Kenya has 54 national parks and game preserves scattered throughout the country. There are parks teeming with tourists, and those that are seldom visited by outsiders. Some are on the plains, others in the Rift Valley, some in mountainous areas and others in the desert. All are home to varying populations of the wildlife for which Kenya is famous.
When you dream of going on safari, you’re probably thinking about a visit to one of these vast parks.
The best-known (and most visited) is the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which adjoins the Serengeti in Tanzania (across the southern border). Here, all of the “big five” on a visitor’s wish list can be seen: lion, elephant, rhino, cape buffalo and leopard, along with hundreds of thousands of other animals, including giraffe, warthog, hyena and wildebeest.
If you’ve seen images of massive herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope -- as many as 1-1/2 million ungulates -- rushing in a migratory frenzy through the Mara River when it’s filled with hungry crocodiles, this is the place. There are more than a dozen full-service resorts in the Maasai Mara as well as budget campsites.
Next in popularity is Amboseli National Park, just 160 miles southeast of Nairobi but with stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro across the Tanzanian border. Its main draw: the large herd of elephants (about 900 all told). There are a half-dozen resort choices in the park.
Aberdare National Park is a “must stop” for birders (250+ species), although it also includes black rhinos, elephants, baboons, black leopards and other wildlife in its varied landscape (mountain peaks, ravines, waterfalls). This high-altitude park is unusual in that it was created primarily to protect the moorland and slopes of the Aberdare Mountains. There are two resorts in Aberdare, both of which overlook watering holes (and thus have great nighttime viewing of the animals).
Tsavo West National Park is known for the hippos who love the pools of Mzima Springs. You’ll also find lions, cheetahs and hartebeest. Home to a large population of red-skinned elephants, it’s one of the largest reserves in Kenya.
Mount Kenya National Park includes (no surprise) Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa (Mount Kilimanjaro is first). Elephants, monkeys and birds are the stars here, but you can also indulge in some great trail hiking.
The Samburu National Reserve is mostly savannah, but a river runs through it (the Uaso Nyiro) -- so there are lots of crocodiles. It’s also said to be the best park in the country to spot the elusive leopard.
Smallest park in Kenya is the Saiwa Swamp National Park. Tucked in below the Cherengani Hills in the Rift Valley, it’s known for sitatunga antelope (a semi-aquatic species) and its varied bird life.
Most accessible of all the places to see wildlife is the Nairobi National Park. Oldest of all the parks, it’s just a half-dozen miles from Kenya’s capital city. Here there be lions (with a backdrop of skyscrapers) plus black rhino, all sorts of antelope, hyenas and ostrich.