Skeleton Gorge: Need to know – 5 April 2021

No discussion on Table Mountain hiking is complete without mention of Skeleton Gorge. Despite its sinister name, it has achieved classic status as a Table Mountain hiking route. However, it’s not for everyone. This article aims to delineate the pros and cons of this evergreen route, allowing you to make an informed decision on whether it’s the right route for you.

Let’s start at the starting point, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, to which a portion of the route’s popularity may be attributed. It’s convenient to check out Cape Town’s famous Botanical Gardens as a preamble to hiking Table Mountain. Saves time and effort from having to plan a separate trip to visit the venerable Gardens. While this holds true for certain people, it results in a sub-optimal experience for others. Read on to find out why.

It’s important to understand what exactly constitutes Skeleton Gorge. As the name suggests, it’s a gorge – a rather small one at that, more accurately referred to as a ravine (which they did pre-1960, but for some reason they switched to Gorge). This gorge / ravine leads up the forested eastern slopes of Table Mountain. It terminates on the Back Table, or Lower Plateau: an extensive and undulating plateau located behind the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain at about two-thirds the summit’s elevation. Therefore, strictly speaking, hiking up Skeleton Gorge does not get you to the summit of Table Mountain. Quite far from it. From the top of the gorge proper, it’s still about an hour to the summit. And then another 45 minutes across the summit to the upper cable station – because you would want a cable car descent after hiking Skeleton Gorge to the summit.

On the back of this, let’s take a closer look at each of these three route segments.

The first segment, Skeleton Gorge proper (the actual gorge / ravine) is the part where you experience one of the route’s key distinguishing features: forest. To be more precise, indigenous Afro-temperate forest, a type of Afromontane forest that resembles equatorial forest in appearance. Think Amazon jungle: ferns, moss-covered rocks, lianas trailing down from the canopy – only its far less humid, and there are far less insects. Skeleton Gorge’s forest setting is an important aspect to consider when deciding on a Table Mountain route. Some people love jungles, finding them to be exotic, soothing, and pleasantly mysterious; others regard them as claustrophobic and monotonous. If you are of the latter opinion, Skeleton Gorge might not be the best route for you, as the first 1.5 hours lead through forest.

Skeleton Gorge
Enchanting jungle in Skeleton Gorge.

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. Two options exist: along the front (northern) edge of the mountain, overlooking the city and Table Bay, or further back with views over the Lower Plateau and down the spine of the Cape Peninsula. The traverse is mostly level, the going easy, and you get to really appreciate the extent and flatness of the famous Table.

A notable attraction is the ‘beach’ at the head of the gorge. A 5-minute detour leads to the Hely-Hutchinson dam, built in the early 1900s. Its fluctuating water level lays bare 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 summer, leaving a barren patch of plateau resembling a lunar landscape – accentuated in misty conditions.

Skeleton Gorge involves minimal scrambling and exposure to heights (narrow ledges). A series of four wooden, inclined ladders allows you to bypass a defile. While not technical, this section is somewhat exposed to heights and requires considerable care in wet conditions, when the rock becomes slippery.

Skeleton Gorge is a strenuous route. Slightly more than Kasteelspoort on the 12 Apostles, and about 30% more than India Venster. In summer it often goes from strenuous to gruelling due to the heat. Sunrise in summer is around 5.30am, the best time to start your Table Mountain hike. Routes like Kasteelspoort and India Venster get shade for much of the ascent with a dawn start. Access to Skeleton Gorge is much later – 8am when the Botanical Gardens open – so the sun is already hot and high by the time you hit the trail. The forest section gets humid, and the upper sections offer little shade. 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.

The Hely-Hutchinson reservoir at the head of the gorge.

Winter serves up different challenges: a gushing watercourse and slippery rock. Cape Town is a winter rainfall area, so the city gets most of its annual rainfall June to August. Skeleton Gorge is located on the lush eastern side of Table Mountain, which gets 3 times more rain than the northern and western sides. After rain, the tree-shaded gorge also takes longer to dry off. These climatic conditions all combine to make Skeleton Gorge slippery and wet for a sizeable chunk of the year. If you are unstable on your feet or don’t have good balance, wet conditions in Skeleton Gorge will be challenging. The gorge gets practically impassable directly after heavy winter rains.  

Given these extremes, why bother? Time to highlight the attributes of this perennial classic.

Firstly, Skeleton Gorge takes in all the floral zones on the mountain, from forest to fynbos (shrubland) to the marshy and tussocky expanses of the summit plateau. Secondly, it tops out at the highest point on Table Mountain, about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than the Table. Thirdly, it takes you across the length of the famous tabletop summit of Table Mountain, so you get to experience the famous part of the mountain in its entirety. There’s also the beach.

Who should avoid the route? The unfit, the adventurous and those indifferent about forest settings. The route scores low on the adventure scale – except in winter after heavy rain, when the gorge is gushing – so if you’re an adrenalin junkie looking for a fix, then Skeleton Gorge will leave you yawning. And if forests don’t float your boat, then the first 1.5 hours of the route will not impress. Better to opt for Kasteelspoort or India Venster, which offer views all the way.

Talking about views, what kind of views do Skeleton Gorge offer? The route in its entirety takes about 4 hours. Of this, about 1.5 hours lead through forest, so no views. The next 1.5 hours leads up to Maclear’s Beacon, highest point on Table Mountain, offering inland views (Cape Town suburbs; distant mountains) and, further up, views down the Cape Peninsula as well as the rest of the Table Mountain range. The last hour or so across the summit offers city views (along the front path). You only get sea views at the end of the route, at the upper cable station.

To conclude, a hypothetical ideal Skeleton Gorge hiker profile:

  • At least moderately fit
  • Not adventurous
  • Appreciates jungle settings
  • Intrigued by the beach; keen to top out at the highest point and traverse the length of the famous flat-topped summit
  • Less interested in sea views

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