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Home » Rwanda National Game Parks » Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park also referred to as Parc National des Volcanos in French is situated in north-west of Rwanda sharing a boarder with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This protected area is famously known for its mountain gorillas. It also houses five out of eight volcanoes that form the Virunga Highlands. These include; Bisoke, Karisimbi, Muhabura, Sabyinyo and Gahinga.

The first gazettion occurred in 1925 where the land mass surrounded by Visoke, Mikeno and Karisimbi, was allocated with intention to minimise gorilla poaching.

This earlier gazettion made it the first national park in Africa. In 1929, the boundaries of this protected area were expanded more into Rwanda and the colonial Congo, forming Albert National Park covering 8090 km², managed by Belgian colonial government who were administering the two colonies.

After the independence of the two countries, the park was divided into two though the Rwandan side had to be reduced in 1969 for pyrethrum growing.

This park was to become the station for the historical Dian Fossey- an American primatologist who dedicated her life to research about gorillas.

Arriving in 1967, Karisoke became her research centre which is between Visoke and Karisimbi areas. This research centre is credited for advocating for gorilla conservation, something that took the world by storm in the subsequent years.

Though murdered in 1985 under unclear circumstances, her works are still living often depicted in documentaries and films such as the Gorillas in the mist.

Volcanoes national park has a varying vegetation due to altitudinal variations. This include the; lower montane forest though lost to farming (2400 – 2500 m), Neoboutonia forest (2500 – 3200 m), Bamboo forest extending about 30% of the gazetted area.

Hagenia-Hypericum forest (2600 – 3600 m), which is one of the Hagenia abyssinica’s largest forests. From (3500-4200 m) the forest largely consists of Lobelia lanurensis, Lobelia wollastonii, and Senecio erici-rosenii.

While grassland occurs between 4300 – 4500 m with meadows, Secondary thicket, swamps, marshes, and small lakes exist though on a small scale

Regarding fauna, Volcanoes is well known for Mountain gorillas alongside other mammals like Golden Monkey, black – fronted duiker, spotted hyena, buffalo and bush buck.

The elephants have been recorded though not frequently seen. 178 species of birds exist with 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to Virunga and Rwenzori Mountains.

Tourist Attractions in Volcanoes National Park

The Mountain gorillas scientifically referred as Gorilla beringei beringei are posterities of apes and ancestral monkeys that spread over Africa and Arabia at the start of the Oligocene epoch (34-24 million years ago).

Though the fossil records to mark the evolutionary history of gorillas is poor, it can be noted that the group of primates that was to become gorillas split from their common ancestor together with chimps & humans about 9 million years ago.

The common ancestor Proconsul africanus is regarded to be the earliest relative of gorillas. Mountain gorillas can also be noted that they separated from the eastern lowland gorillas about 400,000 years ago and these two sub species are also anticipated to have isolated themselves from the western gorillas about 2 million years ago.

Gorillas now stand in two sub species i.e. Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) however arriving at this has not been an easy journey.

In 1847, the genus was regarded as Troglodytes and later renamed to Gorilla in 1852. Colin Groves one of the great taxonomists suggested in 1967 that all gorillas should be declared as one species as Gorilla gorilla with 3 Sub-Species of Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western low land gorilla), Gorilla gorilla beringei (Mountain gorillas found in Virunga and Bwindi) and Gorilla gorilla gruaeri (low land gorillas inhabiting the west of the Virunga mountains). The review in 2003 placed gorillas in their current classification.

Gorillas are vegetarian and occasionally insect eating animals that are shy and hardly offensive which differs from the aggressive and fearsome creature showcased in movies and play books that are always impressive to visit on gorilla safaris in Rwanda & Uganda.

Gorillas should be noted that they are the powerful and largest of all Apes of which a mature male can weigh up to 275kg and stretch up to the height of 1.7m (6ft).

Volcanoes national park is gifted with a good number of these endangered mountain gorillas and various gorilla families forge their survival in this verdant volcanic area.

These gorilla families are in two categories that is; Study groups available to scientists and researchers and tracking groups available to tourists.

Study groups include; Beetsme, and Pablo’s Shida’s with the highest number of individuals. Tourism tracking groups’ number to ten including;

Susa -A Family; This family has 28 members with 3 Silverbacks. Formerly, it was the biggest gorilla group with 42 individuals attracting a lot of studies by Dian Fossey before splitting into two.

The group is named after the River of Susa of which they live along. The young twins of Impano and Byishimo make this group famous because of their playful and jumpy behaviours.

This group spend much of its time in low levels of the forest compared to the Susa B family which dwells at an altitude of (4507M) on the slopes of Karisimbi Volcano.

Karisimbi Family (Susa-B Family); This group is a renegade of the former Susa group (Susa-A) and is currently named Susa-B or Karisimbi group.

The group has 15 individuals and dwells in the slopes of Karisimbi – the highest Rwandan peak. Being on higher altitude, the group is suitable for enthusiastic hikers stretching to a whole day trekking experience.

Sabyinyo Family; This group has 9 members with 2 Silverbacks and is one of the groups that can be easily accessible in Volcanoes Park.

The strongest silverback is Guhonda and the group dwells in the gentle slopes between Mount Gahinga and Sabyinyo

Amahoro Family; Amahoro the local dialect literally meaning peaceful is a crown name of this group. The group is led by a calm silverback called Ubumwe (literally meaning Unity).

The family comprises of 17 members with one Silverback. Trekking this gorilla group requires enduring a relatively steep climb generating a memorable trekking encounter.

Group 13 (Agashya Family); Agashya is the family’s second name. The group had 13 members at the time of habituation deriving its name from its number though it has since then expanded to 25 individuals.

It is headed by Agashya – the dominant silverback. This silverback is known for protecting his members from all external attacks and under powerful conditions, he can take them to the top of the Volcanoes for protection. Agashya took over from Nyakirima – the former head of the family.

Kwitonda Family; This family has 18 individuals and 2 silverbacks. It tends to migrate from Democratic Republic of Congo.

The dominant silverback is called Kwitonda literally meaning the humble one. As a result of the inter boarder migrations, the group tends to provide long trekking distance creating difficulty.

Umubano Family; This group split from Amahoro group and is headed by the Silverback called Charles.

Disagreements between Charles and Ubumwe led to the split of the former group after several fights. Charles managed to gather a few females and created his own group. The group now has 9 individuals with 1 Silverback.

Hirwa Family; With 12 members and 1 silverback, this family arouse from groups of gorillas 13 and Sabyinyo plus other gorillas.

Hirwa a local dialect meaning the lucky one, has a silverback from the former Susa group. It was opened for tracking in 2006 and regardless of being new it is an established group with a position among other gorilla families.

Ugenda Family; This family is located in Karisimbi region of Rwanda. It consists of 11 gorillas with 2 silverbacks.

It tends to move from one area to another explaining its name Ugenda which means being on the move. Thus trekking sometimes gets prolonged as locating the group may not come too easily.

Bwenge Family; The family has 11 individuals with Silverback. It can be located from the Karisoke Volcano slopes.

The dominant silverback is called Bwenge who formed this group in 2007. The group underwent difficult times after losing 6 infants however it has grown strong overtime with two positive births.

Trekking this group is a bit challenging with a 3 hour hike over 600m in height.

Holding the famous endangered mountain gorillas aside; Volcanoes National Park has a variety of wild life worth encountering on this Rwanda Gorilla Safari.

They include; golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), black-fronted duiker (Cephalophus niger), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). The also has some elephants however they are not seen frequently.

Volcanoes National Park provides shelter to over of 178 species of birds including; Archer’s ground robin, the francolins, dusky crimson-wing, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, collared apalis, strange weaver and the Rwenzori batis. Of the 178 recorded species of birds, over 13 species plus other 16 subspecies are endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains only.

Volcanoes National Park contains over five of eight Volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains which include: Karisimbi (4507m), Bisoke (3711m), Muhabura (4127m), Gahinga (3474m) and Sabyinyo (3634m). These mountains present a great scenic view with their slopes covered by verdant vegetation rooted in the fertile volcanic soils.[/vc_toggle][vc_column_text]

Tourist Activities in Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla trekking start in the morning from the park Headquarters at about 07:30 hours. Undergo briefing by the park staff and get a gorilla family to track for the day.

Some gorilla families are found on the gradients of Virunga volcanoes requiring physical fitness as trekking may be physically demanding.

The trek experience usually commences in the farmed bases of the Volcanoes before rising up the verdant thick misty forests.

The experience can stretch between 2 – 5 hours considering the whereabouts of the gorilla family. Eight trekkers are allowed to track each gorilla family per day while a maximum of one hour encounter with gorillas is provided.

15 years is the minimum tracking age in Rwanda and a gorilla permit in Rwanda costs USD 750 per person.

Alongside gorilla trekking, Volcanoes National Park is also a perfect ground for golden Monkey tracking. Golden Monkeys are one of the rare and endangered species that are endemic to the Virunga massif.

Volcanoes National Park Rwanda provides you an opportunity to view these rare species as they swing through the tree branches with their golden skins and their unique nose.

The experience is quite rewarding. The activity of tracking golden monkeys starts like that of gorilla trekking at 08:00am from Kinigi park headquarters and it tends to stretch up to Midday taking about 4 hours.

Encounter various bird species in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Over 178 bird species have been recorded and can be seen on this Rwanda safari.

Birds like; Archer’s ground robin, francolins, Rwenzori turaco, dusky crimson-wing, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, Rwenzori batis, strange weaver and the collared apalis.

Climbing Karisimbi the highest point in Rwanda is quite interesting. This huge dome dormant volcano was first climbed in 1903 and its summit stand at 4,507m.

It dominates the area because of its great width rather than its height as it adjoins other eight (8) Virunga volcanoes that shape the region.

Mount Karisimbi is the sixth highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro of Kenya; Mt. Kenya of Kenya, Mt Rwenzori of Uganda, Mt. Meru of Tanzania and Ras Dashen in Ethiopia.

Amazingly to note on your Rwanda safari is that this white cover is from sleet and hail that accumulate from the numerous storms that characterize the higher elevations rather than snow.

Climbing Mount Karisimbi takes 2 days and requires 2 days advance booking while the respective clothing and equipment are a priority.

You traverse through the graveyards of Dian Fossey and her favourite mountain gorillas though visiting requires another pay, continue through varying vegetation zones including Bamboo and wild celery that cover the lower slopes perfect for Mountain gorillas, continue through the hagenica forest before approaching splendid giant lobelia and groundsel. Camp at 3,700m and the views of Bisoke are clear behind the camp.

The next day exposes you to tougher climb as it gets steeper and visibility reduces with fog while the ground gets muddy.

After 2 hours of ascent, you draw closer to the summit until you can no longer go high anymore. The Congo boarder lies in close proximity. The descend takes over 6 hours including stops en route.

Hiking Bisoke Volcano is an amazing activity to encounter on Rwanda safari in Volcanoes National Park. It starts at 07:00am and it takes about 7 hours round trip.

The hike is rewarding as it passes via the elevated landscapes with relatively steep ascend.

Dian Fossey was an American Primatologist who did great work towards raising awareness about Mountain gorillas and laying a foundation for their conservation.

Her body lays in rest at the raised landscape of Karisoke and paying tribute to her remains is one of the ethical encounters that you can ever have on Rwanda safari.

The hike to the Dian Fossey grave involves ascending through the lush vegetation that has dwelled on the volcanic soils in the area.

The site also contains the research centre with a lot of collections about mountain gorillas while the grave of Digit –the Dian’s admirable silverback is also seen at the site.

This walk exposes you to the Rwanda’s magnificent lakes of Ruhondo and Burera including a great scenic encounter of the Russumo falls.

A walk takes you through a beautiful valley after which you encounter the waterfalls. Holding the natural geographical wonders aside, the walk exposes you birding opportunities where various birds like African Marsh Harrier, Long crested Eagle, Stonechat, Cinnamon-breasted Bee-eater, Grey-throated tit, Paradise Fly catchers and Common Moorhen may be seen.

The walk takes 3 – 4 hours and can be perfectly done in the morning. You can venture into the afternoon boat cruise on Lake Ruhondo for about 1.5 hours.

This is a small scenic crater lake that sits at Mount Bisoke foothills in Volcanoes National Park. This hike is very short taking 3 – 4 hours including going and coming back in a company of the ranger guide.

The lake’s environs are habitats for birds like Grauer’s swamp – warbler and monkey species. The spot also provides relative scenic views of Democratic Republic of Congo with its Virunga National Park.

The great caves in Musanze are ancient landmark worth encountering on Rwanda safari. These caves are about millions of years old and were used as storage of food, supplies and refugee by Rwandan Kings during the times of war in pre-colonial Africa.

You are lured into wonder over this massive complex that can leave you in a prayer session thinking that is a natural cathedral.

The silence of the caves leaves your ears concentrating on the sound of your footsteps and drop falls of water as you walk the earth’s depth. It is a perfect afternoon encounter when preparing for your gorilla trekking activity next day or after you have trekked gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

This is a small forest named Buhanga Sacred Forest standing on a hill. It holds a lot cultural and historical significance.

The Royal Kings of Rwanda used to take a bath in the waters in this forest before they were coroneted and in return the local people desisted from cutting down trees and farming in the forest environs thus marking it as sacred.

Traditions have it that the Buhanga forest takes on varying colours, varying dimensions according to seasons of the year, light, weather and others.

The forest trek can be done early in the morning and in the late afternoon. The tall magnificent trees shelter a range of birds and splendid butterflies while the trail network designed by the lava stones provides great access to the viewing platforms where this sacred forest can be explored in detail.

This is a small forest named Buhanga Sacred Forest standing on a hill. It holds a lot cultural and historical significance.

The Royal Kings of Rwanda used to take a bath in the waters in this forest before they were coroneted and in return the local people desisted from cutting down trees and farming in the forest environs thus marking it as sacred.

Traditions have it that the Buhanga forest takes on varying colours, varying dimensions according to seasons of the year, light, weather and others. The forest trek can be done early in the morning and in the late afternoon.

The tall magnificent trees shelter a range of birds and splendid butterflies while the trail network designed by the lava stones provides great access to the viewing platforms where this sacred forest can be explored in detail.

Getting There

Accommodations in Volcanoes National Park – Safari Lodges in Volcanoes National Park | Safari Hotels in Volcanoes National Park

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge

Located over 15 minutes’ drive from Volcanoes national Park entrance. The lodge offers a flawless ground for tourists interested in Mountain gorilla trekking and Golden Monkey tracking. It has 30 individual cottages, bar and restaurant all with good sights over the environs.

Kinigi Guesthouse
This Guest House is located in the District of Kinigi – north eastern Rwanda over 11 Km from City of Ruhengeri.

The accommodation facility can contain over 40 people and the rooms have warm water and electricity. It is on the doorway to the magnificent splendor of the volcanic mountain range, the dwelling of the endangered mountain gorillas.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
The lodge is close to the park Headquarters and takes a few minutes’ drive.  This lodge has six cottages and two suites that flourish in magnificent gardens, with private verandas, en-suite bathrooms, sitting rooms overlooking fireplaces.

Virunga Lodge

Virunga Lodge is a luxurious accommodation facility situated with in one hour’s drive from the park Headquarters. It contains 8 spacious chalets featuring large private veranda.