Karoo National Park is a great arid park, perfect for a long weekend from Cape Town or a stop along the N1. The scenery is spectacular and there’s plenty of game viewing.
Karoo National Park is in Western Cape, roughly 5 hours from Cape Town along the N1 and 3-4 hours from the Garden Route. Karoo National Park is also a great first overnight stop if you’re heading on a long trip from Cape Town via the N1 e.g. to Johannesberg, Botswana or Zimbabwe. If you don’t have a car, check out the options for car hire* from Cape Town.
Karoo National Park Map
- The main gate is open 05:00 to 22:00 daily, reception open 07:00 to 19:00 and game areas 07:00 to 18:00 (1 April to 30 September) or 06:00 to 19:00 (1 October to 31 March).
- If you arrive after the reception closes, security at the main gate will have your keys.
- Restaurant open for breakfast (7-10 am) and dinner (6-9 pm)
- Shop selling basics and curious (7:30-20:00)
- There are no ATMs or fuel stations in the park itself, but these can be found very close by in Beaufort West.
- Summers can be very warm, winter nights quite cold.
- Camdeboo, Mountain Zebra, and Garden Route National Parks are all not so far away, so perfect for combining into a longer trip.
- Karoo National Park was the first stop on our 12-day Drakensberg Road Trip from Cape Town.
Evening of Arrival
It’s a good idea to arrive before sunset so that you can enjoy this from within the park. The mountains glow orange before the welcome chill of the evening arrives.
Full First Day
The following morning we (partially) drove the 45 km Potlekkerjie Loop. The first time in the Karoo we only had a little Chico Golf but the second time we had a Defender. The Potlekkerjie Loop is meant to be driveable in any car. However, the reception advised us that many people complained about the state of the road. So, the first time we only drove up the tarred section of the road to a viewpoint at the top. When we came back with our Defender we drove the entire loop, but agree that it would be difficult in a 2×2 car with low clearance.
After lunch at the campsite, we drove the 20 km, paved Lammertjiesleegte Loop. The density of game was higher here, though the scenery less spectacular than the Potlekkerjie Loop. A highlight was the amazing swimming pool at the Bulkraal Picnic Spot.
In the cool of the next morning, we ran twice around the ~ 2 km Sylvester trail, starting from the campsite. After this, we walked around the 400 m Fossil Trail. On our way out of the park we popped into the bird hide. The hide was nice but we didn’t see many birds.
I love the desert scenery of the Karoo National Park and will be back again, hopefully to drive the 4×4 Eco-Trails and stay in one of the remote cottages in the wilder section of the park. One day maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find the lions!
Hire a 4×4 for a Camping Trip
If you want to explore the entire park and like camping, you can rent a fully equipped 4×4 from Britz* from Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban. Some of their cars come with rooftop tents and other camping gear.
Accommodation in Karoo National Park
SANParks runs all the accommodation within Karoo National Park. There is a campsite, cottages and chalets at the main rest camp area, and two remote cottages in the wilder area of the park.
We stayed at the campsite in the park, once with a ground tent and once with a rooftop tent.
Camping is a great way to experience the Karoo night sky, and the Karoo National Park campsite has 24 decent-sized sites. They all have power and most sites have nice views of the surrounding mountains. At the camping, there is a useful kitchen with hobs, a kettle and a microwave! A washing machine and dryer are available, but tokens must be bought from the reception roughly 1 km away. It is often quite busy, especially on the weekends, so it’s best to book in advance.
Main Rest Camp Chalets and Cottages
Surrounding the park reception, cute white chalets and cottages dot the landscape. These all have at least a basic kitchen, and the larger ones have space for up to six people. Breakfast is included in the price.
Afsaal and Embizweni Cottages are located 35 and 45 km away from the main rest camp respectively. They both require a 4×4 with high clearance to get there and must be booked either by phone (023 415 2828 or 023 414 7080) or email ([email protected]). There is a minimum two-night stay and they are very popular, sometimes booked out for months at a time.
Accommodation outside of the park
If the park accommodation is full, there are plenty of options in nearby Beaufort West*.
Activities in Karoo National Park
Drives around the Park (map)
- 1. Potlekkerjie Loop – A 45 km mainly gravel loop through the park with spectacular scenery
- 2. Lammertjiesleegte Loop – A 10 km paved loop with a high concentration of wildlife
- 3. 4×4 Eco-Trails – Both short and long trails, some requiring a permit, all requiring a 4×4
4. Walks in the Main Rest Camp
- Fossil Trail – 400 m
- Sylvester Trail – ~ 2 km walk
- 5. Bulkraal Picnic Spot and Swimming Pool – on Lammewrtjiesleegte Loop, a great place for a swim
- 6. Bird Hide – on the edge of the main rest camp area
- Doornkraal Picnic Spot – halfway around Potlekkerjie Loop, a secret site underneath thick trees
- Guided Game Drives – morning and night drives are available, possibly a minimum of 4 people
- Old Schuur Interpretive Centre – just outside the western edge of the rest camp
1. Potlekkerjie Loop Drive
This 45 km drive took us a couple of hours but you could easily spend longer on this scenic drive. It’s advisable to have a high-clearance 4×4 car but any car could probably make it given enough time. If you don’t want to do the entire loop, it’s worthwhile to just drive the paved section of the route winding up the hillside of Klipspringer’s Pass. You reach a fantastic viewpoint at the top and can then return the same way.
Halfway around this loop is the Doornkraal picnic site where you can stretch your legs. As we drunk our tea, we were visited by a few vervet monkeys popping out of the thick, thorny canopy cover when we stopped here.
We saw a moderate amount of game, but not the lions which tend to hang out in the remoter sections of the park.
2. Lammertjiesleegte Loop Drive
This 10 km drive is entirely on tarred road, through a game-rich area of the park. We saw many ostriches, gemsbok, springbok, haartebeest, baboons and more. Bulkraal Picnic Spot is just off this route.
3. 4×4 Eco-Trails
The 4×4 Eco-Trails in Karoo National Park are in the remoter west of the park. To drive some of them, you need to get a permit from the reception and for all of them you need a 4×4 vehicle. The two remote cottages, Embizweni and Afsaal, are in this area so if you stay here you will probably be driving around these trails.
4. Walks in the Main Rest Camp
The Fossil Trail
The Fossil Trail is a roughly 400 m paved walkway in the centre of Karoo National Park, starting near the reception. It has examples of cool fossils found in the region. Along with the fossils are explanations of their age and the animals that lived here many millions of years ago.
It only takes 15 minutes to walk the Fossil trail, including reading the noticeboards about the fossils and geology. Most of the fossils are of therapsids – animals that existed before the dinosaurs. The Karoo is one of the best places in the world to see these unique fossils.
Geology of Karoo National Park
Around 300 million years ago, the area that is now the Karoo was a large basin covered with water, forming a large inland sea. Limestone and other shallow-water rocks formed in the basin. 200 million years ago, in the Jurassic Period, more sediments accumulated in the basin and squashed the sediments below, slowly turning them into rocks. About 10 km of rock accumulated in the Karoo Basin. These rocks contain fossils of the animals that lived in this region at that time.
Since then, most of the land in southern Africa has been pushed upwards by roughly 1000 m or more. This means what was formerly the Karoo Basin became a high point, and the rocks started eroding to form the rugged landscape that we see today.
The Sylvester Trail
The Sylvester Trail is a roughly 3 km loop in the Karoo Rest Camp. You can start the trail either at the reception or the campsite. The path winds its way between the two, including part of the Fossil Trail. You can also pop to the bird hide on the Sylvester Trail. The route returns slightly higher up on the other side of the road. The signs are not very clear for this route, but you can’t get too lost because you can always see the rest camp buildings.
5. Bulkraal Picnic Spot and Swimming Pool
We saw on the park map that there was a swimming pool at Bulkraal Picnic Spot (as well as a braai area and ablutions), but we were a bit doubtful at first since it was just in the middle of nowhere.
But unexpectedly, it was one of the most beautiful pools I’ve ever seen! It was very clean, quite big, surrounded by luscious grass and fantastic views.
This picnic spot is just off the Lammerjiesleegte Loop. Getting there requires driving a short section (a few hundred meters) of non-tarred route, but this is smooth gravel so any car could make it.
6. The Bird Hide
The Bird Hide is located on the edge of the Main Rest Camp. The best time to visit is the early morning or late evening. There are many weaver nests though we didn’t see much else.
Guidebooks to explore more of South Africa
Karoo National Park was our first stop on our 12-day Road Trip from Cape Town to the Drakensberg, where you can read more about the drive from Cape Town to the Karoo and beyond.