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Walking with elephants in the Knysna forest

The Knysna Forest is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream location and offers some of the best hiking and birding opportunities in the region. It is also a place of deep mystery and intrigue as ancient trees shroud and protect one of South Africa’s most elusive creatures…

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Knysna Forest highlights

  • Try to find the last of the Knysna Elephants.
  • Experience a natural wonderland within this indigenous landscape.
  • Meet endemic birds and animals throughout the forest.
  • Encounter ancient trees that have survived here for centuries.
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The Garden Route and Knysna Forest

Few locations are as appealingly named as the Western Cape’s Garden Route. As the name suggests, this roughly 300km stretch of coastline is famous for its natural beauty and country lifestyle. Just a glimpse of the white sand beaches, steep rocky cliffs, expansive calm estuaries and verdant forested mountains, and you’ll understand exactly how the Garden Route got its name.

Knysna is one of the most established of the coastal towns on the Garden Route, and a firm favorite among visitors for its proximity to a wealth of natural attractions and its many foodie and lifestyle festivals. The town is situated on the banks of the Knysna Lagoon and is bordered by the Indian Ocean to the south and the Outeniqua Mountains to the north. This incredible mountain range is swathed in a green blanket called the Knysna forest – an indigenous Afromontane forest and one of South Africa’s largest individual forest areas.

Sunlight knysna forest
The last rays of the day quietly exiting the Knysna forest.

Here, giant Ironwood, Stinkwood and Outeniqua Yellowwood trees sway in the breeze while calmly observing the passing of centuries. The forest floor is a damp haven of fallen leaves, mosses and lichens and the high green canopy is alive with birdsong. The forest is home to an endemic reptile, the Knysna dwarf chameleon and near-endemic birds that include the Knysna turaco, Knysna warbler and Knysna woodpecker.

The Knysna forest is a very special place for a one other reason; this green forest-island is the last place in South Africa where elephants roam free. Until late in the nineteenth century, elephants were common in the forests and surrounding habitats of this region, however, farming and ivory hunting quickly reduced their numbers such that by 1870 it was estimated that only 400 individuals remained. Today’s estimates are that between one and five elephants are left in the Knysna forest, their last bastion of protection from human settlements and activities.

The big tree Knysna Forest
Bevan at the Big Tree in the Knysna forest.
Bevan loving the Knysna Forest.
Completely immersed…

Hiking the Knysna Forest

The best place to visit the Knysna forest is in the Diepwalle Section of the Garden Route National Park. This section of the park is named after an old forest station and many of the hiking paths follow old woodcutter trails. The Diepwalle Section has many special gems including the King Edward VII Big Tree – one of the few remaining ancient (800+ years old) Outeniqua Yellowwood trees that survived a period of logging prior to the 1930s. There is also a forestry museum and self-drive 4×4 route available in this section.

For us though, the main attraction is the network of forest hiking trails and the chance to wander through the forest at leisure, taking in the sights and enjoying the cool forest air. We particularly enjoyed the three colour-coded hiking trails that collectively are (very appropriately!) named the Elephant Walk.

Knysna Elephant sign
The sign optimistically points the way to the Knysna Elephant.

Each of the three trails is a circular route that begins and ends at the Diepwalle Camp’s reception office. The easiest of these is the Black Elephant Walk, a 9-km route that will take approximately 3-4 hours. The White Elephant Walk is a moderate 8-km trail that takes approximately 3-4 hours to complete, while the Red Elephant Walk is the most difficult of the three, estimated to take approximately 3-4 hours to complete the 7-km long trail.

To give yourself enough time to hike all the trails, we’d recommend staying over in the park. We spent a few nights on the camping deck in the Diepwalle section of the Garden Route National Park and explored as much of the forest as we could. Our hope was to spot a Knysna forest elephant, or at least the tell-tale signs of one. Alas, despite implementing our newly-acquired tracking skills from our time on foot in the Kruger, it was not to be. Still, it is pretty special to think these animals are out there and remain free to roam as they please.

Jill in the Knysna Forest.
Jill in the Knysna Forest.
Jill at the river in the Knysna Forest
Jill inspecting the tannins in the forest river.
Bevan in the Knysna Forest
Bevan taking in the magnitude of the Knysna Forest.
Jill taking some time to relax in some incredible surroundings.
Time to relax in some incredible surroundings.

Important information

Approximate trail distances:
Black Elephant Walk 9 km (5.6 miles)
White Elephant Walk 8 km (5 miles)
Red Elephant Walk 7 km (4.3 miles)

Approximate time:
3-4 hours for all hikes

Hiking in the Knysna forest is fairly simple and straight-forward. The routes are well marked out and there is a lot of shade in the forest. There are a few steep-ish inclines and one or two river crossings, but nothing technical and generally easy-going. Just keep a steady supply of water and trail snacks and you’ll have no problems.

Permit Details:
There are no permits required, however all hikers should check in at the Diepwalle Park Office at the start of the trails.

Map of the Knysna Forest

What to pack

Check out our full post on all the day hike essentials we pack.

When to go

The Diepwalle Section of the Garden Route National Park is open all-year round.


While the likelihood of running into a Knysna Elephant is extremely slight, it is still worth being vigilant and ensuring that you keep a safe distance should you encounter one. You can also consider yourself one of the luckiest hikers on the Garden Route.

We’d also discourage you from drinking the water from the rivers. While there are no artificial pollutants in the water, there is a great deal of tannin from the fallen leaves which probably won’t do you any good.

Getting there

From Plettenberg Bay, take the N2 east towards Knysna (From Knysna take the N2 towards Plettenberg Bay). Before entering the town, turn right onto the R339 and follow the road for about 17 km and turn right towards the Diepwalle Park Office. All route maps can be gotten from the office and there is a lovely tea garden around the corner.

Details to keep on hand

Diepwalle Section of the Garden Route National Park (SAN Parks)
Tel: (044) 382 9762/3
email: grace.valela@sanparks.org
Website: https://www.sanparks.org

If you’re looking for great hiking and trail gear then we can highly recommend Salomon. We only promote the brands we use and love – and we love Salomon! If you live in South Africa then check out their online store and get quality gear delivered to your door.

Knysna Forest Canopy
The Knysna Forest canopy.
Bevan getting wonderfully lost in the Knysna Forest.
Bevan getting wonderfully lost in the Knysna Forest.

What to do next

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Find a place to stay in Knysna

Find SAN Parks accommodation in the Diepwalle Section of the Garden Route National Park or use the search tool to find more accommodation in Knysna


Find more things to do in Knysna