The Skeleton Gorge Hike article is written by Riaan Vorster, an accredited mountain-guide and Table Mountain expert with 12 years consistent guiding experience on Table Mountain. Riaan has guided thousands of groups up more than 40 different Table Mountain routes. He heads up Hike Table Mountain, a Cape Town mountain-guiding company specializing in hikes and scrambles on Table Mountain. They are the only company that offers guided hikes up all Table Mountain’s hiking and scramble routes.
A Table Mountain classic, Skeleton Gorge tackles the lush eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Starting from within the famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens contributes to its appeal and renown. The route passes through all Table Mountain’s floral zones before topping out at the highest point on the mountain. From there, a traverse of the iconic tabletop summit brings you to the upper cable station for a well-earned cable car descent (weather permitting).
The Skeleton Gorge hike to the upper cable station comprises three segments: the gorge itself, the Smuts Track and the summit traverse. The gorge makes up 60% of the overall elevation gain. It is the part where you experience one of the route’s distinguishing features: forest. Think Amazon jungle: ferns, moss-covered rocks, lianas trailing down from the canopy – only its far less humid, and there are far less insects. The second segment, known as the Smuts Track, stretches from the top of the gorge to Maclear’s Beacon, highest point on Table Mountain. The elevation gain totals about a third of the overall gain. Indigenous shrub known as fynbos characterizes this segment, providing longed-for views after the gloom of the forest and a stimulating change in landscape. The final leg, from Maclear’s Beacon across the length of the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain to the upper cable station, provides a welcome denouement to the ascent. The traverse is mostly level, the going easy, and you get to appreciate the extent and flatness of the famous Table.
2. Skeleton Gorge Hike – Difficulty
The Skeleton Gorge trail involves light scrambling and exposure to heights (narrow ledges). A series of wooden ladders midway up the gorge, somewhat exposed to heights, requires care in wet conditions or if you suffer from fear of heights. If you have height issues, you need to be up for a challenge. The scrambling is straightforward when dry – harder when wet.
Seasons influence the difficulty in different ways. In winter (June to August), the route is often wet and slippery – sometimes almost impassable after heavy rain. Kirstenbosch Gardens’ opening hours prevents an early start in summer to beat the heat, so the route gets extremely hot from October to March. Wetness and heat both increase the difficulty, often significantly. In summer it often goes from strenuous to gruelling due to the heat. The forest section gets humid, and the upper sections bake in the sun. This is an important consideration. If you opt to hike Skeleton Gorge in summer, you need to be in good shape and prepared to sweat and swelter.
Skeleton Gorge is strenuous, even more so in summer due to the heat. An average fitness level with some willpower and enthusiasm – and in cool, dry conditions – will see you up the route with a smile on your face. If you are not in good shape, you need to bring a lot of determination and grit to the hike. Skeleton Gorge is not suitable for the unfit.
3. Elevation gain, Distance and Duration
The Skeleton Gorge hike gains about 900 meters (3000 feet) over a distance of about 6.5 kilometres (4.4 miles). It takes the average person about 4.5 hours to reach the summit (upper cable station).
The section in the gorge contains a series of wooden, inclined ladders. These are technically easy, but somewhat intimidating in the wet or if you are afraid of heights. Beyond the ladders, the route follows a boulder-strewn watercourse that requires some focus, especially when wet. Once out of the forest the terrain is gentler, but the uphill can feel interminable on a hot summer’s day. A few pleasant scrambles add variety. Apart from the boulder-strewn watercourse, the route follows a well-defined trail.
The Skeleton Gorge hike offers jungle setting along the first half. Above the treeline, you get wide-ranging views down the Cape Peninsula, across to False Bay and inland towards the Winelands. A short detour from the top of the gorge leads to a ‘beach’ at the historic Table Mountain reservoirs. The route tops out at Maclear’s Beacon, highest point on Table Mountain, from where a traverse across the length of the famous tabletop summit brings you to the upper cable station. The traverse offers views of the city centre and Table Bay.
Skeleton Gorge starts within the famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (no doubt contributing to its popularity) and covers a big chunk of Table Mountain. The route takes in all the floral zones on the mountain. The first 1 to 1.5 hours leads through indigenous Afromontane forest reminiscent of tropical jungle: enchanting if you like forest settings, monotonous and oppressive if you don’t. On the upper half, the trail leads through undulating slope carpeted with fynbos, the Cape’s indigenous and incredibly diverse shrub. The summit plateau contains charming marshes and wind-sculpted outcrops. There are no views in the jungle; the setting provides the scenery.
6. Safety and Security on the Skeleton Gorge route
Only one section involves mild exposure to heights (the ladders), of no concern to the average hiker. Do not attempt the route unguided after heavy rain. In the company of a competent guide, the route is perfectly safe, even in winter after a downpour (if you don’t mind getting your feet wet). More of a danger is running out of water and / or energy in summer – especially if you take a wrong turn and make the route even longer for yourself. Take care not to underestimate the effect wetness and heat have on the difficulty of the route. At the time of writing (October 2021), the route is very safe security-wise.
The Skeleton Gorge trail gets a steady trickle of hikers for much of the year. Over weekends and the December holidays, it often gets quite busy. Traffic spikes up late December and early January, when on certain days the route can feel crowded to some.
8. Do you need a guide on the Skeleton Gorge Hike?
It depends on your fitness, experience, general health and willingness to take on risk. Making use of a guide optimizes the experience in the following ways:
- It takes the guesswork and stress out of weather-prediction and hiking logistics.
- You learn about the mountain, which brings your surroundings to life and allows you to appreciate the environment. Guided hikes are educational and provides you with fascinating insights into the fauna, flora, history and geology.
- You hike with someone who’s motivational and enthusiastic – and committed to getting you up the mountain and providing you with the best possible experience of the mountain.
- A guide provides thorough assistance if you become ill or injured along the way.
- It solves all route-finding issues.
- You won’t miss any hidden viewpoints or hidden topographical gems along the way.
While Skeleton Gorge follows a well-defined trail, it does not mean you can’t get lost. Several other well-defined trails branch off from the trunk trail and these could lead you astray or along a detour to the summit that might prove too strenuous for your abilities. Rescue scenarios can unfold along a well-marked trail, when you run out of water or energy through unwittingly following a much longer route variation to the summit.
Table Mountain’s capricious weather is another good reason to make use of a guide. Cloud often boils up out of nowhere, engulfing the mountain and causing disorientation – even if you are on a well-defined trail. It is very easy to wander around the mountain for hours, looking for the way up. The mountain covers a large area crisscrossed with trails. Wind complicates matters and can easily result in a hike become an ordeal or even a rescue. Especially in summer, when the prevailing Southeaster often results in cableway closure, necessitating a hike-down – tough and unpleasant. A lot of people just manage to drag themselves up the route with no energy or legs to spare, bargaining on a cable car descent. And when they find the cableway closed due to wind, they are physically unable to hike themselves off the mountain. This is an extremely dangerous scenario that can easily be prevented through making use of a guide.
Micro-climates exist on Table Mountain. The Skeleton Gorge hike is a long route that leads across from the wet and relatively wind-sheltered east side of the mountain to the summit plateau and eventually the northwest extremity. Just because there’s no wind or cloud where you start doesn’t mean it will be wind-free on the summit. And just because there is no wind or cloud when you start doesn’t mean it will be wind- and cloud-free by the time you reach the summit. To avoid the weather ruining your experience of Table Mountain, and possibly causing an ordeal, make use of a guide.
9. Pros and Cons
- Starts from within the Kirstenbosch Gardens. A rather dubious attribute for the following reasons: not everyone is into plants / gardens; the hike itself leads through a natural ‘botanical garden’; and unless you are very fit, you want to conserve your energy for the hike itself by not wandering around the Gardens too much. Still, it’s a drawcard of sorts that some find appealing.
- Involves some scrambling and minimal exposure to heights (narrow ledges). This constitutes a pro to most hikers, but a con to adventurous hikers, who typically enjoy scrambling and heights.
- Tops out at the highest point on Table Mountain. Purists will like this one. As its name suggests, Table Mountain has an expansive flat summit that mostly sits around 1065 meters above sea level. A slight rise on the eastern end of the Table marks the highest point at 1085 meters, so a mere 20 meters (about 65 feet) higher than the rest of the Table.
- Leads across the length of the famous tabletop summit (the ‘Table’ of Table Mountain). This is a real advantage, as it covers the most famous and iconic part of Table Mountain. Though rather featureless, the summit plateau still enhances the hike through its flora, appearance and topographical significance.
- A notable attraction is the ‘beach’ at the head of the gorge. Not something you expect to find on a mountain, this little aside enjoys great appeal. A 5-minute detour leads to the Hely-Hutchinson dam, whose fluctuating water level exposes a piece of the sandy bottom reminiscent of a beach. The size of the beach fluctuates along with the water level: during the drier months, it extends midway into the reservoir. The reservoir sometimes dries up completely in late summer, leaving a barren patch of plateau resembling a lunar landscape – accentuated in misty conditions. Conversely, heavy rains over winter (June to August) results in high dam levels that all but inundate the beach.
- The Skeleton Gorge route takes in all Table Mountain’s floral zones: indigenous Afro-montane forest, fynbos (indigenous shrub) and restio (reed-like plants) marshes. Not a big advantage if plants are not your thing, but it still adds diversity to the landscape.
- Forest setting (subjective). Some people love jungles, finding them to be exotic, soothing, and pleasantly mysterious. Others regard them as claustrophobic and monotonous, and prefer views and wide-open spaces. If you are of the latter opinion, Skeleton Gorge might not be for you, as the first 1.5 hours lead through forest. Remember, there are no views in jungles other than the short-range view of your immediate surroundings.
- Hot and humid in summer, slippery in winter. Kirstenbosch Garden’s 8am opening time means the route can only be accessed 2.5 hours after sunrise in summer – a big deal on a hot day. And most days in summer are hot. Starting as late as 8am results in tough and uncomfortable hiking conditions due to the heat. Less of an issue if you’re fit or used to heat. During winter (June to August), but not restricted to this time, the ravine is wet and slippery, resulting in treacherous hiking conditions. If you’re sure-footed and don’t mind getting your feet wet, the added payoffs include a small waterfall and several gushing cascades, as one bit of the trail follows the actual watercourse.
- The route sneaks up the undulating back of Table Mountain, offering less dramatic landscapes and rock-formations than other routes.
- The Skeleton Gorge hike offers only distant views of the ocean, and only from high up the route. Routes like Kasteelspoort and India Venster offer fantastic sea views.
- If you are adventurous, you will find the route tedious. Skeleton Gorge scores low on the adventure scale. Higher in winter after rain, when the ravine gushes…
- The Skeleton Gorge hike is strenuous, involving considerable distance and elevation gain. If your fitness is below average, you will take strain – possibly a lot. You need a decent fitness level to enjoy the route.
Compared to India Venster, Skeleton Gorge is more strenuous and less adventurous. Offers more floral diversity and less dramatic landscape.
Compared to Platteklip Gorge, Skeleton Gorge is more strenuous and more adventurous. Offers more views, diversity, nature and attractions.
Compared to Kasteelspoort, Skeleton Gorge is slightly more strenuous (a lot more on a hot day in summer) and about equally adventurous. Offers jungle setting and inland views on the ascent as opposed to sea views on Kasteelspoort.
11. Ideal hiker profile for the Skeleton Gorge hike
- At least moderately fit
- Not overly adventurous
- Appreciates jungle settings
- Intrigued by the beach; keen to top out at the highest point; eager to traverse the length of the famous flat-topped summit
- Less interested in sea views
Skeleton Gorge is a perennial Table Mountain favorite that takes in a lot of the mountain and offers unrivalled floral diversity along with sidelights such as the beach and the summit traverse. If making use of a guide, the route is suitable for people who are nervous of heights – though not suited to those terrified of heights (unless you are up for a challenge). You need to be in decent shape to appreciate all the sights, views and attractions. No one knows where the route got its sinister name, probably through the discovery of an animal skeleton when it was first ascended sometime in the mid-1800s. I once hiked with a German who referred to it in all seriousness as Skeletal George, to the amusement of the other group members.
For more information, or to book a hike up Skeleton Gorge, contact Riaan on 060 539 9340. Or check out the website.
Click here for more SANPARKS information on hiking table mountains Skeleton Gorge Route
(c) Riaan Vorster