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Hiking in Ethiopia

by Martha Hales

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Ethiopia is a destination with some of the planet’s most staggering landscapes, and many of the most epic regions are crisscrossed with hiking trails just waiting to be explored. We’ve picked out a few of our favourite areas to explore towards the bottom of this article. But first, an introduction to why Ethiopia should be top of your list as a hiking destination...

Simien Mountain National Park hike

This is a country where highlands make up a large part of the topography, and in fact most of the north and west of Ethiopia lies at over 1,000 metres above sea level. The average elevation across the territory is 1,330 metres, but the altitude range is immense, with the lowest point - the Danakil Depression - sitting at 125 metres below sea level and the highest point, the mountain of Ras Dashen, reaching 4,550 metres. One prominent feature of the Ethiopian landscape is the Great Rift Valley, where tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of around 5 millimetres per year, creating a valley which is around 50 kilometres wide today.

Great Rift Valley Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Highlands is a huge area containing two of the most celebrated national parks in terms of hiking. Right in the north of the country, the Simien Mountains National Park is the premier Ethiopian hiking destination, marrying immense canyons, towering bluffs and unique nature. Bale mountains National Park has many endemic species of flora and fauna, and it’s one of Ethiopia’s - and indeed Africa’s - birding hotspots.

Simien Mountains National Park Walia Ibex

Ethiopia is a fascinating country with a far reaching history and rich cultural legacy. There are more UNESCO World Heritage sites here than in any other African nation, demonstrating the hidden depths of the natural and cultural treasures you will find when exploring. Consider combining your hiking trip with some extra days set aside to experience cultural wonders such as the rock hewn churches of Lalibela or the Omo valley tribal villages - you don’t want to come all the way to Ethiopia and miss the opportunity to discover as many different aspects of the country as you can.

Lalibela UNESCO World Heritage site

The best time to go hiking in Ethiopia depends on your priorities. If you wish to visit in dry conditions on the trekking routes, then head out sometime between November and May. To see the countryside at its greenest, the months of November and December are best as they are directly after the rainy season.

Ethiopia Mountains

There are many different types of hikes available in Ethiopia, from easy half day rambles to challenging multi day mountain treks staying in camps and bunkhouses at altitude. The terrain is extremely varied, from the Rift Valley lakes and their lowland surroundings to the highest peaks and gorges of the Simien Mountains. The following are some of the most important destinations for hikers in Ethiopia.

Bale Mountains National Park

This range of mountains is the largest afro alpine ecosystem remaining on the continent, constituting one fifth of the total territory. The habitats of Bale Mountains include afro-alpine moorland, woodland, afro-montane forest, and highland meadows which are rich in flora and fauna. As well as the approximately 300 species of birds found here, there are more than 70 mammal species, several of which are endangered and also quite a few which are endemic to Ethiopia. Look out for rock hyrax, Bale monkey, mountain Nyala and the Ethiopian Wolf, the world’s rarest candid. Hiking here is very accessible and well set up for visitors, but never overcrowded. The main trails lead out over the Sanetti Plateau, the best place to spot wolves, and there are multi day itineraries and day walks available in the park.

Bale Mountains Ethiopian Wolf

Simien Mountains National Park

This is by far Ethiopia’s most popular trekking destination and it doesn’t take long to work out why. The Simien Mountains National Park is Africa’s version of the Grand Canyon, where towering stacks loom straight out of deep gorges, earning the region the nickname of ‘The chess pieces of the Gods.’ The scenery is nothing short of amazing, involving steep escarpments, sheer cliffs, high grassy plateaus and unique rock formations. Trails lead through the park, linking the most scenic viewpoints with mountain peaks and overnight camps and lodges. To get the most of this area, consider a multi day trek, covering much more ground than you can see on a day hike. The wildlife here is another draw; look out for the Walia Ibex and Lammergeier as well as the ubiquitous gelada baboons and elusive wolves, not to mention the birds and the plant life.

Simien Mountains National park Ethiopia

The Lalibela Highlands

As well as being home to the incredible rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is located among some of Ethiopia’s most impressive landscapes. Hiking in the region ranges from short trails leading to important monasteries such as Asheten Mariam monastery, right through to multi day routes requiring overnights in camps or village bunkhouses. There are challenges to be had if you seek them, as these peaks rise to more than 4,000 metres in places and there are some scrambles and steep stretches to tackle. The tricky inclines alternate with plateaus such as Merabarbu where the going is flatter, yet the altitude can still make the hike a tough one. There are a number of welcoming villages dotted around the Lasta Mountains which give a great peek into rural Ethiopian life, and add an interesting cultural element to the treks.

Traditional house Lalibela Ethiopia

Danakil Depression

This is one of the least hospitable places on the planet, yet also one of the most elemental and spectacular landscapes out there. Hiking here is definitely not for the faint of heart or unfit, as the environment is harsh and unforgiving taking in bubbling lava pools, volcanoes, salt lakes and hot springs. Erta Ale (translates as ‘The Smoking Mountain’) is the name given to the volcano where the caldera contains the world’s only permanent lava lake. Trekking up to the summit at sundown to camp on the rim and see the bubbling lava down below is an amazing experience, and although there are few other well trodden trails in the Danakil Depression there are plenty of short walks from villages to springs, salt pans and desert landscapes to enjoy.

Dallol volcano Danakil depression Ethiopia

Make it happen

Your hiking trip in Ethiopia can be as relaxed or as energetic as you wish, after all that is the beauty of the bespoke tours put together by our local experts. Send them some details of your requirements and they will get started on planning your trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898‬.

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