Endangered golden monkeys foraging on ground in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda wildlife

Why you should do a golden monkey trek before your mountain gorilla trek

Feb 2, 2024
Reading time: 7 minutes

Did you know there are no primates living in the wild in North America? Nor in Europe, unless you count Gibraltar? So for many, a trip to Africa to see mountain gorillas is the perfect moment to see some other rare primates too! Enter the golden monkey.

Golden monkeys live alongside mountain gorillas

If you're heading all the way to Rwanda or Uganda to go on a mountain gorilla trek, then we highly recommend that you also tack a golden monkey trek onto your itinerary.

Golden monkey in Mgahinga National Park. Monkeys in rainforest. African safari.

The eyes of the golden monkey live in the shadow cast by their protruding brow

Golden monkeys live in the same forest ecosystem as mountain gorillas. Specifically, they live in the montane rainforests that cover the slopes of the Virunga mountains, a range of volcanic peaks that are shared by the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda.

So if you're planning to go mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda or in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, then you're already in the exact place you need to be for a golden monkey trek!

Scenic view of Mount Gahinga and Mount Sabyinyo seen from Mount Muhabura in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

Aerial view showing the forested slopes of three of the eight Virunga volcanoes

If you'd like to know more about golden monkeys and what a golden monkey trek involves, please read Do a beautiful forest hike to see golden monkeys.

Golden monkeys are endangered

While everyone knows that mountain gorillas are endangered, not everyone knows that golden monkeys are also endangered – largely because they also don't know that these monkeys exist, so there's that.

Endangered golden monkey sitting in eucalyptus tree in Virunga forest of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

A golden monkey sitting in a eucalyptus tree in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

In fact, the remaining habitat of golden monkeys is even smaller than that of mountain gorillas; the former live only in the forests of the Virungas, whereas mountain gorillas also live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (which is a three-hour drive north of the Virungas).

We think it's safe to assume that your interest in one endangered primate species will translate into interest in another endangered primate species?

Silverback mountain gorilla eating in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

A silverback mountain gorilla in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda

Similarly to mountain gorilla trekking, golden monkey trekking is an organised affair that sees you purchase one of a limited number of daily permits. You then visit a habituated troop in the presence of a trained guide.

Note that you're only allowed to spend an hour with the troop, and your guide is there to ensure you don't disrupt the troop's rhythms and behaviours too much.

A hiker wearing all weather clothes and a backpack against a Mountain background at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

A hiker in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park sporting appropriate trekking clothing

Both Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda rely on trekkers' permit fees to help with their research and conservation efforts. So while in some ways it would be ideal for humans to leave all primates alone, know that your trek is helping to fund important work that's in the best interests of the parks' primates.

A golden monkey trek helps you to acclimatise

The lowest elevation within Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Volcanoes National Park is around 2,200 m and 2,400 m above sea level respectively.

Then, while you don't climb all the way up any of the Virunga peaks on either a golden monkey or mountain gorilla trek – far from it – you do climb pretty high. You could climb as high as 3,000 m for instance. And it's around 3,000 m that most people start to feel the unpleasant side effects of high altitude, especially if they've flown in from around sea level.

Altitude sickness tends to strike from around 3,000 m above sea level, though for some it can appear at a lower altitude, especially if you've flown in from sea level.

Sign post for end of forest zone in Mgahinga National Park, Uganda

A sign in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Golden monkeys tend to inhabit the lower portion of the Virunga forests. Or, to be more precise, the larger, habituated troops that can be visited are usually lower down on the mountain slopes.

By contrast, the mountain gorilla troops that can be visited are often found chilling higher up in the forests. This means a golden monkey trek tends be flatter, shorter and thus overall easier than a mountain gorilla trek.

Tourist filming mountain gorilla in bamboo forest of Volcanoes National Park, Virunga, Rwanda

You often must climb higher up the mountain to find the gorillas

You don't want to exert yourself too hard when you're busy adjusting to high altitude, as this just slows down the acclimatisation (acclimation) process.

So it's a good idea, if viable, to spend a day or two in the Virungas becoming accustomed to the altitude before heading off on a gorilla trek. And clearly we're thinking that one of those 'rest' days could be dedicated to a golden monkey trek!

Close up of resting mountain gorilla seen through foliage in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

It's good to remember that your view of the gorillas could include some foliage

By doing a golden monkey trek first, you're helping your body acclimatise to the high altitude before asking it to likely go even higher on a gorilla trek.

One hike in the Virungas simply isn't enough!

Another great reason to do a golden monkey trek in addition to a mountain gorilla trek is that you get to spend more time in this beautiful environment, exploring a different section of the forest!

Scenic view of a swamp at Mount Gahinga in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

View of a swamp from the forest covering Mt Gahinga in Uganda

The Virunga mountains consist of eight major mountains, the highest of which is Mt Sabyinyo (3,669 m). The bottom of the mountains are covered in pretty farmland, and you skirt these at the start of any trek to reach the trailheads leading into the forest zone.

At some point on the trail you'll also climb over a buffalo wall, which is used to keep the buffaloes away from farmers' crops. It's all just culturally and scenically a very rewarding experience.

Endangered golden monkey sitting on buffalo wall in Virunga forest of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

A golden monkey sitting on a buffalo wall in Volcanoes National Park

Remember too that you won't only see mountain gorillas or golden monkeys on your treks – the Virunga mountains are home to many other exciting animal species, as well as many incredible birds.

In fact, both Rwanda and Uganda are wildlife meccas. Uganda, for instance, has well over a thousand bird species! (Russia, for comparison's sake, has just over 800 bird species, and we don't need to tell you how vastly bigger Russia is.)

Common stone chat, Virunga, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

A common stone chat spotted in Volcanoes National Park

The vegetation is also very beautiful.

As mentioned, farmland covers the lower slopes of the volcanoes. But above that is dense montane rainforest, which is very tangled and lush and a worthy destination even if there wasn't a single animal to be found.

Furthermore, you often have incredible views over the landscape below when there are breaks in the canopy.

Scenic view of Kisoro Town seen from Mount Muhabura in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

Town of Kisoro as seen from Uganda's Mt Muhabura forested band

Golden monkey trekking is relatively cheap

Finally, a piece of good news is that golden monkey trekking doesn't break the bank in the same way as a mountain gorilla trek.

Whether you go on a golden monkey trek in Uganda or Rwanda, the permit is just US$100 for a foreign adult.

An infant mountain gorilla seen in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda

An infant mountain gorilla seen in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

A gorilla trekking permit, by contrast, is $800 in Uganda as of July 2024 and $1,500 in Rwanda. So if you're able to fork out for a mountain gorilla trek, you might not feel too badly about tagging on another hundred bucks to enjoy another rare animal encounter.

Go for broke and trek to see chimps as well?

So we think we've made a pretty good case for why you should book a golden monkey trek before your mountain gorilla trek! But if you're down for that, you might also like to check out All about chimpanzee trekking in Uganda. Three forest primate hikes, anyone?

East Africa is just such a great destination for extraordinary primate encounters, so we'd be remiss in not mentioning the chimps as well!

Chimpanzee on the branch of the tree in natural habitat, Rwanda

Chimps spend most of their time up in trees

Note that you can also go chimp trekking in Rwanda. And we're here to help you plan this incredible adventure if you'd like, whether you'd like to visit Uganda, Rwanda, or both. Just drop us a line, or check out our exciting Rwanda wildlife itineraries or Uganda wildlife itineraries.

East Africa offers three rare and incredible animal encounters that take place on beautiful forest hikes: mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and golden monkeys.