The Three Capes Track on Tassie’s South-East Coast is arguably the most stunning hike on the island. Over four days and 46km, you’ll witness a showcase of dramatic beauty that’ll leave your jaw ajar.
I’ve spent over two years guiding in Tasmania’s far south-east and have developed a strong affinity for the area. The Three Capes Track is one of the most popular multi-day backpacking trips in Tasmania, and it’s not hard to see why – over four days and three nights, hikers are treated to many of the highlights the Tasman Peninsula has in store.
The beautifully crafted trail takes you through coastal heath, dry and wet eucalyptus forests, and even through alpine and Gondwanan rainforest. And although this glorious corner of the Apple Isle only covers around 1% of Tassie’s land mass, it contains a sample of 30% of its flora and fauna species.
It’s also a great track for both individuals and families alike; infrastructure includes off-grid huts with bunks, allowing you to keep the weight of your pack(s) to an absolute minimum (except of course for your preferred luxury items). It may not be a fast pack, but it’s definitely a lightweight trek.
Join me on this classic Tassie adventure.
Note: Track statistics are taken by my Garmin VivoActive 3.
- Walking atop the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest vertical sea cliffs (300+ metres)
- Beautiful track work and art installations (Encounters) along the way
- Incredibly diverse landscape
- Cosy off-grid huts with jaw-dropping views
Day 1 – Hobart to Surveyor’s Hut
Elevation gain: 271m
Duration: 1.5-2 hours
The first day starts with a drive from Hobart to Stewart’s Bay, where you’ll board a boat for a tour of Port Arthur. The boat takes you past the famous Port Arthur Historic site, the Isle of the Dead, Puer Point, and out towards the Southern Ocean. Zipping past White Bellied sea eagle nests and the endemic Black-faced cormorant colonies, you head towards Denman’s Cove – our departure point and start of the Three Capes Track!
After crossing the stretch of sand (while sticking to the water line to avoid bird nests) you’ll reach the beginning of the track. The track’s marked by three pillars, your first locally designed art installation, or ‘Encounter’, and the start of your ascent.
The first hour takes you through towering Stringybark eucalyptus (Eucalyptus obliqua aka Tassie Oak), native cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis), and coastal heath. As you make the jaunt up towards the cliffs, you follow along the coast of Port Arthur with brilliant views of the Port Arthur historic site and prison.
Once you’ve capped your first hill you immediately start back to sea level and arrive at Surveyor’s Cove. This is your last sea-level stop until the end of day four. This cobblestone beach is an excellent spot for a refreshing dip in the ocean and a snack. If you look around the creek bed, you may find the skeletal remains of an Australian fur seal that washed up after a storm.
After the cove, you make a solid ascent up a set of dolerite stairs (which you’ll become very familiar with over the next few days), trek through a patch of bracken-filled forest, and finally make it to a clearing of heathlands. If you’re lucky enough to be here in the spring, it’ll be covered in wildflowers.
This last segment of boardwalk takes you to around 200m elevation and opens to the first Parks’ hut, ‘Surveyor’s Hut’. Around your accommodation, you may notice the eucalypts have become shorter, with smooth cream and grey bark, and glaucus spearmint-coloured leaves. You’re now in the land of the Tasmanian Snow Peppermint (Eucalyptus coccifera), typically only seen in Tassie’s sub-alpine environments (800m-1300m).
Day 2 – Surveyor’s Hut to Munro Hut
Elevation gain: 504m
Duration: 4-4.5 hours
After a night of rest in the cosy hut, break-your-fast on the deck overlooking the port before heading off to conquer your first mountain. The ascent can be a bit shocking when you first wake up, but take your time, enjoy the dry sclerophyll forest and see if you can spot one of the famous blonde echidnas that live on the peninsula. Once you make it to the top of the 303m mountain, congratulate yourself! This is the last mountain you’ll climb…today.
From the top of Mount Arthur, you’ll enjoy an incredible vantage towards the south-west. From here you can see South Bruny Island, Hartz Peak, and on occasion, snow-capped mountains in the South West National Park.
Continuing on, you’ll saunter past Jurassic Crack – a special Encounter on the trail. Then, stairs. Don’t worry, you won’t have any more climbing after this. You’ll reach the top of the stairs and enter a cool, moist, and sheltered cloud forest. This little piece of rainforest is nurtured by the sea mist and fog that often hangs about. Take a moment to sit on the mushroom-shaped seats and take a deep breath of the world’s freshest air.
Now it’s time for a change of scenery. As you walk down, out of the cloud forest, you’ll find the forest opening into a wide, wind-pruned, valley. This open expanse has the same species of trees you’ve been passing through, but here many don’t grow above hip height! This is Ellarwey Valley.
Ellarwey is named after a pair of infamous bushwalkers who first explored this region in the 1960s in a series of attempts to reach Cape Pillar by land (spoiler: it took them two years). Reg Williams originally named this region ‘Where the flippin’ ‘ell are we valley’. That’s quite the mouth-full and over time it became, simply, ‘Ellarwey Valley’.
Fun Fact: Most of the dramatic location names on this peninsula come from Tim and Reg. So as you make your way through Tornado Ridge, Hurricane Heath, and Desolation Gully, keep in mind how hard this trip must have been without a path.
From the valley, you’ll enter another expanse of towering Stringybark forest, which is home to some hidden Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). About an hour’s walk through this forest and you’ll pass a crossroads (more on this later). The right-hand path will take you into a clearing that houses Munro Hut, your next night’s accommodation. There’s a viewing platform that gives you spectacular views of Munro Bight and the Southern Ocean.
Day 3 – Cape Pillar
Distance: 17km (round trip)
Elevation gain: 2500m (equal loss)
Duration: 5-7 hours
Day three is the crown jewel of this adventure. Munro Hut has a storage shed that you can store your pack in, this way you only need to carry a small day-bag with essentials for today’s walk. The trail out to Cape Pillar is nearly half boardwalk and very exposed to the elements. It’s around 8km to the end of the cape.
The path is undulating, and over the course of the day you’ll accumulate over 2000m in elevation just from walking up and down little hills. Luckily, there are many jaw-dropping views to enjoy while you catch your breath.
Most of the walk takes place in dense heathlands. However, these soon open and you’ll find yourself walking along the top of the tallest vertical sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere! Watch your step as you gawk at the imperious Tasman Island, and count your blessings knowing you don’t have to be a lighthouse keeper in the era when you’d be required to have all of your teeth removed to get the job (true story).
Pack a big lunch and take your time enjoying the views. From the 300m drop at the Chasm Lookout, the expansive ocean views at Seal Spa, or the Blade’s razor thin edge that lets you nearly touch Tasman Island. Each one is world-class in its own right, but exploring them all on the same day is a lifetime experience.
From the end of Cape Pillar, make your way back the way you came. When you return to Munro Hut, grab your pack and head down the track. Tonight, you’ll stay at Retakunna Hut at the base of Mount Fortescue.
Day 4 – Retakunna Hut to Fortescue Bay
Elevation gain: 1172m
Duration: 6-7 hours
As you wake up in Retakunna Hut, the sun rises from the ocean in the east and lights the top of Mount Fortescue as you sit in its shadow sipping your morning coffee. Consider a second cup; this is a big day.
The trail starts off level as you head toward the base of the mountain. When you reach the foot of Mount Fortescue, you’ll see a large, elaborately designed, seat. Take this moment to shed a layer or two. Although it’s cool in the mountain’s shadow, it’ll be hot work making your way up to the 500m peak.
The trail’s mostly stone stairs (over 700 of them). Luckily, this is one of the most special and unique ecosystems on the peninsula. In a strange turn of events, the higher you climb the denser the forest becomes. It eventually culminates in a walk along a moss-lined fairy path through a rainforest before opening to give you the peninsula’s best view of Cape Pillar!
Take a moment to snack and catch your breath at the top. Now prepare your camera and head down the mountain.
Hidden at the northern foot of the mountain is a small piece of Middle Earth. Straight out of the imagination of Tolkien, you’ll suddenly find yourself dwarfed by towering Tree Ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) hidden in the shadow of enormous Gum-topped Stringybarks (Eucalyptus delegtensis).
This hidden jungle is a remnant of the supercontinent of Gondwana. You’ll find plant species here that are also found in parts of South America and New Zealand, lost memories of when the southern continents were all one.
You may notice that the track begins to ascend. You’ll slowly make your way out of the rainforest and out onto the cliff line again. There’s a great vantage point at the Parks’ Encounter ‘Pillars of the South’. From this point, you’ll nearly always be able to see the Southern Ocean.
Once you’re a couple of kilometres out from the finish, you’ll hit a crossroads. This is your opportunity to drop your heavy pack, grab some water and a hat, and conquer Cape Hauy’s 2000+ stone steps to see the infamous Totem Poll and the Lanterns. These rock formations have made Tasmanian and international rock climbing history more than once.
If you choose not to attempt Cape Hauy, it’s just over two kilometres to your final destination: Fortescue Bay.
This final length of track will take you through the most southern stand of Oyster Bay Pine (Callitris rhomboidea) and down your last length of stone steps.
Then, you’ve arrived.
The bush opens and you’re left gaping at a pristine expanse of white silica sand and Caribbean-blue waters surrounded by dense eucalypt forests. ‘I always imagine that this bay must have looked like heaven when Tim and Reg finally laid eyes on it.
- Pack – Pack light and bring a small day pack for the Cape Pillar day and the Cape Hauy side trip
- Food – You can pack a frozen or cold meal for your first night, but there’s no refrigeration. So, plan for shelf-stable meals the rest of the time. On your way home, be sure to stop at the Dunalley Fish Market for a top-notch ‘catch of the day’ and chips while sitting on the canal. You can also source local freeze dried meals. Alternatively, Gear and Gourmet will pack your meals and loan you any gear you may need.
- Water – There’s nowhere to top up bottles between huts. I prefer to use a water bladder for this track
- Sleep gear – Bring a sleeping bag liner and mid-weight sleeping bag
- First Aid Kit – A snake bandage is a must
- Sun Protection – Large areas of the track are exposed. Bring a long sleeve, hat, and sunscreen
- Layers – You’ll be blasted by the roaring 40s. I have been on track in 40-degree heat and in 80kph winds with hail. Bring something warm and something waterproof. A beanie for the evenings is also a good idea.
- Comfy footwear – Comfort is better than stability on this trail. It’s a level, dry-boot, track that’s nearly 40% boardwalk. It’s hard on the feet.
- ‘Can do’ attitude!
Read more: Packing List for an Overnight Hike
How To Get There
There are three options for doing this walk:
2. Tasmanian Walking Co. – This is the privately guided walk with private lodges
3. ‘Free’ Capes Walk (Cape Pillar Circuit) – This can be done on your own by walking in at Fortescue Bay, unfortunately you’ll miss out on the track from Denman’s Cove to the junction past Mount Arthur (day one and half of day two). You’ll camp at the tent pads at either Wughalee Falls or Bare Knoll. Bare Knoll is nice and dry. Wughalee is infested with leeches and mosquitoes; although it does generally have a running creek.
Advanced. The terrain and track are easy to follow, but steep and the distance makes it a bit more challenging for those new to backpacking.
Distance Covered / Elevation Gained / Duration
46km / 4447m / 4 days 3 nights
You need to book the track as numbers are limited. The price may be more than you expect, but it’s worth every cent. A parks pass is included in this price.