Known for its awe-inspiring scenery, Golden Gate Highlands National Park is located in the Free State Province just east of Clarens. Hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders will revel in the beauty surrounding them.
Driving towards the Free State Province's Golden Gate Highlands National Park one passes through two red and yellow sand stone cliffs that welcome you, as if they are the gates to an enchanted world, to the wonders of the nature reserve beyond them.
Proclaimed a national park in 1962, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is best known for its dramatic scenery created by the red and yellow hills found exposed throughout the nature reserve. Located east of Clarens on the R712 the park lies in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains and spans across 32 608 hectares towards the border of Lesotho.
White farmers have been farming the land since the early 19th century but the history of the reserve stretches back much further than that as can be seen by the numerous San rock paintings that are found here. Visitors to the nature reserve can view some of the sites, however; they are not as well preserved as some of the other rock paintingsites found in the Free State and KwaZulu Natal provinces.
The nature reserve's beauty comes from its every changing landscape. The colourful rock formations found in the cliffs on the reserve and the steep valleys that have been carved out of the sandstone by streams, such as the Little Calendon River, all come together in an attractive 'picture-perfect' landscape.
The five main rock strata that dominate the park are the hard Drakensberg basalt on the top layers, atop a thin layer of quartzite that was once sandstone but was metamorphosed by the hot molten lava from ancient volcanic eruptions. The colourful layer below is made up of the easily eroding Clarens Sandstone while the last layer is Elliot Mudstone that was laid down millions of years ago when the area was still a wetland.
The landscape is covered in grasses as far as the eye can see, the most important of these are the common thatch grass, the curly leaf and the red grass as these are the grasses the grazing animals that are found in the reserve, like to feed on.
Good populations of Common Eland, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Springbok, Blesbok and Mountain Reedbuck can all be found in the reserve. Plains Zebra are also often seen twitching their tails in the long grasses.
Fynbos can be found in small sections of the reserve and in the sheltered gorges there are pockets of copse forest that is dominated by oldwood, sagewood and wild peach. On the slopes of the sandstone cliffs one can also see a number of varieties of South Africa's national plant; proteas.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is one of the Free State's top bird watching destinations as it is home to 180 different bird species including Bearded Vultures, Verreaux's Eagles and Jackal Buzzards. Peering into the long grasses bird-watchers are also sure to see Secretary birds while Bearded Vultures are regularly seen soaring high up on the thermal currents.
The areas around the park-run accommodation camps are good places to see Ground Woodpeckers, Cape Bunting and Mountain Wheater. A unique fact about the nature park is that it is the only area where a number of rare butterfly species are found, including the Golden Gate Browns butterfly.