Ethiopia is said to be the birthplace of humanity and the cradle of Christianity in Africa. It is a country of emperors and kings, ancient walled citadels, thousand-year-old churches, and unimaginable natural wonders. One of these happens to be the famous Simien (also spelled Semien) Mountains. Located in the northern region of Ethiopia, the mountains are a land of overwhelming beauty — towering waterfalls, jagged peaks, deep valleys, sudden precipices, frightening sheer cliffs, and a dramatic escarpment stretching for miles with astonishing views over the lush rugged lowlands below. It is also home to some of the most incredible species on this continent.
Brief History and Notable Facts
The Simien Mountains National Park is situated in the Semien (North) Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region and has been managed since 1944 even though it was formally established in 1966 and gazetted in 1969. In those times, the area was used as a royal hunting ground until wildlife conservation efforts became necessary due to the increasing pressure on land and resource use. In 1978, the Simien Mountains National Park became a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site and has been the recipient of support from various international organizations and even governments through a series of projects which provided infrastructure as well as considerable aid to the nearby communities in the form of community tourism and other alternative livelihoods development.
Today, the Simien Mountain massif is one of the major highlands of Africa and even boasts snow and ice on the highest points. The park itself has three general botanical regions — the cultivated and grazed lower slopes, the forested alpine regions ( up to 3600m), and the mountain grasslands of the higher lands. The dramatic landscape is a result of massive volcanic activity that occurred millions of years ago followed by erosion ever since. As one of Africa’s widest and most beautiful mountain ranges, the Simien Mountains comprise several plateaus, separated by broad river valleys, along with a number of peaks that rise above 4000 meters, like Ras Dashen, which is the highest peak (and the highest point of Ethiopia) at 4533 meters.
Best Time To Go
Like most of Northern Ethiopia, a visit to the Simien Mountains can be undertaken at any time of the year, but the ideal period is during the dry season, which runs largely from October to April. The rainy season in the North usually runs from June to August/September where around 1600 liters of rain per square meter may considerably hamper trekking activities — muddy slippery trails, dangerous torrential rivers, and hazy views.
Temperatures tend not to change significantly throughout the year, however, there is a huge variation between daytime and night-time temperatures, where it feels like summer every day and winter every night. The coldest months are from October to December where daytime temperatures usually range from 11°C to 18°C (52°F to 64°F), while night-time temperatures range from -2°C to -10°C (28°F to 14°F). From November to late March, the skies are pretty clear and the sun is strong, although the land is quite dusty. There is also a short rainy season with light showers falling somewhere between February and March when visitors are likely to encounter a short period of rain every day.
How Many Days Should You Allot for the Trip?
Trips to the Simien Mountains start from 1 day long and run all the way up to 17 days, which will take you on a 175 km trek from Debark to Lalibela or Mekele. Your actual stay will depend on a number of factors, including how much time you have, how much money you have, how much you want to hike and how much you like camping in the wild. There are different trails leading up to the mountains and the one you’ll take may be determined by your local guide. If you only have time for a short visit it is possible to make a day trip from Gondar, but it may also be better to stay overnight in Debark or inside the park where budget accommodation is available. You’ll need to pack your camera, sunscreen, hat, water, and lunch even if you’re only going for the day to the Simien Mountains.
Top Wildlife Unique to the Park
While the Simien Mountains are home to a great variety of wildlife including klipspringers, bushbucks, duikers, hyenas and jackals, the altitudinal variation of the national park combined with its isolation has given rise to a number of rare and endemic species and a high level of biodiversity. The big three mammal species that can only be found in the Simien Mountains are the Ethiopian Wolf (also known as the Red Fox or the Simien Fox), the Walia Ibex, and the Gelada Baboon.
The Ethiopian Wolf
Rarest of the three and going by the local name, Ky Kebero, this species is the rarest canid in the world and the most threatened carnivore in Africa. Although it is actually a wolf, its shape and size give it the appearance of a coyote, while its distinctive long legs, and muzzle, make it look more like a fox. The Ethiopian Wolf has evolved pointed ears, an elongated skull, a long thin face, and small, widely spaced teeth as it preys exclusively on rodents. A typical adult male wolf weighs between 14 and 20kg, while the weight of adult females ranges from 11 to 16 kg.
Today, the closest living relatives of the Ethiopian wolf are grey wolves and coyotes as its ancestor is believed to have crossed over from Eurasia during the Pleistocene period less than 100,000 years ago. Alas with only a total world population of between 400 to 520 individuals, this wonderful creature is now so rare that it’s close to extinction, and you will be very lucky to see one during your mountain trek.
The Walia Ibex
This is a wild mountain goat found nowhere else in the world. Although also threatened with extinction, the Walia Ibex is sufficiently abundant on the Simien Mountains so there is a good chance of seeing one from the edge of the escarpments.
In fact, this wild goat is the reason the Simien Mountains were granted national park status as the last stronghold of this truly fascinating creature.
Local legend states that the Walia were brought to the park by Saint Kidus Yared, a legendary Ethiopian musician credited with inventing the sacred music tradition of Ethiopia’s system of musical notation, who used them to carry his holy books.
Today, they mostly live in groups on the steep slopes and escarpments of the Simien Mountains between 2,500 and 4,000 meters foraging in open areas, although male and females usually graze separately, unless mating. The easiest parts of the park to spot them are exclusively in the Chennek and Bwahit areas where they thrive in hundreds.
The Gelada Baboon
The most common and most memorable of the rare three animals of Simien Mountains. Its local name is Chilada, but it is also known as the bleeding-heart monkey due to the distinctive red bald patch on its chest that changes colors based on their mood. Some also refer to it as the lion monkey due to the shaggy golden mane of hair on the male species. The Gelada Baboon feeds mainly on grass and roots, and live in elevations thousands of meters above sea level. They are known to live in social groups with each male having a harem of around half a dozen females.
If you do come across them during your hike, don’t be scared as they are gentle creatures, however, don’t approach them in large groups or try to pet them. Simply find a good place to sit with nice green grass and they’ll likely move in right beside you while they are eating. They are estimated to number in the thousands across the Simien Mountains.
Birdlife in the Park
Ethiopia is a bird lover’s paradise boasting over 800 species of bird, 23 of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Over 180 species of birds can be found in the Simien Mountains National Park, including the thick-billed raven, white-collared pigeon, wattled ibis, black-headed siskin, Spot-breasted plover, and the Lammergeier (bearded vulture).
The are accommodation options within and outside the Simien Mountain National Park, including the designated campsites and community lodges managed by the park authorities. There are two prominent ones — Simien Lodge, which is inside the park and Limalimo Lodge, a luxury lodge just outside. These encampments offer beautiful day walks that take you through rich and varied flora including Ethiopian acacia trees, olive trees, and African Juniper trees. Bird enthusiasts can also spot a wide range of birds from both the high plateaus and lowlands.
All the campsites in the Simien Mountains National Park offer sheltered cooking areas, enclosed drop toilets, a source of water, and huts for the rangers. Hikers settle in for the night in modern dome tents set up and taken down each day by the campsite porters. Some campsites have small shops where you can usually buy bread, eggs, and even sheep from the local communities around. There are three main campsites — Sankaber, Gich, and Chenek, all of which have cold showers. However, there are a number of smaller camps available for visitors who are trekking for longer than the standard Sankaber – Chenek route. Community lodges provide toilets, running water, Beds, and blankets, as well as simple Ethiopian foods. There are also options for more luxurious accommodation at some newer lodges.
Most treks in the Simien Mountains start from this point. The camp is nicely situated with some stunning sunset views and the toilets are well away out of sight from the camping area. It offers a real sense of wilderness with some stunning hidden viewpoints just a few minutes’ walks away from the tents.
This campsite is set in an open spot on a vast sloping plateau with views away from the main ridge and is set around half a mile away from Geech Village.
Like Sankaber, the toilets are set well away from the main camping area for convenience and privacy. Eagles, ravens, and vultures are a common sight in this area.
Situated just beside one of the roads running through the Simien Mountains, Chenek Camp usually has a lot more people around, which can sometimes give it a less of a sense of wilderness vibe. It, however, makes up for this by being a profuse wildlife setting where Gelada Baboon and Walia Ibex are common sightings.
This is the only lodge inside the national park. It comprises a series of tukels – Ethiopian name for the house. Each tukel forms two rooms, each spacious enough for two large single beds and with two bathrooms with shower. There are also family rooms comprising of two rooms and a bathroom.
Simien Lodge serves as a fantastic base to trek in the Simien Mountains while its bar is the highest place in Africa to get a drink.
This new boutique 14 room lodge sits just outside the park. It offers luxurious accommodations with a variety of related activities, including luxury dining and hosting special events. Guests are also able to explore the unique flora and fauna of the Simien Mountains as well as take a short trek to visit the local surrounding communities. If you’d rather stay in, you can simply laze on the terrace or curl up in front of the log fire to keep the night cold at bay. All rooms are en-suite with spectacular views, while the restaurant and bar area provide ample relaxation spaces and offer spectacular views over the Simien Mountain landscape. Prices range from $180 to $460 per night, depending on the type of room and the season of your visit.
Should You DIY?
There are all sorts of ways to DIY a safari adventure, paying only the necessary fees and strapping your own sleeping gear to your back. But when it comes to trekking through the Simien National Mountain Park, booking a tour operator would seem an inevitable choice. This is mainly due to the complexity of the planning involved, the timing of the trek, language barriers, and the guidelines of the local park authorities.
For example, one of those codes of conduct state that all trips to the park must be escorted by a park guide. A do-it-yourself trip doesn’t always mean cheaper expenses, considering that there are other fees to be paid before you can begin your trek, whereas booking a tour operator means all these auxiliary expenses are already out of the way and you can proceed with your adventure as soon as possible. Going DIY also does no good if you don’t understand any basic words in the local language as it can be very frustrating, especially when you want to understand community cultures and new sightings. So whether you are solo traveler or hiking as a group, tour operators are the best way to take off some of the weight of planning a trip and minimize your getting lost time.
Simien Mountains is a special place, and not just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site… you need to experience it to understand it. The park is a nature lovers dream, rich in wildlife and offering unique sightings of very rare mammals that are endemic to Ethiopia. So if you’re ever planning a trip to Ethiopia, make sure to include a trip to these marvelous mountains. It promises to be an experience of a lifetime.
Check out more of Absolute Ethiopia’s Simien Mountain tours here:
- 13 Days Adventure to the Simien Mountains
- 15 Days Historic Route and Trekking in Simien Mountains
- 7 Days Simien Mountains Trekking
Explore Ethiopia tours with Absolute Ethiopia.