Volcanoes National Park

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Volcanoes National Park

The Volcanoes National Park (also known by its French name Parc National des Volcans) is part of the Virunga Mountains, a large volcanic massif of more than 8,000 square kilometers, which covers both Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The Park is famed for being a habitat for the endangered mountain gorillas.  The area includes six active and three extinct volcanoes. This chain of steep mountain standing varies in altitude from 2400-4500 meters.

It is at Volcanoes NP that the American primatologist Dian Fossey late 60s began her pioneering work in the preservation of mountain gorillas. When Dian Fossey began her research in 1967, it was feared that the mountain gorilla would become extinct by the end of the 20th century. Dian Fossey’s work after her murder continued in 1985 and is next to the gorilla tracking tourism is essential to the survival of this endangered species and its critical ecological habitat.

Volcanoes National Park also has a historic connection with gorilla conservation. It was the base for the ground-breaking work of primatologist Dian Fossey which started in the late 1960s and is evocatively portrayed in the book and film Gorillas in the Mist.

Top things to do in Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla Trekking

After a pre-tracking briefing by your guide about the appropriate gorilla safety precautions, you drive to the trailhead for the start of a thrilling adventure – participants can expect to walk long distances in steep and sometimes muddy conditions with rain overhead, which can be tough and require a degree of fitness, however, the thrill of coming face to face with a giant Mountain Gorilla silverback far more than makes up for the effort in their quest. Granted the time taken can be quite unpredictable taking anything from 2 to 8 hrs or longer.

You will have a packed lunch from the lodge for this hike. Upon sighting the gorillas, you spend the allowed one hour with them as they go about their daily life; feeding, moving, playing, raising their young, and sometimes wrestling by the juveniles – it is a totally unique and unforgettable experience!

Guests who are 45 or older are allocated a group that stays close to the park, while younger, guests are assigned to groups that take the more challenging hikes to higher elevations.

Gorilla Groups in Volcanoes National Park

Amahoro gorilla group – Amahoro means “peaceful” and is led by the calm Ubumwe. The group is one of the challenging hikes and the group has 18 members and 2 silverbacks.

Hirwa gorilla group emerged from different existing gorilla families including Group 13, Susa, and Sabyinyo. Munyinya the silverback after leaving Susa with 2 females, got others along the way and eventually formed a group. It has 16 members and 1 silverback and is located around Mount Sabyinyo.

The Sabyinyo gorilla group is led by Guhonda, named after one of the volcanoes – Mt Sabyinyo. There are 13 members and 2 silverbacks. This group is closest to the park headquarters, Mt Sabyinyo, and also Mt. Gahinga.

Kwitonda gorilla group is led by silverback Kwitonda and the name is translated as “humble one”. This gorilla group migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo and settled ‘permanently’ in Rwanda. It is moderately difficult to trek because it ranges far in the upper slopes of Mt Muhabura and comprises 18 members with 2 silverbacks.

Group 13 / Agashya gorilla group had only 13 members during habituation hence its name. Currently, there are 27 members and is led by Silverback Agashya which explains the name change.

The Umubano gorilla group is led by silverback Charles who broke off from the Amahoro gorilla group with some females to form Umubano. The name Umubano is translated as ‘living together’ and the group has 13 members and 1 silverback.

Ugyenda gorilla group was named after its unique behavior of roaming from place to place around the Karisimbi area, come ready to hike Mount Bisoke as you follow this gorilla group. It has 11 members and 2 silverbacks.

Susa (A) gorilla group is the largest gorilla group in the park with 33 members and 2 silverbacks.  This group was the first group to be studied by Dian Fossey.  The group was named after River Susa which runs through the area where the gorilla group normally calls home. The group is known for having twins named Byishimo and Impano. This family ranges in the high mountains making it difficult to trek.

Karisimbi / Susa – B gorilla group split from the original Susa (A) group and has 16 members and 2 silverbacks. This group is one of the hardest to trek, residing on the upper slopes of Mt Karisimbi. It is best for seasoned hikers who enjoy the hiking experience as much as sighting the gorillas. However since 2016 however, the Karisimbi group has not been seen, trackers suspect that it crossed into DRC where it established its new home range.

Titus gorilla group was named after silverback Titus which was born during the days of Dian Fossey’s research at Karisoke.

The Bwenge gorilla group was formed by silverback Bwenge after breaking away with females from other groups. Bwenge is translated as ‘Wisdom’. The group occupies mainly the slopes between Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains. It has 10 members with 1 silverback and is frequently close to Mount Bisoke.

Golden Monkey Trek

The Golden Monkey Trek begins after breakfast, at 7:30 a.m. Those who need assistance to carry photography and other equipment can hire them at the base point of the trek. These monkeys live in bamboo forests at the higher elevations of the Virunga Mountains, as well as at the foot of Sabyinyo Mountain. Guests are divided into groups of 8 each and an expert guide is assigned to each group. As you hike along the trail, enjoy the beauty of the flora and spot some of the stunning 178 bird species. There are 2 troops for visitor viewing and they comprise between 80 to 100 members.  Your guide will point them out in the trees and you can watch as they swing above, foraging for food. On rare occasions, you may even spot these fascinating creatures grooming one another on the forest floor. You will spend an hour in their company before heading back to the park headquarters.

Iby’lwacu Cultural Village Tour

Iby’lwacu Village is located in Kinigi, close to Volcanoes National Park. Visitors will get an opportunity to gain a fascinating glimpse into an age-old culture and their traditional way of life.

You will get to participate in the village community walk, where you will be introduced to their traditional way of life, including songs and dances accompanied by lively drumming.

You can listen to “gorilla songs” sung by the well-known performer Ngayabatema (better known as Kayuku), or perhaps watch the unique dance form presented by the Intore dancers and accompanied by traditional instruments. Take a lesson from a traditional healer on how to create

medicine from local plants/ herbs, grasses, and shrubs. Learn how to create Batwa pottery and other local handicrafts. Don’t miss a visit to the banana-beer brewery, and perhaps enjoy one of these local brews with a lunch or dinner of traditional Rwandan food. Engage in conversation and swap stories with local folk, including hunting lore from some who were once poachers. In the evening, listen to stories around the outdoor fireplace

Dian Fossey Grave Hike.

The hike aims to give tourists a learning experience about the works of the famous American primatologist and conservationist, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to research about mountain gorillas. She set up a research camp in the valley between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke hence the name ‘Karisoke’. Her work to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat would lead her into conflict with negative forces including poachers and she was eventually killed. She was buried among the gorillas near her Karisoke Research Center. Visiting Fossey’s grave is a poignant experience, as it adjoins the burial spots of 20 gorillas.

The trip there begins at the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park, with a 30-minute drive to the starting point of the trail.  You will need to hike for an hour to 90 minutes to reach the campsite at Karisoke at the base of Mount Bisoke. At 2967m the Dian Fossey tomb trail will break off from the Mount Bisoke hiking trail. You will hike towards Mount Karisimbi, going through a beautiful stretch of Hygenia Hypericum forested zone, at an altitude range of 2900 – 3000m.

Enjoy the incredible mountain scenery of the Virungas from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. En route, you will observe some bird species/Albertine Rift Endemics.   At the campsite, all that you can find is the graveyard of 20 gorillas and her grave nearby.

Musanze Caves Tour

The Musanze Caves are 2km long and are located at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park formed by volcanic activity along the Albertine Rift Valley. The are 4 sections of the cave floors of the caverns are paved, while the trails have stairways and walkways in place to facilitate easy movement. As you wander through the cave, you can view intricate rock formations lit by pockets of soft sunlight, which filters through gaps in the ceiling. You might also chance to encounter some of the Rwandan bat species that have taken up residence there. It takes about 2 hours to explore the caves and you will be given a hard hat and solar torch to help you on your way.

Mount Karisimbi Hike

Created by violent eruptions in the Albertine Rift region, Mount Karisimbi is one of the eight volcanic peaks in the area. The highest mountain in the Virunga Range, it towers at a height of 4507 meters above sea level. It is the 11th-highest mountain in Africa and straddles the border between southwestern Rwanda and the northeastern expanses of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This two-day hike is a real adventure – trekking through tropical forests, camping on the slopes of the volcano, and climbing to the summit for sunrise.

On day 1, you will approach the mountain from the east on the Mount Bisoke side. After hiking for about 6 hours, you may also visit Dian Fossey Tomb along the way. You will reach the first base camp, a basic mountain camp with small, backpacking-style tents where you will spend the night. This camp is located at a height of 3700 meters and the trek can be slippery on higher slopes but you can request that a porter accompany you to help you carry the equipment you’ve brought along.

Hikers will reach the summit of the mountain on day 2. Along the way, you can spot some of the 178 species of birds the reserve is famous for (read more on Rwanda birdwatching). As you ascend the mountain, you will notice that the landscape changes; the lower slopes have bamboo forests, while the higher slopes have Hagania Hypericum forests, giant lobelia, and Senecio. At the top of the mountain, take in breathtaking panoramas, with Nyiragongo to the west, Bisoke to the east, and Mikeno to the north.

Mount Bisoke Hiking

Mount Bisoke stands at 3711 Straddling the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. the trek is well worth it thanks to the superb views of Lake Ngezi in the crater atop the volcanic peak. You will begin your travel at the park’s headquarters and pass through Bisate Village, with its picturesque potato farms. This is a full-day excursion with an ascent that takes around three hours, and two hours for the descent.  You have the option of renting trekking clothing including raincoats, gumboots, and gloves, which are important for navigating this potentially muddy terrain. Those seeking assistance can request for one to help carry any equipment along the way.

All hikers assemble at Kinigi after breakfast, at 7 a.m. You will be assigned an expert guide who will explain what to expect on the trails. Your trek should take about 6 to 7 hours to complete if you are not used to scaling mountains, experienced hikers may complete the trek in a total time of 4 or 5 hours. As you ascend the mist-shrouded slopes, you will enjoy stunning vistas of the valley spread below you. Look out for tiny reptiles scurrying in the dense undergrowth, as well as some of the 178 bird species that Parc National des Volcans is famous for. The view of the lake Ngezi from the top is immensely beautiful, and picturesque before it is time to descend.

Where to stay at Volcanoes National Park

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

The lodge is only a few minutes away from the entrance to Parc National de Volcans and has a total of eight en-suite cottages, made up of standard, suite, and family cottages. The main lodge building homes a lounge area, a dining room, a library, a games room, a responsible travel and community awareness room, a shop, and a reception. The lounge area is particularly cozy, with three large roaring fireplaces to keep guests warm on chilly evenings. Rooms are Rwandese terracotta tile roofing. They are all very spacious, featuring a sitting area, a fireplace, and a private sheltered veranda.

Bisate Lodge

There are six forest villas at Bisate that are inspired by the architecture of the ancient royal palace of the Rwanda monarchy.  The suites at Bisate are dome-shaped tucked into the lush forest setting with spacious verandas opening out onto magnificent views of the surrounding peaks. The villas consist of a generous yet intimate combination of bedrooms, reception space, and bathroom, all warmed by a central fireplace and with breathtaking views out across your private deck towards Mount Bisoke.

Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel

The lodge comprises 8 Deluxe bedrooms (double/twin), a Family Suite, the Volcano Manor, a restaurant, a pool, and a beautiful. Typically, Rwandese in style, the stone cottages each have an en-suite bathroom and outdoor seating with views out onto the surrounding volcanoes mountain range. Other amenities include a bar, dining room, lounge area, massage hut, sauna, and steam room for those looking to completely relax.

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge

The lodge is located on the foothills of Mount Sabinyo, a volcanic mountain that makes up the Virunga ranges, and is about 15 minutes from the main entrance to Rwanda’s Park National des Volcans. There are 30 individual chalets made from brick and tile fitted with an en-suite bathroom and a comfortable bed. All cottages come with a living area with a fireplace and a private veranda. The main lodge area has a restaurant serving home-cooked food and a bar.

Virunga Lodge

The lodge has 10 stand-alone bandas that are spread out across the ridge. The main lodge, which homes a lounge area, a dining room, and the Dian Fossey map room. Virunga homes ten individual ‘bandas’ which stylishly reflect the local building style of Rwanda (stone-built with tile roofing). The lodge has been built to high environmentally-friendly standards; rainwater is collected and electricity is provided by solar power. The en-suite bandas, which are each named after the lakes in the surrounding area, each have a roaring fireplace and a private terrace – a platform for panoramic views across the mountains and twin lakes.

How to get to Volcanoes National Park

The drive from Kigali to the park is approximately 2.5 – 3 hours.   There are also scheduled daily helicopter flights from Kigali International Airport to Volcanoes in Musanze.  The flight only takes 30 minutes but it gives tourists the most unique and scenic transfer experience.

The best season to visit Volcanoes Park

During the dry months of June through September where the maximum temperatures hover between 25C and 27C (77F to 81F) degrees during the day and fall to between 13.5C and 15C (56F to 59F) at night.  The shorter dry season runs from the middle of December – February and June and September are renowned for being the best time to go to Rwanda. There is often light cloud cover during this time of year and it makes for a comfortable climate for gorilla trekking as the hiking trails are usually not slippery.  A highlight in June in Rwanda is the annual Kwita Izina Ceremony. This is when all the baby gorillas born over the previous twelve months are named. Another lookout is the Rwanda Film Festival, showcasing local filmmakers and a selection of international favorites.

The months of March–May and October -November are wet/rainy periods.  During the rains, the climate at the higher elevations is cooler and the gorillas prefer to remain on the lower slopes; which makes it easy to track and spot them and the vegetation is also lush and beautiful.

In addition, food is plenty during the wet season and the gorillas don’t have to wander too far to find it. They favor tender bamboo shoots, stinging nettles, wild fruits, wild celery, and other vegetation.  However, the hiking trails are usually very slippery and it becomes challenging to traverse due to wetness.

For avid birdwatchers, May falls into the breeding season and the skies are filled with colorful, bird species.

Best Time to Visit

Visiting Rwanda for gorilla tracking can be done all year round. The best time to travel to Rwanda is during the drier seasons, periods between December to early March and June to September. December to March is a long dry season for Rwanda, with temperatures going up to 29 degrees Celsius for some days while the months of March – Mid May, July to September, on the other hand, are regarded as the rainy in the country

Best time to go: December to February and June to July (Dry seasons)
High Season: June to September (More people visit Uganda since it is the peak time for gorilla tracking)
Low Season: March, April, May, October and November (A number of camps and lodges close)
Best Weather: Mid-December to February (Less rainfall)
Worst Weather: Mid-March to May and mid-August to November (High rainfall, roads can become impassable)

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