Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

Saddle mountain walking track

The Saddle Mountain walking track is between Smithfield and Kuranda, about 15km north of Cairns, in far north Queensland, Australia. Part of the route goes through the Kuranda National Park and part is through the Smithfield Conservation Park.

In their book “Tropical Walking Tracks”, Kym Dungey and Jane Whytlaw suggest that the best way to walk this track is to do it one way, starting at the Kuranda end and finishing at James Cook University. However, their route seems unsatisfactory to me – for several reasons. Firstly, a one-way walk requires complicated transport arrangements. Secondly, their route starts at a point on the Kuranda Range road which isn’t particularly easily accessible. And, thirdly, the end of the walk follows a route that’s used by downhill mountain bike riders and could be quite dangerous.

My route is a return walk starting and finishing at the Kewarra Beach entrance to the Smithfield Conservation Park, and turning round at the weather station at the top of Saddle Mountain (660m). This route does follow a mountain bike trail for a short distance in the middle, but it’s a part of the trail that’s not heavily used and is the width of a vehicle track.

This walk is difficult – featuring some very steep (about 1 in 2) slopes – and takes about 5 hours for the round trip.

Begin the walk at the Moore Rd entrance to the Smithfield Conservation Park. There’s no proper car park there, but there’s plenty of space to park a car. You can get there by bus from Cairns or Smithfield (number 110 or 111) – get off the bus on the highway at the Generations church, walk along the short path leading to Moore Road and then continue on Moore Rd for about 400m to the entrance of the park.

The track follows a tar road from the park entrance, through a gate, and up to a massive water tank. From the water tank, it continues straight ahead – it’s not very obvious, but you just walk straight past the tank and carry on up the hill. This bottom section of the track proper is a bit variable, but it’s mostly a fairly straightforward and easy walk. Parts of the track were badly washed out when I walked it, but it was possible to get past the gullies without too much difficulty.

Eventually, at a couple of hundred meters altitude, the single walking track turns a corner to the left and becomes a vehicle width track. A hundred meters or so past this point, you need to turn off this track onto a smaller track, but the entrance to that track isn’t very obvious. Look out for a very large tree with big, snaking buttress roots, on your right – the turn off is immediately past that tree. From here, the track winds up through some rather beautiful rainforest before becoming a bit grassy and weedy. At about 360m altitude, you come to the peak of this section of the track, the track itself becomes vehicle width again and it’s a gentle downhill walk for a few hundred meters.

The vehicle track turns sharply to the left and will take you back down the hill to the university, but the route to Saddle Mountain is straight ahead and turns back into a single walking track again. This section of the walk runs along a fairly level ridge and you can glimpse views through the trees to both the right and the left of the track. This pleasant, gentle section comes abruptly to an end with the steepest hill on the track so far. The next 50m or so would be challenging in the wet, as it would be very slippery and there’s not much to hang onto.

Then, after a short respite from the steepness, it starts again – with a vengeance this time! The most difficult part of the walk comes almost at the top, with a section which climbs about a hundred meters over a distance of about two hundred metres. It would be madness to try this section in the wet – particularly going downwards. But when you get to the top of that bit, you’re at about 600m altitude and you’re almost there!

At the top of the steep slope, the track forks. The right fork has a sheer rock face, about two meters high – when I was there, there were some boards standing up against it, I’m not sure what their purpose was. It may be possible to get up the boards somehow, but there’s nothing to hold onto at the top except for some spiky wait-a-while stems! The easiest way is to take the left fork. But keep an eye out for a right fork quite soon after, which will take you back onto the weather station track. I missed it and ended up walking along a track that just gradually faded out to nothing – although it still had the odd trail marker tape in unhelpful positions along the way. After chopping my way through some overgrowth and struggling on about as far as there was a vaguely navigable trail, I came across a small lookout, which gives a good view over the industrial area of Smithfield to the coast down as far as Yarrabah. If you’ve still got heaps of energy after the climb, it may be worth following this track to the lookout. If not, make sure you find that right fork and continue on up towards the weather station.

From that point it’s only a few minutes climb to the top of the track. The weather station is surrounded by a chainlink fence with only a very narrow path around the outside of it. If you take the track to the right and clamber over some rocks, there’s a very impressive view north along a lower ridge and across to the coast, which you can see as far as Palm Cove and Buchans Point. It’s been a hard climb from the bottom of the track but the view from the weather station is worth the walk!

According to “Tropical Walking Tracks”, if you go the other way round the weather station fence, you should end up on the section of the walking track that ends at the top of the Kuranda Range road. Alternatively, looking at Google maps, a road from the weather station appears to join Saddle Mountain road, which will take you closer to Kuranda than the walking track – but I haven’t checked it out myself yet.