Quartzite beaches, verdant rainforest, a pristine subalpine lake and an iconic boatshed make this a walk to remember.
‘Don’t go to Cradle Mountain in winter,’ they said.
‘It’ll be cold, wet and miserable,’ they said.
My best friend D and I had settled on Tasmania for our long overdue first ever weekend away together. (Just 14 years of friendship later, pssh.) She, an animal lover, wanted to see native wildlife in the wild for the first time; I, on the other hand, just friggen love Tasmania. The problem was the June long weekend was our only mutually agreeable option timing wise and June = winter and winter in Tassie = an actual dramatic seasonal change. As several people went out of their way to inform me, even after the flights were booked.
As it turns out, the list of reasons why a wintertime trip to Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, was a bad idea was both long and convincing:
- freezing temperatures;
- obscured views of the mountain in question;
- fewer native animals out and about; but
- just as many leeches (my worst semi-irrational fear) — perhaps even more than usual in the event of rain; and
- the reasonable likelihood of some of the national park’s most impressive walks proving inaccessible or dangerous due to snowy or windy conditions.
And… the naysayers were right. Sort of.
Wet and miserable? Tick, for one of the two full days we were there.
Freezing temperatures (by Sydneysider standards, at least)? Tick.
And yes, our views of the lofty dolerite spires of Cradle Mountain itself were fleeting and intermittent. Lasting what seemed mere seconds before mist and rainclouds shrouded the mountain once more. So far, so predicted.
Ironically, the one decisive ‘pro’ of going to Cradle Mountain in winter — the higher probability of seeing the national park cloaked in snow — eluded us.
But amidst the downpours and frosty weather of the June long weekend when we visited (two points to the naysayers), one walk in particular stood out for its beauty. Could it be: the winter gloom enhancing rather than just, well, clouding over the stunning scenery?
Dove Lake Circuit: Subalpine beaches, rainforest and more
It’s no surprise that the Dove Lake Circuit is the most popular walk in Cradle Mountain National Park, and one of Tasmania’s ‘60 great short walks’.
It’s 5.7 kilometres in length and takes just two hours (or three if, like me, you bushwalk slowly to soak it all in and/or take copious amounts of photos). Largely boardwalk and gravel, the track is easy except for one mildly steep section of stairs.
Though relatively short, this circuit showcases an impressive line-up of varying terrain, like little worlds in microcosm.
There’s the still beauty of Dove Lake itself, a subalpine lake shaped almost like a bowl scooped out of the mountains, with a couple of tiny tree-dotted isles in its centre. Glacial erosion sculpted the lake, valley and surrounding landscape during the last ice age some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Traces of these glacial movements are best seen atop the aptly named Glacier Rock in the form of its striations, or long linear marks. Geologically speaking, these are cooler than they look. They’re kind of like giant battle scars chiseled into the rough quartzite by the rocky debris within the glacier as it rushed down the slopes of Cradle Mountain, carving out the basin of what is today Dove Lake. Pretty hardcore stuff, really.
Then there are the quartzite pebble beaches tucked away in pockets around the lake’s edge, often overseen by gnarled tree stumps.
Sturdy Tassie bush follows bleak alpine heath, tussock grasses and buttongrass moorland — a legacy of local Aboriginals’ use of fire to aid hunting and clear pathways. Throughout the walk is a scattering of the endemic pandani trees, which look like shaggy palm trees rugged up for some extra warmth.
Set against the slopes of the mountain is a section of cool temperate rainforest: the Ballroom Forest. Vivid green moss blankets the forest floor and myrtle-beech trees — an ancient species that evolved in Australia, South America and Antarctica during the Gondwana period. Tannin-stained water soaks in small pools of mustard, amber and tawny browns, like the rainforest’s version of vats of dye.
And then, towards the end, right at the water line stands the boatshed: the Insta-famous focal point of the Dove Lake Circuit. The park’s first ranger, Lionel Connell, built this shed primarily of King Billy pine in 1940. Today speckled with green and reddish lichen, the boatshed remains largely unchanged but for a missing plank here and there. Even in winter it attracted a throng of groupies madly photographing away — joined by yours truly.
As for the risk of leeches? This leech-o-phobe is pleased to report we came away from the bushwalk completely leech-free. Without even a single sighting. Huzzah. (Not so on other walks in the national park, however. After lunch, as the rain and mist grew heavier, we attempted another more strenuous walk nearby — past Lake Lilla and up the steep steps towards Wombat Pool — and D spotted not one but two leeches. They were swollen with blood, and out for more. Xalsdfjkalkweuasdkfja. We … may or may not have ran straight back down the stairs all the way to the car. Not my most Hardcore Traveller moment, ahem.)
For us, the Dove Lake Circuit was a beautiful walk because rather than in spite of the rain, mist and grey skies. Dove Lake wore winter well.
So… the final verdict?
Cradle Mountain in winter: yay or nay?
If you’re a keen hiker, I’d say winter isn’t the best time, as chances are some of your desired tracks — such as the Cradle Mountain summit walk — may prove too slippery, dangerous, or even closed.
But otherwise there’s no reason why Cradle Mountain should be a no-go in the colder months.
For one thing, Tasmania’s weather is a bit of a sh*tshow all year round. I’ve seen bigger storms, heavier rain and low temperatures there even in midsummer — so great weather isn’t guaranteed even then. Tasmania does what it wants.
Second, this national park is one of the island’s most visited attractions, and protecting its precious environment comes with certain logistical difficulties for visitors during the peak tourist season. Accessing the more demanding — and scenically rewarding — walks within the national park requires passing a boom gate which maintains a cap on the number of vehicles permitted to pass per day. If the light beside it is flashing, your car isn’t allowed through, so you’ll need to grab the shuttle bus.
If you’re not hiring a car, the shuttle buses on which you’ll rely to get to the trailheads for these walks are said to fill up quite quickly in peak season. So aim for an early start if you want a guaranteed parking spot/seat on the bus. In winter, though there’s no shortage of tourists, you’re far more likely to nab the car spot of your choice — even, in my experience, on a public holiday weekend (though I daresay the rain helped!).
Last but not least, there’s the distinctive wintry beauty these sorts of alpine environments have — even without a coating of snow. In winter, Cradle Mountain may lack the sunshine and colourful wildflowers of other seasons, but the broad, silvery skies and lingering mist bring an atmosphere all of their own, lending the park a special feel unlike anywhere else in Australia.
Yes, the Dove Lake Circuit was a great, easy yet varied bushwalk through a gorgeous series of landscapes. Add in some surprisingly enchanting shorter walks, the cosy cottages in which we stayed (complete with fireplaces) and, thankfully, no shortage of wildlife sightings, and the verdict is clear. Visiting Cradle Mountain National Park in winter was certainly not the terrible idea that the naysayers had forewarned.
I’d hope my next visit is during the summer when the challenging high-altitude walks are more likely to be available (in theory at least, given the unpredictable Tasmanian climate). D agrees. Might be our second girls’ weekend away, perhaps — watch this space.
But will I return to Cradle Mountain in winter again? Yes, without a doubt. I still have to see how it all looks covered in snow, after all.