Guest contributor Anna Timbrook is an avid hiker who’s hiked in the Swiss Alps, Canada’s Rocky Mountains and Colorado. Here’s her guide to hiking Table Mountain in Cape Town.
Hiking Table Mountain isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
But it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Cape Town!
The enormous flat-topped mountain – almost 2 miles (3.2 km) across at the plateau – is perhaps Cape Town’s biggest drawing card.
Of course, you can take the cable car up. Some 1 million people a year do exactly that.
But my husband and I wanted to hike up Table Mountain.
We liked the idea of getting some exercise while taking in all the fabulous views.
And we could still experience the cable car by riding it back down.
Hiking Table Mountain
There are a variety of hikes up Table Mountain with different degrees of difficulty (which I cover below).
We chose to tackle the most popular – Platteklip Gorge.
Platteklip Gorge hike
Why choose Platteklip Gorge, Table Mountain?
We decided on this particular route for a couple of reasons.
First, the Platteklip Gorge hike is short – it’s the most direct route up the mountain.
If you only want to spend half a day on the hike (like us), then you’ll have the afternoon to do other fun things in town.
The other reason is that it was within walking distance from our accommodation in the suburbs just below Table Mountain. After all, we were hiking anyway, so why not walk to the start of the trail!
What’s the Platteklip Gorge route like?
We set off early to avoid the heat. We’re not huge fans of the heat and wanted to try and avoid the sun where possible.
But there’s no dodging it on this hike. The Platteklip gorge trail climbs slowly but steadily, mostly in the open, for the whole hike.
Much of the time, we were climbing up roughly-carved stone stairs.
Some say hiking Platteklip Gorge is like exercising on an outdoor stairmaster.
It was steep and tiring, but with inspiring views – reminding me a little of the hikes I’ve done in the Swiss National Park.
Because we were facing the mountain the whole time, we actually had to nudge ourselves to turn around and enjoy the views.
Then all of Camps Bay and the coastline on either side, including the city and distant Robben Island, could be seen.
Every now and then when we stopped to chug water, we’d check out some of the short scratchy-looking shrubs (called fynbos) that cloak the mountain. Their spiky leaves are certainly nothing like back home in Switzerland!
The unique flowers on this Table Mountain hike also caught our interest. Some were bigger than anything I had ever seen, like the pale pink and crimson King Protea.
Of course, the mountain’s flowers don’t all bloom at once, so depending on the time of year, everyone has a different experience – with spring being a highlight, I’ve heard.
We spied a mountain goat (actually a Himalayan Tahr)! I hadn’t expected to see one up here.
They’re apparently quite common but the chances of seeing them aren’t always high.
After an hour-and-a-half, we reached the narrowest and steepest part of the hike.
The track was still zig-zagging up and my legs were screaming “Enough” by this point.
But we now were partly in the shade, and we could see the top was close. Hopefully not one of the “false summits”!
Once we reached the top, just over 2 hours later, the view was spectacular; it felt like we were literally on top of the world.
Wait, it’s not over yet!
We still had to make it to the upper cable car station though. Thankfully the path at the top, which winds through the shrubs, was flat.
You might like this: Check out the hikes on Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Getting to the Platteklip Gorge trail
The Platteklip trail actually starts up the road from the Lower Table Mountain cable car station, not at the station.
You have a couple of options for getting there.
You can take a taxi (or Uber) to the cable car and then walk uphill to the left about a mile (1.8 km) until you come to the trail. Look for the Contour path at the cable car parking lot as this leads there.
Another option is to catch a taxi straight there, telling the driver to head to the cable car station and then continue along Tafelberg Road another mile or so. There’s a parking lot at the trailhead.
Otherwise, keep your Google maps open using this link. That’s where the hike starts.
Because we were staying very close by, we actually walked up using Google maps to find our way.
Hiking time and distance
Depending on how fit you are, the Platteklip Gorge hike can take between 2 to 3 hours.
Of course, if you’re super-fit, you can do it even faster. Likewise, if you’re super-unfit (like some I saw on the trail), it might take longer.
The distance is actually only 1.2 miles (2 km). But that doesn’t do the hike justice, as it’s straight up the mountain – you ascend 2,300 feet (over 700 meters).
Also keep in mind that if you walk from the cable car station, you need to add some more time and distance to that – another 20 to 30 minutes of hiking.
Table Mountain hiking map
Have a look at this map of Table Mountain.
Zoom in to see the cable car station at the top of Table Mountain and some of the hiking trails.
Do you need a guide?
If you’re comfortable hiking rough terrain and using Google maps, then there’s no need to hire a guide to do this walk.
There were certainly a wide range of people doing it when we were there.
However, if you have no real hiking experience, are hiking alone or fear getting lost, then you may wish to join a guided hiking tour up Platteklip Gorge.
3 Other Table Mountain hiking trails
There are many ways for walking up Table Mountain.
The following three are great alternatives to the route we took. The hiking times and distances shown are one-way, as it’s assumed you’ll want to take the cable car down.
(You can also take the cable car up and walk or hike on top of the mountain to Maclear’s Beacon – jump to “Easy Table Mountain Hike” to read about that walk now.)
1) Skeleton Gorge Route:
This is the route to take if you prefer an easier approach and a lot more greenery.
The Skeleton Gorge trail starts at the back of the mountain at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. (These are some of the world’s most beautiful gardens, by the way.)
The trail does get more challenging as it continues, however.
You hike through tree tunnels, do a little boulder scrambling and climb up a series of wooden ladders, summiting at Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point of the mountain.
The hike takes 4 to 5 hours and is a total of 4 miles (6.5 km).
Click here if interested in a guided hike up Skeleton Gorge (including a walk through the Gardens and the cable car ride down).
2) The 12 Apostles Route:
This is perhaps the longest but most scenic of the Table Mountain hike routes, passing through many different areas of the mountain.
But while the Skeleton Gorge offers more lush inland views, 12 Apostles has you gawking at stunning sea views.
The hike is more than 6 hours long (considered reasonably strenuous), so it will take a good part of the day.
To book a private guided hike along the 12 Apostles route (including hotel pick-up), see here.
3) The India Venster Trail:
This is one of the most challenging hiking trails in Cape Town.
Like the Platteklip Gorge hike above, it heads straight up the face of the mountain, although in this case right under the cable car.
It’s significantly tougher than Platteklip, though, and requires a certain degree of hiking experience.
The India Venster Trail takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on your fitness. (See here for a guided 4-hour hike of the India Venster Trail.)
There’s great hiking in Canada too! The Joffre Lakes hike in British Columbia is a lovely day hike to 3 beautiful lakes
Maclear’s Beacon: Easy Table Mountain hike
An easy hike on top of Table Mountain is a great option if you’re not keen on hiking up the mountain.
You take the cable car up, and once you get off, follow the marked trail that leads from the upper cableway station to Maclear’s Beacon.
In 1865, Sir Thomas Maclear, a doctor and astronomer, built a large cairn at this spot, which is the highest point on Table Mountain – 3,562 feet (1,086 meters) above sea level.
Most of the way, the trail to Maclear’s Beacon is flat.
The first part is paved, then it involves stepping from flat stone to flat stone, crossing wooden boardwalks over marshes and walking along some pebbly areas.
At one section, a little easy scrambling is required – a chain bolted to rocks helps you to get up and down.
Allow 2 hours for the roundtrip walk.
Maclear’s Beacon is just under 2 miles (3 km) from the upper cable car station.
While waiting for the cable car to go back down, keep your eye out for dassies (rock hyrax) that like to hang around the upper cable car station.
They look like football-sized guinea pigs and have very sharp teeth.
Even though they’re cute-looking, don’t approach or feed them, however, because they bite.
Picking the right Table Mountain hike
There’s no perfect way to hike Table Mountain, as it really depends on what you’re looking for, as well as the time you have.
The Platteklip hike is steep and arduous, with difficult footing in some places. But it’s also easy to reach and quite short.
So, for many, Platteklip is the best bet when on a short trip to Cape Town.
If you have more time and are up for a longer, more scenic hike, then some of the other routes up Table Mountain, like Skeleton Gorge or 12 Apostles, are good options.
Just be aware they also require a little more organization depending on where your starting and finishing points are.
And if you just want a lovely scenic walk? The top of the mountain to Maclear’s Beacon is perfect.
Table Mountain Cable Car
If you’re hiking up Table Mountain in the summer (December to mid-March) and plan to take the cable car back down, be aware that the lines for the ride down can be long.
Don’t leave it to the last cable car and expect to get on. The cars can get pretty full!
You can buy your tickets online beforehand, so at least you don’t have to wait in line for the ticket booth as well.
What to bring on your hike
What to wear:
If the weather is sunny, you should definitely be dressed for a warm hike, so shorts and a T-shirt (sweat-wicking material) are best.
Don’t forget a hat! Here’s a cute UV protection sun hat for women.
Pack a sweater or light jacket too, as the weather on Table Mountain changes very quickly. It’s also cooler and can be windy on top.
In terms of shoes, proper hiking shoes are the best option. Or, at the very least, wear shoes with a decent grip. The Platteklip Gorge trails is rocky and dusty.
I did see people attempt this hike in running shoes and flip flops, but that footwear isn’t ideal and may lead to getting hurt or falling. Neither of which anyone wants!
For a light trail shoe, check out these Merrell mesh hiking shoes.
Bring lots of water with you, as there’s no water on any of the hikes up.
Dehydration is a real possibility, and if you have no experience hiking in the heat, it can catch you seriously unaware.
This refillable collapsible water bottle is great for traveling and hiking.
More Africa travel info: Don’t miss our Ultimate Africa Travel Guide and Safari Planner! (It’s packed with useful safari tips, itineraries and more.)
Photo credits: 4, 6, 7 Anna Timbrook | 5, 10, 11 to 14, 16 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase