The Rwenzori Mountains offer incredibly beautiful and varied hiking trails. They’re also home to Margherita Peak (5,109 m), Africa’s third highest point!
The Rwenzori Mountains are home to Africa’s third highest peak and one of the sources of the White Nile. The hiking trails range from demanding and epic, to mild and beautiful. The vegetation is wild, unique and varied, and there are birds and animals living in the forest that can be found nowhere else on earth. The jungle-filled valleys are regularly shrouded in mist, while the highest mountain is perennially covered in snow (even though it sits near the Equator). The views in all directions are breathtaking.
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park is one of Uganda’s best-kept secrets. It’s tucked away in the remote and sparsely populated western part of the country. Consequently it offers visitors a quiet and untouched corner of incredible natural beauty and diversity to explore. Those who travel there are never disappointed!
- Where are the Rwenzori Mountains?
- Africa’s third highest peak: Margherita
- What does Rwenzori mean?
- Rwenzori Mountains National Park
- Unusual plants of the Rwenzori Mountains
- Unique wildlife of the Rwenzori Mountains
- Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains
Where are the Rwenzori Mountains?
The Rwenzori is a range of mountains in the Albertine Rift Valley of East Africa. It runs for 130 km north to south along the border between western Uganda and eastern DRC. The Ugandan portion of the mountains can be found in the southwest of the country, a little north of the famous Queen Elizabeth National Park, a world-class safari destination.
The best way to reach the mountains is to fly into Kampala and then drive west to the mountain range. The west and southwest of Uganda are a major tourist destination, not least because of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where one can go mountain gorilla trekking.
Africa’s third highest peak: Margherita
Mount Stanley (or Mount Ngaliema) is a massif in the Rwenzori Mountains that sits on the border between the DRC and Uganda. It’s highest peak is Margherita (5,109 m), the third highest point in Africa after Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. There are several other peaks on Mt Stanley, including Alexandra Peak (5,091 m).
Sitting atop Mt Stanley is the beautiful Margherita Glacier, which is 100 m thick. The stream that forms from the glacier’s meltwater is one of the sources of the famous White Nile!
What does Rwenzori mean?
Rwenzori (also spelt Ruwenzori) was given its name in 1988 by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-American journalist and explorer. He called the mountains Ruwenzori, which means ‘cloud king’ or ‘rain-maker’ in the local language of Bakonjo. Highly appropriate.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Rwenzori Mountains National Park in western Uganda was created in 1991 and is just under a thousand square kilometres. The entrance to the park is the town of Kasese, which is over 400 km west of Uganda’s capital Kampala. Visitors pay a park fee of $30 per day.
Most of its visitors come to tackle a multiday hike or mountaineering trek. The scenery alone makes the exercise brilliant. But there’s also the allure of walking in a remote, sparsely populated region that relatively few have ever been to.
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 because of its outstanding natural beauty.
Unusual plants of the Rwenzori Mountains
The Rwenzori Mountains are an incredibly beautiful and unique corner of the world. They contain many glaciers, snowfields, lakes and waterfalls, in many parts are covered in thick and unusual vegetation. The Rwenzori Mountains certainly help to justify Winston Churchill’s claim that Uganda is the Pearl of Africa!
The jungle-filled valleys are loud with the sounds of running and dripping water, bird calls and insects. Thick clumps of moss grow around the trunks of the trees. The moss can grow because of the mist that forms every day around the 3,000 m elevation mark. The valley floors are boggy and so low-lying walkways have been installed for walkers in some parts of the park.
The damp, moss-draped trees give the jungle a ‘forgotten realm’ look.
Higher up, around 3,400 m, you have giant cacti and giant lobelias. The mountains are also home to forests of giant heather (or heather trees). Countless heather trees are draped in pale beard lichens, again giving you the feeling of stepping into a forgotten kingdom that has been left abandoned for centuries.
Giant groundsels grow above the 4,000 m mark – interestingly, we also see these gloriously top-heavy plants when we climb Kilimanjaro. You might also be picking up on that fact that the Rwenzori Mountains host quite a few floral giants!
Little grows above 4,300 m beyond moss, lichen and everlasting plants. The mountain peaks, in spite of being near the Equator, are perennially snow-covered and support gorgeous glaciers.
Unique wildlife of the Rwenzori Mountains
The animals of the Rwenzori Mountains, like its trees and plants, are a case study in diversity. The Rwenzori are home to many endemic species of animals found nowhere else in the world. For example, you have two chameleons – Johnston’s three-horned chameleon and the strange-horned chameleon – that are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley.
The park has 70 mammal species, though many are pretty shy and hard to spot. There are, for instance, forest elephants, giant forest hogs, leopards, African golden cats, sittungas (marsh buck), bushbucks, red duikers and squirrels. There are also many primates including chimps and l’Hoest’s monkeys living in the forest.
The park’s mammals include elephants, leopards, chimpanzees, golden cats, bushbucks and duikers.
Several of the mountains’ 217 bird species are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley. For instance, the Rwenzori turaco is a super colourful bird species that lives in the forests of the Rwenzori Mountains and likes to bounce through the trees. The forest is also the habitat of the sunbirds, robins, owls, bee-eaters, swifts, barbets, vultures and eagles.
This short UNESCO video offers a glimpse of the impressive biodiversity of the Rwenzori Mountains.
Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains
The Rwenzori Mountains offer simply fantastic trekking trails and mountaineering opportunities. The routes are uncrowded, the views spectacular, and the vegetation like nothing you’ve ever seen before!
There are two main trek routes in Rwenzori Mountains National Park: the Central Circuit Trail and the Kilembe Route. The Central Circuit Trail enters the mountain range from the east and does a large, anticlockwise loop. The Kilembe Route, on the other hand, takes you into the mountains from the south and follows a longer, narrower circuit which runs in a northwest–southeast direction. Both routes offer hut accommodation.
The Rwenzori Mountains offer adventurers many exciting and world-class mountaineering opportunities. In fact, they offer the best mountaineering treks in Africa! This is because they have three of the continent’s five highest mountains. The mountains – Mt Stanley, Mt Speke and Mt Baker – are only a few kilometres apart and together form a triangle. They’re collectively known as the Mountains of the Moon. This name was given them by the second-century Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy – who never actually saw them.
So how high are these Mountains of the Moon?
Highest mountains of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park
The three highest mountains the Rwenzori range are all higher than Mt Blanc (4,810 m), the highest mountain the Alps! Check them out …
|Mt Stanley / Ngaliema||3rd highest in Africa||Margherita / Savoia Pk||5,109 m|
|Mt Speke / Duwoni||4th highest in Africa||Vittorio Emanuele Pk||4,890 m|
|Mt Baker / Kiyanja||5th highest in Africa||Edward Pk||4,844 m|
All of the above three mountains have multiple jagged peaks. Mt Stanley and Mt Speke both support glaciers: two on Mt Stanley and one on Mt Speke. Stanley is covered in snow for most of the year. The other mountains tend to be pretty slippery because of all the rain they receive.
The Rwenzori Mountains are higher than the Alps!
While Mt Stanley isn’t as high as Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895 m), it’s actually a harder climb. This is because Kilimanjaro is a non-technical mountain that any fit person can hike, while Stanley requires mountaineering experience.
The Rwenzori Mountains do, of course, consist of more than just the three Mountains of the Moon. There’s also Mt Emin (4,798 m), Mt Gessi (4,715 m) in the DRC, and Mt Luigi di Savoia (4,627 m). All of the mountains in the Rwenzori range can be summited.
Maybe you’re not a mountaineer, yet you’d still like to spend some time trekking in the gorgeous Rwenzoris? No problem! There are plenty of multiday treks for you to tackle …
As mentioned, trekkers who wish to explore the Rwenzori Mountains without summiting any peaks can also hike the Central Circuit Trail and the Kilembe route. The Central Circuit Trail takes about eight days to complete, while the Kilembe Route has variations you can choose from.
These non-technical, multiday treks are challenging, rewarding and incredibly beautiful. You hike past bogs, over rivers and streams, up, down and around mountains ridges, near to gorgeous lakes, past waterfalls, and more. The ups and downs of the trails are challenging, the going is rough in places, and the paths can be muddy.
Generally speaking, the Central Circuit Trail is considered a little prettier than the Kilembe Route. It’s also the easier of the two trek routes. The Kilembe Route, however, avoids the notorious Bigo Bog crossed on the Central Circuit Trail. Needless to say, both routes are amazing!
You can also do a three-day hike in the foothills of the mountains if you’d prefer something less taxing but still wish to experience the beauty and drama of the mountains.
Note that both the Central Circuit Trail and the full Kilembe Route take you well above 4,000 m, which means they’re classified as high-altitude treks. Not only do you need strong legs and good fitness to climb that high, but the thin air is very taxing and can lead to altitude sickness in some. It’s a good idea to visit your GP before embarking on any high-altitude trek, especially if it’s not something you’ve done before. The Kilembe Route, though longer and tougher, offers a slightly better acclimatisation profile than the Central Circuit Trail.
Trekking the green, mist-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains is like stepping into a wonderland. It’s an incredible experience that will stay with you for a lifetime!
You cannot go trekking or mountaineering in the Rwenzoris on your own. The two companies licensed to lead you are the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) and the newer Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS). The Central Circuit Trail is managed by the RMS, while the Kilembe Trail is managed by the RTS.
Every Rwenzori Mountain trekking group is accompanied by a mountain crew that consists of a trek guide, porters and a cook. These folks keep you safe, share their knowledge of the trail, landscape, vegetation and animals with you, and prepare your meals.
Trekkers in the Rwenzori Mountains National Park overnight in simple, wooden mountain hikes. This is very helpful given the cold climate and the often muddy conditions of the park. Mattresses are provided, and pit latrines are the name of the game.
Mountaineers and non-technical trekkers stay in the same huts. This is because mountaineers follow the same route as trekkers, they just make summit attempts from certain of the huts. Elena Hut (4,563 m), for instance, is a base camp for summiting Mt Stanley.
Best time to hike the Rwenzori Mountains
You can visit the Rwenzori Mountains any time of the year and have a fantastic experience. If you wish to go trekking, however, you might like to consider the drier seasons. The park’s mountain trails can be muddy and slippery at the best of times. The drier and therefore optimal hiking months in the Rwenzoris are July and August and December to February.
Fortunately for those of us who don’t like crowds, the Rwenzori Mountains are never very busy. You can’t even really speak of a ‘peak season’. So feel free to book a trek in one the drier seasons without worrying about overly busy trails.
What about you?
Have you visited the Rwenzori Mountains National Park? And did you hike there? What was your experience of it? And if you have any photos you’d like to share, we’d love to see them!