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Volcanoes National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV), is the oldest national park in Africa and the most visited in Rwanda. It lies along the magnificent Virunga Mountains and hosts 5 of its 8 volcanoes. By the 5 volcanoes hosted here, Volcanoes National Park constitutes the larger Virunga Conservation Area (VCA) alongside Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in Congo. The spiky splendor of the volcanoes in this park is one of the prominent landmarks the park has and at their respective summits/peaks, it’s as if they (volcanoes) can’t help but look spectacular at every angle. Volcanoes National Park is the country’s Mountain Gorillas Park where Gorilla trekking is by far the main activity. In any case, these Mountain Gorillas transcend the volcanoes’ attribution to the park’s popularity and perhaps its beauty.
Wildlife in Volcanoes National Park
Wildlife in its abundance and sorts thrives in Volcanoes National Park but the prominent one and with which the park identifies itself mostly, are the Mountain Gorillas followed by the Golden Monkeys. Both the Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys are endangered and endemic to the Virunga ranges. It is actually one of the only four places/habitats in the world with ideal conditions for the survival and sustenance of man’s second closest relatives, the Mountain Gorillas.
Furthermore, Volcanoes National Park(PNV)’s over 160SqKm of rain forest and bamboo hosts a representative sample of incredible biodiversity in a very good state of conservation. Apart from the Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys, there are forest elephants, giant forest hogs, buffaloes, duikers, bush bucks, bush pigs, many primates and bird species, that find the park a conducive place for their survival. However, the rugged terrain and the thick forests renders the animals (especially the mammals) elusive. Volcanoes National Park constitutes a world wonder because of its incredible biodiversity that includes even the endangered ones, and this was the major consideration for its declaration as one of the UNESCO world heritage sites.
What to see and do in Volcanoes National Park
- Mountain Gorillas / Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park
Gorilla trekking ranks top on the park’s activities and Mountain Gorillas being Rwanda’s most valuable tourism resource, Volcanoes national Park effortlessly stands out as the country’s tourism epi center. The park boasts of over 10 habituated Gorilla families with huge potential for more since their population has been rising for the past 10 years. It is the only Gorilla trekking spot in Rwanda and the most popular among the 4 national parks that shelter these endangered wildlife species. The other national parks that harbor the Mountain Gorillas are; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, Virunga National Park in Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. Gorilla trekking is an extra ordinarily unique and humbling experience that one shouldn’t miss on a Tour to Rwanda.
- Golden Monkeys/Golden Monkey tracking in Volcanoes National Park
Golden Monkeys too, are endangered and endemic to the Virunga ranges just like the Mountain Gorillas. They mostly inhabit the bamboo forests/thickets at the edge of the forest and can be spotted in open garden fields outside the forests, sometimes but not often. They are extremely lively and playful which adds to the experience. They slowly adapted to human presence and sights of them getting so close or even playing around the visitors, are not rare. Thanks to the habituation efforts by the Rwanda Development Board/Volcanoes National Park! Rwanda has the highest population of Golden Monkeys in the Virunga area and their tracking is not as strenuous as Mountain Gorillas trekking. A combination of Gorillas and Golden Monkey tracking with a hike to one of the Virunga Mountain ranges shall be such a great and wonderful experience.
- Nature walks in Volcanoes National park
‘’Full immersion into nature’’ gets to the gist of the meaning with walks in Volcanoes National Park’s green jungles. The park has a number of incredible walking/hiking trails which wind through the forests on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes. The park’s lush vegetation and the moderate temperatures are so inviting to enthusiastic nature adventurers and quite tempting to the non-seasoned ones. There are nature walk trails through the forests and a short walk/hike up to Lake Ngezi, a crater lake found at the slopes of Mount Bisoke. The walks can also entail the visit to the Dianne Fossey grave site at the Karisoke Research Centre though it’s a trail of its own which is conducted separately like the rest of the park activities.
- Mountain Climbing/hiking in Volcanoes National Park
The spectacular terrain offers everything from easy day hikes to those relatively challenging mountain climbing experiences. Volcanoes National Park hosts 5 of the Virunga Volcanoes; Mount Karisimbi, Mount Sabinyo, Mount Gahinga, Mount Muhavura and Mount Bisoke. All these volcanoes are dormant and can be hiked for rewarding views of the stunning scenery. Except Karisimbi that requires 2 days to conquer its very high summit, respective hikes to these volcanoes are a (one) day experience.
Mount Bisoke or Visoke
Bisoke Volcano is shared by Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park). Congo takes the least share of Bisoke, as the summit with its spectacular crater lake, the largest in the Virunga ranges, is located in Rwanda. Bisoke is a dormant volcano rising up to 3,711m above sea level and it’s the most popular for hiking expeditions with in the park. The hike to its summit and the descent takes 6 hours in total, and is quite doable to even inexperienced hikers. Hiking Bisoke does not only reward the hiker with those stunning views at its summit but also increases one’s chances of wildlife encounters in the park. Quite often, Golden Monkey troops and other animals like the bushbucks, forest hogs, the duikers are stumbled upon during the hike and where birds too, are a common sight. However, big animals like the elephants and buffaloes are very elusive given the rugged terrain and dense vegetation. Bisoke/Visoke hike falls under those other interesting adventures in Volcanoes National Park after the Gorillas and Golden Monkey treks.
Reaching the highest point in Rwanda is so beautiful an adventure, and is such an experience to behold! At 4,057 meters high, the peak of Mount Karisimbi Volcano is the highest point in Rwanda and the 2nd highest among the Virunga Volcanoes. Like Bisoke, Karisimbi constitutes the Virunga Mountain chain and is shared between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bisoke and the other Virunga volcano hikes are a 1-day experience but it requires 2 days for Mount Karisimbi. The steepness and lush vegetation on its slopes, turn the Karisimbi hike into somewhat challenging but a very interesting one to those enthusiastic hikers. Hiking Karisimbi can be combined with Gorilla trekking, Golden Monkey trekking, Diane Fossey site tour, bird watching, nature walks and treks to the rest of the volcanoes.
Mount Gahinga is the smallest of all and is shared between Uganda and Rwanda. It lies here in Volcanoes National Park on the side of Rwanda and in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park on the Uganda side. It rises to an elevation of 3,474M above Sea level and is quite doable to even inexperienced hikers, as the case is with Mount Bisoke/Visoke. There are navigable trails to the summit of Gahinga Volcano in either parks that share this volcano and respective hiking tours can be arranged. All the volcanoes in this park are part of the Virunga Mountain chain that sprawl the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, mount Karisimbi and Bisoke do not extend to Uganda. They are only shared by Rwanda and Congo.
Mount Muhavura Volcano or Muhabura lies at 4,127m above sea level and is the second highest in Rwanda after Karisimbi. It is the 3rd highest of all the 8 volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain Chain and its steepness presents a very challenging hike. Mount Muhabura can be hiked from both Rwanda and Uganda. The hike takes 7 or 8 hours round trip and on a clear day, views from its summit include those of other volcanoes in the range, a scenic crater lake, the twin lakes of Bulera and Rubondo plus other distant picturesque sceneries in Rwanda and Uganda. Though doable, it shouldn’t be the first choice for inexperienced or first time hikers when there are other simpler hikes like Gahinga and Bisoke that give an almost similar experience, let alone a ground to test one’s hiking capability.
- Bird watching in Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park harbors about 178 bird species of which 29 are endemic to the Virunga Mountains and the East African Rift that spans as far as the Rwenzori Mountains. By its remarkable bird species including the Albertine Rift endemics, it constitutes an Important Bird Area (IBA) for Rwanda. Birding trips to Volcanoes National Park turn out to be so rewarding given the high chances of having at least over 60% of species off a birder’s check-list. Some of the bird species include the Rwenzori Blue Turaco, Sun birds, Handsome Francolins, Rwenzori double collared sunbirds, Black-fronted duikers, Dusty crimson wing, Archer’s ground robin, among others.
- Diane Fossey Grave Site and Karisoke Research Centre
The thriving Gorilla tourism in Volcanoes National Park or Rwanda as a country has a dark history behind it, and which can’t go unmentioned for as long as the Gorillas survive. The walk/hike to Diane Fossey site is a physical and meditative dive into the famous American Primatologist’s incredible conservation efforts to the Mountain Gorillas the country is proud of. Apparently, they were critically endangered and fears for their extinction were high due to intensive poaching and habitat destruction. Diane Fossey’s extensive and passionate research on the behaviors of the Gorillas, more or less saved them from extinction. The wild Diane Fossey trail leads to her grave located near her Karisoke Research Centre and along the trail, are sightings of birds, animals and many plant species. In recognition of her incredible contribution to the survival of these Mountain Gorillas, the Diane Fossey trail and Gorillas Fund were established where regular visits are encouraged to popularize her works. On the other hand, it is the only kind way to give back to the departed soul for a once dedicated world conservation heroin.
- Iby’iwachu Cultural Village near Volcanoes National Park
Everything about Rwanda/Kinyarwanda cultures is encapsulated in the Iby’iwacu Cultural Village. Much as it sounds as a mere cultural village for exhibiting/demonstrating the different Rwanda cultures and traditions, Iby’iwacu cultural village is of great significance to the survival of the Mountain Gorillas and the sustenance of their habitat. Harmonizing conservation and local community needs is very critical and presents with a lot of challenges. When the measures taken are weak or inappropriate, it can lead to depletion or even extinction of some natural resources. Perhaps Mountain Gorilla conservation wouldn’t have been realized without such establishments, the kind of Iby’iwacu cultural village! It is located outside but close to the park and offers hands-on cultural experiences to the visitors. Your visit to Iby’iwacu cultural visist will not only be for your pleasure but also a contribution to the wellbeing of the communities near the park and the subsequent survival of the Mountain Gorillas plus other wildlife sheltered by Volcanoes National Park.
- Musanze Caves
Musanze Caves are such a long holey underneath feature with an obviously dark interior believed to have been formed by volcanic eruptions many years ago. Accompany your Gorilla trekking adventure with a less strenuous underground walk through the Musanze caves. Walk ways, stairs and trails were established to ease navigation of its dark interiors by the visitors. By their location at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park, a cultural encounter with the local communities is an obvious possibility. Communities near the caves and the knowledgeable site guides that lead you through the 20-meter cave trail, have always without any hesitation, shared with the visitors some general information about the Kinyarwanda culture and the park at large. Another nature and cultural immersion experience while at Volcanoes National Park!
- Kwita Izina Event – Gorilla Naming Ceremony
All baby Gorillas born in the past year or so are given names through a colorful event called Kwita Izina organized every year by Rwanda Development Board. The birth of a Gorilla is an addition to the Gorillas’ population and it’s worth celebrating. On the other hand, it is an indication that the conservation efforts by Rwanda Development Board and its partners are paying off. It takes place in Musanze near Volcanoes National Park. Much as there are other countries in the Mountain Gorilla conservation and protection struggle, Kwita Izina is unique to only Rwanda and not Uganda or Congo. Let us know incase you would wish to participate in the Gorilla Naming Ceremony and we make plans appropriately.
The weather at Volcanoes National Park
By its location in the very high altitude areas with rain forests, the weather is generally cool and rains are a usual occurrence regardless of the season. Day temperatures rise up to 20 degrees C while the cold nights’ temperatures can drop up to 7 degrees C.
Best time to visit Volcanoes National Park
Ideally, the dry season is the best to visit such a wild jungle although all the park activities are available and doable throughout the year. The level of difficulty with which the park activities are done, reduces with less rains, vice versa. Given the undulating terrain and the lush vegetation, the trails are relatively navigable during the dry months than the wet ones. For birding tours however, the wet season is most desired. The dry months are December to February and June to September. Except the cultural tours that are done mainly in the afternoons/evenings, most activities in the park start in the morning with no other sessions.
Accommodation at/around Volcanoes National Park
Close to Volcanoes National Park, are a number of lodges and hotels for visitors to choose from. They are categorized as budget, mid-range, luxury and super luxury ones. One thing they all share in common is being eco-friendly and are beautifully laid out to face the forest and overlook the scenic volcanic mountains. It’s so calming to wake up to stunning views of the volcanoes and the greenery! We have the below list of lodges to help you narrow down your search for a perfect place for your stay at the park:
- Sabinyo Silverback Lodge
- Bisyate Lodge
- Virunga Lodge
- Singita Kwitonda Lodge
- 5Volcanoes Boutique Hotel
- Gorilla Nest Lodge
- Mount Gorilla View Lodge
- Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge
- Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge
- La Locanda Hotel
- Gardens Place Hotel
- Kinigi Guest house.
Accessing Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is located in Musanze province in North west of Rwanda. It can be accessed by both private and public transport means from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. From Kigali international airport or Kigali city, it is a drive of only 2 hours to the park. With such proximity to the airport, even a (one) day Gorilla trekking tour is feasible with a pick up and drop off in Kigali.
The park shares borders with Uganda and so can be accessed from either Mount Mgahinga Gorilla Park, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park or any other border towns in Uganda. It is a short drive of only 4 or 5 hours. Where circumstances lead one to arrive through Entebbe (Uganda airport) instead of Kigali (Rwanda airport), a drive from Entebbe to Volcanoes National Park is also possible in one day though the distance is quite long.
One can as well fly in from Arusha, Tanzania and Nairobi airport in Kenya after the Serengeti and Masai Mara wildlife safaris, respectively. Flights from these respective places are usually one or two hours depending on the routing. Also this is to inform you that Jungle Escape Africa can organize your East African Tour starting and ending in either Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania including flight reservations.
For Gorilla trekking tours in particular, the three other areas to consider are Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, Virunga National Park in Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. However, the cost of the Gorilla permit, accessibility to the park and the safety of the tracking location can’t be overlooked in choosing a tracking location. A Gorilla permit in Rwanda is at US$1,500 while that of Uganda goes for US$700 and so given this high cost, most Gorilla trekking tours have been diverted to Bwindi Impenetrable Park and Mgahinga Gorillas Park in Uganda which has given a boom to our Rwanda to Uganda Gorilla Trekking Tours. Interestingly, Congo offers the lowest fee for a Gorilla permit, at $400, but it can’t be relied upon for Gorilla trekking due to the civil unrest and natural disasters. However, we keep monitoring the situation down in Congo and can always advise whenever it’s safe to visit.