Hike the Three Capes Tasmania...for free.
Tasmania is known for its epic hikes, and our backyard down on the Tasman Peninsula holds 3 of its most magical, the Three Capes. Cape Hauy, Cape Raoul and Cape Pillar are our training grounds for most of our expeditions. We walk them, run them, carry loads on them. But a lot of people don't realise you can do them all for free! The luxurious version of the Three Capes can cost you upwards of $500 per person so below I've put together our favourite way to do the famous walks on a budget and in your own time frame.
You will need:
A moderate level of fitness. Aka WalkFit.
The order I would recommend:
1. Cape Raoul - 14km
2. Cape Pillar - 29km
3. Cape Hauy - 8km
When to go and getting there
You can access and hike the Three Capes year round. The tracks are constantly being upgraded and are wide and user friendly. This part of Tasmania has its own eco system and we receive 3 times the rain that Hobart does. There's really no telling what the weather will do, so be prepared for rain and wind at all times, and if you get blue skies its a bonus!
From Hobart it's 1 hour 45 minute drive to get to the Cape Raoul carpark. Sorell is a good place to grab food and supplies at the Woolworths or Coles. The Arthur Highway turns into the B37 and takes you to the the Stormlea Road left hand turnoff which you follow all the way to the end to the Cape Raoul Trailhead carpark. This 12km section of road was previously dirt but has recently been sealed apart from the final 2kms.
CAPE RAOUL - 14km or around 5-6 hours return
(Optional Shipsterns Bluff)
Cape Raoul is not hiked on the organised paid trips, only viewed from a boat. This is such a shame as it has one of the most breathtaking views of all the Capes. It's also a great warm up day for the others, as its not as steep as Hauy and not as long as Pillar.
As I mentioned the road has been upgraded and the carpark has as well. There are toilets at the trailhead where you can also fill up your bottles if you forgot to bring water. There is a sign-in book at the trailhead, an overview of the walk and a boot washing station. This is the same for all 3 of the hikes.
These trails are incredibly well sign posted and it's almost impossible to lose (unless for some reason you are doing it in the dark... don't do it in the dark). About 15 minutes in you will see a turnoff for Shipsterns Bluff which is a famous big wave surf break that attracts the 'Cape Fear' Red Bull Event every year. You can take the short walk to the Shipsterns Lookout, but even without doing this you will be able see Shipsterns from the Raoul trail. The Shipsterns walk is shorter however much steeper than Raoul.
It's a pleasant, mostly downhill hike going out to the Cape with the highlight being the cliff formations about 15 minutes from the turn around point. At these cliff formations there is a boardwalk over a dry lake, a good spot for a sit down on your way back from the Cape lookout. You'll need a little rest and a snack for the uphill return back to the carpark.
If you plan well and start your day early you could make it back to McHenry's Distillery around the corner for their whiskey tasting at 2pm.
Cape #1, TICK. So, now you have an accomodation and day 2 choice to make.
You can either:
Spend some of the money you've saved by going DIY on a lush cabin or Airbnb in Port Arthur.
Head straight to Fortescue Bay to camp the night ($13 for 2 people and a tent).
DAY 2 ACTIVITIES CHOICE
You can either:
Have a rest day. Head to the Port Arthur Historic Site for a tour, have lunch at the Lavender Farm and maybe hit that whiskey tour at McHenry's if you didn't make it back in time yesterday. With the $500 you saved you could even book in an Osbourne helicopter tour around the peninsula and still be in the black!
Get straight to work on your second of the hikes, Cape Pillar.
Things to know about Fortescue Bay Campground
You can find lots of information at the Parks and Wildlife website. But here are the must knows.
You must have a National Parks Pass for Fortescue Bay. A 2 month pass is $40 per person or $80 for a car of up to 8 people.
From November to April you should book your camp spot, it does get busy on Summer weekends! It's $13 for 2 people and a tent then $5 for every extra person. Bring cash for the registration booth as the site is only manned 10am-4pm in Summer and not at all between May and October.
CAPE PILLAR - 29km 8-9 hours return
The Cape Pillar return hike is a long day so start early, especially in winter when the sun sets at 5pm. Snacks, water, lunch and rain jackets are a must! Even throw your head torch in just incase. The trailhead begins about 300m back down the road from the campground office (you pass it on the drive in). The first half of this track is slightly less maintained than the others until you meet up with where the paid trips join the trail at Tornado Ridge. This Cape is not as steep as the others and you can hit a comfortable and constant pace for the majority of the walk.
The Cape Pillar return route from Fortescue bay is highlighted in green. You can see it intercepts a trail to get to Cape Hauy in one push, which I cover below for the hardcore hikers!
Approximately 8 kilometres into the hike you will come across Bare Knoll campsite. This is a free camp spot with a toilet, water and tent platforms with chains. Not long after this is is a toilet block and Munro Hut. This is a good spot for a snack and gives you a glimpse of the luxury version of the Three Capes that the paid hikers stay in for a night. You can fill your bottles here so you won't need to carry more than 1 litre from the start of the day.
There are long boardwalk stretches that lead you out to 'The Blade'. This 5 minute detour from the trail up steep rock is definitely worth the scramble. The views of Tasman Island and the coast are breathtaking.
Cape Pillar Lookout is just around the corner from the Blade. You're half way! Take a break here before retracing your steps back to Fortescue Bay Campground for a well deserved feed and sleep.
Cape #2, TICK.
CAPE HAUY - 8km 3-4 hours return
Enjoy a sleep-in today as Cape Hauy is your shortest hike of the 3. Your final day begins from the Boat Ramp at Fortescue Bay and quickly ascends to a view back over your campground. This is the most popular of the hikes so is extremely well maintained, with regular rest stops along the way.
You will break through the bush onto Cape Hauy Headland and see the trail cut through the mountain to the end. Close to the final view point there are many exposed cliffs so keep to the track. Once you hit the end you can peer over the edge and see the famous rock climb 'The Totem Pole' jutting out of the water, and if you're lucky you might spot a whale or two.
Have some water and a snack and start your journey back to the campground.
You've officially completed the THREE CAPES!
You can obviously do one or two of these hikes if you are short on time. For the 'camping experience' Fortescue is one of the most user friendly campsites you will find in the world.
Bare Knoll Campsite option
As I mentioned there is an option to stay at Bare Knoll Campsite which is the free site with elevated tent platforms 8 km into the Cape Pillar Track. If you took this option your trip would look like this:
Day 1: Start Fortescue Bay - Bare Knoll (dump excess gear or sleep if you have an extra day or not enough light) - Cape Pillar - Sleep Bare Knoll
Day 2: Start Bare Knoll - Cape Hauy - Fortescue Bay
Bare Knoll does attract mosquitoes and leeches, especially in the wetter months but it will cut down that big nearly 30km day of Cape Pillar. It's also located close to Munro Hut which you can use for toilets and reliable water refills.
Good hiking boots and socks (bandaids for blisters!)
Comfortable day pack (or backpack if you are taking the Bare Knoll option)
Warm sleeping bag - especially if it's winter as it can get down to 0°C overnight
Refillable water bottles - 2 litres worth
Tent and sleeping mat
Trekking poles - not 100% necessary but can help on that big Cape Pillar day
Warm jacket and rain proof jacket, weather proof pants if the weather looks iffy
Gas cooking device (or you can use the gas BBQ's at Fortescue) and utensils
Head torch, hat, sunscreen (+ the usual essentials)
Swimwear - if you are really keen for a dip at the beach
Snacks are a must! You can do a supply run at Sorell Woolworths or Coles on your way out to Port Arthur. Once in Port Arthur there is an IGA near the Cape Raoul turn off and a General Store at Port Arthur with gas and limited supplies. Dehydrated meals are always easy after long days and you can't go past peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Trail mixes and nut bars are easy on the hike and a hot chocolate is a comforting treat after the big days.
There is no or limited phone reception at Fortescue Bay. You will get it intermittently on the trails though.
Get your National Parks Pass. This means those beautiful trails you are enjoying stay beautiful.
Don't light fires at Fortescue Bay.
Wash your boots at the stations.
Leave no trace. If you need to use the bathroom go off trail, dig a hole, take your rubbish away.
This trip is the best introduction into camping and hiking you will find in Australia. Enjoy planning your self guided Three Capes Hike! And if you have any questions about planning your trip reach out to me.
Once you've tried the Three Capes you can check out Frenchman's Cap, written about in my book 'Vodka & Sandstorms', for another epic 3 day Tassie hike.
One Life, One Chance.