Kenya’s national parks and reserves receive over two million visitors a year, half of which are local Kenyans and the other half international arrivals.
Visitors to Kenya come primarily for wildlife safaris and the beach. Despite the a recent decline in visitor figures as a result of the sporadic terrorist threats on the border with Somalia and the Northern Coast, Kenya remains one of the foremost safari destinations on the continent. A safari in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve is almost guaranteed to provide sightings of all the Big Five, as well as the impressive Great Migration river crossings.
But there is much more to Kenya than just its most famous reserve. The country has 23 National Parks and 15 National Reserves managed by either the Kenyan wildlife services or private companies, like in the case of parts of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
How to choose a national park in Kenya
Most safaris will last between one and two weeks during which there will be enough time to visit a few parks. A good rule of thumb is to spend three nights at each destination. This will give you enough time to roam the area that is relatively accessible from your accommodation. It also allows for a change of scenery.
Although safaris can seem like a very repetitive vacation activity, combining parks with different landscapes, cultural possibilities and adventures on offer (like hot air balloons or helicopter trips) can ensure not only a varied trip but also an enriching experience that goes beyond wildlife observation. Of the 38 parks and reserves, this are my personal selection of the best parks in Kenya for a perfect safari.
1. Mount Kenya National Park – For adventure seekers
Africa’s second peak rises to 5,199 meters above sea level and is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. The mountain offers diverse landscapes, wilderness and wildlife. You can take a helicopter to one of the peaks, see the permanent glacier at the top, as well as forests and hot springs. This is the perfect destination for climbers and those looking for a change of scenery. Expect alpine vegetation, crystal clear pure streams and the rare sighting of snow and glaciers only 16km from the Equator. If you wanted to climb the mountain you would need three to five days. This is the mountain that gave the country its name and it is sacred to the Kikuyu, who historically inhabited the area and are today’s largest ethnic group in the area.
Need to know: Mount Kenya is around 200km from Nairobi and can be accessed by road or via an air strip that runs scheduled flights. Thanks to its altitude, the area is mosquito free. Although you are less likely to see big cats here, the main draw is not so much the wildlife, of which there is plenty, but the landscapes and the possibility to experience a different side to Kenya.
Best visited: Although temperatures are largely the same all year round thanks to the Equatorial position of the mountain, expect incredibly cold weather with daily temperatures, even in the sun, rarely above 20 degrees Celsius. Night time thermometers drop below freezing.
2. Maasai Mara Game Reserve – For the best game viewing
Few things can compare to a stay in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. The abundance of wildlife and the sheer density of certain species like zebra, wildebeest and lions will ensure your days are filled with once in a lifetime moments you are bound to remember. In the three nights I spent there, I saw lions mating, the famous Great Migration, herds of wildebeest against the backdrop of the hot air balloons rising, cheetah hunting and bringing the kill to her cubs, leopard eating their kill, lions hunting and getting really close to the jeep… Despite being my 10th safari, the Maasai Mara left me speechless. After so many safari parks I finally had to succumb to the Queen of all parks and agree: East Africa’s wildlife is best enjoyed in the Maasai Mara.
Things to know: The Maasai Mara Game Reserve is one of the easiest parks in Africa to access. It is served by several scheduled flights making it not only easy to reach but also more affordable than having to charter your own Cessna plane. There are also several landing strips in various locations so you are never too far from the action. There are many lodges to stay at, including more affordable options as well as mobile tented camps. The sheer size of the park and its popularity does not allow for walking safaris.
Best visited: The Maasai Mara can be visited throughout the year except for April and May when the rains bring mud and impassable roads. But the best time to visit is during The Great Migration when, aside from the usual wildlife density, over a million zebra and wildebeest flood the park with the National Geographic worthy images of river crossings. The shoulder months of November and February are green months to visit, with less crowds and lower prices.
3. Amboseli National Park – Genuine Maasai life and elephant herds
Bordering Tanzania in the Southeast, Amboseli National Park is well know to the Maasai as “salty dust” and for good reason. The park is generally drier and dustier than other parks and that attracts large herds of elephants. The famous image of Amboseli is the iconic picture of an elephant grazing against the backdrop of rising Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. The park is a great place to spot incredible elephant herds with animals of all ages and for the possibility to interact with Maasai Mara villages that are still living largely as they used to on the outskirts of the park.
The park is home to the Big Five as well and the relatively dry eco-system and landscape makes wildlife spotting easier as animals have less places to hide. Drive on the dried out Amboseli river bed and watch mirages in the horizon as the heat and light project animals against the plains like on a mirror.
Need to know: Stay outside of the National Park in a mobile tented safari with Ker & Downey Howard Saunders, founder of Shackleton & Selous, and you will have the entire conservancy area to yourself. We did not see another car or tourist in four days. Being outside of the main National Park also meant that the Maasai communities were sharing the space with us, so we could spend quite a lot of time with them throwing spears, hearing them sing and jump in their traditional dances and go visit the village of our guide. We also went on walking safaris with the Maasai to track wildlife. Amboseli can be reached by a 4h drive from Nairobi, avoiding the hefty airfares.
Best visited: Any month except for March and April, when the high rains arrive. November and December sees short rains that clear the skies and bring much awaited greenery and life. The winter dry months bring cloud coverage, so Kilimanjaro’s peak is elusive.
4. Tsavo East and West National Park – For a rough diamond
The two largest parks in Kenya are almost 20 times bigger than the Maasai Mara. Located to the South-Eastern most part of the country, Tsavo East And West are the least visited and wildest of the parks in the country. They were split due to the construction of the railway line to Mombasa and their size makes some parts almost never visited, giving large herds of mammals the space and freedom to roam carelessly.
All the Big Five are present here as are wild cats and mosquitoes! Like Amboseli, both of Tsavo’s parks are dusty and generally hot. Elephants here often shower themselves with the red dust that makes Tsavo so famous and they can be found splashing and spraying in the Galana river, a sight to behold.
West Tsavo also provides the option for exploring caves and seeing the Mzima Springs gushing out water onto the millions of years old lava fields. Another wet encounter, unusual in Kenya’s bush, is Lake Jipe.
The park’s size gives it a huge variety of activities available so there is surely something for everyone.
Need to know: The park can also be reached on a 3h drive from Nairobi but there are several airstrips connecting to the various parts of the park. Tsavo East has no scheduled flights, Tsavo West does.
Best visited: Tsavo West is hotter than Tsavo East and can easily reach 40 degrees during the summer months of January and February. While you should avoid the long rains of April to May, it can be very interesting to be there during the shorter rains of October to December when the park’s greenery gives it a different light.
5. Meru National Park – Exclusive luxury
Meru Park was made famous by the autobiographical book Born Free, written by animal lover Joy Adamson, who together with her husband raised Elsa the lion. Meru Park is a relatively smaller option with plenty of tall grass and greenery and teeming with wildlife. Both white and black rhino, which made Meru famous in the 70s, are back in healthy numbers and easy to spot. Meru is also a quiet park with not a lot of tourists in sight as there is only one lodge to stay at and a few marked campsites. Several rivers and streams give it an opposite look of the drier southern parks.
Need to know: Meru Park is accessible on scheduled flights from Nairobi, as the drive is not recommendable. The best place to stay is Elsa’s Kopje Lodge, a stunning lodge located on top of a hill with an incredible 360 degree view of the plains below and rooms carved from the rocks with nothing more than a mosquito net for a wall. Here you can sleep with nature and watch the leopard’s bright neon eyes at night from your bed. Some rooms have outdoor bathtubs hanging over the hillside and the views from the infinity pool are breathtaking. This is also the base where the Adamsons raised Elsa.
Best visited: Like the rest of Kenya, avoid the rainy months of April to May and October to December.
6. Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha National Park – Pink flamingos
Best known for the large groups of pink flamingos that can be found on its shores, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha are an excellent day trip from Nairobi as they are only 100-150km from the capital. The flamingos get their bright pink colour because of the algae they eat from the lake’s waters. The drive to the park includes a portion through a large euphorbia forest, a type of cactus-looking tree.
Good to know: Due to their proximity to each other, both lakes can be done as day trips from Nairobi or as a combined Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru trip. If you wanted, you could also get there on public transportation, on the minivan known as matatu. Lake Naivasha offers boat safaris and the opportunity to spot rhinos.
Best visited: The same dry months apply but Lake Nakuru is drier than other parts of the country, so even in the wetter months the rainfall is low.
7. Samburu National Reserve – Tribesmen and rare wildlife
Home of the Samburu tribes and lesser famous than the Maasai, the Samburu National Reserve is a decidedly hidden gem. Not as popular as other parks in Kenya, Samburu is home to all of the Big Five and all the large cats, as well as some unique species that inhabit only the Samburu and Laikipia plains. Animals like the long necked gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra, the reticulated giraffe and the Beisa onyx. The park is separated from Buffalo Springs National Reserve by the Ewaso Ng’iro.
Interestingly, Samburu National Reserve is the place were 160 fossil remains of Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus were discovered in the 60s and 70s.
Good to know: Samburu can be reached on a 5-hour drive from Nairobi or on scheduled flights. As the reserve is managed by the local Samburu Communities, you should allow some time to visit them and get to know more about their customs.
Best visited: Like all the other parks in Kenya, long rains descend in April and November and shorter rains in May, October and December. Best to go between January and March and July to October.
8. Laikipia Plateau – For an exclusive experience
Extending over almost 10,000 sq. km, the Laikipia Plateau is not really a reserve or park, but rather an area encompassing seven conservancies often known for their former ranches that were originally owned by the first British settlers. Laikipia is located at the foothills of Mount Kenya and its wildlife density and diversity is second only to the Maasai Mara, but the area receives a significantly lower number of visitors. Additionally, all of the seven conservancies that make up the Laikipa Plateau are very different from each other, but each offers a special and exclusive experience. The fact that they are mostly privately owned and operated also means that activities otherwise not allowed in national parks are possible here.
Starting with Borana Ranch, a former farm and still managed by a third generation family that is home to stunning Borana Lodge. Th Lodge offers walking, mountain biking, quad and horseback safaris, as well as fishing, helicopter trips to snow-capped Mount Kenya and paragliding. From here you can also make your way to Pride Rock, featured in The Lion King as the place where Simba observes his territory.
Il N’gwesi and Lekurruki Ranch are run by the Maasai communities whereas Sabuk Wilderness works closely with the Samburu and offers camel treks into the wild. Lewa Wilderness Conservancy has focused on education and research. Loisaba Wilderness was the first lodge to offer guests the experience of sleeping on a “star bed”. Lastly, the Sosian Ranch is a private ranch restored to its former glory and offers wildlife viewing and the chance to understand life on a working ranch.
Good to know: As the Laikipia Plateau is very remote, the sense of being one with nature and of complete peace is at its highest. Each property works separately and independently, so you will have to reach out to each one. Rules vary per conservancy but are much more flexible than in national parks, so you will be able to go on more walking safaris to get up and close with nature. Don’t miss the star bed!
Best visited: Same as the rest of the country Laikipia is dry from January to March and from July to October. Going to Laikipia in the rainy months may mean that a lot of the activities that make the conservancy special are not available as they are weather dependent, so bear that in mind.
9. Lake Turkana – Rugged adventure
Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, is also home to an active island volcano in the middle and is listed as a UNESCO site. The lake is located in the very remote and arid north of Kenya and its northern tip crosses into Ethiopia. It got its name in 1975, after Kenya’s independence, from the predominant tribe in the area, the Turkana. Due to its hard to reach location (two days drive from Nairobi) Lake Turkana receives very few visitors. The area is barren, arid and has little wildlife, as would be expected from such landscapes. But its beauty lies in its uniqueness and complete remoteness.
Lake Turkana is the result of the East Great Rift and the tectonic plates pulling apart, much like Lake Abbe in Djibouti. Aside from its geological value and rareness, the area around the lake is also home to the oldest discoveries by the Leakey family of skeletons, skulls and remains of hominid fossils dating back millions of years ago.
Good to know: Aside from scheduled expeditions in groups or overland trips, Lake Turkana is hard to reach and explore. The best bet would be to stay at one of the lodges in the area that organise fly-in trips, like the Sarara Camp or Desert Rose Lodge, who can provide chartered planes to explore the Turkana area on overnight camping trips. Safety and security in the area is a constant battle against the Somali bandits and so it is best to go with a reputable local outfit that knows the latest status.
Best visited: The rain is not a problem here, unlike in the rest of Kenya, but temperatures can be hot all year round. The nights brings out cooler weather. The lodges you will be staying at before visiting Turkana follow the weather of the rest of the country, so the wet months are best avoided.
10. Nairobi National Park – Citylife safaris
A park within the city limits – can you imagine a better way to spend the few hours after sunrise and before going to the office? I did actually do that while I was working in Nairobi. One morning, dressed in work clothes, we asked our driver to take us to the Nairobi National Park. The park is easily reached as it is right on the edge of the city. In fact, as you land in Nairobi you should not miss the chance to loom through the window and see if you can spot zebra and giraffe.
At Nairobi National Park, on that chilly morning, I saw my first lion hunt. The park is also known for its rhino sanctuary where you are sure to see these majestic and threatened animals. You can see all the Big Five, except for elephants, the only large mammals not present in the park. All the wild cats are there too.
Need to know: You can drive with your own vehicle making it easy to simply get a driver and go in. You can get a guide at the gate as well if you prefer. There is a tented campsite the park but it is so close to the city’s best hotels that it is better to stay in one of them and go out to dinner at night. Beware, traffic in Nairobi is silly.
Best visited: On a stopover in Nairobi. Not really a destination in itself, but a good way to spend some spare time in Nairobi.
11. Ol Pejeta Conservancy – For chimps and endangered rhino
A very unique form of conservancy, Ol Pejeta is home to the last three remaining white rhinos in the world and to all of Kenya’s rescued chimpanzees – victims of the illegal pet trade. The conservancy is a model of innovative bush tourism with activities that immerse the visitor into conservation and give them the opportunity to interact with the environment and the wildlife, including going lion tracking to collect research data. Ol Pejeta also offers night game drives, something that is not allowed in most national parks.
Good to know: Ol Pejeta is the closest place to Nairobi to the see the Big Five, so it is an easy drive. This is the only place in Kenya where you can see chimpanzees, and it is significantly cheaper than seeing them in the wild in Tanzania’s Mahale, a pricey, remote and expensive to reach lodge.
Best visited: Like with other parks and conservancies, Ol Pejeta best visited in the drier months of the year as wildlife congregates at waterholes.
Make it happen
I have been on safari in Kenya multiple times. On my most recent trip, I traveled with Howard Saunders (firstname.lastname@example.org), one of Ker & Downey‘s partners, the longest running safari company in Africa. They are also the founders of the Shackleton & Selous Society, a group of private guides all around the world that take guests on incredible and unique experiences around their areas of expertise. Howard has been running safaris for the best part of 20 years, taking guests across East Africa. I enjoyed chatting with Howard’s right hand man, Solomon Ole Lenkaja, a Maasai elder from Amboseli who has been working with him for 20 years and is invaluable at spotting wildlife and liaising with the local communities. He can help put together a trip which combines lodges with his mobile tented safaris for the best experience.
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