Arusha, a fairly large city in the north of Tanzania, is often described as a gateway to Tanzania’s major safari destinations; most notably the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti National Park, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park. With these four big hitting safari destinations within easy reach it’s not so surprising that Arusha National Park is very often overlooked by visitors to the area. After all, if you only have a two week holiday then you’re going to visit the big hitting safari destinations – and Arusha National Park doesn’t find itself in that category. However, this relatively small park (552 square kilometers) is home to a pretty diverse ecosystem, stunning scenery and Kilimanjaro’s smaller cousin, Mount Meru. That makes it the perfect day trip safari from Arushu or Moshi (the latter being the base of operations for summiting Mount Kilimanjaro which is only 75km from the park). It also makes for a great day of hiking (even if you don’t fancy the 3-day trek reach Meru’s crater summit) or canoeing on the Momella Lakes.
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Wildlife – 3*
Arusha National Park isn’t the place to go if you’re expecting a Big-5 safari! In fact, it’s not the place to go solely for wildlife – particularly if you’re visiting other major national parks and reserves in Northern Tanzania. If you’ve reached the end of a two week safari of the Serengeti and other neighbouring parks and plan to finish up here then you’ll need to bear in mind that Arusha is more about the relaxing experience, the scenery and the chance to explore a scenically diverse landscape on foot and by canoe in a much less hectic setting. None of that is to say you won’t see any wildlife; quite the contrary (as these flamingos will attest). You just won’t see the Big-5 or other major predators that many people go on safari in the hope of seeing. For example, there are no lions or rhino and sightings of leopard, cheetah, hyena and wild dog are all pretty rare. What you will most likely see is an abundance of buffalo (seriously, a lot of buffalo), giraffe (especially around the Momella Lakes), zebra, dik-dik, waterbucks, perhaps a duiker or two and the occasional elephant if you’re really lucky. But what makes the park even more interesting are some other animals you don’t always see on safari; most notably the black and white Colobus Monkey, the Blue Monkey, the Vervet Monkey and, yes, the Lesser and Greater Flamingo that I captured here. Basically, if you manage your expectations and don’t come with the anticipation of seeing big-cats and the Big-5 (and like a good flamingo) then the wildlife viewing at Arusha National Park can actually be pretty rewarding – although clearly not as spectacular as the nearby blockbuster parks.
Scenery – 4.5*
The scenery wins the day for Arusha National Park. It is seriously one of the most scenically diverse national parks (for its size) that I’ve ever visited. In fact it was so diverse that it reminded me of one of those drive-thru safari parks with a whole host of different habitats (the ones where monkeys rip off your windscreen wipers in an act of defiance at their perpetual incarceration). The entrance to the park drops you within montane forest and it’s here in the montane that you might catch your first glimpse of a Colobus Monkey. Once out of the forest and heading north the volcanic slopes provide scenic overlooks onto rolling hills towards the salted Momella Lakes. The marshland surrounding the lakes and the grassy hills provide the perfect setting for buffalo and giraffe to roam (particularly freely given the low numbers of predators). To the east is Ngurdoto Crater whose rocky cliffs surround a marshy floor where you’ll often find buffalo and warthogs. However, the real scenic highlight of the park is Mount Meru. Meru, which is the 5th highest peak in Africa at 14,990ft, stands tall over the park. As you climb the peak’s slopes it offers fantastic views over the entire park towards Mount Kilimanjaro; which is around 50km to the east of the park.
In summary: Tropical rainforest, acacia trees, open plains, crater lakes, montane forests, rolling hills and mountain views; Arusha National Park has it all!
Accommodation – 4.5*
You’ve basically got three options if you want to visit Arusha National Park. The first is to stay in the area of the park itself. With larger parks and reserves this would always be my first choice if I’m there purely for wildlife viewing, because it puts you in the heart of the action and involves minimal driving in the very early morning for game drives. If you opt for that choice then you might want to check out Kiboko Lodge, African View Lodge or Hataril Lodge – although there are other options across the entire budget spectrum.
Now, having said that my first choice would always be to stay around the park, I’m not sure that’s so much the case with Arusha. With larger parks there’s a strong chance you’re going to be on safari (amongst other activities) for a number of days in the same lodge. In comparison I think Arusha National Park is best described as a ‘day trip park’ i.e. you’re likely to want to visit for a single day before moving on to ‘bigger and better’. That being the case you might decide that basing yourself in Arusha or Moshi might be a better choice; Arusha because it’s the jump-off point for the major national parks to the East, and Moshi because it’s the jump-off point for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Both towns offer a good number of accommodation options (especially Arusha given its larger size) and are within easy driving distance of the park (no more than about an hour to an hour and a half).
Summary: The good news is that Arusha NP is very well served when it comes to accommodation and can offer everything from high end 5* luxury lodges to campsites; something for every budget.
Access – 3.5*
From an international base there are a few different ways to access Arusha National Park. The easiest option is probably to fly directly in to Kilimanjaro International Airport which is about 60km (45 minute drive) from both Arusha City and the National Park. From there transfers and taxis are readily available and shouldn’t cost much more than USD 50 (at the time of writing). Alternatively, if you’re already in Tanzania or would consider a domestic connection from Dar es Salaam then you could catch a domestic flight in to Arusha Municipal Airport which lies on the outskirts of the city (about 45km from the park itself with transfers and safaris to the park being arranged through local tour operators in the city). Domestic flights into Arusha from Dar es Salaam (amongst other domestic locations) are available with Precision Air.
A lesser utilized option is to bus in from Kenya. If you fly into Nairobi International Airport (Jomo Kenyatta International Airport) then you can pick up a bus to Arusha. It might take a while longer but it usually ends up quite a bit cheaper because of the multitude of flights going in to Nairobi.
All things considered Arusha NP, like much of the Northern Tanzania safari circuit, is pretty well connected; especially considered that it’s served by two airports.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3.5*
Arusha has fantastic access, great accommodation options and offers some unique ways to get up close and personal with wildlife at their level (see below). However most people, me included, go on safari to see big game and Arusha doesn’t offer much in that regard. It’s a great park to explore, hike and get sweaty doing some outdoorsy activities but basically lacks the true exhilaration of a traditional safari. My advice is to visit the park but not treat it as a safari experience at all. I can guarantee you’ll enjoy it if you go without the weight of those safari expectations.
Hiking Mount Meru: If you plan to spend a few days in the park and fancy a non-technical 3 day summit of Mount Meru then this can be arranged locally. It’s definitely strenuous (it is the 5th highest peak in Africa after all) but it’s nowhere near as draining as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It therefore makes the perfect warm-up climb if you’re planning to summit Kili! If you’re interested then you might want to check out the Tanzania Expeditions Website for some inspiration.
Canoe, horseback and Mountain Bike Safaris: One of the great things about Arusha National Park is the multitude of different ways to enjoy a safari. Given the lack of predators (and therefore a diminished likelihood of having your leg gnawed off during a casual stroll through the park) there are a number of different safari options available to you that you might not otherwise consider (or they might not be so readily available) in other parks. In addition to traditional safaris and hiking in the park you might also want to consider a horseback safari, mountain biking or canoeing on the Momella Lakes.