Simien Mountains National Park – Ethiopia
Why Trek Simien National Park?
Simply put, the Simien Mountains are amazing. Nobody seems to think of Ethiopia looking like this. Humongous, green, pinnacle peaks, deep valleys dotted with grass-hut villages, and fog blanketing the scenery for a picture perfect moment. Simien is breathtaking. Apart from the scenery, there is also an array of wildlife. Most likely, you will see the Gelada Monkey hordes, covering the hills, planning their next assault on the fields of golden wheat. The chances of seeing Ethiopia’s rare majestic Walia Ibex are also high. Simien can also provide a cultural experience as well. Many Ethiopians call Simien National Park their home. They grow wheat on gravity defying terraces and live in very traditional grass roof houses. Trekking here is extremely rewarding. Simien is a World Heritage site, and any trek here will stick with you long after you have left. Trek Simien; I promise that you will never forget this beautiful corner of Ethiopia.
Trekking in Simien National Park is not for the faint-hearted. If you take your time, then it will not be as difficult, but the high altitude and unpredictable weather make for some very challenging trekking. The trails are often very steep and slippery. They are also not very well maintained, so part of the trek will feel very “off the beaten track”. Be sure to come prepared for the cold and for the difficulty level of the trails by having the appropriate gear. Simien’s array of trails are not all difficult. There are some easier options you can undertake. But if you want to get the full array of beautiful vistas, prepare for the long haul, as it’s going to be a challenge. I would rate Simien a 3/5 for difficulty. This is mainly because of the length of the trails and the altitude.
Getting to Simien National Park
The main entry point to Simien National Park is the town of Debark. Debark can be reached either from the city of Gonder to the south, which is about two hours away, or by Shire, to the north. Shire is the more difficult option, as there are not as many buses and they tend to be full. During my trip to Ethiopia, I attempted to go from Aksum to Debark directly, but still ended up staying the night in Shire and leaving on a crowded bus the next morning. The Shire/Debark road is not in great condition. It will most likely take the whole day to arrive. You will cross some absolutely stunning scenery on questionable, scary roads. Once you are in Debark, most locals catch a ride from the park headquarters to the park. You can also walk, but this will add at least a day to your trek. Once in the park, it is illegal to hitchhike, but it is still possible. After completing the trek, I convinced my scout to hitch us a ride back down to Debark rather than walking back. This alternative was exciting, but a rather expensive and risky option.
Park Fees/ Guides and Scouts
At the park headquarters in Debark, you can pay the park fees. The regular rate is 90Birr per person, per day. Guides and scouts can be arranged here as well. Guides were listed at 200Birr per day while I was there. Scouts were 75Birr. Guides are not mandatory to have, but scouts are. The scout is a local who carries an AK-47 and can work as a trail guide. The scouts, usually, do not speak any English; so, if you are looking for translating, knowledge on plants and flora, and someone to explain Simien, then it’s best to hire a guide. Both guides and scouts will expect tips afterward (and sometimes get aggressive if you do not tip). The park headquarters can also arrange many other things such as transport, cooks, mules and camping equipment.
When to Go
December to March – This season tends to by quite dry. The scenery is less green. There is also less rain and temperatures during the day are a comfortable average of 15 Celsius. Night time, however, can be bone chilling. Often, it dips below zero.
June to September – Weather is a mixed bag. Severe downpours happen and mist will cover the mountain scenery. Trails can become very slippery due to all the unpredictable rain. The rain can also cause very cold weather at the high altitudes. Wild flowers bloom in August, creating a beautiful spectacle.
October to November – After the rains finish and the mist lifts, the beautiful green scenery is revealed. The air is often clear and temperatures during the day are very comfortable. Most people agree that this is the best season to hike. Trails can be busy and lodges fully booked. Evening rains sometimes occur, making the weather very cold.
Debark to Chenek Trek
The Debark to Chenek trek is a five-day trek that will take you into the heart of the Simien. You will get a fantastic taste of the park and be thrown back in time as you use the same mountain paths that local farmers use to travel between their grass-hut villages.
Debark to Buyit Ras – The first day you will walk 10 km through more populated areas. You will get a close look at this region’s people and their villages. Don’t be surprised if you are invited in for tea. Some people skip this part and drive to Buyit Ras. If you do this you will miss the cultural aspect of the outskirts of the park. Buyit Ras has camping and lodging available. Large gelada monkeys live nearby.
Buyit Ras to Geech – This day is a long 25 km walk. Most guides and scouts will automatically take you through the Sankaber scenic route; make sure they do as it is much more impressive than following the road. It is also the day with the most spectacular scenery. You will pass tall green peaks with deep valleys covered in mist. It’s a tough slog for part of it. You will also pass by some very interesting villages with children selling slings to throw rocks at the geladas trying to eat their crops. At Geech, there is a very basic lodge and camping spots.
Geech Camp to Chenek via Imet Gogo Summit – From Geech you head straight uphill towards the peak of Imet Gogo. Imet Gogo is 3926m and offers some of the Simien’s best views over the valleys. En route to the summit, you will pass by interesting cacti and other flora that give the hills a beautifully strange, exotic look. Nearing the summit, you will be required to climb over boulders and push yourself up over ledges. If you have a fear of heights: best to take it slow. At the Imet Gogo summit, all your struggles from the hike will be rewarded with multiple views over the entire park. From Imet Gogo, head down to Chenek across the river. More lodging is available here, and a great opportunity to see wildlife such as the ibex. This day you will cover about 25 km. It will take the entire day.
Return Routes and Mt Bwahit – From Chenek you can summit Mt Bwahit, elevation 4430 m, but this will take you another full day. Returning to Debark, most people trace back to Buyit Ras through Sankaber and get transport back. It is possible to hitch, however. It must be noted that this option is illegal and most guides will not allow it. My scout arranged our transport, and we rode back from somewhere near Sankaber to Debark in the back of a pickup truck.
Day Treks – When the roads are decent, it is possible to hire transport and drive into the park each day and trek to the villages. After trekking, you can drive back to Debark to stay in the hotels there. The roads are not in the greatest shape, so day trips will be very long with much of the time spent in the vehicle.
Shoes – It’s best to have light-weight hikers with good tread here. You will not be hiking over to many rocks, so ankle support is not necessary. For shoes I chose Merrel’s Annex. The Annex is a short hiker with Gortex tread. It’s very light and incredibly durable. I liked how well it breathed; keeping my feet comfortable. It worked well for all of Simien’s landscape.
Jacket – As the weather can be unpredictable, it is best to come prepared for cold and wet conditions. I like the Helly Hansen Squamish jacket as it is a rain jacket, but also comes with removable layers so you can keep warm when needed. It’s incredibly comfortable and light weight; great for Simien’s climate.
Back Pack – Once again, I always take my Fjallraven Rucksack No. 21. It’s large enough to carry your jacket, water bottle, food and some camping gear. It’s incredibly durable (mine has lasted years!) and, to be honest with you, I absolutely love the look of it. Its green waxed canvas keeps it waterproof, and it just keeps looking better with age. Highly recommend this pack.
Buff Merino Wool – This scarf/head cover can be used for multiple purposes. It comes in super handy when the weather gets chilly. Made from 100 percent Merino wool, it breathes well and still keeps you incredibly warm. It can also be used as a head cover, providing protection from the sun or to cover up at night to keep your head warm. I love the buff because of how versatile it is.
Life Straw – Clean water can be hard to find up here, this straw makes even the worst water drinkable and safe.
Recommended Guide – Lonely Planet Ethiopia, This guide breaks down the area with maps and great info on how to plan treks here.
Food – It’s best to buy snacks and decent food in either Gonder or Aksum; before you get to Debark. In Debark, there is not a lot for supplies. You will be able to get the basic supplies in Debark that your guide/cook can use to make simple meals. But, if you’re looking for things that will satisfy the sweet cravings that occur while trekking, I recommend picking up these beforehand. It is also possible to buy a goat or chicken in the villages along the trail. Your guide/cook will kill and cook this for you, but it’s a good experience to be a part of the process.
I’ve been using Momondo quite a bit for my flights lately and I love it!
Simien Park Hotel – 100–300 Birr. To be honest, this hotel is not great. But it happens to be, quite possibly, the best hotel in town. After a five day hike, a hot shower and meal make this place feel like a five-star hotel. Its only located 1 km north of the park headquarters, making it fine to walk to take in the morning. The hotel also offers typical Ethiopian food and beer at a decent price.
Buyit Ras – Geech – Chenek:
Community Lodges – 80 Birr. No matter what anyone tells you, there are lodges in these three places. They are not luxurious by any means, but they have basic dorm rooms with hard beds and blankets. They also offer food (Tibs and bread). The lodges also start huge bonfires at night. They are great places to meet other travelers and enjoy the warm fire. Oh, and the best part, sometimes they have beer for sale!
Simien Lodge – The Simien National Park’s only fancy lodging. Beautiful Ethiopian style bungalows and great service. The hotel is located at an elevation of 3260m, offering staggering views over the park. The food is great and the owner offers pick up from Gonder. The steep 160 US price is hard to gulp down, but if you’re looking for a bit of luxury in the Simien, here it is.