If you want a satisfying climb/hike that doesn’t require expert skills or equipment and is closer to home. Look no further than Mount Elgon. It’s the 7th highest mountain in Africa at 4,321m and the summit is readily accessible for climbers with limited experience. It’s the largest extinct volcano in the world that first/last erupted more than 24 million years ago, with a surface area of 50 km by 80 km. Mount Elgon is the fourth highest mountain in East Africa, with the second-highest peak in Uganda (Wagagi Peak – 4321 metres). It contains crater covering over 40 kms at the top of the mountain, surrounded by a series of rugged peaks.
Mount Elgon National Park is 140km North East of Lake Victoria and 280km from Kampala with estimated driving time of about 6hrs. The Park can be reached quickly by car or bus.
There are two main trailheads (starting points) which lead to the mountain’s peaks. The simplest, and fastest, way up the mountain is the Sasa trail leaving from Mbale, Budadiri, and is the most direct route to the peaks. On the way is Rose’s Last Chance which is worth the visit in itself. It is a cheap stay, but the cost is not included in your park fee. The trail goes through the Park’s largest area of bamboo forest. The first morning’s climb is steep and quick, so you can go up to over 1600m on the first day. But it involves the “wall of death” – so named for the frayed local ropes that, in previous years, was the only way to climb it. Fortunately, the UWA installed sturdy staircases up the cliff face several years ago, so porters can almost run up the mountain and you’ll feel the name is no longer deserved.
For a more moderate/calm climb of about 650 – 700m first day, you may choose to ascend via Pisa trail (Kapkwata trailhead ). Along this route you can explore a vast Podocarpus forest, an excellent place for wildlife viewing. The full trekking loop to the peaks may take 4-5 days to complete. It’s recommended that visitors should consider talking with the Information Clerk at the visitor centers of either Budadiri or Kapkwata, depending on trail choice.
Basic camping is possible at designated strategic points along the trekking at 15,000 – 25,000 UGX per night and around 15,000 – 25,000 UGX per day per porter. Each of those is actually 15,000 UGX but we just felt things change over time and perhaps its works good if you are planning not to take any chances. Carrying your own equipment is not recommended. Porters carry cooking equipment and cook for you, but they don’t provide the food so remember to bring this with you! A fuel-efficient camp stove is perfect if possible as it helps to reduce pressure on MENP firewood resource. You will also need to bring your own warm clothing, rain gear, hiking boots, tent, and sleeping bag. Things like tents and sleeping bags can be hired through the Park office in Mbale. Porter/guides will also help you carry up to 18 kg of your gear as well setting up/bringing down your camp, and collecting your water.
Good idea to support local community members and encourage them to continued conserving Mount Elgon’s valuable resources if you hire local guides and porters. They are all certified guides and have received training in natural/cultural histories, emergency first aid and communication. They are great people and you would love and enjoy it with them. The wages cover the guide or porter’s park visitation fee and the cost of sufficient food and supplies. Be sure to see a guide’s license before hiring. For additional safety reasons, a Park ranger escort must be hired when visiting the calderas or ascending the peaks. You will meet your ranger escort at Sasa or Piswa patrol hut where you must present your park receipt before proceeding upwards.
Lodging and Accommodations
Mount Elgon Park lodging and accommodations simply basic. There are five designated campsites at Sasa River, Mude Cave, Hunters Cave, Piswa Patrol Hut and Kapkwata Rest House. Kapkwata Guest House has three main rooms with a sleeping capacity for seven people and offers kitchen services, but visitors have to bring their own food supplies or provide money to buy on arrival. You may need to make arrangements ahead of time with the Mt Elgon Park office in Mbale as these facilities do not accommodate large numbers of visitors.
Also, there is a Forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai inside the park, but this is more dormitory style and it takes up to 30 people. And of course there are several more decent lodging options in Mbale town.
Other interesting things to do and see in the Mount Elgon Park Area
Several trails in the area allow for intriguing day hikes through friendly local villages and beautiful farming country. Pleasant campsites and lodge facilities, including meal services and hot showers are available at Crow’s Nest located just before the Sipi trading centre. More decent but basic accommodation is available at the Sipi Falls Resort, Lacam lodge. You may check out our three day tour to Sipi falls including a visit to Jinja town and the source of the Nile River by clicking on this link.
Mt. Elgon supports a variety of wildlife, Elephants and buffalo can be found on the lower slopes. The park is also home to a variety of small antelope, leopard and spotted hyena and forest monkeys, including the Black-and-white Colobus and Blue Monkey. Over 300 birds can also be found in the area, including the endangered Lammergeier, African Goshawk, and Baglafecht Weaver. However, due to the dense forest vegetation, it is easier said than done to see all this abundant wildlife. Chanler’s mountain reed bucks can be spotted near the caldera rim. The ancient cave paintings near the trailhead at Budadiri also add great beauty to the park.
Mt. Elgon’s slopes support a rich variety of vegetation ranging from montane forest to high open moorland studded with the giant lobelia and groundsel plants.The vegetation varies with altitude. The mountain slopes are covered with olive Olea hochstetteri and Aningueria adolfi-friedericii wet montane forest. At higher altitudes, this changes to olive and Podocarpus gracilior forest, and then a Podocarpus and bamboo Arundinaria alpina zone. Higher still is a Hagenia abyssinica zone and then moorland with heaths Erica arborea and Philippia trimera, tussock grasses such as Agrostis gracilifolia and Festuca pilgeri, herbs such as Alchemilla, Helichrysum, Lobelia, and the giant groundsels Senecio barbatipes and Senecio elgonensis.
Flore and fauna
The ascent of Mount Elgon [passes through a series of roughly concentric vegetation zone. The lower slopes of the mountain are intensively farmed up to the park boundary. The first zone of natural vegetation is montane forest which runs from the park boundary up to 2500m. This is followed by bamboo and low canopy forest (2400-3000m), then high montane heath (3000-3500m) which includes the heather (Phillipea excelsia) growing up to 6m tall. Above 3500m, cold temperatures and fierce winds force the heather to give way to open moorland. Finally, above3800m, dramatic Afroalpine vegetation is found among tussock grasslands and Carex bogs. This rare and spectacular vegetation type is restricted to the upper reaches of East Africa’s highest mountains and includes the giant groundsel (Senecio elgonensis) and the endemic Lobelia elgonensis.
Mount Elgon supports a variety of Wildlife including elephants, buffalo,Defassa’s waterbuck, oribi, bush buck, leopard and spotted hyena. However as is usual in forest enviroments, most of these species are rarey seen. The most commonly seen creatures are black and white colobus, blue monkey, duiker and tree squirrel.
The mountain is home to 296 birds including 40 restricted range species. Birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include Jackson’s francolin, moustached green tinker bird, and black collared apalis, the Ugandan ranges of which are limited to Mount Elgon. The broze-naped pigeon, Hartlaub’s turaco and tacazze sunbird are limited to Mount Elgon and a few other mountains in eastern Uganda. Mount Elgon is also one of the few places in Uganda where the endangered Lammergeyer can be seen , soaring above the caldera and Suam gorge.
Mount Elgon is home to three tribes, the Bagisu, the Sabiny and the Ndorobo. The Bagisu and the Sabiny are subsistence farmers and conduct circumcision ceremonies every other year to initiate young men (and in the Sabiny’s case, girls) into adulthood. Traditionally, the Bagisu, also known as the Ba-Masaba, consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba, and you may hear the mountain called by this name. Local people have depended on forest produces and have made agreements with the park to continue to harvest resources such as bamboo poles and bamboo shoots (a delicious local delicacy).
Climbing the mountain
Mount Elgon National park is a Roadless wildness. The park can only be explored on foot, on routes that range from day walks to extended hikes over several days to reach the upper mountain. You can also make your hike a trans boundary adventure, ascending the Ugandan slopes and descending on the Kenyan side (or vice versa). This requires prior arrangement to meet with Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) rangers at a crossover point at the hot springs in the caldera.
A trained ranger guide is required on all treks. Local porters make your hike easier, each carring up to 18kg of supplies, in addition to collecting water, cooking and preparing the camp.
The best times to climb the Mount Elgon are during the dry seasons of June-August and December-March. No technical climbing equipment or skills are required to reach the main peak. The caldera and the peak are the main destinations, while along the way, a choice of trails passes interesting and unique flora and fauna, waterfalls, lakes, caves, gorges and hot springs.
Rain gear and both cool and warm clothing are required as the area is subject to sudden weather changes. You should also take a camera, binoculars, hat, torch, wildlife guide books and insect repellant.
Health and safety
Hikers should familiarize themselves with the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia and the various forms of altitude sickness. Be aware that above 2500m, altitude sickness can affect anyone, irrespective of age, fitness-or previous mountain experience. The risk is reduced by slow ascents to enable acclimatization, while the most effective treatment is immediate withdrawal to a lower altitude. Hence affected hikers should not descend into the caldera, which you must climb upwards to leave.
Around the park
Trailheads and Routes
Routes from three main trailheads lead to the caldera. The trek lengths given below refer to return journeys.
Sasa trail. (4 days) This route, which starts from Budadiri town, is the closest to Mbale and is the most easily accessible. It also provides the most direct route to the peaks, albeit with a stioff climb of over 1,600m on the first day. It crosses the park’s largest area of bamboo forest and passes the lovely Jackson’s pool on the way to wagagai peak.
Sipi trail (7days). This route starts at the forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai, few kilometres upsteam from the Sipi Falls which lies just outside the park. The trail visits the spectacular Tatum cave hidden within extensive forest.
The Exploration Centre is also the starting point for day hikes which penetrate the dense montane forest to visit Chebonet Falls, Kapkwai cave and a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the plains 1200m below.
Piswa trail (7days). This trail, which starts at Kapkwata, 30km beyond Kapchorwa, is a longer route, but starts at a highe altitude and follows a more gradual route to the caldera. It is notable for the Podocarpus forest en route, a prime habitat for wildlife viewing.
Suam trail. This long and litle used trail starts at the village of suam on the Kenyan border crossing. It follows the Suam River through the steep and spectacular Suam Gorge to the hot springs on the eastern side of the caldera.
It is possible to vary your hike by ascending from one trailhead and descending to another, for example
Ascending Sasa Trail and descending via Sipi Trail (5days).
Ascending Sasa Trail and descending via Piswa Trail (6days).
Ascending Sipi Trail and descending via Piswa Trail (7days).