For most people, the thought of Kenya’s capital city conjures up images of chaotic, crowded streets filled with pedestrians from all walks of life and bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, although certain areas of the city can be like this, Nairobi is also ideally located for experiencing many of the natural wonders Kenya has to offer. Within a few hours’ drive lie several national parks, some of them teeming with rare wildlife. The Central Highlands are famous for their tea and coffee plantations, while walkers are spoiled for choice in terms of forest trails and foothill hikes. Use our guide to the top day trips from Nairobi to plan your escape from the city.
Those wishing for close encounters with Kenya’s iconic wildlife needn’t travel far. Nairobi National Park is located just seven miles from the city center, giving visitors the surreal experience of seeing giraffes, lions, buffalo, and rhino against a backdrop of distant skyscrapers. There are many ways to explore. Embark on a self-drive safari in your rental car, book a guided game drive, or venture out on foot on the park’s safe walking trails. Don’t miss the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphans’ Project, which rehabilitates baby elephants and rhinos for eventual release back into the wild.
Getting There: If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can use public transport to get to the park. Catch the Kenya Wildlife Service shuttle bus from Development House on weekends and public holidays (between 10 a.m. and midday), or hop on matatu 125 or 126 from Nairobi Railway Station.
Travel Tip: The Orphans’ Project welcomes visitors for one hour a day only, from 11 a.m. to midday.
Karura Forest: Woodland Scenery and Outdoor Adventure Activities
Located 5 miles north of the Central Business District (CBD), Karura Forest lets you immerse yourself in unspoiled nature without leaving the city limits. Spanning a large area of around 2,500 acres, this pristine woodland is crisscrossed with trails for hiking, jogging, horse riding, and mountain biking. Discover secret streams and majestic waterfalls, shy forest birds, Skyes’ monkeys, and diminutive duiker antelope. For the best experience, sign up for a Karura Forest Eco-Tour. Led by professional local guides, themed tours range from geology and ecology to bird watching and primate tracking.
Getting There: Karura Forest has five gates. The main entry is on Limuru Road and can be accessed by private car, taxi (fares cost approximately 900 Kenyan shillings from the city center), or matatu. For the latter option, take numbers 11B, 106, 107, or 116 and get off at the Belgian Embassy.
Travel Tip: If you’d like to explore by bicycle there are two depots within the forest that rent out multi-speed trail bikes for the day.
Central Highlands: Cool Breezes and Captivating Tours
The spectacularly beautiful, breeze-cooled Central Highlands stretch northwards from Nairobi, providing endless opportunities for a scenic day trip away from the city hubbub. The topography here is ideal for growing tea and coffee, and much can be learned about these industries from a visit to a local plantation. We recommend Fairview Estate for coffee fanatics and Kiambethu Tea Farm for tea lovers. The first farm offers two-hour walking tours that depart at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. while Kiambethu’s tours take place daily at 11 a.m. Both tours include the chance to taste the estates’ world-class products.
Getting There: To reach the Central Highlands, take the A2 out of the city center and then turn north on to Kiambu Road. If you don’t have your own vehicle, local operators offer half and full-day tours from Nairobi to both estates.
Travel Tip: Advance booking is essential for tours at Fairview Estate and Kiambethu Tea Farm.
Lake Naivasha: Cruises and Wildlife Experiences on a Rift Valley Lake
Serene Lake Naivasha is situated a 2.5-hour drive from downtown Nairobi, at the highest elevation of the Kenyan Rift Valley. Its shimmering waters cover an expanse of 54 square miles with another 25 square miles of surrounding swamp. Together, these ecosystems provide the ideal conditions for a wide variety of aquatic flora and fauna. Take a boat cruise to Crescent Island Game Park, home of giraffes, zebra, and antelope, keeping an eye out for rafts of hippo en route. Or, visit Elsamere, a lakeshore lodge and conservation center and the former home of famed naturalists Joy and George Adamson.
Getting There: Naivasha is accessed via the B3/Narok Road from Nairobi. It is possible to travel by matatu from the capital, but most visitors find it easier and more comfortable to join a guided day tour.
Travel Tip: Be sure to pack your binoculars, since Lake Naivasha is a birding hotspot with more than 400 recorded species.
Hells Gate National Park: Hot Springs and Outlandish Rock Formations
Hells Gate National Park is located just south of Lake Naivasha, making it a natural addition to a Naivasha day trip. Named for its intense geothermal activity, the park protects an otherworldly landscape of sheer cliffs and plunging gorges, isolated rock towers, and explosive geysers. Head out on a game drive to look for specialist mountain antelope like the klipspringer and the Chandler’s mountain reedbuck, or scan the skies for raptors that range from vultures to Verreaux’s eagles. Other activities include hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and relaxing at the park’s natural spa.
Getting There: The park is easily accessible via the tarmac B3 road from Nairobi, which turns off near Naivasha Town onto the South Lake Road. Look out for the Olkaria Route heading south to the park gate.
Travel Tip: If you decide to spend the night at the national park, be aware that camping is the only option and all three campsites require you to bring your own gear.
Mount Longonot National Park: A Challenging Hike Up an Extinct Volcano
Those looking for physical challenge will find it at Mount Longonot National Park, whose namesake feature is an extinct volcano rising dramatically from the floor of the Great Rift Valley. The volcano’s conical slopes are still striated with canyons formed by ancient lava flows; although its crater is now filled with dense forest instead of molten lava. The hike to the crater rim is steep and strenuous, but well worth it for the spectacular views of the Rift Valley and nearby Lake Naivasha. Wildlife to look out for includes buffalos, lions, zebras, and giraffes, with the hike taking around five hours round-trip.
Getting There: Mount Longonot National Park is located just to the east of Hells Gate National Park and is also accessed via a turn off from the South Lake Road after Naivasha Town.
Travel Tip: If you plan to make the climb to the crater rim, be sure to bring plenty of water and food with you as there is no place to buy it once you’re inside the park.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy: Home of the World’s Last Northern White Rhinos
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is located just over 3.5 hours from Nairobi, but its unique nature makes it well worth the early start to get there and back in a day. The reserve boasts the highest density of wildlife in Kenya outside the Maasai Mara, and is most famous as the home of the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. It’s also the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, a haven for predators, and the only place in the country where visitors can see chimpanzees. The latter reside at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary for orphaned and abused chimps from all over Africa.
Getting There: Join a chauffeured tour like this one, or if you have your own vehicle, drive northeast from the capital on the A2 highway until you reach the turnoff for the conservancy at Nanyuki.
Travel Tip: If you wish to meet the world’s last northern white rhinos, you will have to book well in advance and get up very early—visitors may only view them from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
Lake Nakuru National Park: Abundant Birdlife on a Unique Soda Lake
It takes roughly four hours to drive from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru National Park, making it quite a pull for a single day trip. However, several operators offer guided day tours that include transport. A shallow soda lake defined by its high level of alkalinity, Lake Nakuru itself is surrounded by swathes of grassland and soaring escarpments. A game drive gives you the chance to spot endangered species including Rothschild’s giraffes and white and black rhino; but the real attraction is the flocks of flamingos that inhabit the lake. 450 other bird species make this national park a real birders’ paradise.
Getting There: The easiest way to get to Lake Nakuru from Nairobi is to join a chauffeured tour, since public transport takes too long for a day trip. If you have your own vehicle, drive northwest out of the city on the A104.
Travel Tip: The wet season sees resident birds in breeding plumage and migrant species arriving from Europe and Asia. Flamingos, however, are more numerous in the dry season.