Cape Le Grand was established in 1966 and is one of the most popular national parks in Western Australia.
The cape was named in honour of an officer on the French ship L'Esperance who climbed the tall ships mast during a storm to identify a safe place to wait it out in 1792. British explorer Matthew Flinders also dropped anchor in Lucky Bay in 1802. Rossiter Bay is named after the captain of the French Whaling ship Mississippi who saved explorer Edward John Eyre and his Aboriginal companion Wylie from starvation after they had completed their famed crossing of the Nullarbor Plain in 1841. Less notable accounts exist of whalers, sealers and pirates using the bays and isles for their trade over the past few hundred years.
Typical of the southern coastal region, the parks terrain comprises of gently undulating heath-covered sandplain interspersed with swamps and the occasional shallow pools of fresh water. The lower costal section of the park is interwoven chain of gneiss and granite rock headlands that fridge the bays and rise up into the distinctive peaks of Mount Le Grand (345 m), Frenchman Peak (262 m) and Mississippi Hill (180 m). Much of curving shapes of the outcrops and peaks were been formed 40 million years ago in the Eocene period when higher ocean level put the present land underwater and the caves and tunnels evident in the peaks were etched out by waves action and ocean currents. Apart from the access roads and some low impact recrational facilities the area has changed very little since the sea receeded at the end of the Eocene.
Flora and fauna
The flower of Banksia tree
Small native mammals such as the honey possum, quenda, southern brown bandicoot inhabit the park, though you would be lucky to glimpse them during the day. You are more likely to encounter grey kangaroos who frequent the beaches and campsites, quite unperturbed by human observers. Reptile species such as the barking gecko, legless lizard and the heath monitor are commonly found scampering among the granite outcrops. Swamp and freshwater areas support a chorus of several frog species including the quacking frog, the western banjo frog and the humming frog. Southern Right Whales can be spotted spurting jets of water or belly flopping in the ocean as they they cruise around the islands during their calving season in mid Oct-Nov.
The heath comprises mostly of low scrubby bushes and coastal grasses, though pockets of deep sandy soils support dense thickets of Banksia that can grow to a height of 3 or 4 metres. The brush like flowers of the Banksia explode into colour during the regions short wild flower season around Sep-Nov. Nuytsia floribunda, more commonly known as the native Christmas tree, has a similar short profusion of yellow-orange flowers usually between late November and January. Throughout the year the surrounds are dotted with the red fingers of Grevilleas, the white bottle brush like Melaleuca and the shimmering green fronds of the ubiquitous grass tree.
The frigid Antarctic winds thrash the coast for most months of the year. Winter months can be bitterly cold at night. Spring is a good time to visit as the sun brings out the wild flowers.
The main entrance to the park is around 50 km by road from Esperance. Take Fisheries Road, then turn off at Merivale Road and on to Cape Le Grand Road to the park entrance.
The second entrance at the Le Grand Beach campsite is accessed by driving 30km along the beach from Wylie Bay. A 4WD is essential and be sure to check tides as parts of the beach can be cut off by the rising tide. Numerous people have lost their cars to the sea.
Seafarers can enter the park from the Southern Ocean. The park lacks jettys to dock at so you will have to drop anchor at a suitable spot offshore and make land fall on a smaller craft. Lucky Bay has been a popular sheltered water for centuries.
An fee of $11 per car is collected at each entrance gates. The ticket booths are generally staffed between 8AM and 4PM, but may close early or not be staffed during quiet periods. If ticket staff are not on duty you can still pay using the self service ticketing envelopes and deposit box at the rear of the ticket booth. The ticket is valid for the day of purchase but if you are camping and don't leave the park you only need to pay for the day you arrived. Make sure you keep the ticket displayed on your dashboard as park rangers sometimes do spot checks of vehicles inside the park.
The entry fee not required if you arrive on foot or from the ocean.
Sealed roads run through the park and to the main beaches.
Whistling rock at Thistle Cove
Frenchman's peak - The 262 m high granite cone is not the highest in the park but the gentle slopes make it the easiest to climb for views over the entire park. The craggy summit can get crowded at peak periods, especialy on the very highest boulder as perfectionist climbers take turns being photographed on top and try not to get blown off by the wind. Nonetheless there are many quiet crooks to sink into and look over the landscape that has barely changed since the first tall ships sailed past. The cave like arch over the hollow peak is worth exploring for evidence of ancient human activity or as a shelter from a burst of rain.
Hellfire Bay - Perhaps named after the orange rocks that curve around the fingernail of white sand beach that caps off the small bay. The booming ocean waves that crash into the headlast peater out by the time they reach the short. The surrounding bush is well stocked with showy Banksia trees other wildflowers. A easy 40min walk loops up and along the headland from the carpark. BBQ, disabled accessible and regular toilets are available.
Le Grand Beach - A wide stretch of flat white sand seems to stretch out forever from the granite headland. It may not have the dramatic beauty of the bays but is does offer wide open space. The start of the coastal hike starts here and even if you dont want to do the whole thing the first section to the top of the headland is a good place to look out into the islands.
Lucky Bay - A sweeping bay with a rocky headland on one side, half moon of white sand on the other and a camp site in the middle. Considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in the park, if you sit on the headland and looking at the islets in the bay as the sun sets behind you, its hard to disagree.
Thistle Cove - A bay between two bulging headlands named after Matthew Flinders' ship master, John Thistle who drowned here 1802. A natural monolith makes a peculiar sound similar to an air-conditioner or electrical humming depending on the angle of the wind and your position. The rocky cove is scattered with boulders sculpted by wind and water into savage shapes. Behind it is a small sandy bay that has the force of the entire ocean concentrated into to a white capped tumult. Probably not the best spot for a swim. No toilet or shower facilities.
Rossiter Bay - Though the bay is a not particularly exciting it's historically significant as the stretch of coast where explorer Edward John Eyre and his Aboriginal companion Wylie were saved from near starvation in June 1841 by Captain Rossiter and the crew of the French whaling ship Mississippi. The bay and nearby Mississippi Hill were named by Eyre.
Boating - Boat ramps are located at Lucky Bay and Cape Le Grand beach.
Climb Frenchman's peak - (2hr return, 30-45 mins up) The climb is not too hard but a reasonable amount of fitness and balance is needed. Markers give a general path to follow up the side with the most gentle incline. The first half is flat (albeit with a upwards slant) but the upper part requires some scrambling over rocks. The rocks can get slippery in the rain.
Climb Mount Le Grand - Slighly higher than Frenchmans Peak but a far more challenging climb as there are not any defined paths to the summit. The eastern side has a few caves.
Fish - A popular spot for locals.
A four section hiking trail follows 15km along the coastline from Cape Le Grand beach to Lucky Bay. The trail is well signposted and intermittent information boards explain the significant flora, fauna and cultural features of interest.
The abundant marine life in the crystal clear waters and a few wrecks attract divers to the region, though the frigid waters and turbulent current of the southern ocean might deter the feint hearted.
Sanko Harvest wreck, (12km of south of Hellfire Bay). The second largest diveable wreck in the world and the largest on the Australian coast. The 33,000 tonne Japanese tanker hit a reef in 1991 and after spilling its cargo of fertilizer and deisel into the bay was declared unsalvagable and scuttled. The sunken 174m long ship has broken into 3 peices that lay at a depth of 13 to 44m. The hull is covered with kelp, anemones, sponges and sea tulips though it is still possible to access the ships bridge, engine room and the tower cranes. The site was declared a marine sanctuary in 1994 for its resident schools of blue groper, red snapper and the occasional seal or dolphin. The turbulent southern ocean and strong winds make it a dificult dive though around April is said to best time to dive as the winds are a little lighter.
Islands of the Recherche Archipelago. Numerous scraggly islands and small granite domes with their heads barely above water that are part of the Archipelago, lay within the park. Underwater granite walls, boulders, caves and reefs can be explored. The largest are Ram and Mondrain islands.
The closest restaurant or supermarket in in Esperance so your eating options are limited to whatever you bring. Free public gas BBQs are located at Hellfire Bay, Lucky Bay and Le Grand Beach.
Rainwater tanks and drinkable water taps can be found next to the campers kitchen at both camp sites.
The two prescribed camp sites for tents and caravans are the only option to stay overnight in the park. Esperance has numerous hotels, backpacker hostels and caravan parks.
Located at opposite ends of the park, the two low impact camping areas each have a distinct feel. Though the sites are basic, both provide treated rain water taps, solar heated shower block and a campers kitchen. The campers kitchen have BBQs, four burner cooktop and a sink. There aren't any publicly accessible electricity outlets.
Camping fees at both camp sites are $9 per adult, per night. The ranger collects the fees directly from you whenever they make their rounds, usually in the morning and evening.
Cape Le Grand Beach campsite - Fourteen spaced out caravan bays behind the sand dunes with a campers kitchen and clean ablution block. Sometimes it smells of the ocean - and not in a good way.
Luckybay campsite - On the bay, sheltered under trees. A bakers dozen of caravans sites and a smaller, somewhat cramped, separate area for tents. This one is the more popular and fills up fast during on long weekends.
Camping rough elsewhere or in parking lots is not permitted.