Skeleton Gorge Hike
A Table Mountain classic, Skeleton Gorge tackles the lush eastern slopes of Table Mountain, offering jungle setting along the first half. Above the treeline, you get wide-ranging views down the Cape Peninsula, across 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 superb views of the city center 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.
Skeleton Gorge Hike Length: 4 to 4.5 hours (to the upper cable station)
Hike Distance: About 6.5km / 4.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 900 meters / 3000 feet
Cost: R1300 per person
Skeleton Gorge involves minimal scrambling and exposure to heights. A series of wooden ladders midway up the gorge, somewhat exposed to heights, requires care if you suffer from fear of heights. After rain, especially in winter (June to August), the route gets wet and slippery – almost impassable directly after heavy or prolonged rain. Kirstenbosch Gardens’ opening hours prevents an early start to beat the heat, so the route gets extremely hot in summer.
Skeleton Gorge is strenuous, even more so in summer due to the heat. You need to be in decent shape to enjoy the route. It is often either wet and slippery or sweltering.
The section in the gorge involves a series of ladders, technically easy, but intimidating when wet and you’re afraid of heights. Beyond the ladders, the route follows a boulder-strewn watercourse, straightforward when dry, quite intense when gushing. Once out of the forest the terrain is gentler, but the uphill can feel interminable on a hot summer’s day.
Skeleton Gorge 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, and no sea views throughout. Views above the treeline are inland and down the Cape Peninsula.
Skeleton Gorge Hike Safety and Security
Skeleton Gorge contains only section those averse to heights will find unnerving: the ladders. To the average hiker it’s of negligible concern. If you attempt the route unguided, best not to do so 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 – especially if you take wrong turn and make the route even longer for yourself. A moderate fitness level and a willingness to break a sweat will see you reach the summit with a smile on your face.
As far as security goes, at the time of writing (June 2021), the route is very safe.
Pros and Cons
A lot of people like that the route starts from within the Kirstenbosch Gardens, allowing them to tick off that particular Cape Town attraction on the go. The ‘beach’ midway up is a singular feature and appeals to many. The route takes in all the floral zones on the mountain, providing diverse settings and moods. Another appeal is that it tops out at the highest point on Table Mountain (Maclear’s Beacon), even though only 20 meters (70 feet) higher than the rest of the tabletop summit. Last but not least in the list of attributes is the traverse across the length of the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain.
The heat of a compulsory late start in summer ranks high up on the list of downsides. Skeleton Gorge is strenuous enough in cool conditions, so summer hiking requires at least a moderate fitness level for optimal enjoyment. If your fitness is below average, you will take strain, likely a lot. The route scores low on the adventure scale, so not ideal for the adventurous hiker. Also, if you don’t enjoy jungle settings (and prefer sea views), the first 1 to 1.5 hours will disappoint. Finally, the route sneaks up the less-steep back of Table Mountain, offering less dramatic landscape than other routes.