Exploring Mount Elgon: Hiking, Biking, Climbing, and Bird Watching
If a trip to Uganda is on your horizon, then a stop at Mount Elgon National Park is a must. With major peaks, an extinct volcano, and an endless amount of nature, Mount Elgon is the perfect place for the explorer at heart.
Elgon Mountain Conditions & Characteristics
There are 10 national parks in Uganda, but none other than Mount Elgon can say they’re home to the world’s largest volcanic base and one of the largest intact calderas. The unique ecological makeup of Mount Elgon makes it one of the most special places to visit in Uganda. Tourism helps keep the economy alive, and it’s managed well so as to not disturb the environment.
Mount Elgon is an extinct shield volcano that geologists estimate is roughly 24 million years old. Though it’s only the 8th tallest mountain in Africa and 4th tallest in East Africa today — straddling eastern Uganda and western Kenya — it once was the highest peak on the continent. Due to natural factors like erosion, Mount Elgon now sits with a highest point of 14,176ft, losing around 5,000ft of height.
Mount Elgon is also one of 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world and is home to species you can rarely find anywhere else. It features extremely diverse habitats — from savannahs to woodlands to forests, which is the reason many unique animals and wildlife reside here.
Pictures taken in surrounding ecosystems on the Uganda Gorilla Trekking, Safari, Hiking Adventure
There are cliffs, caves, waterfalls, calderas, hot springs, gorges, you name it. There’s an endless supply of beauty at Mount Elgon — all so different from one another — which makes it stand out as one of Africa’s hidden gems.
It’s clear that there’s so much to see and do in Uganda, especially at Mount Elgon National Park, which is why people come back year after year.
Nearly 5,000 people visit Mount Elgon every year, which totals around USD32,000 in tourism. More people are visiting the park each year — yet that number fell drastically in 2020-2021 due to pandemic restrictions.
More tourism facilities are constantly being built, and there’s an effort to increase cross-border tourism between the Kenya and Uganda sides of the park. Both Uganda Wildlife Authority and Kenya Wildlife Service manage the park.
Tourism is great for the Ugandan economy, and since the number of people visiting the park is relatively low, there are no negative impacts on the ecology.
Mount Elgon National Park
Thanks to its diverse landscape, Mount Elgon National Park has activities for every different type of adventurer. From strenuous hikes to casual bird watching, the national park should be on every Ugandan bucket list.
Can you really say you visited Mount Elgon if you didn’t at least hike part of the mountain itself? Don’t feel pressured to summit it, there are plenty of hiking trails at Mount Elgon for all skill levels.
Mount Elgon is a prime trekking mountain. You can hike both the Kenyan and the Ugandan side. Each contains their own hidden gems — think caves, waterfalls, and wildlife. Guides, porters, and cooks are available to help hikers ascend, especially those interested in multi-day hiking and camping.
Try timing your visit to coincide with the dryer months — December to February or June to August — if you want to avoid any wet and muddy hiking trails. Let’s look at 4 hikes appropriate for beginner to advanced hikers.
- Endebess Bluff. If a good view at the end is your favorite reward for completing a hike, then the Endebess Bluff might be your new favorite adventure. Starting on the Kenyan side of the park, the trail is steep at times, but it only takes around 2 hours to reach the top where a stunning panoramic view awaits. Soak in the sights of gorges, rivers, and mesas belonging to both Kenya and Uganda.
- Koitoboss Peak. At an altitude of 4,222m, Koitoboss Peak is the highest part of Mount Elgon on the Kenya side, and the 2nd highest peak in all of Kenya. Start your trek off at Road End Camp, which you can reach with guides and a KWS vehicle. Take your time summiting this peak — remember, altitude sickness is definitely a thing!
- Kitum Cave. Of the 4 main caves at Mount Elgon, Kitum Cave is the most famous. Follow a short trail to the entrance of the cave and grab a guide book before entering. The cave descends 200m into the side of Mount Elgon, and its sodium-rich salts attract the likes of wild savannah elephants. You can also view ancient cave paintings.
- Sipi Falls. Hike 3 waterfalls in roughly 3 hours, starting at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center. We hope you’re not afraid of getting a little dirty, because chances are you’ll be covered in mud by the end of this hike. You’ll soon forget about your mud-stained clothes when you see the third and final waterfall of Sipi Falls — standing loud and proud at 100m. Bring your swimsuit and jump in if the weather allows it.
Mount Elgon Climbing Routes
If you’re a climber, you definitely want to make your way over to Sipi, as they boast 15 different climbing routes. Climbing routes range from 15m-35m, and you can easily fill up an entire day exploring the different routes.
Gear is provided and instructors are available, meaning even the most beginner-level climbers can find a route to tackle and feel safe in the process. Keep in mind, though, that even the easiest route is still classified as intermediate.
Most climbers opt for February as the month to visit, since you’re more likely to expect dry weather. No one wants to get hurt climbing in the rain.
All of these climbing routes on the Sipi Main Wall are located next to one another. From easiest to hardest, here are 4 of the routes we’d recommend trying.
- Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy. The second-easiest route — Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy — is classified as a “17” in the South African (SA) grade ranking, which translates to a 5.9 in the American Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). There are 5 bolts/clips on this route, and it’s on the left side of the wall.
- Friends Remain Friends. This route is 8m long and is a 20 SA grade (5.10b). Friends Remain Friends is a tougher route better suited for more experienced climbers.
- Acacia Tree (Left/Right Option). Here’s a 2 for 1 climb. Both routes begin at the same spot and are roughly 9m long. They both are 22 SA grade (5.10d). One diverges to the left at the halfway point, while the other continues to the right.
- Mosc Swallow (Long Version). The hardest climbing route at Mount Elgon, Mosc Swallow is a 24 SA grade(5.11c) — best reserved for experienced or expert climbers. You can opt for the shorter variation, which ends where all the other routes do, or continue climbing the second part of this overhung route.
Mountain Biking Trails
The Park opened up trails for mountain biking in 2012, and tourists have taken to this new activity. Most biking takes place near Sipi Falls, with plenty of loop trails available.
Bikes aren’t provided, so prepare in advance by renting bikes from the Sipi River Lodge. A lot of the trails aren’t paved, so expect dirt roads as well.
If it’s not on your agenda already, mountain biking should be. It’s one of the most beautiful ways to take in views of Mount Elgon, and there are trails available for beginner to advanced mountain bikers.
Here are 4 of the top ones we recommend:
- Dragon Lady Trail. If you’re wanting a nice, downhill ride, try out Dragon Lady. The trail is a bit rocky down the 1,500ft descent, but manageable for amateur to intermediate riders. Expect this trail to take roughly 75 minutes from start to finish, and consider preparing a ride back up, otherwise you’re in for quite the climb up the 3 mile trail.
- Sipi Falls Loop. Combine mountain biking with waterfalls and you have the Sipi Falls Loop trail. You’ll begin at the Sipi River Lodge and ride up to the top of the upper waterfall. The first 2/3 of this 8.8 mile trail is uphill, but then you’ll enjoy a nice single track descent.
- Sipi Falls XC Loop Past Kapchorwa. Looking for a longer trail starting at Sipi Falls? Experienced mountain bikers will enjoy the all-day 48-mile XC Loop that goes past Kapchorwa. Prepare for steep climbs and descents on predominantly dirt roads, which will be rewarded by amazing views of Mount Kadam.
- Mount Elgon XC Race Route. This trail was used for 2015, 2016, and 2017 Mount Elgon MTB XC races. Don’t let that fact intimidate you — the trail is open to casual bikers with only a moderate physical rating. You’ll once again start and end in Sipi Falls and are even allowed to use e-bikes if that’s more your speed.
Pack your binoculars, we’re going bird watching! If gorilla trekking isn’t for you, there’s still plenty of Uganda wildlife to experience.
And there’s no shortage of excitement for birdwatchers visiting Mount Elgon. The national park boasts over 300 bird species, 40 of which are exclusive to the area. Out of the 87 Afrotropical highland biome species, 56 of them reside in the park.
You’ll have the greatest chance to see birds at Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center. The thick shrub makes it an ideal habitat for many Ugandan bird species.
Walk quietly along the paths and keep your eyes peeled for some rare birds. Though there are tons of birds you won’t want to miss, here are 4 to definitely put on your birding list:
- Lammergeyer. The Lammergeyer — also known as the bearded vulture — is an endangered species. Mount Elgon is one of the few places in Uganda you can spot this rare bird. There’s only an estimated 2,000-10,000 of these birds left, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of one over the caldera.
- Jackson’s Francolin. You won’t be able to find Jackson’s Francolin anywhere else in Uganda. These birds are also called Jackson’s Spurfowl and only reside in Kenya and Uganda. They move in pairs or small groups, are relatively approachable, and you can spot them in grasslands and the forest edge.
- Green Tinkerbird. One of the more popular Afrotropical highland biome species, the Green Tinkerbird is also a resident of Mount Elgon National Park. Identifiable by their olive-green appearance and yellow rump, you can find these birds in forests and lush woodlands.
- African Blue Flycatcher. Aptly named, the African Blue Flycatcher is native to Africa and is known for its uniformly blue appearance. It has a long, blue tail that is usually fanned — differentiating it from the White-tailed Blue Flycatcher. Listen for a ringing “chi-wee” call as you try to spot this bird at Mount Elgon.
You can reach Mount Elgon National Park in a number of ways, but the most popular is to fly into Kampala and drive 4–5 hours to Mbale on the Uganda side, which is the national park office. The national park headquarters are located in Kenya.
- What to take with you: The contents of your suitcase will depend on the activities you’re planning on doing. You can’t miss out on hiking, which means you need to pack a good pair of hiking shoes, hats, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts, and a rain jacket. We’d also suggest bringing along your binoculars and a hiking stick.
- Park Size: Mount Elgon National Park is nearly 500 sq miles. The Ugandan part of the park makes up 430 sq miles, while the Kenyan side covers 65 sq miles. Mount Elgon itself is 50 miles in diameter with 5 major peaks.
- When to go: You can access the park year-round, but if you want to avoid the wet season, you should go sometime between June and August or December and March. If you don’t mind a little rain, you can sacrifice being dry for less crowds.
- Camping in the park: You’re more than welcome to set up camp in the park, in certain areas. Chorlim and Rongai campsites are two popular locations, each charging around $20 per night. You can take advantage of these campsites if you’re climbing Mount Elgon.
Ready to Explore Uganda?
Ready for the literal adventure of a lifetime? Uganda is one of Africa’s most popular destinations for a reason, there’s so much to do and so much to see. If you’re ready to start exploring — and do it alongside like minded solo women travelers — sign up for Explorer Chick’s Uganda gorilla trekking, safari, and hiking adventure.
Michelle is an avid writer and traveler (who takes her cat along for the ride). Solo travel has allowed her to meet lifelong friends and participate in unforgettable adventures. When she’s not jumping out of a helicopter or climbing the nearest mountain, you can find her curled up with her cat and a good book — and probably planning her next trip. She writes about her travels and her readings on her personal blog, www.frontmatterblog.com.
Favorite outdoor adventures: Hiking and biking! Those two, or long walks, are my favorite way to soak in scenic sights. I also grew up in the mountains, so I’m a skier as well.
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