Serengeti National Park, Tanzania: The Complete Guide

Cheetahs on a safari vehicle in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park

Paul Joynson Hicks / Getty Images

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Serengeti National Park

Address
Tanzania
Phone +255 764 597 219

Named for the Maasai word siringet, which translates roughly as “the place where the land runs on forever,” Serengeti National Park is among the oldest game reserves in Tanzania. It’s also one of the most iconic safari destinations in Africa. Located in the north of the country, it partly adjoins the Kenyan border and together with the Masai Mara National Reserve provides the backdrop for the annual Great Migration—considered by many to be the planet’s most impressive natural event. The park covers over 5,700 square miles (14,700 square kilometers), including vast expanses of grassland plains and tangled riverine forest.

For more than 200 years, the Serengeti ecosystem provided fertile grazing land for nomadic Maasai tribes. The first Europeans visited the area in 1892, and thereafter it became a popular haunt for big game hunters. In 1921, the colonial British administration addressed the decline in the Serengeti’s lion population by forming a partial reserve in the area. This was converted into a full reserve eight years later and eventually established as the Serengeti National Park in 1951. The colonial government evicted Maasai living within the park’s borders in 1959, two years before the country gained independence from the British. In 1981, Serengeti National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its incredible ecological importance. 

Traditionally, the park is divided into three distinct geographic regions. The largest of these is the southern Serengeti plains—an iconic, largely treeless savannah landscape that serves as a breeding ground for the wildebeest and antelope that congregate here from December to May before beginning their migration north. The Western Corridor includes the Grumeti River and its adjacent forests. Visitors flock to this area of the park from May to July when the wildebeest migration passes through, but it’s also a great place to spot water birds and other aquatic species all year round. Finally, the remote northern Serengeti woodlands are the best place to spot elephants and giraffes, and to observe the spectacle of the migration’s Mara River crossings.

Gorgeous sunset with sunbeams at a national park
chantal / Getty Images

Things to Do

A traditional jeep safari is just one of several wildlife viewing experiences offered by lodges in and around the Serengeti. Although night safaris are banned within the park itself, many operators offer after-dark game drives in the private concessions of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. These are the only way to see the region’s fascinating nocturnal wildlife. Other exciting options include walking safaris, horseback safaris, and charter flight safaris. There is even a sunrise hot air balloon safari—a very expensive and exclusive experience that will stay with you long after you return home.

In the unlikely event that you tire of wildlife spotting, you can also take part in a cultural visit to one of the Maasai villages located just outside the park boundaries; or drive south to the archaeological site at Olduvai Gorge. Here, a small museum gives you an insight into the life’s work of Louis and Mary Leakey, whose anthropological discoveries both at Olduvai and nearby Laetoli inform our understanding of human evolution. 

Read more about the best things to do in Tanzania.

Grants Gazelle at Serengeti National Park
Walter Stein / Getty Images

Wildlife

Serengeti National Park is home to the greatest concentration of plains game in Africa. This includes approximately 2 million wildebeest, 900,000 Thomson's gazelles, and 300,000 zebra. Other antelope species range from the abundant Grant’s gazelle and Coke’s hartebeest to rarer creatures like the dik-dik and the roan antelope. This proliferation of prey animals inevitably results in healthy predator numbers. Indeed, the Serengeti boasts Africa’s largest population of lions and is one of the best places in the world to spot the elusive leopard. Here, it’s also possible to see cheetahs, two species of hyena, and the endangered African wild dog. Smaller felines and nocturnal animals like the aardwolf and ground pangolin come out at night.

It is possible to see all of the Big Five in the Serengeti, although the small reintroduced population of black rhino is exceptionally difficult to spot. The June to October dry season is the best for general game viewing, as the foliage is less dense and animals congregate at the waterholes, making them easier to spot.

Grey-breasted spurfowl or grey-breasted francolin (Francolinus rufopictus)
Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

Birding

Those with a passion for birdwatching will feel right at home in the Serengeti, which boasts no fewer than 500 resident and migratory bird species. Five of these are endemic to Tanzania, including the grey-breasted spurfowl, the Rufous-tailed weaver, and the gorgeously colorful Fischer’s lovebird. Near-endemic specials like the Usambiro barbet and the Hildebrandt’s starling also deserve a place on your Serengeti wish list.

The park provides a refuge for several species of endangered or critically endangered vulture and has the highest ostrich population in Africa. It’s also home to the continent’s largest flying bird, the kori bustard. The November to April rainy season is best for birding because resident birds are in breeding plumage and migrant species arrive at this time from North Africa and Europe.

Great wildebeest migration in Kenya
1001slide / Getty Images

The Great Migration

For many, the Serengeti’s No. 1 attraction is the opportunity to witness the Great Migration. Many safari operators and mobile camps are dedicated to putting you at the heart of the action; whether that’s watching newborn calves take their first steps in the grasslands of the south, or experiencing the drama of a Mara River crossing. To view the migration, you’ll need to time your trip carefully, as the herds’ movements are dependent on the rains and can change from year to year. Regardless of when you travel, a standard game drive gives you a front-row seat to the Serengeti’s incredible biodiversity. 

However, if you want to see the wildebeest migration, the herds gather in the south from December to May, then move into the Western Corridor from May to July. To see the herds crossing the Mara River, you’ll need to be there in July, August, or November.

Read more about how to experience the Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania.

Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Where to Stay

Serengeti National Park is famous for its five-star camps and lodges that are notoriously expensive. Among the park's options to choose from. Permanent tented camps combine the romance of staying under canvas with the decadence of formal furniture, staff, and gourmet dining, while mobile tented camps follow the migration, making sure that you’re always at the heart of the action.

  • Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti: Offering a high caliber of luxury, the Four Seasons offers beautiful suites and villas and is located next to a watering hole that is frequently visited by animals.
  • Mbalageti Safari Camp: This highly-rated camp provides 360-degree views of the plains and the Serengeti River and a variety of suites that can accommodate families.
  • Kirawira Serena Camp: Inspired by historic hunting camps, this luxury hotel has 25 tented suites and provides five-course lunches and dinners.
  • &Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas: This roaming camp follows the Great Migration, operating multiple private campsites in key locations where accommodations have been preassembled.

For those on a tight budget, the only relatively affordable option is the park’s public campsites. Amenities are basic, and you’ll need to be entirely self-sufficient, bringing with you your own food, water, and cooking equipment. You’re likely to share the space with overland tour groups, which can be a pro or a con depending on how much you value peace and quiet. 

Read more about the different accommodation types in the Serengeti.

Accessibility

While the park does not have much in the way of accessible trails, the majority of the safari experience can be done from inside a vehicle. Some, but not all, tour operators can accommodate travelers with disabilities and the same goes for lodges. However, there are not a lot of accessible vehicles and in most cases, wheelchair users will need to be physically lifted into the car. Look for tour agencies like Responsible Travel or GoAfrica that can help make arrangements to accommodate your needs. Other travel agencies like Explore Africa Safaris can also help you find a sign language interpreter or guide.

Ngorongoro

Dasar / Getty Images

How to Get There

Those that travel to Serengeti National Park by road will most likely enter through the Naabi Hill Gate in the southeastern section of the park. The gate is a 2.5-hour drive from Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a seven to eight-hour drive from northern Tanzania’s safari capital, Arusha. Some companies will arrange road transfers from Arusha, while others pick you up from one of several airstrips located within the park: Kusini and Ndutu in the south; Seronera in the center; Lobo, Kleins, and Kogatende in the north; and Grumeti or Sasakwa in the Western Corridor. These small airstrips are served by charter flights from Arusha or Kilimanjaro. 

Read more about how to travel between the Masai Mara and the Serengeti.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
davide arizzi / Getty Images

Tips for Your Visit

  • If you'll be in the southern part of the park, winter is the best time to see the Great Migration. In the northern and western regions of the park, summer and fall are the best times to go.
  • If you plan to travel during the heavy rains of April and May, be aware that some lodges and roads may be closed and mosquitoes are at their worst. 
  • A visit to the Serengeti is also a good opportunity to visit the Ngorongoro Crater 41 miles (66 kilometers) away.
  • Although it is possible to visit the park and stay overnight in a private campsite independently, the safest option is to travel with an experienced guide.
  • Book far in advance if you plan to visit during the Great Migration, as this is the park's busiest time and safari camps are quick to fill up.
  • During the game drives, you will spend a lot of time in the sun so make sure to pack sunscreen with a high SPF and a wide-brimmed hat.
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Serengeti National Park: The Complete Guide