5 National Parks That Prove Why a Uganda Safari Is Special

A visit to Uganda’s wild spaces may include encounters with hulking gorillas, cruises along the Nile River, and treks through snow-capped mountains.

Western Uganda Safari Circuit

The hills of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are home to half of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.

Travel Stock/Shutterstock

Traveling through western Uganda offers a lesson in stark contrasts. There are few regions that can boast the world’s most powerful waterfall, ancient forests filled with orchids and ferns, lush jungles, and imposing glaciers. And that is to say nothing of the wildlife: Half of the world’s mountain gorilla population call Uganda home, as do cheeky chimpanzees, tree-climbing lions, and hundreds of unusual bird species.

Starting in Kampala, here are the five stops you should make while taking a counterclockwise tour of western Uganda’s national parks. We have noted drive times between the parks, but there are flights that can make travel shorter.

Nile river - Murchison Falls N.P. - Uganda

Visitors to the Murchison Falls, also known as the Kabalega Falls, are often treated to a rainbow emerging from its mist.

Photo by Radek Borovka/Shutterstock

1. Murchison Falls National Park

  • Go for: The world’s most powerful waterfall and wildlife
  • Location: Google Maps

Start your trip by driving 4 to 5 hours northwest from Uganda’s bustling capital, Kampala, to the southern entrance of the country’s largest national park. The centerpiece of Murchison Falls National Park is the world’s most powerful waterfall: enormous volumes of water from the Victoria Nile (one of the two main tributaries of the Nile River, along with the Blue Nile) thunderously plunge 140 feet into a pool known as the Devil’s Cauldron.

Beyond the falls, visitors can see a wide variety of wildlife, including lions, leopards, crocodiles, hippos, and three-quarters of the world’s population of Rothschild giraffes. These species can be enjoyed in a game drive, in a boat along the Nile River, or by hot air balloon.

Old chimpanzee sitting on a branch in Kibale Forest National Park Uganda looking into the camera lens while scratching his head

Kibale Forest National Park is home to nearly 1,500 chimpanzees, who share 98.8 percent of their DNA with humans.

Photo by Kim Paffen/Shutterstock

2. Kibale Forest National Park

  • Go for: A chance to spend time with habituated chimpanzees and other primates
  • Location: Google Maps

From Murchison Falls, take a daylong drive southwest to Kibale Forest National Park, which has a relatively small footprint at just less than 300 square miles but offers a stunning diversity of primates. Nearly 1,500 chimpanzees live here, as do 12 other types of primates, including blue monkeys, gray-cheeked mangabeys, and red colobus monkeys. Bird enthusiasts can enjoy nearly 400 species, along with 250 types of butterflies.

Kibale Forest National Park boasts rich cultural tourism. Travelers can learn about cultural traditions of the Batoro people and the Bakiga people, walk through a nearby village, and meet members of the Bigodi Women’s Group, who make and sell baskets, jewelry, and other handicrafts.

Two hikers descend the snowy peak of Mount Margherita in Uganda

Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains National Park is home to lush jungles, alpine forests with unique flora such as tree heathers, and snowy peaks.

Photo by Arnav Kapur

3. Rwenzori Mountains National Park

  • Go for: Africa’s highest mountain range
  • Location: Google Maps

From Kibale, it’s a daylong drive southwest toward the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to arrive at Rwenzori Mountains National Park. This national park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, owing to its endangered species and unique flora.

The Rwenzoris are Africa’s highest mountain range, with multiple 15,000-foot peaks. Its vast alpine area includes the highest source of water for the Nile River, which visitors can experience through its scenic rivers and dramatic waterfalls.

The Rwenzoris, also known as the “mountains of the moon,” are best experienced by foot. Hikers may traverse through lush jungles on the lower slopes, which give way to alpine forests with huge tree heathers and colorful mosses and, finally, snow-capped peaks.

A tree-climbing lion lounges in a tree.

In Queen Elizabeth National Park, visitors may see lions lounging in fig trees.

Maarten van den Heuvel / Unsplash

4. Queen Elizabeth National Park

  • Go for: Wildlife, including tree-climbing lions, and scenic landscapes
  • Location: Google Maps

From the Rwenzori Mountains, it’s a two-hour drive to Uganda’s second-largest national park, which is also the country’s most popular. Queen Elizabeth National Park is famously home to tree-climbing lions, along with nearly 100 species of mammals. It’s also one of the most important birding destinations in Uganda, with more than 600 species, such as the shoebill stork, Pel’s fishing owl, and grey crowned crane, which is the country’s national bird.
A boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel, a 20-mile long natural channel that connects Lake George and Lake Edward, may reward visitors with sightings of Nile crocodiles, hippos, elephants, and much more. Beyond the wildlife, travelers can experience a wide range of natural landscapes in Queen Elizabeth National Park, from forests and grasslands to swamplands and volcanic craters.

A young gorilla embraces their parent

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda is home to half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas.

Ylenia Vimercati Molano / Unsplash

5. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

  • Go for: Silverback gorillas and a chance to learn about the Batwa community
  • Location: Google Maps

The final park on a circuit of western Uganda is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, which is a 3- to 4-hour drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park.

This park is home to about half of the world’s 750 remaining silverback mountain gorillas, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1994. The ancient forest dates back 25,000 years and is densely vegetated with orchids, tree ferns, red stinkwoods, and tangled vines.

Bwindi offers visitors the opportunity to meet people from the Batwa community, who are the original inhabitants of the rainforest. Take a guided walk with a Batwa community member, who can teach you about ancient hunting traditions, medicinal plants, and traditional songs.

Tour Operators in Uganda

Uganda’s parks are best visited with a tour operator, who can organize a trip to either one or several of these parks. Here are our top choices, as well as a guiding company for trekkers interested in the Rwenzori Mountains:

Abercrombie and Kent

Abercrombie and Kent offers small-group and tailor-made tours that visit most parks along this circuit. With them, travelers also have the opportunity to visit one of the programs supported by A&K Philanthropy, such as the Bwindi Women’s Bicycle Enterprise or the Bwindi Community Hospital and Nursing School.

The Uganda Safari Company

The Uganda Safari Company has been offering high-end safari circuits across Uganda since 1993. Guests may have the opportunity to visit smallholder farmers, traditional healers, and rangers who work on anti-poaching measures.

Wild Frontiers

Wild Frontiers has more than 25 years of experience running tours across Uganda. Most staff members are Ugandan, and there are opportunities for travelers to take part in a diverse set of community projects, from youth wildlife clubs to sewing programs for women.

Rwenzori Trekking

Rwenzori Trekking offers guided tours around the Rwenzori Mountains, including weeklong trips to summit Mount Margherita. Please note that summitting Mount Margherita, the continent’s third-highest peak, has been classified as a technical climb and requires specialized equipment such as crampons and ice axes.

This article originally appeared online in 2011; it was most recently updated on January 12, 2024, to include current information.

I’m a traveler, writer, and travel writer, born and based in New York.
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