How to plan the best safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda

JUAN MARTINEZ

May 4, 2022

How to plan the best safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda

Grasslands, savannah, forests, wetlands, and lakes – you name it, and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda has it.

It was my first night before visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, and to save some costs, a friend and I decided to stay in a tented camp outside the premises of the park. With only shepherds herding sheep and some cows roaming around, there were few chances to spot big wild animals. Furthermore, loud music and people in a nearby town made me not notice that I was next to Uganda’s most biodiverse national park. I was unsure if that was the right decision and was constantly overthinking whether staying inside the park would have made a more significant difference.

Only around 11 PM, the music from the village stopped, and I could finally go to sleep. However, there was something outside that didn’t let me. These were not drunk people wandering around or some kids playing music on the radio. It was the sound of some laughing hyenas – one of the most terrifying but at the same time fascinating sounds I’ve ever heard. They were roaming freely around the camp, and I could listen to them laughing and growling and passing right next to my tent. I could hear their steps on the dry grass and how they moved from tent to tent before quietly leaving. But this surprise didn’t only happen on the first night; hippos and buffalos passed over several days around our tents.

This was my first impression of Queen Elizabeth National Park, where communities coexist with wildlife and where incredible animal encounters happen when you least expect it.

elephants on the street at Queen Elizabeth National Park
Elephants crossing between two villages outside the Queen Elizabeth National Park

Understanding Queen Elizabeth National Park

Being the most popular national park in Uganda and famously known as the home of tree climbing lions, Queen Elizabeth National Park is on the bucket list of most travelers visiting Uganda. It is home to five different ecosystems, grassland, savannah, forest, wetland, and volcanic lakes, and a place where wildlife lovers will simply not want to leave.

Located around 400 km from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Queen Elizabeth is not very accessible for a short day trip. Still, travelers can easily combine it with visits to Kibale National Park, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and Lake Mburo National Park.

With such diverse landscapes and options to observe wildlife, it is challenging to plan a short itinerary in Queen Elizabeth National Park. This park is simply huge! The Kazinga Channel between Lake Edward and Lake George in the northwest of the park is perfect for travelers looking forward to boat cruises – hotspots for finding buffalos, hippos, crocodiles, and elephants. The Kyambura Gorge, in the northeast, is considered an excellent place for chimpanzee trekking and hiking. The savanna and swamp areas in the park’s central area are perfect for game drives and animal spotting.

Additionally, the crater lakes in the northeast part of Queen Elizabeth are excellent for an off-road drive and to view the fantastic panoramas of the area – this is also a perfect chance to spot leopards. And finally, the Ishashsa sector in the south offers the unique opportunity to spot tree-climbing lions – something that is relatively uncommon in Africa.

photographing the Queen Elizabeth National Park from a viewpoint
photographing the Queen Elizabeth National Park from a viewpoint

Accessibility

Located next to the border with DRC, Queen Elizabeth National Park was relatively inaccessible for many years. Civil conflict isolated the park for decades, and only until some years ago travelers couldn’t visit this part of Uganda independently or without a military escort.

Today the situation completely changed. It is one of the most secured parks in this part of Africa, and travelers can visit Queen Elizabeth National Park with their vehicles, on a private tour, or on group tours. With most operators adding Queen Elizabeth as part of their itineraries, the park has become a magnet for those who want to combine gorilla and chimpanzee trekking with game viewing and river cruises.

To get to Queen Elizabeth National Park, travelers are recommended to visit the park using a tour operator or travel with their own vehicle. It is the quickest and by far most convenient way to get there. For visitors interested in reaching the national park using public transportation, the cities of Kasese (1 hour) and Fort Portal (2-3 hours) are the closest urban areas to Queen Elizabeth. However, from these cities, you would have to arrange private transport to the national park and later a car that can take you on a game drive – something that can be pretty expensive if you don’t plan properly.

Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth National Park does NOT offer game drives with their vehicles, so trying to book a car at the gate will be pointless. Travelers using their vehicles can also hire a ranger to guide them inside the park.

Large amount of antelopes in Queen Elizabeth
Large amount of antelopes are visible along the road

These are the prices to enter Queen Elizabeth National Park

  • Entry fee to Queen Elizabeth National Park – 40 USD/person (24-hour permit)
  • Private vehicle (small car) – 30 USD
  • Private vehicle (4×4) – 50 USD

*Prices change if you are a foreigner living in Uganda, an East African passport holder, or a Ugandan citizen.

NOTE: Entry permits can only be purchased at the Kabatoro Gate of Queen Elizabeth National Park. There is no additional cost for staying overnight, and travelers can only move between 7 AM and 7 PM inside the national park.

Where to stay

Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth National Park offers excellent options for travelers. From luxurious lodges located in Ishshsa to small family-run camps on the outskirts of the national park.

Before you visit Queen Elizabeth National Park, consider which part of the park you want to stay in. Most of the accommodation options are located in the north-central part of the park – Katunguru. However, if you are planning to visit the tree-climbing lions, this location might be too far for going on a full-day game drive.

On the other hand, visiting Queen Elizabeth and staying in Ishashsa can limit your visit. Activities like the boat cruises, chimpanzee tracking, or a visit to the crater lakes are simply too far, and you will have to waste a big part of the day just getting there and returning to your lodge.

The most practical option is deciding which activities you want to do and select your accommodation based on that. Travelers wanting to see the most of Queen Elizabeth can spend 2-3 nights in the northern part of the park, and later 1 or 2 nights in the south. You can book most of the activities inside the national park and not worry about long drives or wasting precious time on a vehicle.

View of my tented camp in the outside of the Queen Elizabeth National Park
View of my tented camp in the outside of the Queen Elizabeth National Park

Accommodation in Queen Elizabeth

  • Hostels owned by the wildlife authority outside the park: 15 – 25 USD per night per person.
  • Budget lodges outside the park: 20 – 30 USD per night per person.
  • Budget lodges in prime locations (outside the park): 30 – 50 USD per night per person.
  • Medium class lodges outside the park: 45 – 100 USD per night per person.
  • Medium class lodges inside the park: 70 – 150 USD per night per person.
  • Luxury accommodation inside the park: starting 120 – 140 USD per night per person.

Best time to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park

Open all year long, Queen Elizabeth National Park is a great place to visit. Still, staying in the dry season or wet season might affect the animals you might see and the experience you get.

On the one hand, January to February & June to July (considered dry season) is perfect for game viewing. The grass is lower, animals gather at waterholes, and days are mostly sunny with clear skies. Some might say that views are not as good due to the hazy air. However, experts agree this is the best season to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Although, since this is also considered a high season in Uganda, prices for accommodations and tours can increase significantly.

On the other side, March to May & August to December (considered wet seasons) are perfect for those travelers on a budget. Prices decrease due to the low season, and wildlife viewing is still acceptable. Furthermore, the green savannas and forest make Queen Elizabeth National Park beautiful for sightseeing, and if you are into birdwatching, some consider this the best time.

Still, rainy days can affect your game experience, and some roads can even become inaccessible due to the weather conditions.

Key activities like tree-climbing lion spotting, chimpanzee tracking, or river cruises run all year long, and they will be worth it no matter when you visit.

Queen Elizabeth river cruise Uganda
River cruises are a great option all year long

Activities inside Queen Elizabeth

Day and night game drives

Large herds of buffalo and elephants, antelope, and lions are some highlights in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The immense savannas of the park are home to thousands of these animals, and a full day of game drives won’t feel enough to see it all.

Travelers curious to see how wildlife behaves once the sun goes down can also book a night drive at the national park gate. However, compared to other parts of Africa, night drives are pretty expensive and might not be entirely worth it.

For travelers wanting to see the famous tree-climbing lions of Uganda, they will have to travel to the most southern part of the park, Ishasha. Here, you can spend half a day searching for these giant cats and see how they relax and take a nap at the top of the multiple fig and acacia trees.

  • Price for a ranger guide in a day drive: 20 USD per person
  • Price for a ranger guide at night (obligatory): 100 USD per person
During high season, travelers can expect to see large herds of big mammals drinking water at waterholes and next to the lakes
Game drives are perfect for spotting all kinds of wildlife

Nature walk & chimpanzee tracking

Even though Kibale National Park is the epicenter for chimpanzee tracking, Queen Elizabeth is not that far behind. At Kyambura Gorge, travelers can book one of the multiple nature walks offered by the rangers and try to track these curious primates.

Permits to track the chimps cost only 50 USD (3 times less than in Kibale), and even though the experience is not as organized as in Kibale National Park, travelers can fulfill their dream of seeing chimps in the wild.

  • Permit for chimpanzee tracking at Kyambura Gorge: 30 USD
  • Cost professional tour guide for a chimpanzee tracking (obligatory): 20 USD
Chimpanzee tracking in Uganda
Chimpanzee tracking in Uganda

Kazinga Channel boat ride

Perfect at any time of the day, a boat ride at the Kazinga Channel is probably one of the highlights of Queen Elizabeth National Park. During this ride, I saw dozens of elephants, countless buffalos and hippos, and one or another crocodile taking the sun.

It was one of the most relaxed activities in the whole park, and I would recommend it to any traveler visiting Queen Elizabeth.

Departure times are always at 11 AM, and 2 PM, and your tour operator or lodge can easily arrange 5 PM and a booking.

  • Price: 30 USD (Day pass for Queen Elizabeth National Park is not necessary for this activity)

Read more: How to plan a trip to Akagera National Park in Rwanda

elephants bathing during a Kazinga Channel boat ride
Elephants bathing during a Kazinga Channel boat ride

Visit the crater lakes

Located uphill and surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes in Uganda, the crater lakes were also one of my highlights when visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park. These volcanic craters, which formed thousands of years ago, are dormant volcanoes that now serve as the home for thousands of species.

There are three volcanic crates in Queen Elizabeth National Park: Katwe, Bunyaruguru, and Ndali. Travelers can visit all three with a ranger, drive through the edge of the craters themselves, and get the best 360° view of Uganda.

This area is also the leopard’s home, as leopards love to climb on trees and hide in the dense forest most of the time.

Travelers curious to visit the crater lakes have to arrange a permit with the Queen Elizabeth National Park or simply discuss a visit with their tour operator.

Read more: How to plan a gorilla trekking in Uganda

View of the crater lakes of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda
View of the crater lakes of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda

NOTE: Travelers visiting Queen Elizabeth independently can arrange a safari car in one of the villages nearby for 120 USD per day. This would include a driver, the vehicle, and gasoline for the day. However, you can also arrange a ranger at the main gate to guide you for an additional 20 USD – this is an excellent option for those traveling with their vehicle who do not want to drive without any guidance.

Cutting down the costs

Unlike other parts of Africa, such as Serengeti or Masai Mara, a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park is quite affordable and easy to organize. It’s true. The park is located 6-7 hours away from the capital Kampala, but travelers planning a full trip around the country, can easily add this gem of Uganda and have plenty of time to see more.

Independent traveling is also not a big concern. However, roads in Queen Elizabeth are not well signalized, and if you are driving without a guide, it will be easy to get lost. Since the idea of visiting one of these national parks is to see the most amount of wildlife and make the most of your budget, hiring a guide inside the national park is recommended.

Also, depending on the accommodation you want and the activities you want to do, a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park can be as inexpensive as you want.

Read more: Which are the best national parks in Uganda

Hippo roaming at the savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park
Hippo roaming at the savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park

The most affordable option to travel to Queen Elizabeth would be using your vehicle. Here, you will only have to pay for the entrance fees to the national park, your accommodation, ranges who guide you on a game drive, and the vehicle itself. Unfortunately, corrupt police along the road and bargaining with everyone and everywhere can make this budget option quite annoying and frustrating if you plan to relax.

The most convenient option is organizing everything through a tour operator. Depending on how customizable your tour is, they will consider which budget you have and make the most of it to stretch its properly. They will also take care of arranging any necessary permit beforehand, and good operators will simply transport you around with their safari vehicles.

Organizing a tour to visit ONLY Queen Elizabeth National Park can be quite an expensive option. However, if you are 3-4 friends and plan a ten-day trip visiting Uganda’s highlights, you can quickly pay anything between 150-200 USD a night.

I traveled using Rafiki Safaris Uganda. They offered me two different itineraries based on my wishes and budget. I could not select the accommodation myself with them, but they ensured that I got the best deal within my budget. My itinerary included several game drives over three days, a boat cruise, and a visit to the crater lakes. Additionally, since I traveled with Rafiki Safaris, Uganda, for 11 days, they offered me great discounts when it comes to accommodation and transportation.

Read more: How to plan a chimpanzee tracking at the Kibale National Park

There is a craft shop inside the Queen Elizabeth National Park
There is a craft shop inside the Queen Elizabeth National Park

How much cost a 3-night visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park (2 people)

  • Safari renting a vehicle and independently arranging all permits & activities: 200 – 300 USD per person per night.
  • Safari renting a vehicle and using local guides, and doing chimpanzee tracking: 250 – 350 USD per person per night.
  • Tour operator for just Queen Elizabeth National Park: 350 – 400 USD per person per night
  • Tour operator for a 10-day trip (2500 – 3000 USD): 250 – 300 USD per person per night.

How would I plan my next visit?

If I get to travel to Queen Elizabeth National Park again, I will make sure to see more of the different ecosystems inside the park. I would spend some days in the southern part of Queen Elizabeth, where I would try to spot tree-climbing lions. Later, I would drive up north and spend some time in the highlands and wake up with 360° of fantastic panoramas and the savannas of the park, where I can easily arrange some game drives.

Additionally, I would also travel at the peak of the dry season; that way, I can spot more accumulation of animals, and I would stay a couple of days longer and try to spot the elusive leopard as well do a chimpanzee tracking.

Read more: What are the top safari activities in Africa 

Elephants drinking water at Lake Edward
Elephants drinking water at Lake Edward in Uganda

Planning a trip to Uganda independently is fun. However, if you want to arrange everything with tour operators beforehand from the comfort of your home. SafariBookings is the best platform for it.

They have the largest database of tour operators in Africa and you can simply send a request and negotiate a tour and a price directly with the operator. You don’t have to pay any additional fees.

These are some of the most popular tours in Queen Elizabeth National Park at SafariBookings

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