Hiking and Mountaineering - An Overview

Uganda like many parts of Africa has over many several millennia experienced considerable volcanic activity along the East African Rift Valley, which has left behind an assortment of volcanic peaks. These mountains that are now extinct are protected within the confines of national parks, and offer stunning areas for trekking for both inexperienced hikers and experienced mountaineers who welcome a challenge.

On Uganda’s western frontier are the Rwenzori Mountains; the highest block mountain in Africa, in the east is Mt. Elgon, the oldest and largest solitary volcano in Africa, and in the extreme southwest, are the extinct Virunga Mountains where some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas live. The distinction that Uganda’s peaks present is the favourable Ugandan climate and the outstanding scenery around and on these mountains with all manner of wildlife and plants, that make hiking and mountaineering in Uganda a truly unique and rewarding experience.

Nature treks in Uganda, especially inside her 10 national parks, unveil the most fascinating sights and sound of nature, and are the perfect compliment to whatever main attraction brings visitors to the various parks. In Murchison Falls Park, the 30minute trek from the base of the hills to the top of the falls is the best way to experience the majesty of the Murchison Falls. Lake Mburo National Park is one of Uganda’s smallest parks and is the only one that is entirely accessible on foot, accompanied by a ranger guide.

Both Bwindi Impenetrable Park and Mgahinga Gorilla Park offer a variety of nature walks to the heart of the ancient Batwa near their former homes in the forest. Kibale Forest in Kibale Forest Park is home to over 351 tree species, many of which stand over 55m and some that are over 200 years old, inhabited by about 650 chimpanzees and over 375 forest birds. Kidepo Valley Park is a vast wilderness that is a gem to explore on foot, particularly the 50m-wide bed of sand of the dried up Kidepo River. Queen Elizabeth Park offers many walking trails along the Ishasha River and through the dense Maramagambo Forest, exploring the forest under a lush canopy and surrounded by a range of birdcalls.

In Mt. Elgon Park, hikers can combine various trails that offer beautiful waterfalls and hot springs, rich wildlife and birds, and spectacular views of the dry Karamoja plains. Semuliki Forest in Semuliki National Park is recognised as one of the most bio-diverse forests on earth where species have been evolving for over 25,000 years and can be explored and has well-developed trails for walks. Nature walks in Rwenzori Mountains Park are famous for the fascinating flora in the five remarkable and distinct vegetation zones.

Wherever your safari takes you in Uganda, much of the rural landscape and the diverse cultures can be enjoyed on foot on guided walking tours.

Hiking and Mountaineering Activities

Rwenzori Mountains

Hiking and Mountaineering in Uganda - Bjorn Stange

Also known as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, the Rwenzori Mountains are some of the highest mountain ranges in Africa, and one of East Africa’s most spectacular hiking destinations. One of the most rewarding things about climbing the Rwenzoris is that the terrain is still very virgin and unspoiled, and the trails are not over crowded so it is even possible to walk for days without encountering another party of climbers. Climbing the Rwenzori’s can be challenging even for the very experienced hiker because of its un-engineered steep and slippery trails that are covered in bogs and mud, and the frequent rainfall and cold temperatures at this high altitude.

The range that is about 120kms long and 65kms wide has 6 permanently snow-capped peaks with the highest, Margherita standing at 5,109m above sea level. Most treks in the Rwenzori’s stay below the 4,500m snow line, above which altitude sickness is common. Hikers can choose from two well-developed trails: the 7day Central Circuit Trail and the Kilembe Trail are great for inexperienced and experienced mountaineers alike, although the final ascent to Margherita is usually the preserve of more experienced hikers. The trails pass through the mountain’s 5 remarkable vegetation zones whose unspoiled beauty is a postcard scene, particularly the glacier-carved valleys filled with fantastically coloured mosses and gigantic lobelias, heathers and groundsels.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rwenzori Mountains is one of the most dramatic and diverse ecosystems in the world with a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, which mountaineers can explore on their climbs. Cultural tourism activities available in the Rwenzori’s compliment mountaineering expeditions. The Ruboni Village Walk and the Bulemba-Ihandiro Cultural Trail explore communities, sites and activities of the Bakonzo people who have lived in the Rwenzori’s for over 300 years.

See also: Rwenzori Mountains National Park

Mount Elgon

Hiking and Mountaineering in Uganda - Tutm Cave

Uganda’s eastern frontier is covered by extensive plains dotted with extinct volcanoes and isolated mountain ranges. The highest and most extensive of these is the 4,000sq. km Mount Elgon, whose highest peak Wagagai stands at 4231m. Although Mt. Elgon is Africa’s 8th highest mountain, it is by no means a difficult mountain to climb and it is in fact often selected for being an exciting alternative to the more strenuous climbs of East Africa.

Elgon has many of the same attractions from caves, waterfalls and hot springs, to primates, birds and rare tree species, but the climate on these volcanic slopes is much milder and the elevation lower meaning hikers require no special equipment or technical experience.

Hiking can be done on several different trails of varying lengths. Shorter guided hikes explore the montane forest and bamboo to reach the caves and waterfalls, the most popular being a day’s hike to and from Sipi Falls with its impressive 99m drop. Short hikes are also great for cultural tourism as they traverse community lands whose people have an ancient story with Mt. Elgon.

Longer hikes on the Sasa Trail, Sipi Trail and Piswa Trail take 3-7days to ascend all the way to the mountains summit, Wagagai at 4,321m. Atop Mt. Elgon sits the world’s largest intact caldera measuring 8kms in diameter, containing glacial lakes and hot springs. Mountain biking on trails to hilltops that provide views of various waterfalls and the northern Karamoja plains can complement hiking expeditions.

See also: Mt. Elgon National Park

Virunga Mountain Range

Hiking and Mountaineering in Uganda virungas-in-cloud

Mt. Sabinyo (3,645m), Mt Gahinga (3,474m) and Mt. Muhavura (4,127m) are part of the Virunga Mountains chain of extinct volcanoes that form that lie along the Uganda – Rwanda – DRC border. Climbing these mountains is nowhere near as challenging as climbing the Rwenzori’s or even Mt. Elgon. Indeed, all three mountains can be climbed on single day hikes. But what these mountains lack in challenge, they make up for with the spectacular views and amazing wildlife.

The hike to the top of the highest cone shaped peak on Mt. Muhavura offers magnificent views of the snow-capped Ruwenzori’s, Lake Edward in Queen Elizabeth National Park, the neighbouring dense Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and the hills and valleys across the borders with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mt. Mgahinga’s caldera is a swamp-filled crater with giant lobelias and at Mt. Sabinyo’s summit; visitors can curiously stand in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC at the same time!

Many exciting trails have been developed to explore the spectacular views, amazing wildlife and fascinating plants and culture in this remote corner of Uganda. The 1-2day Buhoma Trail starts in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, through the serene Kisoro town that sits in the shadow of the Virunga Mountains, through local villages to the island-dotted Lake Mutanda. The Batwa Trail takes hikers to Batwa communities that have lived in these montane forests for centuries.

Mountaineering in the Virunga Mountains can very easily be complimented by the world’s mostly highly ranked wildlife experience – gorilla trekking. One 9-member gorilla family (Nyakagezi) with 2 silverbacks has been habituated for tracking in Mgahinga Gorilla Park. There is also the opportunity for golden monkey trekking and habituation on the Gahinga Trail. Like gorillas, golden monkeys can only be found in this part of the world.

See also: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rwenzori Mountains is one of the most dramatic and diverse ecosystems in the world with a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, which mountaineers can explore on their climbs. Cultural tourism activities available in the Rwenzori’s compliment mountaineering expeditions. The Ruboni Village Walk and the Bulemba-Ihandiro Cultural Trail explore communities, sites and activities of the Bakonzo people who have lived in the Rwenzori’s for over 300 years.

See also: Rwenzori Mountains National Park

Mount Gahinga

Hiking and Mountaineering in Uganda - Mount Gahinga

Uganda’s eastern frontier is covered by extensive plains dotted with extinct volcanoes and isolated mountain ranges. The highest and most extensive of these is the 4,000sq. km Mount Elgon, whose highest peak Wagagai stands at 4231m. Although Mt. Elgon is Africa’s 8th highest mountain, it is by no means a difficult mountain to climb and it is in fact often selected for being an exciting alternative to the more strenuous climbs of East Africa.

Elgon has many of the same attractions from caves, waterfalls and hot springs, to primates, birds and rare tree species, but the climate on these volcanic slopes is much milder and the elevation lower meaning hikers require no special equipment or technical experience.

Hiking can be done on several different trails of varying lengths. Shorter guided hikes explore the montane forest and bamboo to reach the caves and waterfalls, the most popular being a day’s hike to and from Sipi Falls with its impressive 99m drop. Short hikes are also great for cultural tourism as they traverse community lands whose people have an ancient story with Mt. Elgon.

Longer hikes on the Sasa Trail, Sipi Trail and Piswa Trail take 3-7days to ascend all the way to the mountains summit, Wagagai at 4,321m. Atop Mt. Elgon sits the world’s largest intact caldera measuring 8kms in diameter, containing glacial lakes and hot springs. Mountain biking on trails to hilltops that provide views of various waterfalls and the northern Karamoja plains can complement hiking expeditions.

See also: Mt. Elgon National Park

Hiking and Mountaineering - What you need to know

When to do it

Mt. Elgon – 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.

Rwenzori Mountains – Hiking in Rwenzori is a year round activity, but inexperienced hikers are generally more comfortable visiting in the dry season, particularly July-August and December-February. Hiking in the wet seasons from March-May and October – mid December can be extremely challenging because sections of the trek can get extremely boggy and hamper hikers progress.

What you will need

Irrespective of the season, hikers should carry always raingear, a good sleeping bag, warm hat, gloves, heavy socks, rubber boots, gaiters and a good walking stick for balance. It is recommended to always have a basic first aid kit. Porters for hire carry the heavy hiking gear, food and provisions so that all that hikers have to carry is a small pack with raingear, any extra clothes, water and any other light luggage.

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