Think South Africa, and images of cloud-draped mountains, crashing blue seascapes, carpets of wildflowers, deep green canyons and sweeping velds flood the mind. This country is a vast land of wild natural beauty, filled with tucked-away valleys, surging rivers, magical waterfalls, and roiling surf – the best of which can only be reached on a hike.
South Africa boasts many multi-day hiking trails, some with truly luxurious lodgings and others more rustic, and walkers can set off on plenty of amazing day hikes as well. On some hikes you will need to purchase a permit ahead of time, and some trails require guides.
Nearly everywhere you go in South Africa, you are guaranteed striking foliage – much of it seen nowhere else on Earth – as well as wild animals ranging from zebra and wildebeest to springbok and eland (don’t worry: these trails don’t have lions or Cape buffalo on them). If you’re a birdwatcher, you’re in for a rare treat. With nearly 900 species fluttering through the air, thriving in a diversity of climates and landscapes, South Africa is one of the world’s best bird-watching destinations.
Here is a sampling of South Africa’s greatest hiking trails.
Rhebok Hiking Trail
Best summit hike
19-mile (31km) loop, 2 days, challenging
The slog up 9000-ft (2743m) Generaalskop mountain brings on the burn – there’s a reason Kneebrake and Hartbreek are among the ominously named geographical features you encounter along the way. But this popular two-day hike in Golden Gate Highlands National Park – South Africa’s only park to be created for the conservation of scenery – showcases such drop-dead gorgeous highveld scenery, arguably some of the country’s most breathtaking, that you won’t even feel the pain. Probably.
The first day covers 10 miles (16km), each step taking in rotating scenes of far-off peaks, steep-sided kloofs (ravines), rock pools perfect for swimming and roaring waterfalls. Once-prolific eland, springbok, zebra and the namesake grey rhebok have been reintroduced and run wild. Black eagles and jackal buzzards soar above. After an overnight at the riverside Rhebok Hut, the second day unfurls Generaalskop’s magnificence, with its top-of-the-world views into Lesotho, but only after a serious 3280ft (1000m) ascent on a trail that’s steep, narrow and rocky. After all this, some say the merciless descent is even more taxing.
Reservations must be made in advance with SANParks, with a maximum group of 18. Hikers must be older than 10.
If you don’t have two days or a desire to burn, the park has several shorter trails, including the easy, 2.4-mile (3.9km) Mushroom Rock Trail known for its wildflowers and the imposing, red-hued Mushroom Rock.
Best multi-day hike
28 miles (45km), 5 days, moderate
The Otter Trail is South Africa’s most iconic multi-day hike. It’s also the country’s oldest trail, turning 50 in 2022. Winding along the Garden Route’s spectacular rocky coastline between the Storms River mouth and Nature’s Valley, the Otter Trail takes in sweeping blue sea vistas, indigenous coastal forests, tidal pools, empty sand beaches, rich fynbos (vegetation unique to the southern tip of Africa, featuring featherlike trees and shrubs) and the chance to spot the trail’s shy namesake, the Cape clawless otter, which lives along rivers and sometimes can be seen scavenging in shallow surf. Spouting whales and cavorting dolphins can be spotted too. There are steep ascents and descents and 11 river crossings, with the main technical difficulty being the Bloukrans River crossing, which you must swim across and then scramble up a rope on the other side. The sound of lapping waves lull you to sleep at night in the seaside log huts.
You can hike the Otter Trail year-round, but October to April are the warmest months and also feature blooming wildflowers. The minimum age allowed on the trail is 12, and the oldest is 65. Bookings must be made through SANParks, and only 12 people can start the trail every day. Reservations are taken up to a year in advance.
If you can’t get booked on the Otter Trail, try the Waterfall Trail, which takes you along the first part of the Otter Trail. The Dolphin Trail is another good option, which is easier, with more luxurious accommodations, than the Otter Trail but with the same gorgeous scenery. At Garden of Eden, a half-mile (800m) trail wanders along a wheelchair-friendly wooden boardwalk, exploring a fairytale world of giant lichen-covered trees and burbling streams.
Blyderivierspoort Hiking Trail
Best canyon hike
37 miles (60km), 5 days, challenging
There are canyons, and then there are canyons. The dramatic Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga province is the planet’s third largest, and the world’s largest green canyon, dominated by subtropical vegetation. Carved by the Blyde River (recently renamed Motlatse) in the northern Drakensberg escarpment, the canyon can be explored many different ways, including driving the famous Panorama Route. But to get into the canyon and soak in its essence at river level, opt for the Blyderivierspoort Hiking Trail (aka Blyde River Canyon Trail). This geological dance from God’s Window to Swadini takes you past rock pools, waterfalls (more than anywhere else in South Africa) and fanciful rock formations brightly colored with lichen. The views of the lowveld (open, grassy expanses) are spectacular. Keep an eye out for baboons, grey rheboks, duikers and klipspringers.
Bookings are essential through the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency. An organized trip is recommended for those not familiar with the route. Accommodations range from camping under the stars to simple huts and comfy cottages. It’s possible to take two- and three-day hikes as well.
Leopard’s Kloof Hiking Trail
Best hike for families
1.8-mile (3km) loop, 90 minutes, moderate
A tree near the start of this circular trail, in the Western Cape’s Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens, has suspicious-looking leopard scratches, which allegedly is how it got its name. Chances are that you won’t see any leopards in the daytime, but they’re still around, mostly at night. What you will see are magnificent vistas as you make your way up through the forested kloof (ravine) alongside a murmuring stream, with views of the sparkling Atlantic opening up the higher you go. Finally, you reach the pièce-de-resistance: Leopard’s Kloof waterfall crashing into an idyllic pool. In summer (mid-December to late January), the famous red disa blooms in all its glory at the waterfall’s base, accenting the mosses and lofty cliffs.
Parents will appreciate that this trail is well-marked and easy to follow, while smaller kids will love the sense of adventure that comes with several river crossings and wooden ladders that must be climbed to reach the waterfall.
The trail is located at the far end of the botanical gardens. Before you start be sure to ask for the key at the main entrance. If you have time, you’ll also want to explore the 440-acre gardens, cradled in an idyllic spot between the slope of the Kogelberg and Betty’s Bay, at the heart of the coastal fynbos, a floral profusion including ericas, restios, and king proteas, the national flower. A tearoom offers light snacks.
Olifantsbos Shipwreck Trail
Best history hike
1.8 miles (3km) round-trip, 1.5 hours, easy
In the 15th century, King John II of Portugal changed the name of “Cape of Storms,” the cape south of Cape Town, to “Cape of Good Hope,” but he really should have stuck with the original, given the 3000-some shipwrecks strewn among its icy depths. Several trails in Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve wind along the splendidly rugged shoreline, providing excellent vantage points of the remains of different wrecks. The yellow-marked Olifantsbos Shipwreck Trail, also called the Thomas T. Tucker Trail, is a short, easy hike filled with history.
Starting off from the Olifantsbos parking area, you delve into the unique fynbos floral kingdom, where some 8700 species of heather-like trees and shrubs – including the protea, South Africa’s national flower – thrive in a narrow Western Cape pocket. Keep a look out for ostrich, Cape mountain zebra and red hartebeest. At Olifantsbos Beach, you come to the prominent, rusting scraps of the US Liberty ship Thomas T. Tucker. En route to the African Front during World War II, it crashed on Albatross Rock while hugging the foggy coastline to avoid German U-Boat detection (everyone survived). The hull is still visible in the surf, and it’s a popular diving spot.
Spend time on the isolated beach exploring the sea-creature-filled rock pools and watching for African black oystercatchers with their long legs and bright red beaks. You can also extend the hike to the Nolloth, which wrecked in 1965, and inland to Sirkelsvlei, a spring-fed wetland.
Platteklip Gorge Trail
Best urban hike
1.2 miles (2km) one way, 1 to 3 hours, moderate
A Capetonian weekend typically involves a morning hike up 3562ft (1086m) Table Mountain, the flat-topped mountain overlooking Cape Town, with brunch reservations back in Cape Town by 11am. Among several splendid trails, the most iconic – and most direct – is Platteklip Gorge. The mountain’s oldest trail, it’s well-marked and good for first-timers. While the beginning is fairly flat, the last part pushes up a protea-dotted ravine, straight up with no mercy. Thankfully, you have a good excuse to stop often, to look at the city panorama with the sparkling ocean beyond, a view that gets better and better the higher you go. The rich diversity of plant life here – part of the unique Cape Floral Region – embraces some 2220 plant species, including 1470 floral species, 70% of which are endemic to the area. At the top, you can enjoy a refreshing drink or snack at the restaurant and then either hike back down or jump a ride on the famous cableway.
For those without brunch reservations, other options include the 1.5-mile (2.5km) India Venster Trail, which follows the cable car route, offering some of the city’s best views; and the more leisurely 4-mile (6.2km) Skeleton Gorge Trail through a jungly ravine to the mountain’s summit at Maclears Beacon.
Rim of Africa
Best bucket list hike
403 miles (650km), 61 days, challenging
The epic Rim of Africa trail – South Africa’s longest mountain trail – undulates along the valleys and crests of the Cape Fold Mountain range, from the Cederberg to the Outeniqua mountains. Be warned: this hike is not for the unprepared or inexperienced. You bring in your own gear, set up your camp and suffer under the weight of your own backpack. But the rewards are worth it. You are treated to sightings of mountain caves, rock pools, wild fynbos splendor, hidden valleys, green pastures and crystal-clear streams. You are lost in the wilds of one of the world’s most special floral kingdoms. If you’re seeking to escape the rat race, Rim of Africa is your calling.
A guide is needed for this hike because it crosses private lands, and locals offer guiding services. Thru-hikes take place in spring (mid-September to mid-November), the ideal time to enjoy the flowering Cape Mountains. You can also tackle sections (called traverses), from 37 to 57 miles (60 to 92kms) each, rather than the whole thing at once.
Steenbok Flower Trail
Best hike for flower spotting
8.6 miles (14km), 5 hours, easy
Namaqualand is famed for its dizzying springtime display of wildflowers, transforming roadsides, vast fields and enormous scrublands into the most beautiful natural garden on Earth. And it’s not just about the beauty in numbers; it’s about the sheer variety of species that bloom. All in all, there are more than 3500 species of flowering plants, including the celebrated African daisy, with about 1000 of the species found nowhere else on the planet. One of the best places to walk among this floral spectacle is the Steenbok Trail, in West Coast National Park. The trail is open only in August and September at the height of springtime bloom. An added bonus: the eland, springbok, wildebeest, springbok and zebra that stand in the flowers like Ferdinand the Bull.
The bad news? You need a coveted permit to hike the Steenbok Flower Trail. Contact the Geelbek Information Centre on 022-707-9902/3. Bookings open in June. The good news? If you have a permit, you’ll feel like you have the trail all to yourself.
But this trail is not just about the flowers. The national park, open year-round, also has remote beaches with turquoise waters and striking granite outcrops. You can even whale-watch from the braai and picnic spots along the coast. There are other spectacular trails to consider, too, including the 2.7-mile (4.5km) Bakoor Trail, offering vistas of Langebaan lagoon; and the 5.5-mile (9km) Geelbek Short Day Walk that explores spectacular dunes.
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