Taking a vague tip from a hiking friend of a friend, we stumbled across what we think is the most unique and stunning day hike in Australia (so far) – The Tarn Shelf in Mount Field National Park.

Highlights

  • A great combination of rock-hopping, floating boardwalks, cliffs and open alpine plateau
  • Take a hike back in time through untouched native flora and ancient alpine lakes
  • Stunning views across lakes, forest and Mount Field National Park
  • Only 1.5 hours’ drive from Hobart

 

Hit by low vis, The Tarn Shelf – Tasmania's Best Day Hike You've Never Heard Of, casey fung, tarn shelf, mt field national park, tasmania, boardwalk

Boardwalks protect the fragile alpine ecosystem on the Tarn Shelf walk

Hiking the Tarn Shelf

After reading all the guides and blogs of Tassie’s best day hikes, we decided to take a shot at a trail which was rumoured through hiking friends of friends to be the best they’d done in Tassie. Spoiler alert – the rumours were true.

In classic Tassie style, we headed off in the morning in fair weather, with rain and snow not predicted until close to 3pm, plenty of time to complete a 16km hike said to take 5 to 6 hours…

Getting On The Right Track

To get on the track, there are no signs for the ‘Tarn Shelf’ initially, so you need to park at the Lake Dobson car park and follow the Urquhart Track across the edge of the lake and up to Mount Mawson Ski Field. 

From the lodge we followed signs to the right which said ‘Alpine Hikes’ and this is where it starts to get really good. Each glance left or right feels like a new experience. 

Large grey rocks stained with different mosses and minerals lead you up to the alpine plateau – and while the path isn’t always obvious at a distance, with each stride the next rocky step seems to appear obviously under your foot.

 

Looking over Mt Field National Park, The Tarn Shelf – Tasmania's Best Day Hike You've Never Heard Of, casey fung, tarn shelf, mt field national park, tasmania

Get ready for some climbing!

The Misty Boardwalk

At the top of the rocky section you can catch your breath – as this is all the steep climbing you’ll have to do – so make sure you also stop to breathe in some crisp mountain air.

Arriving on the plateau, there are finally signs marking the ‘Tarn Shelf Track’ pointing down a long floating boardwalk. By the time we arrived at this point, the wooden lengths were already disappearing behind clouds less than 50 metres ahead.

With the mist also came the cold, southern wind and threat of rain and snow, far earlier than predicted. While the clouds took away some of the distant views, it created a deeper, more moody experience, for our crew of six.

In awe, we headed on, but by the time we reached the end of the first boardwalk the wind had really picked up and the visibility was increasingly getting worse. We made the disappointing call of turning back while the path was still clear.

 

The clouds clear to reveal the first Tarn in the distance, The Tarn Shelf – Tasmania's Best Day Hike You've Never Heard Of, casey fung, tarn shelf, mt field national park, tasmania

Poor weather moves in quickly in Tassie

Seals Lookout

After completing most of the boardwalk again in reverse, the clouds suddenly cleared, showing views down to Lake Seal from a previously unnoticed rocky point called ‘Seals Lookout’. 

Appreciating the new views, we took the change in weather as a good omen and again turned around, heading for the tarns – ancient lakes formed by the remnants of glaciers.

 

Seals Lookout after the mist cleared, The Tarn Shelf – Tasmania's Best Day Hike You've Never Heard Of, casey fung, tarn shelf, mt field national park, tasmania

Seals Lookout

 

This time around we saw that small but spectacular tarns could be spotted near the end of the boardwalk, with a short steep descent heading down to the first of half-a-dozen or so. 

As the track meanders along it blends more boardwalk and dirt track through unmistakably Australian alpine forest and vast scrubby flats, where the tarns appear like mystic reflections, portholes into the earth.

 

Approaching the first Tarn, The Tarn Shelf – Tasmania's Best Day Hike You've Never Heard Of, casey fung, tarn shelf, mt field national park, tasmania, lake, alpine, the tarn shelf

The Tarn Shelf

 

The water in these lakes is clear to the bottom and, no surprise, as cold as you’d expect at 1300 metres. But on a sunny day it’d be worth packing your swimmers for a quick refreshing dip.

While there were some quick dares thrown around, we decided to stay dry for as long as we could, as it was clear the rain, and maybe snow, was about to hit. Instead of completing this as a circuit, we took the same track back double-time as the rain started to softly fall on our backs.

Essential Gear

  • As with any hike in Tasmania, a good waterproof jacket and other wet weather gear.
  • A good pair of waterproof boots or shoes (there is a lot of bog off the boardwalks)
  • A GPS is handy to find the various tracks or a free app like Maps.Me is always useful
  • Extra food and water
  • Hat and sunscreen

How To Get There

Mount Field National Park is just under 1.5 hours’ drive from Hobart, with the trailhead another 25 minutes up a steep mountain road. From Mount Field National Park Information Centre or Campground, follow Lake Dobson Road for about 16 kilometres until it ends at the car park.

For the hike follow signs to Urquhart Track, Alpine Hikes, take the most obvious path through the rocks to the boardwalk marked Tarn Shelf Hike. Return this way or complete the circuit by eventually turning right onto the Lake Newdegate Track and then the Lake Webster track, which casually descends through the forest on the other side of Lake Seal and back to the Lake Dobson car park.

Skill Level

Intermediate

Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service rates this as Grade 3, with bushwalking experience recommended. 

The most physically challenging part of the hike is the steep climb from the car park to the ski lodge. So I would recommend doing the circuit anti-clockwise to enjoy the tarns first. Navigation is generally easy, other than some of the rocky sections.

 

Distance Covered / Time Taken / Elevation Gain

Circuit – 16 kilometres / 5 to 6 hours / 600 metres of elevation gain

Return hike – 12 kilometres / 3 to 4 hours / 600 metres of elevation gain

Where to Stay

Mount Field National Park campground is at the bottom of the mountain road up to this trailhead. The beautiful Tall Trees campground has hot showers, a laundry, other short walks including Russell Falls and Horseshoe Falls.