Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is a breath taking park in the far northwestern region of Rwanda covering 160kms. “In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great old volcanoes towering almost 15,000 feet, nearly covered with rich, green rainforest –the Virungas,” wrote the prominent primatologist, Dian Fossey. Volcanoes National Park gets its name after the chain of 5 dormant volcanoes that make part of the Virunga Massif namely Karisimbi which is the highest at 4,507m, Bisoke with its verdant crater lake, Gahinga, Muhabura and Sabinyo which can all be climbed when visiting Volcanoes National Park. Volcanoes National Park borders Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda all of which make part of the great Virunga Massif Area.
The park was first gazetted in 1925 as a small area bounded by Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno solely to protect the gorillas from poachers. The park, much later in 1967 became the base of the American primatologist Dian Fossey who setup the Karisoke Research centre where she spent time to study, protect and save the mountain gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community.
Volcanoes National Park protects the steep slopes of the magnificent Virunga ranges which has rich mosaic of montane ecosystems with evergreen and bamboo forest open grassland, swamp and heath and host a range of animals and primates like the great and endangered mountain gorillas as well as the rear golden monkeys. There are 178 recorded bird species with at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the Virunga and the Rwenzori mountains.
The Rwanda Development Board(RDB) is in charge of the park as it is with all the tourism sites in Rwanda. There are a number of tourist activities that travellers can take part in and they include among others gorilla trekking, golden monkey tracking, Mount Karisimbi hiking, mountain climbing, bird watching, nature walks, Dian Fossey tomb visiting, Iby’Iwacu cultural village tour and Musanze cave and lakes visit.
Gorilla trekking is the most sought after tourist activity in Volcanoes National Park. There are about 12 habituated gorilla families in the park that tourists can visit and they include among others Hirwa gorilla family that had migrated to neighbouring Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda in 2019 but later returned, Karisimbi gorilla family, Titus, Amahoro, Kwitonda, Susa, Agashya, Umubano and Sabinyo gorilla families. Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is done with the guidance of experienced and knowledgeable rangers who are armed to protect travellers in case of anything in the park. Mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park starts as early as 7am with a briefing as travellers enjoy Rwandan brewed coffee and traditional dances. Travellers are given rules and guidelines to follow while gorilla trekking. They are then placed into groups of 8 and allocated a gorilla family to trek. Gorilla family allocation is dependent on the ability of the trekkers. Once travellers encounter the gorillas, they are allowed only one hour with them. Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park can take from 30 minutes to 5 hours or more, depending on the location of the gorillas and the terrain. Irrespective of the terrain though, the elderly and persons with limited mobility can also enjoy gorilla trekking. This is so due to the availability of the sedan chairs and stretchers that can be used to carry them throughout the trek. Make sure to contact a knowledgeable and reputable tour operator to help you plan for it way in advance since they too are limited in number. Persons below the age 15 are however not allowed to trek gorillas.
For one to take part in gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, a gorilla trekking permit is required. A single entry Rwanda gorilla permit costs $1,500. Given that the activity is much sought after and there are few gorilla families available per day, booking a gorilla permit at least 3-4 months in advance is advised to secure your slot on your preferred dates.
Golden monkey tracking. Golden monkeys are rear primates that can be found in both Uganda and Rwanda in the Virunga Massif area. Golden monkey tracking in Volcanoes National Park is second to gorilla trekking, with most travellers doing both activities whilst in the park. The golden monkeys are very active and playful creatures that keep jumping from one bamboo tree to another. Golden monkey tracking in Volcanoes National Park process is as of gorilla trekking. Make sure to purchase a permit to be allowed to track, and have a lot of patience to be able to take nice pictures of the golden monkeys that are very mobile.
Mountain climbing. The five volcanic mountains of Karisimbi, Bisoke, Sabinyo, Muhabura and Gahinga are a great opportunity for mountain climbers to try them. Mount Karisimbi in particular is the most sought to climb while in Volcanoes National Park. chance to see primates whilst mountain climbing say gorillas, and other wildlife. The beautiful and amazing scenery that stretches far beyond are one to behold.
Bird watching. Bird watching in Volcanoes National Park is an activity that shouldn’t be missed when in the park. The park is one of the three Important Birding Areas in Rwanda with over 200 bird species. With the help and guidance of a professional bird guide, be sure to go through well-developed birding routes and have an opportunity to sight a number of birds including endemics of the Albertine Rift. Remember to carry your pair of binoculars.
Musanze caves visit. The Musanze caves were formed underground as a result of volcanic eruptions. They are a great place to visit after a long gorilla trekking adventure just to relax.
Dian Fossey Tomb visit. Visiting the tombs of the great primatologist Dian Fossey to learn of her history and great contribution to the gorilla community without which we may never have been able to encounter such gentle creatures. Travellers who take the hike to visit the Dian Fossey tomb will experience her determination and passion she had for the mountain gorillas.
Lake Ruhondo and Lake Burera twin lakes visit. These lakes are a lovely place to visit for relaxation or picnic after a gorilla trekking or golden monkey tracking adventure. Boat cruises on these twin lakes reward travellers with beautiful sights, birds and waterfalls.
The Iby’Iwacu cultural village. A cultural encounter in the Iby’Iwacu village gives travellers an opportunity to learn of the local’s way of life and learn of their local activities that they too might take part in.
Volcanoes National Park can be visited throughout the year. It is however most advisable to visit during the dry season which is the peak season as well, running in the months of June-September and December-February. The rest of the months are wet season months. Travellers should however be informed that irrespective of the season, the rains in Volcanoes National Park can fall at any time in the day, that is why travellers can visit the park throughout the year.
Accessing Volcanoes National Park is very easy. From Kigali International Airport, the park is only 3 hours away by road. Volcanoes National Park is a great place to visit to relax, unwind and reconnect with nature. Take time to get in touch with a reputable tour operator to help you plan a memorable Volcanoes National Park safari.