It’s no secret that the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa offer some of the best hiking and unique landscapes in the country. It’s South Africa’s highest mountain range and forms the eastern part of the Great Escarpment, which encircles the Southern African plateau and forms the natural border with Lesotho.
Drakensberg roughly translates as the “mountains of dragons” and its dramatic peaks and valleys are unlike anything else you’ll see in South Africa. The Northern section of the range is particularly well known for its incredible geographical features and access to some of the best hiking, cycling and climbing in the country. The Royal Natal National Park within the Northern section of the range forms part of the Drakensberg World Heritage Site.
One of the most famous features in the Northern Drakensberg, is Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world. There are various hiking options near Tugela Falls, as the Royal Natal National Park hiking trails offer some of the best scenery in the area.
We visited the Royal Natal National Park during our time in South Africa and couldn’t miss an opportunity to hike in the beautiful surroundings of this region. The Tugela Falls hike, also known as the Tugela Gorge Hike, was the highlight of our stay in the region. This incredible day hike, known as the Amphitheatre Drakensberg hike or Tugela Falls hike, has fast become one of the most popular activities in the area.
Tugela Falls Facts
Measuring at 948m or 3110ft, Tugela Falls is the second-highest waterfall in the world and the highest waterfall in Africa. Its longest continuous drop is just over 400m or 1315ft.
In Zulu, the word Tugela means ‘startling’ or ‘sudden’. The falls cascade over the edge of the Amphitheatre, an impressive cliff and one of the most stunning features of the Drakensberg range.
What we didn’t realize before our visit, is that Tugela Falls has a seasonal water supply depending on the level of the Tugela River and the rain received during the summer. So while it looks very impressive after the rainy season, in the dry season, the falls can dry out completely.
Best Time to See Tugela Falls
The hike itself is open all year round, but the falls tend to be seasonal. The best time of year to see the Tugela Waterfall is March to April (South Africa’s autumn) which has the most stable weather for hiking and is after the rainfall during summer meaning that the falls usually have plenty of water.
Summer (November to February) itself makes hiking difficult and although the falls should have a lot of water, the chance of thunderstorms along with high humidity makes it unpleasant for hiking.
Winter (June-August) is cold and you may even see snowfall in the Drakensberg mountains. The second tallest waterfall in Africa usually slows to just a trickle if at all during the months from June to August.
Spring (August to November) is said to be another decent time to hike in the Drakensberg, although the weather is less stable than in Fall and the water levels may not have reached a flowing state yet until it rains closer to summer.
Weather in the National Park and in particular, at the height of the Amphitheatre, changes frequently and is notoriously unpredictable. It’s not uncommon to see heavy fog cover, meaning visibility may be poor along the hiking trail. If you are hiking Tugela Falls in summer, expect a thunderstorm almost daily, although the weather does seem to clear within hours.
Tugela Falls Hiking Trail
There are two trails to Tugela Falls. At 13km roundtrip, the Sentinel Peak Trail is the most popular hiking option. The alternative is the Tugela River Trail that passes through Tugela Gorge.
Sentinel Peak Trail
Time: 6 hours round trip
Maximum height: 3165m or 10 385ft
Trailhead: Sentinel Carpark
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
The Sentinel Peak Trail to Tugela Falls takes hikers around the Sentinel Peak to the top of the Mont-aux-Sources plateau. From there it’s an easy flat 1km walk to reach the Tugela Falls.
The trail to Tugela Falls is about 6km to Tugela Falls, gaining around 580m in elevation.
Tugela River/Gorge Trail
Time: 6 hours round trip
Maximum height: 3165m or 10 385ft
Trailhead: Trail Carpark near Thendele Camp
The second trail runs along the eastern side of the park, following the Tugela River upstream through the Tugela Gorge. This trail starts at the car park near Thendele Camp and is about 7km in length each way. The elevation gain on this trail is slightly less at 540m.
Hiking to Tugela Falls, Drakensberg via the Sentinel Peak Trail
Getting to Tugela Falls Hiking Trail
The Royal Natal National Park is located 4 hrs away from either Durban or Johannesburg in South Africa. Tugela Falls is located inside the Royal Natal National Park and the hike requires a full day to complete. So we based ourselves at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, located just a 30-minute drive to the Sentinel Peak Trailhead.
The road to the car park requires a 4×4 vehicle and after heavy rains, it can be a treacherous trip. One of the benefits of staying at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, was that they offered 4×4 transfers to the car park multiple times a day.
At the car park, you’ll need to pay your park fees with the rangers on duty. It’s around 80R per person to hike up to the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls, on top of the 50R National Park fee you paid upon entering the Royal Natal National Park.
Sentinel Peak Trail
The first part of the trail from the car park is well maintained and relatively easy to follow. It’s laid down with connecting bricks, which makes it easier to walk on. The trail is pretty narrow, but you’ll be able to see most of the trail ahead of you as it hugs the mountain slope for the first 30 minutes.
Zig Zag Section
The zig-zag section that follows cuts back into the mountain and it is here that you start to really gain some altitude. At the top of the zig-zag section, you’ll come to a junction where you have the option to go left to a viewpoint or continue on to the waterfall ahead.
The path changes to more of a dirt track for the next 30 minutes as you get closer to the top of the Drakensberg escarpment. Often, you’ll see baboons and monkeys frolicking in the grass around you, but they don’t seem to pose any sort of threat.
At the bottom of the Sentinel Gully, you’ll reach another intersection where you have two options for getting to the top. You can either take a steep gully rock scramble to the top of the Beacon Buttress, which is a sort-of short cut. Or, you can take the more popular route, which is the chain ladders up and over the rock face.
The chain ladders is the most difficult section of the hike and turns many people away due to the sheer elevation gain in this section. For anyone who is scared of heights, it can be a hairy experience. The ladders are steel and are bolted onto the rock, although they are still dangling to some extent and move a little as you climb. You have to climb about three flights of ladders to the top of the plateau, where you will be rewarded with some flat terrain for the last 20 minutes of the hike.
Top of the Falls
As you reach the edge of the escarpment known as Sentinel Peak, you’ll be able to see Tugela Falls falling over the edge below where you stand. You’ll be standing at 3165m or 10, 385ft above sea level, on top of the highest waterfall in Africa.
If the weather is clear, you’ll have an incredible view over the otherworldly mountainous landscape coated in what sometimes appears like a layer of green velvet.
Most people stop here to have a picnic up the top, or you can continue for another 20 minutes to another lookout known as the Amphitheatre lookout. The flat-top cliff that you are standing upon is known as the Amphitheatre, one of the most impressive geographical features of the Drakensberg Mountains. If you walk a further around the edge, you will get a full panoramic view of the falls pouring into the valley below and you’ll be able to fully appreciate the impressive Tugela Falls height.
To return to the parking area, you’ll need to retrace your steps back, following the same trail. You can either take the ladders back or scramble back through the steep gully. At the top of the zig-zag section, is where you can make a call to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge for a pick-up if you choose to stay there as we did.
Where to Stay in Drakensberg
If you are looking for self-catering Amphitheatre Drakensberg accommodation, this is one of the best campsites in South Africa and very affordable starting from just 120R per person. It can cater to up to 400 campers and is run by the government-funded Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Association and can be booked through their website. The downside is that it’s about a two-hour drive from the trailhead.
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge
Located just a 30-minute drive from the Sentinel Car Park, Drakensberg Mountains, the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge offers a very convenient place to base yourself for the Tugela Falls hike. They are also close to many other trails and rock climbing routes and they can organize pickups and drop-offs to the various activities you want to do. They offer hiker cabins and chalets depending on your budget. It’s certainly the best option for your Tugela Falls accommodation.
One of the more popular options to stay in the Drakensberg Mountains area is Amphitheatre Backpackers. The backpackers offers various accommodation styles to suit different budgets, ranging from camping to private rooms. They also have a pool and restaurant on site. They organize guided hikes to Tugela Falls with transport which is perfect for those without their own vehicle. The downside of staying here is that the backpackers is located 2-3 hr drive away from the Sentinel Car Park, South Africa, but the alternative Tugela River Gorge Trailhead can be reached in just 30 mins.
We really enjoyed the hike up to Tugela Falls, South Africa and although we did not time our visit right and the falls did not have any water, the hike itself was still worth it.
The amphitheatre hike, Drakensberg Mountains, and a trip to the Tugela Falls is certainly one of the most memorable hikes you can do in the country and it’s one we recommend to any hiking enthusiast visiting South Africa.