Running among the peaks: Best trail running spots in Stellenbosch

Connecting with nature is recognised as a prime means of improving physical, mental and spiritual well-being. As Jacques Marais points out, trail running is one of the best possible therapies. We share some of the best places to run in Stellenbosch.

Landie Greyling in action in the Cape Fold mountains.

“And into the peaks I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Yes, I know I’m paraphrasing the great John Muir, but these are the words that resonate within my subconscious as I gaze out across the imposing Mont Rochelle peaks.

The Cape Fold mountains around Stellenbosch and beyond always deliver, no matter the season. The summer sun bakes just enough to entice you into those icy mountain pools, while spring arrives infused with a myriad shades of green. And then there’s autumn’s fynbos floral display, mirroring the orange, amber and tangerine tones of epic sunsets reflecting off glowing sandstone cliffs.

One of my favourite times, though, is midwinter, when the undulating ridges are transformed overnight by falls of snow borne on sub-zero cold fronts. The panorama from up on Perdekop Peak morphs into a fairytale wonderland, with drifts of virgin powder lying amid the profusion of fynbos vegetation.

In the distance, Simonsberg and the Hottentots-Holland range above Stellenbosch mimic the picture-perfect panorama at your feet, shimmering in dazzling white whenever the clouds part. It feels as if you’re free-ranging within a northern hemisphere landscape and the trail ahead could be winding through the foothills of the Alps or Pyrenees.

And therein lies the crux. These high Winelands ranges boast the best of all worlds: lofty views, dynamic seasonal changes, a superior wine terroir and trails that are breath-taking (in every sense of the word!), not to mention the most diverse vegetation anywhere on planet Earth.

Stellenbosch and the surrounding Winelands boasts a fynbos paradise for trail runners.

Early Dutch naturalists who landed at the Cape of Good Hope labelled the surrounding vegetation fijn bosch. The direct translation, ‘fine bush’, describes both the delicate leaves and grand multiplicity of the plants, but its broader meaning has come to refer to the remarkable biodiversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom that stretches across the Western Cape and beyond.

This astounding eco-region has more than 8,500 identified plant species, of which a staggering 80% – or about 6,000 species – are endemic to the Cape Peninsula and immediate interior. By comparison, the Netherlands, homeland of those naturalists, can boast only 1,400 species in total, of which not even one is endemic.

Amid the profusion of fine-leaved ericas and restios, the indubitable star of the show is the hallowed protea. This princely plant was named after Proteus, the son of Poseidon, and as a species it dates back an extraordinary 300 million years. Rather fittingly, this ancient botanical marvel is rooted in the prehistoric bedrock that shapes the south-western tip of Africa. It is a place of gale-force winds and primaeval geology, yet this high-altitude landscape seems to be imbued with an inherent tranquillity, especially when it is blanketed in fresh snow.

Sunset running on the Simonsberg Conservancy singletrack is a favourite pastime for the Stellenbosch trail community.

“Life always makes more sense when you’re in the mountains” is a thought that comes to my mind whenever I navigate a Cape Fold trail. There’s an immutable sense of a brand-new day dawning, a life brimming with unimagined opportunities – and you feel it especially once you get into the rhythm of your run. Maybe it’s the elevated view from these spectacular peaks that delivers a new perspective, untainted by life’s daily stresses. Or could it be that this uncomplicated immersion in nature allows you to reconnect, not just with your outdoor tribe but with your own inner being?

I don’t have the definitive answer, but I do know that a session of wilderness therapy doesn’t get any better than a run in the Winelands mountains. So, lace up and get yourself out there, whether it is a scramble along a high traverse, a thump down a forest trail or a mindful trek up a windswept peak.

Find your breath and let the aroma of mountain buchu, wild rosemary and pelargonium infuse your senses. Be still; find balance amid the wealth of spiritual voices and then tune into the lifeblood pulsing within your physical being…

Only then will you find your Zen.

An outdoor exploration of Duiwelskloof Hiking Route in the Banhoek Conservancy, near Stellenbosch.

Where to run

If you live in Stellenbosch, you’re blessed! With dozens of trails on its doorstep, this laid-back university town rates as one of South Africa’s top off-road running destinations. Options include nature reserves and conservancies, as well as municipal and mountain club properties, and in many cases you can begin your run right outside your back door.


Simonsberg Conservancy boasts a collection of trails in the Knorhoek Valley, combining loops on the Uitkyk and Muratie wine estates. It is rated as a world-class MTB destination, but offers exceptional trail running too. Skill-graded route options are clearly signposted and well-planned contours make the ascents relatively easy. Routes range from 5km to 30km and include a new 7.8km (mostly forested) trail. Runners can run a full day at Simonsberg, while a separate 3.8km hiking trail caters for walkers. Add shower facilities, a restaurant and a wine tasting centre to complete the experience.

GRADING: Beginner, intermediate
DURATION: 1–3 hours
CONFIGURATION: Circular and return options
START: Dirtopia Trail Centre on Muratie Wine Estate
EVENT NAME: Halloween Forest Night Run
DATE: 29 October
INFO: info@dirtopia.co.za


Jonkershoek is a commercial forest, so it makes sense to check with the local crew regarding trail changes before you head out. The route is based on a 10km gravel loop circling the valley in an anti-clockwise direction, with singletrack leading off from this central loop onto the higher (and more technical) contour trails. Trails are multi-use, suiting both runners and riders, so look out for bikes. The Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge is held at the end of May. There is also the annual JMC Ultra Loop, which tops out at 53km and includes epic sections such as Jonkersdrift, Langrivierkloof, Bergriviernek, Twin Traverse, Swartboskloof and the Fire Hut on the cards. This is a full-day mission and should only be attempted by expert runners. An easy jeep-track and gravel road runs along the valley floor if you want to spend an hour or two in the reserve, but the big mountains are waiting.

GRADING: Beginner to advanced
DURATION: 45min–8 hours
CONFIGURATION: Circular and return options
START: Reserve office at boom gate


This spectacular mountain reserve boasts gritty wilderness running and peak scrambling, but also offers easy access to the ‘Little Europe’ brimming with coffee shops, wine estates, restaurants and classy accommodation in and around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Get high on fresh air and nature in this pristine fynbos paradise perched beyond the high summit bend of Franschhoek Pass. Mont Rochelle’s well-maintained trails vary from the easy 2km Breakfast Rock route to tougher, technical options such as Perdekop, a summit trail that covers a solid 13km of mountainous terrain and could take the average runner up to 3hrs to complete.

Trail-running athletes Christiaan and Landie Greyling have run trails all around the globe, only to realise that their Cape Winelands backyard rates right up there. They have teamed up with Pure Adventures to include Mont Rochelle in the Maxi Race, which attracts top South African and international athletes. Covering Banhoek, Botmaskop, Mt Marie and Coetzenburg as well as Mont Rochelle, this 120km ultra race is a monster day out.

GRADING: Intermediate and advanced
DURATION: 50min–7 hours
CONFIGURATION: Circular and return options
START: Reserve boom gate
EVENT NAME: Maxi Race Trail Run
DATE: Beginning October


Come run wild in the stunning foothills of the Hottentots-Holland mountains on a network of permanently marked tracks for all fitness levels. These purpose-built routes will see you exploring superb singletrack while ducking and diving over wooden bridges, inside indigenous montane forests and through verdant vineyards. You can opt for an easy 5km jeep-track slog, follow the more technical contour trails or go completely off-grid on a wilderness scramble through Duiwelskloof, passing waterfalls and caves as you navigate the fynbos ridges to the Berg River Dam. Only run within your fitness and physical capabilities, especially if you tackle the 30km-plus mountain trails.

GRADING: Beginner to advanced
DURATION: 30min–6 hours
CONFIGURATION: Circular and return options
START: Bethlehem Farm Gate
EVENT NAME: King Price Trailseeker Series
DATE: October


A good place to spend the weekend with family and friends, Plaisir has trails that suit runners, mountain bikers and extreme downhillers! There’s 22km of singletrack, which you can follow either along the river or on the mountain, and on the intermediate or the expert route, plus a couple of off-grid wilderness trails that are not too technical. The 2km Plaisir Flow Trail, however, is by far the most fun you can have on a ride or run. A winter trail run is held at Plaisir in June.

GRADING: Beginner to advanced
DURATION: 1–3 hours
CONFIGURATION: Circular and return options
START: Plaisir reception
CONTACT: info@plaisir.co.za