Our beloved country is so many wonderful things rolled into one: a mix of vibrant cultures, the friendliest of folk, interesting sights, characterful cities and, of course, a crazy amount of natural beauty. Any chance we get to explore out in nature we grab gladly with both hands, so in honour of the great outdoors, we thought we’d bring you this supreme list of South Africa’s most incredible hiking trails - because few things beat fresh mountain air, spectacular vistas, giant mountains and an elevated heart rate doesn’t hurt either. We’ve listed by area for ease:
Drakensberg Grand Traverse
Covering 250km across the famous 3000m high range, “grand” seems fitting for this hike. With no clearly marked paths, as well as gruelling climbs and descents, this is definitely one for the pros (and you should ideally go guided regardless). Departing from the Sentinel car park and finishing at the Bushman’s Nek border post near the Underberg, the classic traverse of Dragon’s Back will see you conquer the Drakensberg’s six highest peaks – the Grand Traverse definitely doesn’t kid around.
Length: Roughly 250km over 10-12 days
Ukhahlamba Amphitheatre Hiking Trail
Home to the largest collection of bushman paintings south of the Sahara, the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park (roughly two hours from Durban) is a World Heritage Site brimming with grasslands and Yellowwood forests that provide a stomping ground for the resident eland and Mountain Reedbuck. It’s most iconic feature though has to be the Amphitheatre, an impressive basalt wall standing at 3000m above sea level. This forms the backdrop to another incredible feat of nature: the Tugela Falls, Africa’s second longest waterfall. A series of chain ladders will see you ascend the “Roof of the World” on the edge of Lesotho with the amazing reward being the most spectacular views.
Length: 33km over 3 days (slackpacking*)
Sentinel Peak Hiking Trail
Located on the western side of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, this trek certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. Even though it’s a single day hike, it’ll be jam-packed with adrenaline-pumping moments as you scale the sheer rock face of the tallest freestanding mountain in the Drakensberg via a ladder. All the hard work will be worth it though because you can just imagine the view from the top.
Difficulty: Moderate - advanced
This quintessential Drakensberg hiking trail will see you tackle foothills, boulders, streams, valleys and indigenous forest as you make your way from the famed Sani Pass to Bushman’s Nek. Of course, you’ll be treated to plenty of panoramic views along the way.
Length: 60km over 5 days
Wild Coast Hike
Even though the originally marked route from the Mtamvuna River to the Kei River near East London has not been properly maintained, there are still some sections that are walkable - the stretch from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay is particularly beautiful with its deserted white beaches, rugged mountains and dramatic cliffs. This is a challenging hike comprising of steep hills, long sections of beach walking and river crossings, so a reasonable level of fitness is definitely required.
Camping: You have to get permission from the village chiefs along the way in order to pitch your tent and spend the night.
Length: 64km over 5 days
Amatola Hiking Trail
This hike delivers highland scenery at its very best and when you’re staring up at the imposing Amathole Mountains in all their majesty, you’ll understand exactly why this part of the world inspired J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Starting at the Madam Dam just outside King William’s Town, a distance of 100km is covered, most of which boasts waterfalls, rock pools, springs and enchanted Afro-Montane forests that provide shelter from the baking sun. The hike ends at the Tyhume River just outside of magical Hogsback – a reason in and of itself to do this trail.
Length: 100km over 6 days
Dolphin Hiking Trail
Often considered a shorter and more luxurious alternative to the well-known Otter Trail, the Dolphin Hiking Trail is an excellent way to see the beauty of the Tsitsikamma. You’ll stay over in comfy places for three nights, giving you the opportunity to see the Garden Route in style. The Storms River Bridge is just one of the many remarkable landmarks you’ll encounter along the way, but the highlight will surely be the dolphins you spot and the reason this hike has been named as such.
Hole-in-the-Wall Hiking Trail
The Wild Coast is a fantastically beautiful mix of mangrove swamps, estuaries and seaside cliffs that come together to form a burst of nature. Nightly accommodation comes in the form of local hotels, making this a luxury hike suited greatly to those who enjoy hiking, but prefer to avoid roughing it. Coastal lovers especially will love this walk and because it’s not overly difficult, you can really enjoy the gorgeous surroundings.
Difficulty: Easy - moderate
Addo’s Alexandria Hiking Trail
Imagine a hike that takes you through three different ecosystems in two days? This is exactly what the Alexandria trail offers. Taking place in the beloved Addo Elephant National Park, expect barren sand dunes, long white sandy beaches and thick, lush forests, making this a hike to remember and one of the country’s most naturally diverse routes.
Difficulty: Moderate - advanced
Discover the magic of Oyster Bay, St Francis Bay and Cape St Francis as you slackpack along the rugged coastline with its sand dunes, wetlands, miles of fynbos and of course, its quaint fishing villages. You’ll experience the beauty of the greater St Francis region on foot at a pace that works for you. Day 4 allows you to visit the working harbour of Port St Francis and when a hike ends with a barge canal cruise, you know you’re in for a treat.
Length: 62km over 4 days/3 nights
Rim of Africa
Undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest long distance trails, this epic adventure takes you more than 600km across rugged Cape mountain terrain. You’ll depart from the Cederberg and make your way to the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains along the Garden Route. The trail follows old pathways, as well as existing trails and remote, pathless ridgelines. Rim of Africa can take many forms, depending on the kind of experience you’re after: traditional guided routes for serious hikers, slackpack options or self-guided options for those preferring some lone ranging. The three-day Weekender trail or one of the seven-day section hikes are perfect if you’re tight on time. Of course the ultimate adventure (albeit the priciest) is the long journey that links all the sections and is known as the Thru-Hike – whichever you choose though, prepare to have your socks rocked with this larger-than-life trail.
Length: About 600km covered over 52 days (10-22km hiked per day)
If there’s one super incredible hike whose reputation precedes it, it’s the much-loved and ever-popular Otter Trail. Established back in the 1800s, it’s the country’s oldest hiking trail. You’ll begin at the Storms River Mouth rest camp in the Tsitsikamma and make your way around the coast, taking in the sweeping ocean views and mountain mosaics as you move along. Accommodation along the way is basic self-catering lodging, with water and firewood supplied. Due to popularity and the limited number of hikers allowed to be hiking at any given time, booking way in advance is necessary. Also note that children under 12 are not permitted.
Tip: Be sure to watch out for low and high tides on Day 4 as you cross the Bloukrans River Mouth.
Length: 45km in 4.5 days
Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail
Surrounded by mountain fynbos and greenery as far as the eye can see, this trail in breath-taking Nature’s Valley will take you about six days. The amount of natural beauty in this area is staggering and this is the perfect way to see it. Shorter routs are available too for those wanting to enjoy this area but for a shorter time (2,3,4 & 5 day options).
Length: 60km over 5 days/6 nights
This pleasant day trail is a great one for the whole family and the reward at the end is the glorious and refreshing Leopard’s Kloof Waterfall. The starting point is the Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens which is nestled away in the quaint coastal town of Betty’s Bay. You’ll make your way through thick coastal forest, limestone fynbos and Renosterveld before reaching the waterfall – a lovely hike indeed!
Table Mountain is a hiker’s paradise with a number of different trails on offer. Perhaps the most scenic though is Skeleton Gorge. The first half will see you tackle forested ravines, but it’s the second half that’s easily the best part with its numerous floral zones and of course, ridiculous panoramic views of the Mother City below. We love this route and it’s a beautiful day excursion, particularly during the summer.
We also have to mention the: Hoerikwaggo Trail – this trail takes you from Table Mountain to Cape Point and provides an ideal opportunity to experience the wonders of the Cape Peninsula. You’ll pass through Hout Bay, Kommetjie, Silvermine and Simons Town, all the while taking in the most beautifully scenic views. Guides lead the way while accommodation is in the form of chalets and permanent tents.
Difficulty: Skeleton = Moderate; Hoerikwaggo = Moderate - strenuous
Length: 6.2km; 88km over 5 days (although there are shorter options available)
Swellendam Hiking Trail
Flower lovers will go gaga over this hike – trust us! With some 30 members of the Erica species being found along the way (including some that are only found in these mountains), your flora dreams are about to come true. It’s advisable that only experienced hikers attempt this one though, although there are shorter routes for the less experienced. Besides being the country’s third oldest town, who would have guessed Swellendam was home to such a fantastic floral meander?
Length: 70km over 6 days
Whale Hiking Trail
De Hoop Nature Reserve and its exquisite coastline have to be one of the most naturally beautiful parts of our country. The Whale Hiking Trail presents the chance to explore the area as well as catch a glimpse of the ocean’s gentle beasts: whales. Stretching from Potberg to Koppie Alleen, the route offers everything from rolling limestone sand dunes, to an array of wild fynbos, and, of course, the freshest, saltiest sea air. There have to be a certain number of hikers in order for a group to walk (6, 8, or 12) and because this is a popular choice, booking well in advance is highly advised. It’s a pricey excursion, but well worth it for the unparalleled beauty that will be witnessed.
Length: 55km over 5 days
Outeniqua Hiking Trail
Starting at Beervlei hHut (Old Forest Station), this challenging hike has its end at Harkerville Hut. Lush, indigenous forests line the way, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot an elephant or two. Marvel at the giant Yellowwood trees and breathe in the freshest forest air as you make your way over a week (shorter options available too). This is a challenging one aimed at experienced hikers with high fitness levels.
Length: 108km over 7 days
Fanie Botha Hiking Trail
Originally intended to be the first of a network of hiking trails called the National Hiking Way System, this multi-day trail stretches from the Soutpansberge in the north to the eastern escarpment of the Cape. The network never materialised, but Fanie Botha is still a wonderful hike that presents the very best of Mpumalanga, such as the legendary Mac Mac and Lone Creek Falls (both National Monuments).
Tip: The acres of Komatiland forest you’ll make your way through are bursting with birdlife so be sure to take those binoculars along.
Length: 71,5km over 5 days (you can do shorter routes too)
Magoebaskloof Hiking Trail
Craggy ravines and subtropical forest are just some of the natural delights that await on this trail. Found along the escarpment skirting around the town of Tzaneen, eucalyptus and blue gum trees interweave to form an impressive, towering canopy that swallows you and helps you forget about the outside world. The full length trail takes five nights, but shorter two or three day routes are also an option.
Pack: A raincoat or poncho – annual rainfall in this area is high so getting drenched is a great possibility.
Blyde River Canyon is a feat of nature that everyone should see in person – and what better way to get acquainted with it than on foot. You’ll start at the renowned God’s Window and wend your way through the world’s third largest canyon, taking in its majesty as well as a kaleidoscope of orchids, cycads, ferns, wild figs and mobola plums, with duiker, baboon and klipspringer being the common residents. Bourke’s Luck potholes are just one of the many other attractions waiting to be discovered.
Difficulty: Moderate - advanced
Length: 60km over 5 days (last 2 days are optional)
You may be interested in reading A quick guide to Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route
Happy hiking everybody!
*A set-up that allows you to enjoy all the benefits of hiking, without the burden of a heavy backpack. Typically, a special porterage service delivers your pack to your accommodation at the end of each day – essentially a luxury form of hiking.
Main image & Otter Trail image – Carolyn Dent