Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: The Complete Guide

Mountain gorilla looking out over Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Dennis Stogsdill / Getty Images

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Volcanoes National Park

Address
kinigi, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Phone +250 782 292 959

Ancient, mist-swathed mountains and emerald forests reverberating with the sound of exotic birdsong await in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Located on the country’s northwest border, the park spans some 62 square miles of montane rainforest, with five of its eight volcanoes making up the Virunga Mountains. Volcanoes National Park is contiguous with Virunga National Park in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. 

Together, these three countries are the only ones worldwide to offer encounters with the endangered mountain gorilla, for whose protection Volcanoes National Park was first gazetted in 1925. Today, the Virunga Mountains are home to more than half of the global mountain gorilla population, last counted at just over 1,000 individuals. Gorilla trekking is inevitably the park’s most popular activity, along with visiting primatologist Dian Fossey’s renowned Karisoke Research Center

Things to Do

Volcanoes National Park is often lauded as the best place in the world to go gorilla trekking. This is because it is safer than the DRC, has more habituated troops than Mgahinga, and is more easily accessible than Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Visitors can learn more about the gorillas at the Karisoke Research Center, which was founded by Dian Fossey in 1967. The primatologist lived here until her murder in 1985, and it was here where she wrote her seminal book, "Gorillas in the Mist." Interactive displays at the center give an insight into the ongoing work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and you can pay your respects to the late, great primatologist at her nearby grave. 

In addition to its montane rainforest, Volcanoes National Park also supports evergreen and bamboo forests, swamps, heaths, and open grassland. This variety of habitats makes it a sanctuary for many other wildlife species as well, including two habituated golden monkey troops. Daily golden monkey trekking tours depart from the headquarters in Kinigi every day. Along the way, you may also spot the park's elusive forest elephants, buffalos, bush pigs, forest hogs, and black-fronted duikers. The national park is a birder’s paradise, too, with more than 200 recorded species. Among them are many Albertine Rift endemics, such as the Rwenzori turaco, Shelley’s crimsonwing, and the Grauer’s broadbill.

Other activities within the park include hiking, canoeing, and mountain biking. Village experiences abound, including perusing local crafts in lively markets and witnessing traditional Intore warrior dancers perform in fabulous costumes and headdresses. For a greater insight into local folklore, take a guided tour of Buhanga Eco Park. This 31-hectare forest is renowned as a sacred place where the past kings of Rwanda underwent kingship rituals and initiations before ascending to the throne. Also of interest is the Musanze Caves system, a mile-long network of underground caves formed some 62 million years ago. 

Gorilla Trekking 

Mountain gorillas are the world’s largest living primates, and with 98 percent of the same DNA as us, their behavior often feels remarkably familiar. For those who want to observe this behavior up close, there are 12 habituated gorilla troops in the national park. Each one is made up of at least one silverback, or alpha male, and a harem of females and youngsters. Every day, six tracking permits are issued per troop. This keeps the experience as natural and unobtrusive as possible for humans and gorillas alike. 

Although the time it takes to track a troop can vary from 30 minutes to four-plus hours, trekkers will have one-hour maximum with the gorillas once they have been located. During this time, you can watch them groom, feed, and play at very close quarters—an unforgettable experience that many find incredibly spiritual. Because there are so few permits available, it is essential to book several months or more in advance. Trekkers must be at least 15 years old, and permits cost $1,500 per person, per day. Ten percent of this fee goes straight back into local community initiatives that promote conservation by keeping gorilla–human conflict to a minimum.

Best Hikes & Trails

Hiking is another great Volcanoes National Park activity. There are many different routes, all of which require a hiking permit and guide. These are some of the most popular: 

  • Lake Ngezi: One of the easiest hikes in the park, this route leads to a scenic lake at the foot of Mount Bisoke. The three-hour out-and-back trail offers views across the border into the forests of the DRC.
  • Mount Bisoke: Hiking to the top of Mount Bisoke can take anywhere from five hours to a full day, depending on the weather and the hiker's fitness level. It’s worth the effort, though, for stunning views of the volcano’s picture-perfect crater lake. 
  • Mount Karisimbi: At 14,787 feet, Karisimbi is both the highest volcano in the park and the highest peak in Rwanda. This round-trip hike takes two days to complete, with a night spent under canvas and good chances for spotting gorillas and other primates en route. 
  • Karisoke Research Center: Reaching Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center requires a 30-minute transfer from the park headquarters, followed by a 1.5-hour hike to the saddle in between Karisimbi and Bisoke; it's located at circa 9,840 feet. 

Where to Stay Nearby

Unlike many other African national parks, Volcanoes National Park does not permit overnight stays except on guided multi-day hikes. However, there is an impressive choice of camps and lodges within a few miles of the park headquarters in Kinigi. Here are our top picks: 

  • Bisate Lodge: Located in a spectacular volcanic crater on the edge of the national park, Bisate Lodge offers six luxurious, en-suite villas designed in the traditional Rwandan fashion with thatched, domed roofs. The lodge can arrange gorilla trekking, guided hikes, and cultural experiences for you. 
  • Singita Kwitonda Lodge: The closest of all accommodation options to the national park (with which it shares a border), Singita Kwitonda Lodge comprises eight opulent suites. Each one has a private heated plunge pool and both indoor and outdoor fireplaces. The lodge offers hiking, gorilla and golden monkey trekking, and village tours.
  • Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge: The first community-owned lodge in Rwanda, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge has six cottages, two suites, and one family cottage, each with a fireplace and sitting area. The main lodge is filled with welcoming shared spaces, and activities include gorilla and golden monkey trekking, village walks, and hikes to the Dian Fossey Memorial. 
  • Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel: A popular mid-range option in Musanze, Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel offers eight rooms and a family suite. Amenities include a restaurant, pool, and garden, as well as a booking service for gorilla and golden monkey trekking tours, cycle tours, and canoe trips. 

How to Get There 

The closest airport to Volcanoes National Park is Kigali International Airport (KGL), located just outside the Rwandan capital. From there, it takes roughly three hours to drive the 70 miles to Musanze, the national park’s closest village. In turn, Musanze is a half-hour drive from the headquarters at Kinigi, where visitors are required to check in by 7 a.m. on the day of their visit. There are no flights available between Kigali and Volcanoes National Park. Instead, visitors should either hire a car (often with a driver) at the airport, or opt to join a guided tour with transfers included. 

Accessibility 

Although Volcanoes National Park does not have any specific amenities for visitors with mobility issues, Responsible Travel offers a special wheelchair-accessible itinerary for those who wish to tick gorilla trekking in Rwanda off their bucket list. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • The best time to visit Volcanoes National Park is during the dry season, from June to September. At this time, mild days with less rainfall make for the most comfortable hiking conditions and more easily navigable terrain. 
  • You may wish to time your visit to coincide with the annual Kwita Izina ceremony, when baby gorillas born in the park within the last year are officially named and conservation lectures are held alongside displays of traditional music and dancing. This is typically a chance to converse with some of the leading names in primate research and the park staff members who work so hard to protect the gorillas at ground level. In recent years, the ceremony has been held in September. 
  • Whenever you travel, rainfall is guaranteed. Therefore, be sure to pack good quality rain gear, gaiters, and sturdy walking shoes with sufficient grip for tackling slippery terrain. Also, due to the park’s high altitude, plenty of warm clothing is also advised. 
  • In addition to the $1,500 gorilla trekking permit, different activities within the national park have their own fees. See the park website for a full list. 
Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. World Wildlife Fund. "Global Mountain Gorilla Population Count Grows to 1,063." December 16, 2019.

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Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: The Complete Guide