simien mountains ethiopia

Visiting The Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

The Simien Mountains National Park is a world full of dramatic scenery and color. It’s a stunning setting, very unique with wildlife and awe-inspiring views. The park has been molded over the years by both nature and traditional agriculture and it’s the odd-shaped and diverse scenery combined with the unique flora and fauna that have brought people to the park again and again. The local Ethiopians who call the park home is also an interesting cultural addition which isn’t usual in a national park, as there are normally no human residents. Their survival in a rather harsh environment with limited resources is something to behold and worth learning about once you’re there.

The sharp cliffs and canyons meander through the ground like a jagged scar on the landscape and one can find stunning panoramas that can stretch the views over the valleys to up top 100 kilometers. Hiking around the park is quite incredible just for these moments and if you get to see the endemic species too, then prepare to have your mind blown.

History

The Simien Mountains National Park is found in northern Ethiopia in the Amhara region. It is easily accessed from Gondor which is a short flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

The region was formed over millions of years of volcanic activity and the large erosion of the Ethiopia plateau. It has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world thanks to its serrated mountain peaks, deep valleys, sheer cliffs and is home to the highest peak in Ethiopia.

The Simien area is largely made up of basalt and is an ideal place for water catchment. The water from the raining seasons runs into the Mayshasha River that runs through the national park from north to south and is a valuable resource for the wildlife and plants that call the park home.

The Simien Mountains were first made a national park in 1969 by Clive Nicol who wrote about the park in his book From the Roof of Africa. It was one of the first sites to ever be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site which happened in 1978 and unfortunately, it was moved to the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996 due to a serious decline in its native species. The destruction of habitat, human encroachment, and poor infrastructure for the protection of the park are slowly wearing away at the fragility of the amazing landscape.

Simien Mountains Flora
Image courtesy of Petr Meissner

Flora & Fauna

The vegetation changes with altitude in the park and you can see lichen-covered Afro-alpine forests, montane savannah, giant lobelia, everlasting flowers and more. The ridges and canyons have remnants of St. Johns wort forests amongst their scattered meadows, forests, and bushes but unfortunately, most of it is now gone

The Simien Mountains National Park is home to a number of endangered species including the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex, which is a wild goat that is endemic to the park. Other mammals in the park include the Gelada baboon which is also endemic to the area, the colobus monkey, leopard, caracal, wild cat, spotted hyena, jackal, bushbuck, common duiker, and klipspringer.

There are over 180 species of birds that roam the air of the Simien Mountains and the most special ones to see are the lammergeyer or bearded vulture, the Tawny eagle and thick-billed raven which are all endemic to the park. The bearded vultures have a wingspan of up to 10 feet and are very impressive when in flight. Other birds include Verreaux’s eagle, kestrels, vultures, lanner falcon, and African buzzard.

Trekking

There are two ways to explore the park, either by 4×4 or by hiking. There is only one road that goes through the park and it is unpaved. It starts at the town of Debark where the park headquarters is found and runs east to the village of Mekane Berhan. The route will take you through some of the region’s traditional Amharic villages and through the stunningly beautiful Buahit pass that sits at 13,780 feet high. On a clear day, you might be able to see 60 miles across the lowlands. By driving, you will only really get a glimpse of what the park has to offer. Hiking through the park is far more immersive and the park is made for it. There are a range of trails to suit everyone’s fitness and campsites dotted along the way. Treks can range for 1 to 11 days depending on what you are after.

What to expect

As you trek over the Simien massif which rises to 4500m, you’ll begin to see how the relationship between ancient volcanic eruptions and harsh erosive forces came to create the craggy pinnacles, deep canyons, and volcanic peaks. You’ll walk along high-altitude escarpments, through alpine meadows and the fertile lowlands where you will fully appreciate the diversity of the park.

As you climb the mountain paths you’ll be lead onto bountiful plateaus covered with giant lobelias that transcend time with their huge fleshy leaves and will remind of a prehistoric era once forgotten. The escarpments are covered with the sheerest of cliffs, hugely long plunging waterfalls, and rocky spits poking out from the forests below. Clouds and mist flow over the ground you walk on while you hear the cry of the endemic vultures in the sky and walking in the giant heather. You truly feel like you have been teleported into another world.

As the landscape drops off the escarpment, it changes dramatically as it falls some 2000m in altitude and becomes the lowlands, which aren’t actually that low, still being over 2000m in altitude. You’ll find a plethora of color across the slopes, from fields of yellow canola and red hot pokers to aloe vera, cacti, palm trees, and giant ficus.

Top Hiking Trails

Here are some of the recommended hiking trails in the park.

Buyit Ras to Chenek

This is one of the most popular hiking trails in the Simien Mountains and it starts near the eastern entrance of the park and ends at Chenek campsite in the center. It takes around four days to complete and is about 35 miles long. The walk will take you past the huge Jinbar Waterfall and the famous Imet Gogo lookout. On this route, you can also summit Mount Buahit which reaches 14,534 feet to see amazing views and have a chance of seeing the Ethiopian wolves.

Sankaber to Adi Arkay

This route begins at Sankaber camp in the east and goes for 53 miles ending in Adi Arkay in the north. It takes you into the lesser populated parts of the park and takes around 6 days to complete. You’ll see the same features as the Buyit Ras to Chenek route and then slowly move into more remote areas of the park where the mountains give way to the beautiful lowlands, Amharic villages, and farms. It’s a beautiful route and awesome to do if you’re going interested in interacting with the local culture and cuisine.

Buyit Ras – Adi Arkay

This is the hardcore route that pretty much covers the whole of the park. It takes eleven days and you’ll cover 96 miles as you go. You’ll stay at pretty much all the park’s campsites, see all the stunning viewpoints and make two summit attempts, one on Mount Buahit and one on Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak.

simien mountains wildlife

The Wildlife

As we already know, there is some rare and endemic wildlife that call the Simien Mountains home and here we’ll go into a little more detail about the most popular ones you may see while hiking around.

The gelada monkeys are only found in the Simien Mountains and are now a protected species after they were nearly hunted to extinction. They live in groups of up to a hundred or more and prefer to hang out on the escarpments where they hop and climb over and under the cliff faces. The gelada was once referred to as having a ‘bleeding heart’ and this is due to a scarlet patch on their chests which shows a sign of sexual receptivity, unlike most primates who show off with a swollen red bottom. They are quite happy to be approached and you can get to within meters of them, which is why they were so easy to hunt. They have great facial expressions and are super playful.

The Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world and there are less than 50 in the Simien Mountains National Park. The remainder of the population is found in the Bale Mountains National Park in southern Ethiopia. Their decline is mainly as a result of habitat destruction caused by agricultural expansion in the afro-alpine zone

The same issue has affected the long endangered Walia ibex, another species endemic to this region. The Walia ibex is a member of the goat family. They are very graceful and calm looking and seem to be more deer-like with their long ridged horns. They like to hang out in steep rocky places and graze the vertical cliffs below the escarpment.

ras dashen mountain ethiopia

Summit

Walking to the peak of Ethiopia’s highest mountain Ras Dashen is challenging but there is nothing technical to the climb. As with any summit, you begin your climb in the dark with only a headlight showing your way through the farmland, alpine meadows, and giant lobelia forests. The first part of the walk is quiet and cold with silence until the sun begins to rise and the group tends to get a bit chirpier. The summit lasts about six hours and the view from the top is mind-blowing, to say the least. You can almost see across the border into Eritrea and the views cover a bit of everything from peaks, farmland, forests and canyons. Being up there makes you feel like you’re standing on the top of the world.

Organizing Your Trek

You can easily book a pre-organized trekking tour that takes care of the hassles like getting permits, equipment, and supplies but it is also easily arranged at the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark if you just want to show up on the day. They’ll get everything together for you; paying entrance fees, hiring camping equipment, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups at trail access points, cooks, guides, scouts and mules.

It is mandatory to take an armed park ranger with you on your trek. They will have an AK-47 branded across their shoulder but not to worry, the only real danger out there is the altitude. They are relaxed and interesting people and often veterans from previous wars. They will make it look easy though, hopping up the mountains in their plastic shoes without showing any exhaustion.

When To Go

The best time for hiking is during the dry season from December to March but the land does fill with color from August to October when the wildflowers bloom. During this time the landscape will be green and lush whereas in the dry season it can be a bit beige and arid.

Where to stay

While you are trekking you will be camping or staying in a local tukul if you’re at a village. The main campsites of Chenek, Gich, and Sankaber all have sheltered cooking areas, long-drop toilets, and a manned ranger hut. If you want some luxury for after your long hike, then staying in one of the lodges on the outskirts of the park is a great choice. Some of the best are Simien Lodge and Limalimo Lodge. They have ensuite rooms with private balconies and stunning views into the park. Debark also offers more options for budget travelers.

Getting There

The closest major city and airport is in Gondar which is around 90 miles southwest of the park. From Gondar, it’s a 1.5-hour drive to the park headquarters in Debark and then another hour’s drive to the park itself. The easiest way to get from Gondar to Debark is in a private vehicle or with a tour transfer, but the route is also run by a lot of public buses and minibusses. It is essential that you stop in Debark first to buy your entry ticket, as you cant buy one at the park entrance.

Permits costs 90 birr per adult, per day. You can also organize maps, information and official national park guides at the Debark park office.

You can easily explore the park independently, just be sure to pay 20 birr for your vehicle to get in. However, if joining a pre-organized tour is more your thing then there are a few good tour companies that offer Simien Mountains trekking itineraries. The best ones to go for are Tesfa Tours and SimienEcoTours both of which have great reviews and are focussed on providing a sustainable experience that benefits local communities as well. Tesfa Tours specialty is guiding small private groups and being flexible, while SimienEcoTours have fixed date departures from Debark for groups of up to 10 people.

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Header image courtesy of Rod Waddington

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