You are well aware that South Africa has no shortage of incredible hiking trails around the country. The Northern Drakensberg area is no exception. It is one of the country’s most sought-after hiking destinations that offer hikers of all abilities incredibly scenic trails carved through forests, along cliff tops, and through dramatic mountainous scenery. There are also plenty of waterfalls, including the famous Tugela Falls, the world’s second-highest waterfall.
We have curated a short guide on the top five Drakensberg hikes that will make you want to pack your backpack and explore this majestic part of South Africa.
Royal Natal National Park
The Royal National Park houses some of Africa’s most pristine and dramatic scenery, including one of the highest parts of the mountain range, Mont-aux-Sources. Its biggest crown jewel is the world-famous UNESCO Amphitheater which it forms a part of. This mighty wall of basalt rock rises 1,000 metres above the Tugela Valley in nearly perfect symmetry. While you may not think this is very high, it’s surface wall size will surprise you with its five-kilometre length, situated at nearly 3,000 metres above sea level.
Top 5 Drakensberg hikes
With a 100-kilometre network of 25 hiking trails, Royal Natal National Park will offer you an incredible variety of scenery. You can choose between short, hour-long hikes or full-day hikes. Those up for a bit of adventure can even embark on a multi-day journey that will let you make the most of this park’s offerings.
This list of our favourite Drakensberg hikes will help you make the most of your visit.
1. Amphitheatre to Cathedral hike
Duration: Full-day hike | 62 km
This hike from the Amphitheatre to the Cathedral is arguably one of the most famous Drakensberg hikes you can do. If you only have time to do one of the hikes in the area, make it this one. It is the only one-day hiking trail in which you can access the top of the Drakensberg escarpment and marvel at the magnificent views. If you’re up for a longer adventure, this day hike forms part of the Amphitheatre Heritage hike, a three-day guided trail.
From the Sentinel Peak car park, the path takes you through impressive valleys, flaunting textures of mossy greens and golden shades of brown. You’ll pass by Mbundini, Mnweni and the Rockeries, the Saddle and the Cathedral range, before arriving at the famous double chain ladders which lead you to the top of the Amphitheatre.
Although the hike may be incredibly strenuous and is recommended only for fit hikers, it is worth every bit of effort to see the breathtaking views of the jagged peaks and pinnacles from the 1,200-metre-high natural fortress. From here, you can also observe the second-highest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls as they fearlessly plummet from the Amphitheatre escarpment.
2. Tugela Gorge Walk
Duration: Full-day hike | 22,5 km
The most picturesque of all the Drakensberg hiking trails is the Tugela Gorge Walk. The route starts at the Royal Natal car park and winds along the river for some 11 kilometres. The first few kilometres start off easy with no steep climb before it starts to get demanding. You can expect to do a fair share of boulder hopping across three river crossings.
To reward your efforts, you’ll be surrounded by the most spectacular views of lush green forests. It really starts to get more beautiful beyond this point. Take it all in by taking a refreshing dip off the cliffs.
Other highlights along the way include views of the Amphitheatre, Devil’s Hoek, Policeman’s Helmet and the Vemvaan Valley.
3. Devils Hoek Valley
Duration: 5 hours | 15 km
Take in serene pockets of nature by walking through the lush green forests of the Devil Hoek Valley. After walking for 10 minutes you will see a signpost that marks the way to the valley. The path gets progressively steeper and the views even more spectacular. You will also pass by some Bushman paintings. As a matter of interest, a near-legendary leopard has been encountered here and the valley is said to have a forboding air.
4. Cascades and McKinlay’s Pool
Duration: 1 hour | 5 km
If you are looking for a shorter, easier Drakensberg hike that you can enjoy with your family, then the Cascades and McKinlay’s Pool hike is perfect. A short 15-minute walk starting at the park’s campsite brings you to the Queen’s Causeway and the Cascades. These are a series of beautiful waterfalls and shallow pools that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
You can opt to spend the day here, or continue along another trail that leads to McKinlay’s Pool, Tiger Falls or Gudu Bush.
5. Giant’s Cup Trail
Multi-day hikes may not be your thing, but if there is only one you do in your lifetime, then the Giant’s Cup trail should be one of them. It’s another one of our favourite Drakensberg hikes.
This trail is 59 kilometres long and takes you from the Sani Pass to Bushman’s Nek, winding along the foothills of the Drakensberg mountain ranges. Depending on your fitness level, it can take up to four days to complete.
The trail is well marked and has no mega climbs. The scenery is just spectacular, making you pause often to take it all in. Stop to marvel at the mountainous cliffs that are basked in golden hues, admire weather-sculpted sandstone rocks, and travel through grasslands filled with proteas. The trail also takes you through river streams and to caves where you can admire ancestral rock paintings.
Overnight accommodation comes in the form of cosy, rustic farmhouses along the way.
Other hikes to consider
With such a variety of Drakensberg hikes available, choosing the one that is right for you can prove to be a difficult task. Here are a few other popular routes to also consider:
- Icidi Gorge
- The Bell Traverse
- Otto’s Walk
- Tiger Falls
- Gudu Fall
- Cannibal Cave
- Bushman Paintings hike in Sigubudu Valley
Tips for planning your hike
- When planning your Drakensberg hike, take into account the ever-changing weather conditions. You should be well equipped should the weather change suddenly. It is also advisable to fill out your details in the mountain rescue register available at the entrance of the park, before embarking on a trail.
- Unless you are planning for a multi-day hike, take note of the closing times that are signposted at the entrance gate. Always ensure that you have enough time to walk back to the gate before nightfall.
- If you plan on spending the night, either self-camping or at the Thendele Camp, make sure to stock up on supplies before arriving at the park. There are no large stores closeby, except for a small souvenir shop that sells the very basics.
- While most of the trails are well signposted and have clear paths, others do not. And you can quite easily lose your way. It is advisable to purchase a hiking trail map from the entrance of the park or refer back to the one below.
Have you done some hiking in the Drakensberg before? Share your favourite trails and any tips in the comments below.
Also read: 25 Must-visit places in South Africa
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