Cradle Mountain Summit
Cradle Mountain is a visual force that becomes intimidating when secreted in storm clouds. Standing sentinel over Dove Lake, at the northern extent of Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, it lures hikers like currawongs to an unguarded backpack. Windswept moors that accentuate your insignificance and lookouts that curl your toes bookend the handover-hand climb to the top of Cradle Mountain.
Cradle Mountain is a visual force
|Time required:||7–9 hours|
|Best time:||Clear, mild weather (snow-bound in winter)|
|Environment:||Button grass and alpine moors, dolerite mountain, rainforest, waterfalls, tarns|
|Best map:||This one|
|Toilets:||A composting toilet at Kitchen Hut|
|Food:||Grab a coffee and snack from the café at the visitor centre, 2km outside the park; Cradle Mountain Lodge dishes up bistro and restaurant meals.|
|Tips:||Cradle Mountain provides no protection from extreme weather and summiting involves extensive clambering, so don’t attempt this walk when poor weather is forecast. Be prepared for bad weather even on good-weather days. Only very experienced, well-prepared hikers should tackle it in snow.|
Cradle Mountain. The park is Tasmania’s second-most visited national park after Freycinet. Most of the 200,000 visitors a year are content to view the Jurassic dolerite peak from easier tracks, however, considerable numbers come specifically or solely to bag the park’s namesake, and in good weather you rarely have the mountain to yourself. Getting to the top is an unforgettable experience but the hand-over-hand clamber demands surefootedness and a head (and stomach) for drop-offs.
One of the many combinations of trails that get you to the summit track, the route described here starts on the Overland Track and returns down the Horse Track. Your peak-bagging begins at Ronny Creek car park, 6km from the visitor centre and 148km west of Launceston via Deloraine and Sheffield (1.75 hrs by car). Private vehicle access to car parks within the national park is restricted during peak visitation but shuttle buses (included in park-entry fees) operate year-round from the visitor centre. Cradle Mountain.
Cradle Mountain. Fill in the walkers’ register at Ronny Creek and set off south-west on the Overland Track boardwalk across button grass moor drilled with wombat holes and studded with remarkable pandani plants, the tallest heath on Earth, wearing curly topknots. Keep straight on over Ronny Creek and pass the Horse Track coming in on the right about 1.5km into the walk. Walk up Crater Creek to Crater Falls, in verdant rainforest, where many hikers fill their water bottles, and continue upstream to a weathered boatshed knee-deep in Crater Lake’s tannin-stained shallows. Wrapped in prehistoric stone that runs with waterfalls after rain, this lake was fashioned not by the volcanic action its name suggests but by ice. Needle-sharp, leafed scoparia shrubs grow metres tall here and King Billy pines, their bright-green leaves like plastic, share the water’s edge.
Crater Lake drops behind as you tackle the steepest climb on the Overland Track, a chained ascent (see point 1 on map) to a ridge leading to Marions Lookout. A popular day-walk destination, Marions commands a jaw-dropping view of Dove Lake, elevated Lake Hanson and Cradle Mountain, named in the 19th century by the Van Diemen’s Land Company purportedly because it resembles a miner’s cradle.
Cradle Mountain. Rocky track, pavers and boardwalk traverse treeless Cradle Plateau to Kitchen Hut, an emergency refuge reinforced against the winds that can roar through here, knocking hikers off the boarding. Having passed the other end of Horse Track about 400m before Kitchen Hut, turn left onto Face Track 150m after it. The Cradle Mountain climb starts 50m along.
Don’t be fooled: what appears to be the top of Cradle Mountain isn’t. The 300m altitude gain over the next 1.5km involves much more clambering than is obvious from here and many people take longer than the two hours on the sign. But if the forecast is good and the summit is clear – let’s go! (Pull out if not.)
Cradle Mountain. Step out on old timbers interspersed with boggy areas, through cushion plants, pineapple grass and scoparia. As you gently ascend, enjoy the expansive view (left) of Dove Lake and encircling ridges – and (right) over plunging valleys, cliffs, and ranges. Several other walking tracks are now visible.
Follow marker poles right from a Summit Track sign, across rock and scree and slate-like layers. The full-body workout starts about 100m into this traverse: clambering up past a natural window (right) (see point 2 on map) and through classic dolerite columns, standing, toppled and camouflaged in orange, grey, black and brown lichens. There are numerous big step-ups and places where it can be easier to crab walk and/or slide on your backside. Columnar cliffs and rock-framed views from a narrow saddle still your feet before the track descends and makes the final push onto the summit plateau.
As you walk, you will come to appreciate Gustav Weindorfer’s thinking, when he said, after scaling Cradle Mountain with his wife, Kate, in 1910: ‘This must be a national park for the people for all time.’ The natural stonemasonry and glaciated setting (which you’ll traverse for about an hour) inspired the pair to champion this part of Tasmania. A toposcope (orientation table) on Cradle Mountain’s highest point (hard right as you reach the plateau) identifies natural landmarks.
Cradle Mountain. What goes up must come down – so when time dictates, retrace your steps to the Horse Track, beyond Kitchen Hut, and veer left, on honeycomb-like moulded walkways that are hard on the eye but forgiving underfoot. Beneath, you can see old, rotted boards.
Barn Bluff sits to your left as the track crosses treeless moorland dotted with tarns; you can’t help but feel insignificant in this country and completely at the mercy of its whims. Cradle Mountain disappears behind and then reappears as you navigate a broad creek gully. From this rise it’s downhill through tarns, skirting rocky rises and following a creek gully that carries your gaze across range upon range.
The Horse Track passes a grove of remarkable trees whose stunted stature – none are more than 1.2m high – belie their age-twisted trunks. Walk on, noting the swirled and linearly cracked rock underfoot.
Cradle Mountain. About 1.5km after leaving the Overland Track you come to a sign facing away from you (most people walk the Horse Track in the reverse direction). Take the five-minute detour right to Crater Peak (see point 3 on map) for a gobsmacking cliff-edge view over Crater Lake, the Marions Lookout track and Cradle Mountain, peeking over the grey cliff immediately right.
The walk is all downhill now, and Ronny Creek Valley and car park appear. Waldheim Hut shelters in the pine forest on the valley’s north-west slope. Dove Lake comes into frame on the right as you descend – through rafts of scoparia and wildflowers (in spring). The dense heath shrubs here shield wildlife from weather and aerial predators and you will probably walk to the chatter of hidden birds.
Wind has fashioned topiary here too, inhibiting growth on the windward side of lone pines and sweeping their remaining branches into horizontal mohawks. Moving on, you’ll see the first sizable trees since Crater Lake, then skirt a grove of fagus (deciduous beech) trees and King Billy pines.
Descending a creek gully into button grass you pass the Baden Powell Scout Lodge, built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Scout movement and the centenary of the birth of its founder, Lord Baden-Powell; Scout groups, Scout families and the public can book beds here. Ignoring a footpad going right, continue towards Waldheim and Ronny Creek, following marker posts steeply through swathes of honey myrtle awash with fluffy pink flowers in spring and summer and down into striped snow gums. Cradle Mountain.
Flatter track cuts through open eucalypt forest and button grass to the Overland Track. Turn left and watch for echidnas and wombats (particularly late in the day) as you re-enter Ronny Creek Valley. Having crossed the creek, tread the boardwalk back to your car.
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