7 Best Hiking Trails in the Drakensberg Mountains
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Stretching for around 1000km and marking the eastern side of the Great Escarpment, the Drakensberg Mountains (or perhaps more correctly just ‘Drakensberg’, meaning Dragon’s Mountain), offer some of the best hiking opportunities while traveling in South Africa. Here can be found some of southern Africa’s highest peaks and Drakensberg hiking trips offer something for everyone, including gentle half-day hikes, longer multiple-day trips, challenging climbs and, for those with the necessary experience and equipment, technical mountaineering. This is a guide to the seven best known and most rewarding options (in no particular order) in this destination.
1. Rainbow Gorge near Bergville
Known as one of the most scenic day hikes in the Cathedral Peak section of Drakensberg, the trailhead is at Didima Camp and the route passes through woodland, following the Ndumeni River upstream. At the end of the 5.5km trail, you will reach the cascade that gives its name to the hike — in the right light conditions, the water tumbling down from above creates a rainbow effect. This trail is not too difficult, lasting only 2 hours and is suitable for families with children. There is a good chance of spotting wildlife, and the birdlife is especially rich.
- Particularly beautiful and photogenic trail
- Good for wildlife
- Rainbow waterfall at the end
2. Chain Ladders Hike in Northern Drakensberg
One of Drakensberg’s most challenging day hikes and for experienced walkers only, the trail takes hikers right up the Amphitheatre, a huge cliff face over 1,200m high. Starting at the Sentinel car park, the trail’s final slog involves scaling a number of ladders that have been attached to the rockface. At the end of it all, you will be rewarded with the stupendous views of the surrounding area. For those afraid to tackle the ladders, another less vertiginous route is available. It is also possible to camp on the top and complete the 18km trail in two days.
- Challenge of conquering the ladder section
- Spectacular views from the top of the Amphitheatre
- Sunrise and sunset if you decide to camp at the top
3. Lower Injisuthi Cave in Injisuthi
This is known as one of the most worthwhile medium-length hikes in the region. Starting at the Injisuthi Rest Camp, the trail follows the Injisuthi River valley and affords some wonderful views of the mountainous landscape in the distance. The trail passes Battle Cave and Junction Cave, both famous for San rock art, and Boundary Pool, where you can swim. If you feel that walking the 12km trail and back again is too much for just one day, it is possible to overnight in the cave at the end of the trail.
- San cave art
- Beautiful scenery
- Places to swim along the way
4. Cathedral Peak – Cathedral Ridge
The ascent of Cathedral Peak makes for an extremely challenging one-day excursion and is for experienced hikers only. It is possible to scale the 3,004m peak independently, but conditions can be treacherous and it is recommended to go with a guide. Climbing this peak is considered ‘non-technical’ but the final section is not for the faint-hearted and most operators take ropes to ensure safety in the final ascent. This is nevertheless one of the most commonly climbed peaks in the Drakensberg range. The 19km can also be split into two days if you’d like to spend one night in a cave.
- Stunning view from the top
- Adrenaline and sense of accomplishment from completing the final section
- Good one-day hike for those who like to push themselves
5. The Mnweni Circuit in Northern Drakensberg
Usually done as a two-day hike that takes in several high passes and takes hikers to a part of the Drakensberg that is far less frequented than some of the more popular hiking routes, this is nevertheless one of the loveliest areas of the whole range. Some of the highlights include sublime views of Cathedral Peak in the distance and the chance to freshen up in rockpools along the way. The total distance is 46km with a total of around 2,000m altitude gain so this is not a hike for novices – but for those who are capable, this route is one of the hidden gems of Drakensberg.
- Less busy and more remote than some of the more popular trails
- Stunning unspoilt mountain scenery
- Views of Cathedral Peak in the distance
6. Ploughman’s Kop in Royal Natal Park
This is a short but tough trail that starts at the Mahai campsite in the Royal Natal Park. About 7km long, the hike takes around three hours to complete. The route climbs steeply before descending to the Ploughman’s Kop rockpools at the end of the trail. There are several other pools throughout the way, allowing a quick dip whenever walking becomes tiresome. The trail also affords fantastic views of the famous Amphitheatre cliff face.
- A dip in the plunge pools along the way
- Ploughman’s Kop pools at the end
- Views of the Amphitheatre
7. Giant’s Cup Trail in uKhahlamba Park
Possibly the most famous of all the Drakensberg hiking routes, the 68km Giant’s Cup Trail usually takes around five days to complete. This is the only trail with an official route, starting at Sani Pass and finishing at Bushman’s Nek. Most of the trail passes through the foothills rather than the high mountains so is not considered particularly strenuous. It is possible to do this hike independently or with a guide.
- Views of Giant’s Castle rock formation
- Well-marked trail, easy to follow
- Huts with bunk-rooms every night
Whatever your hiking ability, if you love the great outdoors and you appreciate clean, fresh air and dramatic mountain scenery, you are sure to find trails to suit you in the Drakensberg Mountains. For families with young children and experienced, serious walkers alike, Drakensberg hiking trips offer the chance to refresh your mind in South Africa’s great natural wonderland. A stop at Drakensberg on a trip to South Africa is sure not to disappoint.
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