Established in 1969 and located in the far north of the country, Simien Mountains National Park is part of the breathtaking Ethiopian Highlands. A wonderland of dramatic plateaus, valleys, sheer cliffs and towering peaks, it is sometimes referred to as Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon and includes Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen (14,930 feet/4,550 meters). The eastern section of the park is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and described by the organization as “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.” In terms of geology, the Simien Mountains are similar to South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains. Both were formed by outpourings of lava between 40 and 25 million years ago.
Today, visitors flock to the national park to admire its fabulous scenery, look for rare wildlife and embark upon multi-day treks. The Simien Mountains are also one of the few places in Africa to regularly see snow.
The national park is home to several incredibly rare animals, which was one of the biggest motivations for protecting it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These include the Ethiopian wolf (also known as the Simien fox), the Walia ibex and the gelada monkey. Ethiopian wolves are the most endangered carnivores in Africa and the rarest canids in the world, with only 400 left in the wild. The endangered Walia ibex and the gelada monkey are both exclusively found in the Ethiopian Highlands. Other exciting animals to look out for include the Anubis and hamadryas baboons, the klipspringer antelope and the golden jackal; while the national park is also ranked as an Important Bird Area.
More than 130 bird species have been recorded here including 16 endemic species. It’s especially great for spotting mountain-dwelling raptors such as the magnificent and unmistakable bearded vulture, the Verreaux’s eagle and the lanner falcon.
Things to Do
The park’s extraordinary wildlife aside, the main attraction for most visitors is the scenery. There are two ways to explore — via 4WD vehicle or on foot. The park is intersected by an unpaved road which runs from the town of Debark in the west to the village of Mekane Berhan in the east. It takes you past several of the region’s traditional Amharic villages and through the incredibly beautiful Buahit Pass (13,780 feet/4,200 meters). On clear days, it’s often possible to see up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) across the canyon-filled lowlands. For a more immersive experience, don your hiking boots and backpack and hit the park’s hiking trails. Options range from easy day hikes to challenging multi-stage treks.
Top Hiking Trails
Buyit Ras - Chenek: Starting from Buyit Ras near the eastern entrance of the park and finishing at Chenek camp in the center, this is one of the most popular Simien Mountains treks. It is approximately 35 miles (55 kilometers) in length and usually takes four days to complete. You’ll stay at Sankaber and Gich campsites along the way and spend the days discovering top park attractions like Jinbar Waterfall (a single torrent cascading down jaw-dropping sheer cliffs) and the famous Imet Gogo lookout. Trekkers have the option of climbing to the summit of Mount Buahit (14,534 feet/4,430 meters) which offers amazing views and the best chance of spotting Ethiopian wolves.
Debark - Chenek - Debark: This trek incorporates the same itinerary as the one above but extends it by an extra 30 miles (48 kilometers) by starting and ending in Debark town. Allocate seven days and six nights for this route.
Sankaber - Adi Arkay: This route covers 53 miles (85 kilometers) and takes around six days to complete. It starts at Sankaber camp in the eastern section of the park and ends in Adi Arkay town (in the far north). It avoids the more populated area around Buyit Ras but still takes in the same points of interest as the first route along the way to Chenek camp. From there, it heads north to the more remote camps of Sona, Mekarebya and Mulit. This area of the park sees fewer tourists and as the mountains give way to the scenic lowlands of the north, introduces you to authentic Amharic villages and farms. Stop to learn about local culture and sample traditional cuisine.
Buyit Ras - Adi Arkay: For those with unlimited time and energy, this route offers the full Simien Mountains experience. It covers 96 miles (155 kilometers) and takes a minimum of 11 days to complete – although you’re likely to need a few additional rest days along the way. You’ll spend a night in most of the park’s camps including Sankaber, Gich, Chenek, Ambikwa, Sona, Mekarebya and Mulit. You’ll gaze out over the panoramic views of Imet Gogo and have the chance to make two summit attempts: one on Mount Buahit and the other on Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak.
Weather & When to Go
Because of its elevation, Simien Mountains National Park is typically cool with daytime temperatures ranging from 52-64 F (11-18 C). From December to April, night-time temperatures routinely dip below freezing, so make sure to pack plenty of layers and an all-weather sleeping bag if you’re going to be camping. The park is essentially a year-round destination. However, many travelers choose to avoid the June to mid-September rainy season because frequent downpours cause the trails to become slippery and views are often obscured by mist. One of the best times to travel is immediately after the rains from late September to November. During these months the landscapes are impossibly green and views are uninterrupted by mist or haze.
Where to Stay
If you’re planning a multi-day trek, you will probably sleep in a traditional tukul hut in a local village or in a tent at one of the designated campsites. Main camps like Sankaber, Gich and Chenek all include sheltered cooking areas, enclosed drop toilets and a manned ranger hut. For a little more luxury, consider a stay in one of the lodges located on the outskirts of the park. Top picks include Simien Lodge and Limalimo Lodge. The former claims to be the highest hotel in Africa and offers 26 tukul rooms with private bathrooms, balconies and solar-powered underfloor heating. The latter is a eco-friendly boutique with 14 rustic-chic chalets and a restaurant with stunning lowland views. Debark also offers more options for budget travelers.
The closest major city and airport is Gondar, located 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the southwest. From there, it’s a 1.5-hour drive to the park headquarters in Debark (itself an hour’s drive from the park entrance). The easiest way to get from Gondar to Debark is in a private vehicle or with a tour transfer, but the route is plied by public buses and minibuses as well. It is essential that you stop first in Debark to purchase your entry permit, as it’s not possible to do so at the park entrance. Permits costs 90 birr per adult, per day. You can also organize maps, information and official national park guides at the Debark park office.
It is easy to explore the park independently (after paying a 20 birr charge per private vehicle). However, if you would rather join an organized tour, there are several operators that offer Simien Mountains trekking itineraries. Locally owned Tesfa Tours and SimienEcoTours both receive good reviews and focus on providing a sustainable experience that benefits local communities as well. Tesfa Tours specializes in privately guided and small group tours, while SimienEcoTours offers fixed date departures from Debark for groups of up to 10 people.