In the shadow of Rwenzori Mountains National Park’s soaring peaks are wild rivers, tranquil alpine lakes, and a fascinating array of plant and animal life. And you don’t even have to hike to the summit to see them if you don’t want to.
Two popular trails in the park offer exciting and superbly scenic experiences meandering through forests, pristine landscape of alpine vegetation studded with charismatic giant lobelias, groundsels, and heathers specifically unique to the Mountains of the Moon.
The combination of spectacular snow-capped peaks, glaciers, V-shaped valleys, fast-flowing rivers with magnificent waterfalls, clear blue lakes, and unique flora make this UNESCO World Heritage Site an exceptional destination for hiking expeditions in Uganda.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park encompasses the main part of the legendary Rwenzori mountain chain, which includes some of Africa’s most towering peaks. Margherita towering at 5,109 meters, and Alexandra at 5,083 meters on Mount Stanley, are exceeded in altitude elsewhere in Africa only by Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.
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 collection of towering peaks makes the Rwenzori Mountains the highest mountain range worldwide
The summits are spectacular, the routes are uncrowded, and the high-altitude forest teems with natural life. Yet, to most bucket-list hikers, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park is largely unknown, lacking in the shadows of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
The park’s plant and animal life
Because of the park’s altitudinal range and the nearly constant temperatures and humidity, Rwenzori Mountains National Park has the wealthiest montane flora in Africa. Many botanical species in the park appear bizarre, such as giant heathers, groundsels, lobelias, and other endemics to the Albertine Rift.
The higher altitude zones, covered by heath and Afro-alpine moorland, extend from around 3,500 meters to the snow line and represent the continent’s rarest vegetation types.
Avian experts recognize the park as an Important Bird Area, containing 217 bird species and several believed to be unique to the Albertine Rift Valley.
In addition to a rich selection of bird species, Rwenzori National Park’s montane forests are also home to threatened wildlife species like the African forest elephant, eastern chimpanzee, and l’Hoest’s monkey. Other endangered animals like the Rwenzori black-fronted or red duiker seem confined to the park boundaries.
The Rwenzori Mountains constitute a vital water catchment considered the most permanent source of the River Nile. A multitude of fast-flowing rivers leaving behind splashing waterfalls and stratified vegetation characterize the national park.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is in western Uganda, bordering DRC’s Virunga National Park, which takes a smaller piece of the Rwenzoris. You can access the park from the city of Kasese at the base of the mountains, 437 kilometers (260 miles) west of Kampala.
Kasese has hotels and lodges to cater to all types of travelers. Campers can raise their tents or find sleeping huts along the excellent hiking trail network with stunning scenery on the lower slopes and towards the summits.
Exploring the Rwenzori Mountains
Two routes lead into the Rwenzori peaks; the Central Circuit Trail and Kilembe Trail. 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 help locals benefit from tourism, which has been central to their existence for centuries. The organization employs local men as guides and porters and invests the profits 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 UWA allocated to Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS), which 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, which requires a 9-10-day ascent to Margherita rather than eight or nine.
An alternative ascent from Kilembe takes you through routes that run through pristine landscapes of astonishing beauty, unvisited by hikers for decades. The Nyamugasani Valley contains a remarkable string of eight lovely glacial lakes along that route.
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 (Kilembe Trail) 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 5K shillings (Ush10,000 with a big backpack!); a special hire costs 50K Uganda Shillings.
The most recommended route is the eight-day round trip to the summit of the 4,842m-high Mount Baker. Take an extended hiking expedition to the highest Magheritah at 5,109 meters or shorter hikes of 1-5 days to appreciate the scenery.
The cost of an eight-day hike with Rwenzori Trekking Services to the summit of Mount Baker is about USD 1200. It can cover almost everything — park entrance, a porter, tented or hut accommodation, and food (excluding your high-energy snacks). Climbing gear, if required, is charged separately. Instead of Mount Baker, a nine-day ascent to Margherita peak on Mount Stanley will cost about 1280 USD. However, it doesn’t include park fees, and you may need at least five three porters for each person.
UWA fees are per day and not 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 USD 122 per day, again full-board.
The 7-day hike along the Central Circuit loop trail with Rwenzori Mountaineering Services costs between USD 780, $1,250 for the 7-day trek, and $1530 for the 9-day trip to the top of Mount Stanley.
Additional days on the mountain can cost about $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.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services from Ntakalengija will make all arrangements whether you book directly through their offices in Kasese or at UWA headquarters in Kampala.
You can also book through most local tour operators, who will deliver you to Nyakalengija and turn you over to RMS. The exception is the Adventure Company which will supply groups of eight to ten with an experienced expatriate expedition leader who has technical mountaineering skills, first-aid training, and cooking skills.