Volcanoes national park (PNV) is 106 km (2-hour drive) north of Kigali capital city. The protected area covers 160 sq.km and forms part of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of 8 active and dormant volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda in the Albertine rift valley.
PNV consists of 5 peaks which include Karisimbi (4,507m), Bisoke (3,711m), Gahinga (3,669 m), Muhabura (4,127 m), and Sabinyo (3,474 m), making for one the spectacular hiking destinations in Rwanda. The best hiking trails in Volcanoes national park are found on Mount Karisimbi, Bisoke, and Muhabura, and Sabinyo, where the borders of the three nations converge.
Hiking in Volcanoes national park begins at the park headquarters in Kinigi. Trails are well marked and the hiking level ranges from easy to challenging due to the nature of terrain. Travelers are required to arrange transportation to move from there to the trail respective trailheads. Hiking permits are available for booking through a tour operator or Rwanda Development Board. It should be done in advance. Visitors should report at the park at 07:00 am for a briefing. The minimum age for hiking is 15 years. Hiking in groups is allowed with a maximum of sixteen people.
With an elevation of 4,507 m (14,787 feet), Mount Karisimbi is the tallest point in Rwanda and in the Virunga mountains and the 11th in Africa. The volcano is located on the Rwanda-DR Congo border. However, hiking to the peak is done in Rwanda. The summit of the volcano is most of the time covered by dense clouds during December to February. The name Karisimbi is derived from the Kinyarwanda dialect ‘Amasimbi’ which means white shell in English.
According to Britannica, the formation of Karisimbi volcano occurred during the Late Plecistone era about 900,000 – 130,000 years ago. With no eruption recorded taking place since then Karisimbi is an extinct stratovolcano with a conical shaped peak and steep slopes. Hiking Karisimbi can be challenging due to the nature of terrain and takes 2 days. The first day involves acclimatization with spending a night on a campsite in the montane Ericaceous belt at 3,700 meters. On the second day, hikers will get up early in the morning at 5:30am to ascend to the summit and descend to Kinigi. This may take 1 to 2 hours depending on the hiking pace.
The summit of Karisimbi contains a depression and offers spectacular views of the surrounding Virunga mountains. Hiking Mount Karisimbi offers an opportunity to explore four unique vegetation zones including montane tropical forests, bamboo, sub-alpine, and bare volcanic rock. The Hagenia-Hypericum forest is a habitat for some of the Albertine rift endemics such as Grauer’s swamp warbler. Unique Afroalpine plant species that grow on the higher slopes above 3,800 meters include giant groundsels such as dendrosenecio johnstonii. The permit cost for Karisimbi hike is $ 400 for foreign non-residents, $ 250 for foreign residents in Rwanda, 30,000 Rwandan francs (RWF) for Rwandan citizens, $ 200 for East African citizens, and $ 300 for East African foreign residents. Hiking Karisimbi is permitted in a group of 12 people.
Mount Bisoke at 3,711 meters above sea level (12,175ft) is an active volcano and has erupted twice in history. The Bisoke violent eruptions recorded in 1891 and 1957 created a cone-shaped peak with a crater filled lake at the top called Ngezi. Lake Ngezi has an average depth of 100 meters and a diameter of 400 meters and is the largest volcanic crater lake in Virunga mountains. Bisoke offers the most scenic hike in Volcanoes national park. The volcano is shared between Rwanda and the DR Congo with another crater-filled lake inside the DR Congo border.
The word Bisoke means ‘soaked in water’ in English thus hiking can be challenging due to wet and slippery trails. Bisoke hike takes a day and 5-8 hours to complete. This involves a stiff climb through the saddle between Mount Karisimbi and Bisoke where the Karisoke Research Center and Dian Fossey Tomb are located. Bisoke hiking permit cost is $ 75 for foreign non-residents, $60 foreign residents in Rwanda, Rwandan Francs 4,000 for Rwandan citizens, $ 55 for East African citizens, $ 45 for East African Foreign residents.
Muhabura was formed during the Holocene epoch about 12,000 years ago, making for one of the youngest in the Virunga ranges. It is a dormant stratovolcano with relatively steep slopes and a cone-shaped summit visible from hundreds of miles away. The volcano served as a guide for ancient navigators including the Batwa hunter-gatherers. Muhabura means a ‘guide’ in the local language. With an elevation of 4,127 m (13,540 feet), Muhabura is the second tallest in Rwanda and third in the Virunga massif. There’s a crater filled lake at the top and spans across the Rwanda and Uganda borders.
You can hike Mount Muhabura from either Volcanoes or Mgahinga gorilla national parks. The hike takes a full day in Volcanoes national park and offers an opportunity to visit the crater lake at the summit with views of the surrounding twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo. Mammals that live on the slopes of Mount Muhabura include forest buffaloes, forest elephants, giant forest hogs, bushpigs, and black-fronted duikers. Visitors must be accompanied by a guide and armed rangers for protection. Muhabura hike permit cost is $100 for foreign non-residents, $80 for East African foreign residents, $75 for foreign residents, $60 for East African citizens, and 5,000 Rwanda francs for Rwandan citizens.
Mt. Sabinyo is where the three country’s borders meet and consists of 5 peaks of which 3 including the summit at 3,669 m are in Uganda and 2 in DR Congo. Hiking Sabinyo is done only in Mgahinga gorilla national park, Uganda where you will stand at the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo at once. The volcano formed during the early pleistocene epoch 2.6 million years ago, making for the oldest volcano in the Virunga ranges. This is indicated by the jagged peaks that resemble an old man’s teeth due to erosion.
Due to the nature of terrain, Sabinyo hike is one of the most challenging. You get to ascend steep wooden ladders that can be scary for some people. One must hike from peak one (3,423 m) and two (3,537) m to reach the summit. From the starting point the terrain is generally flat without gaining elevation. Hiking gets challenging from the heather zone 2,500 meters and above. The heather zone is one of the most beautiful vegetation zones with a carpet of moss on the forest floor and tree branches covered by fungus usnea (beard lichen).
Gahing volcano has an elevation of 3,474 m (11,398 ft) and is the lowest volcano in the Virunga ranges. The volcano lies on the Uganda-Rwanda border between Sabinyo and Mt. Muhabura, The summit of Gahinga caldera contains an 80-meters wide crater-filled lake and is in Uganda’s Mgahinga gorilla national. This is the largest crater-filled lake amongst the 8 Virunga mountains. The last known eruption of Gahinga occurred in the later pleistocene epoch 900,000 to 130,000 years ago. As such, Mt. Gahinga is considered dormant, meaning that it could erupt again in the future.
Much of the area on the lower slopes of the volcano is covered in huge piles of volcanic basalt rocks. The word Gahinga means ‘ a pile of rocks’ among the local people both in Uganda and Rwanda. The higher slopes of Gahing contain two vegetation zones with the bamboo forests appearing above the Hagenia-Hypericum zone. Sabinyo is a habitat for mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, and blue monkeys.
Best time to hike in Volcanoes national park
The recommended hiking seasons are from June to early October and December to February during the dry months. The trails are relatively drier and easier to hike. Hot weather should be expected with up to 29°C which requires starting early in the mornings and proper hydration. Hiking can also be done during the rainy season from March to May (longer rainy season) and October to November (shorter rainy season). Though this time, the trails can be slippery and wet due to frequent rain. There are good reasons to hike in the wet season from the spectacular green landscape and cool temperatures.
What to carry
The volcanoes that are hiked in a day include Muhabura, Bisoke, and Sabinyo. These day hikes can be challenging due to the nature of terrain. Hikers should be prepared before attempting to hike. Among the items to carry during your hike include hiking books, rain jackets, and drinking water at least 2 litters. Visitors should also carry packed lunch given that the hike can last from 8 to a full day. Another thing to consider is to hire a porter or take walking sticks for those that require assistance. Hiring a porter makes your hiking easier, fun and safe, while supporting local people.