The Free State’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park is tucked away just east of South Africa’s centre, between the popular town of Clarens, Phuthaditjhaba, and the mountainous boundary of Lesotho.
Famous for its sandstone formations that change as the sun waxes and wanes, the Golden Gate National Park is awash with gullies, wooded ravines and grasslands, its sandstone rocks once home to the San who have left their paintings in the numerous caves of the area.
For whatever reason you visit, you will return.
Because Golden Gate Highlands National Park’s underrated beauty is enough to stupefy even the hard core traveller amongst us.
And unlike Kruger, at Golden Gate you’re free to roam at will – with no fear of predators.
Here are 12 secrets of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park that will have you visiting, tomorrow…
Golden Gate National Park won Park of the Year in 2016
At the SANParks Northern Region Achievements Awards ceremony.
The views are exceptional
We’ve already mentioned the understated beauty. But OMG, those mountains!
For those visitors who haven’t been before the sandstone formations ever changing hue is a surprise – clearly the park doesn’t have much of a marketing budget.
The game routes are a continuous source of spectacular scenery too, so if wild life is shy in coming forward, every corner will still supply a view.
And the mountains behind the park’s camp site, in particular, looks magnificent at sunset.
Entrance is free, if you’re just driving through (R712)
One passes through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the road between Harrismith and Clarens, and you’re not charged for the section through which you drive (even though it’s the most scenic drive in the Free State).
And you can take as long as you like driving it.
The Vulture Restaurant is well-worth a stop
No, this isn’t somewhere to sample vulture meat. It’s where carcasses are left for vultures so that we get to see them.
The park has a herd of wild horses
The story is that they were left behind by a Spanish circus way back in the 1930s.
If you enjoy walking and hiking, this is the park for you
Wodehouse, Brandwach Buttress (spectacular on the way up and down), the Holkrans Route (including Oupa Blackbeard’s memorial bench), Echo Ravine (45 minutes of walking, with some of the most incredible rock formations and views), Rhebok Trail (tough, 27 km, but incredible), and the short hikes from Glen Reenan.
Set aside a couple of days to truly experience the park’s walks. You can get a permit from reception, opposite the shop at Glen Reenan Rest Camp.
There is also a horse back trail through the mountains.
The potholes don’t deter from the beauty
The internal roads of the park, including the Blesbok and Oribi loops, are a little neglected, but you can still manage them with any vehicle – no need for a 4×4 .
Dinosaurs once roamed these parts
The sandstone of the park revealed 7 fossilised eggs to palaeontologists in the 1970s.
They come from the herbivore Massospondylus carinatus, a dinosaur from the Early Jurassic period – four metre long animals with thick tails, short forelimbs and long back legs.
These eggs date back 200 million years and are the oldest known dinosaur embryos on earth.
The Basotho Cultural Village is a beautiful place to visit
The rest camp’s traditional bungalows lie within a spectacular setting, with the rolling, game-rich veld just beyond your bedroom window (you might even spot a black-backed jackal or caracal if you’re patient), and some of the hikes and game drives of the park close by.
And even if the huts need a little TLC, the star lit skies at night more than make up for it with their brilliance.
Do the Wodehouse Peak hike
It’s a challenge, but the views are so breathtaking you won’t be sorry – 360 degree views out over the rolling rose-coloured mountains.
The 11 km round trip can take around four hours to complete, and it’s a tough climb.
Take plenty of sunblock, water and a hat as there isn’t terribly much shade – great in winter, when it’s cold in the park, but hot in summer.
Take the guided Cathedral Cave walk
Starting from the Noord-Brabant famhouse this walk takes in more than one cave.
The initial walk explores a kloof reaching a circular cave in which there is a deep pool.
It is through the icy waters of this pool that one reaches a ladder that takes one up and into Cathedral Cave, an incredible experience.
Clarens is only 23 km away
The road between the park and the popular weekend town is so full of rocky outcrops, you’ll be stopping every five minutes to take photographs.
Pack a picnic for the route and take your time.
Additional info about the Golden Gate Highlands National Park:
- Minimum number of days needed: 3 days
- Best places to Overnight? Stay in Clarens
- More about the park – See here