The Sentinel Peak (chain ladders) hike

Posted on Posted in Adventure Guide, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The Sentinel Peak is one of the icons of the northern section of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. Standing at 3166 m, it stands guard at the western end of the famous Amphitheatre. It is also home to the Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world!

Tugela falls at the top of the amphitheatre
Tugela Falls plummets down into the valley below.

Hiking the Sentinel Peak

The Sentinel Peak forms part of a multi-day hike that traverses the length of the Amphitheatre. It is also possible to hike the Sentinel Peak as a day hike. This 12km hiking trail starts and ends at the Sentinel Peak parking lot. The hike is also commonly known as the “chain ladders hike” because of a series of chain ladders that take hikers up an almost vertical rock face. For those a little afraid of heights however there is an alternative route up a steep gully known as the Beacon Buttress.

The Sentinel Peak hike ends at the top of Africa’s highest waterfall – the Tugela Falls. This waterfall plunges down a height of 948m to the Tugela valley below. The view from the top is breathtaking if not a little nerve-wracking, but definitely worth the effort! The path is well-marked throughout and has a few narrow sections where congestion may build up during busy periods.

As with all hiking in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, hikers must complete the hiking register with the guard stationed in the parking lot, and check weather conditions before departing. Bad weather and mist can close in quickly in the mountains and hikers can easily become disoriented and lose the trail. In case of emergency, hikers can contact the Mountain Club of South Africa’s volunteer rescue team (KwaZulu-Natal branch), and nearby Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge for updates on local weather conditions.

We completed the Sentinel Peak hike during a recent visit to the Free State’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where there is plenty of other hiking to enjoy. Hikers also commonly choose to overnight at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge or the nearby Royal Natal National Park.

Here is a series of photos from our hike.

The Sentinel Peak in the Drakensberg
The Sentinel Peak stands tall in the Drakensberg.
Bevan climbing the chain ladders
Ascending the famous chain ladders.
The Chain Ladder
The way back down the chain ladders looks far worse than going up it!

Route description

The hike has some narrow sections, but can be attempted by people of all ages and those with a fair to good level of fitness. A well-maintained path ascends the northern slopes towards the Witches and the ZigZags (most of the route’s 472m altitude gain), to the base of the Sentinel massif. There is a short detour to a viewpoint that overlooks the Amphitheatre, Devil’s Tooth and the Inner Tower. From here, a contour path continues below the Western Buttresses and hikers are rewarded with views of the Maluti mountains and Witsieshoek plateau.

The Sentinel Peak hike is commonly referred to as the “Chain Ladders hike” thanks to a series of chain ladders that form a shortcut up the near-vertical face of the Mont-Aux-Sources massif (2987m elevation). There are two sections of ladders – 17m and 13m respectively, and also multiple ladders for each section to ease congestion when the hike gets busy and to allow for two-way traffic. For those less comfortable with heights, there is an alternative path up a steep gully known as Beacon Buttress, but this route is not advised in wet or slippery conditions.

After the chain ladders you have reached the top and all that is left is to cross the relatively level plateau to the Tugela Falls (3036m). The Tugela Falls is the world’s second highest waterfall, and the highest in Africa, falling a distance of 948m to Royal Natal National Park and the Tugela valley below. Plan to spend some time enjoying the views from the top before beginning your descent, and don’t forget to look out for a variety of large birds of prey including the Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) along the way.

Hikers at the top of the Sentinel Peak
Hikers take in the view from the top of the Tugela Falls.
Tugela Falls and river
The Tugela Falls is Africa’s highest waterfall and the second highest in the world.

Important information for hikers

Approximate trail distance:
12 km (7,5 miles)

Approximate time:
1 full day with overnight options (no facilities available on the summit)

Permit details:
Nominal entrance fee payable at the Sentinel Peak car park, no permit required but you must complete the hiker’s register before setting off and also on your return.

Route maps are available from the office at the car park. Be sure to check the weather forecast before you go, or get advice from local establishments who can advise on current conditions. The weather changes quickly at these altitudes so always be prepared for cold and misty weather, even if there are blue skies when you begin the hike. Although the path is well-marked, hikers may choose to take a guide with them who will be able to point out interesting flora and birds along the way.

Overnight parking is available at the car park for those staying overnight on the plateau.

 

Map of the route

What to pack

Warm clothing, a hat and sunblock, as well as sufficient water and snacks. There is water available at the car park but the only water source at the top is the Tugela River which may at times be dry. If you are camping at the top you will need a good tent and warm sleeping bag, as well as all necessary equipment – there are no facilities at the top.

 

When to go

Summer daytime temperatures can be very high, and overnight winter temperatures very low. Beware of fierce thunderstorms in summer. If there has not been any recent rainfall the Tugela may not be flowing and the falls therefore disappointingly dry.

 

Caution

Robberies by Basotho people are becoming increasingly common, so be aware if you are staying overnight. It is recommended that you hike in a group and pass Ifidi Pass before setting up camp.

 

Contact information

Witsieshoek hotel for weather conditions
Land-line: +27 58 713 6361 or +27 58 713 6362
Cell phone: +27 73 228 7391 or +27 83 229 1045

Mountain Rescue (KwaZulu-Natal)
0800 005133

Buttresses Sentinel Peak Hike
The Buttresses along the Sentinel Peak Hike.
The Sentinel Peak
The famous Sentinel Peak.
Amphitheater View Site
Awesome views of the Amphitheater along the route.

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