Welcome to the start of the 3-5 day walk to Frenchmans Cap–the dazzling white quartzite monarch characteristic of much of Tasmania’s south-western wilderness high country which formed from the Pleistocene glaciation period starting 2.6million years ago and finishing around 11,700 years ago.
Save for the urge to include an apostrophe in its official name, Frenchmans Cap lacks for nothing else in terms of adventure and wow factor. It is a challenging and rewarding walk with fine weather affording spectacular views in all directions from its 1,446 metre peak. Smaller quartzite monoliths and calm mountain lakes dot the rainforest-clad ranges with the mighty Franklin River almost totally encircling Frenchmans Cap peak.
The path is a mixture of boardwalk, elevated soil platforms, skinny deep channels surrounded by button grass, steep large wooden steps that are difficult for short legs, a cacophony of complicated slippery tree roots, scree, boulders, moist moss-covered rock, and challenging on-all-fours scrambles on your final ascent to the peak.
It also introduces you to the unique Frenchmans Cap Ladders, a short section of telegraph pole shaped wood with strategically placed notches which act as steps to help you advance more easily.
If you don’t have the time to complete the famous Overland Track, Frenchmans Cap provides a very satisfying microcosm of the breathtaking variety and beauty that Tasmania’s remote wilderness areas can offer any adventurous hiker.
Well-located huts at Lake Vera and Lake Tahune offer generous bunk accommodation and extensive platform camping, together with access to water and a toilet. These facilities give walkers of all skill levels a variety of options for completing this walk.
There is no booking cost to stay at the huts, but new COVID-19 compliance requires you to register your intention to stay. Accommodation in the huts is secured on a first come first serve basis or plentiful tent platforms, 3 at Lake Tahune and 8 at the Lake Vera sites, are available. There are nails and anchor points to help you stake both non-freestanding and freestanding tents.
If these are insufficient, consider bringing anchor platform stakes specifically designed for staking your tent on these elevated wooden platform camping areas found throughout Tasmania’s wilderness areas. They minimise human impact on these delicate wilderness areas and certainly prevent waking up surrounded by water.
For planning, visit TasTrails for a brief walk summary together with links to other valuable external sources.
Please note, while it costs you nothing to do the walk, you must still pay a small fee for a Tasmania Parks Pass. You can arrange this at the Tasmanian Government Park Pass website for individuals or on a per vehicle basis for up to 8 passengers.
Planning a 3-to-5-day hike gives walkers the best opportunity to summit in safe conditions should inclement weather prevail for a day or two.
Personally, I believe a 5-day/4-night hike may prove cumbersome with multiple camp set ups required as authorities stipulate you cannot stay in the same hut on consecutive nights. You may be lucky if no other campers arrive, but setting up your tent beside the hut, potentially in terrible weather, may not be the most appealing option.
A 3-day hike, for fit walkers, walking to Lake Tahune on Day 1, submitting Frenchmans Cap and returning to Lake Vera Hut or its camping platforms on Day 2 and exiting to the Car Park on Day 3 could be the ideal strategy if the weather is agreeable.
The resident ranger managing these two sites is happy for walkers to stow excess weight (food, tent, and clothing) within the Lake Vera Hut to give them the best chance of submitting Frenchmans Cap peak on Day 1 or 2. Any opportunity to lighten your load is most welcome. The steepness and technical difficulties of the trail with scree, boulders, and myriads of ankle-grabbing tree roots from Lake Vera to Lake Tahune and Frenchmans Cap’s peak will seriously test your hiking skills.
Long summer days are most welcome to aid with visibility, particularly in the dense rainforest areas. Park authorities do not recommend you try this hike in winter with rain and snow, making the white quartzite rock extremely slippery and hazardous.
Being able-bodied senior hikers, we chose a 4-day/3-night hike. We spent our first night at Lake Vera Hut, our second at Lake Tahune Hut, and our third night back at Lake Vera Hut before heading for the car park on Day 4.
Lake Vera Hut is a rustic wooden hut completed in 1978 which comfortably accommodates 12-16 hikers on bunk wooden platforms. A sturdy stainless-steel table with bench seating and surrounding bench tops provides ample room for cooking and socialising. It even includes a stove for warmth in cooler months. Outside, tank water is readily available. A short walk to the Jetty or a lengthier one to the Lake are the perfect spots for a refreshing dip to wash off the day’s grime. An immaculately clean compost toilet a short distance away, via board walk, is available for hikers’ use.
If fully occupied, an extensive number of tent platforms are available. Often sleeping in your own tent is the best way to guarantee a good night’s sleep. Without ear plugs, you might find the constant shuffle of noisy sleeping pads throughout the night disruptive.
I strongly recommend you seek accommodation in the new Lake Tahune hut (2018) positioned near Lake Tahune and directly beneath Frenchmans Cap. Replacing the old hut of 45 years, it heralds a new generation of comfort and environmental sustainability. It is architecturally impressive and boasts hydroelectric powered lighting, heating and even USB ports, although the USB ports were not operational the day we arrived. Fortunately, I took my power bank and could recharge my devices.
Sleeping quarters are still wooden platforms in bunk arrangements but the little touches–old explorers’ quotes etched on the walls, and wide expanses of glass for commanding views of the valley–makes you want to pay top dollars for this swanky overnight sojourn in one of Tasmania’s spectacular wilderness areas.
Huge thanks must go to the Tasmanian Government and Dick Smith–explorer, aviator, conservationist, and philanthropist–for his generous donation of $900,000 to complete this hut and upgrade part of the walking track, known as ‘the Sodden Loddons’, which was a 6km long slosh through water and mud across the buttongrass moorland floodplain of the Loddon and South Loddon rivers. Sounds like the peaty boglands of UK’s Pennine Way, whose notorious reputation has also been recently tamed, this time with large sandstone paving. The track now bypasses the Lodden Plains, skirting around the foothills on Laughtons Lead.
Day 1 Frenchmans Cap Carpark to Lake Vera Hut (15km)
Leaving the Frenchmans Cap Carpark around 11.20am, the estimated 15km distance should take us between 5-7 hours. The day is warm, but we expect few difficulties. Everyone has ample water; we have applied sun screen and are carrying electrolytes and salt tablets to cope with dehydration.
Despite my best intentions, I succumb to heat exhaustion, suffering horrendous leg cramps. I end up limping my way into Lake Vera Hut a good hour or two behind my more athletic walking partners, but I live with type 1 diabetes. It has its unique challenges, and if I walked this day again, I’d start much earlier to avoid the complications that I faced. It is so important you ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ and take precautions to make sure you can safely complete any walk. I am thankful to one of my walking partners for looking out for me, but ultimately each individual walker manages their own safety.
So apart from nearly dying, what happened today? Fifteen minutes after leaving the car park, you reach a registration point near the Franklin River. Our team leader signs our names in the register. We cross the famous Franklin River single file via a suspension bridge.
Just before crossing another stream we come across a plastic bristle brush for cleaning our shoes and gaiters to avoid carrying any traces of a soil-borne water mould, known as phytophthora cinnamomi, notorious for causing root rot and destroying many of the unique native plants found in this world heritage wilderness area. We duly clean our shoes and boots.
Afterwards you climb up an easy dirt track to a pass around 600m where you catch your first glimpse of Frenchmans Cap. I eagerly take a photo, but its distinctive peak is far away and there will be plenty more opportunities for better shots.
The trail descends and flattens out as you head through a buttongrass-filled plain called Mount Mullens before crossing the Loddon River via another suspension bridge. There are good campsites on both sides of this river in case you’ve already exhausted, which you know I clearly am.
The rest of our walking party are just packing up their lunch, but I collapsed in a heap way back, devoured my lunch, and have eaten sweet treats for more energy. They are nestled in the shade on a nice wooden bench. I am ready to collapse again, but I feign renewed enthusiasm and appear eager to resume our hike. Within seconds the triathletes leave, the rainforest cover disappears, and I find myself alone again, exposed to the elements on dirt paths and elevated boardwalks which have thankfully tamed these ‘Sodden Loddon’ plains. I think I have passed the worst, but as the terrain inclines upwards I suffer the first of many persistent cramps in my calves, quads, and hamstrings. ‘Ooh Ooh! Ow! Ow again! Shit, these hurt!,’ I utter to myself.
Eventually, I enter dense rainforest which offers welcome protection from the sun, but the wooden steps are steep and never-ending. No photos, sorry. I am barely surviving. My legs offer no strength to jump from one step to the other. I use one leg to ascend each step with the help of trekking poles and then the other when the favoured leg gives out. As a last resort, I get on all fours and stagger up each mountainous step one grunt at a time.
One of my walking partners watches me from above, offering encouraging words as I lumber towards her. I am embarrassed by my pathetic effort, but I can only blame myself. Diabetics are susceptible to heat exhaustion, which I clearly have. We should avoid extreme heat. I am working hard not to worsen my condition. If it develops into heatstroke, I might need medical help. I am determined to get to the top of this hill if it kills me. And I do.
Except for another steep fifteen-minute descent on weary legs to Lake Vera Hut, the rest of today’s walk is fairly smooth sailing. Nice to see Lake Vera Hut has a helipad should one ever need emergency evacuation. Despite taking every precaution to avoid heat exhaustion and being a competent hiker, the heat has affected me today, as it did when I completed the Kokoda Track in 2008. Maybe first days are not my thing. Hopefully, an early start tomorrow will avoid a repeat episode.
The girls are inside the hut having a well-earned cuppa. They managed capably but admitted the heat was enervating. I have never been more pleased to see such a knackered bunch of walkers. Maybe the heat proved tough for everybody. I look forward to a good night’s sleep and the prospect of reaching the peak of Frenchmans Cap tomorrow. My Thermarest Neo Air X-lite Sleeping Pad cushions my aching limbs, and I drift off to the rustling sounds of a cabin full of noisy sleeping pads.
Day 2 Lake Vera Hut-Lake Tahune Hut (5.5km)
Lake Tahune Hut-FC Peak (3.2km return)
The heat wave has eased, and blue skies herald a cracking day. If we make it to Lake Tahune in good time, we will summit Frenchmans Cap in the afternoon. Day 3 may bring pleasant weather too but if you have ideal conditions, take advantage of good weather while you can and go for the climb.
Leaving at 7.30am the trail follows Lake Vera for an hour in dense rainforest beautifully framed by Pandanus trees, babbling streams and dense tree root paths.
Difficult steep sections are easily negotiated with the unique Frenchmans Cap Ladders whose notched trunks act as comfortably spaced stepping stones.
Shedding some of our pack weight at Lake Vera Hut, we find this section most enjoyable before we begin a steady steep ascent to Barron Pass. Orange arrows mark the way as we climb to 950m.
As the light brightens, we emerge from the rainforest at Barron Pass. This is a morning tea stop to die for. With no clouds to impede our view, we look in a south westerly direction past picturesque tarns, most notably Lake Gertrude and Lake Cecily to the mountain of Clytemnestra at 1,011m.
In a more southerly direction directly beside us, White Needle stands tall. You can walk this 2.6km unmarked side route to this impressive white quartzite 1,117m peak should you need more thrills or venture further to Philps Peak, the highest point on the eastern arm of the range at 1,282m. Philps Peak, behind White Needle, is named after the Government cutter Phelps, for his efforts cutting this track way back in 1910.
We have our hands full traversing beneath Sharlands Peak in a northwesterly direction as we pass another impressive needle of quartzite called Nicoles Needle. In inclement weather, this section of track would be extremely difficult. Much of it involves scrambling over quartzite boulders and smaller, looser rocks, in very exposed conditions.
And of course, in a more northwesterly direction, we spot our goal—Frenchmans Cap. Those first views of the mountain on the Mount Mullens plains the previous day cannot compare with this more impressive closeup view.
There is only 2kms left until we reach Lake Tahune Hut. Most of us can easily walk 3kms an hour in the bush. It should take us only 40 minutes to reach the hut. It ends up taking us 90 minutes to walk beneath Sharlands Peak, through the garden oasis of Artichoke Valley, up a set of vertical stairs to reach the next plateau and then meander through alpine heathland before we reach Lake Tahune Hut nestled directly beneath Lake Tahune and Frenchmans Cap.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security with the small distance today. It is extremely slow going and takes concentration, but it feels most satisfying when you reach Lake Tahune Hut. With brilliant weather we have plenty of time for lunch and rest before tackling the 3.2km return route to reach the peak of Frenchmans Cap in the afternoon.
We swap out full packs for day packs. We carry the bare minimum–drink, snacks, and wind/rain protection. From the hut Frenchmans Cap towers 450m above us. We ascend towards North Col on a well cairned steep path before traversing terraces above Lake Tahune. Half way up we meet some steep scrambles.
If you have trekking poles, leave them here and retrieve later. You will need all limbs to scramble over a perilous-looking rock face. I needed a good bum push to get me elevated and expert direction with foot placement when it was time to descend. If you are uncomfortable with this scramble or if the conditions are wet, stay put at this point. If inclined to give it a go, I recommend working as a team with your walking group as it feels as if you are climbing blind here. The rest of the ascent involves a switch back route supported by cairn markings. A strong breeze awaits you at the top, but you have plenty of mountaintop to stand on and the view makes it worthwhile.
The view in every direction is worth the heat exhaustion, the bruised rip, the grazed bottom, the strained groin muscle. Absolutely A M A Z I N G! Much better on the descents, I fly down the mountain thrilled with the efforts of these amazing women. A well-earned camp dinner awaits us and a beautiful sunset from Lake Tahune Hut helipad.
Day 3 Lake Tahune Hut-Lake Vera Hut (5.5km)
Today is another low mileage day, but it’s not without its challenges. The difficulties we encountered on Day 2 are reversed. A lovely sunrise viewed from the exceptionally clean Lake Tahune Hut toilet heralds another lovely day, with just a sprinkling of early morning mist at the higher elevated sections. With one last glance back, towards Frenchmans Cap and Lake Tahune, we start retracing our steps.
Steep ascents become treacherous slippery descents and pathless scree sections with varying sized boulders look completely different in reverse. The mist makes for wonderful photos. I love this shot of a fellow walker framed by Sharlands Peak and white skeletons of King Billy, Pencil or Huon Pine. We arrive at Lake Vera Hut by lunchtime and choose to chill out for the rest of the afternoon.
Day 4 Lake Vera Hut-Frenchmans Cap Carpark (15km)
Full of energy and trail fitness, we set a cracking pace and easily retrace our steps to Frenchmans Carpark in 3 to 4 hours. There is a spring in my step with cooler conditions. Still, the hike is a challenging walk even experienced hikers should not underestimate. We felt a genuine sense of achievement in tackling and conquering the Frenchmans Cap Track.
Who Walked with me?
I did this walk with six keen and capable hikers from my local Sydney walking group who were not afraid to carry a full pack and get dirty in this varied and tricky terrain.
Full packs with tents should hut accommodation be unavailable, adequate sleep system, and full clothing provisions. For a 4-day hike, we carried 4 lunches, 3 breakfasts and 3 dinners. There is adequate water supply on route and water tanks are available at the Lake Vera and Lake Tahune hut/camp sites. While we experienced no shortage of water from the water tanks at the hut sites, other campers have reported otherwise. There is water available at both lakes but always treat the water with Aquatabs or Katadyn Micropur Forte Water Purifier tablets, steriPEN or use the popular Katadyn BeFree or Sawyer Squeeze water filtration systems to guarantee safe drinking water.
Comfortable and proper footwear is essential. You can hike in minimalist footwear such as trail runners, but you need good grip for rock scrambling and slippery surfaces. Our walking group used a mixture of supportive lightweight boots, trusty Merrell MOAB waterproof shoes, and approach shoes which combine the features of hiking shoes, climbing slippers, and even mountaineering boots.
What are the track conditions?
The varying terrain is challenging, and weather can play a huge part in how easily you can traverse it. In Tasmania’s mountainous areas, the weather can change rapidly. Forecasts from the nearest towns are indicative only. Part of the reason multi-day hikes demand heavier pack weights is that you must pack for all weathers. This includes bringing clothes for sun, wind, rain, and warmth protection to avoid heat exhaustion and hypothermia.
In summary, the trail conditions, while technically tough in places, are not insurmountable. Trekking poles can help with balance, but care is needed to avoid catching them in crevices or having them become more of a hindrance in steep sections, particularly when backwards descents becomes the safest way. One of us broke a pole in these terrain conditions and I broke one of mine when I wedged it between the planks of one of the many elevated boardwalks and it snapped as I was trying to unsnag it.
I found the most tiring part of the walk was the concentration needed to cross the more challenging sections. The difficult terrain makes this walk interesting and gives everyone a sense of achievement at day’s end.
Remember, your ability to traverse the varied terrain will depend on your pack weight. Triathletes with minimal supplies can complete this walk in a day with an early start and late finish. We saw an agile couple in their 50s with every intention of achieving this, leaving Lake Vera Hut around 5pm, with barely a day pack, after climbing to the peak of Frenchmans Cap earlier in the day. They estimated, factoring in time for dinner and water resupply, that they’d reach their accommodation at Derwent River no later than 11pm.
As for us, we were carrying roughly 16kgs in weight. We ended Day 3 around noon and just chilled at Lake Vera Hut for the rest of the day. It is possible we could have walked out that day, but fatigued muscles and warm conditions could have hampered our efforts to complete the distance injury-free. There was no rush. We enjoyed being off the grid away from COVID-19 distractions, ate another two meals to lighten our load, and effortlessly walked out on Day 4 on a predominantly level or easy descending track.
The Frenchmans Cap trailhead is 200 km (124mi) from both Launceston and Hobart, 57km (35mi) east of Queenstown, 29km (18mi) west of Derwent Bridge, or 34 km from Lake Saint Clair (the southern terminus of the Overland Track) just off the Lyell Highway (A10). The dirt car park is free and has room for around twenty cars.
For a fine report on Frenchmans Cap and other transport options, such as bus and hitchhiking I refer you to Halfway Anywhere’s Blog and for alternative parking arrangements, from a safety point of view, I refer you to the Kelly Runs and Eats Blog, who left their car at the Lake St Clair Visitor Centre because it’s staffed, monitored and secure and used the Mersey Link (bus charter) to get to Frenchmans Cap car park. I am pleased to report no one stole any items from our cars on this occasion, but there have been reports of vandalism at this car park.