The Virunga Mountains are a range of eight, mostly dormant volcanic mountains that lie on the northern border of Rwanda, Congo, and the southwestern part of Uganda.
They are, from east to west:
- Muhavura (4127m / 13,540ft)
- Gahinga (3474m / 11,398ft)
- Sabinyo (3645m / 11,959ft)
- Visoke (3711m / 12,175ft)
- Karisimbi (4507m / 14,787ft)
- Mikeno (4427m / 14,524ft)
- Nyiragongo (3470m / 11,385ft)
- Nyamulagira (3058m / 10,033ft)
The lush landscapes here are full of life and opportunities for magical encounters with diverse wildlife species. Here we have compiled a guide to exploring the Virunga Mountains and a selection of some of the adventures they have in store.
All eight volcanoes are available for hiking (and biking!) with varying levels of experience needed. And, with the exceptions of Mount Karisimbi and Mount Mikeno, all volcanoes can be climbed as day hikes (the latter two will take 2 days to complete including an overnight camp over.)
Mount Karisimbi might be the highest in the Virunga volcanoes volcano but is relatively straightforward to climb and requires minimal experience to reach the summit providing you are in good fitness and have the endurance to keep going. The eleventh highest mountain in Afraica, Karisimbi gets its name from the local word meaning ‘white shell’ to describe the snow that covers the top of the peak during the dry season. It is on this climb where the grave of Dian Fossey can be found – the American primatologist, conservationist, and author of Gorillas in the Mist, who was murdered in her remote mountain cabin in 1985.
Mount Mikeno, the second highest of the volcanoes is considered the toughest to hike thanks to its steep forested slopes and winds that hit its sides regularly. Its name actually derives from the local word to mean ‘poor’ because of the harsh slopes and conditions that prevent human settlement. That said, the views from the summit of Mikeno are well worth the climb with a breathtaking clear gaze over the great East African rift valley. It is also here on Mount Mikeno that the majority of endangered mountain gorillas live in family groups.
Mount Bisoke is another popular, yet demanding climb, formed as a result of a rift that is gradually dividing sections of East Africa. It has two crater lakes – one at its summit and the other (Lake Ngezi) found midway up the climb. Its last eruption was in 1957, giving it the biggest Crater Lake within the Virunga Mountain ranges. The volcano is covered with a variety of mountain vegetation including bamboo forests which provide the ideal shelter and food for the resident gorillas and monkey species.
Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira are the only two active volcanoes within the range. Recent eruptions occurred in 2006, 2010 and May 2021. Both volcanoes are very young (12,000 years) and as a duo, they account for over 40% of all African volcanic eruptions. In addition, the Nyiragongo crater contains the largest lava lake in the world, which in 2002, destroyed one-third of the city of Goma in the eastern DRC. Despite their recent eruptions, both volcanoes can be safely climbed with a private guide. Those with a keen interest in the lava lake are recommended to have an overnight stay over at the rim since the best views of the lava lake can be viewed at night, accompanied by the mesmerising sounds of the exploding volcanic gasses.
A different perspective of the Virunga Mountains can be experienced by air. Take a private helicopter to the high-altitude cloud forests of Volcanoes National Park and view the verdant carpet of rainforest below.
Fly low to see the volcanoes in action and get close to the lava lakes, watching their ever-changing shapes and fluorescent colours glowing below. Hover over the stunning crystal-clear springs so purified and filtered by the layers of lava rock, and spot hippos wallowing to drink and cool down in the heat of the day. Track the playful and inquisitive golden monkeys in the forest, watching them leap between bamboo branches and frolicking on the forest floor as you fly over back to base.
Trekking with gorillas
Undoubtedly, one of your main draws to the Virunga Mountains will surely be the chance to spend time with one of the families of mountain gorillas living in the ancient forests here. From the foothills, head up into the dense, misty mountains for private gorilla trekking. Whether it’s a 400lb silverback or a mother caring for her tiny infant, you will first-handedly begin to understand the fragility of these endangered species as you spend time observing their every movement.
Around one-third of the world’s population of mountain gorillas live in the lush volcanic forests here, and you can come face to face with the ten families that make the Virunga Mountains their home. Accompanied by an expert ranger, explore the scenic landscape where Dian Fossey carried out her ground-breaking gorilla research, and delve deep into the park’s dense, misty forests to spend some time quietly observing the characteristics and mannerisms of the gorillas as they play, tease, forage, and snooze in their natural habitat.
A wildlife experience with the magnificent mountain gorilla is like no other, however, at times the trek to view them may be strenuous, with steep hills covered in dense vegetation and slippery mud. That said, the reward will certainly well outweigh the effort once you get that first glimpse of these spectacular mammals.
More animal encounters
As well as offering a place to live for the families of mountain gorillas, Virunga National Park is home to over 128 other species of mammal including okapi, forest elephants, leopards, bushbucks, hippos, blue monkeys, olive baboons, and warthogs.
In addition, you have the opportunity to mix with 109 species of reptiles and 706 species of birds found in the trees and bushes of the mountains. A total wildlife lovers' paradise can be experienced throughout all eight of the mountains.
Where to stay
Singita Kwitonda Lodge
Set in Rwanda’s north-western reaches, right on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, Singita Kwitonda Lodge’s unparalleled position puts life-changing gorilla-trekking experiences within easy reach. Further raising the bar on sustainable luxury ecotourism, Kwitonda’s farm-to-table food journey celebrates Rwandese cuisine and fresh produce from the on-site garden, while the Akarabo Nursery is a fundamental part of Singita’s ambitious undertaking to contribute to the long-term conservation of endangered mountain gorillas by increasing their habitat through reforestation.
In response to its exquisite location, each of the lodge’s eight luxurious suites features a private heated plunge pool, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, and large timber-framed windows that welcome the breathtaking scenery and volcano views inside. Elements like woven ceilings and hand-fired terracotta brickwork crafted by local artisans highlight the authentic East African appeal of this remarkable lodge.
The One & Only Nyungwe House
Captivating wildlife, dramatic mountain landscapes blanketed with greenery, and their very own working tea plantation; you can observe natural wonders flourish at One&Only Nyungwe House. Stunning accommodation offers a one-of-a-kind escape, bordering one of Africa’s oldest rainforests and situated in five striking wooden villa clusters. Each of the treetop-skimming, luxury suites are secluded in untamed surroundings, accommodating all adventure seekers and paying homage to Rwanda’s beauty and heritage.
The best months of the year to explore the Virunga Mountains are January and February (a short dry period) and July and August (a longer dry period). However, with some exceptions, June and September are usually fine as well. Even in the dry period, short afternoon showers are frequent, so expect to start your adventures early and rain gear will certainly be needed.
Thanks to the altitudes here, the temperatures at the base are pretty ideal year-round - in Goma (1500m), Musanze (1800m), and Kisoro (2050m), they range between 20°C and 28°C during the day, and 10°C and 15°C at night.
For more information on discovering The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda and exploring The Virunga Mountains, get in touch to begin your journey with Untold Story Travel.