South Africa is the ultimate nature paradise. The country boasts a myriad of ecosystems, each with their own unique terrain, animals and plant life, extending from coast to coast. From the lush forests of the Western Cape to the arid deserts of the Karoo, there’s such an abundance of nature settings throughout South Africa to explore.
South Africa has an extensive national park system, with 19 distinct parks that reflect the diversity of the landscape and offer something for everyone; wildlife viewing, water activities, bird watching, and mountain climbing amongst many other things. Just about everyone traveling to South Africa knows of Kruger, but many visitors don’t take the time to explore the other national parks. Most of the people you encounter across the country’s national parks are local South Africans, who love nothing more than getting out into nature whenever they have the chance.
Exploring South Africa through its national parks is a unique experience. These are often vast expanses of undeveloped and protected land away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Incorporating South Africa’s national parks into our nearly month long road trip throughout the country was one of the best things we did. Here are all of my tips gathered from planning our own trip, as well as an overview of each of South Africa’s national parks.
How to Explore South Africa’s National Parks
All of South Africa’s national parks offer their own accommodations, allowing you to stay on the premises after everyone else leaves for the day. You have the rare opportunity to be directly in nature, often in near isolation, where it’s impossible not to relax amidst your surroundings. The lodgings vary from park to park but run the gamut from camping to rustic cabins to luxe chalets, and you’ll likely have an option at every budget level, especially in the larger parks. If you’re not camping, you can expect basic but comfortable self-catering accommodations that have everything you would need like towels and kitchen items. Staying within one of South Africa’s national parks adds a new dimension to your experience.
If you opt to stay outside of the national parks, you can visit for the day while the gates are open, often during daylight hours. You must pay a conservation fee to enter but are able to take advantage of most of the activities and excursions while on site. Most of South Africa’s national parks have dedicated picnic spots throughout the grounds, which offer a pleasant and scenic stop when visiting.
Each park has its own offerings, though not all of them are ideal for game viewing, particularly in a safari-like setting. Some parks are renowned for their landscape and terrain (Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Karoo National Park, Namaqua National Park), some for their proximity to the ocean (Garden Route National Park, Table Mountain National Park, Agulhas National Park), some for their cultural heritage (Mapungubwe National Park, Mokala National Park), and, of course, some for game viewing (Kruger National Park, Kgalagedi National Park, Addo Elephant National Park).
All of the parks offer a range of both free and paid activities that can include hiking, rock climbing, biking, game drives (both guided and self guided), bush walks, boating, swimming, bird watching, horse riding and fishing. A few of the parks have onsite education centres to provide additional context into the history of the area, local culture or the flora and fauna of the region. An additional benefit to staying in one of the national parks is that some offer activities that aren’t available to day visitors, like professional game drives before and after the gates are closed, providing a unique opportunity to view wildlife when they’re most active and away from hundreds of other vehicles.
If you’re staying on site, you will likely have access to a kitchen either in your chalet or cottage or in a communal kitchen area. Every place that we stayed within the national parks had its own braai – a charcoal barbecue – that most visitors use to make their meals. Only the larger parks have a shop on site, and when they do they often only have the bare necessities, so it’s a good idea to buy food and a bag of charcoal on your way into the park. A few of the larger parks have an onsite restaurant that you can opt for instead, and some include breakfast when you’re staying on site.
Each park has a daily conservation fee that every visitor has to pay, including if you’re staying on the premises. The fee varies by park and ranges from 80 to 328 Rand ($6 to $25 USD) for international visitors, though the price for South Africans can be up to four times less. If you’re planning on visiting several of South Africa’s national parks, consider the Wild Card, which gives access to all parks for a year starting at 2,210 Rand ($164 USD) for an individual, 3,455 Rand ($258 USD) for a couple and 4,130 Rand ($308 USD) for a family.
Most national parks require a vehicle to enter and access the grounds. Many of the parks have driving route that take you through various parts of the park and game viewing if applicable, some of which may only be accessibly by 4×4 vehicles so you might want to consider a SUV for your visit.
SAN Parks Website
Everything you need to know about South Africa’s national parks are on its website. Here you can learn about the different parks, the animals and plant life in each, accommodation options and even view live webcams from across the parks. The SAN Parks website also allows you to book accommodation online in a fairly easy and straight forward way.
South Africa National Parks Overview
A summary of the parks, listed clockwise starting from Johannesburg.
Marakele National Park
Location: Limpopo, north of Pretoria and close to the Botswana border
Known for: ‘Big Five’, vultures, excellent panoramas
What to do: Game drives, eco trail (2 nights), bush walks, Matlabas River, Waterberg Mountain, birding
Where to stay: Bontle Safari Tent
Mapungubwe National Park
Location: Limpopo, bordering on both Botswana and Zimbabwe
Known for: Ancient African history, ‘Big Five’ (except Buffalo)
What to do: Eco trails (4×4 required), Interpretation Centre, visit Confluence of the three countries, tree top walk, heritage tour, bird hide, night game drive, guided walks, hiking trails, birding
Where to stay: Leokwe Rest Camp Cottage
Kruger National Park
Location: Limpopo & Mpumalanga, sprawling from Nelspruit in the south to the Zimbabwe border, along the border of Mozambique.
Known for: ‘Big Five’, safariing, diversity of animals, birding, busy
What to do: Game drives, wilderness trails, guided walks, mountain biking, eco-trails, birding, golf
Where to stay: Lower Sabie Lux Safari Tent (south Kruger), Olifants Bungalow (mid Kruger), Shingwedzi Bungalow (North Kruger)
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Location: Free States, near northern border of Lesotho and close to Clarens
Known for: R&R, hiking, Basotho culture, stunning landscapes, sandstone cliffs
What to do: Hike, self drive routes, visit Basotho Cultural Village, pony rides, herbal trail guide
Where to stay: Highlands Mountain Retreat Log Cottage
Mountain Zebra National Park
Location: Eastern Cape, north of Port Elizabeth near Cradock
Known for: Cheetahs, Black Rhinos, Cape Mountain Zebra, Karoo desert landscapes, star gazing
What to do: Cheetah tracking, game drives, cave paintings tour, hiking, walking trails, self drives (4×4 required)
Where to stay: Mountain Cottage
Addo Elephant National Park
Location: Eastern Cape, near Port Elizabeth
Known for: ‘Big Five’, large elephant herds, ocean
What to do: Self drive safaris, guided game drives, hiking trails, horse trails, marine eco-tours, birding
Where to stay: Spekboom Safari Tent
Garden Route National Park
Location: Eastern & Western Cape, comprised of three separate parks: Tsitsikamma, Knysna and Wilderness
Known for: Ocean, forests, stunning landscapes, small towns, marine life
What to do: Hiking, swimming, birding, mountain biking, multi day hikes, boating, snorkling & scuba diving
Where to stay: Forest Cabin at Storms River Mouth Rest Camp (Tsitsikamma), Tree Top Chalet (Knysna), and Log Cottage at Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp (Wilderness)
Mokala National Park
Location: Northern Cape, near Kimberley
Known for: Endangered species, open plains, rock art, night skies, visit the Interpretation Centre
What to do: Game drives, fishing, bird watching
Where to stay: Kameeldoring Treetop Chalet
Camdeboo National Park
Location: Eastern Cape, in Graaf-Reinet
Known for: Karoo landscape, Valley of Desolation, birding, Nqweba Dam, tranquility
What to do: Self guided drives (some 4×4 only), walking trails, boating, fishing, visit the Camdeboo Environmental Education Centre
Where to stay: Lakeview Tent
Karoo National Park
Location: Western Cape, near Beaufort West
Known for: Desert ecosystem, Klipspringer Pass, reintroduced lion tribe, birding, intense sunsets
What to do: 4×4 Eco Trails, self drive loops, guided game drives, guided walks, bird hides, Ou Schuur Interpretive Centre
Where to stay: Cottage
Bontebok National Park
Location: Western Cape, near Swellendam
Known for: Langeberg Mountains, Breede River, diverse plant life, nearby small towns
What to do: Self drive game viewing, bird watching, hiking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking
Where to stay: Chalet
Tankwa Karoo National Park
Location: Northern & Western Cape, northeast of Cape Town
Known for: Karoo desert, arid landscape, distant mountains, Gannaga Pass, Elandsberg
What to do: Self drive game viewing, bird watching, star gazing, 4×4 trails, hiking, biking,
Where to stay: Elandsberg Cottage
Agulhas National Park
Location: Western Cape, southern tip three hours from Cape Town
Known for: Southern most tip of Africa, oceans, Cape Agulhas lighthouse, shipwrecks, bird varieties, marine life
What to do: hiking trails, bird watching, fishing, whale watching, swim, surf, visit nearby fishing villages
Where to stay: Chalet at Agulhas Rest Camp
Table Mountain National Park
Location: Western Cape, extending from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope
Known for: Table Mountain, penguins at Boulder’s Beach, Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope, ocean, coastal views, beaches
What to do: Visit the Cape lookouts, hike Lion’s head, hike or take Cable Car up Table Mountain, water sports, adventure activities
Where to stay: Orangekloof Tent at Hoerikwaggo (Silvermine)
West Coast National Park
Location: Western Cape, an hour north of Cape Town
Known for: Langebaan Lagoon, bird watching, flowers, beaches, coastal views
What to do: hike, mountain biking, kayak, bird watching, whale watching, self game drives, multi day treks
Where to stay: Abrahamskraal Cottage
Namaqua National Park
Location: Northern Cape
Known for: Flower fields (August to September), arid landscape, ocean views, caracals
What to do: Hike, bike, 4×4 drive trails, walking trails
Where to stay: Skilpad Rest Camp Chalet
Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
Location: Northern Cape extending into Namibia
Known for: Desolate landscape, mountains, star gazing, flower fields, leopards
What to do: Overnight trails, hiking, fly fishing, river rafting, game drives, bird watching
Where to stay: Tatasberg Wilderness Camp Reed Cabin
Augrabies Falls National Park
Location: Northern Cape, near Namibian border
Known for: Augrabies Waterfall, river gorge, Orange River, distant mountains, nocturnal animals
What to do: Visit the falls, day and multi night hikes, self-drive game viewing, night drives, mountain biking, bird watching
Where to stay: Gorge Cottage
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Location: Northern Cape extending into Botswana
Known for: Red dunes, Kalahari plains, abundance of animals, Black Maned Lions
What to do: Sunset & midnight game drives, morning walk, Nossob Predator Centre, 4×4 trails
Where to stay: Kieliekrankie Wilderness Camp Dune Cabin
Map of South Africa’s National Parks
South Africa National Park photos by JP Bervoets and courtesy of Flickr: Ewan, South African Tourism (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Amanderson2, Bernard DUPONT (1, 2, 3), Darren Glanville, Bradclin Photography, Mike Cilliers.