Diving along the N2 to Knysna, or any of the other Garden Route towns, is a beautiful journey. The 300km stretch of the Garden Route, which officially starts in Mossel Bay and ends at Storms River in the Eastern Cape, offers an unspoiled coastline, fringed by estuaries, rivers, and lakes, and a majestic mountain backdrop. This is one of South Africa’s most popular destinations and for good reason. But sometimes it’s a good idea to venture off the N2 and take the road less travelled to discover some gravel tracks and meandering paths that perhaps you never knew existed.
Here are five of the best scenic drives in the Garden Route:
The 7 Passes Route, which stretches from Knysna to George, is an excellent alternative to the N2 if you’ve driven the Garden Route numerous times. Meander down seven dirt passes, past winding rivers, dense forests, and the open fields of agricultural lands dotted with cows, donkeys, and horses.
The 75km route was completed in 1883 by Adam de Smidt, the brother-in-law of the famous pass builder Thomas Bain, as well as Bain himself. The road, which crosses 10 rivers and 7 gorges, was actually the main track connecting Knysna to George before the N2 was built. It remains almost unchanged to this day with the exception of the occasional modern signboard, a few short tar sections, and a new steel bridge that replaced one of the original timber structures which washed away in a flood in the 1900s.
The 7 Passes Route is also a fabulous day trip with plenty of places to stop for a coffee, a bite to eat, some amazing photo opportunities, and even a hike! One of our favorite stops is the Map of Africa near Wilderness where you can look out over the winding river which forms the shape of Africa.
Another great stop is the big Woodville tree near Hoekwil which is an excellent spot for a picnic or you can walk the 30min forest trail. Other great stops include the quaint towns of Rheenendal and Karatara and the Millwood gold fields. Here you can find a small museum, a number of walking trails, and an abandoned mine that is open to the public.
The Knysna Timber Route stretches from the lakes of Wilderness to the Garden of Eden, just east of Knysna. This self-drive tour should be done with a copy of the easy-to-follow Timber Route Map in hand (download your copy here). The fully illustrated map was put together by local historian, Margaret Parkes, and gives great insight into the history of the timber industry in this region of the Garden Route.
Learn all about the famous big trees of the Garden Route, such as Hoekwil’s 800-year-old giant yellowwood, discover some landmark buildings, and read all about Knysna’s maritime and gold rush history. With descriptions of various iconic tree species, the map is also useful to keep on hand when out on a hike in the forests of Knysna.
The Swartberg Pass, which connects Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert, is a wonderful day out and a favorite day trip for our guests from Beautiful Knysna Villas. For many South Africans, and travellers with an adventurous spirit, the Swartberg Pass is the epitome of gravel passes. The pass, which is actually a national monument, was the last, and possibly greatest, road built by Thomas Bain.
The 23,8km takes about an hour to drive, but you’ll want to factor in lots of extra time for picture taking, a stroll around the quaint town of Prince Albert, and possibly even a visit to the Cango Caves or an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn. Birders will also want to set aside some time to look out for those Little Karoo lifers.
You can also to the Swartberg Pass as part of a circular route, returning via Meiringspoort to view some of the best examples of folded mountains in the world, in our opinion! This route crosses the river twenty-something times as it meanders through these exquisite Cape sandstone fold mountains.
You’ll be treated to a never-ending set of views, each one more magnificent than the next!
About two and a half hours from Knysna, the scenic Rooiberg Pass connects Calitzdorp to Van Wyksdorp. Although passable in a normal car, a high clearance vehicle is recommended for this gravel track.
Marked as one of the best passes in South Africa, Rooiberg Pass may just be 14km but is hallmarked by an incredible 69 bends including 6 hair-raising hairpins. Ideal for an unhurried day out, Rooiberg Pass will treat you to some spectacular views, while the dips and valleys allow you to get up close to flowering fynbos and orange-hued aloes.
This historic pass between George and Oudtshoorn was declared a national monument in 1972. The pass is characterised by fynbos-covered hillsides and serpentine curves. Be sure to take it slow to enjoy the vistas along the way and plan a stop at the Toll-House.
Lovingly restored, the Toll-House is also a national monument and is an interesting place to stop for a coffee and some pancakes on a Saturday morning.
The gorgeous Garden Route officially starts at Witsand in the Western Cape and stretches to Tsitsikamma or Storms River in the Eastern Cape, covering roughly 300 kilometers of the very best of South Africa’s coastline. It’s a region where wild, untamed forests, winding rivers, breathtaking mountains, and beautiful beaches reign supreme, but it’s also home to some of the best towns in South Africa.
Here is your guide to understanding the different towns of the Garden Route:
Wedged between the outstanding Outeniqua Mountains, indigenous yellowwood forests, and the sea, Knysna is the crowning glory of the Garden Route and one of the most visited towns in the region. Featuring the gorgeous Knysna lagoon at its heart, Knysna offers a wealth of attractions for travellers of all ages. The forests are a haven for cyclers and mountain bikers, and the town attracts shoppers and foodies who come from far and wide to sample the Knysna oysters. The waters here are home to the endangered Knysna seahorse and can be explored by sailing charter, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or even while kitesurfing. The lagoon channels through the iconic Knysna Heads, and a stay at Beacon House puts you in the center of the action with some of the best views in town, while the all-inclusive Alkira Lodge gives you a bird’s eye view of Knysna.
Situated a 30-minute drive from Knysna, Plettenberg Bay is a small town that features an abundance of restaurants, shops, and activities to enjoy, from golfing to whale watching. The town is flanked by more than 20 kilometres of beaches and is the perfect place to enjoy those long romantic strolls on the sand. The Old Nick Village here is well worth a visit, while Plett, as locals call it, is also the gateway to The Crags with its variety of wildlife sanctuaries and adventure activities.
Wilderness is set on a stunning location on the banks of the Touws River Estuary. The lakes and rivers here are a paradise for birders who can look for the famed Knysna Loerie and others on foot or while meandering up the river in a canoe. On the other side of town, the beach stretches out for as far as the eye can see and offers a place of peace to experience some of the best sunsets in the Garden Route.
Time moves slowly in sleepy Sedgefield, located between Wilderness and Knysna on the largest inland saltwater lake in South Africa, the Swartvlei estuary. This is a great spot to enjoy some fishing. Every Saturday, the Wild Oats Community Farmers' Market takes place just outside town. If you visit one market on the Garden Route, this has to be it with its abundance of fresh farm products and locally made arts and crafts.
George is the administrative capital of the Garden Route and home to the airport, which services this region. The town itself is home to some fascinating museums and historical buildings while many picturesque golf courses are located here. The nearby Victoria Bay and Herold’s Bay are also well worth a visit. Victoria Bay is the Garden Route’s surfing mecca, while Herold’s Bay is a sheltered seaside resort with fabulous rock pools in which the kids can play.
If you love history and boats, then you don’t want to miss Mossel Bay. The town’s history links back to some of the most famous seafaring explorers of old, with various fascinating exhibits on display at the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex. You can also enjoy a historical walk through the town to enjoy the interesting architecture found here. Thrill-seekers can also go cage diving with Great White Sharks in Mossel Bay or enjoy a high-speed slide down the Mossel Bay Zipline - the longest over-the-ocean zip line in the world!
This is just a short guide to the major towns of the Garden Route; however, be sure to take your time visiting as there is so much more to discover. From the picturesque beaches of Nature’s Valley to the unspoiled nature of Little & Great Brak, to safari opportunities near Albertinia, and watersports at Witsand, the opportunities on the Garden Route are limitless!