We heard a rustling in the bushes next to us as we climbed the steep trail from Kirstenbosch Gardens. Must have been a small animal, we thought. Watching us climb on the hillside next to us was a snake – which turned out to be a cape cobra, one of the most venomous snakes in Africa. We walked slowly backward and the cobra slide further up the hillside, turning to raise its hood. This was the start to our Table Mountain hike.
But, let’s go back to the beginning. When we arrived in Cape Town and saw Table Mountain, we knew we had to climb it. It’s right there just staring at you, begging you to climb it to the top. For us, the gondola wasn’t an option unless the weather absolutely wouldn’t permit us to hike Table Mountain. So, we were determined to find the best way up.
Choosing how to hike Table Mountain
When I started looking into how hike Table Mountain, I got all sorts of very different results. Some claimed it was incredibly dangerous and deadly, while other posts claimed it was an easy climb. We found the truth to be somewhere in the middle. There are dozens of ways you can hike it, which also adds to the confusion of which route is right for you. There are literally dozens of ways to climb Table Mountain, so take your time considering your options, or follow the route that we took.
We decided pretty quickly that there was no way we were going to climb up the front side of the mountain. We visited South Africa in November, when the weather was already quite warm, and while climbing the front side via Platteklip Gorge is the fasted route up the mountain (it takes between 2.5-3 hours) you will be completely exposed to sunlight the entire time, and need to climb some massive rock stairs. Another reason we decided not to hike up the front of Table Mountain was that we heard how quickly the weather can change on the mountain, and high winds make it VERY dangerous to climb up. We met some folks in Stellenbosch who told us they had to stop hiking up the front because they nearly got blown off the mountain… no thanks!
Hike Table Mountain via Skeleton Gorge, beginning at Kirstenbosch Gardens
Not wanting to be exposed to blistering sunlight the entire time or risk being blown off the mountain if the winds picked up, we decided to hike Table Mountain from the backside, starting in Kirstenbosch Gardens through Skeleton Gorge. This is approximately a four hour route to the top, and is one way only. You can only go up Skeleton Gorge one way, and you’ll see why in the photos below. Once you reach the top, you’ll need to take the gondola back down the front side of Table Mountain and take an uber back to your car if you left it at Kirstenbosch Gardens. Or, I guess if you’ve still got loads of energy, you could try walking down Platteklip Gorge, but my guess is you’ll be too tired for it. At least we were.
You’ll want to arrive to Kirstenbosch gardens no later than 10 or 10:30 to start your climb – the earlier, the better. Although the steepest parts of this ascent are covered by trees, this is a 1,085m (3562ft) climb, most of which seems almost straight up, so you should try to avoid the hottest parts of the day.
Once you arrive at Kirstenbosch Gardens, you need to buy an entry ticket and go to the info desk to get a map and ask them to draw the route for you. The route is mostly clear, especially if there are other hikers, but to be sure its best to have them point out where to go in case you get lost. This way to hike Table Mountain is not just one route, but several routes combined which you’ll need to follow.
Part 1: Kirstenbosch Gardens to the end of Skeleton Gorge (1.5 – 2 hours)
The first part of your hike will take you through the gardens, though you’ll be out of them pretty quickly. You’ll start at the Frangrance garden and follow the signs for the Smuts Track which leads to Skeleton Gorge.
Once you begin up Smuts Track, it’s a pretty steep climb. Hiking Table Mountain is not for anyone who is not in good physical condition, or who cannot scramble over wet rocks. If you’re afraid of heights, you also might want to re-think this hike.
This section is where we came across the Cape Cobra. We had only been hiking for about 30 minutes (not yet reaching Skeleton Gorge) when we heard it in the bushes. It was only about 1 meter (3 feet) from us initially, which is well within a Cape Cobra’s striking distance. The cobra slithered up the side of the mountain and flattened its neck to form a hood – a sign of aggression! Luckily we had already backed up quite far from it by the time it raised its hood. We waited several minutes until it seemed to calm down, and slither up the mountain further away. We cautiously walked slowly past it, then continued our hike, trying to make as much noise as possible so any future cobras would know we were coming!
Be aware that these cobras are some of the most dangerous in all of Africa and their poison can kill within 10 hours. If you see a cobra, follow these tips. As a general rule, freeze, and walk slowly backward away from it to give it space and show it that you are not a threat. Of course, it is very unlikely that you will come across a cobra. Fellow hikers told us we were really lucky to see one. It didn’t really feel lucky to come so close to a cobra, but it is something I will never forget.
You’ll know once you reach Skeleton Gorge. This section of the hike has some wooden ladders and will require you to scramble up wet rocks. This is the most dangerous and most fun part of the hike. Although I say it is the most dangerous, I actually felt more afraid hiking Lion’s Head than I did on Skeleton Gorge, so watch your step, but don’t be discouraged that its a bit dangerous. Skeleton Gorge is also one of the most beautiful parts of the hike up Table Mountain.
I have to admit, I didn’t take any of my own photos in this section… guess I was a little pre-occupied with not slipping! But before we went I checked out a blog post from Bold Travel, which gave a very good impression of what to expect.
Part 2: Skeleton Gorge to Maclears Beacon (the Smuts Track, 1 hour)
Once you’ve reached the top of Skeleton Gorge, the trees will part and you’ll be treated to incredible views over the back of the city. Congratulations, you’ve made it up the most challenging part of the hike! It is really unbelievable to look down and realize how far you’ve climbed – but there are still nearly 2 hours to go until you reach the upper cable station!
There is a small reservoir, de Villiers Reservoir at the top of the Skeleton Gorge hike if you walk 5 minutes to the left. To follow the Smuts Track to Maclears Beacon, you’ll need to follow the route to the right, which slowly winds up to the top of the mountain.
This section of the Table Mountain Hike is only exposed to the back side of Cape Town – the front (i.e. Lion’s Head, City Bowl, etc) is only fully visible once you reach the very top shelf of Table Mountain.
From Maclears Beacon you can start to get a view of the city below.
Part 3: Maclears Beacon to the Upper Cable Station (45 minutes)
Apparently from Maclears Beacon there are two routes to reach the Upper Cable Station – we kept right – and if you want to be treated to incredible views over Cape Town to peek over the edge of Table Mountain, keep right. Along the right route you’ll walk across the top shelf of Table Mountain with incredible views over the entire city and some of the best photo ops you can imagine! This is what you hiked up here for, so spend some time up here, get your photos and take it all in. The edge shelf along Table Mountain is quite wide (probably about 3-4 meters or wider in some sections), so you’ll have plenty of space to look over the city without being too close to the edge!
This section will take about 45 minutes to walk to the Upper Cable Station, where you can treat yourself to some snacks or souvenirs before heading back down Table Mountain.
What to bring when you hike Table Mountain
WATER! : This hike is HOT! It is probably the sweatiest I’ve been in my entire life – and I’ve run a marathon. It is warm, humid and steep, so make sure to bring at least 1liter of water per person with you. We brought around 2l of water per person, which was quite heavy but we drank it all. Trust me, you’ll be happier having extra water than running out.
FOOD: I always recommend bringing snacks on a long hike. After 2-3 hours of climbing, you’ll likely be hungry and need to refuel.
SUNBLOCK (and maybe a hat): Once you reach the top of Skeleton Gorge, the rest of the hike to Maclear’s Beacon and Table Mountain upper cable station is uncovered, so you’ll need to slather on the sunblock.
MONEY: Don’t make the mistake of making it all the way to the upper cable station without any money to pay for a ticket down. We met someone along the way who forgot, and felt very sorry for her having to trudge all the way down again.
STURDY HIKING SHOES: To hike Table Mountain you can actually get away with a good pair of running shoes with decent traction on the bottom – but if you’ve got hiking boots, better be safe and choose those. The only very slippery part is Skeleton Gorge. The rest of the route is not so dangerous.
A WATER PROOF JACKET: In case the weather changes, you don’t want to end up drenched.
Enjoy your hike up Table Mountain! If this post has helped you plan your route, please let me know in the comments below!