Cape Le Grand National Park
Cape Le Grand National Park is considered by many to be among the best coastal scenery in Western Australia. Secluded bays cradling white sand beaches, wave pounded headlands and imposing granite peaks are nature at its most dramatic. The parks expansive heathland supports an abundance of colourful wild flowers and a curious native animals. Many visit as a day trip from Esperance, though the excellent camping facilities make it viable to stay longer.
The area has been traversed for thousands of years by Aboriginal peoples who most likely used the granite outcrops for shelter and to made use of the abundant natural resources. The first recorded non-indigenous visitors was in 1792 when French expedition ships commanded by Admiral D'Entrecasteaux navigated the Recherche Archipelago. The cape was named in honour of an officer on L'Esperance who climbed the tall ships mast during a storm to identify a safe place to wait it out. 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. Cape Le Grand was established as a national park in 1966.
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
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 Esperance region is renowned, or perhaps notorious, for its erratic weather. A warm, blue-sky day can quickly fill with stormy clouds that pass before you can even get your umbrella out. Blustery winds and frequent, but short, bursts of frigid rain can temporarily dampen your plans but you will forget it all when the clear periods make for utterly idyllic conditions.
Temperatures in the summer months (Dec-Feb) are relatively mild, rarely cracking 25⁰ C during the day and dropping to 15-17⁰ C at night. Winter months (Jun-Aug) sees the daytime temperatures drop to around 18⁰ C and a chilly 8⁰ C at night. Rain and the Antarctic winds are at their most persistent at this time of the year and a good blast off the glaciers can quickly drop temperatures by several degrees.
The main entrance to the park is around 50 km by road from Esperance. Take Fisheries Road, then turn off at Merivale Road and then 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. Many imprudent 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.
A fee of $11 per car is collected at both entrance gate. The ticket booths are generally staffed between 8AM and 4PM, but may close early or not be staffed at all 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 can be avoided if you arrive on foot or from the ocean.
Sealed roads run through the park and down to the main beaches.
Secluded bays cradling white sand beaches, imposing headlands and the sentinel granite peaks inland invite awe or quiet contemplation of the pristine landscape.
The crystal clear water and long often empty beaches provide a pleasant background for aquatic recreational activities. Those who prefer to keep their feet on dry ground will find plenty of hiking and climbing options.
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.
A 15km long hiking trail follows the coastline from Le Grand beach, passing through Hellfire Bay, Thistle Cove, Lucky Bay and ending at Rossiter Bay. The trail is well signposted and information boards along the way point out the significant flora, fauna and cultural features. Most people take 6-8 hours to complete the whole length, though less ambitious hikers may opt to take on just one of the four sections. Each section takes about 2-3 hours except for the short section from Thistle Cove to Lucky Bay which you can easily walk in 30mins. The two sections from Le Grand Beach to Thistle Cove are the most difficult as the headland necessitates negotiating varying inclines and descents. The other two sections from Thistle cove to Rossiter Bay are more easy going as the terrain is flatter and the Thistle Cove-Lucky bay section is easy and short enough to be suitable for children. The start or end point of each section is accessible by road, enabling you to have someone drop you off and pick you up and the other end.
The closest restaurant or supermarket is in Esperance so your eating options are limited to whatever you bring with you. 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. If camping is not your thing, 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.
Camping rough outside of the campsites or in parking lots is not permitted.
The same dangers that apply to most of the southern coastline are evident here too. Don't let the inviting waters fool you, the ocean can be deadly.
King waves, as the name implies, are large freak waves common along this part of the Western Australian coast. They are dificult to predict and calm waves are no guarantee that one is not on its way. Keep in mind the old sailors adage; Never turn your back on the sea. Rips and other strong current at some beaches pose a danger even if you are a strong swimmer. Swimming in the bays is generally safe though if the beach has a reef offshore a rip might be present. The poisonous Dugite snake is rarely seen in this part of the region though it is possible that one may venture into the park. Other snakes of the non-lethal variety are found around the granite outcrops but unless you are a snake expert it is best observe them from afar.
Mobile phone reception can be spotty out here. Unless you have a satellite phone, calls to emergency numbers won't work. The park has two resident rangers on duty 24 hours that can provide assistance if you get into strife. One lives near the main entrance on Cape Le Grand Road and the other is based at the Lucky Bay campsite.