Johannesburg

Hiking trails - 10 of South Africa's most incredible hikes

10 Sep 2020
Looking out towards the Ampitheatre, Drakensberg Mountains
Looking out towards the Ampitheatre, Drakensberg Mountains
Photo by SA Tourism
From the majestic peaks of the Drakensberg mountains to the dramatic seascapes of the Cape coastline, plus of course that most famous mountain of them all, Table Mountain, South Africa is a hiker's paradise with some truly iconic hiking trails.

While the Gauteng region has loads of great hikes to enjoy on a day trip (find our comprehensive guide to all of our favourites here) to really get stuck into a hiking holiday, you need to go further afield.

Whether you are looking to summit the most famous peaks or are dreaming of days hiking the coast followed by nights by the fire in a remote cottage, here are ten of the most incredible hiking trails in South Africa that we've got our eyes on.

THE GARDEN ROUTE

The Otter Trail

The Otter Trail on the Garden Route in the Western Cape is officially the oldest hiking trail in South Africa and also one of the most famous. The five-day trail follows the spectacular stretch of coastline between the Storms River mouth and the stunning beach at Nature’s Valley, crossing a variety of streams and estuaries along the way and taking in ancient forests, canyons, tidal pools, majestic cliffs and remote beaches. Hikers tackling the Otter Trail must be well prepared and especially so for the river crossings which, depending on water levels and tides, may require you to swim across with your backpack (meaning you will need a 'survival bag' to keep your backpack dry). Accommodation is in hiking huts (for a capacity of up to 12 people) along the route, that are famous for being situated in the most scenic locations.
 
Photo by SANParks

Length and difficulty: The Otter Trail is a 5-day, 45km hike. This is a moderately difficult hike with some tricky river crossings and some very steep sections that involve scrambling.
Booking: Prior booking is absolutely essential and given the somewhat iconic 'bucket list' nature of this trail among hikers, both locally and internationally, you will need to book long in advance, sometimes even up to a year, though it is worth keeping an eye out for last-minute cancellations. All booking is via SANParks, find out more and book at the SANParks website here where you can also check availability on the trail.
Where: starts at Storms River Mouth and ends at Nature's Valley, Garden Route, Western Cape.

The Outeniqua Trail

Also based in the Garden Route, this gruelling 7-day trail traces a route through the ancient milkwood forests of the Outenqiua Mountains between Knysna and George. Dipping up and down (often quite steeply) through the treed valleys, the solitude of the forest, the magic of its ancient ferns and the views from the mountaintop clearings make it all worth it and at the end of the day you should find some firewood waiting at the mountain hut for an evening fire under the stars. Those with a passion for endurance long-distance trail running can also join in the Outeniqua Quest trail run organised by Trisport.
 
Photo by Outeniqua Quest trail run, trisport.co.za. 

Length and difficulty: The Outeniqua Trail is a 7-day, 108km hike which requires some serious fitness, especially as you will need to carry a lot of supplies for a week's hiking. However it is also possible to tackle different sections of the trail as one-day loops. The SANParks office in Knysna will be able to help you with maps and advice about one day trails in the Outenqiua area.
Booking: Email specialisedreservations@sanparks.org or call +27 12 426 5111 to make booking enquiries.
Where: The hike starts at Beervlei and ends at Hakerville Coast, Garden Route, Western Cape.

THE OVERBERG

The Whale Trail

At the right time of year you could be spotting whales just off the coastline on every day of this 5-day trek along the coastline of the gorgeous De Hoop Nature Reserve, near Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point of Africa). The relatively gentle trail (you should still be prepared to be walking at least 10km a day for five days in a row and sometimes on soft sand) winds its way along the coast, taking in remote pristine white sand beaches and rock pools that will have you wanting to leave earlier and earlier every day so you can spend more time relaxing. Overnight accommodation is in well-equipped stone houses, often with a breathtaking view of the waves crashing. Even better yet, there's also a 'slackpacking' option, meaning you can pay extra to have your bags brought over to the next hut.
 
Overnight accommodation on the Whale Trail. Photo by Cape Nature

Length and difficulty: The Whale Trail is a 5-day, 55km hike with relatively easy walking days and few sections of steep elevation.
Booking: You can book the trail here via the Cape Nature website or call the Cape Nature Booking Office on +27 21 483 0000. Note that as at September, 2020 the trail was temporarily closed for maintenance.
Where: The trail starts at Potberg (near Malgas) in the Overberg, Western Cape.

DRAKENSBERG MOUNTAINS
The Giant's Cup

The perfect mountain trail for multi-day trekking first-timers. It's not as daredevil as other more famous treks that involve chain ladders, ropes and inching along rock ledges, and there's hutted accommodation available on every night (something to particularly look forward to if you happen to get caught in a mountain storm). However, as with all multi-day hikes, and especially those in the mountains, you need to be fit (preferably having done some long one and two-day hikes recently to train) and ready to carry a backpack for several days. Covering 59km over 5 days, the terrain is varied as you walk through and over the valleys of the Drakensberg with some outstanding mountain panoramas, grassy plains and cool mountain streams and rock pools. Trail runners can also register to join the epic Giant's Cup Trail Run.
 
Photo by The Giants Cup trail run

Length and difficulty: 59km over 5 days, this is a moderately difficult hike though some say still slightly less strenuous than similar length treks like the Otter Trail. It is also possible to hike shorter sections of the trail (note that you must book a minimum of two nights accommodation in two different huts). This excellent official guide booklet by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife outlines all the routes and how to tackle them.
Booking: Make sure to book well in advance and bear in mind you will also need to arrange transport to get you to the start of the trail. You can book by phone at +27 33 845 1000, or email  bookings@kznwildlife.com
Where: Situated in the Southern Region of the Maloti Drakensberg Park, the trail begins 6km from the Premier Resort Sani Pass and finishes at the Bushman’s Nek Hut, 2.5km from the Bushman’s Nek Resort. 

The Amatola trail

Not for the faint-hearted, this 6-day trek is marketed as “The Toughest Hike in South Africa”. Starting near King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape it crosses the Hogsback Mountains and ends in the delightful and secluded mountain town of Hogsback. The route takes in ruggedly beautiful and remote mountain terrain over 100 challenging kilometres with lots of secret swimming spots, cascading waterfalls, pristine indigenous rainforests and pretty mountain flora along the way.

This is a trail that you will need to make sure you are very well trained for. Even experienced hikers have found themselves worn out by the daily steep inclines that the route traces through this glorious mountain landscape. Fortunately, the mountain huts at the end of each section are well equipped and offer wonderful views to enjoy while you tend to your blisters.
Photo by Amatola Trails

Length and difficulty: 100km over 6 days. This is ''The Toughest Hike in South Africa" which should be everything you need to know if you are thinking about taking it on.
Booking: The Amatola Trails will reopen to the public on December 1, 2020 for groups of up to 13 hikers. You can find out more and book online at amatolatrails.co.za
Where: The trail starts at Maden Dam near King Williams Town and finishes in Hogsback village.

Golden Gate Highlands Park

Close to Clarens in the Free State, most visitors to this famous section of the Drakensberg come to enjoy the gentle one or two hour walks up the foot of the mountain to see interesting rock formations like the Mushroom Rock and Echo Ravine. For something longer and more adventurous, leave early and keep your eye on the weather for the Wodehouse Trail, a moderate four to five-hour hike to the summit of the Wodehouse Peak (2,200m) from where you can enjoy incredible views. Be careful on your descent, the path down is not entirely well marked and there is a section which involves descending via very steep steps carved into the cliffside which will test your nerves and any tired legs. There is also a 28km two-day hike, the Ribbok Trail, which sets off through the same mountains with an overnight hut along the way.
 
Clouds forming over Wodehouse peak

Length and difficulty: With a choice of different trails this is great for novices. The Wodehouse Trail is likely more challenging than you think it will be.

Booking: Pay your entrance fees at the SANParks gate. The Ribbok Trail needs to be booked well in advance. Call+27 58 255 1000 or email Goldengate@sanparks.org to enquire about booking the overnight trail. Day hikers can find a great choice of accommodation in nearby Clarens or you can book to stay at the spectacular SANParks mountain chalets.
Where: 19km from Clarens

Royal Natal National Park

One of the grandest vistas in the Drakensberg, the immense Ampitheatre, is a 5km curtain of rock face on the border of Lesotho that is topped by the epic Tugela Falls that cascade down its lofty heights. The climb to the top of The Amphitheatre (an altitude of over 3,000m) is always high on the bucket list of dedicated mountaineers and is one for those with strong legs and nerves of steel. The hike requires at least five to six hours and a good head for heights as you will have to square up to tackling dozens of rungs of chain ladders nailed right into the rock face. The alternate to the chain ladder route is to summit via the gully, which is said to be a very strenuous clamber over and around boulders. Either way, once at the top the view is all laid out before you, including the incredible Tugela Falls which drops for some 1,000 metres. The paths can be relatively difficult to follow and it is highly recommended that if you are planning to tackle the summit you go with a guide.
 
Looking over the clouds on the top of the Ampitheatre. Photo by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife


There are a number of lodges and backpackers within a 30-minute drive of the park, although the best place to stay by far is within the park itself at the award-winning Thendele (managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) which offers one, two and three-bed self-catering chalets with the best views of the mountain.

Length and difficulty: The hike to the top of The Amphitheatre is as mentally challenging as it is physically, nerves are required for that push up the ladders. The park does also have a number of easier day trails that last anything from one to five hours and which explore the valleys and gorges around the mountain.
Booking: There is no need to book to head up the day trail. To stay at Thendele get your reservations in early at royalnatal.info/thendele-reservations
Where: Near Bergville in the Northern Drakensberg

CAPE TOWN
Table Mountain

Without a doubt the most famous mountain in South Africa! There are numerous ways to hike up this iconic mountain and they vary greatly in terms of the skills and fitness required. There have been known to be muggings on Table Mountain and unfortunately security is an ongoing problem so it is not recommended to hike alone. On the more challenging trails sadly many unprepared hikers have had accidents and even died from falling. As ever with the Table, you need to keep in mind the weather, if the cloud is streaming down from the top, it's not a good day to hike. If you are unsure we recommend going with someone who has hiked the trail before or better yet go with a registered guide who can also tell you about the unique flora and geology of the area.
 
Views from Table Mountain by SA Tourism

The easiest route is the Platteklip Gorge which is essentially a very very long and steep stairway up the mountain that should take around two hours to tackle (depending how often you stop). It's a lovely trail and the most popular with Capetonians so you'll meet plenty of hikers along the way on a good weather day. The Skeleton Gorge route starts at the other side of the mountain in the glorious Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (you’ll need to pay the regular entry fee) and climbs through the forests getting steadily steeper. It's only 3km (!) and most of it is by stairway, but you are going pretty much straight up so give yourself three to four hours and make sure you have lots of water and snacks (and stamina, this shouldn't be attempted by those who are not fit). If you are too tired, remember you can always take the cablecar down again once you reach the top. 

Length and difficulty: The easiest route can be tackled by most moderately fit people in around two hours, other more challenging trails require a much higher level of fitness. All can be tackled in half a day or so.
Booking: No booking is required to hike the trail on your own. Bear in mind if you are too tired to walk back down you might want to buy a single ticket for the Cableway.

MAGALIESBERG MOUNTAINS
Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

An ideal destination for an overnight weekend hike if you live in Joburg and have already done all the gentler walks through the Magaliesberg mountains and are looking for something moderately more difficult. There are two overnight trails to follow, though the 25km Summit Trail is the most convenient as it is circular and will lead you back to where you parked on day two.

Like much of the Magaliesberg this is a really rather rocky trail that demands steady feet. You will be rewarded by great views across the plains below towards the Pilanesberg and a definite highlight on warm days is the chance to take a dip in one of the rock pools along the way. If you would rather drive back to sleep in your own bed and enjoy a hot shower afterwards, there are also one-day hikes within the reserve. 

Length and difficulty: A relatively easy 25km two-day hike with some mild inclines and a fair bit of rock scrambling.
Booking: To book overnight accommodation on the trail email rdinale@nwptb.co.za or kgaswane@mweb.co.za, or call +27 14 533 2050 / +27 14 533 0397. The mountain hut sites can accommodate up to 12 hikers.
Where: The trail starts from the reserve entrance on Helen Joseph Dr, Cashan, Rustenburg

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK
Kruger Park walking safaris

Many think of a 'hike' as the chance to go up, enjoy the view from the top, and then to go down again. But what about a guided nature trek that is less about what waits at the summit and more about what is hiding around the next tree? South Africa is one of the only places in the world where you can join a multi-day 'walking safari' through the wilderness. Covering up to 20km on foot a day, this is no mere walk in the wild, it is a trek of note, where the experience revolves around the thrill of wildlife as well as the interesting scenery. 
 
Walking safari in the Kruger Park. Photo by Siyabonga Africa

The Kruger National Park offers a selection of three-day guided wilderness walking safari trails through some of the least visited areas of this vast park, which include overnight accommodation in a tented camp on route.

Booking: There is a choice of seven different trails to book for and each trail can accommodate up to eight hikers (sleeping in four tented huts). Check availability and make bookings here on the SANParks website.

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