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6 Best South African National Parks

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Despite a tragedy-filled past South Africa is constantly and successfully headed towards a triumphant future. It’s ace card to success is undoubtedly its natural diversity and rich wildlife. Tourists from all over the world flock to this country to be one with nature; and many mostly find it in the many South African National Parks. South Africa houses 21 National Parks, together covering 4,000,000 hectares or over 3% of the country’s total area.

The South African National Parks offer easy encounters with the big five: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros during incredible safaris, while allowing the convenience of glamping (fancy camping that is) and luxury hotels in the midst of the wilderness. Here is our list of the best National Parks in South Africa (in no particular order); each distinct in its own right:

1. Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park in South Africa
A herd of elephants stop for a drink from a pool of water in the Kruger National Park

Shared by Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa, the Kruger National Park is the most famous of all national parks in South Africa. Listed as a UNESCO Biosphere reserve, it is also one of the largest South African National Park covering 19,485 square kilometers. The large size means you are most unlikely to cover it all, so plan ahead to ensure you get to see the sights you wish to see! It is also possible to plan a one-day visit to the park if you plan well.

Highlights

  • The best and most diverse wildlife, with 336 tree types, 49 fish varieties, 34 types of amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.
  • Sites of historical interest such as the Masorini Ruins.
  • The Letaba Elephant Museum.

Lowlights

  • Malaria can be present, so it is a bit of a risky venture.

Kruger National Park Facts

Size: 19,485 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: the big five, hippopotamus, hyenas, giraffes, impalas and several birds, including storks and eagles
Best Time to Visit: June-August; it’s drier, you’re less likely to contract malaria, the vegetation is sparser and animals are drawn to the watering holes where they are easier to spot
Nearby Attractions: Letaba Elephant Museum, Jock of the Bushveld Route, Albasini Ruins, Masorini Ruins, Stevenson Hamilton Memorial Library, Thulamela
Accommodation: 21 rest camps, as well as 2 private lodge concessions, and 15 designated private safari lodges
Possible Activities: Guided walks, mountain biking, game drives, wilderness trails, 4x4 eco trails

For more detailed information on the park, visit our ultimate guide to Kruger National Park.

2. Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa
Golden Gate Highlands National Park offers plenty of interesting short hikes

The park got its name when a farmer saw the last rays of the sun painting the large rock formations on either side of the valley golden. Seeing it at sunset is a must! Beside the sights, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State is a great option for those with an interest in archeology. Archeologists have found both dinosaur eggs and human skeletons here, and you can see San rock paintings too!

Highlights

  • The park affords some wonderful views.
  • You can see some of the San rock paintings up close.
  • A wilderness hike with a village healer will educated you about medicinal herbs and traditional treatments.
  • Plenty of short hiking trails are available for one day visits.

Lowlights

  • It isn’t the best destination for wildlife sighting.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park Facts

Size: 340 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: mongoose, eland, zebras, springboks and a large number of birds, including the Cape Vulture, Blue Crane and Secretary Bird
Best Time to Visit: December-March; it is still warm but cooler than lower valleys where it gets too hot
Nearby Attractions: Basotho culture village museum and the towns of Clarens and Phuthaditjhaba
Accommodation: Glen Reenen, and Brandwag Rest camps, and Golden Gate Hotel
Possible Activities: hiking, horseback riding, canoeing in Gladstone Dam, swimming in the natural rock pool behind Glen Reenen, abseiling

For more detailed information on the park, visit our guide to Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

3. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa
The famous black-maned Kalahari Lion is a probable sight at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

If you want to discover big cats and find out what the desert of South Africa is like, then Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the South African National Parks you will want to visit. Situated on the border of Botswana and South Africa, with about a third of it on the South African land, it’s also a great park for viewing the seasonal movements of animals like blue wildebeest and springbok.

Highlights

  • You may very well be sharing the road here with a lion, especially the famous black-maned Kalahari Lion, or a cheetah!
  • You will not get enough of the beautiful morning and sunset drives.
  • See the red sand dunes of the desert in all their glory.

Lowlights

  • Desert climate makes for very hot days in summer, and very cold nights in winter.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Facts

Size: 38,000 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: gemsbok (desert antelope), black-maned Kalahari lions, sociable weavers, leopards, Namibian cheetahs, springbok, eland, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, eagles, buzzards and secretary birds
Best Time to Visit: May-August; it’s cooler and drier and animals tend to gather at watering holes allowing great opportunities for game sighting
Nearby Attractions: Auchterlonie Museum
Accommodation: one luxury safari lodge, three tourist lodges (rest camps) and six wilderness camps
Possible Activities: several 4x4 trails, as well as guided drives at some of the lodges/camps

For more detailed information on the park, visit our guide to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

4. Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa
Elephants is the biggest attraction and a common sighting at the Addo Elephant National Park

If you love elephants then the Addo Elephant National Park, is the perfect park for you! The third largest protected area in South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park was expanded to include St. Croix and Bird Island, and is also the only place in the world where you can see “Africa’s big seven” - the big five and whale and great white shark, in their natural habitat. 

Highlights

  • See herds of elephants at Hapoor Dam
  • Visit Bird Island and St. Croix Island to see penguins, whales, and the great white shark
  • See the beautiful Zuurberg Mountain and the rolling sand dunes at Woody Cape

Lowlights

  • There are a lot of tourists around the year. Expect it to be crowded and the accommodations to be full.

Addo Elephant National Park Facts

Size: 4,120 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: elephants, penguins, lions, whales, rhinoceroses, lions, buffalos, leopards, sharls, whales
Best Time to Visit: June-September because it’s drier. However, animal sightings are good throughout the year
Nearby Attractions: Port Elizabeth
Accommodation: Addo Rest Camp is the main camp, but there are also several other rest camps, as well as luxury lodges
Possible Activities: 4x4 trails, game drives, horse trails, hiking, marine eco tours

For more detailed information on the park, visit our guide to Addo Elephant National Park.

5. Mapungubwe National Park

Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa
A tourist enjoys the panaroma of Mapungubwe National Park from a viewpoint

The Mapungubwe National Park is another park that features breathtaking landscapes with forests and sandstone outcrops. It’s also home of the Mapungubwe Hill, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe and there have been archeological finds dating back to the iron age (though one have also found fossils of dinosaurs that are a lot older!). You also find a large variety of animals, including lions and elephants here. 

Highlights

  • See the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers
  • The Mapungubwe Hill
  • Plenty of wildlife

Lowlights

  • No cell phone coverage beyond the entry point
  • Malaria is present

Mapungubwe National Park Facts

Size: 280 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: Nile crocodiles, meerkats, African bush elephants, Transvaal lions, southern white rhinos, African leopards, South African cheetahs, Cape wild dogs, hyenas, zebras, South African giraffe
Best Time to Visit: October-March
Nearby Attractions: Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique are all within visiting range
Accommodation: Various camps and a luxury lodge
Possible Activities: Game drives and guided walks are available, as well as visits to the Mapungubwe Hill and the museum at the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, bush braais and a tree top walk (raised canopy walk) are things not to be missed

For more detailed information on the national park, visit our guide to Mapungubwe National Park.

6. Marakele National Park

Marakele National Park in South Africa
A vulture makes a landing at Marakele National Park

The Marakele National Park is one of the national parks South Africa has to offer which offers great spotting of the big five. It also has more Cape vultures than anywhere else in the world!

Highlights

  • Several roads are accessible with a regular car, meaning there is no need for a 4x4
  • You are likely to see Cape vultures and the big five.

Lowlights

  • Baboons and Vervet monkeys often try stealing food at the camps.

Marakele National Park Facts

Size: 670 square kilometers
Common Wildlife Sightings: the big five, Cape vultures, mountain reedbucks, elands and tsessebes
Best Time to Visit: Winter (May-August) can get frosty at nights but the days are pleasant, while in Summer and Fall (October-April) it gets hot, but there are frequent thunderstorms
Nearby Attractions: Welgevonden Nature Reserve, Mama Tau White Lions Breeding Project, Caesar's Bush Palace
Accommodation: two different camps and a guest cottage
Possible Activities: 4x4 eco trails, game drives, bush walks, visit the mountain to get a closer view at the Cape vultures

For more detailed information on the park, visit our guide to Marakele National Park.

There's no lack of National Parks in South Africa, nor wildlife within them. Each one of them offers the flora and fauna that is incredible and you are bound to see landscapes you’ll remember for a lifetime.

If you are short on time to visit any of these national parks, there are safari destinations in close proximity to Cape Town that you can embark on. There are also plenty of game reserves that make for a luxurious substitute for these national parks. Learn more on the differences between the two at our guide to National Parks vs Game Reserves.

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