The jagged peaks, highland moors, stunning lakes, waterfalls and rainforest of central Tasmania are all testament to the sheer power of ice. About 10,000 years ago the whole central plateau was covered by a 6km thick ice sheet which grinded, scraped, gauged and smoothed the 1000 million-year-old rock beneath. When the ice melted it left behind 161,000 hectares of wilderness bookended by Dove Lake at the northern end (at the foot of Cradle Mountain) and Lake St Clair (Australia’s deepest lake) at the south. Australia’s most famous bushwalk, the Overland Track, traverses the full length of the park from north to south (click here for track notes for the Overland Track) but if you don’t have a week to spare, or just prefer the idea of a hot shower at the end of a day’s walking, there are some excellent day walks that venture into the park from both the northern and southern ends that offer a sample of this spectacular wilderness.
CRADLE MOUNTAIN CIRCUIT (12.8km, 8 hours)
Start/Finish: Ronny Creek car park
This is a long, strenuous walk – warm clothes, wet weather gear and plenty of food and water are essential – but it is simply the best way to experience the park without embarking on the full Overland Track. The walk can be broken into smaller excursions (to Crater Lake or Hansons Peak, for example), but the full circuit is highly recommended. Fill out the registration book at the car park, just short of Dove Lake, and head north along the creek following the Overland Track signs. Pass Waldheim cabins and ignore a side-track to the left (which leads to Dove Lake), and start the long climb towards Cradle Mountain; the summit is more than 600 metres above Ronny Creek. The track splits soon after – take the left fork, the picturesque Crater Falls provide a nice diversion a short distance ahead. The track passes the northern end of Crater Lake before climbing steeply to Marions Lookout for a grandstand view towards the ramparts of Cradle Mountain towering over Dove Lake.
The next 1.5km is easy going across the exposed tops to reach a track junction. Turn left and it’s a short stroll to Kitchen Hut, an emergency shelter that makes an excellent rest point before heading for the Cradle Mountain summit.
The trip to the top is a 2km return walk from Kitchen Hut and takes 1-2 hours, and should only be attempted in good weather. The track zig-zags up the slope and the last section is a scramble over giant boulders and between dolerite columns to reach a summit marker. The route is marked by cairns and arrows painted on the rocks, and the views from the top on a clear day are simply incredible, encompassing much of western Tasmania.
Take care retracing your steps down from the summit and turn right at a track junction just before Kitchen Hut, taking Face Track across the front of Cradle Mountain, with the cliffs rising above the track to your right and Dove Lake far below to the left. There is another emergency shelter at a turnoff to Lake Rodway. Ignore this and head left to reach Twisted Lakes, where the rocky peak is reflected in a beautiful alpine tarn flanked by Pencil Pines and deciduous beech. From here it’s a short scramble to the top of Hansons Peak for more outstanding views, then a steep drop – metal chains assist in the toughest sections – that eventually leads back to the shore of Dove Lake. You can catch the shuttle bus from here or continue past the car park to return to Ronny Creek via Lake Lilla on the Dove Lake Track.
DOVE LAKE CIRCUIT (5.7km, 3 hours)
Start/Finish: Dove Lake car park
If the full circuit is beyond you, this is a much easier alternative that offers good views and beautiful rainforest. From the car park head left, crossing an outlet stream on a small wooden bridge and heading clockwise around the lake. Take an early stop at Glacier Rock, where scraping from rocks carried by ancient glaciers is still visible and which also provides a great vantage point of the lake. At the track junction keep right, sticking on the low track around the lake under the shadow of Cradle Mountain.
After rounding the southern end of the lake, pass another junction and enter the Ballroom Forest, an outstanding section of rainforest where mossy tree trunks and pandani palms flank the track as it crosses a small stream. Continue north to return to the car park, with a final highlight the rustic Dove Lake boatshed. It is unusual to see a man-made structure in this setting but the hut almost seems part of the natural landscape. It was built in 1940 by Cradle Mountain’s first ranger, Lionell Connell.
CRADLE VALLEY WATERFALL WALK (1.5km, 40 minutes)
Start/Finish: Opposite Cradle Mountain Lodge shop
There is some lovely scenery in Cradle Valley that doesn’t require a trip to Cradle Mountain. Start this easy walk by crossing the road from the car park and walking through a patch of open heathland then descending into rainforest to a track junction beside Pencil Pine River. Turn right to visit Pencil Pine Falls from a riverside viewing platform just 100 metres from the junction (there is another viewing spot on the other side of the creek which is also worth a visit later). Head back to the junction and continue straight ahead, following the river on the Dove Canyon Track. The forest is enchanting and walking is mostly on boardwalks. The turn-around point is a platform overlooking Knyvet Falls, framed by eucalypts and, if you’re there at the right time of year, blooming wildflowers. Return to the junction and head uphill to return to the car park.
MOUNT RUFUS (18.5km, 7 hours)
Start/Finish: Lake St Clair Visitor Centre
The Lake St Clair end of the park is wilder and less visited than Cradle Mountain, and if you’re prepared to walk for a full day the best way to experience this wild landscape is to climb Mount Rufus. From the visitors centre follow the Watersmeet walking track through forest before taking a left turn at the signposted track to Mount Rufus, which soon begins to climb relentlessly. Dense and primeval cool temperate rainforest cloaks the slopes during much of the ascent, before giving way to open alpine country.
From this point the gentle profile of Mount Rufus looms ahead, deceptively close but in fact requiring another 180 metres of climbing to reach the exposed summit ridge. From here it is an easy stroll to the highest point on the ridge and the mountain’s official peak. Mountains stretch to the horizon in all directions including some of Tasmania’s most famous peaks such as Frenchman’s Cap and Mount Olympus, along with clusters of alpine lakes. From the summit continue north along the ridge in the direction of Mount Hugel and follow the rough track to the lush valley below. A stream is clearly audible but often covered by mats of peat and vegetation so dense they give the illusion of solid ground. The walking is easier here too and much of the route is boardwalked to protect the fragile environment. The valley gradually opens up as you walk to the shores of Shadow Lake. Soak in the view to the nearby Mount Hugel before continuing along the track which descends through the forest to Watersmeet and the visitor centre.
SHADOW LAKE CIRCUIT (15km, 4-5 hours)
Start/Finish: Lake St Clair Visitor Centre
Shadow Lake and Forgotten Lake were carved by a glacier during the last ice age, but today they form a tranquil foreground to the rugged Hugel Range. The walk begins at the visitor centre and is easy to follow to Watersmeet, where the Hugel and Cuvier Rivers meet in dense cool temperate rainforest. Turn left, following a sign to Shadow Lake. Cross the Hugel River on a bridge and head uphill through the forest. As the track approaches the lake the terrain levels out and the path emerges in sub-alpine vegetation dotted by numerous small lakes and tarns. After reaching a junction at the southern end of Shadow Lake, turn right and follow the track along the lake’s eastern shore then continue for 20 minutes across boardwalks to Forgotten Lake, nestled under the peaks of the Hugel Range. Return to the Shadow Lake junction and head right then left at another junction soon after (continuing straight ahead leads to the much longer Mount Rufus circuit). After about an hour of forest walking the track hits a T-intersection; turn left to descend to the visitor centre.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
As the gateway to the Tasmanian wilderness, Cradle Mountain has quite a lot on offer. In addition to the national parks visitor centre – which is well worth a visit – the Wilderness Gallery hosts photographic exhibitions from Australia and around the world (see wildernessgallery.com.au) and the Cradle Mountain Lodge is a great place to relax and soak in the atmosphere and warmth next to a log fire, even if you’re not staying there. The national parks service runs free guided walks and activities throughout the summer holidays; programs are posted up at the visitor centres at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair.
FLORA AND FAUNA
The park contains an amazingly diverse range of plants and animals and has largely escaped the fires that have affected other parts of Tasmania. The alpine areas are home to the state’s most recognizable plants including ancient pencil pines (which can grow to 1200 years old), cushion plants and pandanis, the world’s largest heath plant which is found nowhere else in the world. Wombats, echidnas, possums and wallabies are regularly seen in popular areas, and lucky visitors might spot a platypus, quoll or Tasmanian Devil.
Cradle Mountain is 81km from Devonport and 142km from Launceston. From the town of Sheffield head south on highway C136 to the turnoff to the park entrance, which is clearly signposted. There is a large car park at the visitor centre, from here you can hop on a shuttle bus to Dove Lake. The southern end of the park is accessed via the Lyall Highway – the turnoff to Cynthia Bay is about two-and-a-half hours west of Hobart.
Expect cold, wet conditions – on average just one day in 10 is sunny and it rains on seven of those. The weather is most stable in February and March but snow can fall at any time of year. Be prepared!
CAMPING AND ACCOMMODATION
A private campground – Phone (03) 6492 1395 for charges/bookings – is just outside the park entrance at Cradle Mountain and there are a number of more expensive accommodation options, headed by the luxurious Cradle Mountain Lodge. Waldheim Cabins, eight 4-8 berth cabins with bunk beds, basic cooking facilities and heating, are located in the heart of Cradle Valley – book through the national parks service. At Lake St Clair there are powered and unpowered sites as well as cabins.
The park is a wild area and should be treated with respect. Some tracks are steep and strenuous and the weather can change in a heartbeat – it’s not uncommon to be caught out in a storm or even a blizzard in the middle of summer. Always carry a jacket and warm clothes, food and water and let people know where you’re going and when you get back.
Some routes involve rock scrambling and your feet will get muddy so sturdy hiking boots are recommended. But the tracks are mostly well maintained and easy to follow (boardwalks are provided in the most sensitive areas). A head for heights is needed at the top of Cradle Mountain.
Cradle Mountain Lodge or Phone: (03) 6289 1137
These descriptions are a guide only. While we have made every effort to make them accurate, we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained while using them. Make sure you use an up-to-date map and consult rangers before heading out.