Mount Elgon national park

Mount Elgon national park is located along the Uganda-Kenya border. The entire park covers a vast area of 1,279 square kilometers, with the Ugandan part accounting for 1,145 square kilometers and the Kenyan section covering 169 square kilometers. 

The Kenyan part of the park was officially designated in 1968, while the Ugandan section received its official status in 1993. This mountain stands as Africa’s eighth-highest massif, reaching 4,321 meters at Wagagai peak. Notably, it boasts the broadest base of any freestanding mountain globally.

The highland moors and forests protected within this national park host a variety of flora and fauna. Additionally, the lower slopes outside the national park are home to Sipi Falls, a prominent tourist attraction in the Elgon region.

Mount Elgon National Park is uniquely divided by the Kenyan-Ugandan border, creating a special shared space for both countries. This mountain plays a crucial role as a water catchment for two significant rivers: the Nzoia River, flowing towards Lake Victoria, and the Turkwel River (known as the Suam River in Uganda), contributing its waters to Lake Turkana. Mount Elgon’s resources are vital for sustaining the water supply in the surrounding areas.

Flora and fauna

The vegetation zones of Mount Elgon are similar to those found in other larger East African mountains. Below the 3000m contour, the mountain supports a continuous belt of evergreen forest, covering roughly 750 sq km within Uganda. This forest belt can be divided into two main strata: tall Afro montane forest below 2500m and low canopy montane forest and bamboo between 2500m and 3000m. The slopes below the 2000m contour, situated outside the national park, once supported significant forest cover a century ago. However, much of this has been cleared for cultivation.

Above 3000m lies the heather belt, transitioning around 3500m to otherworldly Afro alpine vegetation adorned with stands of giant lobelia and groundsel, including the endemic Senecio barbatipes and S. elgonensis.

Among the most common mammalian fauna of Mount Elgon or at least visible species to hikers are blue monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, De Brazza’s monkey, elephants, leopards, bushpigs, buffaloes, sitatunga, and common duiker. The bird checklist comprises over 300 species, featuring a variety of forest birds and several Afro montane moorland endemics. These include the moorland francolin, Jackson’s francolin, red-throated wryneck, black-collared apalis, mustached green tinker-bird, hunter’s cisticola, marsh widowbird, alpine chat, and Weyn’s weaver. The endangered bearded vulture or lammergeyer that is regularly observed at higher altitudes.

What to do in Mount Elgon 

Guided walks

Tourists take the most popular walking trail; only 20 minutes in each direction and starts behind the post office of Sipi Trading Center and leads to the base of the main waterfall. In case one continues on this trail for another 20 to 30 minutes,there are clusters of caves on the cliff above the river. The largest of these caves extends about 125 meters into the rock face and contains rich mineral salt deposits that were clearly worked extensively in the past, along with traces of petrified wood.

Walking back to the trading center from the caves along the main road, you’ll pass the top of the main waterfall and Sipi Mise Cave, an important local shrine set within a small, forest-fringed enclave. Alternatively, you can undertake a day hike from the main waterfall to the three smaller falls upstream, one of which features a tempting swimming pool at the base.

By discovering  the origin of coffee that is cultivated on the mountain shambas of Mt Elgon, where Arabica coffee, also known as Sipi or Bugisu, thrives. Local farmers in this region are renowned for producing some of the finest washed Arabica in both Kenya and Uganda. The Sipi Widows’ Group provides  guided walks through the coffee plantation, where they will demonstrate the entire coffee production process, from planting and picking to grinding, storing, and washing.

Another option is to embark on a coffee tour to local subsistence farms, where you can learn about the coffee farming process – from harvesting and drying the beans to roasting and grinding them for consumption. 

Kapkwai forest exploration center

Located just 3 km east of Sipi, the forest is easily accessible on foot or by road. The Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center stands as an appealing destination for hikers and wildlife enthusiasts. Initially designed as an educational facility, it now serves as the base for tourism activities. The main trails within the forest provide access to Afro-montane forest, offering a great opportunity to observe monkeys and birds in their natural habitat. Kapkwai also serves as the starting point for hiking the overnight Sipi Trail leading to the peaks of Mount Elgon.

Hiking in the forest involves three interconnected circular day trails that pass through the exploration center. The Mountain Bamboo Loop takes you past a cave, ascends to the main viewpoint, and then runs north along the ridge through montane forest to a larger bamboo forest. The popular Chebonet Falls Loop passes the eponymous waterfalls, including a climb up a rock chimney, and leads through areas of montane and bamboo forest, eventually reaching the main viewpoint. The Ridge Viewpoint Loop offers a relatively easy ascent, connecting with other trails at the main viewpoint. Along the way, you’ll pass through regenerating forest areas, fields of colorful wildflowers, and extensive stands of bamboo. The day trails provide a good chance to spot blue monkeys and black-and-white colobus monkeys.


This activity is primarily conducted in the Kapkwai Forest, which boasts an impressive array of 305 bird species. Tourists have excellent chances to spot unique and captivating birds such as cinnamon-chested bee-eaters, golden-winged sunbirds, and Doherty’s bush-shrike.

Among the trails, the Mountain Bamboo Loop stands out as potentially the most rewarding for bird enthusiasts. This trail offers opportunities to observe a variety of forest birds, including the black-and-white casqued hornbill, bar-tailed trogon, Hartlaub’s turaco, montane oriole, gray-throated barbet, black-collared apalis, and mountain greenbul.

Mountain biking

Mount Elgon provides an excellent opportunity for mountain bikers to explore the lush green terrain around Sipi in Kapchorwa. Various mountain bike trails cater to different skill levels and biking preferences, including trail riding, downhill trails, cross country, and freeride.

Cultural encounters 

The Bagisu community maintains a longstanding tradition of initiating young men into adulthood through a series of ceremonies culminating in circumcision. No man is permitted to marry before completing the full ritual process, including circumcision. Similarly, no woman would consider marrying a man who hasn’t undergone circumcision or completed the required rituals. During the months of August and December, the entire town and villages of Mbale come alive with crowds singing and dancing, escorting young men to receive blessings and gifts from their relatives before heading to the circumcision site. The site draws thousands of people, creating a vibrant atmosphere for the public ceremony.

While the Sabiny community historically practiced female circumcision, this has been prohibited due to pressure from female human rights groups. Despite the ban, some individuals still clandestinely circumcise their daughters.

Another fascinating cultural activity is the Budadiri Cultural Walk near Mount Elgon. The Bugisu cultural group organizes cultural dances, storytelling, and shares insights into their cultural heritage. This group can also teach tourists how to cook and enjoy tasty bamboo shoots, locally known as malewa.

Tourists also gain insights into the life of the Sabiny people by meeting local residents and engaging in traditional weaving. Also tourists gain experience in African cuisine through hands-on experiences, including the preparation, cooking, and tasting of local dishes. Additionally, a visit to the women’s handicraft shop in the trading center is highly recommended, where the proceeds from the tour and shop contribute to maintaining the coffee trees, raising awareness about the dangers of female circumcision (a traditional practice in this region), and supporting the education of orphans through school fees.

Caves exploration

Mountain elgon offers shorter day hikes or exploring the numerous caves on the slopes of the mountain. The three most popular caves are Chepnyali, Mackingeny, and Kitum. These caves attract park mammals such as elephants and antelopes that come to lick salt from the walls.

Other ancient caves, like those found in Budadiri, feature paintings dating back thousands of years. The Khauka and Kapkwai caves in Wanale are visitor favorites due to their unique structures and the presence of numerous bats, providing valuable manure through their droppings. These caves served as shelters for local people and their domestic animals.

Additionally, the Nyero Rock Painting Caves outside Mbale town are worth a visit. These caves once sheltered the first humans to roam the earth, leaving behind incredible paintings depicting their way of life thousands of years ago.

Entrance fee

The entrance fee to the park is $25 for foreign residents and $35 for non-foreign residents, applicable for a 24-hour period. This fee is relevant to all overnight hikes on the upper slopes protected within Mount Elgon National Park, as well as for overnight stays and day hikes at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center. Overnight hikers are required to pay a daily hiking fee of $75, which includes the park entrance fee and the cost of a guide.

Additional fees for overnight hikers include a camping fee of $5 per night. Optional extras are available, such as a porter service for $6 per day and a cook fee of $7 per party per day.

It’s important to note that there is no park fee charged for visiting Sipi Falls or any other sites associated with the mountain that are situated outside the national park boundaries.

How to access the park

The distance between Kampala city and Mount Elgon National Park is approximately 230 km. The roads are well-paved with tarmac, but traffic jams can be a challenge on the Kampala–Jinja highway. The journey from Kampala to Mbale town, passing through the towns of Jinja and Iganga, takes between 4 to 5 hours. The road trip provides opportunities to make stops and explore amazing places such as the source of the River Nile and Mabira Forest.

From Mbale town, one can drive to the park offices located outside the town or proceed directly to the nearest mountain climbing starting point in Budadiri. Visitors have the option to hire a car or use public transportation to reach the park, however, arranging travel through a tour operator can be more convenient.

For those who prefer avoiding long road journeys, there’s an option to book a chartered flight from Entebbe International Airport to Soroti Airfield near Mount Elgon. After landing, a one-hour road trip is required to reach Mbale town or Kapchorwa.