Skeleton Gorge: Need to know – 29 December 2020

Given how easy it is to voice your opinion to a global audience – blog posts, videos, reviews, forums, etc. – extracting objectivity (and truth) from the bewildering glut of information available on the internet has become tricky. This article aims to cut through the clutter on the merits of hiking Skeleton Gorge, allowing you to make a better decision on the best route for you up Table Mountain. Route choice is a vital component to an enjoyable and safe Table Mountain hiking experience.

Skeleton Gorge is a Table Mountain classic – as evergreen in popularity as in trees. The route starts from within the famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and follows a forested ravine for the first 1 to 1.5 hours or just under two-thirds the route’s elevation gain. From the top of the ravine – the termination of Skeleton Gorge itself, but not the route to the summit – a 10-minute detour leads to a small beach at one of the historic Table Mountain reservoirs. Back at the top of the ravine, the route continues through scenic shrubland to Maclear’s Beacon, highest point on Table Mountain. From here, you traverse the length of the famous tabletop summit to the upper cable station, by which time you will be grateful for a cable car descent.

That’s Skeleton Gorge a nutshell. Now let’s look at the pros and cons as well as distinguishing features that will help you decide whether it’s the right Table Mountain hiking route for you.

Pros:

  • 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’; unless you’re 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 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.
  • The beach. Not something you expect to find on a mountain, this little aside enjoys great appeal. Note that some years the entire reservoir dries up around late summer (February, March), or a big chunk of it, revealing the sandy and rocky bottom and creating something of a lunar landscape rather than a quaint beach. Conversely, heavy rains over winter (June to August) results in high dam levels that all but inundate the beach.
  • It takes in all Table Mountain’s floral zones: indigenous Afro-montane forest (that resembles tropical jungle), 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.
  • Hiking a Table Mountain route with arguably the most intriguing name. And the only route name (out of Table Mountain’s 65-odd hiking routes) that remains unexplained… A German hiking with me once referred to it as Skeletal George – a slightly less sinister name.

Cons:

  • Forest setting. As mentioned earlier, the first 1 to 1.5 hours of the route leads up a forested ravine. That’s great if you like forests. However, if you’re like many people who prefer sea views and wide-open landscapes to the (subjective) gloom and monotony of a forest, then you won’t enjoy a sizeable chunk of the route.
  • 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 little in the way of dramatic landscapes and rock-formations.
  • Offers only distant views of the ocean, and only from high up the route. Routes like 12 Apostles and India Venster offers fantastic sea views.
  • Tedious for much of the way if you’re an adventurous hiker. Skeleton Gorge scores low on the adventure scale. Although quite high in winter, with the ravine gushing…
  • The route is strenuous, involving considerable distance and elevation gain. If you’re unfit, you will take strain – possibly a lot. You need a decent fitness level to enjoy it. It’s no fun hiking in a constant state of fatigue.

Remember, whatever your preferences for hiking Table Mountain, we can configure a route for you that meets your expectations. We can adjust most routes to take in sights and views that may not have been encountered on a standard route.

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