Lush temperate 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.
After over a decade of friendship, my best friend and I had settled on Tasmania for our long overdue first ever weekend away together. 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, unlike back home in Sydney. 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 (aka my worst semi-irrational* fear) — perhaps even more than usual in the event of rain. Joy!!; and
- the reasonable likelihood of some of the national park’s most impressive walks proving inaccessible or downright 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 pretty much just fleeting glimpses. 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 picturesque snow — eluded us.
But amid 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.
For starters, 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 markings. Geologically speaking, these are cooler than they sound. Think of them as giant battle scars. They were chiseled into the rough quartzite by the movement of the rocky debris long trapped beneath the glacier ice as it rushed down the slopes of Cradle Mountain, in the process 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.**
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. Just one way in which Tasmanian Aboriginal people who lived within the area since the end of the last ice age some 10–12,000 years ago — specifically, in the Cradle Mountain region, the Big River tribe — often shaped the landscapes we now take as pristinely untouched.***
Throughout the walk is a scattering of pandani trees, found only in Tasmania, which look like shaggy palm trees rugged up for some extra warmth. When clumped together, as in the huge stands of pandanis that Dove Lake is known for, the effect is otherworldly.
Around the bend of the lake, 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 the myrtle-beech trees. The myrtle-beech belongs to a
ancient prehistoric genus that evolved back in the days of Gondwana, when Australia, South America, Africa, Zealandia, Antarctica and parts of Asia were all joined at the proverbial hip, hundreds of millions of years ago.****
And in case the lush, mossy green creeping up from the rainforest floor isn’t enough by way of natural colour, tannin-stained water soaks in small pools of mustard, amber and tawny browns, like the rainforest’s version of vats of dye.
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 the early 1940s. It was once used to house boats for tourist trips across the lake. 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 snapping away — soon 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. Thank f*ck.
(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 my best friend 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, drawing confused and mildly concerned looks from those we passed.*****)
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, the parking spots are capped and your car isn’t allowed through, so you’ll need to hop on 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, although you will still find fellow tourists about, you’ve got much better chances of nabbing a car spot — even, in my experience, on a public holiday weekend (though I’m pretty sure the rain did us a solid and helped out on that front).
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 quite unlike anywhere else in Australia.
Yes, the Dove Lake Circuit was a great, super 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 of wallabies, pademelons and one adorable wombat, 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). And the best friend agrees.
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.
*I say rational. What can I say. To me people who don’t fear leeches are the weird ones.
**I for one did not even know that subalpine beaches were even a thing until this trip.
***Just to be clear, these numbers are for the Cradle Mountain area specifically. For the wider Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), Aboriginal occupation dates much further back. This is a handy summary:
Archaeological research has shown that Aboriginal people occupied the TWWHA for at least the past 35,000 years and were, for 20,000 years, the southernmost people on Earth…. During the Pleistocene, Tasmanian Aboriginal people lived under alpine conditions when temperatures averaged 6°C below those of today.
Dotted throughout the broader Cradle Valley, hidden at least to the layperson, are artefact scatters, quarry sites, rock shelters and rock markings dating back millennia. Further sources here and here. Here is a short summary of the ongoing legacy of Tasmania’s Black War and for some information about Tasmania’s Aboriginal communities today, here.
****Fun fact: fossils of a relative of the myrtle beech have been found in Antarctica. This genus of trees is aaaancient.
*****Hardcore Traveller Moment #8234.
Tips, Links and Resources
Visiting Cradle Mountain National Park
What you should know before you go to Cradle Mountain National Park and Dove Lake in particular:
- Information about Dove Lake from Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Service.
- Price: I paid $16.50 per person for park entry fee (June 2017). Looks like it’s $25 now. Here’s some updated info re park passes.
- The walk above is a 2–3 hour, 6km circuit.
- As above, my top tip is to get there early in the day!
- Signs at the carpark advise you to complete the circuit in a clockwise direction (so turning left from the carpark); this way certainly maximises the impact of the scenery. But if you’re a photographer hoping to get a shot of the boatshed sans other tourists, start early and in the opposite direction — or walk 100m to the right for the boatshed then start the work proper in the recommended direction.
- Taking the shuttle bus is recommended, but remember to get there early!
- More tips in this Know Before You Go section.
Deep dive into the history of Dove Lake, the national park and the surrounding region with my handy round-up of resources for learning more:
- Sadly, there seems to be a bit of a dearth of publicly accessible information about the park’s history. Some brief overviews are the best I could find, from Discover Tasmania, Cradle Mountain Highlanders and Cradle Mountain Lodge respectively.
- More about the park’s heritage in the Cultural Heritage section here.
- More about the Aboriginal heritage of Cradle Mountain.
- A lit review and synthesis report about the Aboriginal heritage of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (of which the Cradle Mountain National Park forms one part).
- A quite old paper on the ‘Geology of the Cradle Mountain Reserve’ by IB Jennings — a good overview of the region’s geology for any earth nerds out there.
- This explanation of glacial striations helped my non-science-y brain comprehend them.
- More about the deciduous beech.