Volcanoes National Park lies along the Virunga Mountains, with 8 ancient volcanoes, which are shared by Rwanda , Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a short two-hour drive from Rwanda's capital of Kigali, the park is a central location for exploring one of most amazing and in some cases life-changing experiences you can ever have - Mountain Gorilla trekking . At 160 kms² the Volcanoes National Park is part of a 433km² trans-frontier conservation unit that also includes the Virunga National Park and Mgahinga National Park, which protect the DRC and Ugandan sectors of the Virungas respectively.
Ranging in altitude from 2,400m to 4,507m, the Volcanoes National Park is best known to the outside world as the place for almost 20 years, where American primatologist Dian Fossey undertook her pioneering studies of Mountain Gorilla behaviour. After her tragic death, the film 'Gorillas in the Mist' drew worldwide attention to the plight of the Mountain Gorilla and Gorilla Tourism as a whole.
Gorilla Trekking remains the most popular activity in the country and is a sensational and moving experience to get up close to these amazing creatures, of which there are only around 880 on the planet. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that should be on everyone’s ‘bucket list’. There are at present 10 habituated gorilla groups for visitors to see and one set aside for research from which the Kwita Izina baby gorilla naming ceremony is selected. This means a number of 80 gorilla permits are available each day for tourists going watch gorillas on a single day. Gorilla Permits are priced at US$1500 per person and we recommend booking 3 to 6 months in advance, especially during Rwanda's high season of June - September.
The park itself has some fantastic accommodation on offer to add to your Rwanda safari. Most are mid-high end including Virunga Lodge , Sabyinyo Lodge and the new Bisate Lodge , but there are also several mid-range options too, including Mountain Gorilla View Lodge . Most people will spend 2-3 nights in the area and include one or two Gorilla treks, along on with seeing the Golden Monkeys and various other activities on offer in the area, before moving on to another national park like Akagera or Nyungwe to continue your Rwanda safari, or head to simply relax around Lake Kivu .
Near the park, the bustling and vibrant markets of Musanze are a place to immerse yourself in everyday Rwandan culture or visit just inside the park Iby'Iwacu Cultural Village. Here you can expect to be greeted by thunderous drumming, joyful dancing, and the kind of hospitality that has permeated Rwandan society for centuries. You can also go deep into the earth with Musanze's caves - one of the area's newest attractions, offering easy hiking and brilliant views of cascading lights from the surface, a colony of bats and unique rock formations. Also, visit Buhanga EcoPark - a small and serene forest packs in a great deal of biological and cultural significance. Various trails cross through towering trees home to a variety of bird and butterfly species, and the location is built on an ancient sacred site that was used for coronation rituals of Rwandan kings. Fascinating experiences all adding to your Rwanda safari .
To reach Volcanoes National Park it is around a 2.5 - 3 hours drive from the capital Kigali , which is a distance of just over 100kms.
Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) which inhabit the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla, the largest living primate on earth. They are massive - with a short and thick trunk, broad chest and shoulders, longer arms than the stubby legs, their eyes and ears dwarfed by the large head, a flat nose and large nostrils and a shiny black muzzle. Their fur is mainly black, but adult males have a silvery "saddle" on their back thus the name Silverbacks. The face, hands, feet and breast are bald. A fully grown male can be twice as large as a female and weigh up to 220 kg. The tallest silverback recorded was 1.94m and the heaviest, a 1.83m silverback, weighed about 266 kg.
Numbering only about 780 individuals worldwide, this amazingly large hominid is now listed on the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching, disease and war. Mountain Gorillas not only share 95% of their genes with but are possessed of an uncanny physical and social resemblance to, humans. For this and other similarities, these gentle giants invoke a deep mystery, wonder and curiosity in humans – coming face to face with a Gorilla family in the wild is therefore emotional, mind-boggling and often extremely confusing. It makes us think deeply about ourselves. Trackers to one of the habituated families will be delighted to know their visit contributes to the preservation of these very special creatures.
After an early breakfast, drive to the Volcanoes National Park to be allocated a gorilla tracking group. At 0700 hrs there will be a briefing by your trackers then drive to the trailhead for the start of an amazing adventure.
The exhilarating trek, in the footsteps of the rare and critically endangered Mountain Gorillas, the largest living primate on earth, starts in the cultivated foothills of the Virungas with stirring views in all directions. Upon entering the national park, her paths littered with fresh spoor of the mountains’ elusive buffalo and elephant, trekkers will be immersed in the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with colourful bird calls, butterflies, etc. Through gaps in the canopy, the magnificent Virunga peaks, among the highest in Africa yet easily accessible, are glimpsed, beckoning an ascent. Weaving through overhanging vines, moss-covered hagenia and giant lobelias that thrive in the tropical climate, our experienced trackers, they spent their entire lives in or close to this forest, bring you up close with the family. Upon sighting the gorillas, you will stay with them for a magical hour as they go about their daily life, feeding, playing, resting; raising their young. Coming face to face with a giant silverback must truly be one of the greatest wildlife experiences on earth!
After an early breakfast, drive to the Volcanoes National Park HQs where you will be allocated a Golden Monkeys tracking group. At 0700 hrs the briefing by your trackers will begin and then drive to the trailhead for the tracking.
The very beautiful Golden Monkey has a golden body, cheeks and tail with contrasting black limbs, crown, and tail-end. Not much is known about their behaviour; other than they live in social groups of up to 30 individuals and their diet consists mainly of leaves and fruit and its thought that they eat insects too. Restricted to the highland forest of the Virungas especially near bamboo, they share this habitat with their Big Brother the Mountain Gorilla, inhabiting a small area that overlaps the territory of one of the Gorilla families Together, they face the same threats; snares, human encroachment etc. and are listed on the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species.
Tracking usually takes from 2 to 4 hrs. Once you come to the habituated families, you will spend the allowed one hour with them as they go about their daily life; adult monkeys frolic in plain view, feeding on bamboo leaves and leaping from perch to perch while females carry their young, completely oblivious of on-lookers. Afterwards, trek back to base and drive to the lodge for a deserved shower then lunch.
As an afternoon activity, enjoy sightseeing around the Twin Lakes - Burera and Ruhondo, two shimmering volcanic crater lakes located high in the Virungas and separated by a narrow stretch of earth – their deep blue waters ringed by steep hills and tall waterfalls in a most spectacular backdrop, the Virunga Volcanoes. Optionally walk with your guide in the hills bordering on the lakes in search of birds, descend and walk along the lakes and through the local village and its small marketplace or stop for afternoon coffee at the adjacent Virunga Lodge .
Return to lodge early evening for dinner and overnight.
After an early breakfast, transfer to the Park HQs where you will be allocated a trekking guide. At 0700 hrs you'll receive your briefing, then drive to the trailhead for the start of 5 to 6 hrs hike (depending on individual fitness) culminating at Dian Fossey’s grave lying, between Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes, next to the graves of the gorillas she loved and studied for a lifetime.
Dian Fossey was a famous American primatologist who undertook an extensive, daily study of Africa’s Mountain Gorillas in the forests of Rwanda over a period of 18 years! Initially encouraged by Louis Leakey, Dian devoted her life to the study and protection of mountain gorillas.
Regrettably murdered on December 26 1985, in the Virunga Mountains, her legacy lives on through The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International , a non-profit dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitat.
On a thrilling hike on the edge of the Virungas, visitors can pay their respects to this incredible ‘lone woman of the forest’, as she was popularly referred to by her staff, at Karisoke where she was interred.
Do note while she was here, Dian Fossey lived and worked at Karisoke Research Centre which was then located between Karisimbi and Bisoke Volcanoes at 3000m. After her death, she was buried at the same location, as were, subsequently, some of her favourite Gorillas. The Research Center was later moved from the site and is now located in Musanze town (former Ruhengeri) 30 minutes from the Park's HQ. They are just ordinary offices occupied by researchers. There is now almost nothing left to see at the original site except Dian Fossey’s grave and those of the famous Gorillas as well as some arrows showing different places. People do still visit, but please note it is a difficult hike and there is not much to see; but there is a thrill can in hiking the volcano.
The best time to visit Volcanoes National Park
The Virungas, a branch of the Albertine Rift, is a chain of mostly dormant volcanoes, (except Nyiragongo & Nyamuragira) lying along Rwanda’s northern border with DR Congo and Uganda. The range consists of 8 major volcanoes. Their lower slopes are covered by a Montagne Forest which elevates to Neoboutonia (2400 to 2500m), Bamboo Forest (2500 to 3200m) and Hagenia-Hypericum on the more humid slopes from 2600 to 3600m in the south and west. From 3500 to 4200m, the vegetation is characterised by Lobelia wollastonii, L. lanurensis, and Senecio erici-rosenii while grassland occurs from 4300 to 4500m.
Bordering Virunga National Park in DR Congo and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park (130 km²) encompasses 5 of the 8 Virunga volcanoes i.e. Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo - with Karisimbi, 4,507m the highest and Sabyinyo, 3,634m the oldest.
They are home to the rare and critically endangered Mountain Gorilla. Other mammals present include the Golden Monkeys, black-fronted duiker, buffalo, spotted Hyena and bushbuck. Over 170 species of birds recorded include at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the Virungas and Rwenzori. Situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, Parc National des Volcans protects the steep slopes of this magnificent mountain range and the rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, embracing evergreen, bamboo, open grassland, swamp & heath.
The climate in the Volcanoes National Park is typically damp, with daytime temperatures averaging 50°F (10°C).
The park itself has some fantastic accommodation on offer to add to your Rwanda safari. Most are mid-high end including the well-established Virunga Lodge and Sabyinyo Lodge . Bisate Lodge opened its doors in 2017 and is a super high-end addition to the park. One & Only Gorilla's Nest will be open in July 2019, followed by Singita's Kwitonda Lodge in August 2019. For those who cannot afford the high-end lodges, decent mid-range options include Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel and Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.