Golden Gate Highlands National Park: The Complete Guide

Sun setting on sandstone rock formations in Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Mitchell Krog / Getty Images

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Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Address
Clarens, 9707, South Africa
Phone +27 58 255 1000

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is located close to Lesotho’s northern border in the South African province of the Free State. It is one of the country’s lesser-known national parks, yet its setting in the foothills of the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains makes it one of the most spectacular parks in the country. In addition to jaw-dropping mountain scenery—including some of the most impressive sandstone formations in Southern Africa—the park is steeped in history and is full of rare and unexpected wildlife. 

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is defined by its complex topography of sheer cliffs, plunging valleys, and hidden caves. The latter, in addition to a historic abundance of game animals, made it an obvious stomping ground for the Khoisan people, one of South Africa’s oldest indigenous groups. The Khoisan left their mark on the park, quite literally, in the form of paintings daubed upon its rock faces and overhangs that are still visible today. In time, the Khoisan were pushed out of their ancestral lands, first by the Basotho people, and later by Europeans. A hike, drive, or boat trip through this park will take you back to an ancient time when people lived, and thrived, off the land.

Things to Do 

Exploring the park’s fantastic scenery on foot is one of the main reasons adventurers visit Golden Gate Highlands National Park. There are eight hiking trails to choose from within the park's boundary, ranging in length from a one-hour jaunt to a two-day backpacking trip.

The park also offers two routes for self-drive safaris. The first is the Oribi Loop, which measures 2.6 miles and takes you past the Vulture Restaurant for close-up encounters with the park’s most famous feathered residents. The second is the 4.1-mile Blesbok Loop, which includes mesmerizing views from General's Kop viewpoint. All roads are tarred, so there's no need for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

Several adventure activities are also available within the park, including rappelling, guided horseback riding, and canoeing on Gladstone Dam. All adventures are led by certified guides and should be booked via SANParks at least 24 hours in advance. The area around the park has opportunities for many more adventure sports, like mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and fly fishing. 

Those that want to experience what life was like for the Basotho of the 18th century should check out the park’s Basotho Cultural Village. Wander amongst traditional houses, sample home-brewed beer, listen to songs played by ancient instruments, and purchase authentic crafts. You can also book a journey into the wilderness with a tribal healer to learn about medicinal plants and to view San (bushmen) rock art or tour the historical sites of QwaQwa, the former homeland of the Basotho people. 

Best Hikes & Trails

Golden Gate Highlands National Park contains several guided and unguided trails that meander along streams and climb sandstone formations to 360-degree overlooks. The Ribbok Trail can be tackled as an overnight camping trip, just be cautious of wild animals by practicing backcountry safety.

  • Brandwag Buttress Trail: This 1.7-mile trail can be tackled as a loop in one hour. It takes you past the Brandwag Buttress, one of the park’s most recognizable sandstone formations, and is suitable for children, although some sections involve a steep ascent that can be slippery after a rain. 
  • Mushroom Rock Trail: The 2.4-mile Mushroom Rock Trail takes you on an easy out and back hike that gains about 1,000 feet of elevation and rewards you with a panoramic view of the park. In late spring and summer, wildflowers lovers can identify the blooms as they make their way along the trail.
  • Cathedral Cave Trail: This four-hour guided adventure is available from December to October only. It starts at the Noord-Brabant farmhouse and takes you on a 45-minute hike to an astonishing sandstone cavern that's approximately 165 feet deep and 820 feet wide. From here, your guide will take you through a deep pool of water to access a second cave.
  • Ribbok Trail: This 17-mile hike takes you to the summit of the Ribbokop (the tallest free-standing peak in the park). The trail offers numerous chances to spot wildlife, like the black wildebeest, blesbok, Burchell's zebra, eland, red hartebeest, and springbok, as well as birds, including the bearded vulture, and the black eagle.

Wildlife Viewing & Birding

Unlike South Africa’s more famous "big five" parks, the main attraction of Golden Gate Highlands National Park is its awe-inspiring scenery. Nevertheless, while the park lacks the iconic safari animals, like elephants, rhinos, and lions, it provides a home for some unique highland wildlife. Park species include ten types of antelope, like the mountain reedbuck, the grey rhebok, and the threatened oribi. Zebras and baboons are also commonly spotted, while otters inhabit the park’s dams. Possible predator sightings range from black-backed jackals and silver foxes to caracals, African wild cats, and aardwolves. 

Birding

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is also a great destination for birders. Designated as an Important Bird Area with 220 recorded species, it is a most famous refuge for the rare bearded vulture (a fascinating bird of prey that subsists almost exclusively on bone marrow). These vultures can easily be seen and photographed at the park’s Vulture Restaurant, an area of open ground where livestock carcasses are left for the birds to feed on. Other key raptor species include the endangered Cape vulture, Verreaux’s eagle, the booted eagle, and the martial eagle. 

The vulnerable southern bald ibis breeds in two separate locations within the park, including Cathedral Cave, while the grassland areas are home to four species of lark, seven kinds of pipit, and nine types of cisticola. Other flying wonders to look out for include the black-rumped buttonquail, the sentinel rock thrush, and Gurney’s sugarbird.

Where to Camp

Located within the park is the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, which offers rondavels, longdavels, guest cottages, and campsites. The campsites come complete with a picnic table, communal bathrooms, and communal kitchen and barbecue facilities. There is no electricity at the sites. Holiday programming is conducted on-site in December and April, and bowling, tennis, table tennis, and snooker are available to play in the nearby Golden Gate Hotel.  

Where to Stay Nearby

Several accommodation options are located within park boundaries. Choose to stay in a luxury, three-star hotel, or opt for a self-catered stay in a log cabin or guesthouse that gives you access to the recreational opportunities offered at the campground.

  • Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets: The three-star Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets offers 54 renovated rooms and suites, 34 self-catered chalets, two on-site bars, and a restaurant with inspiring mountain views. It's located nearby the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, allowing you to enjoy the rest camp's recreational opportunities and holiday programming.
  • Noordt Brabant Guest House: For a more secluded option, consider the Noordt Brabant Guest House (previously, an old farmhouse). This lodging option sleeps six, with one double bed, three single beds, and one sleeping couch in the living room. Complete with a kitchen, a lounge and dining room with a fireplace, and two bathrooms, this option is perfect for independent travelers. Just make sure your vehicle has high ground clearance in order to access the cabin.
  • Highlands Mountain Retreat: The log cabins at Highlands Mountain Retreat are located 2,200 meters (approximately 7,200 feet) above sea level, giving you panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Choose from cabins that house two to six guests. The cabins are designed to retain warmth during the winter season, while also retaining coolness during the summer months.

How to Get There

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is roughly equidistant from three of South Africa’s biggest cities: Johannesburg and Bloemfontein (both 3 hours and 15 minutes away), and Durban (3 hours and 45 minutes away). If you're flying into the region, book an international or domestic flight into O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Bram Fischer International Airport in Bloemfontein, or King Shaka International Airport in Durban. From any of the three cities, you can rent a car and travel the tarred road the whole way to the park. Most people choose this option, as the park contains roads that allow you to embark on self-guided tours, once you get there.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park is intersected by public road R712, which runs from Phuthaditjhaba in the east to Clarens in the west. All visitors must pay a daily conservation fee, with discounts available for South African and SADC (Southern African Development Community) nationals. 

Accessibility

Golden Gate Highlands National Park offers amenities for people of all ability levels. At the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, there is one accessible rondavel, one accessible longdavel, and one accessible family cottage, complete with roll-in showers in their bathrooms. The Highlands Mountain Retreat Camp has one accessible cottage, and the Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets offers two accessible chalets.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The closest town to the park, Clarens, offers other lodging options and restaurants.
  • Golden Gate Highlands National Park enjoys a typical highveld climate, with mild summers marked by frequent afternoon thunderstorms, and cold winters with temperatures that can fall as low as 5 degrees F (-15 degrees C). The rainy season lasts from September to April.
  • The park is beautiful during every season and can be visited year-round, although visitors should pack for all conditions, as weather can change with very little notice. 
  • The closest town is Clarens, located approximately 23 kilometers (17 miles) from the park. The town is a tourist attraction on its own, and is known as the "Jewel of the Eastern Free State," complete with 20th-century history, a picturesque mountain setting, and excellent art galleries. Clarens also offers alternative accommodation options and necessities, including ATMs, grocery stores, and fuel stations. 
  • The surrounding area is renowned among avid fly fishermen for having one of the best trout fishing waters, the Ash River, in all of South Africa.
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Golden Gate Highlands National Park: The Complete Guide