The allure of Mount Kilimanjaro is easy to understand. Its peak is the highest point on the African continent, with spectacular views from atop ancient glaciers lining an almost perfectly circular volcanic crater. Hikers are drawn to treks up Mount Kilimanjaro, snagging the opportunity to trek through four different climatic zones with porters to carry gear, fix camps, and prepare meals. Knowledgeable, multi-lingual guides show the way. The mountain lies in northern Tanzania, where security issues are minimal and tourism infrastructure leads the continent.
A trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro can be thrilling, while strangely relaxing. Porters and cooks provide basic human needs, and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment washes over those who reach its magnificent summit. Mighty Kilimanjaro’s popularity is not undeserved. However, it is NOT the adventurous hiker’s only trekking option in East Africa.
In fact, nearby peaks offer exciting treks with views and wildlife that trump that of "Big K". Africa’s second-highest mountain, Mount Kenya, offers everything its big neighbor does, and then some. The following are ten practical reasons to consider trekking in Kenya and climbing up Mount Kenya instead of Mount Kilimanjaro:
Mount Kenya’s trekking peak, Point Lenana, is a towering 4,985 meters (16,355 feet) above sea level. It lies 910 meters (2,985 feet) lower than Kilimanjaro, which translates to a shorter hike and fewer acclimatization issues. The trek ends up being at least one, usually two, full days shorter than a trek up Kilimanjaro. The lower peak also increases each hiker’s chance of reaching Point Lenana without succumbing to altitude sickness.
9. The Equator
It may be just an imaginary line, but this divider of the hemispheres runs right through Mount Kenya National Park. Many of the trekking routes cross the Equator, and the summit lies just a little to the south (although one would never know it by the cold and ice). Small signs and rock cairns mark Latitude Zero along the way, and guides will point them out as hikers pass by. For a great photo opportunity, there is a famous sign marking the Equator on the highway just south of the town of Nanyuki at the foothills of the mountain. Locals eagerly demonstrate the ‘water swirling test’ while tourists stand with one foot in the north, and the other in the south.
Many of the routes on Mount Kenya have basic lodges at overnight campsites. Long dining tables and rows of bunk beds offer little privacy, but the structures adequately block the wind and cold. Their communal design encourages conversations with other hikers, as intrepid travelers are always keen to swap stories.
7. Opportunity for Technical Climbing
Batian, the true summit of Mount Kenya, rises a bit higher than Point Lenana. At 5,199 meters (17,057 feet), it offers rock and ice climbing that pushes even experienced climbers to the limit. Reaching the summit often requires first traversing yet another peak, Nelion, en route to Batian. Standing on the peak is a true mountaineering feat that requires advanced skill and great effort. Climbing Batian on Mount Kenya is a thrill that Kilimanjaro simply cannot offer.
Mount Kenya is surrounded by a National Park that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bans on logging, hunting, and building have kept the surrounding forest teeming with birds, reptiles, elephants, and buffalos. Wildlife viewing on Mount Kenya is not a suitable replacement for a safari, but seeing animals is much more likely than on Kilimanjaro.
The easiest way to reach East Africa is by flying into Nairobi, Kenya. The country has straightforward visa criteria, and citizens of most nationalities will have little problem visiting Kenya. It even issues visas at its ports and border crossings, allowing for easy overland entry.
Getting to Mount Kenya National Park merely requires a short 200 km (125 mile) drive on paved highways from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The towns of Nanyuki, Chogoria, and Meru all have tour companies with access to the park. Staying in Kenya eliminates the stress, delays, and expense of crossing the border to Tanzania for a trek of Kilimanjaro, and many Kenyans speak fluent English.
4. Passionate Guides
The guides and tour companies around Mount Kenya are very aware that the brighter spotlight shines on Kilimanjaro. Being the underdogs, the level of service and hospitality they offer is unmatched. It is common for guides to take guests out for dinner and beer the night before a hike, and little surprises like creek-side tea breaks make the trek extremely pleasant.
Guides are proud of Kenyan and of their nation’s highest mountain. They try very hard to make the entire experience memorable and differentiate themselves from their big neighbor to the south. Hikers often bond with their guides who eagerly share their wealth of knowledge and passion with each client.
For some, this would be the top reason to choose Mount Kenya over Kilimanjaro. For others, it is simply an added perk. Either way, saving money allows more opportunities to enjoy nearby safaris, the beaches of Mombasa, or visit to the Maasai Warriors.
The simple fact is that a guided trek of Mount Kenya costs about half as much as the $1,000 USD trekkers can expect to pay for Kilimanjaro. Park fees, currency exchange rates, local salaries, and the lesser popularity of the mountain keep costs down. Planning an entire trip in vibrant Kenya saves on additional visa costs. Plus, unlike Kilimanjaro, hikers on Mount Kenya are not required to hire guides or porters. If a hiker wants to enter the park with their own resources, they are free to do so. It adds risk, but saves hundreds of dollars.
Natural scenery defines East Africa, and a trek on Mount Kenya puts hikers right in the middle of it all. Craggy volcanic boulders, trickling creeks, crystal clear lakes, indigenous alpine flora, and looming summit glaciers offer a beautiful backdrop in any direction. The rising and falling of the sun creates ever-changing colors and shadows, which the moonlight only enhances. Mount Kenya’s jagged, icy summit is in sight from the very first day of hiking, making it much more visible and enticing than that of Kilimanjaro. Its panoramic views from any one of the summits inspire awe, and even allow a peek at Kilimanjaro’s distant summit on clear mornings.
1. Less Crowded
This is arguably Mount Kenya’s biggest advantage over Kilimanjaro. Being less popular, hikers may not cross paths with each other for an entire day, especially during the less-popular wet seasons of March-June and October-December. Less people means less litter, noise, and competition for bunks at the camps. Each hiker can move at their own pace on summit day, a luxury that crowded Kilimanjaro cannot always provide. Trails are less worn, and visitors may experience moments where they feel they are the only person in a beautiful African mountain wilderness.
Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro each offer beautiful treks and chances for adventure. Trekkers will always be drawn to Kilimanjaro simply because it is the highest mountain on the continent. However, for its many advantages, Mount Kenya may be the perfect choice for a traveler that seeks a wild East African experience with less cost, time, and hassle. Standing on the continent’s highest peak is an experience unique to Kilimanjaro, but the overall experience of trekking Mount Kenya is, in many ways, far greater.