How to Climb Table Mountain via Skeleton Gorge

by | Mar 9, 2022 | Cape Town, Parks/Nature Reserves, The Blogitects, Western Cape | 8 comments

I visited Cape Town for the first time more than 11 years ago, with my mother. During that trip, Mom and I attempted to climb Table Mountain in a hilariously foolish way — I’ll let you read about it yourself in the blog post I wrote back then, called How Not to Climb Table Mountain. We ultimately turned back and took the cable car to the top instead.

I’ve been wanting to climb Table Mountain fully and properly ever since. Last weekend I finally succeeded, together with Thorsten and our friends Dee and Nelius, using the Skeleton Gorge trail. Here’s how we did it.

Looking through the trees toward the top of Skeleton Gorge
Looking down through the trees from Skeleton Gorge.

Platteklip Gorge is the fastest and most popular hiking route up Table Mountain. But Platteklip Gorge, which is on the “front” (north) side of the mountain, is also known to be the hottest route, as it faces the sun and has almost no shade. Dee recommended we take the Skeleton Gorge route, which traverses the forested eastern side of the mountain and is longer and shadier than Platteklip. The first third of the Skeleton Gorge route is completely shaded, and the route also includes a “beach” (more on this later), and a walk through some beautiful Western Cape fynbos.

Hiking Up Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

As an added bonus, the Skeleton Gorge hike begins in Cape Town’s famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, which I also hadn’t visited since my first trip to Cape Town in 2011. I was excited to go back to Kirstenbosch and check out the Boomslang walkway — a snake-like bridge through the tree canopy designed by Thorsten’s architect friend, Mark Thomas, and engineered by Henry Fagan.

Boomslang in Kirstenbosch
Walking the Boomslang, which is named for a highly poisonous southern African snake.
Boomslang walkway from lower down
Another look at the Boomslang.
Heather at the Boomslang
Me on the Boomslang. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)
Thorsten sketch of Boomslang
One of many fantastic sketches Thorsten drew of the Boomslang. (See more of Thorsten’s sketches at @theThinking_Hand.
Thorsten Boomslang
Another one.

A couple of important notes about hiking from Kirstenbosch:

  • The park opens at 8 a.m. so that’s the earliest time you can start this hike.
  • If you climb Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch, remember you’ll finish the hike in a different location from where you started. So you’ll need to either Uber to Kirstenbosch, or drive to Kirstenbosch and Uber back there from Table Mountain at the end of your hike.
  • Don’t forget your South African ID, or passport with a long-term South African visa (if you have one). Otherwise you, like me, will have to pay the R200 ($13) general admission fee rather than the “local” admission fee of R80 ($5.20).
  • Kirstenbosch’s “Tea Garden” entrance is about two minutes’ walk to the Skeleton Gorge trail marker. The Boomslang walkway is about five minutes further on.

Skeleton Gorge

The literature we’d read about the Skeleton Gorge trail said it would take about five hours to reach the top of the mountain. We wanted to reach the top late in the afternoon, when the light was best, but we also wanted to make sure we had plenty of time. So we decided to leave in the morning just to be safe.

I think we started up the trail at about 9:30 a.m. But in hindsight, we could have left quite a bit later. We really took our time and still reached the top of Table Mountain at about 1:30. It was fairly hot (by South African standards, at least) by the time we finished — high 20s Celsius, or low 80s Fahrenheit — but the heat wasn’t unmanageable.

Dee gets us psyched up for Skeleton Gorge.
Dee gets us psyched up for the gorge.

Some notes on trail difficulty and terrain:

  • Skeleton Gorge is steep. Climbing up the gorge is not easy (this is a kilometer-high mountain, after all), but it’s not rock-climbing, either. If you’re a reasonably fit person who likes to hike, you can do it.
  • Thorsten and I do short hikes relatively often and also work out regularly, and although we did get really tired on the hike, we didn’t struggle too badly or feel sore the next day. Dee and Nelius, by their own admission, do not hike or exercise regularly but also finished the hike without a problem, albeit an hour or two behind Thorsten and me.
  • You do need to be ready to scramble over rocks and climb a series of relatively steep ladders. I think this climb must be quite a bit more challenging in damp weather, when the rocks are slippery.
  • This is pretty obvious, but it’s essential to wear sturdy shoes, a hat, and sunscreen, and to bring lots of water and snacks.
Ladder in Skeleton Gorge
One of the five or six ladders we climbed. This picture makes it look steeper than it actually is.
Ladder sketch
Thorsten’s interpretation of the ladders.

The best thing about Skeleton Gorge, especially during summer, is the forest. The main section of the trail is indigenous Afro-temperate forest — green, mossy, jungle-like, and relatively cool year-round.

Skeleton Gorge trail
A typical stretch of the trail.
Thorsten sketching in Skeleton Gorge
This section of the gorge is especially beautiful, with lots of mosses and ferns and a soft trickle of spring water tumbling through the rocks beside the trail.
Thorsten sketch of Skeleton Gorge
Thorsten made so many great sketches — I struggled to decide which ones to include.

We reached the top of the gorge in about 90 minutes, when we crossed above the tree line and enjoyed the first of many amazing views.

Looking out over the Cape Town suburbs on the way up Table Mountain
The view after we finished the gorge.

The Second Half of the Climb

After the gorge, we climbed a short bit further and then reached the path to the Hely-Hutchinson Dam. The path was surprisingly sandy, and we were even more surprised when we rounded a bend and saw the dam itself with its bright, white, moon-like surroundings.

Entrance to the Hely-Hutchinson Dam
Approaching the dam.
Thorsten's sketch of Hely-Hutchinson Dam
Thorsten’s dam sketch.

Hely-Hutchinson is one of a series of dams (reservoirs) built in the early 1900s to supply water to the City of Cape Town. For some reason it is now surrounded by extremely white rocks and sand. The brightness was jarring — almost surreal, like we’d entered another dimension — after our long, shady climb up the gorge.

Thorsten in the dam
Thorsten and I took turns wading in the dam while the other person rested with our gear in the shade of a towering white rock. We relaxed there for nearly an hour.

Reaching the dam is kind of a trick because it feels as if the hike is nearly over. But it’s not, and we learned the hard way that you need to make sure you choose the right route to the top. Apparently the best (flattest/easiest) way is to backtrack slightly from the dam and turn left up the trail toward Maclear’s Beacon. But Thorsten and I, as well as Dee and Nelius, continued past the dam to another web of trails with several routes up the mountain, all of which are apparently shorter but steeper than the Maclear’s Beacon route.

Looking down on Hely-Hutchinson Dam
Looking down on the entrance to the dam. We should have gone back the way we came and hiked around the front side of the mountain. But instead we climbed more or less straight up the side.

Thorsten and I wound up hiking the Echo Valley route, which had a lot of tiring ups and downs and kept us in full sun for about 90 minutes. But it was also incredibly beautiful and we saw tons of spectacular fynbos, including several huge protea flowers in full bloom.

Hiking through the fynbos
Hiking through the fynbos.
Looking down from Echo Valley trail
Looking down on the second dam. (There is actually another dam behind Hely-Hutchinson.)
Echo Valley sketch
Thorsten’s last sketch. (I think we were both too tired to do much documentation at this point.)

At last, after many mini-descents and climbs, we reached the Table Mountain plateau. It felt strange to emerge from our relatively solitary hike into this international tourist attraction, which was extremely full of people. (It’s great that international tourists are returning to South Africa though.)

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain
The view from the top.
View of cable car from the top of Table Mountain
Looking down on Lion’s Head and the Atlantic Ocean. Look closely and you’ll see the famous cable car.
People taking photos at the top of Table Mountain
Table Mountain iPhone photoshoot in progress.
Thorsten at the top of Table Mountain
Thorsten at the top.
Heather at the top of Table Mountain
Me at the top.

We drank an expensive celebratory beer at the café, walked around and took a few photos, then bought tickets for the cable car down. The cable car costs R210 (about $13.50) one-way — not cheap, but the one-minute ride was a lot more fun than hiking all the way back down again.

We walked about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) total, according to my health app, but that included a lot of extra meandering around. The hike took four hours, including a nearly hour-long break at the dam. We did it! Let me know if you have questions. The end.

8 Comments

  1. Nancy McDaniel

    How beautiful. How brave, How exhausting (Love the Boomslang Bridge) But those ladders, not so much. Think you are missing a word in this sentence: “Climbing up the gorge is not easy (this is a kilometer-high mountain, after all)”

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks! The ladders look terrifying but they’re really not as bad as they look.

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    Great photos and well done on doing this but I think I’ll stick to the cable car. My son who does this climb often always tells me about the dams so thanks for the photos, I can now relate to his stories.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, they are so unexpected!

      Reply
  3. AutumnAshbough

    That looks lovely, but a little surreal, moving through so many different biomes. I would totally want the shady route, too.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It was totally surreal!

      Reply
  4. Craig Lotter

    Sounds like you guys enjoyed a wonderful experience! Table Mountain almost never disappoints! 🙂

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It definitely doesn’t.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: