Standing atop a canvas, looking to see where heaven and earth meet, the sun’s rays join in next to me. The mountain in front of me is doused in interchanging colors of orange and gold. For a moment, it seems as if Mother Nature’s tins of paint fell over onto the mountains here at Golden Gate National Park. As I am mesmerized at the play of colors, I now understand why this beautiful place was so named way back in 1875. It is a true golden gem, filled with experiences I was not soon to forget as we traveled through the park twice this year.
Fellow travelers, get your hiking boots on and join me on an amazing journey through the 340 km² Golden Gate National Park situated in the Free State province of South Africa. An adventure awaits!
The Best Time To Visit The Golden Gate National Park
June to August is the best time to visit the park, as the sunny weather will be ideal for outdoor activities.
Country: South Africa
Province: Free State
Location: The Golden Gate National Park is situated between Clarens, Phuthaditjhaba and the border of Lesotho.
Coordinates: 28°30’22”S 28°37’0”E
The Top 5 Fun Facts About The Golden Gate National Park
Zebra Colored Rocks? – In various places on the rocks in the park, black stripes can be seen giving an abstract zebra-like appearance. This is due to rainfall and the mineral composition of the rocks. Mineral deposits mix with the rain-water and seep through the rocks, causing these streaks.
Running with Wild Horses – A herd of wild horses roams the mountains and valleys. Back in the 1930’s, a Spanish circus abandoned its horses here. They still roam free to this day.
Where is the Gate? – Ever wondered where the “Gate” in the Golden Gate National Park is? I sure did. And couldn’t find it. That is, until I stood in the park in front of the dam. On either side of the valley are the sandstone cliffs. These form the so-called “Gate” of Golden Gate.
Big, Bigger, Biggest – The park has expanded in size on three occasions. In 1981 to 62.41 km², in 1988 to 116.33 km² and in 2007 (after amalgamation with the QwaQwa National Park) to 340 km².A Dinosaur Called Massospondylas – The Massospondylas Dinosaur was discovered in the park in 1978, although in embryo form. Various other dinosaurs in fossilized and egg form have also been discovered.
Titanic Rock – One of the rock formations was aptly named by a resident of Clarens as the “Titanic” rock. The formation has a similar shape to the bow of the original Titanic; it was named while the Titanic was in the news after sinking on 15 April 1912.
The Top 5 Activities At The Golden Gate National Park
Game Viewing – The park roads are so good that you can do some game viewing with your family vehicle: no need for a 4×4.
Short Nature Hikes – A variety of short hiking trails are available in the Park. Make sure of the duration and difficulty level of each trail when planning your hike.
Horse Riding – During peak season, horse riding trails are available for those who want to do a bit of game viewing with a difference.
Environmental Education Courses – Want to learn a bit more about the park and the environment? Plan an environmental education course during your holiday. Course durations vary between one to five days.
Swimming in the Natural Pool at Glen Reenen Rest Camp – Glen Reenen Rest camp provides the opportunity for a refreshing swim in the natural pool at the camp.
The Top 10 Attractions At The Golden Gate National Park
Van Reenen Family Graveyard
One of the most enjoyable things about travel and writing about your travels is the wonderful opportunity to get to know the history behind a place and its people. The van Reenen Family Graveyard is one such interesting place to visit here at Golden Gate National Park, and features at no. 10 on our list this week of top attractions in the area.
Mr. van Reenen was the “founding father” of what became known as Golden Gate. He and his family lived on their family farm, known as Vuurland, which was situated in this part of the Free State, where the Golden Gate National Park was later established. Mr. van Reenen and the rest of his family were laid to rest in their family farm graveyard, as was the custom in those early days in South Africa
Some of the hiking trails and peaks in the Golden Gate National Park have some historical significance.
One such is Wodehouse Peak, where there is a beacon showing the original border between Basutoland (today known as Lesotho) and the Orange Free State.
The 19th century Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Philip Edmond Wodehouse, negotiated to end the conflict between the Basotho’s and the Boers in the 1860’s by bringing Basutoland under British control.
The peak itself forms part of a scenic hiking trail. It is for the more adventurous at heart, as it involves an approximately 4-hour round trip hike on often high-level terrain.
Within Golden Gate National Park, visitors will find some weird-looking mushroom rock formations that actually do remind one of mushrooms when you see them. If the Smurfs took residence at Golden Gate, I’m sure they would be interested in claiming Mushroom Rock for themselves. ☺
There is a specific trail available in the park to view these rock formations, which is accessible from the Glen Reenen Rest Camp. The trail is not that spectacular, and is quite short, but the formations at the end of the trail make it worth the trip.
ALTERNATIVE: If natural rock formations are your thing, follow the trail to Wodehouse Peak to get a close-up view of this formation, which is on the way. Mushroom Rock derives its name from the pedestal shape of a mushroom, and was formed naturally due to erosion by wind and weather.
Brandwag Buttress Rock Formaton
Fancy an early morning hike to watch the sunrise? Then treat yourself to a hike to the Brandwag Buttress or Sentinel Buttress rock formation. The hiking trail starts at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp. It is a fairly moderate trail, with the last section requiring you to ascend a chain ladder to the top. The view from the top is well worth the climbing effort and you will also then understand why this rock formation forms the trademark picture of the Golden Gate National Park, as seen on postcards.
Travelling involves more than just jetting off to another fancy destination or staying in a grand hotel. It also means experiencing a place with all your senses – seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling.
The Golden Gate National Park offers such experiences. Because there are no predators roaming around, you can explore the area by foot quite comfortably.
I would definitely recommend setting aside a few days to hike one or more of the many trails on offer at the park. The trails vary in duration, anywhere from a few hours to one or two days, with difficulty levels from a relaxing walk to a more strenuous hike.
Visit the shop at Glen Reenen Rest Camp and get your permit: then, hit the road with your hiking boots on and water bottle in hand. Make sure to complete the Wodehouse, Rhebok Trail, Echo Ravine, and Holkrans Route. The spectacular nature on these routes will leave you breathless.
GOOD TO KNOW: Don’t forget to take a good camera. Nature photographers will especially enjoy a visit to the park, as there are many photo opportunities available to take some phenomenal panoramic images.
If you don’t fancy yourself walking or hiking, but still want to be eco-friendly, explore the park via horseback. Bokpoort Farm is situated in the park, and offers a wonderful opportunity to go horseback riding. With the assistance of a qualified and experienced guide, you can enjoy sightseeing and game-viewing equestrian style.
Amphitheatre Chain Ladders
A hike from the Sentinel Car Park near Witsieshoek, will leave a lump in your throat. Yes, it is that spectacular!
The hike is to the top of the Tugela Falls via the Amphitheatre Chain Ladders. The Amphitheatre Chain Ladders at the Golden Gate Park are a set of chain ladders fastened to the side of the mountain.
Near the final destination on the hiking route, visitors reach the ladders. Ascending to the top is safe via these ladders, although, as always hikers and climbers should adhere to safety rules, and take precautions.
NOTE: Just be warned – this hike is strenuous and requires quite a bit of physical effort.
Basithi Cultural Village
Whenever I enter a cultural museum, I often close my eyes and take a deep breath. It is then as if I am immediately transported back to worlds and cultures that existed ages ago – feeling and seeing how they lived their lives.
The same experience will follow you when you enter the living museum at the Golden Gate National Park known as the Basotho Cultural Village.
This museum intrigues all your senses. It’s as if you can taste the cuisine of the traditional Basotho people who lived here, as well as grasp the way they lived, the moment you enter one of the traditional Basotho huts.
For a more hands-on experience, go on the guided herbal trail route. Here, you will learn about the plants and herbs used by the traditional Basotho healers.
The Basotho Cultural Village is 14.6km from the center of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Nope! This is not an actual restaurant where you can sample some vulture meat cuisine. Vulture’s Restaurant is actually an open aired ‘restaurant’ catering specifically to our feathered friends, the vultures. This specific location serves as a viewpoint where visitors can sit inside a cozy building, and watch some vultures feast, albeit, sightings are only occasional. (The vultures seem to prefer fresh fine-dining cuisine on offer elsewhere in the park.)
When travelling from Clarens, visitors will reach the Oribi Loop about 26km into their journey. This is the point where you turn off to the vulture viewpoint. The vulture hide is situated on the loop.
Visitors can park their car nearby, and enjoy a short walk over the ridge to the viewpoint.
NOTE: The park has a vulture feeding scheme. Carcasses are left out and a variety of vulture species come to feed. Visitors should note that the vultures are not always seen, and it might be several hours before any vultures appear. However, the viewpoint is a great place to spend a couple of hours with camera in hand.
TYPES OF VULTURES FOUND HERE: The Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture call this park home.
TIP: Bring some snacks and water along for the long wait, as well as a long-lens for your camera. Silence is to be observed at all times inside the viewpoint.
Cathedral Cave Walk
Golden Gate National Park has quite a few caves available for exploration in the area. These are decorated with San paintings by people and cultures who lived here many centuries ago.
If you have a reasonable fitness level, treat yourself to the Cathedral Cave Walk. This walk commences at the Noord-Brabant farmhouse. During this walk, you will explore a kloof – a deep ravine – to reach a circular cave.
Wading through the icy waters of the deep pool in the cave, you will reach the ladder to your final destination – the Cathedral Cave.
This attraction will encompass all that is the Golden Gate National Park, from the splendid views, to the cave.
Climbing Or Hiking At Or Near Golden Gate National Park
How To Climb Or Hike The Golden Gate National Park
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park has ideal hiking trails for the amateur, less experienced hiker, as well as the experienced hiker and climber. A variety of short, medium and advanced hiking trails are available:
Hiking Trails At The Golden Gate National Park
Wodehouse Peak Hike – This is an 11 km circular route that takes about 4-hours to complete.
LEVEL: Easy terrain, although you should be quite fit to complete an 11-km walk comfortably.
Brandwach Buttress – This sandstone formation is the reason Golden Gate got its name. The sun playing on the formation creates the most beautiful glow.
Hikers can follow two routes to get to this formation – one is a 2.4 km, hour-long trail. A chain ladder helps where you need to do a bit of climbing.
LEVEL: Average trail that involves some climbing.
The other route is far quicker and more to the west. It has man-made steps which ease the burden of climbing.
Holkrans Route – This trail consists of a 2.4 km circular route that takes approximately 1 hour to complete.
LEVEL: Easy – the only aspect to take into consideration is that the trail involves climbing a wooden ladder: those who fear heights might not enjoy it.
Echo Ravine – The Echo Ravine is a short hiking trail. It only covers about 1.8 km and will take approximately 25 minutes. It is very picturesque.
Rhebok Trail – The Rhebok Trail is a 2-day hike over 31 km. You have to have some level of basic fitness to complete this one. It has a moderate difficulty level. A comfortable overnight hut is available for the sleep-over stage of the trail.
LEVEL: Moderate, although, you should be fit to complete it.
Refuges Or Mountain Huts At Golden Gate National Park
Glen Reenen Rest Camp – The camp is on the main road of the park. It offers accommodation in the form of rondavels and guest cottages. Barbeque facilities are available.
Highlands Mountain Retreat – This retreat offers more luxurious accommodation at the park.
Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp– For a bit of a cultural experience, the Basotho Cultural Village is the ideal place to stop by. You will experience the culture, food and hear many magical stories during your stay.
Our Top Tips For Climbing or Hiking at the Golden Gate National Park
Clothing – Pack and dress according to the weather. Wear loose, comfortable clothing for summer, but make sure to pack something warmer for early evening and night time hikes
Shoes – Wear proper hiking shoes. This is a mountainous terrain, so proper hiking shoes are highly recommended.
Water – The park has a very warm and dry climate. Make sure to bring along enough water to avoid dehydration during your hike.
Hat & Sun Block – Due to the very sunny and warm climate, it is advisable to bring a proper sun hat and generously apply sun block.
Camera & Binoculars– This park has a variety of fauna, flora, wildlife and bird species. All of these can be viewed whilst hiking, so make sure to bring along a good camera and, if possible, binoculars.
The Top 5 Events Happening In-and-Around the Golden Gate National Park
Clarens Craft and Beer Festival – Takes place in February each year.
Ficksburg Cherry Festival – When in the area around the park, be sure to swing by the Annual Ficksburg Cherry Festival that takes place in November.
South African Distillery Fair – This fair is held annually in Clarens between September to October.
Vintage Tractor Fair – Takes place in Clocolan. A little bit further away from Golden Gate National Park, but still worth a visit during March.
Cultural Education – For a bit of cultural education, stop at the Basotho Cultural Village. Here you can experience all aspects of the Basotho people’s lives.
What to eat at the Golden Gate National Park
Sandwich with a difference – or ‘saamie’ as we say in South Africa – Bon Appetit Deli & Bistro in Clarens offers you the option to build a deluxe sandwich completely according to your taste.
Delicatessen – Looking for something small but exquisite to eat? Stop by the Courtyard Bakery & Café in Clarens on your way to the park. You will be delighted at the range of cakes and baked goods available.
Roosterkoek – Feeling adventurous? Looking to try something different? Pop in at the Clarens Kooperasie Restaurant for some hearty meals. Make sure to order a Roosterkoek, a South African classic – you will not be disappointed!
Waffles! – For anybody with a sweet tooth, The Lazy Gecko Café in Clarens is your stop. Waffles and Flapjacks galore!
Getting to the Golden Gate National Park
The park is on the R701 route, roughly 300km south east of Bloemfontein. Driving from Pretoria, it will take about 4-hours of driving on the N3 highway to reach the park. Unfortunately, this route has a few tollgates, so make sure you have some cash on hand.
Getting around-and-about at the Golden Gate National Park
Getting around the park is very easy. One of the main roads runs through the park and is in good condition, even for smaller cars.
RECOMMENDED: We recommend renting a car during your visit to South Africa. There is no entry fee into the park, which allows for a bit of sightseeing by driving through the park yourself.
Other means of transport include walking, hiking, mountain biking or horse riding.
Where to stay in Golden Gate National Park
List of Recommended Souvenirs
Traditional Blankets: Close to Clarens and Golden Gate is a little shop called Di Mezza and De Jager. Here you can invest in a traditional blanket. Not only will it keep you warm at night, it also has a bit of history attached to it.
Local Craft: Make sure to visit The Barbet near Clarens. Here you can buy some authentic local crafts created by the people of the area.
Pottery & Traditional Knives: To buy some lovely pottery pieces, swing by the Rooikat Gallery.
Books: The little Bibliophile store in Clarens is worth a stop when you are anywhere near Clarens or the Golden Gate. This little bookshop has some interesting books available that you can definitely read whilst lounging in front of the fireplace in your cabin at Golden Gate National Park.
Our Top 6 Tips for travelers to Golden Gate National Park
Always be prepared for the weather! Make sure to pack appropriate clothes for the time of year you plan to visit. The weather can change quickly.
Peace and Quiet. It is really peaceful and quiet at the park. Be warned that cell phone reception is not great.
Inform Before Hiking. When going on a hike, inform the tourism office when and where you plan on hiking, so that they know when to start sending a search party and where to start looking if you don’t return.
Arrival Time. Ensure to plan your arrival during the day. This will help you to find your accommodation venue easily; it can get very dark in the park during the evening.
Nourishment. Plan and pack your groceries beforehand. There is a little shop in the park, but it is advisable to come prepared, since items are more expensive here. If in need, drive to Clarens to purchase some more supplies.
NOTE: Most chalets and huts in the park are self-catering.
Operating Hours. The park has no set operating hours, so inquire as to the operating hours at the amenities you plan to visit; you don’t want to arrive at a site or activity and find it is not open or already closed for the day.
Currency. It is advisable to carry both cash and your card. Most often, ATM’s are not available or not working and some shops in this area only accept cash.
Enjoying the Golden Gate National Park on a budget
Golden Gate National Park is one of the few parks in South Africa that visitors can travel to even on a very tight budget.
Game viewing: The roads in the park are good enough for you to enjoy game viewing in any vehicle – no special 4×4 required.
Hiking: There is no charge for hiking trails, although, if you choose to join a guided tour, there is usually a charge for the guide.
Drive-through: Even if you are not planning to go to the Golden Gate, but only passing by, you can still enjoy the park. The main road runs through the park and there is no access fee.
Backpacking: Clarens and Harrismith have backpacker’s accommodation to suit any tight budget. They are also close enough to access the park for a day-trip,
Day trips from the Golden Gate National Park
Clarens Wellness Day Spa – The Clarens Wellness Day Spa is situated in the town of Clarens, which is close to the park. The spa provides body treatments, massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, and more.
Bergwoning 4×4 Trail – Choose between two 4 x 4 self-drive trails. The first is a 6km route at Bergwoning. The second is a bit tougher; a 26 km guided tour. This tour takes as long as 4 to 6 hours, but is well worth it as the experienced owner takes you across the whole trail. Bergwoning is situated between the Golden Gate Park and Clarens.
Quad Biking / River Rafting / Other adventure sports – Outrageous Adventures offers activities for the adrenalin junkie at heart. The tour operator is close to Clarens and the Golden Gate Park, so ideally situated for a day trip to kickstart your day.
The top 3 Legends and Secrets Associated with the Golden Gate National Park
Cannibal Cave – Cannibal Cave, which is situated in the park, is so named since it is said to be a place where cannibals used to reside. These cannibals would keep an eye out for lone travelers passing through the area, and then kidnap and eat them. Yikes! (This is how the legend goes anyways.) Visitors don’t have to worry though; these cannibals don’t exist today.
Fertility Caves / Holy Cave – These caves are inhabited by a few residents at the moment, and this is the place where mostly herbalists and traditional healers come to learn the ancient arts and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.
Mount Horeb – Setlofe – Setlofe was sometimes called “Reenmakerskop”. Legend has it that, if this mountain is covered in cloud, rain will fall in Clarens.
The Golden Gate National Park is the ideal tourist destination. You do not need a special vehicle to visit, everything is close by and there are activities for all to enjoy.
Even the more senior, as well as junior tourist can have a lovely time sightseeing.
Add this one to your bucket-list. It is one of those hidden gems most tour guides don’t tell international travelers about.