Why visit the Golden Gate Highlands National Park?

Why visit the Golden Gate Highlands National Park? post thumbnail image

Mountainous scenery and vast open spaces as far as the eye can see, soaring vultures, and plenty of space for the active traveller – these are just a few things the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is synonymous with. This beautiful national park is at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the Free State Province of South Africa. The arty village of Clarens is just a stone’s throw from the park.

The Brandwag Buttress rock formation in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park
The Brandwag Buttress rock formation in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Large cliffs with their beautiful colouration and black splatters dominate the surroundings, and every sunset paints a beautiful picture of romantic golden hues. The scenery is visible from everywhere, including the Glen Reenen rest camp. A national road runs through the park, which provides easy access between the eastern and western side of the park, with plenty of stunning scenery and viewpoints between the two. Grasslands dominate the scene, which offers great protection to this neglected vegetation type.

In addition, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park also plays a crucial role in the water security of South Africa. In fact, 50% of South Africa’s water supply originates from the area. When it rains here, the water either runs down the Caledon River into the mighty Orange River, or travels via the Wilge River into the Vaal Dam, Vaal River, and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.

Wildlife in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is not necessarily a wildlife destination as such, but one can easily spot some wildlife during your stay. Animals not only include black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, springbok, and Burchell’s zebra. The best places to spot herds of wildlife would be in closer proximity to the Basotho Cultural Village.

Taking a drive on the two short loops off the main road also offers the opportunity for game viewing, and a visit to the park is not complete without a visit to the vulture hide. Park management will also place carcasses at the vulture hide to serve as a safe food source for the vultures calling the area home, but get more information from reception as this does not happen daily. Never expect large numbers of vultures at once unless you have great timing. It takes a while for these scavengers to realise that there is food.  Sitting for some time might give you glimpses of the interactions between different scavengers, even in the absence of vultures.

The rare bearded vulture is synonymous with the high mountains surrounding the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. These vultures do not eat meat but focus on the marrow inside bones. They will drop bones from the air onto the rocky ledges to get to the soft marrow, and with a bit of luck, you can spot them soaring in the area.

Birding in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The grasslands and mountainous surroundings of the park are perfect for birding. Apart from the bearded vulture listed as Near Threatened, the park also offers habitat for the bald ibis, another rare species. Look out for raptors such as jackal buzzard, martial eagle, and steppe buzzard. The area around the Highlands Mountain Retreat is ideal for the ground woodpecker. The Drakensberg rockjumper also occurs in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Have a look at the bird list here.

A ground woodpecker in Golden Gate Highlands National Park
A ground woodpecker in Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Can I go on a game drive in Golden Gate?

You can drive the entire park in the comfort of your vehicle as there are no guided drives available. There are two loops to explore just off the main road, and these are ideal for game viewing.

What makes the Golden Gate Highlands National Park special?

During the construction of the road in 1973, they discovered fossilized Triassic dinosaur eggs in the park in an area called Rooi Draai. Fossilized dinosaur bones, roots, ferns, and even footprints occur throughout the region. The region was also a route during the Anglo-Boer War between the English and the Boer armies. Several historic sites in the park link to this period, one being spots of scorched earth where the soil is sterile, and nothing grows here today. The Boers set their wagons filled with ammunition alight to prevent them from falling into English hands.  Bullet remnants are still visible all these years later. These sites are not accessible to the general public, unfortunately.

The Basotho Cultural Village features a living museum, so instead of static displays like the museums of old, actual actors are demonstrating the life of the Basotho.  You will even have the opportunity to sample traditional Basotho beer. Just double-check that tours are available during the pandemic.

Stay in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Whether you prefer the luxury of a hotel, or something a little simpler, you will find it in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. My favourite is the Highlands Mountain Retreat. These self-catering log cabins, situated 2200m above sea level, guarantee spectacular views of the surrounding Maluti Mountains! They blend into the side of the mountain and stay warm in die winter and cool in summer. Walking up the mountain from the Highlands Mountain Retreat will give you an even higher vantage point from where to enjoy the scenery.

The unique wooden log cabins at the Highlands Mountain Retreat
The unique wooden log cabins at the Highlands Mountain Retreat

Glen Reenen Rest Camp is the main rest camp with a wide variety of accommodation options to suit couples and even families. Those who prefer getting closer to nature can choose to camp right on the banks of the Wilge River. Not far from this rest camp, you will find the Noord Brabant Farmhouse, a self-catering house that sleeps up to six people.

For guests who seek a more luxurious experience, the Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets offer just that. From here you can enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. The hotel also has a bar and restaurant, as well as conferencing facilities.

The Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp resemble an 18th-century Basotho village. Both 2-sleeper and 4-sleeper rondavels offer self-catering facilities. The rest camp is on the eastern side of the park. 

Family-friendly escape?

Langtoon Dam in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Langtoon Dam found in the park

Golden Gate is great a destination for the entire family. Get active on one of the many hiking trails. There are numerous short hikes and also overnight options. Are you searching for the best views? Take a walk up to the Brandwag buttress. The last section of the hike is a little uphill, but the views are worth the effort. Other activities include horse riding. Those fond of horses can go on guided rides. For cultural immersion, visit the Basotho Cultural Village. The museum tour here is very informative, and in season, a guided walk with a traditional healer is available to discover the medicinal herbs growing in the area.

In the hot summer months, the family can cool down in the natural rock swimming pool at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, and most of the accommodation comes with indoor fireplaces to keep warm in winter.

Oh, and the Godumodumo Dinosaur Centre is a brand-new attraction for all those who love dinosaurs. We have not yet seen the development, but can’t wait to go and have a look!

Further information…

Are you planning a trip to the park? From Johannesburg, you can take the N3 highway to Harrismith, take the R714 to Warden and continue to the park. One can also travel via Clarens, but the back roads may take a little longer due to unfavourable road conditions in certain areas. The drive takes approximately 20 minutes from Clarens. Visit www.sanparks.org for details and bookings.

Have you ever visited the Golden Gate Highlands National Park?  Tell us in the comments. We want to know what you enjoyed most about your trip to the park.

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