Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a gorgeous South African National Park, at the northern end of the Drakensberg. It’s perfect for hiking, with beautiful scenery, and well-laid out trails. There’s plenty of accommodation options, Glen Reenen Rest Camp with rondavels and camping, Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets, or more remote accommodation.
You need a car to get here. It’s just over 3 hours from Joburg or Bloemfontein and roughly 4 hours from Durban. It’s a lot further from Cape Town, at least 14 hours. That said, we had a fantastic 12 day trip from Cape Town to the Drakensberg, travelling clockwise around Lesotho and staying at very cute places on the way there/way back.
The road through the park is open 24/7, though the reception at Glen Reenen Rest Camp closes at 17:30, so if you arrive afterwards you have to collect your key from either the Glen Reenen petrol station or Golden Gate Hotel nearby.
- Winter is cold, summer is wet with afternoon thunderstorms. This makes Spring and Autumn a great time to visit. We visited in May, the weather was perfect, though the nights a bit chilly!
- The Glen Reenen Reception is open 07:00-17:30. If you arrive after this, check-in at the petrol station or Golden Gate Hotel.
- There is a petrol station right at Glen Reenen Rest Camp.
- Clarens, a charming town 25 minutes away, has restaurants, shops and additional accommodation options.
- The Glen Reenen shop has limited supplies, better to stock up before you leave or in Clarens.
- There’s very limited phone signal in the park.
Arrival at the Park
We arrived at the park in the late afternoon. There are a variety of accommodation options within Golden Gate National Park (see box below). We stayed at the campsite by the river in Glen Reenen Rest Camp. We had to register at Golden Gate Hotel since we arrived after the Glen Reenen reception closed at 17:30.
Short Evening Hike
While at Golden Gate Hotel, we hiked the Holkrans Trail (1 hour). See our Holkrans Hike Report for details. It was a great decision as it was SO beautiful, absolutely stunning in the late afternoon sun.
The Campsite at Golden Gate Highlands National Park
It was COLD by the time returned to the campsite and set up our tent. There was even frost! I don’t know why we were so surprised, it’s 2000 m high, and we were there in May. Sun disappears early from the campsite since it’s at the bottom of the valley. Luckily there was a small kitchen building, which protected us a little while we cooked dinner on our little stove. The campsite was almost empty, probably because, despite the beautiful weather, May is not a popular time to visit this region.
SANParks runs all the accommodation within Golden Gate Highlands National Park:
Glen Reenen Rest Camp (Tripadvisor Reviews*)
This is the park’s main rest camp. It offers rondavels, longdavels (long rondavels), family cottages, caravan and camping spots. It’s on the valley floor, with views up and down the valley. There’s a natural swimming pool in a stream 250 m behind the rest camp.
Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets (Website, Tripadvisor Reviews*)
A fairly new and modern hotel, with restaurant, bar, coffee lounge and conference facilities. There are rooms in the hotel, and self-catering chalets dotted around the grounds. It’s perched on the side of the valley, with gorgeous views over the surrounding cliffs.
Basotho Cultural Village (Tripadvisor Reviews*)
In the Basotho Cultural Village, a 25-minute drive from the centre of the park, you can stay in cute little self-catering rondavels. The setting is extremely picturesque. You can also go on a tour of the cultural village. We went on a tour of the village but didn’t stay here
Highlands Mountain Retreat and Noordt Brabant Guesthouse
These are both more remote places to stay. Check-in at the park reception.
Noord Brabant Guest House (Website, Tripadvisor Reviews*) is a self-catering, secluded farmhouse with room for 6 (one double, three single and one sofa bed). To get here, a high clearance vehicle is advisable.
Outside the Park
Clarens (hotels reviews on Tripadvisor*), a quaint town 25 minutes away, offers additional accommodation outside the park.
The next morning, we hiked the wonderful Wodehouse Peak Trail (click for details), a circular loop to the top of a small mountain and back, seeing lots of buck and wildebeest. This was really spectacular and gave us our first views out over the Drakensberg Mountains on the other side of the valley. We took about 4 hours and returned back around 2 pm. There are a variety of shorter hikes on offer (see below), but the Wodehouse Peak Trail lets you see a lot more of the park.
Hikes in Golden Gate Highlands National Park
- 1 hour, 5 km, circular, start at Hotel
- There are some easy ladders – return the same way to avoid these
- Best done in the late afternoon light
- 4-5 hours, 15 km, circular, start at Hotel or Rest Camp
- Passes both Brandwag and Mushroom rocks
Brandwag Rock Hike
- 1 hour, 3 km, out-and-back, start at Hotel or Rest Camp
- This forms the first part of the Wodehouse Peak Trail
Mushroom Rock Hike
- 45 minutes, 2 km, out-and-back, start at Rest Camp
- This forms the last part of the Wodehouse Peak Trail
Eco Ravine and Boskloof Hike
- By themselves 4 km and 1 hour, can easily be combined to a 6 km hike, start at Rest Camp
- These are both out-and-back branches off the Wodehouse Peak Trail, so could be added on as short extensions
Cathedral Cave Hike
- 4 hours, guided only, start at Hotel
- Must be booked in advance, minimum 5 people, Dec-Oct only
Ribbok Hiking Trail
- Two days, 28 km, start at Hotel or Rest Camp
- Must be booked in advance
After we got back, we went on a game drive around one of the short loops in the park. It was 6.7 km, on tarred roads, speed limit 30 km/h. You can see a variety of antelope and birds. When we were there, the loop with the vulture restaurant was closed (4.2 km), but visit it if you can! There are also beautiful viewpoints on both loops.
We saw black wildebeest, zebra and mountain reedbuck on the Wodehouse Peak Trail.
Also in the park are eland, the rare little oribi, blesbok and springbok.
The rare bearded vulture can be seen, only found in the Drakensberg region. The bald ibis is another rare visitor.
Basotho Cultural Village
The Basotho Cultural Village, an outdoor living museum about Basotho culture over the centuries (you can also stay here! – see accommodation box). It’s a 25-minute drive to the east of the, and we visited on our way towards the main Drakensberg. Like everywhere we went, there were no other tourists.
A few minutes after our arrival at 2:30 pm, we got a tour with a guide. He took us around the village, an immersive experience. We visited the chief, tasted the strange beer, tried on costumes and had traditional music played to us. It was slightly awkward, but also very interesting. One of the most interesting parts was the display of rondavels that showed how Basotho architecture has changed over time, from the 16th century to the modern-day.
There was also a small museum and café/restaurant. The entire visit, including the slight detour from the main road, took about 1.5 hours.
After our tour and a drink in the café, we drove on through rolling hills to the Royal Natal National Park Rest Camp. The drive from Golden Gate Highlands NP to Royal Natal NP took at least two hours (excluding the Cultural Village). Google seemed to underestimate time by about 25% for all our drives in this region since once you head towards the Drakensberg, the road passes through many villages. There are bumps, children and livestock that you always have to slow down for. It was a super beautiful drive, as we got closer and closer to the high mountains, and the amphitheatre appeared before us.
Geology of Golden Gate Highlands National Park
There are three main geological layers/rock types in Golden Gate Highlands:
This makes up the lowest layer in the park. The mudstone is dark and often covered by grass on the lower slopes, below the sandstone cliffs above. It was deposited in slow-flowing rivers and swampy deltas about 200 million years ago. Mudstone is full of nutrients, and not very strong, so it never forms steep cliffs, but often is covered by grass.
This makes up the middle layer in the park. Sandstone is strong, so can form steep cliffs. Indeed, it is sandstone that makes up the orangey-pink rocks that form the famous cliffs of the park. The very top of the sandstone layer contains a lot of quartz. This is resistant to erosion and forms overhangs. This overhang can be seen at Mushroom Rock, and all around the Drakensberg region. The sandstone was deposited when the area was much drier, in desert conditions, 190-196 million years ago.
Basalt forms the highest layer in the park. It is much darker than the sandstone below and forms layer after layer of tough rock. It can be seen well from the Wodehouse Peak Trail, as you look across the valley. It erupted as molten rock, or lava, out of extensive volcanos, 160-190 million years ago.
You can also see a nice example of a dyke when you drive out the eastern side of the park. A dyke is a magma-filled crack that forced its way through the earth. In today’s landscape, dykes often cut straight across all other features, and through the layers of other rocks.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is located in the Free State, South Africa. It’s a 20-minute drive east of Clarens and at the northern edge of the Drakensberg Range. It’s 3 hrs from Bloemfontein, 3.5hrs from Johannesburg and 4 hrs from Durban.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is known for its spectacular scenery and great hikes. Dramatic orange sandstone cliffs combine with majestic views of the Drakensberg Mountains in the distance. It’s also one of the best places to see the rare Bearded Vulture.