Day visitor’s guide to the South African National Parks

Day visitor’s guide to the South African National Parks post thumbnail image

Sometimes we don’t plan as well as we would like. So you want to visit your favourite South African National park this holiday season, but there is no booking, and everything is already booked up because you slept too late? It does not matter where you find yourself this holiday, with a bit of planning, it is possible to experience the beauty of our natural heritage for the day.

This post looks at some options and things to do in a day in your favourite park.

For an active day: Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Are you on holiday in Clarens in the Free State Province? Only 18km from this picturesque village, you will find the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Leave your car at reception, get a permit and hike up the famous Brandwag Buttress. This hike is not too strenuous. While the last section is somewhat steep, the views from this beautiful vantage point are spectacular. Plan for about two hours to get up and down, and remember to pack water and sunscreen. 

Other options: Pack a picnic basket to enjoy at the Meriting picnic site or sip on a drink at the Hotel while enjoying the scenery from a distance. You can also find out if the Basotho Cultural Village has an interactive tour at their living museum. 

Need more reasons to visit? Click to read our article about the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Spectacular views and soaring vultures: Marakele National Park

This spectacular park is situated just outside Thabazimbi in the Limpopo Province. Something not to be missed in the park is a scenic drive – a road meanders up the edge of the mountain towards the Lenong Viewpoint. Look out for the Cape vultures flying overhead as one of the largest breeding colonies in the world lives nearby, so your patience might be rewarded in the right conditions. Set aside about an hour to get there and look out for wildlife along the way. Remember the binoculars. 

Lenong Viewpoint
Lenong Viewpoint in the Marakele National Park

What else can I see in Marakele National Park? Click to read more.

Other options: Book a game drive with a knowledgeable guide and explore the park without having to do any driving.

Meet the neighbours: Mapungubwe National Park

If you find yourself in the far north of the Limpopo Province near Alldays and Musina with free time, head to one of the most beautiful parks in the SANParks stable – the Mapungubwe National Park. The confluence and viewing decks are a superb choice for a laid-back day if you have free time to spend in the park. This is where the Shashe and Limpopo rivers meet, uniting South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Another option is a tour to the top of Mapungubwe Hill to learn about the ancient civilisations that once lived here. 

Other options: Visit the museum, or book a game drive. The park is also home to Pel’s fishing owl, so ask if an experienced guide could conduct a birding drive if twitching is your thing. Take a walk amongst the birds at the treetop, a wooden walkway among the treetops next to the mighty Limpopo River.

Relaxed game drive and picnic: Addo Elephant National Park

Gqeberha, or Port Elizabeth for those who hate change, is a friendly city. But if you want to escape from the city, you can take an hour’s drive and find yourself in the paradise called Addo Elephant National Park. A word of caution, the park is massive, so know where you are heading. Jack’s Picnic Spot is a lovely spot site tucked away in a botanical reserve inside the main game area. The spots are semi-private and also attract a variety of bird species. It will take at least 30 minutes to get there from the main gate so you can combine your picnic with a game drive.

Other options: Feeling like ocean vibes? Head to the Woody Cape section of the park and visit the Alexandria dune field, one of the largest least degraded coastal dune fields in the Southern Hemisphere.

Alexandria Coastal Dunefield
The Alexandria Coastal Dunefield in the Addo Elephant National Park


Fossils galore: Karoo National Park

Never drive through Beaufort West without taking a rest. Better yet, spend some time in the park, exploring the beauty only the Karoo has to offer. If you have kids, or you are a curious adult, the fossil trail in the Karoo National Park just outside Beaufort West is a must-see. The trail is only 400m long but depicts the geology and palaeontology of the great Karoo by displaying genuine fossils and petrified wood along the walkway. This walkway is near the reception building, but you can ask for directions. Spoil yourself or the kids with a bite to eat or drink at the restaurant.

Other options: Book a guided game drive, or have a picnic at one of the sites in the park.  

Spending some time in Beaufort West? See some more attractions in the area!

Track a cheetah on foot: Mountain Zebra National Park

Cradock might seem like one of those Karoo towns where not much happens, but a short drive out of town takes you to the Mountain Zebra National Park. Plan carefully and spend some time on foot, tracking one of the collared cheetahs in the park.  

Other options: Alternative options include guided game drives or visiting some of the park’s cultural heritage sites. The San people left evidence of their lives in several rock shelters in the park.

A view over the valley: Camdeboo National Park

Graaff-Reinet with its beautiful church is a beautiful stop in the Eastern Cape, but did you know that the Capdeboo National Park is surrounded by this town? If there is one part of the park that you don’t want to miss it is the spectacular scenery of the Valley of Desolation. This attraction draws large amounts of visitors annually. Walk the Crag Lizards Trail while you are there to truly appreciate the beauty.

Other options: Water sports and fishing in the Nqweba Dam.

A (board) walk to remember: Augrabies Falls National Park

Augrabies Falls
Augrabies Falls

The Northern Cape is not always the first choice when it comes to holiday destinations, but there is so much beauty hidden in this arid region. The beautiful Augrabies Falls near Kakamas is one of these worthwhile stops. The main attraction in the Augrabies Falls National Park is the waterfall, but there is much more to see. Stop at the main waterfall and the Twin Falls. Watch out for the cute rock hyrax and Augrabies flat lizard along the way.

Other options: If you have more time, visit the beautiful viewpoints or go for a drive. Also, try out one of the short hiking trails.

Imprints in stone – Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

The Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is not necessarily ideal for a quick visit as it is more than two hours from Port Nolloth, but if you pass through on the way to Namibia, linger a little longer by taking a detour and see the Hand of God. This giant boulder with a massive handprint is approximately 15km from Sendelingsdrift. Remember, you will need a 4×4 to drive in the park.

Historic times: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

If you made it as far as the Kgalagadi without spending a few nights in the park, you are probably a big fan of the park or just wanted to escape from your noisy family members for the day. The main rest camps are far apart, and going for a drive requires signing out and back in upon your return. Take a drive to Auchterlonie, a museum about 35km from Twee Rivieren. Here you can learn more about the park and its history. It is the perfect distance to travel and still have time for photos if you enter as a day visitor. You can see plenty of wildlife along the way and action at the waterholes.

Auchterlonie Museum
The Auchterlonie Museum

Endangered species: Mokala National Park

Visiting family or friends in Kimberley but need to escape and spend some time in nature? While there are plenty of reserves to visit near this historic town, the Mokala National Park is home to several special antelope and wildlife species! Sable, tsessebe, roan and disease-free buffalo are just some of them. Arrive early to make the most of your day in the park.

Explore the coast: Namaqua National Park

There is much to explore in the Namaqua National Park outside of flower season. Think historical caves, seal colonies, rocky shores and white sandy beaches when you opt for a drive on the Caracal Eco Route. It is a 4×4 route with some very sandy sections. Have a look at the different route options beforehand – the entire trail can take eight hours or more to complete.

Hike the famous icon: Table Mountain National Park

Table Mountain
The iconic Table Mountain

Very few people visit Cape Town without getting closer or visiting Table Mountain. Instead of taking the cable car to the top, take a hike to the top via the Platteklip Gorge, but make sure that you are wearing proper shoes and have plenty of water as it is not just a walk in the park (pun intended). You will get a lovely view of Cape Town from the top. It is also the steepest, direct route.

Birds of a Feather: West Coast National Park

The West Coast of South Africa is the area to go for that laid-back family holiday. But one place not to miss, especially if you are a birder, is the West Coast National Park near Langebaan. This park is a birder’s paradise with a handful of hides to enjoy waders and other feathered species. When tired of sitting, drive around for different bird species in the fynbos vegetation. 

Other options: There are several cycling trails in the park, plus parts of the lagoon are also open for water sports. 

Head south: Agulhas National Park

Visit the southernmost point in South Africa. Where? You can find it in the Agulhas National Park near Struisbaai. While here, explore the beautiful historic lighthouse and take the steep stairway to the top. From here, you can appreciate the views of the surroundings, and at low tide, you will see the fish traps exposed near the shore.

Laid back day: Bontebok National Park

Swellendam, the fifth oldest town in South Africa, comes with a rich history. Just across the highway, you will find yourself in the Bontebok National Park. It is ideal for a day in nature as there are no predators. You can therefore take walks on one of the hiking trails, go for a slow drive to view wildlife, fish in the Breede River, cycle or have a picnic at Die Stroom Day visitors area. Pack the picnic basket, bring the fishing rods and remember the swimwear. Remember to pack a braai grid if you want to braai.

Scenic passes: Tankwa Karoo National Park

Whether you drive the Gannaga Pass on a bike or in the comfort of your car, it is still a sight for sore eyes, experiencing the striking contrasts between the top of the Roggeveld Mountains and the Tankwa Karoo plains below. The Gannaga Lodge at the top of the pass is just under two hours from Sutherland in the Northern Cape. It is also a 50-minute drive to the Oudebaaskraal Dam from the pass.

Views from the Gannaga Pass in the Tankwa Karoo National Park

Moments with giants: Garden Route National Park

The Garden Route is known for its indigenous forests, sparkling oceans and fynbos dotted in between. While most of the giants fell when woodcutters roamed the area, some still stand. Spend some time in the forest and visit some of the giants that still stand today. There is the Woodville Big Tree in Wilderness, the Diepwalle Big Tree in Knysna and the Tsitsikamma Forest Big Tree. All of these Outeniqua Yellowwoods will leave you in awe at their sheer size.

Rich game viewing: Kruger National Park

The Kruger National Park needs no introduction, and a visit to the Lowveld of South Africa is almost incomplete without popping into the park. But where should you go? Get to Crocodile Bridge Gate as it opens. Pack padkos for the drive along the S28 dirt road past Ntandanyathi Dam. Stop in for lunch at Lower Sabie or Mlondozi Dam Picnic Site. Head back along the H4-2 tar road and take a detour via Hippo Pools before you head back out the gate. With only a day in the park, an area such as this is where game viewing is best. Remember to book beforehand as a day visitor, especially during the holiday season. You may not avoid the queues at the entrance gate, but at least you will get in.  

Need convincing to visit the Kruger? Find 10 compelling reasons to visit the Kruger National Park

Keep in mind

A Wildcard will give you free entry to the parks as you will not pay conservation fees. Alternatively, visit for park entrance fees and more information.

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