The name Amboseli comes from the Maasai word "empusel," meaning a salty, dusty place. And yet, there’s much more to Amboseli National Park, a relatively small reserve located in southern Kenya. It covers an area of approximately 150 square miles, including wide-open areas of savannah grassland, tangled acacia forests, and the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli. Above it all stands the park’s crowning glory, Mount Kilimanjaro, which is visible from across the Tanzanian border.
The mountain’s snow-capped peak creates a spectacular backdrop for your safari photographs. Its meltwater also feeds the park’s unique swamp system, which provides a reliable, year-round source of water in an area otherwise characterized by its low rainfall. Animals and birds flock to Amboseli to drink from the swamps, making it Kenya’s second-most popular national park for wildlife viewing. In particular, the park is renowned as one of the best places in Africa to see wild elephants.
Famous Elephants and Other Wildlife
Elephants are the main attraction for visitors to Amboseli. The planet’s largest terrestrial animals can be seen in herds that often number over 100 individuals, from wise old matriarchs to tiny calves still covered in coarse orange fuzz. Sparse vegetation makes the elephants easy to spot. In particular, keep an eye out for Amboseli’s iconic tuskers, giants whose tusks have grown to extraordinary lengths. The park is also home to the world-famous Amboseli Trust for Elephants, which has been studying the herds since 1972.
Including elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard, four of the Big Five can be seen in Amboseli. The reserve also has high numbers of antelopes and other ungulates, ranging from graceful impala and Thomson’s gazelles to blue wildebeest, Grant’s zebra, and the endangered Maasai giraffe. Rarer carnivores like the cheetah and spotted hyena can also be seen, although Amboseli is not as famous for its predator sightings as other Kenyan reserves (namely the Maasai Mara). Birders have the opportunity to see more than 400 different avian species, including 47 different types of raptors.
Top Amboseli National Park Activities
Game viewing is the number one activity in Amboseli, and there are several ways to do it. You can sign up for a guided game drive with your lodge or camp, or you can self-drive in your own vehicle. As with all Kenyan national parks, night drives are not permitted. However, if you visit one of the private concessions on the edge of the reserve, you can enjoy a variety of more unusual safari experiences, including night drives, walking safaris, horse and camel safaris, and even fly camping. Conservation lectures and ranger experiences at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants can be arranged in advance or as part of a planned itinerary.
Specialist birding safaris (either in a vehicle or on foot) are popular for those with interest in Amboseli’s birdlife. Top spots include the lesser flamingo, the lesser kestrel, the blue-cheeked bee-eater, and the endangered Malagasy pond heron. If you’re interested in the park’s human history, talk to your tour operator or lodge about arranging a cultural visit to one of the traditional Maasai villages on the park’s borders.
Where to Stay
Kenya Wildlife Service Accommodation
Amboseli National Park has accommodation options to suit every budget. On the more affordable end of the spectrum are the self-catering bandas operated by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Whether you choose Kilimanjaro Guest House, Simba Cottages, or Chui Cottages, you’ll benefit from a comfortable yet straightforward temporary home equipped with a kitchen, living room, and generator electricity. Public Amboseli Campsite is the best option for budget travelers. It’s located near the Amboseli National Park Headquarters and offers basic toilet and bathroom facilities.
Amboseli Private Lodges
For a more luxurious experience, consider staying in one of the park’s private lodges. Options include Ol Tukai Lodge and Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. The former has 80 chalets, all with en-suite bathrooms and private terraces. You can enjoy guided game drives in the morning or afternoon, spend time relaxing by the pool and eat dinner in the restaurant to the accompaniment of traditional Maasai singing and dancing. Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge boasts beautiful Kilimanjaro views. It has 92 twin, double and family rooms; a swimming pool, various safari activities; and a restaurant.
Lastly, private concessions outside the park offer the opportunity to enjoy a broader range of activities. Top picks include Tortilis Camp and Tawi Lodge, both eco-friendly lodges with just the right amount of rustic luxury.
Weather & When to Go
The park’s proximity to the equator means that there is very little change in annual temperature. It is typically hot, with readings of between 80 and 86 degrees F (27 to 30 degrees C). Temperatures can dip dramatically at night, though, so make sure to bring plenty of layers for the evening and early morning game drives. There are two rainy seasons: the long rains (March to May) and the short rains (November to December). Traditionally, the best time to travel in terms of wildlife viewing is during the long dry season (June to September). At this time, animals congregate around the park’s water sources and are easily visible.
However, the rainy season can also be rewarding. The landscapes are lusher, there is less dust, and you have a better chance of unobstructed Kilimanjaro views. The short rains are particularly satisfying for birders, as migrants from the northern hemisphere flock to the park at this time of year, and Lake Amboseli partially fills, attracting water birds. Accommodation is cheaper too. Rainy season drawbacks include muddy roads that may become impassable, an increase in mosquitos, and the fact that many of the larger game animals disperse, making them harder to spot.
The easiest way to reach the park is to fly into Amboseli Airstrip. Several airlines offer daily flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi, including Airkenya and Safarilink. The journey takes approximately 40 minutes. Some of the park’s lodges also have their own private airstrips. If you’re traveling by road from Nairobi, you have two options. You can take the A104 south to Namanga, then go east on the C103 until you reach Meshanani Gate (around 150 miles). Or you can take the A109 southeast to Emali, before heading south on the C102 to Iremito Gate (134 miles).
From Mombasa, take the A109 west to Voi, then carry on on the A23 to the Kimana Gate for a total distance of 240 miles. Several tour operators offer cross-border itineraries that will take you to Amboseli as part of a northern Tanzania and southern Kenya circuit.
Rates & Other Practical Information
The Kenya Wildlife Service charges a daily conservation fee of $60 per adult and $35 per child for all foreign visitors to Amboseli. Discounted fees are available for Kenyan citizens and residents. The park is open every day, including public holidays, from 6 a.m to 7 p.m. Before visiting Amboseli, talk to your doctor about anti-malaria pills and any other vaccinations you may need for safe travel to Kenya.