Tarn Shelf Circuit
Start - Lake Dobson Rd
Length - 15.6km (Loop)
Grade - Red
Terrain - Single Track, Boardwalk, Rock Hopping
Vertical Climb - 604m
Summit - 1265m ASL
Time - 4-8 hours
Signed - Yes
Cost - National Park Fees Apply
Date Hiked - 2nd November 2018
Best Time - All Year Round (Take Care in Winter)
Directions - Located 1.5hrs west of Hobart, take the Brooker Hwy north and follow the signs for New Norfolk. Pass through the town and follow the signs for Mount Field NP. Drive up the winding road all the way to the car park at Lake Dobson.
The Hike - Waking up on the final hiking day of my Tasmanian adventure was a bit of a bittersweet affair. Having enjoyed three weeks away enjoying Daylesford, the Three Capes and then a week on my own exploring the Huon Valley and Mount Field, I was ready to head home and see the family again. I had one final hike to get through and that was the famous Tarn Shelf, a 15km loop taking in some of the most scenic views in the park and a great variety of terrain. One thing that could have potentially ruined my day was the weather forecast that was showing high winds, rain and later on that night, a blanketing of snow above 900m. With a bit of drizzle around when I woke up, I had another lovely homemade breakfast of fresh bread, eggs, muesli and coffee thanks to Greg and Patricia's kind-hearted hospitality.
Having a chat to Greg and Patricia, they said it could be dicey up there but still encouraged me to go after hearing about my adventures on the trip so far. Given the track is marked I didn't feel too bad if I got white-out conditions as sometimes they produce some excellent photos but I was secretly hoping that the wind would blow all the weather away pretty quickly. Driving out to Mount Field was again a pleasant experience with lots of small towns to pass through and the views of the mountains but Mount Field was shrouded in cloud as I arrived. Driving up the narrow road to the start at Lake Dobson was cool as the mist in the lower rainforest section provided a lot of atmosphere. I reached Lake Dobson and not surprisingly in this weather was the only car there.
While it was grey and a little bit windy, the conditions weren't too bad so after checking out the Tassie Parks hut and signing in (also make sure you register at the visitor centre for alpine walks as you drive in), I made my way down to Lake Dobson to start the Pandani Grove section of the walk. One of the 60 Great Day Walks, this little loop track around Lake Dobson is great for visitors who want to experience the alpine Pandani plants in great numbers but don't want to do a big hike. It's a fantastic experience and the best concentration of Pandani's I had seen in Tasmania so worth the drove up here just for this short loop. Walking through the thick jungle of these tropical looking plant was extremely fun in the moody conditions and there was so much more to see than just the Pandani's.
Funky looking mosses and fungis clung to weird places and it all different shapes and sizes. Walking along the lakes edge you were occasionally brought out of the deep shadows of the Pandani grove but then the track would take you back into the dark confines of the orange and green forest. As the Pandani shed their tough leaves and grow taller, the old leaves stick around for quite a while causing this amazing spectacle. Much like the Xanthorrhoea (grass tree) varieties of WA, this creates un unusual effect of the plant looking dead until your eyes reach the top and the spikey green and red section can be seen. At the end of Lake Dobson the Pandani Grove Track loops back around towards the car park but for me I was continuing on towards the Tarn Shelf via a few of the lower lying lakes and tarns.
Joining the 4x4 track that takes you up to the various ski lodges during the right time of the year, this was by far the least interesting part of the day. To compensate you are provided views of Eagle Tarn to your left and this makes it slightly more palettable. Luckily the road walking doesn't last very long and you are soon pointed into the forest to begin the gentle downhill stretch where you have the opportunity to take in a few side trails. The first of these came with a sign pointing you down towards Platypus Tarn. This one excited me a lot as seeing a platypus in the wild is something I wanted to experience on this trip and my efforts so far have not been successful.
The track down to the edge of the tarn almost caught me out a few times with the overnight weather making it quite a slippery journey. I had expected the rocks to be the most dangerous so took caution but it was the exposed tree roots that had me sliding everywhere, some encased the track so much that you had no option but to place your weight evenly and hope for the best. I made it with both ankles intact and started exploring the banks of the tarn for any signs of a sneaky platypus (bubbles on the surface are a good indicator I had read). Down in the protected area of the tarn the wind was still blowing quite a lot so if I was a platypus I wouldn't want to be near the surface either.
I kept looking though and found the reedy section of the tarn that looked more suitable for feeding platypusi (not sure if that is the right plural). Staying very still I observed the water in the cold wind for a while but it wasn't to be for me that day. Climbing back up the path to join the main track I had an easier time getting up than walking down. The hike from here immerses you in the thick forest as you make your way past smaller tarns. The variety of wildflowers here was quite impressive and added some colour to the bleak overhead conditions. As you reached the smaller tarns the tree line opens up a little bit and you get the views across to the higher peaks across from Seal Lake.
Mount Bridges is the main feature from these vantage points that sticks out but at 1208m, it is lower than the highest point you'll reach along the Tarn Shelf. The boardwalk sections here get longer as it winds its way past the thick tufts of grass. Reaching the turnoff for Lake Seal, I was sceptical about the chances of seeing seals given my unsuccessful visit to Platypus Tarn. While only a short side track to visit the lake, I was more concerned about the weather I could see blowing in and decided against a visit to check out the non-existent seal colony. In hindsight this was a trip I should have done but at the time I really wanted to reach the Tarn Shelf before any potential white out conditions hit.
Passing the wonderfully named Fairy Tarn I spotted a couple of fairies hovering in the reeds (not really) but it look very pretty with the still water reflecting the grasses and trees in the background. The track from here leads you through a variety of undergrowth styles with boardwalk covering the wetter areas and a thick scrub lining the track when you reach harder ground. It was here that a good variety of wildflowers appeared and brightened up the day. As you approach Lake Webster the landscape opens up and you are treated to one of the first of many spectacular moments on this hike.
Walking on a combination of single track and boardwalk the views here are amazing with the hills rising from the lake and behind them are are snow covered slopes of the upper peaks above the Tarn Shelf. Some dark cloud formations had blown in and gave a very moody atmosphere to the scene. While the track here points you west, I found myself constantly facing south in an almost crab walk so I could soak in the views for longer. This is one point where I took way too many photos as the landscape kept changing subtly and that required a new set of shots to match. Eventually though I reached the bridge crossing the Broad River and had another laugh at the crazy low load limits on foot bridges in Tasmania. This one was rated at one person with backpack at a time, which seemed very low considering it's made of steel and wood.
Right after crossing the bridge you begin the climbing that will take you from around 830m ASL all the way up to the highest point at the end of the Tarn Shelf at 1265m ASL. The first part to reach Twilight Tarn is the steepest section of uphill you'll experience with an average gradient of about 17% during the kilometre of climbing to reach the flat section around Twilight Tarn. With a healthy forest surrounding you, it was a welcome relief to have some shelter from the wind for a while and there was a lot to see here. Mosses, clumps of grasses, a few wildflowers and some mature trees lined the track, making the effort seem like nothing as I'd often stop to take a photo or admire water droplets on the new growth.
As the track flattened out you got a great first view of Twilight Tarn and the forest surrounding it. The hut is reached by a side track that passes by a smaller tarn that was perfectly still, reflecting the towering trees and orange rusted rock poking out from the surface. As you get closer to the hut the undergrowth clears away and you get some idyllic views of this old ski lodge. A rock hop across and you are standing at the front of the hut, which is now only used as an emergency shelter (this is a designated campsite with a toilet out the back but you must stay in a tent).
Having read Donovan's post on the Tarn Shelf I was excited to peak inside and inspect the artefacts from a bygone era. I had to take a photo of the door as it looked like a hazmat warning but spells out "Ski" in the logo at closer inspection. Once you step inside it is like being transported to a different age, more so in the room to the right than the left as it contains relics from the days of this being a functioning ski lodge. A collection of old tins, cutlery, skis, cups and photos are on display so you can see what life was like back in the day. It was all fascinating to see and read about and I could imagine it wasn't easy to travel all the way from Hobart and up the mountain to reach here with your gear. Apparently in the dead of winter Twilight Tarn used to freeze over and they skated on it.
The main room as you enter is a bunk room with a very old looking hammock/couch hybrid that looked pretty cool in the light streaming through the window. This room had more of the creepy vibes to it so I didn't linger (there is also another room that has been boarded up). Leaving Twilight Tarn I followed the track around the edges of the water and onward to start climbing once again. With the track getting wetter, rockier and muddier, the strong winds added to the wildness as I came out of the protected area surrounding Twilight Tarn.
Every now and then the trees would thin out a little you would get some better views looking across to distant peaks. The now familiar orange and white stained rocks became more prominent and larger boulders started to appear more regularly. Reaching a raging creek, this is where the track makes a sudden turn to the west. Initially I wasn't sure which path to take as the grey poles serving as trail markers were well camouflaged into the landscape of dead trees and branches but I figured it out and began plotting my course over the creek. Stepping on a series of rocks over the creek was good fun and on a rocky island I paused for a few minutes and admired the scenes around me.
I was in the middle of an alpine stream surrounded by snowy slopes with dark clouds all around and a fierce wind to boot. This was the rugged Tasmania I had come to experience and it took a moment of still reflection for that to hit home. Continuing on I hopped off the last rock crossing and moved on towards the boardwalk section that would take me all the way to Lake Newdegate. Ahead of me was nothing but snowy peaks, grey skies and a face full of wind. Skeletons of Pencil Pines that had been killed in fires stood as a solemn reminders of what used to be here as I made my way to Twisted Tarn. With the views opening up here I could see all the way down the mountain range towards the end of the Tarn Shelf and it was a truly epic view.
I slowed up here and just reveled in the wild majesty of this place. In this lovely alpine plateau I was surrounded by tarns of all shapes and sizes, a cemetery of trees both dead and clinging to life and rocky boulders strewn across the place like giants were playing marbles. I found my gaze always looking up at the snow covered hills above me and lamenting the windy conditions. Had the conditions been reasonable I was considering taking the path up to K-Col and The Watcher, along the ridge line and then looping back to this spot but with this wind I would save that for another visit.
As I reached the shores of Lake Newdegate the wind really picked up and I was having trouble keeping my footing. With one eye always focusing on the ground below to make sure I wasn't going to land off the boardwalk, it was becoming a very interesting hike. There was some protection around the Lake Newdegate Hut and I was happy for the relief as I admired the almost Japanese style alpine garden that is found here. The hut itself looked pretty cool with the backdrop of the mountains but when I approached the hut to have a look inside I didn't get a good vibe and thought it best to continue on my way (even in the wind).
Hugging the shores of Lake Newdegate I was officially on the Tarn Shelf Track all the way to the Rodway Hut. Having the now sunlit mountain range to my right was a view I was loving and it also helped that the wind was now mostly on my back so holding course was much easier, although still difficult. As I passed through a thicket of Pandani and Snow Gums I noticed what could have been wombat poop on the boardwalk and I immediately went on wombat watch from that point on. I had a laugh as I passed a square edged rock sitting out of the water of a smaller tarn that looked like a more permanent version of a wombat offering.
Moving on towards Backhouse Tarn the Snow Gums became less prominent and that meant I was more exposed to the wind and boy was it windy. I wasn't moving very quickly for two reasons, one was the prettiness of the scenery that I couldn't stop photographing and the other was I kept getting blown off course. My favourite word I kept saying to myself was "buffeting" as you'd get a strong gust blow right through and I had to stop and brace myself. Having been up on the Stirling Ridge Walk in strong winds, this was very similar but I had the luxury of being on fairly level ground. At this stage I was still having fun but was keen to find a slightly more sheltered spot for a bit of relief.
Spotting the next marker whilst keeping my head down to look at where I might be blown next was a challenge but with the track snaking through the rock fields it was a fun experience. As I made my way past Backhouse Tarn I was loving the constant companion of the mountains to my right and the views looking back at Lake Newdegate were just as spectacular from this angle. The water of Backhouse Tarn show just just windy it was and at times it looked more like a river than a tarn. Some good news up ahead was the parting of the clouds and some blue skies were starting to show through.
With the weather looking to turn I was excited for the rest of the hike and as I made my way down a set of rocky steps I spotted something in the corner of my eye. Having searched for snow up on Hartz Peak a few days earlier and finding only trace amounts hidden under rocks I was hoping for a more substantial amount here given the snow fields on the mountains above. In a hidden piece of ground that was shielded by the sun by the rocks I found about a metre squared of crisp white snow and I'm counting this as a victory. With that excitement I continued on and moved along the path past more of the lovely tarns that dot this terrain.
As you can probably tell by now I took a lot of photos (over 1600!!!) and edited up quite a few of them (240+). I think you can agree (if you're still reading this) that this is a special place and even better in person. As I passed the last three tarns of the hike (Johnston, Mackenzie and Robert), the views down towards Lake Seal and the eastern side of the park I'd explored the day before were magnificent. I found a nice rock to sit on and snapped away for quite a while as the changing light highlighted different parts of the hills. It was also where the wind was at it's fiercest and this was to be the last big effort of the weather system for the afternoon.
Moving on I noticed some hikers in the distance but weirdly they were going away from me. I had been going very slowly for most of the day and hadn't seen anyone on the long stretches where it might have been possible. I quickly caught up and realised it was a tour group full of oldies. I had a chat with the guide at the rear while I waited for space to overtake on the narrow track and he explained they were planning on doing the whole circuit but turned around when they hit the shelf due to the wind. I picked my way through the group and thankfully once they realised I was there they let me through.
In the distance I spotted the Rodway Hut, very easy due to the noticeable ski lifts protruding up the hill. With a small climb up to the hut I was now clear of the group and had enough time to slow down and enjoy the breathtaking views. With fluffy white clouds everywhere and a deep blue sky this scene was a stark difference to the one at Lake Newdegate Hut. I had fun imagining the slope covered in snow and skiers enjoying the small run up and down the hill and apparently it is Tasmania's steepest lifted ski tow. The hut itself has recently been done up with a lick of paint and is by far the most modern of the huts inside with beautiful golden wood lining the entire structure. Happy to be out of the wind I enjoyed the warmth and had a drinks break before the group arrived.
With the group soon arriving I thought it was polite to let them enjoy the hut so bounded up the last climb of the day. With the chance of more rain not likely and the wind easing up I took off my rain jacket and bathed in the sunshine for the rest of the hike. Reaching the highest point of the circuit (1265m) the Tarn Shelf Track meets the track that takes you on the loop above the Tarn Shelf or on to the highest point in the park, Mount Field West. From here it's an easy and delightful walk along the boardwalk to the Snow Gum forests that lead you all the way down the hill to the finishing point.
High up above everything you certainly weren't wanting for great views, you just have to decide which way to look. Behind you were the snowy mountains and sparkling tarns, to the left was the valley looking towards Lake Seal and ahead was the boardwalk leading you towards a horizon of rolling hills. A bit further on was the Lake Seal Lookout and after initially following the boardwalk it just kind of ended without views of Lake Seal. I figured the lookout was on top of some boulders so made my way there and took some more photos of the only lake/tarn I didn't get to see up close. From here it isn't long before you reach the Snow Gum Track and the beginning of the final descent down towards the end. It was once again a pleasure to walk through these very expressive trees as the patterns on their trunks is amazing.
Along the Snow Gum Track you pass the Oldina Ski Club building that looks much more modern than the previous huts and is the winter base for the nearby ski fields. Looking thoroughly impressive against the blue skies, I had a poke around but it was all closed up. The final stretch down the hill is on the 4x4 track used to reach the ski fields and with a fantastic hike under my belt I was happy to skip down the road and on to the car park. The circuit finishes with a familiar touch, popping you back onto the Pandani Grove Loop along the shores of Lake Dobson. Looking a lot different than the morning with clear skies all around, the Pandani's were looking stunning. I arrived at the windy car park to a few people braving the elements and checking out the lake. I was happy to be finished and set off for my AirBnB to enjoy a roaring fire, some well earned wine and a movie.
Final Thoughts - What a spectacular way to finish my Tasmanian trip!!! One of the best hiking days of my life and certainly the weather played a bit part in that.
I love the moody conditions that come with storm fronts and today threw up some stunning scenes that added to the drama of the Mount Field alpine scenery. I'm not sure this would have been as enjoyable or photogenic in bright sunshine but I guess I'll have to come back and find out.
The hike itself is of fantastic quality with no sections that you'd ever consider boring or just there to get you from point A to B. With a good elevation change, forests, alpine fields, tarns, views, wildflowers and if you come in autumn, the changing of the fagus, this is a place every hiker should experience if they are coming to Tasmania.
Tassie is lucky to have some amazing national parks that allow visitor access to some of the wilder places and Mount Field is a classic example of well thought out hikes not interfering too much on the landscape.
I'll say it again, if you're in the area and want a quality day of hiking in an unforgettable location then head on out to Mount Field National Park and do the Tarn Shelf!!!
Get out there and experience it!
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