The natural beauty of the National Parks in Uganda has hardly escaped notice.
In 1909, Winston Churchill called it “the Pearl of Africa,” a sentiment echoed today whenever travelers ooh and ahh over the country’s diversity of people, wildlife and ecosystems.
Uganda occupies a special geographical position, spanning the land where western and eastern Africa come together.
Its highland rainforests are home to the famous Mountain Gorillas and teeming with beautiful birds, its tropical rainforests populated with chimpanzees, and its savannas populated by big mammals.
This also explains the wide range of habitats, including woodlands, wetlands, moorlands, mountains, rivers and lakes (approximately 20% of the country is covered by water).
No wonder Lonely Planet ranked Uganda #1 on its Best in Travel list in 2012, which was the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence.
But in a country of superlatives– the world’s largest free-standing volcano and second-largest freshwater lake, African’s highest mountain range, the headwaters of the world’s longest river– how do you choose which things to do in Uganda?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by Uganda’s national parks, its status as one of Africa’s most popular birding destinations (with around 1,050 species– 50% of those on the continent and 11% in the world), and its 18 primate species.
To help narrow down your choices, here’s a look at the best 10 Uganda National Parks to visit, many of which offer outdoor activities such as fishing, mountaineering, rafting, cultural tourism, and more.
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Located in the southwest about 400 km from Kampala, Queen Elizabeth National Park is the second-largest and most popular national park in Uganda.
Its 1,978 square kilometers were first gazetted in 1952 as Kazinga National Park, but its name was changed two years later in honor of a visit by the British monarch.
The park’s popularity is principally due to its breathtaking biodiversity. Spread across the Albertine Rift Valley, it includes savanna, acacia woodlands, tropical forests, fertile wetlands and lakes within its borders.
Queen Elizabeth Park provides safe haven to over 600 bird species (it’s recognized by Birding International as an International Birding Area) and 95 mammals, including African elephants, hippos, leopards, and 10 species of primates.
Two of the park’s unique wildlife experiences are chimpanzee tracking in the Kyambura Gorge and sighting the unusual tree-climbing lions, which perch in the giant fig and acacia trees of the Ishasha sector.
Other highlights include a 2-hour boat ride along the Kazinga Channel; guided walks through the dark Maramagambo Forest; and cultural encounters with local communities, like the salt workers at the Lake Katwe evaporation pans.
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The sprawling 3,840 square kilometers of Murchison Falls National Park, which is found 300+ kilometers northwest of Kampala, make it Uganda’s largest protected natural area.
It’s also the oldest, originally established in 1952.
Famous as the location of Murchison Falls– the thunderous cataract where the Nile River squeezes through a six-meter gap and then plunges 43 meters– this national park in Uganda is also a magnet for birders and animal lovers.
The 450 species of African birds recorded here include the rare Shoebill Sork and many endemics, while the 76 mammals include four of the Big Five animals (all but the rhinoceros, which live in protected isolation at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary).
Although game drives are a customary means of scouting for wildlife here, a special game-watching small ship cruise on the Nile is a relaxing way to take in the park’s changing landscape.
The views of the water’s edge and up to the waterfalls are not to be forgotten, as is the hike from the boat landing to the falls, which are visible from below and above.
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Although small– just 321 square kilometers– Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is of crucial importance as home to the world’s largest population of critically endangered Mountain Gorillas.
This Ugandan national park contains about 1/3 of the 1,060+ Mountain Gorillas alive today, with the remainder in the Virunga conservation area shared by Rwanda and Congo.
Preserved on the edge of the Rift Valley in southwest Uganda, Bwindi was established in 1991 as part of the conservation effort to save the mountain gorillas.
Three years later, this island of remnant forest– one of Africa’s richest and oldest (dating back about 25,000 years)– was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nature.
Beyond the gorillas, Bwindi is one of the richest ecosystems in Africa, with 120 species of mammals, 350 species of birds, 200 tree species, 310 butterfly species, 88 moth species, 51 reptile species and 27 amphibians.
The indigenous Batwa people were exiled from their historic lands when the park was created.
They now reside in an adjacent buffer zone, from which they lead tours that teach visitors about their age-old hunting, hut-building, honey-harvesting, agricultural and trapping practices, as well as sharing traditional music and dance.
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Two things stand out most about Kibale National Park– its world-famous endangered chimpanzees and the diversity of its habitats.
A medium-size park (795 square kilometers) contiguous with Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale is a rare expanse containing both lowland and montane forests, including the last large tract of pre-montane forest in eastern Africa.
Altogether, more than 350 tree species have been registered in the park’s lush and variable woodlands.
Kibale is especially popular, with visitors seeking out its habituated chimpanzees, as well as 12 other primate species (which is a particularly high diversity and concentration).
There are two ways to take in the Uganda national park’s 1,500 chimps: a one-hour visit as part of a chimp-tracking trek in the forest, or the all-day Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (or CHEX).
On the latter tour, visitors spend a day with a Uganda Wildlife Authority guide to learn how chimpanzees are habituated, as well as discover other forest inhabitants.
In addition to the chimps, more than 50 other terrestrial mammals and 350-plus species of birds take advantage of their freedom of movement along the important 180km wildlife corridor, of which the park is a part.
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Like Bwindi, Rwenzori Mountains National Park was gazetted in 1991 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site three years later, in light of its mountain flora biodiversity (the greatest in Africa).
Its 996 square kilometers in western Uganda are flush against the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and serve as a stunning backdrop to Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Dominated by its famous “Mountains of the Moon” (the source of the Nile River), this national park in Uganda is a world-class destination for hiking and mountaineering.
Many active travelers undertake the 6- to 8-day hike to Mt Stanley’s 5,109-meter Margherita Peak (the third tallest mountain in all of Africa).
The journey moves through ecosystems that include rainforests, alpine meadows, and glacier-carved and lake-filled valleys. These abound with rare vegetation, more than 70 mammal species and 217 bird species.
Less ambitious visitors will find the discovery of Bakonzo culture through village walks to be just as entrancing.
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The semi-arid valleys and savanna of Uganda’s far north is the setting of Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda’s most isolated national park and home to some of Africa’s most stunning wilderness.
The park’s 1,442 square kilometers are divided across two river valleys, the Kidepo and the Narus.
In dry season the water recedes to seasonal oases– wetlands and remnant pools– near Apoka, in the Narus Valley.
This makes Kidepo perfect for watching the 475 species of birds and 77 mammal species that inhabit the park, including Ostriches and Cheetahs, via jeep safaris on dirt roads that crisscross its southern and western reaches.
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Covering just 370 square kilometers of wetlands and woodlands, Lake Mburo National Park is a short distance off the main highway about 235 km west of Kampala.
Once a controlled hunting area and then a game reserve, it became Uganda’s smallest savanna national park in 1983.
It is now the protected home of 350 bird species and 69 animal species, including Zebras, Buffalo, Leopards and Hippos. It is also the only park in Uganda with Impalas.
Lake Mburo, around which the national park is wrapped, is part of a 14-lake, 50 km-long wetland system that was declared a Ramsar Wetland in 2006.
The wetland system accounts for only about a fifth of the park area, the rest of which is spread over savanna and woodlands.
Some of the most common activities are birding on the lake (one of the best birding spots in Uganda) and in the nearby Rubanga forest.
There are also game drives, guided nature walks, and cultural experiences with local Banyankore community groups.
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For a taste of Central Africa without leaving Uganda, there’s Semuliki National Park, the country’s newest park, which was confirmed in 1993.
Semuliki sits in a wide, flat valley to the west of the Rwenzori Mountains, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Geologically, this is the eastern edge of the Congo Basin’s Ituri Forest, which is notable for its biodiversity.
The park is home to 441 bird species and 53 types of mammals and is one of the few African forests to have survived the last Ice Age. There are also 4 ethnic groups that live nearby, including the Batwa (formerly known as pygmies).
Semuliki’s 220 square kilometers include a true lowland tropical forest (the only one in East Africa) and savanna grassland, much of it prone to flooding during the wet season.
Visitors can take this in during birdwatching and game-viewing drives, and while hiking the 13km Kirumia Trail.
They’ll also want to check out the Sempaya Hot Springs (which run so hot, they can hard boil an egg in 10 minutes) and the Mumbuga spring geyser.
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At just 33.7 square km, Mgahinga is Uganda’s smallest national park, pushed up against the international border in the far southwest.
While it may be limited in size, it’s part of the much larger (and extremely important) Virunga conservation area, which spreads for thousands of square kilometers across protected areas in Uganda, the DRC, and Rwanda.
This high-elevation park was established primarily to protect freedom of movement by the area’s endangered, forest-dwelling Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys.
It’s also part of the original territory of the indigenous Batwa people.
The park’s dramatic scenery includes the cones of three extinct volcanoes, a dramatic backdrop of the border-hugging Virunga Range, which is known for its rich biodiversity.
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The dominant feature of Mount Elgon National Park is Mount Elgon itself, the massive, eroded remains of an extinct shield volcano that was once Africa’s tallest mountain.
At 4,321 meters, it is now the eighth tallest mountain in Africa, with a base that is still the largest in the world.
This is also the largest and oldest solitary volcanic mountain in East Africa, measuring 80 km in diameter, with a caldera of more than 40 square kilometers.
Located in eastern Uganda on the border with Kenya, Mount Elgon National Park’s 1,279 square kilometers fall across both countries, though most (1,121 square kilometers) are in Uganda.
It is home to a wide variety of climates (influenced by elevation), mammals both big and small, and 300+ bird species.
Visitors to Mount Elgon Park can explore waterfalls, gorges, hot springs within the caldera, explorable caves (which are known for animals stepping in to lick salt from the cave walls) and, especially, the mountain peaks.
Activities here include vehicle tours, self-guided walking trails, animal and bird watching, and more. The 2-hour trail to the top of Wagagai Peak is rarely the ultimate goal, as many people prefer to explore the vast caldera. –by Ethan Gelber; story provided courtesy of Green Travel Media, featured image of Mountain Gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park Uganda via Canva
BIO: As a writer, Ethan Gelber has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. He also started The Travel Word blog, one of the most respected sites in the responsible travel sphere.