The sun casts a golden glow along the sandstone buttresses in the foothills of the Maluti mountains, giving rise to the name of the Free State’s only national park – Golden Gate Highlands. About a three-hour drive from Johannesburg or Bloemfontein, it’s home to grasslands, mammals like eland and oribi, and the rare bearded vulture. Discover more about Golden Gate Highlands National Park in this ultimate guide.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is 330km from Johannesburg, 300km from Bloemfontein and 360km from Durban. From Johannesburg or Durban, travel along the N3 Highway towards Harrismith then turn off onto the N5 in the direction of Bethlehem. Once you’re on the N5, just outside Harrismith, turn left onto the R712 and drive towards Phuthaditjhaba. Pass the turnoff to Phuthaditjhaba and you’ll come to the entry gate to the park on the R712. All visitors overnighting in the park must check-in at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp or Golden Gate Hotel reception to be issued with an official entry permit.
A public road, the R712, runs through the 32 690ha park from east to west. The 64km road network includes two one-way loops (Oribi and Blesbok) that provide access to viewpoints, wildlife and a vulture hide. Although the access road and loops are tarred, there are 22km of gravel roads in the park but you don’t need a 4x4 (although high clearance is advisable if you’re staying at Noord Brabant Farmhouse, see the ‘where to stay’ section below).
Best time to visit
This is a park for all seasons, so it just depends what you like best. There may be Highveld thunderstorms in the afternoon in summer, when the grasslands are green (except during the recent drought). Rainy season is from September to April, with an average of some 760mm per year, or as much as 1250mm in very wet summers. There’s sometimes snow in winter, when temperatures can plunge to as little as minus 15 degrees Celsius. In autumn, trees and grasses form a mosaic of red and copper to complement the iron oxides that give the rocks their tawny colour.
From lichens and fossils to Clarens sandstone, 50 species of grass and a Basotho Cultural Village, there’s lots to see in this unusual park. It’s also one of the last refuges of the rare bearded vulture and the bald ibis. The park’s checklist includes 12 species of mice, 12 carnivores and 10 antelope species, as well as some 200 species of birds, 8 frog and toad species, 21 species of reptiles and 117 species of beetles.
When choosing your Golden Gate Highlands National Park accommodation you have a number of options.
Golden Gate Hotel & Chalets right next to the Brandwag Buttress offers standard or luxury two-bed rooms in the main hotel with TV, tea/coffee maker, hair dryer, loo and bath/shower. Some rooms have a balcony and a view of the Buttress. There’s even a honeymoon suite with a spa-bath.
Highlands Mountain Retreat is 2220m above sea level and gives wonderful views over the surrounding grasslands and Maluti mountains, where you might spot a bearded vulture. These are definitely the best views of all the accommodation in the park. There are two- to four-bed log cabins with kitchen, fireplace, TV, braai, loo/shower (two bathrooms in the four-bed unit). This is my favourite premium accommodation in the park. Check in at reception at Glen Reenen to get your key.
The Basotho Cultural Village offers two- to four-bed chalets with open-plan living/sleeping/kitchen area and a separate bathroom (two bathrooms in the four-bed option). A stoep with a Weber braai gives views out over the surrounding grasslands where you might have a visit from some of the local antelope like springbok, blesbok and eland. Although the rondavels are perfect for couples or families, they’re gathered together in groups of three with a ‘homestead’ feel and a communal lapa, making them great for small groups travelling together as well. This is my favourite budget accommodation in the park (only camping is cheaper). Check in at reception at Glen Reenen to get your key.
Note that each of the options above, except the Noord Brabant farmhouse, has a unit adapted for anyone in a wheelchair.
Pub, restaurant, coffee shop, curio shop, tennis court and conference facilities at Golden Gate Highlands Hotel; general dealer (poorly stocked, rather bring your own supplies), fuel station, natural rock pool for swimming and Meriting day visitors’ picnic site at Glen Reenen. When we visited at the end of 2018 work had started on a dinosaur visitors' centre next to Glen Reenen campsite. There’s no ATM in the park and no cellphone connection at the Basotho Cultural Village. Although the entry gates to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park are open 24 hours a day (because they’re on a public access road), reception is only open daily between 7:00 and 17:30.
Things to do in the park
Whether you’re interested in cultural heritage or activities like hiking, the park has a lot to offer. Here are some ideas of what to do when you visit.
1. Admire the sandstone rocks of the park. Most magnificent of these is Brandwag Buttress, which stands like a sentinel near the Glen Reenen Rest Camp and the Golden Gate Hotel. Look carefully at other rocks and you may make out shapes such as a gateway, a mushroom or a face with a prominent nose. Clarens sandstone was formed from compacted sand dunes 190 to 196 million years ago when the area was a desert. You can see one of the most spectacular forms of sandstone weathering in South Africa at Cathedral Cave – a cavern carved by water, wind and variations in temperatures over millions of years. It’s some 250m long and 50m deep.
Find out more about the hikes in the park
3. On your hikes in the park, keep a lookout for colourful flowers like watsonias, lilies and red-hot pokers.
4. Don’t miss seeing the Brandwag Buttress all lit up at night, when it has a more mysterious aspect than in bright sunshine.
7. Don’t miss visiting the recreated Basotho Cultural Village in the east of the park for a glimpse into the traditional lives of the Basotho people. Sample the traditional beer, take a tour through the village with a guide, watch a traditional healer throw the bones and listen to music made on home-made instruments. You can also do a trail with a traditional healer, who will point out some of the medicinal herbs, or a walk to the caves to see San rock art.
9. Visit the vulture restaurant on the Oribi Loop. Even if there are no vultures when you visit (it depends on when last a carcass has been put out for them), the walk in the clean air is invigorating and the view worth the effort.
11. Do the two-day, one-night Ribbok Hiking Trail, which is 28km long. The first day is relatively easy, but on the second day there are lots of ups and downs through the mountains, including to Ribbokkop – the highest peak in the park at 2829m. Sleep overnight in a brick building with flush toilets and hot showers. Book in advance through SANParks Central Reservations, tel (012) 428-9111.
12. Take yourself on a game-viewing drive on the Oribi Loop (4.2km) or Blesbok Loop (6.7km). The scenery alone is worth the short drive, but you’re likely to see at least some of the park’s zebra, black wildebeest, eland, red hartebeest, blesbok, springbok, mountain reedbuck, grey rhebuck, grey duiker and steenbok, perhaps even the threatened oribi.
15. Also read my post 15 things to do in Clarens in the Free State for ideas of other activities in the area. Clarens is just 20km from the park and offers lots to do, from restaurants and shopping to mountain biking, quad biking, white-water rafting and hot air ballooning.
SANParks central reservations
Tel +27 (0) 12 428-9111
Golden Gate Highlands National Park enquiries
Tel +27 (0)58 255-1000
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