The Rwenzori Mountains mist Uganda giant lobelias

Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda

Sep 9, 2021

Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains have been called the Mountains of the Moon due to their unique flora and unearthly beauty. They are a stunning destination for incredible hikes, perfect for adventure travellers.

The Rwenzori Mountains offer incredibly beautiful and varied hiking trails. They're also home to Margherita Peak (5,109 m), Africa's third-highest point!

The Rwenzori Mountains are home to Africa's third highest peak and serve as one of the sources of the White Nile. The hiking trails range from demanding and epic, to mild and beautiful. The vegetation is wild, unique and varied, and there are birds and animals living in the forest that can be found nowhere else on earth. The jungle-filled valleys are regularly shrouded in mist, while the highest mountain is perennially covered in snow (even though it sits near the Equator). The views in all directions are absolutely breathtaking!

The Rwenzori Mountains National Park is one of Uganda’s best-kept secrets. It's tucked away in the remote and sparsely populated western part of the country. Consequently it offers visitors a quiet and untouched corner of incredible natural beauty and diversity to explore. It offers some of the very best multiday treks in Africa. Those who travel there are never disappointed!

 

 

Where are the Rwenzori Mountains?

The Rwenzoris are a range of mountains in the Albertine Rift Valley of East Africa. The mountains run for 130 km north to south along the border between western Uganda and eastern DRC. The Ugandan portion of the mountains can be found in the southwest of the country, a little north of the famous Queen Elizabeth National Park, a world-class safari destination.  

The best way to reach the mountains is to fly into Kampala and then drive west to the mountain range. The west and southwest of Uganda are a major tourist destination, not least because of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where one can go mountain gorilla trekking. Read about 20 things you can do in Uganda!

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Map of Uganda showing the location of the Rwenzori Mountains

Africa's third highest peak: Margherita 

Mount Stanley (or Mount Ngaliema) is a massif in the Rwenzori Mountains that sits on the border between the DRC and Uganda. It's the third highest mountain in Africa after Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. It’s highest peak is Margherita (5,109 m). There are several other peaks on Mt Stanley, including Alexandra Peak (5,091 m).

Sitting atop Mt Stanley is the beautiful Margherita Glacier, which is 100 m thick. The stream that forms from the glacier’s meltwater is one of the sources of the famous White Nile!

Margherita Peak Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

Here you can see Mt Stanley's Margherita Peak in the centre of the photo, with Margherita Glacier (right) and Stanley Plateau Glacier (left) | Image by El.Sarmiento

What does Rwenzori mean?

The Rwenzori (also spelt Ruwenzori) was given its name in 1888 by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-American journalist and explorer. He called the mountains Ruwenzori, which means ‘cloud king’ or ‘rain-maker’ in the local language of Bakonjo. Highly appropriate.

 

 

Rwenzori Mountains National Park

The Rwenzori Mountains National Park in western Uganda was created in 1991 and is just under a thousand square kilometres. The entrance to the park is in the town of Kasese, which is over 400 km west of Uganda's capital Kampala. Visitors pay a park fee of $30 per day.

Most of the park's visitors come to tackle a multiday hike or mountaineering trek. The scenery alone makes the exercise brilliant. But there’s also the allure of walking in a remote, sparsely populated region that relatively few have ever been to. 

The Rwenzori Mountains National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 because of its outstanding natural beauty. 

Kasese, Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

Kasese is the gateway to Rwenzori Mountains National Park | Image by Dylan Walters

Unusual plants of the Rwenzori Mountains

The Rwenzori Mountains are an incredibly beautiful and unique corner of the world. They contain many glaciers, snowfields, lakes and waterfalls, and in many parts are covered in thick and unusual vegetation. The Rwenzori Mountains certainly help to justify Winston Churchill’s claim that Uganda is the Pearl of Africa! 

The jungle

The jungle-filled valleys are loud with the sounds of running and dripping water, bird calls and insects. Thick clumps of moss grow around the trunks of the trees. The moss is able to flourish because of the mists that forms every day around the 3,000 m elevation mark. The valley floors are boggy and so low-lying walkways have been installed for walkers in some parts of the park. 

The damp, moss-draped trees give the jungle a ‘forgotten realm’ look.

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Boardwalks let you to hike the boggy valley floors of the Rwenzori Mountains

The mountainsides

Higher up, around 3,400 m, you have giant cacti and giant lobelias. The mountains are also home to forests of giant heather (or heather trees). Countless heather trees are draped in pale beard lichens, again giving you the feeling of stepping into a forgotten kingdom that has been left abandoned for centuries. 

Giant groundsels grow above the 4,000 m mark – interestingly, we also see these gloriously top-heavy plants when we climb Kilimanjaro. You might also be picking up on that fact that the Rwenzori Mountains host quite a few floral giants!

The Rwenzori Mountains mist Uganda giant lobelias

Giant lobelias and heather trees are among the many fascinating plants that cover that Rwenzori Mountains | Image by Manuel Werner

The peaks

Little grows above 4,300 m beyond moss, lichen and everlasting plants. The mountain peaks, in spite of being near the Equator, are perennially snow-covered and support gorgeous glaciers. 

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The magnificent and towering Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda | Image by Jørn Eriksson

Unique wildlife of the Rwenzori Mountains

The animals of the Rwenzori Mountains, like its trees and plants, are a case study in diversity. The Rwenzoris are home to many endemic species of animals found nowhere else in the world. For example, you have two chameleons – Johnston's three-horned chameleon and the strange-horned chameleon – that are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley. 

Johnston's chameleon Uganda Rwenzori Mountains

Johnston's chameleon is endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley – the males have three horns, as seen here, while the females have none

The park has 70 mammal species, though many are pretty shy and hard to spot. There are, for instance, forest elephants, giant forest hogs, leopards, African golden cats, sittungas (marsh buck), bushbucks, red duikers and squirrels. There are also many primates including chimps and l’Hoest’s monkeys living in the forest.

The park's mammals include elephants, leopards, chimpanzees, golden cats, bushbucks and duikers.

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Trekking to see chimpanzees is a popular tourist activity in Uganda

Several of the mountains’ 217 bird species are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley. For instance, the Rwenzori turaco is a super colourful bird species that lives in the forests of the Rwenzori Mountains and likes to bounce through the trees. The forest is also home to sunbirds, robins, owls, bee-eaters, swifts, barbets, vultures and eagles.

This short UNESCO video offers a glimpse of the impressive biodiversity of the Rwenzori Mountains. 

Rwenzori Mountains flowers

The vibrant scadoxus cyrtanthiflorus is endemic to the Rwenzori Mountains

Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains

The Rwenzori Mountains offer simply fantastic trekking trails and mountaineering opportunities. The routes are uncrowded, the views spectacular, and the vegetation like nothing you've ever seen before! We definitely feel that hiking in the Rwenzoris is one of the best adventure activities in Uganda!

There are two main trek routes in Rwenzori Mountains National Park: the Central Circuit Trail and the Kilembe Route. The Central Circuit Trail enters the mountain range from the east and does a large, anticlockwise loop. The Kilembe Route, on the other hand, takes you into the mountains from the south and follows a longer, narrower circuit which runs in a northwest–southeast direction. Both routes offer hut accommodation.

Giant groundsels Rwenzori Mountains Uganda

Giant groundsels dwarfed by the bigger giants that are the Rwenzori Mountains | Image by Nick06

Mountaineering

The Rwenzori Mountains offer adventurers plenty of exciting and world-class mountaineering opportunities. In fact, they offer the best mountaineering treks in Africa! This is because they have three of the continent's five highest mountains. The mountains – Mt Stanley, Mt Speke and Mt Baker – are only a few kilometres apart and together form a triangle. They're collectively known as the Mountains of the Moon. This name was given them by the second-century Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy – who never actually saw them.

So how high are these Mountains of the Moon?

Highest mountains of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park

The three highest mountains in the Rwenzori range are all higher than Mt Blanc (4,810 m), the highest mountain of the Alps! Check them out ...

  • Mt Stanley (or Ngaliema) is the third highest mountain in Africa.
    • Its highest point is Margherita (or Savoia) Peak, which is 5,109 m above sea level.
  • Mt Speke (or Duwoni) is the fourth highest mountain in Africa.
    • Its highest point is Vittorio Emanuele Peak, which is 4,890 m above sea level.
  • Mt Baker (or Kiyanja) is the fifth highest mountain in Africa.
    • Its highest point is Edward Peak, which is 4,844 m above sea level.

All of the above three mountains have multiple jagged peaks. Mt Stanley and Mt Speke both support glaciers: two on Mt Stanley and one on Mt Speke. Stanley is covered in snow for most of the year. The other mountains tend to be pretty slippery because of all the rain they receive.

The Rwenzori Mountains are markedly taller than the Alps!

Rwenzori Mountains

The Rwenzori Mountains offer beautifully uncrowded paths for intrepid trekkers and hikers

While Mt Stanley isn't as high as Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895 m), it's actually a harder climb. This is because Kilimanjaro is a non-technical mountain that any fit person can hike, while Stanley requires mountaineering experience.

The Rwenzori Mountains do, of course, consist of more than just the three Mountains of the Moon. There's also Mt Emin (4,798 m), Mt Gessi (4,715 m) in the DRC, and Mt Luigi di Savoia (4,627 m). All of the mountains in the Rwenzori range can be summited.

Maybe you're not a mountaineer, yet you'd still like to spend some time trekking in the gorgeous Rwenzoris? No problem! There are plenty of non-technical multiday treks for you to tackle ...

Snowcapped Rwenzori mountains

The Rwenzori Mountains lie very close to the Equator, but the highest peaks are always covered in snow | Image by Jørn Eriksson

Multiday treks

As mentioned, trekkers who wish to explore the Rwenzori Mountains without summiting any peaks can also hike the Central Circuit Trail and the Kilembe Route. The Central Circuit Trail takes about eight days to complete, while the Kilembe Route has variations you can choose from.

These non-technical, multiday treks are challenging, rewarding and incredibly beautiful. You hike past bogs, over rivers and streams, up, down and around mountains ridges, near to gorgeous lakes, past waterfalls, and more. The ups and downs of the trails are challenging, the going is rough in places, and the paths can be muddy.

Generally speaking, the Central Circuit Trail is considered a little prettier than the Kilembe Route. It's also the easier of the two trek routes. The Kilembe Route, however, avoids the notorious Bigo Bog crossed on the Central Circuit Trail. Needless to say, both routes are amazing!

You can also do a three-day hike in the foothills of the mountains if you’d prefer something less taxing but still wish to experience the beauty and drama of the mountains over a few days.

Rwenzori Mountains hiking Uganda

Hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains should be on any self-respecting hiker's bucket list! | Image by Jørn Eriksson

High-altitude trekking

Note that both the Central Circuit Trail and the full Kilembe Route take you well above 4,000 m, which means they're classified as high-altitude treks. Not only do you need strong legs and good fitness to climb that high, but the thin air is very taxing and can lead to altitude sickness in some. It's a good idea to visit your GP before embarking on any high-altitude trek, especially if it's not something you've done before. The Kilembe Route, though longer and tougher, offers a slightly better acclimatisation profile than the Central Circuit Trail.

Trekking the green, mist-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains is like stepping into a wonderland. It's an incredible experience that will stay with you for a lifetime!

Every Rwenzori Mountain trekking group is accompanied by a mountain crew that consists of a trek guide, porters and a cook. These folks keep you safe, share their knowledge of the trail, landscape, vegetation and animals with you, and prepare your meals.

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The Rwenzori Mountains offer hikers spectacularly rewarding scenery | Image by Jørn Eriksson

Trekker accommodation

Trekkers in the Rwenzori Mountains National Park overnight in simple, wooden mountain huts. This is very helpful given the cold climate and the often muddy conditions of the park. Mattresses are provided, and pit latrines are the name of the game.

Mountaineers and non-technical trekkers stay in the same huts. This is because mountaineers follow the same route as trekkers, they just make summit attempts from certain of the huts. Elena Hut (4,563 m), for instance, is a base camp for summiting Mt Stanley.

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The heather tree is spectacular when in bloom | Image by Jean-Pol Grandmont

Best time to hike the Rwenzori Mountains

You can visit the Rwenzori Mountains any time of the year and have a fantastic experience. If you wish to go trekking, however, you might like to consider the drier seasons. The park's mountain trails can be muddy and slippery at the best of times. The drier and therefore optimal hiking months in the Rwenzoris are July and August and December to February.

Fortunately for those of us who don't like crowds, the Rwenzori Mountains are never very busy. You can't even really speak of a 'peak season'. So feel free to book a trek in one of the drier seasons without worrying about overly busy trails.

Keen to trek the Rwenzori Mountains? Let's chat!

 

 

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Mt Speke (4,890 m) is the second highest peak in the Rwenzori Mountains after Mt Stanley – it supports a single remaining glacier | Image by Albert Backer

What about you?

Have you visited the Rwenzori Mountains National Park? And did you hike there? What was your experience of it? And if you have any photos you’d like to share, we’d love to see them!

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