Table Mountain hikes: Skeleton Gorge vs 12 Apostles – 7 April 2020

I quite often get asked about the difference between Skeleton Gorge and 12 Apostles. Both are great routes that take in a lot of the mountain, but significant differences exist. Before we take a closer look, let’s first determine if either of these routes are suitable for you.

But before we do that, let’s get clarity on nomenclature. Strictly speaking, Skeleton Gorge is a ravine that leads up the eastern slopes of Table Mountain to the Back Table, not all the way to the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain. To get to the summit, we follow the Smuts Track to Maclear’s Beacon, and then traverse the length of the famous ‘table’ to the upper cable station. Our use of the name ‘Skeleton Gorge’ includes all the abovementioned parts, not just the actual gorge / ravine, as the general idea is to reach the summit of Table Mountain.

The 12 Apostles is a chain of seaboard peaks extending behind the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain and considered part of Table Mountain. Our use of the name ’12 Apostles’ is a generic name for one of the many routes that lead up the Apostles. Most of the time, we use Kasteelspoort, the quickest and easiest route up the Apostles. All the other 12 Apostles routes are more challenging, either physically or technically, or both. From the top of the 12 Apostles (about two-thirds the height of Table Mountain’s summit), we traverse across to Table Mountain proper and its summit plateau.

The first thing you should know about 12 Apostles (Kasteelspoort) and Skeleton Gorge as Table Mountain hikes are that they are strenuous. You need to be in decent shape to enjoy them. If you’re not in good shape, you will take strain, likely lots of strain, and this detracts from the enjoyment. To put it a bit in perspective, both routes involve about 35% more distanced as well as uphill than Platteklip Gorge (the quickest and easiest Table Mountain route, but also least scenic and exciting). Why would you consider either of these routes as opposed to one of the others? If you’re nervous or afraid of heights, in decent shape, want to experience the mountain in greater depth and averse to crowds, consider yourself the perfect candidate.

So, what then is the difference between Kasteelspoort and Skeleton Gorge. There are two big differences: views and vegetation. Skeleton Gorge offers a jungle setting (no views) and inland views on the ascent while Kasteelspoort offers sea views on the ascent. Different settings and views appeal to different people, so this is a personal choice (in large based on what you’re used to back home and what is novel to you). As for the difference in vegetation, Skeleton Gorge takes in all the floral zones on the mountain, starting with indigenous Afro-montane forest (reminiscent of a tropical jungle), with typical Cape shrub (fynbos) further up, finishing with the restio (a reed-like plant) fields on the often boggy summit plateau. On Skeleton Gorge, you’re in the jungle for about a third of the route (time-wise), and for just over half the elevation gain, so if you don’t appreciate the gloom and mystery of jungles, and rather prefer wide-open spaces and coastal settings, then opt for Kasteeslpoort / 12 Apostles. If you like the idea of passing through the different floral zones, and you’ve never experienced a lush environment like forests, and it’s important for you to reach the official highest point on Table Mountain (only 20 meters / 70 feet higher than the rest of the ‘table’), then Skeleton Gorge will delight.

In terms of physicality, Skeleton Gorge is a bit more strenuous than 12 Apostles. In terms of technicality, both routes involve minimal exposure to heights (narrow ledges) and a few bits of light scrambling (requires the use of hands). Both routes involve a few ladders – the tallest about 8 meters; steel on 12 Apostles, wooden on Skeleton Gorge – but the ones on 12 Apostles can be bypassed if you don’t like ladders. Skeleton Gorge gets very hot in summer (due to compulsory 8am start from within the Kirstenbosch Gardens) and very slippery in winter. That side of the mountain gets much more rain and the jungle canopy prevents the sun from drying out the mountain, so it remains wet for long periods at a time. In winter after heavy rain, the route becomes treacherous in places. Kasteelspoort is delightful in summer, as you get morning shade along the first 1.5 hours / about 60% of elevation gain, which makes a huge difference. Also, it’s less treacherous in winter.

Pros and cons of each route in a nutshell:

Skeleton Gorge pros

  • Starts within the Kirstenbosch Gardens
  • Takes in all the floral zones
  • Tops out at the official highest point on Table Mountain
  • Traverses the length of the famous tabletop summit

Skeleton Gorge cons

  • No views for the first 1 to 1.5 hours of the route
  • No dramatic rock formations
  • Busier (more hikers) for much of the year
  • Hot and humid in summer / slippery and wet in winter
  • No sea views
  • Smuts Track section is tedious

Kasteelspoort pros

  • Views throughout
  • More nature: peace, quiet, solitude
  • Striking rock formations
  • Options to detour to caves and rock labyrinths

Kasteelspoort cons

  • Does not reach the official highest point, Maclear’s Beacon
  • Little vegetation change (but highly diverse species nonetheless)

These contrasting routes serve as a great example of the diversity in Table Mountain hiking. Each side of the mountain offers unique views, vegetation, topography and even mood. And the expansive summit plateaus, lower and upper, offer many hidden gems. As mentioned, both routes cover a sizeable chunk of the Table Mountain massif, showcasing many of the mountain’s unique biomes and topographical features.

In terms of which route is the better one, it’s hard to put one above the other, as so much depends on personal preference, and even the weather / time of year. Personally, I prefer 12 Apostles for the greater sense of solitude it offers, and also the more engaging terrain. Having said that, if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, and you’re agile, the cascades in Skeleton Gorge during winter makes for exciting hiking.

Whichever route you decide on, hiking Table Mountain is the best way to experience this iconic landmark.

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