I haven’t encountered many views in Australia better than those from the summit of Cradle Mountain. It’s one of the few places I’d describe as truly breathtaking, although a lot of that could be attributed to the climb.
One of the things I’ve found while travelling Australia is that the places you spend years hearing about and seeing pictures of don’t always transition well into reality. It’s not that they’re disappointing, just that for all the hype laid against them, sometimes they just don’t live up to the expectation you’ve built in your head.
Some places, though, do the exact opposite, and they really do leave you awed by the natural wonder and sheer grandeur of your surroundings. Cradle Mountain in northwest Tasmania is one of them. I don’t think I’d struggle to rank it in the top five or so sights I’ve seen across Australia. It’s a place that does nothing in half measures, and it’s a place every Australian should visit at least once in their lives.
World Heritage Wilderness
The Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park sits at the heart of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, and it’s the state’s most visited national park for a reason. Despite the best efforts of early settlers, hunters, prospectors, fur traders, timber loggers, farmers, miners and railway developers, who all sought to use the land for their own purposes, this ancient and fragile landscape has managed to maintain its pristine nature.
It could have ended up a gutted and ravaged industrialised wasteland like so many other places across this country, were it not for the vision of Gustav and Kate Weindorfer. From the summit of Cradle Mountain in 1910, they saw the immense and pressing need for the protection national park status would bring. They spent years lobbying for this protection, eventually succeeding as it was first declared a scenic reserve, then a wildlife reserve, then a national park in 1947, and finally, a World Heritage Area.
The area’s unspoilt nature is also largely due to the fact that a great portion of the wilderness is only accessible to those willing to tackle the 80km Overland Track, one of Australia’s greatest and most famous hiking trails. It really is the only way to experience the centre of the park, a wild playground of sweeping alpine vistas, remote and rugged mountain ranges, stark buttongrass moorlands, glacial lakes and ancient forests.
Luckily, two of its most spectacular areas are quite easily visited. Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, lies at the southern end, accessed from the Lyell Highway between Hobart and Queenstown. Cradle Mountain itself sits at the northern end of the park. This is where most of the visitors go, and with good reason, however this does mean it’s not the kind of place you’re going to have to yourself.
While summer is peak time, predominately for the better chances of good weather, winter can be just as busy, with the park transformed by the surreal beauty only a carpet of snow can bring. Cradle Mountain Discovery Parks is a safe bet for accommodation. It’s not cheap, but you wont beat the location, unless you fork out a little more to stay in one of the cabins or lodges deeper within the park.
If free-camping is more your thing, nearby Lake Lea in the Vale of Belvoir is a gorgeous little spot. It’s a great place to keep an eye out for the wombats, pademelons, echidnas, quolls, flame robins and other wildlife that inhabit the area.
Cradle Mountain boasts some of the best hiking tracks in the country, and you’d be mad to come all the way out here without knocking out one or two of them. If tough mountain climbs and 80km wilderness hikes aren’t your thing, there’s a huge collection of well maintained trails to suit just about anyone. Better yet, just about all of them have something to offer that the others don’t, so you don’t have to worry about taking on a difficult hike to experience some stunning scenery.
The information centre and transit terminal, just across from the Discovery Park, is the best place to start. A regular shuttle service runs from here up to Dove Lake, and while you can drive your own vehicle, it’s probably a good idea not to crowd the roads and just jump on a shuttle.
If you feel like taking it easy, or at least starting off easy, you don’t have to head far from the info centre. The Enchanted and Kynvet Falls walks show off some alpine rainforest and cascading waterfalls, or there’s a gradual boardwalk that follows the river all the way up to Dove Lake, which can be a good alternative to a shuttle.
Dove Lake, a sight that likely pulls in just as many visitors as Cradle Mountain itself, works in tandem with the iconic peak beyond to create one of the most spectacular post-card vistas Tasmania has to offer. The lake circuit is a fairly easy walk, passing through the alpine rainforest and rocky beaches that fringe the vibrant blue water. Glacier Rock, the forested Ballroom with its dense mossy undergrowth, and the iconic boathouse are all highlights.
After this, the walks get a little tougher. There’s a near-endless run of loops and alternative routes that could be linked up to keep you walking for hours. At the end of the day, though, it’s Cradle Mountain itself that attracts the most walkers. At 1545 metres high, it’s Tasmania’s sixth highest peak.
There’s a few different routes you can take, but for a great full-day walk, start with the Dove Lake Circuit, then branch off and climb the Lake Wilks Track up and across the face of the mountain. The final ascent is a steep, and the often exposed and near-vertical track involves a fair bit of boulder scrambling, but the incredible scenery should keep you climbing easily enough.
Of the entire six or seven hours it can take, the views don’t let up for a moment, and the track never bores. From the top, the 360 degree views are just out of this world, across the vast wilderness to the distant peaks of Barn Bluff and Mt Ossa. I don’t think anything I could say would possibly do it justice.
For the return journey, follow the Overland Track down past the spectacular Marions Lookout and back to Dove Lake. You’ll likely be pretty exhausted by this point, so it’s easy convincing yourself to stop and admire the scenery every hundred metres or so. Deep glacial lakes, fields of alpine daisies and cushion plants, wide valleys capped with craggy ridges of pale stone, and the pandani, sassafras and ancient King Billy pines that fringe Lake Lilla and Wombat Pool.
It really is one of the best day walks you’ll find in this country. A word of advice, though, do make sure you’re up to it and properly equipped. Seriously. Near the end, I passed several groups of exhausted and clearly under-prepared people who asked me how much further they had to go, when they were barely a quarter of the way there.
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