Known as the Pearl of Africa in recognition of its abundant resources and natural beauty, landlocked Uganda is a rewarding safari destination in East Africa. There are 10 national parks spread throughout the country. For gorilla trekking, choose Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or tiny Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. For surreal alpine landscapes near the equator, head deep into the Rwenzori Mountains; or experience world-class birding in the wetland wonderland around Lake Mburo. Whatever your interests (from multi-day hikes to river safaris and big game viewing), there’s a national park to suit you in Uganda.
Murchison Falls National Park
The country’s largest and arguably most iconic safari destination, Murchison Falls National Park is located at the end of the Albertine Rift Valley in northwest Uganda. It spans more than 1,500 square miles, spreading inland from the shores of Lake Albert and intersected by the Victoria Nile. On its journey westward, the river plunges through a narrow gorge and over a drop of 141 feet, creating the spectacular waterfall for which the park is named. River safaris are a highlight, offering the chance to see four of the Big Five, namely elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard. Other specials range from the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe to habituated troops of chimpanzees. For birders, the main attraction is the resident population of rare shoebill storks.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
In southwest Uganda where the plains meet vast swathes of ancient montane forest lies Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site stands out for its incredible variety of flora, including 160 tree species and 100 different types of fern. Many of the park’s plants, birds, and butterfly species are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley. Above all, Bwindi is famous as one of only four national parks in the world where one can see endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The gorillas that live here make up nearly half of the global population. Visitors can track 12 habituated troops on foot, allowing for unforgettable close encounters. Other threatened primate species include the chimpanzee and l’Hoest’s monkey.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
It is also possible to track gorillas in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Covering just 13 square miles, Uganda’s smallest national park occupies the southwest corner of the country where the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet in the peaks and valleys of the Virunga Mountains. Mgahinga is home to one cross-border, habituated gorilla family. It is also the only national park in Uganda with a population of endangered golden monkeys. Three conical, extinct volcanoes dominate the park’s scenery, while walking safaris led by local Batwa pygmies give an insight into the lives of an indigenous tribe that has survived as hunter-gatherers in the forests of the Virunga Mountains for thousands of years.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Equatorial Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of Uganda’s most popular destinations on account of its diverse variety of wildlife. It is located in western Uganda, in between Lake Edward and Lake George and divided by the Kazinga Channel that connects the two. Many different habitats are represented within the park’s 760 square miles, including savanna, forests, wetlands, and hills pocked with volcanic craters. Together, they provide a sanctuary for 95 mammal species, among them four of the Big Five, chimpanzees, and Ishasha’s famous tree-climbing lions (a phenomenon otherwise only found in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park). With 600 recorded bird species, Queen Elizabeth National Park has also been recognized as an Important Bird Area by Birding International.
Kibale National Park
Situated on the opposite shore of Lake George, Kibale National Park combines with Queen Elizabeth National Park to create one continuous wildlife corridor. It is known for its thick lowland and montane forest. Some of its trees, of which there are more than 350 different kinds, are more than 200 years old. A famed research base for primatologists, Kibale is home to the country’s largest population of chimpanzees. Most people come here for the chance to track the park’s habituated troops on foot and are amazed by the familiar behavior of our closest living relatives. The forests of Kibale are home to 12 other primate species including the threatened red colobus and the rare l’Hoest’s monkey.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Head due west from Kibale towards the Uganda-DRC border and you’ll find the mythical Mountains of the Moon, officially known as Rwenzori Mountains National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Ramsar wetland, this 385-square-mile park incorporates the highest peaks of the Rwenzori mountain range, including the third-tallest peak in Africa. It seems impossible that an alpine habitat complete with snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and lakes can exist within a few miles of the equator, and yet here it is. An abundance of endemic alpine flora, including prehistoric-looking giant heather and lobelias, adds to the region’s surreal beauty. The Mountains of the Moon are most popular as a destination for multi-day hikes and technical climbs.
Kidepo Valley National Park
Kidepo Valley National Park lies in the far northeast corner of Uganda, in between the borders with South Sudan and Kenya. It is the country’s most remote national park—a pristine wilderness that’s well worth the journey to get there. Spanning 556 square miles, Kidepo is defined by semi-arid valleys sustained by two seasonal rivers, the Kidepo and the Narus. In the dry season, the rivers disappear leaving behind a series of pools that act as a powerful attractant for the park’s thirsty wildlife. This includes more than 77 mammal species and around 475 different types of birds. On game drives and nature walks, keep an eye out for the critically endangered Nubian giraffe, as well as elephant, buffalo, and lion.
Lake Mburo National Park
In southern Uganda, compact Lake Mburo National Park centers itself around the lake for which it is named–one of 14 regional lakes that form a rich wetland system stretching for more than 30 miles. Five of these lakes are within the park’s borders; 20 percent of the park is wetland, and the rest is mostly woodland. Hippos and Nile crocodiles thrive in the lakes, while ungulate species (including waterbuck, buffalo, and oribi) abound. Lake Mburo National Park is the only park in Uganda with a population of impala, and one of only two where it’s possible to spot zebra and eland. Those that dipped on the shoebill stork at Murchison Falls also have a second chance to see it here.
Mount Elgon National Park
Located in the east of the country on the border with Kenya, Mount Elgon National Park is named for the extinct volcano at its heart. Once the highest mountain in Africa, it has eroded over the 24 million years since its first eruption to a height of 14,176 feet and is now the eighth highest peak on the continent. Round trips to the summit take between four and seven days depending on the trail you choose, and include a descent into the 15-square-mile caldera. As you climb, look out for the majestic bearded vulture, which can often be seen wheeling overhead. Along with 300 bird species, the park is home to forest elephants and buffalo, bush pigs, and leopards.
Semuliki National Park
Semuliki National Park covers 85 square miles on the DRC border, close to Kibale National Park and the Mountains of the Moon. It protects East Africa’s only tract of true tropical lowland forest, itself an extension of the Congo’s ancient Ituri Forest. The latter was one of the only arboreal survivors of the last Ice Age. More Central African than East African in feel, Semuliki offers bubbling hot springs and woodland hiking trails, and 60 percent of Uganda’s forest-dwelling bird species. Amongst these are 46 species more commonly associated with the Guinea-Congo biome and consequently not seen anywhere else in East Africa. Mammal sightings include forest elephants and pygmy antelope, fanged deer, and the Central African red colobus.