Adventure GuideFree StateKwaZulu-NatalSouth Africa

The Sentinel Peak (chain ladders) hike [Guide]

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.

Bonus: We've created a hiking checklist specifically for the Sentinel Peak Hiking Trail: Get the Sentinel Peak Hiking Checklist

Hiking the Sentinel Peak

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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!

Sentinel Peak 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 toll gate entry fee (around R60 per adult) payable at the Sentinel Peak car park. Day hiking fee of around R100 per person required and 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

Places to stay

The best (and closest) place to stay to the start of the Sentinel Peak Hike is Witsieskhoek Mountain Lodge. It's perfectly positioned in the mountains and boasts some of the best views of the Royal Natal National Park.

What to pack

Good hiking boots (These are the ones Bevan uses and these are the ones Jill uses) 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. Check out our full post on all the day hike essentials you should pack.

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.


Robberies on the escarpment 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

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.

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.

What to do next

Bonus: We've created a full hiking checklist specifically for the Sentinel Peak Hiking Trail: Get the Sentinel Peak Hiking Checklist

Find places to stay near the Sentinel Peak Trail

Find more things to do in the Drakensberg

12 thoughts on “The Sentinel Peak (chain ladders) hike [Guide]

  1. Hello there, my daughter and I are interested in doing this hike, but…don’t know if our fitness will make it. However I also think we might need a guide, since it is just us two ladies and if there is not a group at that time, it would be safer to have somebody with experience with us. We stay at Bus Stop from 15 – 19 August.

    1. Hi Anci
      If you feel uncomfortable about fitness and safety then I’d definitely recommend taking a guide along. We’ve never had any issues ourselves, but you can never be too careful.

  2. Hi
    I loved reading your review. We are planning to do the chain ladders around 21 september this year. Any idea what the weather will be like at this time of year? Is it also very unpredictable?
    Is the car park guarded? Is it safe to leave some stuff (hided in the trunk off course) in your car at the car park?

    It would be really helpfull if you could answer my questions. Attempts on tripadvisor and mailing Witsieshoek were no succes.

    Thanks a lot

    1. Hi Ann

      September tends to be a rainy month in KwaZulu-Natal, and especially the Drakensberg. It will be impossible to predict the weather so far in advance, but what you would need to do is do a last minute weather check on the day you’re planning on hiking. This can be done by checking the forecast and by checking the mountain yourself. If there are gathering clouds on the escarpment then the chances are good that you will have some weather to deal with. The weather changes very quickly there and it’s also possible to have clear skies when you leave and run into rain by the time you get up the escarpment. There will be a trail register at the start of the trail, and someone there who can advise you on the weather. Alternatively, you can phone the Witsieshoek office for a live update.

      As for your other questions, the park was guarded when we did the trail. There is a hiker’s registration officer in the parking lot. We’ve never had any issues with theft from the cars, but, as you say, keep your valuables concealed. There was a period when people were getting attacked on the top of the mountain, however, that was off the trail and happened in the night, so if you’re in a group and hiking in the day time you should be fine.

  3. Hello, hope you are well.
    I am in need of your assistance. My friends and I are planning a trip to Sentinel Peak Hike soon. Please recommend backpackers that are close to the starting point. We are looking for a place that have a camping site on its premises if possible.

    Thank you in advance

    1. Hi Anele

      Hmm….there’s not much that I know of in terms of camping near the Sentinel Peak trail. The most popular accommodation in that region is the Witsieshoek Hotel, which is right at the start of the trail, however there is no camping there. The closest place we’ve camped is at the Golden Gate National Park. It’s a bit of a drive to the trailhead, but it’s certainly do-able. Sorry that’s the best I can give you…

    1. Hi Marietjie

      There is no charge to do the hike. It’s open to the public and can be done by anyone. If you’d like to go with a guide, then I’d suggest getting in touch with the Witsieshoek Hotel and asking them who they’d recommend.

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