Clambering up the snow capped slopes of Mt. Kenya is on many Nairobians bucket-list and, while we at TN have the utmost respect for aspiring mountaineers who are willing to commit the time and money necessary to taking that peak on, we are also realistic about our priorities.
Sometimes you want to scratch your hiking itch without breaking the bank on pricey gear, or sacrificing precious weekend hours that could be spent treating yourself to a spa day, brunching in Westlands, grabbing drinks with friends or simply curling up with a good book.
That’s where the more modest mountains of the Great Rift Valley come in. Take Mount Longonot. It’s a challenging climb but doesn’t require any specialized equipment, is within striking distance of the city and offers spectacular views of one of Africa’s most iconic geological landforms.
From the valley floor, Longonot may look like a regular mountain, but it’s actually a semi-active stratovolcano, with a breathtaking view of it’s enormous forest-covered crater greeting those who brave the climb up to its precipitous rim.
Millenia of geothermal activity formed this and other volcanic peaks that dot the Great Rift Valley, with the last known eruption thought to have taken place in the 1860’s. Research in the last two decades has even found that active magma flows still course beneath the surface!
Today, the mountain is administered as a national park by the Kenya Wildlife Service, who keep a well-maintained trail that travels up the slope and around the rim. It makes for an excellent day trip option from Nairobi or as an addition to a Naivasha weekend getaway.
Reaching the park from Nairobi is a simple question of a 70km road journey. The drive itself will offer dramatic views during the descent into the Rift Valley floor as you approach Mai Mahiu and well-paved tarmac will make for a smooth journey, with the exception of the last three kilometers of the approach. Budget up to two hours of driving time each way to allow for traffic.
If traveling by public transit, hop on a matatu headed to Naivasha via Mai Mahiu (make sure the one you choose is using the Old Naivasha Road, rather than the main highway). Ask to be dropped off at the railway bridge just before Longonot village, then walk or hail a boda for the last three kilometers to the park gate.
After paying your entry fee (Ksh. 250 for Citizens/Residents USD20 for non-Residents), your path will stretch out ahead of you, sloping gently through dry scrubland up towards the lip of the mountain crater, 3.1km away. You’re almost certain to pass small herds of zebra and some curious dikdiks as you plod along towards the mountain’s foot.
As things get steeper, the path will narrow, with occasional sandbags and concrete steps helping to even out the rough terrain. We made it to the top with standard sneakers, but the gravelly path can get slippery at points and you won’t regret opting for sturdier shoes with a stronger grip. Walking sticks can also be hired for 50 bob at the park gate.
After a little less than an hour of climbing, you will crest the lip of the volcano and the stunning vista of the vast crater will come into view. This is an amazing spot for photos and a conveniently placed gazebo offers some shade for a well-deserved snack break.
You can take in the sights and turn back at this point, but most hikers prefer to complete the climb by circumnavigating the crater rim. Follow the path to the right and do so couter-clockwise. This will allow you to tackle the tougher bits before the sun gets too high in the sky. The hard part is almost over here and you’ll want to stay low to the ground as you navigate the narrow ridge that leads to the peak.
Snap some photos at the summit, taking in the views of Lake Naivasha to your north and Mount Suswa to your south, before enjoying the relatively leisurely journey around the rest of the rim. There’s something truly beautiful and ballsy about the way singing birds will soar over the lip of the volcano and casually plunge into the forest-covered crater below.
When you return to the gazebo, simply head down the same path back to the gate. This whole journey should take no more than 5 hours, including time for water and snack breaks. Keep in mind that the vegetation that lines the path throughout is often very thorny and wearing long pants will go a long way to keeping your legs from getting scratched to oblivion.
Looking to celebrate your triumph over the mountain with some cold beer and choma? The Weekend Inn is a bar and campground located at the park gate. A limited range of food options are available on special request, and placing your order before you set off on your climb will ensure that your hard-earned meal is ready when the hike is done. You can also stock up on slightly overpriced snacks and drinking water here before beginning your climb, though you’re better off buying these more cheaply in Nairobi.
There’s also a public campground available within the park itself, complete with flush-toilet facilities and a cold shower. For an additional 200 bob per person, you can pitch your own tent here. Park officials will give you a key to the lockable toilet block, which is handy for securely storing any heavy gear that you would prefer not to lug up the mountain.
Budget a minimum of two liters of drinking water per person during the climb. Tread carefully, enjoy the fresh air and enjoy!
- Base altitude: 2,150 m
- Peak altitude: 2,776 m
- Last known eruption: 1860s
- Entry fee: KSH 250 (Citizens and Residents), USD 20 (non-Residents)
- Full hiking time: 4-5 hours
- Distance from Nairobi: 70 km
- What to bring: Water, snacks, charged phone, hat, sturdy shoes and long pants