Karoo National Park: The Complete Guide

View of escarpment from road traveling through Karoo National Park

fbxx / Getty Images

Map card placeholder graphic

Karoo National Park

Address
.Off 6970, N1, Beaufort West, 6970, South Africa
Phone +27 23 414 7080

Visitors to South Africa who wish to go beyond the typical Big Five safari experience should make space in their itinerary for several nights at the majestic Karoo National Park. Founded in 1979, this park straddles the Great Escarpment that divides the Lower and Upper Karoo, providing complete insight into this fascinating semi-desert region of the Western Cape. Time in the park is defined by starkly dramatic scenery (including towering plateaus and arid plains) and unique wildlife that has adapted to thrive in this seemingly inhospitable environment. Come for self-drive or guided game drives, to tackle challenging 4x4 trails, or to go hiking and mountain biking amidst the wild splendor of the Karoo. 

Things to Do 

For most people, the main attraction of Karoo National Park is the chance it offers to immerse oneself in South Africa’s unspoiled wilderness. To do this, set out upon one of two marked routes for a self-drive safari or sign up for a guided game drive with one of the park’s expert rangers. 4x4 trails challenge those with experience behind the wheel, while the Main Rest Camp offers two trails for safe hiking. The first is the Fossil Trail, a quarter-mile walkway lined with geology and paleontology exhibits relating to the Great Karoo’s past, including genuine fossils and petrified wood. The second is the Sylvester Single Track, a scenic 1.6-mile trail for mountain biking and hiking. 

For a deeper look at the history and ecology of the park and the wider Karoo area, head to the Old Schuur Interpretive Centre, housed in a restored farm building from the 1800s. The park also has two fenced picnic sites perfect for making the most of hot summer days. One, Bulkraal, is located six miles from reception on the Lammertjiesleegte route and offers a braai area and swimming pool. The other, Doornhoek, is located roughly halfway around the circular Potlekkertjie Loop. Wherever you go, keep an eye out for the park’s superbly adapted wildlife, ranging from predators like lions and caracal, to endemic Karoo bird species. 

Game Drives 

There are two ways to game drive in Karoo National Park. Many visitors choose to take advantage of approximately 37 miles of public access roads meant for exploring in your own vehicle. Except for designated 4x4 trails (more on those below), these roads are all tarred or graveled, and suitable for two-wheel drives. The two main routes are the Potlekkertjie Loop, which switchbacks up onto the plateau via Klipspringer Pass and offers stunning escarpment views, and the shorter Lammertjiesleegte road, which travels through the plains to Bulkraal picnic site. 

Alternatively, visitors can sign up for one of two daily game drives. Morning game drives last for two to three hours, and night drives last for around 1.5 hours. Both depart from reception and cater to between four and nine guests. Wildlife to look out for include a host of antelope species (from red hartebeest and eland to the habitat-specific klipspringer, gemsbok, and grey rhebok), as well as Burchell’s and Cape mountain zebra. Predators include lions, caracals, brown hyenas, aardwolves, jackals, and bat-eared foxes. If you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of the park’s endangered black rhino.

Karoo National Park also has plenty to offer for keen birders. Look for particular specials such as the Karoo eremomela, the Namaqua warbler, and the pririt batis; and Verreaux’s eagles nesting near the lookout on Klipspringer Pass in winter. 

4x4 Trails

If you plan on hiring a 4x4 vehicle and have some experience with off-road driving, there are some great trails to explore in the national park. Four are open to all visitors at no extra cost and without the need for a permit. These are Asfaal Loop (an 8-mile diversion off Potlekkertjie Loop that leads to Asfaal Cottage), Kookfontein Loop (4.5 miles), and Sandrivier Loop (4.5 miles). The fourth, Nuweveld Loop, is by far the longest, incorporating 34 miles of 4x4 driving. It branches off Potlekkertjie Loop and involves a circular drive into the park’s most remote wilderness. To complete it in one day, make sure to depart before 11 a.m.; or plan an overnight stay at Embizweni Cottage. Cell reception is unreliable, so drivers must be completely self-sufficient. 

There are two other 4x4 trails that should also be on your radar. The Kipplaatsfontein Loop connects to Nuweveld Loop and runs for 14 miles, crossing the central plateau and following the Kipplaatsfontein River. A free permit is required for this trail in order to monitor access. The last trail is Pienaars Pass, the oldest SANParks 4x4 route in the country. It’s just four miles in length, but involves some technical and seriously challenging driving – it’s not for novice drivers, nor the faint of heart. Those that wish to take it on must check in at reception and pay a R318.50 per vehicle fee. 

Where to Stay 

  • Main Rest Camp: The park’s Main Rest Camp includes 12 camping and caravan sites, all with 220V power points and access to a communal ablution and kitchen block. There’s plenty of hot water, and a laundry with coin-operated washing and drying machines. If you don’t feel like sleeping under canvas, the rest camp also has some beautiful Cape Dutch-style chalets and cottages. The chalets feature an open-plan living area with two single beds, a double sleeper couch, and a kitchenette. The cottages have an open-plan kitchen and lounge, and either one or two separate bedrooms. All guests are welcome to use the rest camp swimming pool, shop, and licensed restaurant. The latter serves a la carte meals for breakfast and dinner every day. 
  • Afsaal Cottage: For a more authentic wilderness experience, consider booking a stay at this old shepherd’s hut, located inside the park’s game-viewing area. It’s 22 miles from the Main Rest Camp, and can only be accessed with a 4x4 via the Asfaal Loop. Expect solar-powered electricity and hot water, a double bed, and two stretcher beds big enough for children only. You can cook outside on one of two braais, and stay up late watching wildlife at the floodlit waterhole in front of the cottage. Between the waterhole and the fact that you’ll have earlier access to the game-viewing area, a stay at Asfaal Cottage is a good way to increase your chances of seeing the park’s more elusive animals. A two-night minimum stay is required. 
  • Embizweni Cottage: The most remote of all the accommodation options in the park, Embizweni Cottage is situated some 28 miles from the main camp on the Nuweveld 4x4 trail. There’s no cell reception, and all amenities are solar or gas-powered. Built to accommodate up to seven people, the cottage has two bedrooms, a bunk bed in the open-plan lounge and kitchen, and a veranda with a built-in braai. Best of all, the veranda overlooks a private waterhole, giving you ringside seats to the park’s nocturnal wildlife. Embizweni Cottage requires a two-night minimum stay.

How to Get There 

The closest town to Karoo National Park is Beaufort West, situated three miles from the main gate and 7.5 miles from the Main Rest Camp. To get there, simply follow the N1 southwest out of town, then follow signs for the park on the right hand side of the road. The N1 also connects the park to Cape Town in the southwest (approximately five hours away), and Bloemfontein in the northeast (around 5.5 hours away), making it the ideal stopping point for journeys from the Cape to the interior, or vice versa. If you’re coming from the Garden Route, drive inland from George for three hours on the N12. The closest airport is also in George. 

Accessibility

Karoo National Park is a relatively remote destination, and as such, accessible features are limited. However, two of the Main Rest Camp chalets and one of the family cottages have been adapted for those with limited mobility, and the Fossil Trail is accessible for wheelchair users. Both of the main game drive routes are accessible to all kinds of cars, so those with especially adapted vehicles will be able to explore these as well. 

Tips for Your Visit 

  • All visitors to the Karoo National Park must pay a daily conservation fee. This currently costs R236 per adult, and R118 per child for international visitors. Significantly reduced rates apply for SADC nationals and South African residents, upon proof of ID. 
  • The main gate opens from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with late arrivals and departures possible with prior arrangement. 
  • The gate to the game-viewing area opens from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter (April 1 to September 30), and from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer (October 1 to March 31). 
  • Children of any age are welcome on self-drive safaris and in the rest camp and cottages, but must be six or older to take part in a guided game drive. 
  • When outside the fenced safety areas, remain in your vehicle unless at a designated lookout or picnic site. Lions and other potentially dangerous animals roam freely in the park. 
  • Scorpions and several kinds of venomous snake (including Cape cobras and puff adders) are relatively common. Watch where you walk, and be sure to check shoes before putting them on. 
  • Pack for all weathers. Thunderstorms occur frequently in summer, when daytime temperatures can exceed 100 degrees but drop rapidly at night. In winter, snow sometimes falls on the Nuweveld Mountains and early morning/late evening game drives can be freezing. 
Was this page helpful?
Back to Article

Karoo National Park: The Complete Guide