There’s something uniquely special about coming face-to-face with an animal that shares 99.6% of our DNA – even more so when there are just 1,000 of them left in the wild. No wonder mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda is a dream-come-true for wildlife lovers and intrepid travellers alike.
Dreaming of a Rwanda gorilla trip? Here’s everything you need to know about Rwanda gorilla trekking – from where and when to go, to how to prepare and what to pack, to the best place to stay and best trips on offer.
Where to see mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas live in just two places in the whole world: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Massif, a chain of volcanoes stretching 174 miles across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thanks to its gentler slopes and more open bush areas, which can make for easier tracking than the other parks in the Virunga Massif, one of the best places to see mountain gorillas is Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (or Parc National de Volcans).
If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, inspired by famous American primatologist Dian Fossey, you might recognise Volcanoes National Park as the place she conducted most of her research and founded a centre that helped bring the endangered gorillas to the attention of the world. To this day, the park is one of Rwanda’s conservation epicentres and home to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which continues her legacy of research and gorilla advocacy.
How many gorillas are in Rwanda?
There are 12 habituated gorilla groups (meaning those accustomed to the reasonably close proximity of humans) – each made of at least one silverback, along with several females and youngsters – in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, as well as a few others that can’t be seen by tourists. This is a sizeable number, considering there are sadly just 1,000 gorillas still living in the wild globally.
There are more mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park than in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which has just one habituated group, but fewer than in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – although, as the name suggests, these gorillas can be trickier to find.
Having only been discovered in 1902, these majestic creatures are now endangered due to habitat loss and global warming, war and civil unrest, as well as disease, hunting and illegal pet trade (despite the fact they rarely survive in captivity). In fact, it was once believed the species could be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.
Yet thankfully, the number of mountain gorillas has actually increased – largely thanks to the stellar efforts of communities, governments, NGOs and even travellers, like you, who’ve helped fund and organise conservation initiatives. But it’s not over yet. It’s crucial the population continues to grow to increase the species’ genetic diversity, or it could still be wiped out completely by anything from a new disease, to a sudden change in habitat.
How to see gorillas in Rwanda
Since gorilla groups are always on the move, it’s vital to get the help of expert trackers for a chance of seeing them up close. While those you’ll track are habituated – meaning they’ve undergone a several-year process of gradually being accustomised to humans – they are by no means tame! Your guide will carry out a pre-departure brief when you meet (usually around 7am) to inform you of ‘gorilla etiquette’.
There are just eight tracking permits per gorilla family per day up for grabs in the Park (the same as in Rwanda), so planning ahead is crucial. Of course, this means the forest is unlikely to be crowded and you can rest easy knowing the gorillas face minimal disturbance.
Your guide will lead you to the spot where your gorilla family was last seen – which could be just a couple of hours’ hiking, or much further away.
From there, they’ll look for signs of the gorillas – such as footprints, dung, chewed bamboo and celery stalks, as well as abandoned nests – that might lead you to them. Guides and trackers throughout the Park stay in constant contact to make your search easier, but gorillas can cover large distances overnight and no group is easier to track than another, so be prepared for a long day.
You’ll probably smell the gorillas before you see them! Usually you’ll find them scattered over a small area of thick vegetation, during their long midday period of rest and play. With a mature male silverback gorilla weighing up to 200kg, it’s understandable to feel a little nervous upon first sight; but with the expertise of a guide, you’ll feel in safe company.
You’ll be allowed to spend up to an hour with the family – this is to avoid causing the animals any undue stress or getting them overly used to human interactions. Habituated gorillas may observe you with some interest (as will you them!), but inevitably they’ll go about their business and even feed in front of you unperturbed.
It’s important to always stay at least seven metres away from the gorillas at all times – more for their safety than your own, as gorillas are at risk of disease transmission from humans (which could ultimately prove disastrous for an already-endangered species). Find out why we encourage travellers to wear surgical face masks when visiting the endangered mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda.
The best time to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda
Rwanda has two wet seasons and two dry seasons. The dry seasons, from mid-December to early February, and from June to September, are perfect for gorilla trekking. During these windows, the forest terrain is not as challenging as it often is during the wet months and reduced humidity means fewer mosquitos.
However, because the country lies so close to the equator, the weather can be unpredictable, so it’s wise to pack for any eventuality! Always bring waterproofs, no matter what time of year you visit.
How hard is gorilla trekking in Rwanda?
The clue is in the name: mountain gorillas live in often-dense forests at elevations of between 8,000 and 13,00 feet. For anyone hoping to see them in the flesh, that means there’s bound to be a bit of a climb.
With steep slopes, and dense vegetation, some of the terrain you trek through can be challenging – especially if you’re visiting in a wetter period, when slippery pathways and lush greenery add to the obstacles.
You need to be physically fit to enjoy your Rwanda gorilla trip, because finding the gorillas is also no easy feat – you should expect to trek for anything between two and five hours. At high altitudes (around 2,500-3,000 metres in Volcanoes National Park), you might find this a little more challenging than at home, so it’s worth preparing on the fitness front.
That said, thanks to gorilla numbers and more forgiving terrain, it can be easier to see gorillas in Rwanda than in Uganda. In Rwanda, arrangements can also be made for porters to carry disabled travellers to the nearest gorilla group for an extra fee. If you ask us, this once-in-a-lifetime experience is more than worth the effort. If anything, it only adds to the satisfaction.
Best trips for gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Gorilla and Golden Monkey Discovery
Our five-day Gorilla and Golden Monkey Discovery is perfect if you’re short on time. After a city tour of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, you’ll be driven directly to Volcanoes National Park, where you’ll have the privilege of private tours to meet both mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. Plus, with four days to explore the Park, you’ll also have the opportunity for other excursions to Dian Fossey’s research station and the beautiful twin lakes, Burera and Ruhondo.
Gorilla Trekking and Maasai Mara Safari
If you’ve always wanted to explore East Africa, why not take a look at our Rwanda Gorilla Trekking and Maasai Mara Safari, which combines mountain gorilla trekking on the rainforest-draped slopes of Volcanoes National Park with a safari across Kenya’a endless savannah plains? With just a short flight between sightings of mountain gorillas and lions, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos and more, it’s a 10-day adventure wildlife enthusiasts will never forget.
Luxury Rwandan Primate Adventure
If you’re fascinated by primates, our eight-day Luxury Rwandan Primate Adventure is made for you. You’ll travel to Nyungwe National Park, where you’ll be immersed in the magical experience of East Africa’s only forest canopy walkway and get up-close with chimps, magabeys, and black-and-white Angolan colobus monkeys. Then it’s on to meet their much-larger cousins, the mountain gorillas, at Volcanoes National Park.
African Wildlife Odyssey
Maybe you’re dreaming of a bucket-list African wildlife trip? Our 18-day African Wildlife Odyssey spans the length and breadth of Africa, starting with encountering mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, before tracking game in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park. Next, it’s off to experience the wonder of Victoria Falls, before witnessing Africa’s biggest predators in the Okavango Delta. You'll finish in South Africa’s vibrant Cape Town.
The best place to stay for gorilla trekking
Here at Jacada Travel, we’ve got close relationships with some of the finest high-end properties in Rwanda, so you can be sure we’ll find the perfect accommodation to suit your tastes and needs.
From the uniquely designed, environmentally aware Bisate Lodge forest villas, nestled in the natural amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone with panoramic views across rural hills and Afro-alpine forests. To the naturally stylish banda cottages of Virunga Lodge, an eco-lodge sitting on a 2,300-metre hilltop with panoramas of the ‘twin lakes’ of Ruhondo and Bulera and the string of Virunga volcanoes.
Maybe you’re more taken by the homely, secluded standalone cottages of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, with their big fireplaces and cosy lounges offering breathtaking views from their spot in the foothills of the Virunga mountains. Or you could opt for Singata’s first Rwandan offering: the much-anticipated Kwitonda Lodge, tucked away on a 178-acre parcel of lush meadows and wetlands on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, which opened in August 2019 and brings with it their celebrated philosophy of sustainable luxury.
Singita Kwitonda Lodge$$$$$The much anticipated Kwitonda Lodge opened in August 2019, and is Singita’s first foray into Rwanda, bringing with it their celebrated philosophy of sustainable luxury. Located in a prized 178-acre parcel of lush meadows and wetlands right on the edge of Volcanoes National Park with magnificent views of the Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes, there are eight suites and a four-bedroom villa, Kataza House. Architects and interior designers are selecting locally sourced and produced materials while the local community has been engaged in building using traditional techniques. A light footprint is central to the project, embodying the gentleness and humility of the great silverback from which the lodge takes its name. Singita has a long-term approach to conservation, and part of the plan is to plant thousands of trees around the lodge. As well as treks into the park to spend time with the gorillas, for which the Kwitonda Lodge is ideally located, you will be able explore the montane forests of Nyungwe National Park, see the rare Golden Monkey and visit the local community. Guests will also have the chance to expand the gorillas’ habitat by helping out with the lodge’s tree planting and habitat restoration project. And, with Tanzania’s Serengeti just a short hop across Lake Victoria to the east, Kwitonda Lodge brings the opportunity for a ‘Singita only’ safari experience combining gorillas and the astounding Grumeti Reserve.
Bisate Lodge$$$$$The spectacular Bisate Lodge is located in the natural amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone, with panoramic views across rural hills and Afro-alpine forests to great conic peaks of Volcanoes National Park. Utterly unique in its design, six sumptuous forest villas are luxurious while retaining environmental principles and reflecting the culture of the surrounding country. Each has a generous yet intimate combination of bedroom, reception space and bathroom, heated by a central fireplace a private deck looking out to Mount Bisoke The spherical stone and thatch architecture, said to be inspired by the Royal Palace of traditional monarchs, continues through to the communal areas such as the dining room, bar and spa, detailed with a variety of woven materials, local crafts and more modern touches. Bisate is a short drive to the national park’s headquarters, from where gorilla treks depart daily, and you can also embark upon forest hikes to see rare Golden Monkeys and other wildlife. Visit the site of Dian Fossey’s research camp and grave, meet the community on guided village walks, plant a tree as part of the Bisate’s reforestation project or perhaps tag along with the chef to the local market to buy ingredients.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge$$$$$Seated in the foothills of the Virunga mountains there are three things to look forward to when staying at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge: breath-taking views from every angle, warm and helpful staff, and seeing the captivating mountain gorillas in their wild natural habitat on your daily treks. The eight spacious standalone cottages are decorated in a homely style and their seclusion really adds to the ample and individual privacy here. On the other hand the big fireplaces, appealing lounges, library, dining area and curio shop of the main lodge give the whole property a warm and convivial personality, and where guests can relax and talk excitedly over the exploits of their day. Again, the staff do their utmost to assist you in whatever way they can and the food served at Sabyinyo is delicious and surprisingly elegant for its far-flung setting. On the whole Sabyinyo is a fantastically sophisticated and friendly base to explore this very poignant part of Africa.