With its towering amphitheatre and the second highest falls in the world, the Royal Natal National Park has some of the finest scenery in South Africa. These 3 Drakensberg hikes explore the best of this remarkable region.

The Royal Natal National Park in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa is an under-visited but stunning part of the country. Jungle-shrouded valleys and flat-topped plateaus provide the backdrop for some excellent outdoor adventures.

Without a doubt, the most dramatic feature is the Drakensberg Amphitheatre; a 5 kilometre curved wall of rock that drops almost vertically for around 1200 metres. Dropping wispily from its summit is the Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world. It’s a stunning natural attraction.

A myriad of well-signed hiking trails connects the amphitheatre and the falls via remarkable gorges and lush green rolling hills. Of all the places we have visited on our many trips to South Africa, these Drakensberg hikes have provided some of our most memorable and beautiful travel experiences.

In addition to eye-watering scenery, Royal Natal National Park boasts some great accommodation options providing exceptional views of the mountains through the haze of a braai sizzling on perfectly positioned decks.

Here’s our pick of the best Royal Natal National Park hiking trails and tips for visiting.

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MAP / THE ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

To help navigate the hikes in Royal Natal, we suggest you use the Maps.me app. Before you leave for the hike download the area containing the Royal Natal National Park. All the paths detailed on these walks are fully displayed on the app and since it works offline you can follow your progress and quickly spot when you go wrong.

Our map below has an overview of the best Drakensberg hikes in Royal Natal. To save, click on the star the right of the title – this will download the map to your Google Maps account.

HOW TO GET TO ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

There are two entrances into the Royal Natal National Park.

EASTERN ENTRANCE

The eastern entrance provides access to the lower altitude (1,400 metres) part of the park where you can start the Tugela Gorge Hike and the Cascades.

Accommodation in this part of the park is at Thendele Camp or the Mahai Campsite. It’s a 4-hour drive from King Shaka International Airport in Durban and 4 hours 30 minutes from Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg

NORTHERN ENTRANCE

The northern gate gives access to the higher altitude (2,220 metres) part of the park where you start the Top of Tugela Falls Hike. Accommodation in this part of the park is at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. The northern gate is a 5-hour drive from King Shaka International Airport in Durban and 4 hours from Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

witsieshoek royal natal

GETTING BETWEEN WITSIESHOEK & THENDELE CAMP

Although it’s only about 5 kilometres as the crow flies between the two gates, the vertical cliffs of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre are in your way. So, it’s a long and winding 2-hour drive to get between Thendele Camp and Witsieshoek Lodge.

Alternatively, there is a walking path, however, it involves an 800-metre ascent over 5 hours and 30 minutes’ of walking.

ROYAL NATAL ENTRANCE FEES


OPENING TIMES

5am – 7pm October to March | 6am – 6pm April to September.

ENTRANCE FEES

R55 ($3.50 / £2.60 / €3) per person

HIRING A CAR IN ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

Royal Natal National Park is a remote part of South Africa and with public transport non-existent. The best option is to hire your own car so you to see more of the area on your trip.

We recommend rentalcars.com who compare price across all the major car rental companies.

royal natal tugela falls

HIKING IN ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

Summer rains (December through February) can be torrential and temperatures can reach into the mid-30s making hiking tiring. In winter (June to August) the temperatures drop rapidly and the summit of the amphitheatres can be snow-covered. This all makes hiking in winter a chilling experience.

The best time to hike in the Royal Natal National Park is from March to May when the rains have subsided, the temperatures comfortable and the hills are still a verdant green from the winter downpours. September to November are also good for walking but as it is after the dry season the Tugela Falls may have no water in them and the hills will be a parched brown rather than a glittering green.

Whatever time of year you go try to set off early. The early morning has the best light for photos, the clearest skies and less strong winds. In particular, in summer make sure you are back by early afternoon, torrential thunderstorms can appear from nowhere and make the chain ladders slippery and the gullies and gorges outright dangerous.

1 – TOP OF TUGELA FALLS HIKE

Distance – 12-kilometre round trip | Time – 6 to 7 hours | Elevation – 550 metres (+/-) | Difficulty – Medium with two tricky sections

One of the best hikes in the Royal Natal National Park, this magnificent walk takes you to the summit of the 3,000-metre amphitheatre from where the Tugela Falls drops 1,000 metres to the valley floor. The views a magnificent from start to finish. The path meanders in and out of towering basalt columns before rising to the top of the plateau. There are two choices to get to the top: either a scramble up a steep gully or via a pair of chain ladders.

From the top, it’s a simple flat walk to the edge of the escarpment. Here, gaze over the top of the thin waterfall with waves of ridges extending off into the Royal Natal National Park.

Although the path is straightforward to follow, there are a couple of challenging sections. The gully route is steep and full of boulders; it’s something of a slog to get up. The chain ladders on the other hand, contain 150 nerve-testing steps which require a good dose of inner strength.

The walk takes 6 to 7 hours including time to have lunch, put your feet up, and collect photographs of this magnificent scenery. You won’t regret any of it.

drakensberg amphitheatre tugela
tugela falls royal natal

2 – TUGELA GORGE HIKE

Distance – 14-kilometre round trip | Time – 4 hours or longer | Elevation – 450 metres (+/-) | Difficulty – Easy to medium

While the Tugela Falls hike explores the amphitheatre from the top, the Tugela Gorge Drakensberg hike approaches it from the bottom. It follows the Tugela River gorge as it gently winds through the Royal Natal National Park towards the escarpment. It’s a beautiful walk through lush jungle-like scenery with rolling hills in one direction and the imposing Drakensberg amphitheatre in the other. Gradually getting narrower and narrower, the path enters a tight rocky gorge and crosses over the river and back again several times.

The narrowest section of the canyon is the junction of 3 valleys which has several places to enjoy lunch and explore the area.

A short ladder leads to a path that winds up a slope to arrive at a great view of the falls shrouded with dense foliage. If the water levels in the river are not too high, you can boulder hop deeper into the valley to get another vantage point of the falls. If you’re feeling more daring, there’s a second chain ladder with a tough scramble up between two rocks to get another view of one of the world’s most dramatic cliff faces.

The whole walk takes between 4 and 6 hours depending on how long you stay at the picnic point and explore.

Drakensberg amphitheatre from the Tugela Gorge hike
royal natal tugela gorge

3 – CASCADES AND LOOKOUT ROCK

Distance – 5- kilometre round trip | Time – 1 hour 30 minutes | Elevation – 200 metres (+/-) | Difficulty – Easy with a bit of effort at the end

While the other two Drakensberg hikes take most of the day and explore the amphitheatre, this much shorter and easier hike is perfect for a late afternoon stroll. It follows a small stream just under half an hour to the cascades where you will find a small waterfall and a beautiful natural pool that is perfect for an early evening swim.

You could stop here but, if you have a bit more energy, clamber up the rock by the falls and take the relatively steep climb up to Lookout Rock. The path meanders between massive boulders that appear to have materialised from nowhere. The views are great.

The amphitheatre is largely concealed from view, but the rest of the Royal Natal National Park is visible and well worth looking at.

This hike leaves from the parking lot just before the entrance to Mahai campsite. Follow signs for the cascades and then for Lookout Rock. The round trip takes 1 hour and 30 minutes, but with scenery this good, you may decide to stay longer. If the weather is on your side, a swim in the lagoon pool would be a great idea.

If you have the time and motivation for more of a challenge, extend this walk by completing the Plowman’s Kop Loop. This will add an extra 3 to 4 hours.

cascades royal natal
cascades royal natal 1

ACCOMMODATION IN THE ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

The Tugela Gorge hike and the Cascades & Lookout Rock hike are in the lower section of the park and the Tugela Falls hike is in the higher. Given the two areas are a 2-hour drive apart, if you want to do all three hikes you either need to do a long day trip or stay in two different places.Here are our suggestions for staying in Royal Natal National Park.

LOWER PARK

THENDELE CAMP

The views of the amphitheatre from the balcony of these chalets are simply amazing. Each one offers easy access to the Tugela Gorge and cascade hikes and come with their own braai and full kitchen.There’s no restaurant or shop on site, so pick up your supplies at Winterton or Bergville on your way. There’s no internet.

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UPPER PARK

WITSIESHOEK MOUNTAIN LODGE

For the Top of Tugela Falls walk you need to be up the top of the amphitheatre and there is only one place anywhere near it. Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge has magnificent views over the park with a range of 2-bed chalets. The restaurant is decent and they can organise guides, pack lunches and transfers to assist with the hiking.

witsieshoek mountain lodge

BERGVILLE

BERGHOUSE AND COTTAGES

To explore both the top and bottom of the amphitheatre without moving, this is a good option. Situated near Bergville, it’s 30 minutes to the trailheads at the bottom and 1 hour and 45 minutes to the trailhead at the top. It’s also a good base for the Golden Gate Highlands Park (1 hour 15 minutes) and the battlefields (1  hour). Breakfast and dinner included.


BUDGET

AMPHITHEATRE BACKPACKERS

There is minimal public transport at Royal Natal National Park, but if you’re visiting without a car, this is a good option. The Durban – Johannesburg Bus bus stops here three times a week and it runs regular day trips to the Top of Tugela Falls and a shuttle service to the Tugela Gorge. This makes it easier to complete all these Drakensberg hikes without a car.

TIPS FOR VISITING THE ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK

PARK DETAILS

1 – Gates for the Royal Natal National Park open from 5:00 – 19:00 October to March and 6:00 – 18:00 April to September.

2 – Park entrance fees are R55 ($3.50 / £2.60 / €3) per person and are paid at the entrance gate or main visitors centre.

NECESSITIES

3 – There is a shop at Thendele Camp which stocks a few souvenirs, maps, soft drinks, beer and water – nothing you could actually make a meal from. If you’re self-catering, there’s a supermarket in Winterton 30 minutes away.

4 – There’s a restaurant on-site at Witsiehoek Mountain Lodge, however, if you are self-catering, the nearest shop is at Phuthaditjhaba, 30 minutes away.

5 – Apart from Witsiehoek Mountain Lodge reception, there is very limited internet and phone service across the park. Great if you’re looking for a digital detox, but safety is important in the mountains. Check the weather and download any maps you might need before you go.

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SAFETY

6 – Thendele Camp and Witsiehoek Mountain Lodge receptions both sell small yellow leaflets with details of each of the hikes for R5.

7 –  Before each Drakensberg hike, make sure you fill out the hiking register, either at your accommodation in the park, or at the trailhead. And most importantly sign back in when you return.

8 – The differences in altitude across the park and sudden changes in weather mean you need to be prepared for all conditions. Plan for 30-degree days in the valley, freezing nights at the top and sudden torrential downpours anytime.

tendele royal natal

WHERE NEXT?

As one of our favourite places to visit for winter sun, great hiking and incredible wildlife opportunities, we’ve been to South Africa several times. Here’s some more reading you might find useful.

How to design your own South Africa itinerary

When to visit South Africa

5-day Cape Town itinerary

10 reasons to visit the magnificent Drakensberg Mountains

Hiking to the stunning Tugela Falls

A complete guide to Cathedral Peak

27 incredible African safari animals and where to see them

Sabi Sands vs Kruger – which safari experience is better?

10 tips for seeing the most animals on a self-drive Kruger safari


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