African national parks are as diverse as the continent itself, ranging from the protected, snow-capped peaks of Morocco’s Toubkal National Park to the shipwreck-littered beaches of Agulhas National Park in South Africa. While most are located in Southern or East Africa, each park offers something unique. From Big Five parks to untamed swathes of desert and jungle; from walking safaris to river cruises, there’s a park for every kind of traveler.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Formed at the end of the 19th century, Kruger National Park is South Africa’s oldest national park. It’s also the country’s most iconic safari destination, spanning roughly 7,500 square miles of wilderness in the northeastern Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces. The park’s vast size incorporates an astonishing array of different habitats; and therefore, an incredible diversity of wildlife. Whether you self-drive or join a guided safari, you’ve got a good chance of seeing the Big and Little Fives, in addition to rare predators like cheetahs and African wild dogs. Over 500 bird species have been recorded in the Kruger.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa
Kruger may be the most famous South African national park, but it can get busy. For a truly off-the-beaten-path experience, head north to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Located partly in South Africa and partly in Botswana, and with border access to Namibia, it’s popular with overland adventurers wanting to immerse themselves in the stark beauty of the Kalahari Desert. Expect red sand dunes contrasting against a spectacular blue sky, and a shimmering golden light that draws photographers from far and wide. You won’t see water-dependent species like elephants and buffalo here. Instead, Kgalagadi is famous for its carnivore and raptor sightings.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Located in between the Caprivi Strip and the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, Chobe National Park is the jewel in the country’s safari crown. It is intersected by the mighty Chobe River, which provides a year-round water source for one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. The Big Five are all present, with huge herds of elephants and buffalo being a particular highlight. Hippos, Nile crocodiles, and aquatic antelope like the red lechwe thrive here, while the park’s 450 recorded bird species include specials like the Pel’s fishing owl and the rare African skimmer.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is named for Etosha Pan, a salt pan so vast it can be seen from space. During the winter months, it’s a place of mirages where animals appear and disappear across its cracked, dry surface. In summer, the rains fill the pan and transform it into a wetland full of colorful water birds. The rest of the park is a self-drive safari enthusiast’s dream, with well-maintained roads and pumped waterholes where you can spot elephants, all three big cats, and desert-adapted antelope like the gemsbok and springbok. Rhinos (both black and white) are an Etosha specialty.
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
Although Hwange National Park is usually the first port of call for visitors to Zimbabwe, Mana Pools stands out for its wild beauty. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it adjoins the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe and is named for the seasonal pools formed by historic river channels. The water attracts some of the country’s biggest herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as countless antelope species that in turn provide food for lions, leopards, hyenas, and African wild dogs. Mana Pools is also a Ramsar wetland site and Important Bird Area, and is known for its guided walking safaris and canoe adventures.
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
If you want to explore the bush on foot, there’s no better place to go than the birthplace of the walking safari. Situated at the end of the Great Rift Valley in eastern Zambia, South Luangwa National Park offers close encounters with four of the Big Five (with rhino being the notable exception). In particular, the park is renowned as one of the best places in Africa for leopard sightings with these elusive cats often spotted during daylight hours. South Luangwa also allows night drives, increasing your chances of seeing predators in action as well as a full cast of exciting nocturnal animals.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Along with Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, with which it shares a contiguous border, Serengeti National Park is arguably Africa’s most iconic safari destination. Its endless grassland plains and tracts of remote woodland provide a sanctuary for the largest concentration of plains game on the continent. Many visitors try to time their safari with the annual Great Migration, which sees some 2 million wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope travel from the Serengeti to the Mara and back in search of seasonal grazing. Calving season (with its attendant predator action) and the dramatic crossing of the crocodile-filled Grumeti River are migration highlights.
Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Tanzania’s Northern Circuit parks draw the most visitors; but for fewer crowds and a sense of unspoiled wilderness, head south to remote Ruaha National Park. Comprising over 7,800 square miles of grassland and woodland habitats, it’s the largest national park in East Africa and especially famous for its carnivore sightings. Here, you can keep an eye out for huge lion prides with 20 or more members and the world’s third-largest population of African wild dogs. Cheetahs, leopards, spotted hyenas, and many smaller predators are also frequently seen, while 570 recorded avian species make Ruaha a top pick for birders as well.
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Proof that great things come in small packages, Amboseli National Park is a rewarding safari destination in southern Kenya with a total area of just 150 square miles. It’s named after the Maasai word meaning “salty, dusty place” in reference to the dried-up bed of Lake Amboseli. And yet, the defining geographical feature is the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro which can clearly be seen from across the Tanzanian border. The mountain, which is the tallest in Africa, creates a spectacular backdrop for photographs of Amboseli’s wildlife. This includes huge herds of elephants, amongst them the continent’s largest tuskers.
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains is nothing like the other parks on this list. It shares borders with parks in Uganda and the DRC, and together the three protected areas are home to one of the world’s last two populations of endangered mountain gorillas. With a permit and a guide, you can venture into the cloud forest on foot in search of 10 habituated gorilla troops. Once you find the gorillas, gaze in awe upon these majestic animals whose behavior so closely mimics our own. Volcanoes National Park is also home to Karisoke Research Center, where renowned primatologist Dian Fossey lived and died.
Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda
For special encounters with other species of primates, head to Nyungwe Forest National Park in southwest Rwanda. Created to protect one of the oldest rainforests in Africa, the park is home to 13 primate species including a small population of chimpanzees. Other top spots include the L’Hoest’s monkey (which is endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley), the endangered golden monkey, and the Ruwenzori colobus. As you explore Nyungwe’s 15 wooded walking trails, be sure to keep an eye out for birds as well. 322 species have been recorded, 30 of which are endemic.
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Murchison Falls National Park is named for the point at which the Victoria Nile plunges through a narrow gorge and over a 140-foot drop. From there, the river opens out into a swamp-like delta before feeding into Lake Albert (the seventh-largest lake in Africa). All this water attracts a wealth of wildlife including four of the Big Five, the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, and thriving populations of hippo and crocodile. Birding is a top activity, with visitors coming from far and wide for a glimpse of the prehistoric-looking shoebill stork. River cruises, walking safaris, and fishing for Nile perch and tiger fish round out the park’s activities.