Key information: Simien Mountains
- Magnificent highland scenery, with high plateaux riven by deep gorges and a spectacular skyline of towering peaks, including Ethiopa’s highest. Many outstanding views. A World Heritage site.
- The mountains are full of exotic flora and fauna. A traditional but very poor way of life.
Walkopedia rating(Top 100)
- Walkopedia rating89
- Natural interest16
- Human interest8
- Negative points2
- Total rating89
- Note: Negs: altitude.
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 4,543m (optional)
- Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
One of the major mountains ranges in Africa, the stunning, rugged scenery of the Simien mountains provides a dramatic setting for some very exhilarating trekking. The peaks of this island in the sky, much of it a high plateau edged by huge escarpments, form a jagged skyline from below; deep gorges carve through and striking flora and fauna are scattered around the landscape. Amongst all this is the highest summit in Ethiopia (the fourth highest in Africa), Ras Dashen – the actual height of which is under debate, but is generally considered to be 4,543m.
The Simiens are formed from highly eroded volcanic plateaux with dramatic escarpments, and are said to be unique – along with the Drakensberg in South Africa, that is. They were formed between 40 and 25 million years ago by vast outpourings of lava from a huge shield volcano, and have left layers of basaltic rock and tuff some 3,000-3,500m thick. Ras Dashen and Mt Buahit are said to have been formed for the outer core of this huge volcano.
Wildlife is a highlight of the range, as it is home to three endemic species (the Walia ibex, the Simien fox (ironically seen more often in the Bale mountain range) and the Gelada baboon) as well as many others; the sixty-three species of birds are equally fascinating, particularly the rare, huge Lammergeyer.
Surrounded by this beauty, it is possible to overlook the poverty of the country. In these mountains, especially areas away from the roads, the Amhar people live in rural villages which they say aid often does not reach, and many suffer badly through lack of medical supplies, food and good sanitation.
Walking options are, as a result of the topography, more limited than you would expect. There is one (good dirt) road, which is usually taken from the cheerful town of Debark on the road from Gondar to the west, which seems to have a bit of a monopoly on trek organising.
There are various routes you can taken, from day walks to long treks.
The shorter classic: 5 days to Mt Buahit: Start inside the park entrance – we recommend you don’t start from Debark, but get a lift so you begin in much wilder landscape. Walk along the escarpment edge, with some road time too, to scruffy Sankaber: hold your nose both metaphorically and literally here – it does gets better. Day 2 is a stunner, with a lot of time on the escarpment edge, away from the road. Huge cliffs, a 500m waterfall, some farmland, perhaps lunch by a stream, then a long, likely tiring, slog up to Geech in its beautiful high plain. Day 3 is the outstanding Imet Gogo Ridge. Day 4 is the superb trek to and along the escarpment to Chenek, another slightly disappointing campsite saved by amazing views from the nearby rim. Day 5 is a satisfactory rounder-off, a climb of Mt Buahit at 4,430m. See William Mackesy’s account of this trek. You can meet transport here, or walk back to the park entrance, or onward on the Simien and Onward trek.
The longer classic: 7 days+ to Ras Dashen: start with the classic 4 days via Geech and Chenek (3 days if you omit Imet Gogo, but please don’t!), then walk on to Ambikwa, a 22km, 9hr slog, albeit through fascinating landscape, including a climb to a shoulder of Mt Buahit then a long descent to the deep Mesheba valley before climbing to Ambikwa. Ras Dashen peak is tackled the next day – see more here. While Ras Dashen will satisfy peak baggers, it isn’t the world’s most thrilling peak, quite a slog with a scramble at the end. You can shorten this walk by driving to Chenek and starting walking there (3 days +), but you will have less acclimatisation.
Simien and onward to remote lower lands: Start with the 5 day classic, then drop off the escarpment near Chenek to head back north-east to Adi Arkay on the Gondar road, through remote, little-visited villages for a good examination of Ethiopian rural life. 7-8 days. This is a superb, varied walk for those with the time. We would choose it over the Longer Classic.
To/from Lalibela: you can make a long trek between the Simiens and the great rock church site of Lalibela, through rough, mountains and hills, visiting remote villages and a remarkably unchanged way of life. 12 days or so if you trek the whole way, although this can of course be shortened. If walked from Lalibela, you will have had more acclimatisation time when you reach the high Simiens.
The campsites on the longer treks, which you are required to stay in, left a lot to be desired in 2019: loos so disgusting at Sankaber that we saw someone be spontaneously sick on viewing them, and a grungy site with packed-in tents to boot. Chenek was pretty dreary, too. Geech, some way from the road, is a lot better, but was still litter-strewn. The word is that the park administration is corrupt, and money supposed to be used for keeping sites tidy gets pocketed.
Many of the days on the longer treks can be walked as fantastic day walks, although they will be longer days, at altitude, than if done as part of a multi-day trek. But you can avoid the (as of 2019) thoroughly underwhelming roadside campsites.
Along the escarpment to Sankaber: get dropped on the road around Buyit Ras. It is a 4 hour or so walk, much of it along the escarpment side, to scruffy Sankaber. A good introductory walk if time/money are at a premium, but not a patch on the fireworks further up into the range.
Imet Gogo Ridge: if one had to name a single best day here, this would probably be it: a superb route through luscious landscape, out along the southern (inner) flank of this outlying ridge, which narrows to the final Imet Gogo point, surrounded on all sides by giddy cliffs, except for a narrow dyke of hard volcanic rock you teeter along to get there. The views here of the great Simien escarpment, with grassy plateau behind and crags and cliffs falling to broken farmland and rough badlands far below, are some of the best in the entire range.
Geech to Chenek: a glorious if demanding day’s walk, travesing out then dropping to a valley-bottom escarpment cliff-top, before a long climb through beautiful giant heather and grassland to the escarpment top. Then a marvellous descent just behind the escarpment edge.
Mt Buahit: a fine peak at the heart of the range, a bit of a slog with huge, beautiful views and a good chance of meeting gelada monkey and walia ibex.
Ras Dashan: There is quite a consensus that Ethiopia's highest peak (at 4,543m) is doubtfully worthwhile: it is a long, rough, altitudinous 5-6 hr slog from Ambikwa, with some scrambling at the end. The views from the summit are pretty extraordinary, by definition 360° and far reaching, but they are little better than on Mt Buahit, and both are less thrilling than the best of the escarpment. Note – it is usually walked as part of a longish trek (to give acclimatisation time) and would be difficult without that.
Almost everyone feels the altitude, as the beginning of the ridge is at around 3,000m and it only gets higher. Spend some time in (say) Gondar to acclimatise. Walk slowly, especially on climbs. Drink lots of water. Not many people get severe problems, but expect a headache and some poor sleep and be prepared to cope if severe problems develop.
www.tourdust.com organise Ethiopia expeditions, including walking here. We had a wonderful time, with a well planned and supported journey. They clearly have good local partners. We loved our Simien trek, an extraordinary experience. We did have some minor issues with our trek team, but these were not within Tourdust’s control. We are proud to be their partners.
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books which mention these walks
Ethiopia and Eritrea – Lonely Planet
Ethiopia (The Bradt Travel Guide) – Philip Briggs
Find these and other books on Amazon.
Ethiopia – Elizabeth Berg, 2000 (an introduction to the geography, history, government, lifestyles, culture and current issues).
A History of Ethiopia – HG Marcus
Ethiopian Amharic – Lonely Planet Phrasebook
Journey through Ethiopia - Mohamed Amin, Duncan Willets, and Alaistair Matheson
Flashman on the March – George Macdonald Fraser. A very silly book (although not as quite as funny as some of the hero’s other adventures) replete with conflated history.
Ethiopia through Writers’ Eyes – Eland Books, selected by Yver-Marie Stanger – a fascinating selection.
Waugh in Abyssinia – the great writer’s funny if jaundiced take on the war with Italy.
The Pale Abyssinian: the Life of James Bruce by Mile Bredin. An extraordinary late of this adventurer’s C18 sojourn in Ethiopia. ’Bruce emerges … as one of the toughest, bravest, most effective and learned of British African pioneers.’ Robert Carver, Times Literary Supplement.
Find these and other books on Amazon.
There don’t seem to be any decent maps of the Simien, one of many reasons to go with a guide!
Ethiopia (World Travel Map) – Cartographia.
Ethiopia: Itm.225 – Itet.
Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk. An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
Normally from October through to March - and this is when expeditions are mainly made. We have received a comment that: “Actually it is best to avoid the key months of Oct, Nov, January. Other months such as September, March, April, May and June are excellent when you can trek in complete tranquility with good weather.” Anyone have any thoughts?
Much cooler in the mountains than in other places in Ethiopia, but max temperatures still regularly reach 30°C and above. The temperatures don’t vary hugely between seasons, but are significantly cooler between September and March, so this is the ideal time for trekking. Rain is also less likely than during the summer months.
There are direct or connecting flights from all over Europe and North America to Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines have a good reputation as of 2019), from where most expedition organisers meet people taking part and organise hotels and internal flights to Gondar.
All transport from Addis Ababa tends to be sorted out for you, and included in the price.
You usually meet your trek team at Debark on the road east of Gondar. You need to drive (or be driven) to Debark.
For entry into Ethiopia, you must have a valid passport, which will remain valid for at least the next six months, and a visa (whatever your nationality): check the current position, and whether one can be got on entry.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
Altitude: Will affect everyone to some degree. Acclimatize appropriately, come prepared to cope, be ready to evacuate people in extreme cases.
Mountain weather: rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year. Come prepared.
Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
Heights: can be dangerous if climbing into the mountains; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
Harmful animals, including (at least on off the plateau) snakes, mosquitoes, and stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
This is remote country: food and other supplies will not be readily available and help will be hard to get if things go wrong.
Health risks: this is a very undeveloped country, and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
We would not advise that you do lengthy walks independently, as the area is remote, poverty-stricken and can be dangerous. While some shorter walks can be done independently, you always have to have two armed rangers with you (‘scouts’), and a guide really does contribute hugely to you understanding. (2019 info.)
Guides and scouts are arranged through the Park HQ in the middle of Debark. (0581-170016). As can be cooks and mule men and their beasts.
The vast majority form or join organised/supported expeditions when doing multi-day walks. Choosing a suitable team or company is of course vital.
If hiring a guide/team locally, meet him/her/them and get comfortable before comitting. Make sure all requirements are understood and agreed - including how you (and they) will eat and the importance of avoiding illness, as well as overnighting and, of course, remuneration!
- A local guide at http://www.hikeethiopia.com/?page_id=88
Expedition organisers include:
- www.tourdust.com organise Ethiopia expeditions, including walking here. We had a wonderful time, with a well planned and supported journey. They clearly have good local partners. We loved our Simien trek, an extraordinary experience. While we had some minor issues with our trek team, these were beyond Tourdust’s control. We are proud to be their partners.
- Kudu Travel do an excellent-looking expedition. Walkopedia partners, so recommended!
- Explore! - www.explore.co.uk - reputable and experienced organisers. They take you to Ras Dachen and back to Chenek in 8 days.
- https://www.wildfrontierstravel.com do a good-looking shorter (3day) trek as part of a longer trip.
- www.intrepidtravel.com do an excellent-looking longer mountain-and-remote-lowlands trek.
The guidebooks have a selection of possible accommodation, but once in the mountains camping (and a few lodges) are the only realistic option, camping oonce on overnight treks, whether you are doing this independently or with a guide.
However, there are certain places, at the beginning and end of the trip, where you can stay in lodges/hotels. Organised expeditions arrange this all for you and usually include your room in the package price. Limolimo is said to be the best in the area.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- https://simienpark.org/, partcularly https://simienpark.org/simien-mountains-trekking-routes/
Other things to do in the area
There are other great areas in Ethiopia for trekking and for day walks.
Visit the amazing rock churches of Lalibela and Tigray.
Shopping, if you must
We are not a shopping website – but, anything bought from local people must be of some help to this desperately poor country. So, wallets out!
COMMUNITY COMMENTS AND PHOTOS
Posted on: 11/06/2014
Actually it is best to avoid the key months of Oct, Nov, January. Other months such as September, March, April, May and June are excellent when you can trek in complete tranquility with good weather. Simien Lodge at the beginning of the park is an excellent place to start and end the trek. Scouts are essential but are really there to create employment. Other people such as cooks, muleteers and guides are not essential but will add to the enjoyment of the trip. The best views are from Buit Ras to Sankabur and then at Imet Gogo.
Name: Simien Mountains National Park (SMNP)
Posted on: 30/05/2017
The starting point for any visit to the Simien Mountains National Park is the National Park Office in Debark. The Park Office is the first place to go to for permits, information, travel preparation and any other form of support for visitors to the National Park. It is here that the required entrance permit can be purchased, and an official SMNP Guide, cook, Scout and porters contracted. Visit the official website, contact any of our local guides and they can arrange/organise your tour, pick you up from Gondar air port or hotel...as simple and no need to book with big, expenssive companies from abroad.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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