The 1145 km² Mount Elgon National Park protects the higher slopes of the 4321m Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano on the Uganda-Kenya border. Mount Elgon is one of East Africa’s oldest physical features, first erupting around 20 million years ago. The trek to the summit passes through the distinctive altitudinal vegetation zones restricted to Eastern Africa’s highest mountains. Mount Elgon’s cool slopes with its distinctive, waterfalls-treaked cliffs are an ideal retreat, especially during the long drive through dusty Karamoja to/from Kidepo Valley National Park.
The 1,145 km² Mount Elgon National Park is located on the 4321m-high Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. The border with Kenya bisects the mountain and national parks in both countries protect the flora and fauna on the higher contours. This trans-boundary conservation area has been declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve. A massive, extinct volcano, 80km in diameter, Mount Elgon once stood far higher than Kilimanjaro’s current 5900m. Its height was reduced when an unusually violent eruption emptied the volcano’s magma reservoir and the cone, no longer supported by underlying molten rock, collapsed inwards.
Even so, Mount Elgon still rises 3000m above the hot dusty plains of Karamoja to provide a cool respite for humans and a refuge for flora and fauna. The protected forest also represents an essential regional water catchment. Tourist activities on the mountain cater for various levels of ambition. Visitors can make extended hikes, requiring a minimum of 3 days, to the summits, take day/half day walks through forest on the lower edge of the park, or simply relax in resorts overlooking delightful waterfalls just outside the park at Sipi.
Large mammals, including elephant and buffalo, live in the forests of Mount Elgon but are rarely seen. Mount Elgon National Park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the African goshawk, Chubb’s cisticola, white-chinned prinia, African blue flycatcher and the endangered lammergeyer.
THE LOCAL PEOPLE
Mt. Elgon is home to two tribes, the Bagisu and the Sabiny. The Bagisu, who live on the southern and western slopes of Mount Elgon are known for their colourful, biannual Imbalu ceremony in which boys are initiated into manhood through circumcision. The Bagisu, also known as the Bamasaba, consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and refer to the mountain by this name.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS
Routes over varying length explore the forest around the FEC passing caves, waterfalls and viewpoints and providing the opportunity to observe birds and primates.
A number of routes ascend to the 4321m Wagagai peak, the summit of Mount Elgon. The Sasa Trail ascends from the small town of Budadiri (1250m a.s.l.) in the Sironko Valley. The shortest and most direct option, it is possible to reach the summit and descend to Budadiri in 3 or (more comfortably) 4 days. It does however involve a stiff altitudinal gain of 1650m, including an ascent of the Mudangi Cliffs, on Day One.
The Sipi Trail involves a longer but gentler ascent, starting 800 higher than Budadiri at the FEC (2050m). Other options are the Piswa and Suam routes on the northern side of the mountain and a proposed new route at Bushiyi. Jackson’s Pool and Jackson’s Peak Jackson’s Pool stands at 4,050 m beside the Sasa Trail in the shadow of the 4,165 m high Jackson’s peak, a freestanding volcanic plug rising above moorland on the western flank of the mountain.
MOUNTAIN BIKING IN MT. ELGON
Explore more of the Eastern Uganda on this adventure on your bike as you explore the countryside. A mountain biking trail runs from Sipi trading centre to Chema Hill in Kapchorwa town. Depending on the speed, interest and experience of the riders, the ride, should take 1.5 hours and provides views of various waterfalls and the Karamoja plains. Bikes can be hired from Sipi River Lodge.
NATURE WALKS AND HIKES IN MOUNT ELGON
The rugged nature and terrain of Mount Elgon National Park offers nature walks in the lower slopes of the mountain. There are different options starting from the ridges near Mbale town to the areas in Sipi Falls. A full-day nature hike leads from Budadiri to the Mudange cliffs, known as the Walls of Death, at the boundary of the national park. These cliffs are located in the tropical forest, and blue monkeys, black-and-white colobus and baboons are likely to cross your tracks.
At Sipi Falls, guides from the local community can organize walks of a few hours up to a full day around local viewpoint. In Kapchorwa, a 20-minute Sunrise Trek at 6am from Noah’s Ark Hotel leads to the nearby Tewei Hill to watch dawn spreading across the vast Karamoja plains at the base of the mountain.
The 7km (four-hour) mountain bamboo trail to Kapkwai Cave passes through tropical and bamboo forest. Along the trail are many primates, birds and rare trees such as Elgon teak and Elgon olive. The 5km walk to the Chebonet Falls and 3km walk to the Kapkwai caves follow the ridge view trail. There is also an 11km hike to the Tutum Cave, with the option of camping overnight beside the cave.
In Wanale, a visit to Khauka Cave takes three to four hours. Alternatively, you can go to the viewpoint through Nabuyoga loop where you can see Jackson’s Summit and Wagagai peak.
In Budadiri, short day hikes are available covering the Mudagi Cliffs, Sasa River Camp and Drigana lower falls. These are great for bird watching, nature walks and overnight camping.
MOUNTAIN/VOLCANO CLIMBING IN MT. ELGON
Many travelers find Mt. Elgon an exciting alternative to the more strenuous climbs in East Africa. It is easier to access throughout the year, less congested and has many of the same attractions, with a milder climate and lower elevation. Climbing the peaks requires no special equipment or technical experience.
The Sasa trail is the shortest but toughest route to the peaks, traversing the community land and allowing you to 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 Peak.
The Sipi trail (four to six days, 56km round trip) starts at 2,050m at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre. It is the longest trail to the peaks, passing through the northwestern mountainside through Tutum Cave to enter the caldera and reach Wagagai Peak. The trail begins gently, but becomes tougher on the third day from Kajeri Camp.
The Piswa trail (seven days, 49km round trip) is long and the most gentle trail. Starting at the village of Kapkwata on the north side of the mountain, it traverses the soft wood plantation to the Podocarpus forest. It’s notable for its rich wildlife and spectacular views of the Karamoja plains in Uganda and the Nandi and Kapeguria hills in Kenya. The Piswa trail also passes the hot springs on the way to the caldera and the peaks.
Alternative hiking options
The various routes can be combined, ascending the Sipi/Piswa/Sasa Trail and descending along the Sasa/Sipi Trail for example. This allows a traverse of the caldera and a visit to the hot springs.
Transboundary hike/cross border tourism: The higher slopes of Mount Elgon are shared with an adjacent national park in Kenya and a transboundary hike can be arranged. After ascending to the caldera with a UWA guide, climbers cross the border to descend with a Kenya Wildlife Service escort.
THE PEAKS AND THE CALDERA
Mount Elgon’s highest peaks are formed by high points around a jagged rim that forms the circumference of a giant caldera which, at 8km across, is one of the world’s largest. The tallest peak is Wagagai (4,521m) followed by Sudek (4,503 m), Koitobos (4,222 m) and Mubiyi (4,210m).
A highlight of any ascent of Mount Elgon is the traverse through the distinctive vegetation zones peculiar to East Africa’s highest mountains. The lowest of these zones, between the park boundary and the 2500m contour is covered with dense montane forest and regenerating forests, draped with lianas, epiphytes and lichens. This gives way to the bamboo forest (2,500-3,000m) followed by groves of giant heather (3000-3500m). Above 3500m, the mountainside opens into moorland dotted with outlandish forms of giant lobelias and groundsels.
NKOKENJERU RIDGE AND WANALE CLIFFS
As the map shows, a narrow corridor of parkland extends 25km west from the Mount Elgon massif towards Mbale town. This follows the Nkokenjeru Ridge, a 25 km-long tongue of lava that burst out of the side of the volcano after the cone had collapsed to block the main vent. A trail within this section of the park visits the Khaukha Cave. The ridge ends at the lofty Wanale Cliffs (outside the park) which tower 700m above Mbale. A road winding upwards from the town through a gap in the cliffs leads to some stunning viewpoints and sites with paragliding potential.
OUTSIDE THE PARK
The 7km section of the Sipi Valley immediately outside the national park is improbably scenic as the river plunges over three sets of basalt cliffs during its decent to the plains beneath. These have given rise to a cluster of tourist lodges and a variety of activities.
The Sipi area has much to offer mountain bikers, ranging from casual exploration of the many lovely trails in the vicinity, to the challenging Elgon Enduro hosted by Sipi River Lodge.
Many of the basalt cliffs around Sipi have been bolted and can safely be climbed.
Fly fishing for rainbow trout is possible on the Sipi River between the park boundary and the highest of the three waterfalls at Sipi. Again, contact Sipi River Lodge for details.
Uganda’s finest coffee is produced from Arabica beans grown on Mount Elgon. Take a guided tour of a coffee garden at Sipi to see how the beans are grown and ground.
Other regional attractions include Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve and Nyero Rock paintings near Kumi.
WHEN TO VISIT
Mount Elgon can be climbed all year round though the dry seasons between June-August and December-March are most enjoyable.
Mount Elgon National Park lies above Mbale town, 235km east of Kampala. The route beyond Mbale is surfaced as far as Kapchorwa town on the northwest flank of the mountain. Dirt roads lead off this road to the various trailheads. Mount Elgon can also be reached from Kidepo Valley National Park in north-east Uganda. The 420km drive is possible in one long day but an overnight stop in Moroto or Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is recommended.