If there's one place that combines incredible coastal scenery and unparalleled hiking in an unspoiled setting, it's the Tsitsikamma National Park on South Africa's south-eastern coastline.
This unique park boasts the oldest and largest marine protected area in Africa, the iconic suspension bridge across the Storms River mouth, a plethora of coastal day-hikes and of course, the multi-day Otter Trail. With all of that on offer, not to mention plenty of other coastal activities like kayaking, snorkeling or bird-watching, it's no wonder that this park is so popular among visitors to the Garden Route.
The coastline of the Tsitsikamma National Park is dramatic, to say the least. Cliffs as high as 180 m above the ocean look down on waves crashing onto jagged rocks below. Within the forested hillsides and valleys however, the atmosphere is far more serene. The park protects an ancient, slow-growing rainforest with some of the Yellowwoods estimated at being between 600-800 years old. The magical forest is home to towering trees that include Real Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), Outeniqua Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) and Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata).
The open, sunny cliff tops are covered by fragrant fynbos. The spicy scent of this group of plants will color your holiday memories and instantly transport you back to this panoramic coastline.
A number of sunbirds frequent the fynbos areas, and the Knysna touraco (Tauraco corythaix) can often be spotted within the forest. The park is also home to a number of mammal species including baboon, bushbuck and caracal. Hikers also often spot the spoor of Cape clawless otters, namesake of the Otter Trail, or even catch glimpses of the furry animals along the beaches and river banks.
Tsitsikamma National Park activities
Part of the greater Garden Route National Park, unique activities in the area include overnighting on platforms in an ancient rainforest or searching for the last of South Africa's forest elephants. If exploring the rugged beauty of the Garden Route's coastline is what you're after though, the Tsitsikamma National Park is the perfect destination! For those that love the coast and hiking in unspoiled environments, there is plenty to keep you busy for an extended stay, but also makes for an epic day trip if that is all you have time for.
1. Enjoy the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area
The Tsitsikamma MPA is the jewel of South Africa's marine protected areas. Proclaimed in 1964 and with a total area of 186 km², it is Africa's oldest and largest no-take marine protected area. Made up of 60 km of rocky coastline and the adjacent water, and including intertidal and subtidal marine habitats, the MPA affords protection to a number of threatened and endangered coastal bird and fish species. Among these are nesting pairs of the African black oystercatcher, one of the country's most threatened bird species, and highly resident reef fishes like the Red Roman, red and white steenbras and black musselcracker.
In all, 11 of the country's 17 most threatened fish species can be found in this protected area, some of which are as critically endangered or even more so than the white rhino! Many of these fish species are slow-growing and only reach sexual maturity late in life. The Tsitsikamma MPA protects a very important breeding stock that can repopulate other depleted fishing areas nearby. For this reason the Tsitsikamma MPA is a no-take zone. That means that activities like fishing or spearfishing are prohibited (although in a controversial move in 2016 20% of the shoreline was opened to subsistence fishing by local communities).
There are plenty of ways to experience the Tsitsikamma MPA. Some of the simplest include hitting the coastal hiking trails or viewpoints to enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery or look out for bigger marine life such as seals, whales and dolphins, not to mention the numerous coastal birds.
There are also plenty of water-based activities that let you experience Tsitsikamma MPA. Boat tours take guests into the Storms River gorge aboard the "Spirit of Tsitsikamma", a half-hour boat cruise that gives guests a watery perspective of the huge caverns that line the narrow Storms River gorge. For the more adventurous, guests can choose to explore the Storms River gorge by 2-man kayak and lilo, or penetrate even further up the beautiful river on an Anvil boat. These unique adventures are favorites in the area and highly recommended.
Scuba diving and snorkeling is also possible near the boat launch at the Storms River mouth. SCUBA refills are available at the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, and divers require a permit (available from the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp). The dives are shore entry dives, with a maximum depth of 12 m. Visibility depends on sea conditions and can sometimes be poor, but the very varied marine life (especially soft corals and a host of resident fish species on the reef) makes up for this.
Then of course, there's the chance to take a refreshing dip at the small sandy bay near the Storms River mouth, that is protected from the large swell.
2. Complete a day hike on a beautiful coastline
The Tsitsikamma National Park is an incredible hiking destination. With a total of 12 Green Flag hiking trails, visitors are assured of well-maintained and well-marked trails in one of the most picturesque coastal settings in the country! Hiking is without a doubt the best way to experience and enjoy this fantastic park.
While the trails can easily be completed unguided, for a small fee, eco-guides from the neighboring community can accompany hikers to enhance your understanding of the ecology of the park (for groups of 10 or more people). Guides can be booked at either the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp reception, information desk, or Enviro Centre.
The most popular hike for day visitors to the park is the relatively short Storms River Mouth Trail. This 2 km (1 hour) trail takes hikers across the suspension bridge over the deep river mouth and up to a viewpoint on the other side from which hikers have unparalleled views of the coastline. Remember to look out for seals, whales or dolphins frolicking in the water below, and take in the unique fynbos vegetation on the clifftop. Read our detailed guide to hiking the Storms River Mouth Trail here.
As well as the Storms River Mouth Trail, three other circular trails start and end in the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, ranging in length from 1-6 km. Each of the trails is well-marked and signposted, and maps are available from camp reception.
Another popular and far less busy hike is the circular trail to the Salt River mouth. This route starts and ends in Nature's Valley, and to access it visitors must exit the Storms River section of the park and drive 42 km west to the small hamlet of Nature's Valley. As the name suggests, this small cluster of houses has an incredible setting, being surrounded by indigenous forest and a spectacular undeveloped coastline. Still within the Tsitsikamma National Park, combining this hike with time spent on Nature's Valley's sandy beaches is another highly recommended day's activity. Read our detailed guide to the Salt River hiking trail here.
3. The Otter Trail
One of South Africa's bucket list hiking trails, the 5 day Otter Trail takes hikers along a coastal path beginning at the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and ending at Nature's Valley, a total of 45 km. This trail offers hikers a chance to truly experience the Tsitsikamma National Park in all of its glory. From densely-forested slopes, to fynbos-clad cliffs, tannin-stained rivers and an ever-impressive coastline, the trail leads hikers through all of the habitats of the park, and provides plenty of adventure, secluded beaches and breathtaking viewpoints along the way. Even better, with a maximum group size of 12 hikers you will feel like you have this coastline all to yourselves!
Hikers overnight at basic but well-kept huts with incredible locations. All huts are at sea level, have flushing loos, running water and braai (barbeque) facilities, but no electricity. The trail includes numerous river crossings which must be negotiated at low tide. Of these, day 4's mighty Bloukrans River crossing is somewhat infamous. The mouth swells significantly and strong currents develop at high tide. Hikers are strongly urged to time their crossing with the low tide or to use alternative routes across the river.
Due to its popularity, booking your trail is essential, and should be done as much as a year in advance! There is a waiting list in case of last-minute cancellations. All bookings are made via SAN Parks. The trail is open for hikers aged 12 to 65 years, and at least a moderate level of fitness is recommended. In our experience, the steep terrain of the trail can make for strenuous sections, so even with decent fitness levels, a sense of humour and a good dose of perseverance is highly recommended!
If the strains of lugging a backpack up and down the cliffs of the Tsitsikamma National Park aren't for you, two slackpacking trails are also on offer for those who prefer a little more comfort. They are the Dolphin Trail along the coastline, and the Tsitsikamma Trail from Nature's Valley to the Storms River bridge through the Outeniqua Mountains. While we haven't completed them ourselves, they have good reviews and offer a nice alternative for hikers who want to explore the area.
Tsitsikamma National Park accommodation
A variety of accommodation and facilities are available within the Tsitsikamma National Park at either the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, or Nature's Valley Rest Camp.
Situated right on the coastline at the Storms River mouth, facilities at the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp include an information desk, a shop that stocks basic supplies, a restaurant and laundromat, but no ATM facilities. Accommodation on offer is 2-, 3-, 4- or 8-sleeper self-catering chalets and cottages as well as camp and caravan sites.
The Nature's Valley Rest Camp is situated on the banks of the Groot River and is a bird-watcher's paradise. Accommodation includes forest huts with electricity and communal ablution facilities (undergoing maintenance at the time of print) or camp sites without electrical points. A laundry is also available, and there is a shop stocking basic supplies as well as a restaurant outside the rest camp in Nature's Valley.
Bookings for any of the Tsitsikamma National Park accommodation are made with SANParks. Visitors preferring to stay outside of the park can find a variety of fantastic accommodation in charming holiday towns nearby. Follow these links to browse available accommodation in Stormsrivier or Plettenberg Bay.
Tsitsikamma National Park entrance fee
Tsitsikamma National Park is operated by SANParks, South Africa's national parks conservation body. Visitors are charged a daily conservation fee. Day visitor entry fees (correct at time of print) are:
- Storms River Mouth section: R59 per adult and R30 per child (South African residents with ID), R118 per adult and R59 per child (SADC residents with passport) or R235 per adult and R118 per child (standard conservation fee).
- Nature's Valley section: R53 per adult and R27 per child (South Africa and SADC residents with ID), or R105 per adult and R53 per child (standard conservation fee).
For current fees, consult the SANParks website prior to your visit.
However you choose to explore the Tsitsikamma National Park, we have no doubt it will be a favourite. This truly is a gem of the Garden Route. If you have extra time, surf the world's best right-hand point break in nearby Jeffreys Bay, or just relax in scenic Plettenberg Bay. If you're heading back to Cape Town, plan a leisurely drive along the Overberg to sample more of South Africa's southern coastline.
Browse available accommodation along the Garden Route.
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