Planning a trip to Clarens? Here are our top picks…
Experience: White water rafting in the Ash River
Place to eat: Treat, just off the town square
Day Trip: Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Multi-day hike: Clarens San-traverse slackpack
The small town of Clarens lies nestled in the breathtaking sandstone Maluti Mountains, in the Free State of South Africa. Unfortunately, many people will steer clear of small towns when it comes to planning their getaways. What could they possibly have to offer, apart from a local diner and a crumbling community centre offering classes in chair yoga?
If this sounds like you, then Clarens is the town that will change your way of thinking. The serene village has been voted one of the top 10 small towns to visit in South Africa several times. It’s a popular local getaway for people from nearby cities, like Bloemfontein and Durban.
Affectionately known as the Jewel of the Free State, Clarens has breathtaking views, a wonderful climate, and rich natural history. The homes and businesses are unique, charming structures built from native sandstone. But what really sets Clarens apart is its thriving art scene.
The town is home to a multitude of galleries, studios, and shops featuring the works of local and national artists. In addition to the art scene, Clarens is the site of some fascinating dinosaur fossils finds. There really is something for every interest here.
Whether you're looking for a peaceful retreat, an outdoor adventure, or a Jurassic experience, Clarens is the perfect destination. Here we’ll provide you with all the reasons you need to start planning your visit to this irresistible little town.
This charismatic village was established in 1912, and has long been known as a creative sanctuary. Clarens attracts artists of all ilks, from painters to rug makers to bladesmiths, and boasts more art galleries than any other town in South Africa.
There are currently more than 20 galleries in Clarens, many of which are found in the picturesque village square. You’ll even find eateries that display local work. The Artist’s Café, for example, is a great place to stop for a meal and browse the artistic creations. One of which, I have to say, is the cafés chocolate mousse waffles.
If you want to be sure to see it all, a great option is to stop by the information centre on Main Street for a free map of the Claren’s Art Route. This path will take you around the town square and down the main street, ensuring that you hit all of the best spots.
One unique and attractive aspect of the art that you’ll find in Clarens, aside from the art itself, is that the majority of the work you see is by creators who live in the area. If you find pieces that interest you, chances are good that you will be able to speak to the artist themselves if you talk to the venue manager and request a meeting.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is an incredible natural wonder that’s just a 20-minute drive from Clarens. It's the only national park in the Free State, there are so many reasons to love it. One is the multi-hued sandstone cliffs that tower over the landscape. The colours are mesmerising, and range from stunning golds and oranges to deep reds and browns.
People also come to see the well-preserved San rock paintings in the caves and shelters around the area. Some of the park's trails lead to these caves and rock formations, and booking a guided hike is the best way to see these.
In addition, Golden Gates is a popular spot for nature walks, swimming, and horse riding. One of the most popular hikes in the park is the Brandwag Buttress hike. This trail offers panoramic views of the park's stunning scenery. As well, the birdwatching here is phenomenal. There are an estimated 250 different species of birds to be found in the park. Don’t forget to bring your camera!
One of my favourite activities in Golden Gates is canoeing on the Gladstone Dam. You have to plan ahead for this guided paddle, and you need to have a group of at least 4 people. But it’s absolutely worth whatever you have to do to be able to see the park from the water.
Another fascinating attraction is the Basotho Cultural Village. It’s located inside the park and will provide you with a glimpse into the traditional life and customs of the local Basotho people.
There is so much to see and do in the park - if a day trip isn’t enough for you, you can even stay overnight. There are several options available, including campsites, self-catering cottages, and lodges.
There is a wide selection of adventures that you can take part in and around Clarens, some more hardcore than others. Consider white water rafting, canoeing, fly fishing, abseiling, hiking, quad biking, or zip lining.
All of these activities and more are available to you in and around town, and there are professional companies here to make them happen for you. Contact Clarens Extreme, for example, or GZ Adventures. You can even get the little ones started on their adventurous streaks with activities like bungee trampolining or rock wall climbing.
There are some who consider a round of golf an adventure. Whether or not you’re one of them, there is a beautiful course in the area. It’s an 18-hole course called The Clarens, and it’s in a stunning setting surrounded by mountains.
The Art Festival was held for the first time in 2022, and it was an unabashed success. The now-annual event was held over the end of April/start of May weekend, the event saw the town square transformed into a sculpture garden, and the work of over 20 artists was shown around the town. The 2023 festival doubled this number.
In addition to the stunning art displays, there was also music and dance, a showing of pristine classic cars, and a selection of food and wine that people couldn’t get enough of. If the timing of your visit to Clarens is up in the air, I definitely recommend catching this festival.
The Clarens Beer Festival is another highlight of the year for many. One weekend every February is full of entertainment, food, and beer. The most recent festival saw 25 South African craft breweries represented, with more than 150 different brews and ciders for tasting.
Fishing enthusiasts will find plenty of opportunities in and around Clarens. The Clarence Conservancy Dam and the Caledon River are two popular fishing spots in the area. The De Molen Farm is a favourite catch-and-release spot on the Caledon River. Another great option is the Ash River, located about 14 km outside of town. Here, you can try your hand at fly fishing and explore the scenic waterways.
For those who are new to the area or looking for guidance, there are several companies that offer fishing trips and know the top places to go. These companies can provide visitors with equipment, guidance on fishing techniques, and information on the best fishing spots in the area.
In 2009, fossilised remains of what is thought to be the largest dinosaur ever to have lived in South Africa were found just outside town. Since that first discovery, more than 25 other sites have been unearthed in the area. Fossils of teeth, claws, bones, and even dinosaur eggs have been uncovered.
Dinosaur Tours are offered in the area, where you get the chance to visit some of these sites and see the fossils up close. You’ll even see fossilised footprints of actual dinosaurs. One of the most popular locations around Clarens for fossils is the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which is home to a variety of them.
One of these is the annual springtime one-day Titanic Challenge Trail Run. Titanic Rock is a sandstone cliff that looks over the pass leading through the mountains into Clarens. The somewhat ship-shaped rock was named after the sunken ship, and is traversed during the race each year.
Participants can choose to run a 10 km, 21 km, 35 km, or 50 km race, and all proceeds go to the Clarens Village Conservancy to maintain the Clarence Nature Reserve. This is a popular event, and the 2022 race attracted 560 entrants.
Another race is the Amohela MTB Challenge, held annually in May. The start and end points are at the Clarens Town Square, and the race takes mountain bikers through the foothills of the Maluti Mountains.
The Amohela - a Sesotho word of joyful welcoming - is actually many races. Riders can choose between single or multi-day races, and from races of different abilities and technicalities, with distances up to 57 km. Regardless which race is chosen, none of these are for a Sunday cyclist! Racers compete for cash prizes and merchandise.