10 Top National Parks in South Africa

Three grazing giraffes | ©Cara Fuller/Unsplash
Three grazing giraffes | ©Cara Fuller/Unsplash
Photo of Carina Claassens
22 October 2017

South Africa is a vast country with many attractions, including a long list of must-visit national parks. Here we round up 10 of the best to make your decision a bit easier. So read on to ensure you experience all that nature has to offer when visiting this remarkable country.

Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape

Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape is the third largest in South Africa and is famous for being home to more than 350 elephants. The park was established in 1931 to protect the eleven remaining elephants in the region – a negative result of hunting and an increase in farming activity. The park protects a diverse habitat rich with fauna and flora, including Cape buffalo, black rhino, the rare flightless dung beetle and many species of birds. There are also many archaeological sites to be visited, including artefacts of the nomadic “Strandloper” people, found on the Alexandria dunefields. When not relaxing in the rest camp, visitors can have a picnic, book a guided walk or trek one of the hiking or 4×4 trails.

A herd of elephants | ©Tobin Rogers/Unsplash

Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape

The Augrabies Falls thunders down from the Orange River Gorge and was aptly referred to as “Aukoerebis” by the Khoi people. The name means “place of great noise” and the 56-meter descent results in a deafening sound as water drops down into the river below. There’s much to do in the park, including two hiking trails, the Klipspringer and the Dassie, night drives for spotting nocturnal animals as well as mountain biking and birding.

Sign leading visitors to the waterfall | ©Ken Treloar/Unsplash

Camdeboo National Park, Eastern Cape

The Camdeboo National Park is a birder’s paradise as approximately 250 bird species have been recorded in the park, so remember the binoculars. There are also many options for unleashing the adventure traveller in you – from 4×4 trails and walking routes to water sports in The Nqweba Dam. The Karoo park is situated in an area abundant with must-see sites, including the Valley of Desolation and the historic town of Graaff-Reinet.

Brown hooded kingfisher | ©Florian van Duyn/Unsplash

Garden Route National Park, Eastern & Western Cape

The massive Garden Route National Park stretches from Tsitsikamma to Knysna to Wilderness across one of the most beautiful parts of the country. From forest excursions and mountain biking to birding, water activities and of course, the Otter Trail – one of the most popular hiking trails in South Africa – there’s so much to do visitors really are spoiled for choice. Whether you’re camping or staying in a self-catering chalet, the park has accommodation options to suit every traveller’s needs. When booking ensure you’re certain of which part of the park you will be visiting, if not all, as each is situated quite a distance from the others.

The swing bridge in the Tsitsikamma section of the park | Courtesy of South African Tourism

Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State

The Golden Gate Highlands National Park boasts rolling hills and expansive views across open plains, with the Drakensberg visible in the distance. The sandstone cliffs found in the park are illuminated in a golden hue when the sunlight catches them, hence the park’s name. Khoisan rock paintings are found in caves scattered throughout the park and visitors can hike to these relevant spots. But, if you only do one hike while here let it be the Brandwag Buttress. The short route is only 2.4 kilometers (1.49 mi) both ways and shouldn’t take more than one hour to complete, there’s one small climb to reach the top and then the breathtaking view.

Brandwag Buttress | ©amanderson2/Flickr

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape

The arid, desert landscape of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park seems unassuming at first glance. That is until a black-maned lion walks through the unfenced camp, or a leopard and her cubs lie down in the shadow of your game-viewing vehicle. The red sand dunes so characteristic of the Kgalagadi create a back drop against which majestic gemsbok (Oryx) are spotted. Quiet evenings are spent stargazing and listening to the sounds of the wild animals.

Oryx | ©Andy Brunner/Unsplash

The Kruger National Park, Limpopo & Mpumalanga

The Kruger National Park covers nearly two million hectares of land and is one of the must-visit destinations in South Africa. It’s important to note that the massive park contains different environments, each with a unique accumulation of fauna and flora. Planning your trip is essential, as it’s impossible to cover large distances, a general map will give you enough information to make an informed decision of where to stay and which animals you could possibly spot. The park is home to the Big Five and it’s not usual to spot all in one day, so keep your eyes peeled, speak to other visitors and check the sighting boards at the rest camps.

Cheetah cub | ©Eric MacDonell/Unsplash

Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo

Mapungubwe National Park is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa and has a rich history filled with tales of royalty. Thousands of years ago the park was home to an African Kingdom that flourished on trade with the East. The most famous discovery made here is that of the Golden Rhino, evidence of the population’s wealth. Besides a fascinating history the park also boasts amazing wildlife sighting opportunities and diverse birdlife, with over 400 recorded species.

African sunset | ©Bernard Du Pont/Flickr

Namaqua National Park, Northern Cape

Namaqua National Park comes alive in spring each year when the wild flowers begin to bloom, colouring the landscape in shades of yellow, purple and pink. More than 3,500 species of plants, of which more than 1,000 are endemic, dominate Namaqua National Park. For those visiting out of flower season there’s much to do; from hiking and visiting national monuments to camping and birding.

Namaqualand daisies in full bloom | Courtesy of South African Tourism

Table Mountain National Park, Western Cape

The Table Mountain National Park covers a large section of the Western Cape, from The Cape of Good Hope all the way through to Table Mountain. The park includes Boulders where visitors share the beach with a colony of African penguins and Table Mountain, a Cape Town icon, which is a must-visit. Whether taking the cable cart to the top or hiking all the way up, the experience is unforgettable, not to mention the view of the Mother City.

View of Lion's Head and Cape Town from Table Mountain | Courtesy of South African Tourism

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