There are many national parks in South Africa, each offering a different kind of experience, a different scenery, and different wildlife. As I have been to South Africa many times (it’s one of my favorite countries to visit!), I have been (almost) all over the place, so I thought I’d give you a selection of the best national parks in South Africa – just a short blurb of what you can expect to see when you visit.
Whether you want to see lions, zebras and cheetahs, or hike to gorgeous waterfalls and viewpoints, there’s something for any traveler in this marvelous country. Continue reading as I share with you my favorite national parks in South Africa.
Don’t forget to also read my post 27 Fabulous Places To Visit In South Africa.
The Best National Parks In South Africa
Kruger National Park
A post on the best national parks in South Africa is bound to start with Kruger National Park. This is one of South Africa’s premier destinations for nature lovers. This is actually one of the largest game reserves in the whole African continent, and as such is home to some of its most famous animals. Here you’ll find buffalo, elephants, cheetahs, rhinos, leopards, hippos, lions, giraffes, and zebras.
Combine with that over 500 bird species, and many more different types of mammals and other creatures, and you can see why Kruger National Park is such a big hitter of a destination.
Located in northeastern South Africa, Kruger takes up space in both the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and clocks in at over 12,100 square miles (19,485 square kilometers). Though it’s such a vast area, this national park can sometimes seem relatively busy as there are just so many people here to see the lions.
But all in all, Kruger is very accessible and there’s plenty of good value accommodation to be found within the boundaries of the national park.
For a full day safari in Kruger National Park, click here.
Marakele National Park
Found within Limpopo Province, Marakele National Park makes up part of the larger UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, comprising the southwest portion of this large protected area. Unlike the plains of Kruger National Park, Marakele is characterized by its cliffs and undulating mountains.
Here you can see the original “Big Five” game species: lions, rhinos, elephants, African buffalo, and leopards. You can also see zebras, cheetahs, and giraffes in their natural habitat too.
This South African national park is actually split into two distinct portions. In the west is where you’ll find rhinos primarily, while in the east there’s more of a diversity in the types of wildlife you’ll see.
Choosing to stay within Marakele National Park means opting for an adventurous tented accommodation (it’s what I actually recommend, as you get to sleep hearing the incredible sounds of the bush!), while on the outskirts there are a number of lodges and private reserves to choose from.
Head over to my post The Best Road Trips In South Africa.
Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park is one of the largest national parks in South Africa (the third largest, to be precise) — and it’s not hard to see what this particular one is famous for. Situated 70 kilometers (43 miles) to the north of Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape Province, the aim of this national park is to protect the remnants of the enormous herds of elephants that once upon a time wandered freely around this part of the country.
It has been a success story. When the park first opened in 1931 there were only a few elephants left, but thankfully today they number more than 600. Chances are if you go to Addo you will be able to spot an elephant.
Most visitors spend one or two days visiting Addo Elephant National Park. There’s plenty to see here besides elephants too; the park also protects a number of other renowned animals, including zebras, black rhinos, lions, spotted hyenas, and Cape buffalo. That’s not to mention the whole host of bird life that can be glimpsed.
Land animals may be the most famous in Addo, but there are marine animals too. Algoa Bay, also included in the boundaries of the national park, is the place to spot great white sharks and southern right whales. Even the insect life back on dry land is of note, with the endemic flightless dung beetle a particular highlight.
For a selection of safaris in Addo Elephant National Park, click here.
Garden Route National Park
Garden Route National Park was created in 2009 primarily through the inclusion of three existing national parks in South Africa into the popular road trip that is the Garden Route. This coastal reserve includes the Wilderness National Park (now the Wilderness Section), as well as Tsitsikamma National Park (or Tsitsikamma Section), the Knysna National Lake Area (Knysna Section), as well as other government-administered reserves and portions of wilderness.
This merger of parks brings the total area of the Garden Route National Park to 1,210 square kilometers (470 square miles) of epic and quite diverse nature to explore. For starters, there are over 600 square kilometers (234 square miles) of indigenous forest growing along the route.
Situated within both the Western and Eastern Cape provinces, it offers a wide-ranging and easily explorable portion of natural landscapes and wildlife for visitors to discover. Lying at the western end, the Tsitsikamma Section, for example, features a breathtaking coastline; here you’ll find the famous hiking route known as the Otter Trail (named for the Cape clawless otter that lives here). It’s also a fun place to go ziplining.
To book your ziplining experience in Tsitsikamma, click here.
Elsewhere the Wilderness Section protects five lakes and interconnecting waterways; there’s a collection of intriguing archaeological sights to see within this portion of the Garden Route National Park too, not to mention a series of easy to follow hiking trails that will take you to lovely swimming holes and waterfalls.
Plan to spend at least three days in the Garden Route National Park – you can base yourself in either Wilderness or Knysna, which both have lots of good accommodation options and restaurants (Knysna is where the famous oysters come from!).
You should also read my post A Guide To The Things To Do In Knysna And On The Garden Route.
Mountain Zebra National Park
Set in Eastern Cape Province, Mountain Zebra National Park was established in 1937 in order to protect the endangered mountain zebra. This variety of zebra is one of the rarest in existence and in the 1930s its numbers dropped to such a low level that it almost became extinct. In fact, there were less than 10: five stallions and one mare in the park when it was established.
Now the herd has grown to over 800 in total, and the park has also increased in size over the years. Covering an area of 280 square kilometers (108 square miles), it takes up the northern portion of the Bankberg mountain range, which is the natural habitat of these majestic creatures.
Hiking trails weave around grasslands and up into the slopes of the mountains, with succulent plants dotting some areas; some of which burst into flowers when spring rolls around.
It’s not just mountain zebras who find their home in this national park. You can also glimpse white rhinos, a number of different antelope and buffalo species, a handful of lions, and even some cheetahs for good measure.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Situated in the province of Free State, close to the border with Lesotho, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is, as the name suggests, typified by its grandiose cliffs and outcroppings of rock. These amber-hued formations provide a backdrop to explorations in the area; one of the most famous is the dramatic Brandwag Buttress, which juts out from the lush green landscape to soar into the sky.
There are also some interesting caves and sandstone cliffs near the coast, which offer up some incredible hiking opportunities. It’s actually possible to enter into some of these caves to see the cave paintings that were done by the San people over centuries.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is home to a large range of mammals including zebras, wildebeests, springboks, chacma baboons, and elands (a type of antelope). Bird life in the park includes Cape vultures, secretary birds, and blue cranes. No wonder it’s one of the most popular national parks in South Africa.
Table Mountain National Park
Table Mountain National Park is perhaps the most famous national park in the whole country. Named for its iconic landmark, Table Mountain, which looms over the city of Cape Town, the national park covers an area of 221 square kilometers (85 square miles) and was officially established in 1998. It makes up part of the larger UNESCO Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.
The landscape here is a mix of soaring granite and sandstone peaks, lush forests, and long stretches of sandy beaches dotted with boulders.
The main attraction is the flat-topped Table Mountain. Soaring to a height of 1,084 meters (3,558 feet) above sea level, it can be hiked up but most visitors choose to take a ride on the cable car. It’s not just hiking that attracts adventurous tourists to the area, but also adrenaline-inducing sports like abseiling and paragliding.
In terms of wildlife, there’s a long list of interesting species that live within the boundaries of Table Mountain National Park. This includes porcupines, the endemic Table Mountain ghost frog, and tortoises, as well as peregrine falcons, African harrier-hawks, and jackal buzzards.
Table Mountain is a fantastic sunset spot too, and offers stunning views of the coast and Cape Town – just don’t go up if the weather is not good though. Locals will tell you that if you can’t see Table Mountain from Cape Town, you won’t see Cape Town from Table Mountain. I did not listen and went up when it was foggy – and well, I could not see a thing and had to go back on a different trip!
Visiting this national park is easy if you’re staying in Cape Town — it’s just an Uber ride (or bus ride) away to reach either the beginning of one of the trails that take you there, or to the cable ride that takes you all the way to the top.
For the best tours of Table Mountain National Park, click here.
If you’d rather hike to the top of Table Mountain, you may want to consider this tour.
You should also read my posts A Complete Guide To The Table Mountain Hike and 24 Best Things To Do In Cape Town.
Agulhas National Park
Situated in the Overberg region of Western Cape Province, around 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Cape Town, Agulhas National Park is a primarily coastal stretch of protected land. Making up the southernmost tip of the African continent, here is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
The main landmark here is the Agulhas Lighthouse, which stands proudly on the cliffs and has done since it was first lit in 1849 (the second-oldest in the country). This is actually one of the smallest national parks in South Africa, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting: what it lacks in size, Agulhas makes up for in the sheer amount of flora and fauna you can see here.
For one thing, this national park is home to over 2,000 species of native plants and a very important wetland for bird and amphibian life. The coast here is a treasure trove of whale-watching opportunities, particularly between November and January.
Also, contrary to what most people think, Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point in Africa (indeed, it is not Cape of Good Hope!).
Karoo National Park
Inaugurated in 1979, Karoo National Park is situated in Western Cape Province. Here among its 768 square kilometers (296 square miles), this nature reserve protects an important habitat for some of South Africa’s most famous animals.
Here you’ll find springbok, Cape mountain zebra, bat-eared foxes, black rhinos, and — more recently — lions too. In addition, you may even have the chance to spot tortoises as Karoo National Park boasts five different species of tortoise — more than any other national park in the world.
Karoo is also a paradise for bird watchers, being home to a number of species including black eagles, Cape eagle-owls, and booted eagles.
It’s made up primarily semi-desert, with a slice of the wide-ranging Great Escarpment making up part of its eastern portion, thus adding a certain amount of altitude to its landscape. You can join guided tours along its myriad trails, but the park is perhaps best explored with the aid of a 4X4 vehicle.
Bontebok National Park
Also located in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, Bontebok National Park was set up in 1931 with the aim of creating a protected area for the conservation of the bontebok antelope. These antelopes, which used to roam here in massive groups, are endemic to the wider UNESCO-recognized Cape Floral Region (of which the park is a part).
They were hunted almost completely to extinction, numbering only 30 by the time the park opened. The current population of the species worldwide now numbers 3,000, though the national park itself is home to only around 200 or so bontebok antelopes.
This is one of the smallest national parks in South Africa, with an area of 28 square kilometers (11 square miles), and is home not only to bonteboks but also other species including the Cape clawless otter and more antelope species besides.
West Coast National Park
Established in 1985, West Coast National Park — situated just to the north of Cape Town — measures 362.59 square kilometers (140 square miles). It’s included within the UNESCO Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve, which is a much larger area of protected land.
As the name suggests, this national park stretches along the Atlantic Coast and also includes the sparkling blue waters of the Ramsar-designated Langebaan Lagoon. Due to its coastal location, the park also includes many other wetlands, which are important breeding grounds for a variety of wading bird species that flock here in the summer months.
Just offshore there are islands included within the boundaries of West Coast National Park. These provide a home for an entirely different species of bird: African penguins. Inland, even ostriches can be seen.
Aside from the birds, wildlife here includes antelopes, mountain zebras, and caracals. As well as the fauna, the flora also draws visitors, with flowers blooming in August and September making for picturesque scenery to hike amongst.
You can explore the West Coast National Park on an e-bike safari. This tour departs from Cape Town and it’s all inclusive, and completely hassle free.
Otherwise, you can go on this tour that departs from Stellenbosch instead.
Augrabies Falls National Park
You’ll find Augrabies Falls National Park in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province. Taking its name from the Augrabies Falls — the park’s main attraction — the park spans an area of 820 square kilometers (320 square miles).
The famous waterfall itself (part of the Orange River) is an impressive sight, dropping 56 meters (183 feet) into a sweeping gorge below. The name Augrabies comes from the original Khoekhoe language word Ankoerebis, meaning “place of big noises”.
It’s not the only waterfall in the area though. Just nearby is the 75-meter (246-feet) tall Bridal Veil Falls, which is connected to Augrabies Falls via easy-to-follow boardwalks.
Beyond the cascades themselves there’s more nature in the park to entice visitors; you’ll find big mammals such as zebras, antelopes, and giraffes. There’s also a legend that tells of the world’s largest stash of diamonds hiding in a hole in the granite eroded by the Augrabies Falls!
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is huge, sprawling across an area of 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) and spilling across the borders into Botswana. Three-quarters of the park lies in Botswana, in fact, where it is called Gemsbok National Park; the South African portion (set in Northern Cape Province) is also known as Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.
This is a classic safari destination, with a large part of it lying within the famed Kalahari Desert. Here among the red sand dunes and dry river beds roam all manner of characters from the Lion King — hyenas, African leopards, cheetahs, and lions.
Millions of wildebeest make their migratory way through the landscape of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park seasonally, with herds of springbok and eland also migrating through. Bird life too can be spotted within the South African boundaries of the park, including eagles, raptors, and buzzards.
It is a place of dramatic extremes, where rivers are said to flow only once in a hundred years, and trees seemingly grow out of the dust itself. Come here to stay a while; there are plenty of safari options, as well as fully serviced lodges and wilderness camps on offer — the skies at night here are out of this world.
Mokala National Park
Also situated in Northern Cape Province, the deserted Mokala National Park takes its name from the Setswana word for the camel thorn tree that grows in the area.
Spanning an area of 196 square kilometers (75.7 square miles), the national park protects a number of endangered species that have been moved there to ensure their continued survival. This includes roan antelopes, Cape buffalos, black rhinos, and white rhinos.
Bird species are well represented in its boundaries; here you’ll find the endemic black-chested prinia, the chestnut-vented warbler, and Cape buntings. Birds have adapted to prefer hanging around near lodge areas, where you’ll find them nesting in the eaves of accommodation or picking around the lawns.
Speaking of accommodation, there are a handful of lodges dotted around Mokala National Park, providing a jumping-off point for exploring this expanse of dry, arid landscapes.
Tankwa Karoo National Park
Taking up parts of both the Northern and Western Cape Provinces, Tanka Karoo National Park is an adventurous place to explore. It’s a very dry place, with less than 100 millimeters of rain experienced each year, punctuated with jutting cliffs.
The park was established in 1986 and covers an area of 1,436 square kilometers (554 square miles); its size has increased over the years to include the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
Despite being such a dry, seemingly inhospitable region, Tankwa Karoo National Park is home to a wide range of wildlife. There are almost 200 species of birds making their home here, including Ludwig’s bustard, black-headed canaries, and black-eared sparrow-lark, as well as dozens of mammals including aardvarks, leopards, kudu, meerkats, springboks, caracals, Cape hares, and South African wildcats.
Being situated relatively close to the city of Sutherland (around 70 kilometers or 43 miles), it’s one of the most easily accessible national parks in South Africa. There are a number of campsites, wilderness lodges, and cottages to stay in throughout the boundaries of the park and on its outskirts.
Situated in KwaZulu-Natal Province close to the border with Lesotho, this is one of the most beautiful national parks in South Africa.
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is actually made up of 12 different areas, all established between 1903 and 1973, showcasing a long-standing history of conservation in the region. Set across 2,430 square kilometers (938 square miles), it makes up part of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Royal Natal National Park.
The landscape here features some of the highest peaks in southern Africa (not just the country). It’s got such breathtaking beauty that it’s hard to do it justice without visiting to see it for yourself.
But it’s not just high altitude: the landscape here is also diverse. There are virgin grasslands, badlands, verdant mountain passes, and Ramsar-recognized wetlands. It provides a habitat for a great number of endemic species and also is the location of ancient rock paintings (thought to be as old as 100,000 years).
Amazingly, there’s accommodation to help you experience it first hand — everything from luxury lodges to the chance to stay the night in cave accommodation.
If you are keen on just a day trip, you can consider joining this highly rated tour that departs from Underberg.
These other posts will be useful when planning a trip to South Africa:
- Everything You Must Know About Driving In South Africa
- The Complete Guide To Renting A Car In South Africa
- 13 Great Day Trips From Cape Town
- The Best Beaches In South Africa