The Central Circuit
The central and southern parts of Kenya are known for their diverse and abundant nature. Beginning and ending your journey in Nairobi, you visit Samburu, Lake Naguru, Lake Navaisha and Hell's Gate and top it off with the Masai Mara. The Central Circuit is ideal for those who primarily come for wildlife watching, want modest driving hours a day, and have limited time to visit Kenya.
Scroll down to see the detailed day-to-day route with lots of insider travel tips and accommodation suggestions that you can book yourself. The suggested lodges are places we like to stay ourselves when we are roadtripping; small-scale, good price-quality ratio and owner-managed when possible.
Check the day to day itinerary
Day 1 of 13
Drive: 25km | 1-2 hours
Welcome to Kenya, or in Swahili: Karibu Kenya! Today you will arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and depending on your arrival time, you will have some time to do some Nairobi sightseeing. Highlights in Nairobi are the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Giraffe Centre or the Karen Blixen Museum. Alternatively, you can go up on the International Conference Centre Tower for a 360 view over the city.
Mid-range accommodation: Wildebeest eco-camp
Day 2 of 13
Destination: Mount Kenya
Drive: 160 km | 4 hours
Today you will receive your vehicle for the trip and drive to Mount Kenya! It is amazing how quickly the landscape changes; within a few hours you have changed the concrete jungle of Nairobi for a lush green and hilly countryside. Get active at your lodge with a strenuous hike on the slopes of this beautiful mountain, or relax on your veranda.
Mid-range: Castle Forest Lodge
Day 3 of 13
Enjoy: Mount Kenya
Get active at this lodge with a strenuous hike on the slopes of this beautiful mountain, or relax on your veranda.
Mid-range: Castle Forest Lodge
Day 4 of 13
Start: Mount Kenya
Destination: Samburu National Reserve
Drive: 230 km | 5+ hours
Samburu National Reserve is on the roadtrip menu today. This reserve is set in a greater conservation area with Shaba National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve. With one entrance fee you can enter all three. The reserve is set in a beautiful dry desert-like landscape. Large mammals such as elephants, and predators like leopards are frequently seen. Your chances of spotting the entire BIG 5 are high, and lots of other animals like ostriches, snakes and antelopes are easily spotted. One of our favourites!
Camping: Riverside Campsite - Buffalo Springs
Budget: Lion King Bush Camp or Sabache Camp
Mid-range: Ashnil Samburu Camp
Day 5 of 13
Today you will spend the day exploring Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo springs National Reserve. As the Ewaso Ngiro river flows through these reserves, it is a lifeline water resource for the animals. So, your game drive will pass alongside the river, where you can spot wildlife such as crocodiles, elephants, and an array of birds.
Day 6 of 13
Start: Samburu National Park
Destination: Lake Nakuru National Park
Drive: 330 km | 6 hours
Today you will head out to Lake Nakuru National Park. Take enough time to reach your destination as you will pass through the beautiful Laikipia Plateau - you might want to stop here and there along the way.
Camping: Malakai Public Campsite or Camping at Ziwa Bush Lodge
Mid-range: Kembu Cottages
Day 7 of 13
Enjoy: Lake Nakuru National Park
Spend a day at Lake Nakuru National Park. The size of the park makes it an easy, manageable experience in one day. Black rhinos are fairly easily spotted as well as other mammals such as zebra, buffaloes and giraffes. There are lots of stops along the way, including look out points and a waterfall. You can head out for a buffet lunch at the larger lodges within the park.
Day 8 of 13
Start: Lake Nakuru National Park
Destination: Lake Naivasha
Drive: 115 km | 2+ hours
Today you will drive to Lake Naivasha. Lake Naivasha is a place to get active. In Hells Gate National Park, (close to the lake) you can go for a bicycle or walking safari, and from your accommodation you can arrange a variety of activities.
Budget/Mid-range: Camp Carnelley’s
Mid-range/deluxe: Wileli House
Day 9 of 13
Enjoy: Lake Naivasha
Spend a day at Lake Naivasha or head to Hell's Gate National Park. Much of the lake is surrounded by forests of the yellow barked acacia trees. These forests abound with bird life, and Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination. The waters of the lake draw a great range of game to these shores. Giraffes wander among the acacia, Buffalo wallow in the swamps and Colobus monkeys call from the treetops while the hippos relax in the shallow waters. With no dangerous predators, you can safely walk and cycle.
Day 10 of 13
Start: Lake Naivasha
Destination: Masai Mara
Drive: 250 km | 6 hours
Today you will head south to the Masai Mara. The Masai Mara National Reserve will easily fit in your Top 3 as a highlight of your trip. Its landscape has a beauty that is unmatched: fields and fields of waving grass turning from yellow to green depending on the season. Roads are rough on the last stretch, so calculate enough time to reach Talek.
Mid-range: Aruba Mara Camp
Day 11 of 13
Enjoy: Masai Mara
You cannot get enough time in this park! The Masai Mara, or the Mara, as the locals and insiders call it, is a beautiful national reserve bordering the Serengeti in Tanzania. The Masai Mara's wildlife is prolific and it has excellent opportunities for game viewing. The wildebeest migration which takes place every year is world famous. It includes the dramatic crossing of the Mara river by millions of animals.
Mid-range: Aruba Mara Camp
Day 12 of 13
Start: Masai Mara
Drive: 255 km | 6 hours
After your last morning game drive, it’s time to drive back to Nairobi. If you leave the park at noon, you’ll have enough time to reach the capital city before nightfall (and traffic jam!).
Mid-range: Wildebeest Eco Camp
Day 13 of 13
Time to go! If you have enough time before your departure, you can spend the day exploring Nairobi with an organization like I like local, or if you cannot get enough of game viewing, you can go for another safari in Nairobi National Park.
What to expect on this 4x4 self-drive adventure
Travel time and road conditions
A stay of 13 days with 11 day car rental is recommended to follow this route. On average, you spend two nights at one location. On a travel day, you will drive around five hours without factoring in time for lunch, pictures etc.
Road conditions are good year round. It is asphalt pavement, with an occasional pothole and speed bumps. The roads to the Maasai Mara are notoriously bad. It is a challenging road due to the rocky surface with washboard ribbons. Drive at LIMITED SPEED (25 km /h).
Offline navigation is easy if you download Maps.me on your smart phone before you go. More tips at the on the road section.
When to go
Kenya is nice to visit year-round. It never gets really cold (except in the mountains) and even during the rainy season your travel will not be hindered, as the rains can be heavy but are typically short.
The country has one long, hot dry season from December until the beginning of April.The rainy season generally lasts from April through to May, with some short rains from September to November. Find more info about the weather and timing your safari in the 'before you travel' section.
The migration of wildebeest in the Mara starts around July and last until end September. More regarding the Mara can be read in our blogpost 'Self drive in the Masai Mara'
Create & book
Follow the Central Circuit as suggested, or use it as a starting point for travel inspiration, and adjust it to your liking.Secure your car
Included in your accommodated roadtrip
- Comprehensive car insurance
- Airport transfers
- Roadmap and Lonely Planet
- 24/7 Road assistance
- Unlimited mileage
- Electrical fridge
- Camping gear