Golden retreat in the Maloti Mountains
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is South Africa’s only grasslands national park. Famed for its golden-hued sandstone sentinels, Golden Gate offers nature lovers some unusual outdoor pursuits on foot, bike or horse back in archetypal north-eastern Free State scenery.
The Sentinel formation, Golden Gate National Park
© South African Tourism
Did you know?
Fossilised dinosaur eggs from the Triassic period were found in Golden Gate Highlands National Park in 1973.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the western foothills of the Maloti-Drakensberg conserves 34 000ha of unique grasslands habitat.
Loved for its unusual scenery, the Golden Gate reserve, which is equidistant from Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, is the ideal escape for those longing to stretch their legs, breathe fresh mountain air, and allow nature to restore their balance.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park, in the north-eastern Free State, unfolds a fascinating geological heritage though its coloured lichens, mineral seepages and multi-coloured bands of rock.
Millions of years ago, the area was a swampy delta ruled by dinosaurs. Later, wind and sand scoured the landscape to desert, and sculpted the park’s renowned golden-coloured cliffs.
Finally, volcanic activity capped the landscape with dark peaks, known as Drakensberg basalt, and mineral-rich soils gave rise to the vast multi-species grassland biome for which the park was proclaimed – there are more than 50 species of grass in the park.
Today black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbuck and Burchell’s zebra graze its wild dappled pastures, and rare bearded vultures circle the skies above the lost pathways of the San hunter-gathers who once dwelt in its caves.
Explore the largest of these, the Cathedral cave, on a guided walk. In this cavern, where Basotho worshippers and Anglo-Boer war refugees once sought shelter in their own times, a colony of rare sacred ibis breeds.
Golden Gate adjoins QwaQwa National Park, and is earmarked to be incorporated into the Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area that will extend from the Eastern Cape, through the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, and into the Free State and the neighbouring nature reserves of Lesotho.
For glorious views, hike up the Brandwag Buttress, or Ribokkop, the highest point in the park; overnight in the wilderness on the 2-day, 1-night Rhebok Hiking Trail; visit the vulture restaurant; horse ride, mountain bike or go on a game drive, windows down; and make time to stop so you can absorb the park’s panoramic views and magnificent stillness.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
From Johannesburg: take the N3 Heidelberg/Durban road. Cross the Vaal River before Villiers, and take the left slipway onto the R26. Turn right at the bridge that crosses over the N3. Follow the R26 to Frankfort. Turn right at the T-junction before Frankfort. Pass Frankfort, and cross the Wilge River. At the Reitz/Tweeling signboard, turn left. Follow the R26, driving straight through Bethlehem on the N5 Durban road. About 5km out of Bethlehem, turn right onto the Clarens/Golden Gate road (R712).
From Durban: follow the N3 from Durban to Harrismith. Take the N5 to Kestell, and then to Bethlehem. Before Bethlehem, look out for the Clarens/Golden Gate (R712) turn-off. Turn left and follow the road to the park.
From Bloemfontein: follow the N1 to Winburg; turn right onto the N5 to Bethlehem. Drive through Bethlehem and turn right onto the N5 Durban road. About 5km out of Bethlehem, turn right onto the Clarens/Golden Gate road (R712).
Alternatively, take the N8 Ladybrand route. This is longer, but more scenic, and takes you through the towns of Clocolan and Ficksburg.
Around the area
Trout fishing, golf, hot-air ballooning, white water rafting, motor, quad or mountain bike rides, and visiting the artists’ village of Clarens.
Tours to do
A visit to the BaSotho cultural village in QwaQwa National Park enables you to meet the people who call these mountains home.
Length of stay
Golden Gate is suitable for anything from a half-day excursion to a week-long stay.
What to pack
Golden Gate is prone to sudden changes in weather. Summer is mild and dry, often with afternoon thunderstorms (September to April). Winters are cold, and temperatures can plunge to -15 ?C. Snow is a regular occurrence in the park. It being mountainous, winds can sometimes be severe.
Pack sturdy walking shoes, cool, light clothing for summer, and warm clothing for winter. Hikers require a hat, sun block and sufficient water. A camera and binoculars are recommended.
Where to stay
Stay at the newly renovated Brandwag Hotel, or go for self-catered rondavels (circular huts), guest cabins or camping at the Glen Reenan Rest Camp. Escape 2 200m above sea-level to the secluded eco-log cabins of Highlands Mountain Retreat, or stay in the historic Noordt Brabant self-catering guest house – all inside the park. Trendy, nearby Clarens has plenty of accommodation too.
What to eat
Try a traditional lunch when you go on a cultural tour of the Basotho village in QwaQwa National Park. Stop at farm stalls en-route for homemade goods and fresh farm produce. Clarens offers food from Free State Boerekos (farmer’s food) to euro-café snack-chic.
The annual cherry festival takes place in Ficksburg around November; the Clarens Mountain Bike Challenge happens in August; and Fouriesberg hosts an asparagus festival around September.
The clear light of the Eastern Free State has attracted many renowned artists to Clarens. You'll find their work in a number of galleries in the town.