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Kenya's must-visit National Parks

by Sam

Kenya offers hundreds of National Parks, reserves and private conservancies. In this travel blog, we highlight the National Parks featured on most Kenya travel itineraries - and for good reason. We discuss why you should visit these parks, how to get there, and tips on what to see and do. 

Are you particularly interested in the Masai Mara? Then please refer to our self-drive guide to the Masai Mara - a  separate destination guide and blog only covering this popular area in Kenya. An overview of the entrance fees per park can be found in the Practical Info section of our website here.

Couple driving in national park in Kenya

1. Amboseli National Park | Spotting Elephants

Amboseli is a gentle introduction to self-driving in Kenya: the tracks are well-signed, easy to navigate and a pleasure to drive. 

Why Amboseli is one of the best National Parks in Kenya 

Amboseli National Park is most famous for two particular things – majestic herds of big-tusked elephants and glorious views of Mount Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania.

You can find the best game drive tracks in the southern part of the park around the Olodoare Plains, Oltukai, Longinye Swamp, Observation Hill Swamp and Lake Kioko. Large herbivores such as elephants, wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles are easily spotted at Amboseli, while both waterbirds and predators such as lions, cheetahs and hyenas are viewed regularly as well. 

Surprisingly, Amboseli National Park offers no public campsites within its boundaries. The nearest option is the KWS Amboseli public camp, located just 200 meters from the National Park headquarters. Alternatively, you have the option to stay in the KWS Banda’s accommodations.

When is the best time to visit Amboseli National Park? 

Amboseli is a year-round destination for your self-drive safari, with no specific animal migration patterns to consider. The wettest month is April, and the short rains typically occur in November and December.

For an optimal experience, we recommend visiting Amboseli during the shoulder season. The park tends to be more crowded during peak times, including July to September and the Christmas holidays. Notably, Amboseli ranks as the second most visited National Park in Kenya after the Masai Mara, despite its smaller size. Choosing the shoulder season will definitely provide a more serene and enjoyable exploration.

How do I get to Amboseli National Park?

We recommend combining a visit to Amboseli National Park with a self-drive route from Nairobi to the coastline. Explore our 16-day Bush to Beach itinerary as an example, showing how you can discover both the beauty of Amboseli as well as other remarkable national parks and Kenya's pristine beaches.

Roads to take and roads to avoid:

When travelling from Nairobi, Google Maps presents two options: one involves branching off at Athi River, navigating towards Namanga, the Tanzanian border, and taking the C103 to enter Amboseli from the west. However, we strongly advise against this route due to the C103's poor condition, potentially causing damage to your vehicle and significantly increasing travel time. Instead, it's recommended to continue on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, then branch off at Emali town, following the well-maintained C102 to reach Kimana town and the Kimana gate. This alternative route is the fastest and ensures a smooth journey on entirely tarmacked roads.

If approaching from Mombasa, access Amboseli through Tsavo West National Park via the Kimana (Olkelunyiet) Gate.

Visiting Amboseli is also a great addition to a Tanzania itinerary. Located less than an hour's drive from Loitokitok town on the Tanzanian border, the preferred entrance gate is Kimana. Alternatively, crossing the border at Namanga is an option, but entering Amboseli via the western gate using the C103 is discouraged, as we mentioned earlier. 

2. Samburu | An off-the-beaten-track cultural experience

As you travel from the lush and fertile grounds of Mount Meru, the transition into Samburu unfolds with an entirely different landscape and ambiance. Amid dry and semi-desert ecosystems, palm groves and coastal forests paint the breathtaking canvas of Samburu National Reserve. This area is the ancestral home of the Samburu people, a traditional community resiliently thriving in challenging conditions. Preserving their customs and knowledge, the Samburu people warmly share their culture with visitors. The Ewaso Nyiro River courses through this region, serving as its lifeblood. Beyond exciting game drives, exploring Samburu also offers diverse landscapes and rich cultural experiences.

While most people just call it 'Samburu', the area in the lesser-known north of Laikipia actually consists of three National Reserves: Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba. We will hereby discuss all three of them.

Why Samburu is one of the best National Parks in Kenya 

While Shaba is not home to much wildlife, its appeal lies in its striking landscape, walking trails to lava & hot springs, and a true wilderness vibe. 

With its numerous off-road dirt tracks, game driving is most rewarding in Samburu. Although the Big Five are not all present, Samburu hosts the unique "Samburu Five": Grevy zebra, Somali ostrich, Reticulated giraffe, Gerenuk, and Beisa oryx, species exclusive to this National Park. Besides those, Samburu is also renowned for its resident leopards.

If you like slow travelling or don't feel like doing another game drive, summiting Mount Ololokwe (1754 meters in a day trip) is a great alternative. Visiting a community-run elephant orphanage, or immersing in Samburu community life are other activities that we greatly recommend. 

During our trip to the area, we visited Umoja Women's Village (on the outskirts of Archers Post town) and were highly touched and impressed by the experience. Founded by 15 courageous women survivors of rape by local British soldiers in 1990, Umoja has expanded to shelter women escaping child marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and rape—all of which are still cultural norms among the Samburu. The women survive on the small entrance fee paid by visitors. You can read more about the Umoja Women's Group in this Guardian article.  

When is the best time to visit Samburu?

You can visit Samburu year-round, with the best wildlife watching during the dry months from June to October and December to March. Rainy months are typically in April, May, and November.

How do I get to Samburu?

We recommend combining a visit to Samburu with a self-drive circuit to and from Nairobi. Explore our 15-day North-Central itinerary as an example, showing how you can discover the beauty of Samburu as well as other remarkable national parks and conservancies.

Roads to take and roads to avoid:

Samburu offers convenient access from Nairobi, Nakuru, or Mount Meru via well-maintained tarmac roads. When travelling from Nairobi, covering a distance of 322 km, the journey takes approximately 7 hours. The recommended route involves connecting to the A2 and heading towards Archers Post.

For those starting the journey from Nakuru, a distance of 323 km, the drive typically takes around 6 hours. It is advised to follow the C83 to Nyahururu town, where you seamlessly transition to the B5, leading to the A2 highway and eventually reaching Archer’s Post. Note that when renting our vehicles in Kenya, travel beyond Archers Post is restricted.

Camping in Samburu

We strongly advise you to check out one of two exceptional special campsites in Buffalo Springs and Shaba, highly praised by roadtrippers who have shared their positive experiences with Roadtrip Africa. The River Special Campsite in Buffalo Springs is strategically positioned next to the river, offering prime game-spotting areas. Meanwhile, the Funan Special Campsite in Shaba provides a serene setting near a water hole, surrounded by majestic trees that offer shade on hot days. These special campsites do not require advance booking, which offers you flexibility for an authentic and spontaneous camping experience.

For more information on accommodation and campsites in Samburu, you can check out the Reserve's website here

3. Ol Pejeta National Park | A role model for conservation

Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 90,000-acre privately managed wildlife area located between the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. Besides being home to a variety of animals including the Big Five, Ol Pejeta is a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees and the largest sanctuary in East Africa for the endangered Black Rhino. In addition, Ol Pejeta has one of the highest predator densities in Kenya.

Why Ol Pejeta is one of the best National Parks in Kenya 

Ol Pejeta is a gentle self-drive safari destination; it’s easy to navigate, the tracks are marked and in good condition, and the park is accessible year-round. Visitors can participate in various exciting conservation experiences, such as lion tracking, night game drives, horse riding amongst the rhinos, or jogging in the wild - making this a fun and also very family-friendly safari destination. You can book all activities online through the park's excellent conservancy website here

Do note that the game viewing circuit in Ol Pejeta is very rewarding but small. If you don't feel like participating in additional experiences, then 1 day / 1 night in Ol Pejeta is plenty. 

How to get to Ol Pejeta 

A visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy is included in our North - Central Circuit. Most travellers start their safari in Nairobi and stop at Mount Meru first, before driving to Ol Pejeta and then Lake Nakuru. The Conservancy is close to Nanyuki, a well-established town 200 km north of Nairobi. When coming from Nairobi, the journey takes approx 4 hours on a smooth tarmac road. 

Camping in Ol Pejeta National Park

Camping in Ol Pejeta is a great wilderness experience. The park only offers private campsites, meaning you will have your spot all to yourself. Firewood is provided, but no other amenities are available. Note that camping at Ol Pejeta must be pre-booked and can no longer be arranged upon arrival at the gate.

Rhinos at national park in Kenya

4. Hell's Gate & Lake Naivasha | Mountainbiking among zebra's

Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate are two small national parks in Kenya bordering each other. If you feel like mingling with the locals and are looking for a budget, not-so-typical safari destination, you might like it here. Naivasha and Hells Gate are popular holiday destinations for people from Nairobi.

Why Hell's Gate and Lake Naivasha are among the best National Parks in Kenya 

First and foremost, Lake Naivasha is a great place to relax and unwind. After a few days of game driving, it's nice to enjoy different surroundings. Much of the lake is surrounded by beautiful forests and yellow-barked acacia trees. These forests are filled with bird life, and Naivasha is therefore known as a world-class birding destination. 

If you can't get enough of safari, Lake Naivasha still offers walking safaris and boat safaris, but from our personal experience, they are rather dull. 

The nearby Hells Gate National Park offers beautiful scenery and plenty of fun activities. While it's not a big safari destination, you can go mountain biking here amidst giraffes, zebras and gazelles, how cool is that! While hiking through Hell's Gate Gorge, you'll spot strange rock formations, beautiful waterfalls, and dozens of red soil shades. Experienced rock climbers can enjoy Fischer's Tower, a stand-alone rock in Hell's Gate. 

How to get to Naivasha and Hells Gate

A visit to Naivasha and Hells Gate is included in all our self-drive itineraries in Kenya. The journey spans 120 km and typically takes 2-3 hours from Nairobi, with the actual travel time depending on factors such as the presence of slow-moving trucks going up the escarpment at Maai Mahiu. 

Camping at Lake Naivasha

Our favourite camping spot at Lake Naivasha is Camp Carnellys. The grounds are located right by the lake, offering a great restaurant and a popular bar. If you don't feel like camping in Kenya, then Camp Carnellys also offers (budget) bandas with views of the lake.

 

Taking off on your Kenya self-drive adventure

Are you ready to rent a car and explore Kenya on a self-drive trip? Get in contact with our experienced team at Roadtrip Africa to check availability, and secure your 4x4 now!

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