Mount Elgon National Park has the largest volcanic base in the world. Located on the Uganda-Kenya border it is also the oldest and largest solitary, volcanic mountain in East Africa. Its vast form, 80km in diameter, rises more than 3,000m above the surrounding plains. The mountain’s cool heights offer respite from the hot plains below, with the higher altitudes providing a refuge for flora and fauna.
Mount Elgon National Park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the endangered Lammergeyer. Small antelopes, forest monkeys, elephants and buffalos also live on the mountainside. The higher slopes are protected by national parks in Uganda and Kenya, creating an extensive trans-boundary conservation area which has been declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve.
A climb on Mt. Elgon’s deserted moorlands unveils a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to many mountains: the ultimate goal on reaching the top of Mt. Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai Peak, but the descent into the vast 40km² caldera.
Mt. Elgon National Park
Areas of Interest
Forest Exploration Centre
The Forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai, 13km from Sipi town, doubles as an educational centre for schools and the trailhead for climbers using the Sipi trail to the caldera. Three circuits of between 3-7km run through the surrounding regenerating forest, where visitors canvisit caves, waterfalls, escarpments and viewpoints; and observe birds and primates. Bird species encountered here include Hartlaub’s Turaco, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Dusky-Turtle Dove, African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Thick-billed Honey guide, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike.
Accommodation is available for student groups.
Mount Elgon’s slopes are riddled with caves left by moving lava and erosion of soft volcanic deposits. The most accessible are Kapkwai Cave, near the Forest Exploration Centre, and Khauka Cave on Wanale Ridge. Historically, such features acted as shelters for locals and their livestock; later on they provided manure in the form of bat droppings. More recently, they were used by climbers and their porters, and even today, campsites are still located at Hunters Cave, Siyo Cave (near the hot springs), Mude Cave and Tutum Cave – ideal for overnight expeditions.
Jackson’s Pool and Jackson’s Peak
Jackson’s Pool stands at 4,050m and is a natural pool with shallow waters. This pool lies in the shadow of the 4,165m high Jackson’s Peak, a free-standing volcanic plug rising from the western flank of the mountain. These features were named after the explorer Frederick Jackson, who in 1889 was the first European to climb Mount Elgon. The peak is used by the locals as a spot to communicate with their ancestors.
The peaks and the caldera
Mount Elgon’s highest peaks are formed by high points around a jagged rim enclosing one of the world’s largest calderas, at 40km long and 8km wide. The tallest peak is the 4,321m Wagagi, followed by Sudek (4,303m), Koitobos (4,222m) and Mubiyi (4,210m).
The Caldera was formed as a result of magma being drained from the chamber. When it could no longer support the overlying volcanic cone, it collapsed into a depression-like shape. In the eastern corner of the caldera, hot springs are found at the start of the deep Suam Gorge. In the northwest, Simu Gorge was formed by the sheer weight of the water in the caldera cutting two stream beds out of the weak volcanic ash and agglomerate walls.
Mt. Elgon’s vegetation is banded into broad zones whose characteristics are dictated by altitude and rainfall. The lower mountain slopes are covered with dense forest and regenerating forests, hung with vine-like lianas, epiphytes and lichens. The floor is covered with a carpet of ferns, orchids and flowering plants. Common tree species encountered in the tropical montane forest (1,500-2,500m asl) are olive Oleahochstetteri, prunus africanas, Elgon teak, podocarpus, cedar, Cordia, Neoboutania, allophyllus tombea and Aningueriaadolfi-friedericii.
The zone changes to mixed bamboo at 2,500-3,000m. The bamboo merges into open woodland dominated by hagenia abyssinica and African rosewood interspersed with hypericum – a giant form of St. John’s wort.
The heath zone (3,000-,3500m) is characterized by giant heather interspersed with grassy swards of blonde tussock grass dotted with pink and white everlasting flowers (ericriceum brownie and jonstonii) , flame-colored gladioli, blue delphiniums and red hot pokers.
The moorland or Afro-alpine zone (3,500-4,321m) contains senecio elgonensis, Erica tree, giant lobelias with hairy leaves and plumes of tiny blue flowers, ladies’ mantle tussocks (archimilla elgonesis) and pink and white everlasting flowers.
The summit of the mountain is vegetated by rare Afro-montane species that include giant forms of lobelia and groundsel.
Nkokenjeru Ridge and Wanale
Nkokenjeru Ridge is a distinctive finger of forest extending outwards from the main massif of Mount Elgon. It lies at an elevation of 2,347m and covers a 25km-long tongue of lava that flowed out of the side of the volcano after the cone collapsed to block the main vent. Nkokenjeru Ridge culminates at the superb Wanale Cliffs which tower above Mbale Town; the seasonal Nabuyonga and Namatyo Waterfalls are located here. A trail at this western end of the ridge leads you to Khauka Cave where petrified wood can be found.
This ridge also offers grounds for those interested in paragliding over the Mbale town.
The Nabuyonga Trail is a 5km loop with birding, fauna and flora. Viewpoints overlook Mbale town, Lakes Kyoga, Bisina and Salisbara, and the rugged mountains in Karamoja region. On a clear day, you may enjoy vistas of Wagagai peak and even areas of western Kenya. Beware of throwing a stone into the Nabuyonga stream – local folklore claims that if you do so, a thunderstorm will strike before you leave!
Beyond the park
The northern and western sides of Mount Elgon rise in a series of massive basalt cliffs, often several kilometres in length, over which the mountain’s rivers plunge as beautiful waterfalls. The best known are the three waterfalls at Sipi on the Kapchorwa road, just outside the park. The lowest of these falls is the most spectacular as it cascades over a 100m cliff. The second, known as Simba, plunges 69m over the entrance to a cave. Visitors can stand in the cave and enjoy a view of the back of the falls. The third waterfall, also known as Ngasire, gushes over an 87m high ridge. Sipi Falls is less than an hour’s drive from Mbale on a paved road.
Easily accessible waterfalls are also found at Sisiyi, Bulago, Chebonet and Wanale and many more are scattered across the mountain, offering spectacular views.
Outside the park overlooking Sipi Falls is the hill where, during the 1960s, Chemonges Kingo, King of the Sabiny would meet his subjects. From the top you can view the three falls, the Karamajong plains and the Wagagai peak.
Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve and Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve
In the plains of Karamoja to the north of Mount Elgon lie Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve and the expansive Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the second largest protected area in Uganda, with an area of 2,788km2. Wildlife found here includes rare species such as the roan antelope, lesser kudu, Bright’s gazelle and ostriches which, in Uganda, are found only here and in Kidepo Valley National Park. Wildlife is concentrated around the Loporokocho swamp; bird species encountered here include Hartlaub’s Turaco, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Dusky Turtle Dove, African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Thick-billed Honey guide and Grey Cuckoo-Shrike.
Rock paintings found at various sites within the Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve are believed to date back over 3000 years and were created by the Kushite and Nilotic peoples.
Nyero Rock Paintings
65km north of Mbale, the Nyero Rock Paintings are the finest of several rock art sites in the region. Three panels are found within the extensive granite outcrop of Moru Ikara, 10km from Kumi Town and 55km from Mbale on the Soroti road. The most impressive is Panel Two which includes two canoes bearing human figures.
Scenic viewpoints outside the park
A detour to Bulago off the Mbale-Sipi road reveals a village standing high above a waterfall facing the Simu Valley towards Butandiga ridge. The route to Kapchorwa beyond Sipi Falls to the north provides a stunning view towards Mount Kadam and the vast plains of Karamoja. The top of the Sironko Valley in Budadiri, enclosed by the Mudangi Cliffs and the Nkonkonjeru Ridge, provides a picturesque view of the montane forest and caldera peaks. Visitors should also drive to the top of Wanale Cliff for panoramic views over the town of Mbale.
Birding in Mt. Elgon
Excellent birding opportunities exist around Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre, in particular in the secondary forest and thick shrub along the loop trails extended to cover Cheptui Falls. It supports the African Goshawk; Chubb’s Cisticola, White-chinned Prinia, African Blue Fly-catcher, Chinspot Batis, Mackinnon’s Fiscal, Dohertys and Luhders Bush-shrikes, Baglafecht Weaver, Cinnamon Bee Eater, Moustached Tinkerbird, Hartloub`s Turaco, Tacazze Sunbird, Olive- and Bronze-naped pigeons, Black Kite and Black-collared Apalis.
Cultural Encounters in Mt. Elgon
Sipi Widows’ Group
Find out where your coffee comes from! Grown on the mountain shambas (an area of cultivated ground) of Mt Elgon is the Arabica coffee also named Sipi or Bugisu by the farmers – who have a reputation for producing some of the finest washed Arabica in Kenya and Uganda. The Sipi Widows’ Group will take you on a guided walk through the coffee plantation demonstrating how to plant, pick, grind, store and wash the coffee.
You will also learn about life of the Sabiny as you meet local residents, and participate in traditional weaving. Learn about African cuisine through the preparation, cooking and tasting of local dishes. A visit to the women’s handcraft shop in the trading centre is also highly recommended. Proceeds from the tour and shop are invested in maintaining the coffee trees; raising awareness about the dangers of female circumcision (traditionally practiced in this region); and paying school fees for orphans.
Budadiri Community Walks Ecotourism Experience
This community group, based in Budadiri, offers accommodation, car hire, cultural dances, guided coffee tours and community nature walks. Visitors can discover the region’s cultural dances, food preparation, folklore and its famous malewa bamboo shoots.
There is also a tour of Mt Elgon’s famous Arabica coffee processing plants, which supports local farmers. Nature lovers can indulge in one of the three trails – the full-day Namugabwe Cave Trail, passing through BaMasaba community land and banana plantations to reach a historical cave filled with bones; the Dirigana Loop Trail to the Dirigsana Falls and Gabushana Cave past local markets and the “Walls of Death”; or the three day walk to Sipi Falls which reveals the culture of two neighboring tribes.
Hiking/Nature Walks in Mount Elgon National Park
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 Biking in Mt. Elgon
A mountain biking trail runs from Sipi trading centre to Chema Hill in Kapchorwa town. It should take 1.5 hours and provides views of various waterfalls and the Karamoja plains. Bikes can be hired from Sipi River Lodge.
Mountain/Volcano Climbing in Mt. Elgon
Many travellers 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 combines, 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.
Nature walks in Mount Elgon National Park
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 viewpoints. 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.
Rock climbing in Mt. Elgon
Rock climbing takes place outside the park at Sipi. There are 14 climbs requiring various levels of rock scaling techniques, and all equipment can be hired from the Sipi Falls Tourist Guides Association. The toughest is a 35m climb while the easiest is 15m. Both command a picturesque view of the main falls and the Karamoja plains.
Sport fishing in Mount Elgon National Park
Sport fishing is done above the highest of the three waterfalls at Sipi outside the park. It provides exciting challenges to anglers who take pride in battling with the rainbow trout because of its beautiful coloration and fighting ability. The largest can weigh 3kgs!
Fishing is restricted to designated sites and places and advance booking is not necessary. Interested sport fishers are urged to bring their own equipment and secure a permit from Sipi River Lodge.