Rwenzori Mountains National Park encompasses the legendary Rwenzori mountains dubbed the mountains of the Moon, where the highest snow-peak in the country (second-highest on the continent) pervades the East African clouds. The ranges are a combination of beautiful peaks, glaciers, Valleys, Rivers, Lakes, and various species of flora and fauna, making the Rwenzori scenic. The stratified vegetation is one of the main attractions for visitors.
KEY:FNR – Foreign Non-Residents, FR – Foreign Residents, EAC – East African Community
Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Rwenzori Mountains National Park encompasses the legendary Rwenzori mountains dubbed the “Mountains of the Moon,” where the highest snow-peak in the country (third-highest on the continent) pervades the East African clouds. The 100,000 ha park is a combination of beautiful peaks, glaciers, Valleys, Rivers, Lakes, and various flora and fauna species, which make it one of Africa’s most beautiful alpine destinations. It has many natural habitats of endangered species and a rich and unusual flora comprising, among other species, the giant heather.
The Rwenzori is the highest mountain range in Africa. Its loftiest peaks, Margherita (5,109m) and Alexandra (5,083m) on Mount Stanley are exceeded in altitude elsewhere in Africa only by Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Both of which are extinct volcanoes standing in isolation above the surrounding plains. In addition to Mount Stanley, there are four other glacial peaks in the Rwenzori: Mount Speke (4,890m), Mount Emin (4,791m), Mount Gessi (4,715m), and Mount Luigi da Savoia (4,627m).
The Rwenzori Mountains are unique among East Africa’s major peaks because they are not volcanic in origin. Still, they do rise directly from the Rift Valley floor, and their formation, like that of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, was linked to the geological upheaval that created the Rift.
The Rwenzori makes our top 10 destinations in Uganda because they hold three of the continent’s five highest peaks. The summits are spectacular, the routes are uncrowded, and the high-altitude forest teems with natural life. The ranges contain six of Africa’s ten highest mountains, most of them more elevated than the tallest Alps. Yet, to most bucket-list hikers, they are largely unknown, overshadowed by Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, Africa’s two highest mountains.
The fabled ‘Mountains of the Moon’ are now protected within the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are considered by some explorers to be the source of the White Nile. The legendary Mountains of the moon are reflections of the mist-shrouded mountains of this rugged massif that tower almost 4,000 m above the Albertine Rift Valley, making them visible from great distances.
These mountains offer a unique and pristine landscape of alpine vegetation studded with charismatic giant lobelias, groundsels, and heathers which have been called “Africa’s botanical big game.” The combination of spectacular snow-capped peaks, glaciers, V-shaped valleys, fast-flowing rivers with magnificent waterfalls, clear blue lakes, and unique flora contributes to the area’s exceptional natural beauty.
Because of their altitudinal range and the nearly constant temperatures, humidity, and high insolation, the Rwenzori Mountains support the richest montane flora in Africa.
There is an outstanding range of species, many of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift and bizarre in appearance. The natural vegetation has been classified as belonging to five distinct zones, mainly determined by altitude and aspect. The higher altitude zones, covered by heath and Afro-alpine moorland, extend from around 3,500 m to the snow line and represent the African continent’s rarest vegetation types. Significant species of the Rwenzoris include giant heathers, groundsels, lobelias, and other endemics.
In terms of fauna, the Rwenzoris have been recognized as an Important Bird Area with 217 bird species recorded to date (several believed to Albertine Rift endemics), a number expected to increase as the park becomes better surveyed. The montane forests are also home to threatened species such as the African forest elephant, eastern chimpanzee, and l’Hoest’s monkey. The endangered Rwenzori black-fronted or red duiker, believed to be a very localized subspecies or possibly a separate species, appears to be restricted to the Park.
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park provides stunning views of the glacier and snow-capped mountains just miles from the equator, where it is contiguous with the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Park includes a much larger alpine area covering 99,600 ha, of which 70% lies at over 2,500 m in height.
The Rwenzori Mountains are the most permanent sources of the River Nile and constitute a vital water catchment. Their multitude of fast-flowing rivers, magnificent waterfalls, and stratified vegetation make the property exceptionally scenic and beautiful. The mountains are well-known for their unique alpine flora. The Park also supplies local communities with various wild resources and is an important cultural heritage.
On the foothills of the mountain, you will witness farmlands and on top of the distinctive mountain flora, which has attracted a great deal of fauna and delivering a fantastic picturesque to the travel enthusiasts. Arrive at the top of the mountain and behold the majestic snow-capped peaks that will leave you breathless.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is situated in Western Uganda in the East African Rift Valley and also straddles to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its conservation area known as Virunga National Park.
The Ugandan government owns Rwenzori Mountains National Park through Uganda Wildlife Authority. It is protected, although a board of trustees may sanction extraction. Kasese, 437 km (260 mi) west of Uganda’s capital Kampala, is the park’s gateway. The town has hotels and lodges, while the park has camping, a good trail network, and huts for hikers. The park has trekking and climbing routes, several with unusual scenery. The most popular trek is a seven-day circuit of the park.
Climbing the Mountains of The Moon
Two routes lead into the Rwenzori peaks. The more established option ascends the Mubuku and Bujuku valleys from Nyakalengija to the Central Circuit that winds between the prominent peaks. The other route runs up the Nyamwamba Valley above Kilembe near Kasese. The expeditions on the Rwenzori are organized and managed by Rwenzori Trekking Services and Rwenzori Mountaineering Services.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) is a local community tourism group established to provide local Bakonzo people with the money to benefit from tourism on the mountain that has for centuries been central to their existence and cosmology. Local men are employed as guides and porters, and profits are supposed to be invested in community projects.
They do not, however, have a monopoly on the trail. The alternative is to skip Nyakalengija altogether and climb the Kilembe Trail, a concession for which UWA allocated to Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS). Allied to the Kampala Backpackers, RTS allows you to concentrate on enjoying the rain and mud to the full.
Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) offer a variety of mountain treks and climbs using a combination of trails along (and between) the Nyamugasani, Kamusoni, and Nyamwamba river valleys. The distance to the peaks is more incredible than along the established Central Circuit, and an ascent of Margherita will require nine to ten days rather than eight or nine.
An alternative ascent from Kilembe takes you through routes that run through pristine landscapes — unvisited by hikers for decades — of astonishing beauty; the Nyamugasani Valley contains a remarkable string of eight lovely glacial lakes.
Incidentally, as a tourist trail, the Kilembe route is somewhat older than the established Nyakalengija Trail. The Nyamwamba Valley was first ascended in 1895 by Professor Scott Elliot, 11 years before the Italian Duke of Abruzzi pioneered the more direct route along the Bujuku Valley.
The base camp for the Kilembe Trail is the Rwenzori Trekkers hostel at the upper end of Kilembe Town, 14km from Kasese and 2km beyond the market and the bridge. A boda-boda from Kasese costs Ush5,000 (Ush10,000 with a big backpack!). A Special hire costs Ush50,000.
The most recommended route is the eight-day round trip to the summit of the 4,842m-high Mount Bake. A more extended expedition can reach Mount Stanley, while shorter hikes of one to five days’ duration can be made to appreciate the scenery.
The cost of an eight-day hike with RTS to the summit of Mount Baker is US$1,200. It covers everything — park entrance, one porter, tented or but accommodation, and food (excluding your high-energy snacks). Climbing gear, if required, is charged separately. A nine-day ascent of Margherita (Mount Stanley) instead of Mount Baker will cost US$1,280.
It’s helpful to note that UWA fees are per day and not (as on the Central Circuit) per section. While ascents of the Kilembe Trail move between fixed overnight spots to ensure acclimatization, on the descent, it’s possible to descend two stages in a day and save a bit on the prices above.
Shorter treks up to Mutinda or Lake Kopello cost slightly less; budget for about US$122 per day, again full board.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services from Ntakalengija will make all arrangements whether you book directly through their offices in Kasese or at UWA headquarters in Kampala. The seven-day, six-night hike along the Central Circuit loop trail with RMS costs US$780/705 for foreigners/foreign residents and US$1,250/$1,530 for the seven/nine-day trip to the top of Mount Stanley.
Additional days on the mountain cost US$120 per day, and you can climb other peaks at US$150 per peak. Rates include two porters, accommodation, and park entrance fees ($35 per person/day) but exclude food.
You can also book through most local tour operators, most of whom will deliver you to Nyakalengija and turn you over to RMS. The exception is the Adventure Company which will supply groups of eight-ten with an experienced expatriate expedition leader with technical mountaineering skills, first-aid training, and cooking skills.
The six-day Kilembe Trail is an exciting variety of mountain treks and climbs. It starts from Kilembe town to Mount Baker.
Day One: Kilembe (1,450m) to Kalalama (3,156m) (Altitude gain: 1,106m)
The first-day route involves the greatest altitude gain. It runs along the side of the Nyamwamba river valley for 3km before entering the park for a long, steady climb through montane forest, followed by a stiff ascent through the bamboo to reach the campsite at Kalalama in the heather zone. Note: the first 2km from Kilembe can be covered by a vehicle as far as a road-head at Kyambogho.
Day Two: Kalalama (3,156m) to Mutinga (3,810m) (Altitude gain: 654m)
The second day follows a relatively easy trail following the Kamusoni River. The overnight camp enjoys a beautiful setting among giant groundsels and moss-draped Erica at the foot of the 4,200m multi-pronged Mutinda Towers.
Day Three: Honda (3,810m) to Lake Kopello Overlook (4,185m) (Altitude gain: 315m)
From Mutinda, the landscape becomes bleaker and more dramatic as the trail traverses open moorland between the Kamusoni and Nyamugasani valleys. The third night’s campsite, set on a high rocky bluff above the Nyamugasani, enjoys a terrific westerly view over Lake Kopello (one of eight glacial lakes in this valley) the west and north to Mount Luigi da Savoia.
An alternative route between Mutinda and Kopello will join the Nyamugasani Valley lower down to pass an additional three lakes, including Tanganyika, the largest lake on the mountain. A two-hour climb from the campsite is Okuleba Observation Peak, a 4,328m outcrop providing a phenomenal 360° panorama across the southern Rwenzori.
Most hikers (as opposed to peak-driven mountaineers) will probably consider this superbly scenic area sufficient reward for their exertions. But, if you do descend from Kopello Campsite, spend two nights so that you can spend a day following the circular McConnell’s Prong Trail beyond the Nyamugasani River. Also, enjoy the magnificent views (weather permitting, of course) of the snow peaks to the north, and back across the Nyamugasani Valley towards Okuleba.
Day Four: Lake Kopello (4,185m) to The Mount Baker Base Camp (4,160m) (Altitude loss: 15m)
Though this day ends with a net descent of 15m, it involves several ups and downs offset by the magnificent views mentioned above. The trail starts with a short but stiff climb to Oliver’s Pass between Weissman Peak (4,547m) and Okubara (4520m) before descending to the Kachope Lakes.
Another ascent follows across the flank of Mount Luigi da Savoia below McConnell’s Prong before dropping down to a pretty campsite beside a tributary of the larger Butawu Valley, which drains into the Rift Valley floor — visible in clear conditions — in the DRC.
Day Five: Mount Baker Base Camp (4,160m) to Mount Baker (4,842m) (Altitude gain: 682m)
A busy day, this one. An early start is required to climb up past the beautifully mossy landscape of Freshfield Pass (crossed by the Central Circuit) and on to Mount Baker before cloud obscures the views. Since this occurs by 09.00, you’ll have a full day to descend to Lake Kopello (or even to Mutinda Camp).
Day Six: Descend
If the morning finds you at Kopello, it’s possible to complete your descent from the mountain on this day if your knees are up for a 2,350m descent to the road-head at Kyambogho. From there, it’s another 300m and 2.5km down to the hostel, but a vehicle or boda-boda should be available.
Suppose you intend to scale Mount Stanley (Margherita Peak). In that case, you’ll wake at the Mount Baker Base Camp, ready for the long climb up past the Kitandara Lakes to Scott Elliot Pass, where you’ll overnight at Hut Number Five, prepared to ascend the summit the following morning.
The location of this but has its pros and cons. It’s 275m lower than the long-established Elena Hut used by RMS, which means an earlier start and longer climb (844m) to the top. On the other hand, the lower altitude and the more the sheltered site allows a better night’s rest before the big event.
The six/seven-day circuit above Nyakalengija is the most popular route into the high Rwenzori, an exciting and superbly scenic experience.
Day One: Nyakalengija (1,611.10 to Nyabitaba Hut (1.611m) (Altitude gain: 1036m)
The trailhead is at Nyakalengija, 13.6mi (22km) from Kasese, off the Fort Portal Road. You operator can arrange transport from Kasese to that starting point at Nyakalengija, where you will pay park fees and finalize arrangements.
There is a campsite and safe parking near the office. From Nyakalengija, it’s a 6mi (10km), the five-hour ascent to the Nyabitaba hut, passing first through cultivation then through the forest. There is a piped water supply at the hut.
Day Two: Nyabitaba hut to John Matte hut (3,505m) (Altitude gain: 854o)
This is the longest and most strenuous day’s walk. Expect it to take a minimum of seven hours. From Nyabitaba Hut, the path descends through the forest for a short time before crossing the Bujuku River at the Kurt Schafer Bridge (built in 1989).
Between the bridge and Nyamileju Hut, the path is good for the first couple of hours, but it becomes steeper and very rocky as you enter the moorland zone, where heather plants are prolific. You will probably want to stop for lunch at Nyamileju, where there is a hut, as well as a rock shelter.
After leaving Nyamileju, the path passes a giant heather forest and follows the Bujuku River. John Matte Hut is about a two-hour walk from Nyamileju. The hut about 200m from the Bujuku River, where you can collect water.
Day Three: John Matte Hut to Bujuku Hut (3,962m)(Altitude gain: 451)
It takes up to five hours, depending on the two Bigo Bogs’ condition, which is often knee-deep in mud. On the way to the hut, you will pass Lake Bujuku, with a magnificent setting between Mounts Stanley, Speke, and Baker. Bujuku Hut is the base for reaching Mount Speke, and you will need to spend an extra night there to do this.
If you want to climb to the highest point in the range, Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley (5.109m), you must ascend from Elena Hut (4,541 m), which is about 1.2mi (2km) off the Central Circuit Trail and three to four hours’ walk from either Bujuku or Kitandara hut.
Day Four: Bujuku Hut to Kitandara hut (4.0130)(Altitude gain: 61m)
From Bujuku Hut, you will ascend to the highest point on the Central Circuit Trail, Scott Elliot Pass (4,372m), before descending to the two Kitandara lakes. The hut is next to the second lake.
Day Five: Kitandara hut to guy Yeoman hut (3.505,) (Descend: 518.)
The five-hour walk starts with a steep ascent to Freshfield Pass (4,282m), then descent to Bujongolo Cave (3,720m), the base used by the 1906 expedition. Further along the trail at Kabamba Cave (3,450m), there is an attractive waterfall and a rock shelter where you can stay overnight as an alternative to Guy Yeoman Hut.
Day Six/Seven: Guy Yeoman hut to Nyakalengha (Descent: 1881m)
It’s a five-hour descent from Guy Yeoman Hut to Nyabitaba Hut (a descent of 85Im). You can either stay overnight at the but or else continue to the trailhead at Nyakalengija, which will take a further three hours and involve a total descent of I887m.
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