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The Garden Route is a 300 km long coastal route in the Western Cape that stretches from Mossel Bay to Storms River in the Eastern Cape province, and includes popular towns like Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. As the name suggests, this area is renowned for its spectacular natural beauty. Its ecology is diverse and includes ancient indigenous rainforest, rivers and lakes that hug the ocean, coastal mountains that fringe the sea and a rugged coastline full of marine life. Not forgetting the charm and appeal of the towns along this route.
Together with the varied and unspoiled nature of its landscape, plethora of charming towns and ease of access, it is the perfect destination for outdoor adventurers looking to escape city life.
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Garden Route highlights
- Spectacular coastal scenery including the iconic Knysna Heads and lakes.
- Miles of soft sand or rocky beaches to enjoy.
- Varied and abundant marine life, including migrating southern right and humpback whales.
- Escape into the verdant Outeniqua Mountains.
- Explore the unspoiled Knysna forest, home to free-roaming forest elephant in the Harkerville section, and the 800 year old Big Tree in the Tsitsikamma section.
- Charming towns with a range of accommodation, fantastic restaurants and plenty of attractions including local artisans, and annual food and lifestyle festivals.
- Plenty of mountain, forest and coastal hiking and mountain biking trails through the Garden Route National Park, including the world-famous multi-day Otter Trail.
- Adrenalin activities including the world’s highest bridge bungee jump, kayaking, surfing and black water tubing on the Storms River, not to mention coastal and estuary boating, angling, bird watching and forest canopy tours.
Garden Route quick facts
- Total distance is 300km, from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east.
- Best known for its coastal stretch, inland towns between Heidelberg in the west and Uniondale in the east, including popular stops such as Oudtshoorn, have recently been added to the route.
- With its verdant mountains, forests and numerous rivers and estuaries, the Garden Route is one of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
- Its relatively short distance and accessibility of attractions makes it perfect for self-driving.
- Enjoy the hospitality of the numerous small towns along the Garden Route, or completely immerse yourself in nature by overnighting in SANPark’s Garden Route National Park.
Garden Route itinerary for outdoor adventurers
Cape Town is home to the closest international airport. There is so much to see and do in the Western Cape, and a Garden Route itinerary starting and ending in Cape Town includes the best that this area has to offer.
Cape Town’s international airport makes it an ideal starting point for this route. Affectionately known as the Mother City, and voted as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town has plenty to offer visitors itself. Depending on your time schedule, you may choose to start or end your Garden Route trip with a few days exploring this iconic city and surrounds. For your time in Cape Town, choose to stay in:
- City suburbs like Oranjezicht or the Green Point promenade for easy access to restaurants and city attractions
- Chic and luxurious coastal suburbs of Llandudno and Camps Bay for nightlife, access to the city and glamorous beaches
- southern suburbs like Rondebosch or Constantia for easy access to wine farms and outlying areas
- remote beach towns like Kommetjie for barefoot coastal living and great surf
Spend as much or as little time exploring Cape Town and surrounds as you prefer. We’d recommend a minimum of three days to see the main sights without feeling too rushed. Some must-see highlights include:
- Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
- Exploring Table Mountain on foot or by cableway
- The wild, windswept beaches and wildlife of Cape Point Nature Reserve
- Enjoy beach and surf time on Cape Town’s picture-perfect beaches
- Go wine tasting at one (or more) of the excellent wine estates in the area
Region 1: Mossel Bay
If you follow the N2 national freeway out of Cape Town, your first stop on the Garden Route will be Mossel Bay. Largely known for its offshore oil rig, Mossel Bay might not be on everyone’s dream itinerary, but this town does have a number of attractions that make it worth a stop. These include the Cape St Blaize Lighthouse complex and St Blaize hiking trail, as well as the Bartolomeu Dias Museum complex which, among other things, is home to the largest shell museum in Africa for something a little different. There is also some pretty good surfing to be had when the conditions are right, but be aware that this area is also well-known for its Great White sharks!
We’d recommend using Mossel Bay as a lunch stop before you head further into the Garden Route. If you would like to overnight here, you can use this link to browse available accommodation in Mossel Bay.
Region 2: Hidden bays at George and surrounds
One of the biggest towns on the Garden Route, George has its own airport and is a good base from which to explore some of the surrounding gems including the excellent swimming beaches at Herolds Bay and Victoria Bay. Scenic sandy beaches nestled within a steep, bouldery coastline is what you’ll find at both Victoria Bay and Herold’s Bay. They are perfect for a day’s outing, and a great opportunity for some chill and swimming time on the beach. The point break at Victoria Bay is also very popular among surfers.
Those short on time may choose to fly in or out of the airport at George rather than using Cape Town as an entry or exit point. We’d recommend basing yourself in George for a few nights to fully explore the area. You may also consider making a trip inland from here to visit the popular Cango Caves at Oudtshoorn, and take some time to drive the nearby Swartberg Pass.
Click here to browse available accommodation in George.
Region 3: River activities at Wilderness
On the border of the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park, Wilderness itself has access to wide sandy beaches and local attractions including the Map of Africa viewsite and Dolphin Point which, as the name suggests, is the ideal lookout from which to spot some of the ocean’s most playful inhabitants. The Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park encompasses the Touws River and five coastal lakes, ending just beyond the Swartvlei Estuary at Sedgefield. As well as beach activities, visitors to Wilderness can access the number of hiking trails within the park and enjoy outdoor activities that include birdwatching, canoeing, ferry tours and angling.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Wilderness.
Region 4: An empty, unspoiled coastline at Sedgefield
Sedgefield has some incredible beach options for those looking to experience the unspoiled natural beauty of this region. Gericke’s Point to the west of the town has dramatic rock formations and a point that extends out into the sea. It is the ideal spot to take in a beach sunrise or sunset. If it’s long walks on a fynbos-lined white sand beach you’re after, then the Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area to the east of the town has exactly that. Similar to Wilderness, Sedgefield also offers a number of water-based activities such as boating and angling on the Swartvlei Lagoon and Estuary, while bass fishing in the Groenvlei Lake is also popular.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Sedgefield.
Region 5: Forest hikes at Knysna
Another of the bigger towns along the Garden Route, Knysna has made a name for itself as a foodie and cultural center with, of course, breathtaking coastal scenery that includes the Knysna coastal lakes and Knysna Heads.
An unmissable trip from Knysna is to explore the Diepwalle section of the Knysna Forest, and search for one of the last remaining free-roaming forest elephants along one of the many forest hiking trails. You can also spend the night on one of their wooden platforms in the forest itself, an experience we’d highly recommend. Another section of the Knysna Forest is the Harkerville Forest with a number of short hikes including a wheelchair-friendly wooden boardwalk, mountain biking trails and coastal hikes including the two-day Harkerville Coast Hiking Trail.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Knysna.
Region 6: Coastal living at Plettenberg Bay
Around the corner from Knysna lies Plettenberg Bay, a vibrant coastal town that is home to a number of local artisans. If you’re looking to combine a wide range of outdoor activities with the comfort of a small town with excellent amenities, then Plettenberg Bay is your ideal base.
To the south of the town is the Robberg peninsular, the entirety of which is included in the Robberg Nature Reserve. It has a very scenic hiking trail from which vantage point hikers can spot Cape Fur seals (as well as the occasional Great White shark!) cruising through the water below. Plettenberg Bay’s beaches are incredibly picturesque, and the best for swimming and surfing include Solar and Lookout beaches. Long, uninterrupted beach walks can be enjoyed from Keurboomstrand to the town’s northeast. Other coastal activities include angling and boating from the beach or in the Keurbooms Lagoon, and dolphin and whale watching cruises. Within the town are a number of excellent restaurants, and in close proximity are a range of wildlife sanctuaries.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Plettenberg Bay.
Region 7: Coastal hikes at Nature’s Valley (and the world’s highest bridge bungee)
A tiny hamlet nestled amongst indigenous forest on a beautiful coastline is the only way to describe Nature’s Valley. As the name suggests, the impact of man is hardly felt in the corner of the Garden Route and apart from a few houses and restaurant, there is little else to disturb the refreshing synergy of green forest, river lagoon and incredible beach.
While Nature’s Valley is the perfect place to just laze around on the beach, there are a number of hikes that are well worth checking out. Nature’s Valley is the end point for the ever-popular Otter Trail, a 5 day 45km hike that winds its way along the coastal clifftops and beaches between the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, and ends on the beach at Nature’s Valley. Visitors to Nature’s Valley can experience a little of what this amazing trail has to offer by going for a beach walk to the east (left) along Nature’s Valley’s coastline.
For something a little more physically strenuous, there is a very scenic hiking trail to the west, to the mouth of the Salt River. Along the way, hikers get an elevated view from the dunes back over Nature’s Valley before winding through shady coastal forest and emerging at a secluded beach at the river mouth.
If ultimate adrenaline is your thing, then a little further along the N2 from Nature’s Valley is the Bloukrans Bridge, home to the world’s highest bridge bungee jump, a more than 200m freefall towards the Bloukrans River below! Those not interested in doing the jump can also walk out onto the aerial boardwalk to the jump site (paid activity) to take in the breathtaking views below.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Nature’s Valley.
Region 8: Adrenaline and ocean adventures at Storms River and the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park
The Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park is marks the edge of the farthest reaches of the Garden Route! One of the absolute gems along this stretch of coastline, it is a treasure trove for outdoor adventurers. From a rough and rugged coastline that is home to the country’s oldest marine protected area, to numerous hiking trails, birding in the coastal forest, dolphin and whale spotting from the numerous clifftop viewpoints, kayaking, snorkeling, diving or boat cruises into the Storms River gorge… The list is almost endless.
For day visitors, we’d recommend exploring the Storms River mouth via the two suspension bridges that lead to a lovely viewpoint at the top of a nearby cliff. In total, 12 circular hiking trails begin and end in the rest camp. Of them, we enjoyed the Waterfall Trail that is part of the first day of the multi-day Otter Trail hike.
The rest camp in the park offers comfortable accommodation for those wishing to spend a little more time here. There is also the option of completing the Otter Trail between the Storms River rest camp and Nature’s Valley, arguably one of the best hiking trails in the country (booking well in advance is essential), or opting for one of two slackpacking trails. The Dolphin Trail follows the coastline while the Tsitsikamma Trail follows an inland route through the forested Outeniqua Mountains.
The nearby town of Storms River is a good base from which to explore the park as well as nearby attractions such as the 800 year old Big Tree, not to mention there are plenty of adventure activity operators based in the town offering activities such as canopy and Segway tours in the Tsitsikamma Forest.
Extend your route towards Port Elizabeth
If your time on the Garden Route hasn’t been enough to completely scratch the need for adventures on South Africa’s beautiful southern Cape coastline, we’d highly recommend extending your itinerary to include the nearby gems of Cape St Francis and Jeffreys Bay, en route to the airport at Port Elizabeth. Both are small holiday towns with incredible beaches and friendly locals. Of the two, Cape St Francis is smaller, quieter and the beaches less developed. The larger, busier Jeffreys Bay is well-established in the international surfing scene for good reason, with its world-class Supertubes right-hand point break as well as plenty of other surfing options.
Click here to browse available accommodation in Jeffreys Bay, and here to browse available accommodation in Cape St Francis.
For those wanting to include some time in the bush, then Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth is a great way to experience the phenomenal wildlife in South Africa. Set in a malaria-free region, it is home to over 600 elephant as well as lion, buffalo and elusive leopard as well as countless smaller species. Recently expanded to include the Alexandria Forest and a marine protected area, it is one of the more unique parks and the third largest in the country. It is suitable for self-driving and offers a range of accommodation including camping and self-catering chalets. Alternatively if you’re looking for a luxury safari experience, the 5 star Shamwari Private Game Reserve (75km outside of Port Elizabeth and close to Addo) might stretch the pocket, but offers experiences you’ll never forget!
Things to consider when visiting the Garden Route
Here are some things you might like to keep in mind when you visit the Garden Route:
- The Garden Route has a mild climate and can be visited at any time of the year.
- The nearest international airport is Cape Town International Airport. Domestic airports can be found at George and Port Elizabeth.
- While you may prefer the convenience of staying in the towns of this area, there are plenty of SANParks national parks and rest camps along the Garden Route with excellent facilities that get you right into nature, and cater for a smaller budget.
- This route can be driven in one direction, with visitors flying into Cape Town and out from Port Elizabeth or George, or as a circular route along the N2 and then return to Cape Town via the Overberg to include lovely towns like Hermanus.
- Book ahead during peak holiday periods (April, December to January, May to August) but outside of these, be a little more flexible. We guarantee there’s a stop that you’ll love and wish you had planned to spend more time in!
- The Garden Route is perfect for self-driving but, as with anywhere in South Africa, store valuables in a locked boot (trunk) and make sure they are out of sight when you leave the vehicle unattended.
- Beware of speeding cameras and remote trapping stations – there are a lot on the Garden Route!