At the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley in northwest Uganda lies the country's largest national park: Murchison Falls National Park. Named for the dizzying waterfall at its heart, the park spreads inland from the shores of Lake Albert. Most of Africa’s iconic safari animals can be seen here on guided game drives, river cruises, and nature walks; meanwhile, birders come from far and wide for the chance to spot the elusive shoebill stork. Along with neighboring Bugungu Wildlife Reserve and Karuma Wildlife Reserve, the park is part of the larger Murchison Falls Conservation Area.
About the Park
Protected as a game reserve since 1926, the area that makes up Murchison Falls National Park became one of Uganda’s first national parks in 1952. It covers just over 1,500 square miles, including savannah and riverine woodland in the northern section of the park, the swamp-like delta along the shores of Lake Albert, and the dense forests to the south. Fans of classic movies will recognize its scenery from the 1951 adventure "The African Queen," starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. The park’s main feature is the Victoria Nile river (known elsewhere as the Blue Nile), which bisects it from east to west.
The source of the Murchison Falls, the Victoria Nile forces itself through a gorge measuring 23 feet across before plunging 141 feet down into the Devil’s Cauldron. That’s 11,000 cubic feet per second, made even more spectacular by towering mists and an ever-present rainbow. After the falls, the river becomes a placid source of water for the park’s abundant wildlife before spreading out into a delta that in turn feeds into Lake Albert.
The village of Paraa is the park’s tourism center. Located in the western section of the park, it is the point at which all access roads converge and where you can find the vehicle ferry that spans the Victoria Nile.
Murchison Falls National Park is famous for its plentiful and diverse wildlife, including no fewer than 76 species of mammals. Among them are four of the Big Five: vast herds of elephants and buffalo, a good concentration of lions, and the ever-enigmatic leopard. Rothschild’s giraffes are a park specialty. This highly endangered subspecies is only found in Kenya and Uganda, and Murchison Falls National Park is one of only two places in Uganda where giraffes of any kind can be spotted. Common antelope species are here as well, including Jackson’s hartebeest, Uganda kob, oribi, waterbuck, and bushbuck.
Primates abound in Murchison Falls National Park, but they tend to live in distinct habitats. Look out for olive baboons along the road sides; blue, red-tailed, and black-and-white colobus monkeys in the forested areas; and the locally rare patas monkey on the savannah. Approximately 600 chimpanzees live in the park’s Kaniyo Pabidi Forest, and may be tracked on foot. Lastly, the Victoria Nile is home to many hippos and Uganda’s largest population of Nile crocodiles.
The 451 bird species that have been recorded in Murchison Falls National Park include water birds, forest dwellers, and several Albertine Rift Valley endemics. The most sought-after sighting is undoubtedly the prehistoric-looking shoebill stork, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Other specials to look out for include the Abyssinian ground hornbill, the white-thighed hornbill, the great blue turaco, and the red-throated bee-eater. The world’s largest heron species, the goliath heron, lives here, as does Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane. For the best birding, head to the calm stretch of river and delta swamps located between Murchison Falls and Lake Albert.
Top Things to Do
River Cruises: Life in Murchison Falls National Park revolves around the Victoria Nile, and one of the best ways to explore it is on a river cruise. Launch trips depart from Paraa and head upstream to Murchison Falls, allowing for spectacular up-close views of the waterfall and amazing wildlife-viewing en route. Head downstream towards Lake Albert for the best chance of spotting shoebill storks (and a myriad of other bird and animal species), or take it easy with an evening sundowner cruise.
Game Drives: The park has several designated game drive areas. The triangle of grassland located between the Victoria and Albert Niles (known as the Buligi Peninsula) is often lauded as the best destination for game-viewing, with excellent sightings of elephants, buffalo, giraffes, and other herbivores. The delta area offers the best chance of seeing lions in action, while the tract of savannah in the heart of the park is known for its impressive herds of Uganda kob.
Walking Safaris: There are several options for visitors wanting to explore the park on foot. You can hike to the top of Murchison Falls, stopping at viewpoints along the way for spectacular photo opportunities. Guided walks through the delta swamps are ideal for those wanting to get up close to the park’s aquatic birdlife, while trails through the Kaniyo Pabidi and Rabongo Forests are the top choice for primate sightings. The former offers the chance to track six habituated chimpanzee troops.
Extreme Adventures: Keen anglers come to Murchison Falls National Park to catch trophy Nile perch, catfish, and ferocious tiger fish—the likes of which have been featured on "River Monsters." Fishing trips are usually conducted near the base of the falls. For adventure of another kind, consider flying over the park in a hot air balloon. Dream Balloons offers aerial safaris that depart at sunrise (followed by a bush breakfast) or sunset.
Where to Stay
Murchison Falls offers a good range of accommodation to suit all budgets. Some excellent mid-range options with thatched cottages or safari tents include Murchison River Lodge and Baker’s Lodge (both on the south bank of the Victoria Nile, near Paraa) and Pakuba Safari Lodge (located on the eastern bank of the Albert Nile). For a more luxurious stay, choose Chobe Safari Lodge; situated close to the park's eastern boundary and Karuma Falls, this 5-star option comes with a tiered river-view infinity pool and a gourmet restaurant serving Ugandan and international specialties. Budongo Eco Lodge in the southern sector is a great choice for budget travelers, offering eco-cabins and spacious dorm rooms.
Activities offered by each of the lodges range from river cruises and guided safaris to nature walks and chimpanzee tracking.
Best Time to Go
Uganda’s equatorial location means that temperatures remain relatively constant throughout the year, with Murchison Falls National Park being one of the hottest regions in the country. Daytime temperatures fluctuate between 77 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit and can fall as low as 65 degrees at night. There are two dry seasons and two rainy seasons annually. Expect little precipitation and abundant sunshine during the dry months, and torrential downpours during the wet months.
For game-viewing, fishing, and chimpanzee tracking, the best time to visit the park is during the dry seasons (December to March or June to September). During these months, game is concentrated along the river banks and is easier to spot, roads and trails are in better condition, and insect numbers are reduced. From November to April, the park welcomes migrant bird species, with January to March being the peak time for birding activity. Whenever you choose to travel, make sure to take anti-malaria medication and to avoid wearing bright clothing. The latter attracts tsetse flies, which carry African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness.
Most international visitors to Uganda arrive at Entebbe International Airport (EBB), located approximately one hour’s drive southwest of the capital, Kampala. From the airport, it’s a 200-mile journey north to Murchison Falls National Park. There are two approaches from the south, both departing from Masindi town. The main route enters the park through Kichumbanyobo Gate and reaches Paraa after 53 miles. The longer, scenic route travels for roughly 84 miles via Bugungu Gate. If you’re traveling from the north, there are four gates to choose from: Chobe, Wankwar, Mubako, and Tangi.
All access roads lead to Paraa, where a vehicle ferry provides access to the other half of the park and runs roughly every two hours. If you’d rather fly, there are three airfields in the park, accessible by charter plane from Entebbe International Airport or Kajjansi Airfield near Kampala. The closest to Paraa is Pakuba Airfield. Those that don’t want to join an organized tour can self-drive through Murchison Falls National Park, either independently or with a hop-on guide from the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
For 2020 to 2022, daily conservation fees for foreign visitors are $40 per adult and $20 per child. You’ll also have to pay a fee for your vehicle if you plan on self-driving ($40 for a saloon car, $50 for a pick-up). Check the Uganda Wildlife Authority's conservation tariff guide for a full overview of fees, including charges for the Paraa ferry, launch cruises, game drives, and sport fishing permits.