5 Garden Route Hiking Trails To Make Your Day In South Africa

From waterfalls and pristine beaches, to mountain peaks and pristine forests, the Garden Route is a nature lover’s wet dream.  

Imagine with me: you just woke up in the Garden Route, South Africa. It’s 6 a.m. and midsummer. The sky is blue and coffee is done. Everything feels possible, and it’s the perfect day for a hike. You ask me for some recommendations. I say, here are five of the very best.

Before we get started, some boring and basic hiking advice: wear closed shoes that grip well, socks that will be as comfortable as on the ten thousandth step as the first, bring plenty of water, plenty of snacks, download an offline map of the trail, and always check the weather.

Drupkelders, Knysna

Drupkelders Garden Route hike
Drupkelders. PHOTO DAVID THESEN

Cheaper than your therapist, and far more beautiful, Drupkelders is a secret, special ravine in the depths of the Knysna Forest. Short, steep, and infinitely worthwhile, this there-and-back-again trail sees you winding through the outskirts of the true Knysna Forest, before dropping right into its heart – a gorgeous gorge of rock pools and placid rapids. The descent demands thoughtful and technical foot placement, and the return uphill demands energy and grit. This is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I could not recommend it more. The water, despite having the colour of strong tea, or weak coffee, is as drinkable and as swimmable as it gets. It almost feels like it has healing qualities. Clothing is optional.

Distance and time: 3.6 km / 2.2 mi, 3 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: Purchase a permit at the Knysna Forest Entry Kiosk (best to book ahead of time, as there is a twelve-person limit per day)

For the: River lovers, forest fairies

Be sure to: Leave around midmorning (to ensure the sun shines into the valley,) bring swimming gear, avoid rainy days, have a swim, have a picnic, and avoid the eels.

Robberg, Plettenberg Bay

Garden Route Hiking Trail South Africa
Photo by Eric Falchier from Pixabay

Robberg means “mountain of seals” and is named for the seal colony that populates its eastward side. A conservation area, an icon of the area, and one of the most popular hikes in the country, this trail traces a ‘U’ shape around a massive peninsula that reaches out into the Indian Ocean. The trail is one long loop, with three options of distance: a short 2.1 km / 1.3 mi, a medium 5.5 km / 3.4 mi, or the full 9.2 km / 5.7 mi. The trail follows the great cliffs overlooking Plettenberg Bay, with its mountain vista, serene waters, and the conversation of seal cries. Once you reach and bend back around the point, hikers now face the humbling power and swell of the sea. It is a hike full of contrast, full of evolution, plenty of sightings of sea power, seal politics, and the endless horizon.

Distance and time: 9.2 km / 5.7 mi (for the full loop), 4 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: R60 (as of 2024,) payable at the gate

For the: Sea lovers, dolphins lovers

Be sure to: Bring something to swim in (the return leg passes a beautiful protected beach,) bring plenty of water (as there are no water points,) get started early in the morning (due to the trail’s popularity, it fills up fast, especially during summer,) and have a celebratory drink or meal in town afterward.

Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail, Wilderness

Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail
Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail. PHOTO DAVID THESEN

Wilderness. More a village than a town, snuggled between the ocean and the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, wrapped up in forest, Wilderness feels like a holiday every day. As the name of the town suggests, wild beauty is abundant here, but so is comfort, quality restaurants, homely bars, and soft beds.

Distance and time: 8 km / 5 mi, 3-4 hours

Difficulty: Easy

Cost: R55 (as of 2024), payable on entry

For the: Waterfall lovers, bird watchers

The Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail is named for the bird of the same name, and is a path that winds up a lush valley, charting the course of the Touw River, bursting with bird life and old-growth trees; this is hiking at its most luxurious. Much of the trail is boardwalked, meaning one is liberated from the regular discomforts of forest-dwelling, like root-stepping, spiderweb-eating, and mud-slipping. The there-and-back trail is well-walked, well-maintained, and well worth the journey. After a river crossing, either by a pontoon or stepping stones, you arrive at the main attraction: a magnificent waterfall. Have a swim, bake yourself dry, have a picnic. Due to the popularity of the trail, there can be some jostling for placement once at the waterfall. But much like a colony of seals fighting over space on a rock, often the best place to be is in the water itself.

Be sure to: Bring swimming materials, look for birds, have a picnic, do the ‘Bosduif’ extension loop if you are seeking at extra challenge (as a trail signboard aptly wrote, it is a short but steep path that will leave hikers ‘breathless’, both for its beauty and its climb.)

Salt River Trail, Natures Valley

Nature’s Valley is a place perfectly named. From the moment you turn off the highway and pass through the pure fynbos, and begin to wind down into the valley proper, passing the titanic and century-old Yellowwood trees, it is obvious whom this place belongs to.

The Salt River Trail is short, sweet, and endlessly rich.

Distance and time: 3.7 km / 2.3 mi (full loop,) 1 hour

Difficulty: Easy

Cost: Free

For the: River lovers, those that enjoy a meal after a hike

Begin by parking your car at the Blue Rocks restaurant, and walking the boardwalk onto the beach. Heading west (right) along the beach, you will see a sign pointing off the beach, into the forest. This will lead you up a winding, climbing trail that leads you through a shade-dappled coastal forest, until delivering you to the Salt River itself. It is rare to have such a diversity of environment on such a short hike: beach, forest, river, ocean. This safe and secluded haven of the river mouth is known as the Mermaid’s Cove, and is a perfect picnic spot. Take your time, have a swim, and catch the sun. Once hikers are ready to return, a choice can be made: either return along the same path they came, or return along the coastal loop. However, this coastal path is only possible during low tide and is very technical, so it is only recommended for experienced hikers, and vital to check the tide tables before making an attempt.

On your return to the car park, and in the soft joy that follows a hike, be sure to treat yourself to a drink or meal at the Blue Rocks restaurant.

Be sure to: Check the tides, if you plan on the full loop, bring a picnic, have a swim, go to the restaurant, spend the whole day in Nature’s Valley.

Cradock & George Peak

En route to Cradock Peak
En route to Cradock Peak. PHOTO DAVID THESEN

The Outeniqua mountain range stands looking over the entire garden route, and of all the peaks that comprise it, Cradock is the highest. This is a serious hike, but the reward for the exertion is unbelievable beauty.

Distance and time: 18.7 km / 11.6 mi, 8-9 hours (Cradock Peak,) or 17 km / 10.5 mi, 7-8 hours

Difficulty: Challenging

Cost: Free

For the: Mountain lovers, those looking for a challenge

The trail begins and ends at the Witfontein Forestry Station. I’d recommend starting as soon as possible in the day – I started at 8:30 am. Wear your most comfortable, well gripping shoes. Bring plenty of water. The path begins by passing through a pine forest, skips along a fern-covered stream, passing a clean and beautiful river (which is the only water point,) before beginning its ascent along a jeep track, train track, and hiking path. As you climb up the ridge you pass through an exhibition of indigenous flora – proteas, ericas, intricate designs, clever flowers. Slowly the sounds of the city fade, and the bird calls and the soft breeze takes centre stage.

Finally, you reach the saddle of the mountain. Here the trail splits: you can either go right towards George Peak or left to Cradock Peak. Despite Cradock only being 850 m further, the majority of that distance is elevation, so this is a good point to check in on your energy reserves and make the right decision. Now in the mountains proper, you are greeted with vistas in every direction – the sea, the Outeniqua mountains stretching West to East, and the semi-arid Karoo region in the North. I felt completely euphoric up there. The strenuous climb had wiped my mind clean of most thought, and the wind blew the rest away. It was one of those perfect moments.

Be sure to: Check the weather, bring plenty of water (3L or more,) wear good shoes, good socks, bring a warm jacket, bring energising food, have a swim in the river on the way back, and enjoy every moment.

You could spend a lifetime chasing beauty in the garden route. Many have. Beauty here is an inexhaustible resource. You can dine every day on a buffet of aesthetic delight: peaks, old-growth forests, hidden rivers, beaches so beautiful you wish you had a fiance and a ring and a retirement plan.

David grew up in the Garden Route.

David Thesen

South African born, happiest outside, David has lived in both Malawi and Myanmar. Interested in gardening, writing, history, and education, he seeks for the strange, the interesting, and the meaningful.

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