Volcanoes National Park is an extraordinary park in Rwanda, full of impressive tropical rainforest and volcanic scenery, trekking, and is perhaps the best place in the world to see the rare mountain gorillas.
"In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat," wrote the eminent primatologist Dian Fossey, "are great, old volcanoes towering up almost 4,500 m (14,800 ft), and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest - the Virungas". Situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, the Parc des Volcans protects the steep slopes of this magnificent mountain range - home of the rare mountain gorilla - and the rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, which embrace evergreen and bamboo forest, open grassland, swamp and heath.
The Volcanoes National Park was part of the Albert National Park, the oldest protected area in Africa. Created by the Belgian Colonial government in 1925, Albert National Park (present day Virunga National Park)' primary purpose was to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. In 1929, the Albert National Park widened to include the Volcanoes of Rwanda and the gazetted area occupied 8090 km². In 1960, after Belgian Congo attaining its independence, Albert National Park was divided into two; Virunga National Park of Congo and Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda.
Flora and fauna
Fees and permits
Mountain Gorillas - Prices to obtain permit for Volcanoes National Park to view Mountain Gorillas (April 2017):
- US$1500 per person for all.
Tickets can sell out several months in advance in peak season, but may be available last-minute in low season.
Mount Bisoke US$75 per person (foreigners), FRw15,000 (Rwandans)
Golden Monkeys $100
Dian Fossey Tomb $75
Buhanga Eco Park 1-day nature walk $40, 1-day picnic (including camping) $60
Muhabura-Gahinga (2 days including camping site) $200
Karisimbi (2 days trekking including camping site) $400 solo, $300 p/p group
Hiking the chain of volcanoes Gahinga, Muhabura, Bisoke and Karisimbi (5 days park visitation) $1,500 p/p
You will not be provided with a private guide, despite the high permit cost. Rather, everyone will be grouped together rather chaotically and left to divide into groups when on the mountain. Make sure that there are enough guides provided for the number of people hiking on the given day.
Before you arrive
As implied in the following sections, you need to have some way to get from the park headquarters to the trailheads where the trek starts. The national park does not provide transportation. It's most recommended to book transport with a reputable safari company: these outfitters will provide a driver and a large Land Cruiser 4WD vehicle that can handle the frequently poor roads at the edges of the park.
If you prefer to self-drive, a 4WD vehicle is strongly recommended. Most rental car companies operating in Rwanda will not allow non-4WD vehicles to be driven into the national parks, because of the risk of damage on poor roads. There are a few trailheads that are accessible on semi-improved gravel roads, but whether these will be useful depends on whether there is a gorilla group relatively close to that trailhead on the day of your trek.
If you arrive at the park headquarters without suitable transport - whether by moto or taxi, or by self-driving a non-4WD vehicle on a day when you wouldn't be able to drive it to a useful trailhead - you'll need to get lucky to get a place in someone else's vehicle. Most of the safari-company Land Cruisers will be much less than half full, but the tour companies are very reluctant to take random passengers who have not booked with them for liability reasons, even just between the HQ and the trailheads, and the park rangers are thus reluctant to push them to give you a seat. You'll generally have an easier time getting a seat with someone who is self-driving, but most visitors use a safari outfitter rather than driving themselves, so depending on the day, this may not be practical. To avoid unnecessary stress, make sure you know how you're getting to the trailheads before you arrive for your trek.
The morning of
Both trekking options start at the park headquarters at 7AM. You will need to register yourself (or your driver and guide may complete this on your behalf). There is tea and coffee served in the main shelter and some days there is a dance presentation given by the local cultural center (this typically starts around 6:45AM). The park guides will place individuals into trekking groups based on ability and your preference for which group to visit. This process takes 30-40 minutes during which you can walk around the grounds or relax in the main shelter. After the assignments are made your driver and guide will direct you to a location on the lawn where your trekking group will assemble. Once all members are assembled the park guide will go over some basic information and have you fill out a form with your name, nationality, etc. The form has a location for passport number and permit number but these are not required (the form is for information gathering only). The park guide will give you an introduction to the group you will be visiting along with showing you a diagram of the gorilla group's family tree. Once this initial introduction is complete (10-15 minutes) you will find your driver and proceed to the starting point for your trek.
Your driver will take you to the starting point of the trek (there are multiple entry points into the park) which can be a trip of 20-45 minutes sometimes on very poor roads. Once you have reached the entry point parking lot your trekking group will reassemble with your park guide and secondary guide. Additional instructions will be given and you will be offered a walking stick for the trek. In addition, this is when you can hire a porter. The porters are all wearing the same blue coveralls and there is a defined order in which porters are selected. Ask your driver or the park guide if you want to hire a porter and they will signal to a porter to give you a hand. It is recommended you use a porter if you have any bags or other equipment as the hike can be long, steep or through difficult terrain. Also, it is an important way to support the local economy and help incentivise anti-poaching efforts. You will pay/tip the porter at the end of the trek.
Your starting position will be outside the park and depending on the starting position you may have to hike up to an hour to actually get to the park boundary which is marked with a stone wall. The area before the park is typically made up of farming fields.
Once you reach the park boundary additional instructions will be given about how to behave around the primates such as restrictions on eating, drinking, smoking and bathroom breaks.
The trek inside the park boundary varies depending on the location of your group and may include steep climbs, movement through a bamboo forest or hacking through thick brush.
Viewing the primates
You will know you have reached the staging area when additional park trackers join your group. At this point you will need to leave all bags and walking sticks with the porters but will be allowed to take cameras with you. A final hike (around 200 m) and you should be in the presence of the primates. After the one hour visit you return to the staging area where you left your belongings and prepare to hike out to the starting point.
Upon your return to the starting point you will pay your porters (consider giving tip) and can also tip the guides.
Finally, you can return to the park headquarters where you will be given a certificate indicating that you have completed a visit with your specific gorilla group.
Trekking through the Virunga forests of Rwanda requires some basic equipment to ensure you can transport sufficient liquids, protect yourself from the flora and fauna and can safely navigate the terrain.
Required or highly recommended
- Day pack or other wearable bag to carry water, snacks and camera
- Long sleeve shirt
- Long pants
- Sturdy hiking shoes or boots (preferably waterproof)
- Bug repellent with DEET
- Socks that can allow you to tuck your pants into them or hiking gaters (to protect from red ants)
- At least 1 - 2 liters of water
- Utility gloves
- Walking stick (one will be provided to you by the park guide)
- Wide brimmed hat
- Sunglasses (with optional neck strap)
- Kinigi Cultural Center
- Gorilla trekking
- Golden Monkey trekking
- Hike to Dian Fossey grave
- Hike to Volcano Creator Lake
Bring plenty of water. In the morning before your gorilla tour or trek at the park HQ there is free tea and coffee provided.
- Kinigi Guest House, 300 m from the park HQ have a dorm for US$10 p/p as well as some private rooms. On-site restaurant.
- You can also choose to stay in Musanze where there are more accommodation options available and take a taxi or moto taxi to the park HQ.
If doing an overnight hike you will need to bring your own tent.