Straddling the Uganda-Kenya border, 120 kilometres northeast of Lake Victoria, Mount Elgon is the eighth highest mountain in Africa and has the largest surface area of any extinct volcano in the world.
Mount Elgon is believed to have first erupted about 24 million years ago and last erupted 10 million years ago, so it’s the oldest and largest volcanic mountain in East Africa. Its base covers a staggering area of around 4,000 square kilometres, and it rises through a series of gradual slopes punctuated by steep cliffs to a height of 4,321 metres at Wagagai Peak, which lies on the Ugandan side of the mountain.
Elgon’s upper slopes are cloaked in tropical montane forest, while above this lies a vast tract of Afro-Alpine moorland, and this unique vegetation extends over the caldera, a collapsed crater covering over 40 square kilometres at the top of the mountain. It’s protected by national parks in both Uganda and Kenya, creating an extensive trans-boundary conservation region that is an important water catchment area supplying several million in people in the region.
Compared to the west of Uganda, the east receives relatively few visitors apart from those passing through on their way to and from Kenya. But Mount Elgon has gradual slopes up to the peaks on the crater rim, and offers a satisfying climb that doesn’t require expert skills or equipment. In fact, a climb on Elgon’s deserted moorlands unveils a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to many mountains such as Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. This is because the ultimate goal is not the final ascent to the 4321-metre Wagagai Peak, but the descent into the vast caldera once there.
Trekkers will be well rewarded by the volcanic foothills, cliffs, caves, gorges and waterfalls along with panoramic views across the wide plains below. Additionally, while hikers need to be reasonably fit, there’s less of a risk of altitude sickness associated with climbing higher mountains, and the cost is significantly lower. For organising a climb, facilities are better on the Ugandan side than the Kenyan, (and Wagagai is in Uganda), making this a viable alternative to tackling the mountain from the neighbouring country.
The entrance of Mount Elgon National Park can be reached quickly by car or bus, and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) base in the village of Budadiri can arrange guides, porters, food, etc., for the climb and is the starting point of the four-day Sasa Trail; the most popular, quickest and easiest of the three trails that ascend the mountain.
Exploring the foothills is an alternative activity for visitors who do not wish to climb to the top, and this is an excellent hiking area, very beautiful and virtually untouched by tourists. There are caves to visit as well as the pretty cascading Sipi Falls, endemic plants include giant lobelia, heather and groundsel, lucky walkers may spot blue and black-and-white colobus monkeys and rare birds in the forests, and most hikes lead to viewpoints where you can look up at the craggy peaks of brooding Mount Elgon.
Best time to visit
Mount Elgon can be climbed at any time of year, but during the long rains in April and May, the trails become slippery, slow and tedious. The dry seasons (June-August and November to March) are best, especially in the spring months of November to December when the wildflowers are in bloom.