Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park

Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, Tasmania

Tasmania's location, its relatively small human population, the remoteness and ruggedness of many of its natural areas, and its variety of environments, ranging from alpine moorland to vast stretches of eucalypt woodlands and temperate rain forest, have made it a haven for numerous species that have died out or struggled to survive in other parts of Australia. As a result, it is home to a broad range of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. Much of the island's extraordinary ecology is protected by the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which encompasses around one-fifth of the entire state and incorporates five national parks. Easily the most accessible of these parks is Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, one of Australia's most spectacular wilderness areas. Its distinctive upland landscape blends typical alpine features with lush and varied vegetation.

Tasmania is not at all what you would expect from Australia. Parts of it are more like British Columbia or even Sweden than the red center everyone thinks of when they think of that great land down under.

Opportunities for exploring this intriguing environment abound at Cradle Valley, in the north of the park. Several day walks depart from near the park headquarters, including the easy 0.3-mile Rainforest Walk, which leads across a small plain and alongside a beautiful myrtle forest with a damp and dimly lit moss-covered floor. To experience the ice-carved rockscape and alpine vegetation that typify the park's upland areas, take the three-mile trail to Lake Lilla and Dove Lake that departs from Waldheim Chalet. Walkers are rewarded with a splendid view across the lake to Cradle Mountain.

Wildlife are plentiful in these parts. Walkers are often startled by the raucous shrieks of large flocks of black cockatoos or stopped in their tracks by the appearance of green rosellas, yellow wattlebirds and crescent honeyeaters. Around the waterways, keep an eye out for the duck-billed platypus. It's also not unusual to find the odd rufous wallaby, distinguished by its short ears and tail, grazing alongside the trails here. Ringtail and brush-tailed possums, sugar gliders, broad-toothed rats, and marsupial mice also make these forests their home, though you are unlikely to spot them as all are nocturnal.

For serious hikers, the highlight of any visit to Cradle Mountain is the Overland Track, one of Australia's best-known and most popular long-distance walks. Stretching 53 miles from Cradle Valley to Cynthia Bay on Lake St. Clair, the trail takes five to eight days to complete and allows you to experience the full gamut of Cradle Mountain's habitats. Rudimentary huts located approximately every 11 miles divide the trail into five sections and provide basic accommodations. There are also several bush camping sites along the route, mostly around the huts.

The first part of the trail, to Crater Lake, is easy going and can be undertaken as a day hike. The lake is surrounded by cliffs up to 800 feet high, which are usually reflected in the water's still surface. In fall, the cliffs are clothed in the bright orange and bronze leaves of Tasmania's only endemic deciduous tree, the small, straggly fagus or deciduous beech.

At the boulder-strewn base of Cradle Mountain, walkers can take the first of several side trips, the one-hour hike to the mountain's summit. The climb uphill requires some tricky boulder-hopping, and the peak is famous for its sudden weather changes. But the view from the top is spectacular, encompassing several lakes and much of the plateau below.

This epic hike reaches its climax at Lake St. Clair, Australia's deepest. From the top of the lake, you can catch a ferry or follow either of two trails to Cynthia Bay. Both skirt shorelines fringed with boulders and sandy beaches, and backed by eucalypts and pencil pines. By this stage, most walkers are exhausted but also exhilarated and humbled by the majesty of the park's astonishing scenery.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Blue Mountains

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