By Vicky · Published Mar. 4th, 2021 · Updated Nov. 23rd, 2022
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 are plenty of accommodation options: Glen Reenen Rest Camp with rondavels and camping, Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets, or more remote accommodation in the mountains.
You need a car to get here. If you don’t have a car, check out the options for car hire in South Africa*. 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. We visited Golden Gate National Park on 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. If you arrive afterwards you have to collect your key from either the Glen Reenen petrol station or Golden Gate Hotel nearby.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park Map
- 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 were 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.
Activities in Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The main activity in Golden Gate Highlands National Park is hiking, but there are also several other options. Read about all the activities and see our itinerary below.
- Hiking on the park’s many beautiful trails
- Wildlife viewing
- Discovering the Basotho Cultural Village
- Learn about the geology of the Drakensberg
- Other activities: Swimming, horse riding and mountain biking
1. 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
- Each 4 km and 1 hour, but 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
2. Wildlife Viewing
You can see many animals while hiking and we saw black wildebeest, zebra and mountain reedbuck on the Wodehouse Peak Trail. There are also two dedicated game drive loops. Although the main road through the park is free to drive (since it’s a state highway), you have to pay park conservation fees before driving either of these loops. Apart from game, there are some beautiful viewpoints on both these game drives. Both routes are tarred and the speed limit is 30 km/hr. If you have a bike you can also cycle these routes.
Antelope you can see include eland, the rare little oribi, blesbok and springbok. Additionally, the rare bearded vulture, which only lives in the Drakensberg region, can be seen if you’re lucky. The bald ibis is another rare visitor, and the vulture feeding point on the Oribi Loop is the best place to try and see these birds.
Oribi Loop, 4.6 km
The Oribi Loop is one-way and you must start 2.2 km east of reception, driving clockwise. Halfway around the loop there’s a vulture feeding point. You can park your car and walk a short distance to the bird hide. Carcasses are left to attract the vultures. The rare bearded vultures can occasionally be seen, and the best time for them is the early mornings. Not far after the vulture point is a great viewpoint over the Drakensberg.
Blesbok Loop. 8.8 km
The Blesbok Loop is also one-way and you must start about 800 m east of the reception, driving anti-clockwise. There are several viewpoints on this drive including Langtoon Dam Viewpoint, Zuluhoek Viewpoint and Generaalskop Viewpoint right at the top.
3. Basotho Cultural Village
The Basotho Cultural Village is an outdoor living museum about Basotho culture over the centuries (you can also stay here! – see accommodation box). It’s nestled up against some beautiful cliffs in a lovely area and it’s worth visiting for the views alone. It’s a 25-minute drive to the east of the park. We visited on our way to the main Drakensberg area since it’s in that direction. Our entire visit, including the slight detour from the main road, took about 1.5 hours
You must go on a tour to visit, which is arranged when you arrive. You might have to wait a couple of minutes for the tour guide but there’s a cafe and restaurant onsite where you can relax, plus a small museum and shop.
Shortly after we arrived, our tour guide took us around the village in 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.
4. Learn about the Geology of Golden Gate Highlands
There are three main geological layers/rock types in Golden Gate Highlands and from the hikes and viewpoints you can see them quite nicely.
1. Mudstone: 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.
2. Sandstone: 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. The sandstone was deposited when the area was much drier, in desert conditions, 190-196 million years ago.
3. Basalt: This forms the highest layer in the park. It is much darker than the sandstone below and forms layer after layer of tough rock. 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.
5. Other activities in Golden Gate
Swimming: There’s a natural rock pool for swimming about 250 metres walk from Glen Reenen Rest Camp. It’s often quite (very) cold.
Horse riding: You can go horse riding in the park and you don’t need any experience. Children are given small ponies and you can admire the scenery from the back of a horse rather than walking. There are often several rides per day.
Mountain biking: You can cycle around the game driving loops and along the main (but often not busy) road through the park. The game drive loops are both paved, so you can also cycle on a road bike.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park Itinerary
There are plenty of things to do in Golden Gate National Park, so it’s best to stay at least two nights so you can spend three days within the park. We spent only one night and two days in the park, but I wish we had stayed longer. Read below to discover what we did during our time in the park.
Day 1: Arrival and short hike
Arrival at the Park in the afternoon
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.
Beautiful 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 early evening/late afternoon is a perfect time for this walk.
Day 2: Hike, game drive and Basotho Village
The next morning, we hiked the wonderful Wodehouse Peak Trail, 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.
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.
Basotho Cultural Village
Following on from the game drive, we headed to the Basotho Cultural Village (see box below). It’s a 25-minute drive to the east of the park.
Driving Onwards to Royal Natal National Park
After our tour and a drink in the café at the Basotho Cultural Village, we drove on through rolling hills to the Royal Natal National Park Rest Camp. The drive took about 2 hours. Read more about the rest of our Drakensberg Trip or our next destination, Royal Natal National Park.
Accommodation in Golden Gate Highlands National Park
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 a 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) 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, a quaint town 25 minutes away, offers additional accommodation outside the park, some very good value.
The Campsite at Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The campsite at Golden Gate is just across the road from Glen Reenen Rest Camp, the main centre of the national park and where many hikes start. The camping area is on lovely flat grass with beautiful trees just next to a river. There are communal ablutions and a small shared kitchen building (more of a shelter from the cold/wind than a kitchen with facilities). The campsite does not have electricity.
It was very cold in the evenings when we were there (May). The sun disappears early from the campsite since it’s at the bottom of the valley, and it’s at roughly 2000 m elevation. Make sure to bring enough warm clothes and blankets! In May the campsite was almost empty despite the beautiful weather, as May is not a popular time to visit this region.
After our tour and a drink in the café at the Basotho Cultural Village, 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.
Guidebooks to explore more of South Africa
FAQS: Golden Gate National Park
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.
The name comes from the brilliant, gold and red colours that reflect off the cliffs within the park, especially at sunrise and sunset. At the Brandwag Rock, a prominent cliff within the park, the valley is quite narrow so looks a bit like a gate, with golden rocks on either side.
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.
There are at least two species of rare birds in the park – Bald Ibis and Bearded Vultures – that you might catch a glimpse of if you’re lucky.