Lion’s Head Hike in Cape Town: 8 Things to Know Before You Go
Google Cape Town. One of the first images that will appear is the classic photo of Cape Town sandwiched between the ocean and Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. You can easily see what makes Cape Town so unique: out-of-this-world nature! You are surrounded by it. Towering above the city and offering panoramic views, the Lion’s Head hike will be one of the most beautiful hikes you will ever do.
Even National Geographic thinks so. This hike consistently rates as one of the Top Things To Do in Cape Town.
Find out the 8 things you need to know on how to make this hike part of your South Africa adventure!
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01- Lion’s Head Hike Distance + Time
- Hiking distance: 5.5 km or 3.4 miles roundtrip
- Elevation: 669 meters or 2,195 feet high
- Hiking time: 2-3 hours*
- Difficulty level: relatively easy but strenuous at times **
* Some say it takes only 90 minutes, but this really depends on a lot of factors including your fitness level, how many photos you take, how busy the trail is (there are a few bottleneck points when you are waiting to climb up/down a ladder), and if you stop for a snack/meal at the top of the mountain.
We started at 10:30 am and finished at 1 pm on a day that was packed with hikers.
** The hike is a spiral; you will continue to circle Lion’s Head Peak until you reach the top. As you circle around, you will get 360-degree views of Table Mountain, Signal Hill, 12 Apostles, Camp’s Bay, and the city below.
You will need to climb ladders, use your hands to climb, or utilize chains/rungs depending on the route selected.
FIRST LADDER: Waiting in line to go up
SECOND LADDER: I am not going to lie. It was a little terrifying to go up and down the second ladder especially with the wind howling around you.
02- Where to Park + Start
The start of the hike is near a bright red cafe food truck off Signal Road, which is right across from the parking lot.
To get there from the city center, you drive towards Table Mountain on Kloof Nek Road and take the turnoff for Lion’s Head/Signal Hill.
By the way, there is NO entrance fee!
We did the Lion’s Head hike on South Africa’s Heritage Day around 10:30 am, and the parking was insane. There were just lines of cars, which made me happy we took an Uber.
I strongly suggest Uber. It is so cheap in South Africa. We paid $2.50 USD to take us from our hotel, Derwent House Boutique Hotel to the trailhead. They drop you right at the head of the trail. So worth it!
Lion’s Head Starting Point by the Red Truck
03- When to Start the Hike
Many recommend starting the hike early morning to beat the crowds and the mid-day sun. Other popular times are the full moon and sunset hikes.
For this hike, we purposely chose to start the hike late morning because we wanted to have crowds.
Why? Because I read it is safer to do this hike in groups (muggings do occur). We also happened to hike on South Africa’s Heritage Day, which was one of the busiest days since everyone was out celebrating. Perfect!
There were bottlenecks of hikers going up and hikers coming down the ladders, which required sometimes waiting for 20+ minutes.
Sacrificing longer wait times for possible better safety in numbers was worth it to me.
Signal Hill as seen from the Lion’s Head hike
04- Staples + Chains vs. Alternative Footpath
Lion’s Head Peak
There are two routes to reach the peak of Lion’s Head. Choose your route based on your physical ability and your fear of heights.
You will come to a point about 45 minutes into the hike where you have the option to pick:
1) Staples & chains route OR
2) Alternative footpath (or as the sign says, the recommended route).
#1- STAPLES & CHAINS ROUTE (ADVANCED)
This route involves a series of chains and rungs to climb to the top. It’s steep and involves a fair amount of rock maneuvering. Not for the faint of heart.
#2- ALTERNATIVE FOOTPATH (BEGINNER TO MODERATE)
This route does involve climbing another ladder and at times using your hands to climb up. It is nothing near as intense as the Staples & Chains Route. This route spirals around the peak and takes a little longer.
This is the route we took, which was just enough for me.
STAPLES & CHAINS ROUTE: It is difficult to see in the photo, but it shows a line of hikers using the chains to climb to the peak (as depicted by the yellow circles).
ALTERNATIVE FOOTPATH: This is the recommended route, which spirals around the left side of the peak before you take another ladder to climb to the summit.
INTERESTING FACT: As you spiral your way around the mountain, you will notice a lot of fynbos which is the natural vegetation seen around the mountains and lowlands of South Africa’s Cape region.
I later found out local distillers infuse various liquors like gin with fynbos, which give it a very unique flavor. One of my favorite local South African gins I discovered while we visited was Inverroche Gin Classic. It is infused with fynbos from the limestone-rich soils of the Cape.
Very refreshing in a G&T!
05- Four Unique Views!
With Table Mountain in the back and Signal Hill in the front, Lion’s Head is the peak between the two that helps form the dramatic backdrop to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town!
No matter which route you take, one of the unique features of the Lion’s Head hike is it offers 4 incredible unique panoramic views.
VIEW #1: TABLE MOUNTAIN
VIEW 1: Table Mountain and the city of Cape Town
VIEW #2: SIGNAL HILL
VIEW 2: Signal Hill and the city of Cape Town
VIEW #3: CLIFTON BEACHES & CAMP'S BAY
VIEW 3: Clifton beaches, Camp’s Bay, and the gorgeous coastline
VIEW #4: 12 APOSTLES
VIEW 4: 12 Apostles
Once you climb to the summit, there is a partially concrete surface to walk around. Savor the panoramic views of the beaches, city, and ocean, and have a snack.
Panoramic views from the summit at Lion’s Head in Cape Town
06- Guide vs. No Guide
It is up to you, but I did not feel the need for a guide.
As long as you can find the start of the trailhead and know which route you want to take when you come to that junctional point, you should be fine.
With that being said, if you are single, I would strongly suggest a guide and a hiking group for safety reasons.
Get Your Guide has a highly-rated (5.0) group tour run by Atlantic Outlook you can join.
The junctional point on the 2 routes: Choose between Staples & Chains or the Alternative Footpath
07- Lion’s Head Hike Safety
Here are some highlights of what is listed on the official Table Mountain National Park Website:
- Have a contact person who knows you are going on a hike and what time to expect you back.
- Do not take valuables like expensive jewelry or large sums of cash.
- Know your escape points.
- Avoid known criminal hot spots on the mountain.
- Walk with a purpose.
- Hike in groups. Do not hike alone.
- Take a self-defense class. What?!?!
- Know the emergency number to call: 0861106417 (according to the Lion’s Head Hiking Sign at the start of the trailhead).
We almost did not do the hike after this research. Muggings, stabbings, and deaths have occurred over the years during hikes around Cape Town.
We use common sense while traveling to cities (including even our own city) to avoid potentially dangerous situations, but it never once crossed my mind to be on guard while out in nature hiking.
As with all activities, everyone has to assess their own risk.
We did the hike on South Africa’s Heritage Day. We purposely chose this time because we knew there were going to be a lot of hikers out celebrating the holiday, which made me feel safer. The great exercise and panoramic views of Cape Town at the top were well worth it!
In summary, use common sense, be on guard, and travel with a lot of people.
08- Table Mountain vs. Lion’s Head
If you only have time for one, which hike should you choose?
I researched this question before we got to Cape Town, and I chose Lion’s Head for 3 reasons:
→ #1- You get amazing 360-degree views of 12 Apostles, Table Mountain, Signal Hill, Clifton Beaches, Camp’s Bay, and Cape Town.
→ #2- The hike is short (but you still get good exercise!) and you can easily incorporate other activities into the rest of your day.
→ #3- In general, the Lion’s Head hike will be busier with more hikers than Table Mountain (remember, safety in numbers).
Gorgeous coastline views as seen from the Lion’s Head hike
What to Bring
SUNSCREEN + HAT
We went on a bright sunny day with little cloud cover. There is no shade on the entire trail, so wear sunscreen and bring a hat. I love Elta MD UV Clear!
Because you will be navigating ladders and climbing rocks, you will want to be hands-free. Take a daypack to store all of your items like a water bottle, snacks, and camera. I bring my Zomake bag everywhere.
WATER BOTTLE + SNACKS
Although the hike is quick, you will work up a sweat especially if you go mid-day in the sun. Bring a water bottle and stay hydrated. Bring snacks or a light lunch to enjoy at the top while you soak in the views.
Because this hike does involve rock scrambling and climbing ladders, I strongly advise athletic shoes. I personally wore my trail runners, which worked great since they work as a hybrid running/hiking shoe and have a little grip.
CELL PHONE + PORTABLE POWER BANK
A cell phone is a must for 2 reasons: 1) to take amazing photos and 2) for safety reasons if you need to make that emergency call. Make sure it is charged BEFORE you hike or have a portable power bank available.
Cape Town has unpredictable weather. I brought a light jacket, which I’m glad I did. As I hiked to the summit, it became super windy so the jacket came in handy. The wind was so strong at one point I had to stop and crouch down until a gust passed by before continuing on. Respect nature. The wind is no joke.
FLASHLIGHT OR HEADLAMP
If you plan to do a sunrise or sunset hike, a flashlight or headlamp is advisable since you are starting or ending in the dark. Between the two, the headlamp will be a better option because you want to be hands-free for navigating the ladder or chains/rungs if you select that route.
A must-do! We put Lion’s Head as one of our top 17 things to do in Cape Town. As long as the weather is corporating and you have a group to hike with, it is definitely worth it. It only takes a few hours, so you have plenty of time the rest of the day for other activities.
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