Spread out over the slopes of a massive extinct volcano, Mt Elgon National Park is a good place to spot various primates and lots of birds, including the rare Jackson’s francolin, alpine chat and white-starred forest robin. Larger fauna, including leopards, hyenas, buffaloes, and elephants, are far harder to spot, but most visitors come for the hiking and impressive landscapes that are peppered with cliffs, caves, gorges, and waterfalls.
Trekking in Mountain Elgon National Park offers some East Africa’s most memorable climbing experiences and boasts a milder climate, lower elevation, and much more reasonable prices than climbs in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. Mt Elgon has five major peaks and the highest, Wagagai (4321m), is on the Ugandan side. It’s the second tallest mountain in Uganda and the eighth tallest in Africa.
The lower slopes are covered in tropical montane forests with extensive stands of bamboo. Above 3000m the forest fades into heath and then afro-alpine moorland, which blankets the caldera, a collapsed crater covering some 40sq km. The moorland is studded with rare plant species and you’ll often see duikers bounding through the long grass and endangered lammergeier vultures overhead. In September it’s decorated with wildflowers.
Trekking Mt Elgon
Mt Elgon may be a relatively easy climb, but this is still a big, wild mountain. Rain, hail, and thick mists aren’t uncommon, even in the dry season, and night-time temperatures frequently drop below freezing. Pack adequate clothing and at least one day’s extra food, just in case. Altitude sickness is rarely a problem but heeds the warning signs. It’s also wise to check the latest security situation, as there are occasional incidents along the Kenyan border; an armed escort is provided and included in your permit fee.
While you can climb Mt Elgon year-round, the best time is from June to August or December to March. The busiest times are June and July, though this coincides with the rainy season. However, seasons are unpredictable and it can rain at any time. You can get information and organize your trek at the Mt Elgon National Park Headquarters in Mbale or at the visitor centers at each of the trailheads, which are all open in theory 8 am to 5 pm weekdays and to 3 pm weekends, though these times can be flexible, to say the least!
Even as the number of visitors on Mt Elgon increases, tourism remains relatively underdeveloped and no more than 250 people reach the caldera in the busiest months. It’s possible to hike for days without seeing another climber. The climb is nontechnical and relatively easy, as far as 4000m-plus ascents go.
If you’re not up for the full climb there are numerous options for day hikes.
The Sasa Trail is the original route to Wagagai, and still the busiest as it can easily be reached by public transport from Mbale. It’s a three-to four-day round-trip to the summit with a 1650m ascent on day one. From Budadiri, which is considered the trailhead, a road leads 5km to Bumasola (you can take a car up this leg if you want) then it’s a short walk to the forest. Almost as soon as you enter the forest, you reach Mundagi Cliffs, which are scaled via ladders, then it’s 2½ hours of pure bamboo forest. The second day is an easier walk. On summit day, it’s four hours from your camp-site to Wagagai.
The Sipi trail, which begins at the Forest Exploration Center in Kapkwai, has become a popular return route as it allows you to chill out at Sipi Falls following your trip to the top. It’s a four-to seven-day round-trip, though you can opt to descend via the Sasa Trail, an easier route. On the first day, you can camp inside the huge Tutum Cave, which has a small waterfall over its entrance and once attracted elephants who dug salt out of the rock, much like some caves on the Kenyan side still do.
Starting high, the Piswa Trail has a gentler ascent than Sipi Trail. It’s the best wildlife-watching route as it doesn’t pass through bamboo stands, and it also offers the longest pass through the other-worldly moorland in the caldera. It’s a six-day journey when returning by the Sasa Trail and seven days when coming back via the Sipi Trail. Piswa Trail is less used because it begins in the difficult-to-reach village of Kapkwata, above Sipi.
Rose’s last Chance
Located near the trailhead in Budadiri, Rose’s is laid-back, comfortable, fun and friendly place that brings guests closer to the local scene. Testing local brews is a favourite activity and Rose sometimes brings in musicians and dancers at night. The dining room has good vibes and bedrooms are cosy and clean. It’s close to the UWA office.
You can also study local cooking, dances and the Luguisu language here.
UWA Forest Exploration Center
This lovely spot run by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is right at the Sipi trailhead and has a little restaurant. Book via the National Park Headquarters office in Mbale.
Suam Guest House
A budget UWA lodge (cold water only) at Suam trail where you’ll need to bring your own food. Book in advance via National Park Headquarters in Mbale.
UWA Kapkwata Guest House
This simple place serves the Piswa trailhead, just east of the park entrance gate. Dorms and cabins have shared bathrooms and there are basic meals available.