The true magic of Namibia lies in its wide-open spaces. In this vast country, you’ll encounter lonely landscapes of ancient deserts where dunes roll to the horizon, desolate shorelines come wreathed in morning fog and salt pans teem with rare antelope emerging from the shimmer of afternoon heat, plus rare corners where the desert relents and relaxes into lush riverine forests. 

You’re never short of a fine view just about anywhere in Namibia, but with easy self-drive access, affordable entry fees and a range of accommodations, the network of national parks offers perhaps the best way to discover the country’s enigmatic landscapes.

Here are the best national parks in Namibia.

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Wildlife watchers shouldn’t miss Etosha National Park

While not the largest park in the country, Etosha National Park is the best game reserve in Namibia and certainly the most famous one for spotting wildlife. Etosha’s diverse habitat of savanna and woodland plays host to a passing parade of fauna, including endangered rhinoceros, cheetah and an array of lesser-known antelope species. Ever wanted to spot a dik-dik, roan or black-faced impala? Etosha is just the place. The dry winter months of May to October are best for game viewing, as evaporation makes the animals cluster around permanent watering holes.

The highlight for most visitors is the eponymous Etosha Pan, a vast salt basin that stretches across 5000 sq km (1931 sq miles) to cover nearly a quarter of the national park. Bone-dry for much of the year, the pan fills with with summer rainfall from November to April, transforming it into a shimmering shallow lake that draws a remarkable array of animal and bird life.

Etosha National Park is an ideal option for self-driving travelers, with well-maintained gravel roads and a choice of accommodations. Five public resorts and campsites are spread across the park, from the luxury Dolomite Camp to the historic charm of Namutoni, a camp at the site of fort that dates back to 1897. At the larger camps such as Halali and Okaukuejo, you’ll find a good range of facilities, including a swimming pool, gas stations and restaurants. Guided game excursions are offered at most camps in the early morning and late afternoon.

A tourist walks on the scenic dunes of Sossusvlei, Namib desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia, Africa
The world’s oldest desert stretches out in all directions at Namib-Naukluft National Park © Fabio Lamanna / Shutterstock

Adventurous families will love Namib-Naukluft National Park

Covering some 49,000 sq km (18,919 sq miles), the ochre dunes of Namib-Naukluft National Park make up the heart of Namibia’s largest national park. In the world’s oldest desert, these sandy mounds have spent the last 55 million years marching inland from the Atlantic Ocean. 

Sossusvlei is the poster child for the park. This area is famous for towering dunes that reach as high as 325m (1066ft), and for the enigmatic Deadvlei, an area of desiccated camel-thorn trees, carbon-dated to more than 500 years old and forever rooted in a bone-dry pan of white clay.

The dunes come alive at dawn, and it pays to book a bed at Sossus Dune Lodge: because it’s  within the national park boundary, guests enjoy pre-dawn access that allows you to steal a march on those staying outside the park. Kids love climbing up the towering dunes and running screaming down from the top – but the best views of all are looking down on the dunes from a hot air balloon. Dawn flights soar above the grasslands of neighboring conservancies; splurge on an excursion with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris

While Sossusvlei is the highlight, Namib-Naukluft National Park has much more to discover. Carved by the Tsauchab River, Sesriem Canyon offers fascinating rock formations and walking trails, while the lagoon at Sandwich Harbor is one of Namibia’s most important coastal wetlands and a hotspot for birding. It’s best discovered on a guided 4x4 tour from Walvis Bay, 25km (15.5 miles) to the north. ​​With a 20-year track record, Tommy’s Living Desert Tours is one of the most respected operators in the region.

Head to Skeleton Coast National Park for unreal coastal landscapes and unique wildlife

Stretching for 500km (311 miles) along Namibia’s western coast, Skeleton Coast National Park is perhaps the most desolate corner of a country never short on lonely landscapes. Here, the sun beats mercilessly on rolling dunes and rocky canyons, while dense fog envelops the coast each morning. Through the gloom, the rusted ribs of ships litter the shoreline are visible, lending the national park its name.

The Skeleton Coast might seem empty – but there is plenty of life if you know where to look. With raucous barks and an overwhelming odor (be prepared to hold your nose), the sprawling seal colony at Cape Cross is hard to miss. On the gravel plains, the long-lived Welwitschia mirabilis is a wonder of the plant world. Though it has only two long, leathery leaves and grows in arid, sun-baked soils the oldest Welwitschia are estimated to be more than 2000 years old.

Offshore, look for Benguela dolphins and (from June to August) migrating humpback whales. Inland, the lucky might spot a brown hyena shuffling across the sand. Toward the Kaokoveld in the park’s the eastern reaches, the canyons and dry riverbeds are home to rhinos, desert-adapted elephants, lions and a diversity of antelope species. 

Day visitors are restricted to the dunes and shoreline south of Terrace Bay, so to fully appreciate the landscape you’ll need to spend a few nights. You’ll find public rest camps and campsites at Terrace Bay Resort and Torra Bay Camping Ground – but top of your wish list should be Shipwreck Lodge. Part of the conservation-minded Natural Selection portfolio of accommodations, Shipwreck has 10 striking timber suites perched on stilts above the high-water mark, like so much flotsam cast ashore by the turbulent Atlantic.

A paved path leads to a hot spring in |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, Namibia, Africa
A dip in hot springs is your reward after an arduous hike in |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park © Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park offers multi-day hikes and hot springs

Straddling South Africa and Namibia, the vast |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park conservation area is home to the Fish River Canyon, the second-largest on Earth. You can admire the canyon’s sinuous curves from the viewpoint near Hobas Lodge, though tackling the 85km (53-mile) multi-day hike is the best way to immerse yourself in this African natural wonder. 

The trail is open only in the cooler winter months of May to September, and hikers need to be self-sufficient in terms of food, shelter and equipment. It’s a long, tough trail aimed at experienced hikers, who are rewarded at the end with cold beers and hot mineral springs (“|ai-|ais” translates to “burning water” in the local Nama language). At the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Spa at the end point, weary hikers will be glad to soak in the soothing waters that burble into spacious indoor and outdoor pools.

A herd of greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) in the green bush of Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, Africa
Kudu antelopes are among the many delightful animals you’ll encounter in Bwabwata National Park © Karel Bartik / Shutterstock

Enjoy water, wildlife and birding Bwabwata National Park

In the northeastern Zambezi Region, Bwabwata National Park is one of Namibia’s newest national parks and shows an entirely different side of the country. The dunes and gravel plains so common across Namibia are replaced here by lush Kalahari woodlands and wide rivers. You’ll find large herds of elephant, buffalo and antelope within the park, and in the wet summer months you can spot up to 400 species of birds. 

Independent travel is challenging in Bwabwata, and you’ll need a 4x4 to explore much of the park. A handful of private lodges such as Nambwa Tented Lodge offer luxury accommodations, game drives, guided walks and boat cruises.

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