Simien National Park, also known as Simien Mountains National Park, is in the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia. It was one of the first sites added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. It features spectacular scenery viewed from its peaks and escarpments and fascinating gelada monkeys and other wildlife. The park headquarters are outside the park in Debark, the nearest town, on the main road between Gondar (to the south) and Shire and Axum (to the north).
Buses travelling between Gondar and Shire/Axum pass through Debark, which is the main starting point for the national park. Debark is about 3 hours from Gondar on a paved road. It is 5-7 hours from Shire over a road that is being improved and paved (as of 2014), but while the roadworks are going on it can be extremely rough and dusty.
Minibuses to and from Gondar are available; however there are no buses that start in Debark and head to Shire/Axum, and those that pass through Debark are usually full by the time they arrive in town. The best options are either to go back to Gondar and find a bus to Shire/Axum from there, or have someone else go to Gondar and reserve tickets on your behalf. This latter option can usually be done by hotel staff, or can be arranged by your tour organizer if you happen to be trekking in the Simien Mountains through an organized tour.
Fees and permits
Go to the park office in the south end of Debark – if coming from Gondar, this is on the left just after reaching the town. They will arrange permits and the mandatory scout, and take fees. Hikes can be arranged and, if desired, they can find an official guide, cook, mules and a muleman. They have gear for rent, though it is low quality. The scout, guide, and muleman may expect you to feed them, so take sufficient food.
The fees are:
1. Entrance fee for foreigners, 90 birr; plus 10 birr per day for camping (Dec 2014).
2. Guide fees:
- 400 birr, regardless of the number of people. (July 2019)
3. Game scout: 150 birr per day (Dec 2014)
4. Cook (Dec 2014):
- 1-3 people – 300 birr
- 4-10 people – 450 birr
- 11+ people – 600 birr
5. Mules: 200 birr per day per mule, and mule man also 200 birr per day (Dec 2014).
6. Vehicle transfers – one-way, either direction. The two most popular are below, but there are transfers from Debark to other places in the park as well.
- As of July 2019: USD60 total from Debark to Simien lodge and back, during a rainy (=low) season.
The only required fees to be paid are the entrance fee and game scout fee, so hiking through the park can be quite cheap, especially if you can avoid the rather exorbitant transfer fees (there are mixed reports on being able to flag down local vehicles or otherwise negotiate with the official cars). There are very basic "community lodges" available throughout much of the park, though they are more expensive than camping.
A lot of people will hassle you in Debark. If you are going to hire a guide, make that one of your first tasks, since your guide will get rid of unwanted people following you around and can help you sort out any last minute details or concerns. Do not hire an unofficial guide off the street – travellers frequently complain about their experience with unofficial guides.
A road runs from Debark through the park and accesses some of the campsites and villages. 4x4s and lorries go through Sankaber, Geech and Chenek, but tourists are prohibited from using them and most visitors use mountain hiking paths to get around. As a tourist, the only way into the park are to hire a 4x4, walk or go with a tour company.
Be sure to arrange transport out of the park before entering. There are no working phone lines in the park, so you can't call headquarters for a 4x4 once you're in. Buses and trucks aren't allowed to pick up hikers. They'll ask for upwards of USD200 to overlook this rule.
The park contains Ethiopia's biggest and most spectacular mountain range, the Simien Mountains. Ras Dashen at 4,553 m is the country's highest peak, although the views from the Northern Escarpment may be a bigger attraction, with rock faces falling away thousands of feet from summits like Inatye (4,070 m) and Imet Gogo (3,960 m).
- Wildlife is an attraction of the park, including birds and some mammals. Troops of grass-eating geladas, a close relative of baboons, are a common sight on hikes and will come close to tourists, scouts and guides, but not so close to the villagers who live and graze stock in the national park. The rare walia ibex is found in higher parts of the ranges. If you're really lucky, you may see one of the rare Ethiopian wolves (sometimes called jackals or foxes) found here and in a few other mountain ranges in Ethiopia. With only a few hundred of the species remaining, these are the world's rarest canid and Africa's most endangered carnivore, and feed mainly on mountain rodents.
Nearly all visitors to the Simien National Park come to hike through the spectacular mountain scenery. You can do a 5-day trek from Debark to Sankabar Camp to Geech Camp to Chenek Camp and back to Debark via Sankabar (skipping Geech) and see all the main sights. You need 9 days to trek to Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia, and back without transport.
- The park website provides information on the most popular routes, along with useful tips on visiting the area.
- A number of companies offer fairly standard fully organized trips (incl. guide, scouts, food, cook, and camping gear) starting at 2 days (~USD150pp) up to 17 days (Debark to Lalibela). Trips directly from Gondar can be easily arranged through a company such as Simientrek. They are very professional and provide everything but the price is not less than USD100 per day per person (Mar 2020).
- A less expensive option would be to arrange a 3 night trip: travel to Debark the day before your trip and organise a guide and scout at the office. Day one get a bajaj to Buyit Ras or thereabouts and walk a couple of hours to Sankabar. Best to bring your own water to Sankabar. There are plenty of community lodges so a tent is not required but a good sleeping bag is as its shirtsleeve weather during the day and below zero at night. Sankabar is on the main road. Day two walk to Geech camp, there is a good stream about mid morning where you can swim and wash clothes. The locals drink the water without boiling or sterilising it. There is no road access to Geech camp. One passes giant lobelia on the way but Geech camp itself is above the treeline. There are community lodges at Geech camp so no need for a tent. Day three walk to Chenek, on the way the stunning Imet Gogo is passed with the best views of the walk and shortly thereafter the high point of the walk at a little over 4,000 m. Chenek is on the main road, there are community lodges so no need for a tent. There is a small stream at Chenek but the water definitely will need boiling or sterilising. Day four return to Debark. It may be possible to catch a public bus but otherwise its a 40km walk along the road to Debark. A bajaj might be prepared to travel to Sankabar to pick you up but the road is far too rough after Sankabar for anything but 4WD and heavy vehicles. This walk traverses the best of the Simien scenery and there is the possibility of sighting the famed walia ibex.
The essentials are usually bought in Debark. A woven gabi, a thick shawl, is useful for the cold mountain nights and can be purchased at the market (around 300-500 birr, depending on quality). Maps are available at the park headquarters.
In Debark, the Simien Park Hotel on the main road offers reliable Ethiopian food. A few shops sell tinned food and bread. Food suitable for trekking is available in Debark, but it is cheaper to buy it in Gondar or Axum where there is a much better selection.
In the mountains, live chickens and eggs can be bought from villagers. Otherwise, the only alternative to your own supplies is the Simien Lodge at Buyit Ras, a few hours hike from Debark.
Both hotels mentioned serve St. George beer and delicious Ethiopian coffee, even if you are not staying.
The main hotel in Debark is the Simien Park Hotel on the main road south of the bus station. There are a few other decent places nearby if the Simien Park Hotel is full.
In July 2019 you could get a simple room for 2 people (two single beds) for 300 birr total (shower and toilet outside, not very clean).
Giant Loblia Hotel - 400 birr (July 2019) for a double room. Make sure you go directly to the reception, instead of having someone "help" you get there since then you will get charged more (this extra money will go to your helper, but naturally you can approach the reception by yourself).
In the mountains, the Simien Lodge, self-proclaimed "highest hotel in Africa" at 3,260 m, offers upmarket accommodation in tukels, or huts. A dorm bunk costs USD31, a two-person tukel USD135 and a four-person tukel USD183.
Limalimo Lodge opened in 2016 and offers great views, food, service and facilities. It was developed by the local community and is 15 minutes' drive from Debark.
- Gondar and its royal castles to the south. Minibuses leave from the bus station and cost 75 birr. They also charge 25 birr/50 birr for small/big luggage but it is unsure if this is legitimate, i.e. if they also charge it to locals.
- Axum with its stelae and other historic structures to the north