Located on the border between Uganda and Kenya, Mount Elgon National Park is a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, covering a total area of 494 square miles. The majority of the park, approximately 430 square miles, lies within Uganda. In 1992, this Ugandan section was designated as a national park, having previously held the status of a forest reserve.
The park owes its name to Mount Elgon, an ancient volcano that erupted more than twenty-four million years ago. As the highest volcanic peak in East Africa and the eighth highest in the entire continent, Mount Elgon boasts the world’s largest caldera, stretching approximately 60 kilometers in length and 40 kilometers in width. This extraordinary feature resulted from the draining of magma from the base, causing the cone to collapse. Scientists posit that Mount Elgon may have once held the title of Africa’s tallest mountain, a distinction eroded over millions of years.
The primary tribes residing on the Ugandan side of the park are the Sabiny and Bagisu, whose livelihoods center around subsistence farming. The Bagisu, in particular, have honed their expertise in cultivating Arabica coffee, thriving in the fertile soils of the lower mountain slopes. The conservation and management of the higher slopes fall under the purview of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, working in close collaboration with their Kenyan counterparts.
For information and permits related to park activities, tourists can visit the Mountain Elgon National Park office situated along Masaba Road in Mbale town. Additionally, permits can be obtained from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, which operates from Monday to Friday. If you’re interested, you might also want to explore the experience of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
The distance between Kampala city and Mount Elgon National Park is about 230km. The roads are well paved and made of tarmac but traffic jam is a problem on the Kampala – Jinja highway. It takes between 4 to 5 hours to reach Mbale town from Kampala through the towns of Jinja and Iganga. The journey by road offers opportunities to stop and see amazing places like the source of the river Nile and Mabira forest. From Mbale town, one needs to drive to the park offices outside the town or head straight to the nearest mountain climbing starting point in Budadiri. Visitors can hire a car or use public means to get to the park but arranging your travel with a good tour company is more convenient.
For visitors who don’t like long road journeys, there is an option to book a chartered flight from Entebbe international airport to Soroti airfield near Mount Elgon. From the airfield, one would need to travel by road for about one hour before reaching Mbale town or Kapchorwa.
Similar to the Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, Mountain Elgon National Park is renowned for its offerings in mountain climbing and nature walks. Beyond summiting the peak, ascending Mount Elgon presents ample opportunities to explore a vast caldera, intricate caves, dramatic cliffs, rugged gorges, invigorating hot springs, expansive mesas, and cascading waterfalls.
Moreover, Mountain Elgon National Park is home to a substantial population of impressive large mammals, including elephants, buffaloes, and various primate species. In addition to the exhilarating climb, visitors flock to the park for captivating game viewing, immersive nature walks, captivating birdwatching, intriguing cave expeditions, and the rustic experience of camping amidst nature’s embrace.
For those seeking a broader adventure, a range of activities can be arranged both within and beyond the park’s boundaries, extending to the mesmerizing Sipi Falls and the diverse wildlife reserves in Kapchorwa. These activities will be elaborated upon in the subsequent discussion.
Climbing Mount Elgon has its advantages compared to the Rwenzori Mountains or Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It is less expensive, less strenuous and with temperatures that are acceptable even at the summit. The unique thing about climbing Mount Elgon is not reaching the Wagagai peak but descending from the peak to spot the largest caldera on earth.
Climbing Mount Elgon takes between 4 to 6 days depending on the trail used. There are three main starting points – The Salsa Trail, Pisa Trail and Sipi trail. The Salsa Trail also known as the Buddukiro trailhead is a shorter trail but with very steep climbs. It starts from near Mbale town and takes only 4 days to reach the peak.
Though it is the most direct route, it goes through the thickest area of the bamboo forests in the park. The second trail is the Pisa trail also known as the Kapkwata trailhead. This trail starts from a forest in Kapkwata and passes through great Podocarpus forests. This is the longest (7 days) but with few steep areas.
In order to see the best of everything and see more of the mountain features, hikers can ascend via the Sipi Trail and descend using the Salsa trail. More adventurous hikers may start from the Ugandan side and descend at the Kenyan side. Hikers who choose to end their hike in Kenya need paperwork to cross the border. The migration office in Mbale can help with acquiring the border crossing papers is required by their colleagues in the Kenyan side.
Before climbing to the top of the mountain, hikers need to report to the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices outside the main town. Climbing Mount Elgon costs $75 per day for international visitors including park entrance fees. The amount also covers ranger/guide fees. Hikers also need to hire porters and cooks to escort them and help setting up camp. It is a good practice to give extra tip to the guides, porters, cooks and even park rangers.
For those who may not be inclined to ascend all the way to the summit, there are alternative options available. They can opt for shorter day hikes or embark on an exploration of the many caves dotting the slopes of the mountain. Among these, the three most frequented caves are Chepnyali, Mackingeny, and Kitum. These natural formations hold a special attraction for park mammals, including elephants and antelopes, which visit to partake in salt licking from the cave walls.
In addition to these well-known caves, there are also ancient ones, like those discovered in Budadiri, boasting paintings that date back thousands of years. These remarkable cave explorations add an extra layer of historical and natural intrigue to the experience in Mount Elgon National Park.
The Khauka and Kapkwai caves in Wanale are a favorite with visitors because of their structure and numerous bats that provide manure from their droppings. These caves were used as shelter by the local people and their domestic animals. The Nyero Rock Painting Caves outside Mbale town are also worth a visit. These caves used to shelter the first humans to roam the earth. They left their mark with amazing paintings depicting the kind of like they lived thousands of years ago.
Birdwatching in Mount Elgon National Park is a unique opportunity to observe avian species that are exclusive to this region. The park offers various prime spots for birdwatching, including the dense shrubbery, the enchanting Cheptui Falls, and the captivating Forest Exploration Center in Kapwai.
Within this biodiverse habitat, enthusiasts can marvel at a rich array of birdlife, including the African Blue Fly-catchers, African Goshawk, Baglafecht Weaver, Black and White Casqued, Chin-spot Batis, and the Black-collared Apalis. Other notable sightings encompass the Black-shouldered Kite, Chubb’s Cisticola, Crowned Hornbills, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Doherty’s and Luhder’s Bush-Shrikes, Golden Winged and Tacazze Sunbirds, as well as the striking Hartlaub’s Turaco and Mackinon’s Fiscal. Additionally, the park serves as the exclusive habitat for the endangered Jackson’s Francolin and Lammergeyer in Uganda. These remarkable species further contribute to the allure of Mount Elgon National Park for avid birdwatchers.
The heavy rains and fertile soils in Mount Elgon National Park support the growth of thick forest and other vegetation that make nature walks extremely fulfilling. While climbing the mountain or visiting the caves, visitors encounter countless birds, wildlife and thick montane forest. Entering the moor lands in the uppers slopes of the mountain exposes visitors to beautiful landscape and undiscovered wilderness. Climb Mount ElgonThe Forest Exploration Centre near the Sipi Falls organizes 3 to 7 Kilometer day hikes that offer more opportunities to marvel at the plants, ridges, valleys, caves and animals in the park.
There is also a trail that leads to the large Tutum cave away from the centre. Visitors who walk along this trail have an opportunity to spot several birds and primates like the black and white Colobus. The Tewei Hill where the former king of the Sabiny used to hold meetings is also worth visiting. This hill has wonderful views of the Mount Elgon peak, the Karamoja plains and the Sipi Falls.
Mountain Elgon National Park is a great place for wildlife viewing. Game drives are arranged to take tourists to the best location where to see the animals. Among the animals to look out for are the hyena, leopard and duiker. The park has several primates like the blue monkeys, vervet monkeys, Colobus monkeys and buffalo.
Mountain Elgon National Park and the surrounding are suitable for camping. The park authorities have set up camping bases along the mountain climbing trails for those hiking to the top of the mountain. Camping is not allowed near the caldera itself. Tourists need to move with sleeping bags, tents, rain jackets, warm clothes and a camp stove that is fuel efficient. Tents and sleeping bags can be hired from the park office located in Mbale town.
The rivers that flow from the top of the mountain pass though cliffs forming beautiful waterfalls. The Sipi falls are the most attractive waterfalls in the area. These beautiful falls are located just outside the park boundary before the Forest Exploration Centre. Reaching the falls requires hiking through local village homes and farmlands. The areas around the falls have hotels and lodges of good quality. Apart From the Sipi Falls, other waterfalls can be sighted in Bulago, Chebonet, Sisyi and Wanale.
The Mount Elgon and Sipi Falls are known for having mountain/rainbow trout. These fish fascinates anglers because of their beautiful colors and act of struggling when caught. In the Sipi area, the fish are caught and released back to the water. For the highest possible success, the activity needs to start in the morning. Guides and are available to take anglers to the best fishing spots. Anglers need to move have their own fishing gear and permit. Other packing items include lunch and drinking water.
Abseiling involves going down a cliff with a firm rope-like device fastened around the harness. The Sipi Falls are the only area where abseiling is organized in Uganda. The activity is well organized with good imported equipment, well trained instructors and guides who ensure the safety of participants.
The entire Mountain Elgon Region including Mbale and Kapchorwa has good biking routes. One such route is the one starting from Sipi trading centre to a hill in Chema Kapchorwa. Kapchorwa District produces most of Uganda’s best long distance runners. There is a running route that has been designated for training the runners near the Sipi area that can also be used by travelers for biking or jogging.
Rock climbing is one of the popular activities that can be arranged outside Mount Elgon National Park. The Sipi Falls area is particularly suitable for rock climbing. The most demanding climb in the Sipi area is about 35 meters. Hikers can also drive to the nearest town Tororo which has a beautiful rock just next to the town centre. Climbing Tororo rock takes about 3 hours. The reward for reaching the top are beautiful views of the town below, villages and mount Elgon.
In the bountiful region surrounding Mount Elgon, consistent and ample rainfall, coupled with exceptionally fertile soils, provide an ideal environment for the cultivation of Bugisu Arabica coffee. Enthusiastic visitors have the opportunity to arrange a guided excursion to gain insight into the intricate process of planting, harvesting, and processing this coveted coffee variety. Typically, a knowledgeable local guide accompanies visitors to the residence of a respected local farmer, where the entire process unfolds.
For a more immersive experience, this engaging activity can be undertaken in close proximity to the captivating Sipi Falls. Alternatively, visitors can opt for a direct visit to the processing facility located near Budadiri, where the purchased produce from local farmers undergoes processing.
A small group of Abuyudaya Jews has lived in the Sipi and Mount Elgon areas for over 100 years. They are Jews by choice and not by birth but have converted to the Jewish tradition. The Abuyudaya Jews work together other religious denominations like the Pentecostal churches. The group has made an impact in the surrounding communities by building schools and a large hospital with a modern dental unit. The schools follow both the Jewish and Ugandan curriculum. The Abuyudaya also buy Bugisu Arabica coffee from local farmers at a reasonable price.
The Bagisu still practice an old culture of initiating young men into adulthood through a series of ceremonies that end with circumcision. No man would be allowed to marry before undergoing the full ritual process and getting circumcised. No lady would marry a man who wasn’t circumcised or had not gone through the standard rituals. During the months of August and December, the whole town and villages of Mbale are full of crowds singing and dancing while escorting young men to receive blessings and gifts from their relatives before heading for the circumcision site. The site brings together thousands of people to witness the public ceremony. Cultural Experience in Mount Elgon National ParkThe Sabiny practice female circumcision but this has been outlawed due to pressure from female human rights groups. Some people still circumcise their daughters in secret.
Another interesting cultural activity is the Budadiri Cultural Walk near Mount Elgon. There is Bugusi cultural group that organizes cultural dances, storytelling and information about their cultural heritage. This group can teach tourists how to cook and eat tasty bamboo shoots locally known as malewa.
The Pian Upe and Matheniko Game Reserves are located in the great Karamoja plains after Mount Elgon. These two reserves cover an area of 2,788 square kilometers and are the second largest protected areas in the country. Facts about Mount Elgon National Park The reserves and particularly swamps like Loporokocho are home to several bird species like the African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Dusky Turtle Dove, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Lemon Dove, Mountain Yellow Warbler and the Thick-billed Honey guide. The wildlife species here include the Bright’s gazelle, lesser kudu, ostriches and the roan antelope. In Uganda, most of these animals can only be found in Kidepo Valley National Park. The Matheniko Bora Wildlife Reserve has cave complexes with paintings that are over 2000 years old.
Like any mountain that is above 2600 meters, there is a real possibility of getting altitude related sicknesses especially for first-time climbers. Altitude illnesses affect anyone without regarding former experience, fitness or age.
You need to move with park rangers and porters when climbing to the top of the mountains or taking part in activities like wildlife viewing and camping. By hiring/employing these porters, you help support the local community and contribute to the overall conservation of the park and wild animals. When communities realize the benefits of tourism to the community, they are less inclined to poach park animals. The porters and rangers in the park are certified and trained in first aid treatment. The rangers share vital information about the different plant and animal species with visitors to the park. The overall cost of each guide shouldn’t exceed $15.
The best time to visit Mount Elgon National Park is during the dry (June – August and December – March) seasons. It is important to note that hiking to the top of the mountain and all other park activities continue even during the wet/rainy season. It is also important to note that the mountain receives rainfall almost throughout the year. So expect rain even during the dry seasons in Uganda.
A parking list for Mount Elgon national park should include
Accommodation facilities can be secured within and outside the park. Most of the hotels offer a combination of luxurious, mid-range and budget rooms. The luxurious hotels facilities are found in Mbale town, Kapchorwa town and the Sipi Falls area.
These cottages are located at the entrance of the National Park and were initially designed for students who come to visit the forest exploration centre but are now open to Tourists. The facility has 4 simple cottages and 4 tents implying that only a few residents may reside in the cottages on a given day. Food and drinks can be bought from the nearby canteen.
Situated just 2 kilometers from the heart of Mbale town and in close proximity to Mount Elgon, this opulent hotel offers a lavish retreat. Each of the 94 well-appointed rooms provides guests with the privilege of breathtaking vistas encompassing the picturesque Wanale Hill and the majestic Mount Elgon.
The hotel’s meticulously maintained gardens, adorned with graceful palm trees, create an enchanting ambiance. Additionally, the hotel boasts ample parking space for the convenience of its guests. Beyond accommodation, a range of top-notch amenities are available, including an exquisite restaurant, a generously-sized swimming pool, a sophisticated bar, a well-equipped gym, and a serene sauna, ensuring an indulgent and memorable stay.
Owned and operated by Italians, this distinguished hotel is strategically positioned along Masaba Road, a mere 2 kilometers from the bustling town center. The establishment boasts thirty self-contained rooms, each furnished with top-quality bedding and a well-appointed bathroom, ensuring a comfortable and rejuvenating stay.
A hallmark of this hotel is its expansive garden, providing a serene retreat for guests. Additionally, the facilities include a refreshing swimming pool, a gourmet restaurant, a stylish bar, and even an entertainment area with a pool table. For those seeking ultimate relaxation, a spa is available, promising a pampering experience.
Business travelers will find the conference rooms to be well-equipped and conducive to productive meetings. Moreover, for guests with a penchant for golf, a small on-site golf field offers a leisurely diversion.
To facilitate seamless transportation, the hotel offers a shuttle service that efficiently transports guests to and from the town center, adding an extra layer of convenience to the overall experience. This comprehensive array of amenities and services ensures that guests enjoy a truly memorable and enriching stay at this Italian-owned establishment.
Kayegi hotel is also found along Masaba road and offers mid-range priced rooms. Though the prices are affordable, the quality of the rooms and services are good. The hotel is a popular place for organizing retreats, seminars and workshops for government and non-government organizations. The hotel has twenty five self-contained resident rooms that are surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are conference rooms, a bar, a restaurant, a large parking place and free wireless internet.
This is a budget hotel built along the road to Kumi District. The hotel rooms are very clean with a table and a chair. Other facilities include a restaurant and a bar.
This hotel is built in the town of Kapchorwa along the slopes of Mount Elgon with good views of the Teso and Karamoja plains. The hotel has luxury, mid-range and budget rooms and can host 100 clients in a day. The hotel serves good Bugisu Arabica coffee with a sweet aroma. Both local and international foods are served for breakfast and Dinner. Camping tents are available for clients who are interested in setting up a camp outside. The hotel also organizes activities like visiting the Sipi Falls, climbing Mount Elgon, Bike racing and marathons.
This hotel is found in the town of Kapchorwa along the main road going to Mbale. The hotel offers budget services and self-contained rooms that are neat. The hotel also has conference rooms, a pool table, a bar and a restaurant which prepares Indian, Ugandan and other international dishes. It is a perfect place for those who intend on climbing Mount Elgon, visiting the Sipi Falls or visiting the Forest Exploration Centre.
This lodge is built near the beautiful Sipi Falls and along the Kapchorwa to Mbale road. The lodge is located a few walks from one of the park gates and Forest Exploration Centre. One of the three Sipi falls is found near the lodge. Sipi River Lodge is beautiful designed with large rooms. There are has beautiful gardens and caves near the falls that can be explored by visitors when free. The hotel also organizes hiking to the top of the mountain summit.
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