Hiking Lion’s Head in Cape Town

I’m writing about hiking Lion’s Head for two reasons. The first being that it’s an incredibly rewarding trip, with a gorgeous view of the city, the Pacific and Table Mountain. The second being that after reading other retellings of the hike I felt that many recaps did a disservice. Many say  something along the lines of “so easy anyone can do it” or “short hike”.  I would say that Lion’s Head can be hiked by anyone in decent physical shape who lacks a fear of heights

Lion’s Head is located within South Africa’s Cape Town, across, but not a part of, Table Mountain National Park. Compared to Table Mountain, Lion’s Head is a small knob in the shape of a broken thumbnail, while Table Mountain is the mountain king

I cannot say how difficult hiking Table Mountain is because I’ve never done it, but on paper it certainly seems difficult. It’s a full-day hike with an intimidating amount of elevation, and from what I gather, should not be done by a first-timer without a guide.

Lion’s Head on the other hand, clocks in at 3.4 miles and takes only a few hours. I’d suggest putting aside a morning for the hike, which would get you back into town and cleaned up by lunch. Many others recommend a sunrise/sunset hike. I personally would not want to rock scramble in the dark at the same time as a hundred others and would opt for a daytime trek, but to each their own. 

A twenty minute Uber drive from the Gardens neighborhood dropped my husband and I right at the trailhead. Parking is limited and the trail is a busy one, so Ubering means skipping out on parking stress since spots can be hard to come by. Drivers are familiar with the trailhead too, making pickup easy once the hike is finished.  

The trail starts off wide and gravelly and turns into a narrow dirt path as it circles around the peak. There’s over a thousand feet of elevation, so the ascent is a constant “up”. There’s a moderate amount of rock scrambling before reaching a point in the path where a decision must be made: the chains route or the spiral route. The chains route is true to its name and requires the use of chains and staples to scale the mountainside. Definitely not for those with a fear of heights. 

I’d heard this was the “difficult” route in advance and opted instead for the spiral route, described as “easy”. This route winds around the mountain to reach the summit, and adds another 10-15 minutes onto the trip. All was well and dandy until I reached a ladder. Ladders are not usually my nemesis, but this one was bolted into the rock edge and should a slip occur, the hiker would have a long way to fall. I’m talking off-the-side-of-the-mountain fall. 

Here’s where it must be stated, I do have a fear of heights. It’s not paralyzing, but it’s there. I’m not a “make yoga poses on a cliff” or “picnic with my feet dangling off a palisade” kinda gal. I like a wide berth between myself and any drop-off, preferably two trips length. In that if I trip, I’m fine, and if I stand up and immediately trip again, I’m still fine. A single trip point of failure is not for me. 

Taking all this into account, I did make it up the ladder without hesitation. I’ve noped out of trails in the past due to heights, but I was too far up the mountain and wanted so badly to reach the summit I was not turning back. 

After conquering the ladder (flexes non-existent muscles) the summit was only minutes away. I like a payoff with my hikes — A glacial lake, a firetower, a waterfall, etc. and the payoff of Lion’s Head is one of the most incredible views of any hike I’ve ever done anywhere. On a clear day the Pacific Ocean, Table Mountain and Cape Town are all in view at once. 

The day I hiked, my view of the Pacific was obscured by a layer of fog beginning to encroach upon Cape Town, while the indomitable Table Mountain rose above it. Looking down upon clouds is always a powerful feeling, and coupled with a heart pumping from a hefty climb, I felt damn good. High fiving and snacking were in order, then we began the descent. 

I would feel comfortable describing Lion’s Head as a moderate hike for anyone without a fear of heights. This may seem like an obvious warning for any hike up a mountain, but I’d still put the asterisk at the end of “moderate” to account for this, especially because the spiral route was often described as the “easy” alternative to the scaling-a-rock-wall route. If you’re able to make the trek, you won’t regret it.

Quick Tips for Hiking Lion’s Head: 

  • Wear sturdy-soled shoes, preferably a hiking boot. It’s hot and dusty; tennis shoes or heaven forbid flip flops, are unwise choices. 
  • Pack another layer. It’s an exposed hike and the weather changes quickly. I shed my thermal half an hour in, but always feel more comfortable having one on hand. 
  • You will need water. Snacks are a bonus. 
  • Sunscreen up.  Unless you’re going at sunrise or sunset, slather on some SPF before starting uphill. 
  • Use the bathroom beforehand. While no restrooms on the hike are a given, due to how exposed and well trod the trail is, privacy may not be possible. Either let it out beforehand or hold it in. 
  • Don’t go alone. Crime on the mountain is a possibility and there’s safety in numbers (not to mention in case of a fall on the trail). We passed enough people on the hike that I never felt unsafe, but it’s worth a callout. 
  • Be patient. We hit a bit of a traffic jam on the way down due to someone needing to sit on rocks to make their way downward, kind of like a drawn out crab walk. They looked nervous and uneasy, but managed. Slow and steady is safest in times like these, so please remember to be patient and not rush someone into a situation that may be dangerous. It’s just a hike, there’s no first place. 

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