Mount Elgon National Park takes its name from Mt. Elgon, the oldest and largest solitary volcanic (extinct) mountain in Africa. The name Elgon is derived from the Elgeyo tribe who used to inhabit a huge cave found on the southern part of the mountain called Ol Doinyo Ilgoon (Breast Mountain). It consists of five major peaks; Wagagai in Uganda at 4,321m, Sudek on the Kenya-Uganda border at 4,302m, Koitobos, a flat-topped basalt column in Kenya at 4,222m, Mubiyi in Uganda at 4,211m and Masaba in Uganda at 4,161m.
Because the mountain is an important watershed in the region, Mount Elgon National Park features a rich variety of waterfalls, montane panoramas and vast forests that are habitats for diverse flora and fauna. The main attraction is hiking to the mountain’s caldera whose highest peak is Wagagai at 4321m, but the spectacular Sipi Falls that are located close to Mount Elgon National Park is a must-see. You are also able to mountain bike and rock climb in the park
Mount Elgon National Park was gazetted in 1992 is a perfect safari for birders and hikers alike, who can access the extensive montane forest from the Forest Exploration Centre at Kapchorwa. Mt. Elgon National Park is a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve – a conservation area that is considered typical of the balanced relationship between people and nature.
Mount Elgon National Park - Hiking Trails
Many travellers find Mt. Elgon an exciting alternative to the more strenuous and often times overcrowded climbs of the Ruwenzori’s and Kilimanjaro. Mt Elgon has many of the same attractions but the climate on these volcanic slopes is much milder and the elevation lower meaning hikers require no special equipment or technical experience. The trails of Mt. Elgon take hikers past vast caves, waterfalls and hot springs, with frequent sightings of primates, birds and rare tree species, to the peak at Wagagai with the option of spending the night at nearby campsites.
Sasa Trail – the shortest but toughest route to the peaks traverses the community land where hikers can explore BaMasaba farming settlements and culture. The round trip takes four days and starts at Budadiri town at an elevation of 1,250m. The toughest climb of over 1,600m is completed on the first day, before crossing the park’s largest area of bamboo forest and passing Jackson’s Pool on the way to Wagagai.
Sipi Trail – the longest trail to the peaks passes through the northwestern mountainside through Tutum Cave to enter the caldera and Wagagai. The hike, which takes 4-6 days over 56kms, starts at 2,050m at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre.
Piswa Trail – the gentlest of the trails lasts 7days over 49kms, starts at the Kapkwata village on the north side of the mountain before traversing the soft wood plantation to the Podocarpus forest. This trail is popular for its hot springs, rich wildlife and spectacular views of the Karamoja plains in Uganda and the Nandi and Kapeguria hills in Kenya.
Elephants and buffaloes can occasionally be seen on the lower mountain slopes alongside leopards, hyenas, antelopes and forest monkeys, but more commonly spotted in the montane forest are black and white colobus monkeys, baboons, red-tailed monkeys, vervet, De Brazza’s and blue monkeys; duiker and tree squirrel. The highlight in game viewing in this park is the cave-dwelling elephants that are drawn to the caves because of the high salt deposits. The elephants can frequently be seen foraging for salt in the caves floors and walls and many locals actually believe that the elephants are responsible for creating the caves.
The park is home to over 300 species of birds that are best seen around the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre and the shrubbery of the Cheptui Falls. The endangered Lammergeyer, African Goshawk, Chubb’s Cisticola, White-chinned Prinia and African Blue Flycatcher are common in the park.
Mt Elgon is home to three bantu-speaking tribes – Bagishu, Sabiny and Ndorobo. The Bagishu who are also go by the Bamasaba, refer to the mountain as Masaba, as it is believed that their founding father Masaba emerged from one of the caves on the mountain slopes. The Bagishu and Sabinyi are subsistence farmers that are best known for their colourful Imbalu ceremony in which boys are initiated into manhood. The Ndorobos are a small, marginalised tribe that dwells deep inside the Benet forest.
The full-day Namugabwe Cave Trail passes through BaMasaba community land to reach a historical cave filled with bones; the Dirigana Loop Trail to the Dirigsana Falls and Gabushana Cave passes local markets and the ’Walls of Death’. On a 3-day walk to Sipi Falls, visitors can interact with the Sabiny and learn about their cuisine and traditional activities like weaving.
West of the park in Kumi town are the Nyero Paintings dated 600-650AD that are believed to have been sacred places of the gods in a time long gone.
The rich volcanic soils on the slopes of Mt. Elgon favour the cultivation of some of the world’s finest Arabica coffee, also called Sipi or Bugisu by the locals. Guided cultural tours such as the Noah’s Ark Coffee Circle and the Sipi Widows’ Group experiences give visitors insight to the local processes involved in the cultivation, harvesting and processing of coffee.
Mount Elgon National Park - What you need to know
Location And Getting There
Mount Elgon is 4,321m above sea level and occupies an area of 1,121sq. km in the eastern district of Mbale on the Uganda-Kenya border. It is 235kms by road from Kampala. A 4 hours drive via Jinja, Mbale and Kapchorwa.
Climate And When To Visit
Daytime temperatures in this area can be rather high, but at night temperatures are significantly lower especially at higher altitude.
Mount Elgon experiences two dry seasons from June – August and December – March, which are the favoured times for mountain climbing.