Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State
Did you know?
Fossilised dinosaur eggs from the Triassic period were found in Golden Gate Highlands National Park in 1973.
Loved for its unusual scenery and renowned for its golden aura as the sun illuminates its sandstone cliffs and outcrops, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State province lies equidistant from Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein, and is the ideal escape for those longing to stretch their legs, breathe fresh mountain air and allow nature to restore their balance.
Situated in the western foothills of the Maluti Mountains, close to the Lesotho border, Golden Gate is South Africa's only grassland national park.
The park's most notable features, aside from its variety of resident grasses, are its extraordinary sandstone cliffs and outcrops – coloured in multi-hued bands and eroded by the sands and rains of time.
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, springbok 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 the park's 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.
Hike up the Brandwag buttress, or Ribokkop, the highest point in the park; spend the night in the wilderness on the two-day, one-night Rhebok Hiking Trail; visit the Vulture Restaurant; horse ride, mountain bike or go on a game drive; and make time to stop so you can absorb the park’s panoramic views and magnificent stillness.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Tel: +27 (0)58 255 1000
How to get here
From Johannesburg: take the N3 Heidelberg/Durban road. Cross the Vaal River before Villiers, and take the left slipway on to 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 on to the N5 to Bethlehem. Drive through Bethlehem and turn right on to 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.
Best time to visit
Spring (September/October) and summer (December to February) are the best times to explore the park. Those who don't mind cold weather and enjoy mountain snow choose to visit in winter.
Around the area
Trout fishing; golf; hot air ballooning; white-water rafting; motorbike, quad-bike or mountain-bike rides; and visiting the artists’ village of Clarens.
Tours to do
A visit to the Basotho Cultural Village will introduce you to the people who call these mountains home. Take a walk through the Van Reenen family graveyard.
Length of stay
Golden Gate Highlands National Park 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 (November to February). Winters are cold, and temperatures can plunge to below freezing temperatures. Snow is a regular occurrence in the park in winter. 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 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 the Highlands Mountain Retreat, or stay in the historic Noordt Brabant self-catering guest house – all inside the park. 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. Stop at farm stalls en route for home-made goods and fresh farm produce. Clarens offers food from Free State boerekos (farmers' food) to euro-café snack-chic.
The annual Cherry Festival takes place in nearby Ficksburg around November; the Clarens Mountain Bike Challenge happens in May; and Fouriesburg 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.