1. Mt. Kenya National Park
Home to Africa’s second-highest peak (at just over 17,000 feet), Mt. Kenya National Park is the only place in the world where you can find glaciers on the equator.
Hire a guide and some porters (I climbed with Summit Ventures) and spend 4-7 days exploring one of nature’s most diverse ecosystems. Watch the spectacular sunrise from the peak: on a clear day you can see the peaks of Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru (Africa’s 3rd highest) in neighboring Tanzania.
Buffalo, lions, leopards, giraffes, and elephants are some of the big game to spot.
2. Hell’s Gate National Park
Hell’s Gate is one of the only parks in Kenya you can walk or bike through. No walls or car doors separate you from the wild here, and I’ll tell you from experience that there’s nothing like riding a bike a few yards from a mama giraffe galloping with her infant in tow.
The park sits on top of a geothermal spring, and if you hike down into Hell’s Gate Gorge you can boil an egg in the steaming pools that seep from the winding sandstone walls. Stay at Fisherman’s Camp on Lake Naivasha (you can rent bikes here) and watch the hippos meander ashore at dusk, feet from where your tent is pitched.
3. Malindi National Marine Park
Snorkel or scuba with tropical fish and dolphins in the Indian Ocean, among shipwrecks and coral reefs. From October to March, hire a dhow for the afternoon (you can haggle it down to 10,000Ksh for up to 10 people) and go for a swim with the whale shark, the world’s largest living fish species.
4. Masai Mara National Reserve
In spite of the high tourist traffic, the Masai Mara is still well worth the trip. The Kenyan extension of the Serengeti, Masai Mara offers probably the highest concentration and diversity of big game in East Africa.
Visit between July and October and you stand a good chance to see one of the “7 Wonders of the World,” the annual wildebeest migration across the croc- and hippo-infested Mara River — though be warned that tourist traffic is highest this time of year.
The Big Five — lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard, and black rhino — are all found here, as well as thousands of zebra and wildebeest, prime game for the predators of the park.
5. Lake Nakuru National Park
In perhaps the “greatest bird spectacle on earth,” up to 2 million pink flamingos gather in the shallow waters surrounding the lake.
The view from Baboon Cliffs is spectacular, though watch out for the cliffs’ namesake — the baboons aren’t shy, and will steal your lunch right out of your hand.
The park is also home to over 400 migratory bird species, as well as one of the world’s largest populations of white and black rhinos. You’re virtually guaranteed a closeup view of the prehistoric beasts. If you come in September you can sign up for Cycle with the Rhinos, a bike race through the park.
6. Nairobi National Park
Though driving through the actual park may not yield the same number of big game sightings you’ll find elsewhere, it is the only natural game protection area neighboring a city. You can see lions, elephants, buffalo, and giraffe against the backdrop of Nairobi’s cosmopolitan skyline.
Although not one of Kenya’s best parks in its own right, I’ve listed this park for two main reasons:
- At the Nairobi Education Centre & Animal Orphanage (not to be confused with Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage — see #2 below), the wardens will let you enter the pen of three full-grown orphaned cheetahs. Like giant house cats, the cheetahs will let you hug and pet them while they purr like roaring engines. It’s also not publicized; you have to request, sometimes beg, to be let in.
- The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues elephants orphaned by poachers, and nurses them back to health for re-release into the wild. While they are staying at the Trust, though, you can visit the orphanage and talk with the wardens while the infant and teen elephants bump up against you and play in the mud. Once you’re hooked, you can adopt an elephant for $50 USD and go back for private visits. The Trust also rescues orphaned black rhinos. Watch out for warthogs if you come on foot — they are ubiquitous, and have a nasty temper.
As of 2007 you have to pay the Nairobi National Park entrance fee in order to visit, so it’s best combined with a game drive through the park. The Lang’ata Giraffe Center is also nearby, where you can feed giraffe by hand (or mouth!) from a raised viewing platform.
For more information, including entry fees, visit the Kenya Wildlife Service website.