, from whence we could easily catch the shuttle bus back (rather than the shorter walk back to Dove Lake, or the Face Track which we are very curious about, but could not guarantee wombat sightings [Ronny Creek can]).
Horse track is a long, white pebble path in varying states of maintenance. It takes about 2.5 hours from Kitchen Hut (we found it only took 2) and passes through fagus trees, frog song, and the breathless buzzing of undisturbed nature. We took every little detour availed to us, Crater Peak was an especially delightful 10 minute interlude with views of Crater Lake, the path already travelled, Dove Lake, and the way home. For the most part we were travelling downhill through the colourful wildflowers of spring, which made for a very comfortable warm-down after our summit scramble.
Tired, sore and more than a little sweaty we bid a second “g-day” to the wombats, greeted the swallow family we had mildly disturbed on our morning venture, and sat waiting for the bus as the sun started to take on the softer hues of golden hour. We have only bagged 6 abels so far, and we hope to someday achieve all 158, but for now we are happy to test our recovery times, get an idea of our stamina in the face of Tasmania’s monster mountains and congratulate ourselves on pushing to this point. As we watched the sunlight hit the shorter peak of the Cradle I reflected that mountains never seem as sinister after you’ve climbed them, Sommelier noted that, “Cradle Mountain doesn’t really look that foreboding at all…until you picture the baby.”