South Africa enjoys an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna, from the arid deserts of the north to the lush forests of the south. The country's national parks are some of the best places to experience this diversity, offering visitors the chance to see everything from lions and elephants to rare bird species and stunning landscapes.
Some parks are better known than others. If you want to explore the road less travelled, pick one (or more) of the lesser-known parks and head over there. Most can be explored by self-driving or guided game drives and have accommodation options too.
There are 21 national parks in South Africa which are managed by South African National Parks (SANParks). 19 of them are open to visitors. The other 2 are Groenkloof National Park in Pretoria, where SANParks’ head office is based, and Meerkat National Park in the Northern Cape, a research park which houses the Square Kilometre Array, MeerKAT and HERA telescopes.
Addo Elephant National Park, in the Eastern Cape, is the third largest national park in South Africa. It was originally established in 1931 to protect the last remaining elephants in the region. Since then, it has expanded and has a diverse range of other wildlife too, including lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos and hyenas.
See more about Addo Elephant National Park.
Occupying the southern tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, Agulhas National Park features some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the country. One of its main attractions is the historic Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, which was built in 1848 and is still operational today, offering panoramic views of the coastline and surrounding area from the top. There are several beaches in the park, like Struisbaai Beach, which is popular for swimming and surfing. The area around the park is also known for its seafood, which can be enjoyed at local restaurants.
Augrabies National Park was established in 1966 to protect the magnificent Augrabies Falls. It is known by the Khoi people as ‘Aukoerebis’, or “Place of Great Noise, from which the current name was derived. Millions of litres of water thunder into the 18-km Orange River Gorge over the 56-metre high falls every second, creating a spectacular sight. The landscape also features interesting geological formations and unique vegetation, like the quiver tree. Besides visiting the falls, visitors can go hiking, birdwatching or on game drives.
Read about our experience in Augrabies Falls National Park.
Bontebok National Park is the smallest national park in South Africa. It was founded in 1931 to protect the bontebok, a rare antelope species that was on the brink of extinction at the time. Today, the park has over 150 bontebok, as well as several other mammals and birds.
Camdeboo National Park is situated in the Karoo region, near the town of Graaff Reniet. The semi-arid area is home to the Valley of Desolation, a dramatic landscape of towering rock formations, that rise up to 120 meters above the valley floor. The valley also offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Popular activities here are hiking, game-viewing, birding, 4x4 trails and watersports at the Nqweba Dam.
One of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations, the Garden Route National Park consists of three separate sections: Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, each with their own unique landscapes and biodiversity. Wilderness is known for its tranquil lakes, wetlands and indigenous forests, as well as its birdlife. The Knysna section is where you will find the Knysna estuary, a haven for birdlife and marine animals like the endangered Knysna seahorse. The Tsitsikamma section has towering cliffs, deep gorges, and a rugged coastline with some of the best hiking trails in the country.
Located near the Lesotho border, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is named after the golden glow that the sandstone cliffs give off during sunrise and sunset. The park is known for its breathtaking scenery, which encompasses spectacular sandstone formations, rolling hills, and lush grasslands. A must-see is the Brandwag Buttress, a towering sandstone formation that offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Other highlights include the Echo Ravine waterfall, the Basotho Cultural Village, and the Vulture Restaurant, where visitors can watch endangered Cape vultures feeding.
Read about our experience in Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Spanning over 750 square kilometres, the Karoo National Park is known for its rugged, semi-arid landscape, featuring rolling hills, deep valleys, and stark plains. Its fascinating geology comprises several rock formations and ancient fossils. One can learn about the cultural history of the area at the park's visitor centre, which features exhibits on the San people who once inhabited the region. Wildlife includes black rhino, Cape mountain zebra, red hartebeest, several species of antelope, as well as a variety of bird species.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a large wildlife reserve and conservation area located in the southern Kalahari Desert, straddling the border between Botswana and South Africa. Established in 2000, the park covers an area of over 3.8 million hectares and supports a diverse range of wildlife, including leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, zebras and many species of birds. It also has a large population of Kalahari black-maned lions, which are a desert-adapted species of lion found only in the Kalahari Desert.
Probably the most famous national park in South Africa, Kruger National Park is the size of a small country, crossing both Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. It is one of the largest and most famous game reserves in Africa and is known for its incredible diversity of wildlife sightings and beautiful natural landscapes. The Big Five, cheetah, wild dogs and umpteen more species of wildlife can be seen here. It is also an important birding destination, with over 500 species recorded within the park.
Read about our experiences in Kruger National Park.
Mapungubwe National Park is named after the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe, a pre-colonial civilization that once thrived in the area and left behind a wealth of archaeological treasures dating back to the Iron Age. These can be seen at the Mapungubwe UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the park. Wildlife includes elephants, lions, leopards, hyenas, giraffes, and many species of antelopes and birds.
Located in the Waterberg Mountains, Marakele National Park is set in a stunning mountain landscape, with scenic drives that offer panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The park is divided into two sections - a normal game section and a wild Big Five section. The latter is fenced off and accessed via an electronic gate after passing through a tunnel. The Big Five and other species of animals and birds, including endangered Cape vultures, can be found in the park.
Read about how we got stuck on a mountain in Marakele National Park.
Located near the town of Kimberley, Mokala National Park is Sanparks’ newest park. It is named after the camel thorn tree, an invaluable resource to the wildlife in the area. The park was established in 2007 and features rolling hills, open grasslands, and wooded valleys. Wildlife to look out for are the tsessebe antelope, Cape buffalo, and black rhino.
Mountain Zebra National Park was established in 1937 to protect the endangered Cape mountain zebra, which was then on the brink of extinction. There are now over 1000 in the park as well as other wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, black rhinos and buffaloes. The park is characterised by rugged mountain terrain, rolling grasslands, and deep valleys.
Namaqua National Park consists of the inland Skilpad wildflower reserve section and the coastal Groen River section, which are vastly different. The inland section consists mainly of valleys, plains, green hills and rocky outcrops, while the coastal section, which is lesser known, comprises rocky shores, white sandy beaches and dunes, and beautiful bays. In season, the park has some of the most stunning wildflower displays in the world. A range of wildlife can be seen in the park like antelopes, meerkats and caracals. In the coastal section, one can see seals and dolphins too.
Read about our experience in Namaqua National Park.
Extending from Signal Hill in Cape Town to Cape Point, Table Mountain National Park is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is named after Table Mountain, it’s most iconic attraction and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Some of its other highlights are Boulders Penguin Colony, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The park supports an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna, and there are a myriad of activities in the area.
Tankwa Karoo National Park is a protected area in the Karoo region, which is known for its semi-arid climate and sparse vegetation. Despite the harsh conditions, the park has a wide variety of antelopes, zebras, ostriches, and various other small creatures and bird species. The park also features several geological formations, such as the Elandsberg Mountains and the Tankwa River Canyon, as well as numerous hiking trails for visitors to explore. There are great stargazing opportunities too, as the park has minimal light pollution and a clear sky, making it an ideal location for astronomy enthusiasts.
Situated on a stretch of the South African coastline that is renowned for its rugged beauty, the West Coast National Park is a scenic nature reserve with a diverse range of plant, bird, and animal life. Established in 1985, the park is known for its spectacular landscapes, secret beaches and pristine hiking trails. During wildlflower season, it is one of the best places in the Western Cape to see the spring flowers. Another highlight of the park is the pristine Langebaan Lagoon, a popular spot for water sports such as windsurfing and kayaking. Visitors can also see a range of wildlife, including the rare black harrier and southern right whales (during whale watching season)
Read about our experience in West Coast National Park
Straddling the border between South Africa and Namibia, this park is home to the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and features some of the most unique landscapes and richest desert plants in the world. The park is jointly managed by the local Nama people and the South African National Parks.
Tip: If you plan to visit multiple parks, get the Wild Card, which gives you one year’s unlimited entry to 80+ National Parks, Reserves and Resorts around Southern Africa.
How many of these South African national parks have you visited? Which one is your favourite?
For more information, visit South African National Parks.
Things you must do in South Africa
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