Only a few minutes into our safari, Liz and I saw them: zebras. Zebras everywhere we looked in the vast, open savannah in front of us; little monochromatic creatures that made me think of eating Fruit Stripe gum as a kid.
I couldn’t stop smiling — I was literally standing in a field full of zebras. No car. No guide. No other people. It was just us, our bikes, the dusty road, and a herd of zebras. It was surreal, but exactly the kind of rare wildlife experience travelers can have at Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya; one of the only national parks where you can roam freely among big game unguided, and without a car.
I got back on my clunky, rented mountain bike and continued down the dirt road in search of more zebra photo ops and whatever else the park had for me to discover. Unlike other safaris I had been on, this one was what Liz and I decided to make of it. The park was ours to uncover, one dusty mile at a time.
What Makes Hell’s Gate Special?
We had come to Hell’s Gate National Park, just 90 kilometers outside of Nairobi, off a tip from another traveler. Before arriving, we had looked at the usual Kenyan safari spots — which are spectacular in their own right — but we wanted something different. Something more adventurous. Specifically, we wanted to get out of the car and ditch the guide.
“You can rent bikes and get really close to the animals at Hell’s Gate,” the traveler told us.
That was enough to convince us, so we boarded a matutu towards Lake Naivasha, famous for its flocks of bright pink flamingos, with plans to spend a couple of days camping and biking around the park.
Though small by Kenyan standards, Hell’s Gate stands out for the rare wildlife experience it provides visitors. Large game animals roam openly, but the park remains free of predators. This makes it safe for visitors to wander the park without a guide or car and creates an unusual sense of peacefulness.
For travelers who also want to do something active on their trip, but still get a taste of Kenyan safaris, Hell’s Gate National Park beautifully merges the sense of adventure and activeness. Going unguided meant that our discoveries were our own, our adventure was what we made it.
Note: Cars are allowed in the park — meaning that if you prefer to drive, the option’s there. Bikers and hikers should simply be aware and share the road.
What Wildlife Will You See in Hell’s Gate?
Although Africa’s “Big Five” often eclipse some of its smaller wildlife, these creatures are no less incredible up close and personal.
Although spotting lions in the wild is undeniably incredible, so too is watching a giraffe wrap its black tongue around tree tops, or turning a corner to see dozens of gazelle running in the distance. Hell’s Gate National Park has a variety of other Kenyan wildlife you’re likely to spot, such as zebras, giraffes, buffalo, eland, hartebeest, gazelles, baboons and over 100 species of birds. Just don’t get too close to the baboons — they’re pesky little jerks who will try to steal your mid-bike ride sandwiches.
What Else is There to Do in Hell’s Gate?
For sports-loving travelers, Hell’s Gate has more than enough ways for you to stretch your legs, be active, and earn those Tusker beers by the evening campfire. Head over to Fischer’s Tower, where a local guy with ropes, shoes, and harnesses, will belay you as you climb to the top. Rock climbing is very popular here, and there are numerous other spots besides the tower to do it.
Alternatively, plan to set out early and bike to Hell’s Gate Gorge — on the opposite side of the park from the Elsa entrance — where you can spend your afternoon hiking around the red-cliffed gorge.
You can hire bikes for the day at the information center at the park’s Elsa entrance, but bike hires will be cheaper at the turn off for the gate — about 2km down the road.
Most hotels and campgrounds will also either have bike rentals or be able to point you in the direction of the nearest bike rental place. We rented bikes from Fisherman’s Camp for 500 KSH ($5 USD) per day.
Note as well that there’s a 100 KSH fee ($1 USD) for bringing your bike into the park.
Driving from Nairobi, Hell’s Gate National Park is roughly a 2.5 hour drive, towards Lake Naivasha.
If arriving by public transportation, take a bus to Naivasha city and transfer to any matatu (bus) circling Lake Naivasha. Busses from Naivasha to the Elsa entrance of Hell’s Gate National Park should cost around 80 KSH (US$0.80).
Where to Stay
Budget travelers have several options for camping. Fisherman’s Camp is the closest option to the park (5km away from the Elsa entrance), has tents for rent, and a beautiful open-air restaurant. Cottages are also available for $10 / night per person.
If you truly want to rough it, you can camp inside the park at one of three campsites: Oldubai (close to the Elsa entrance), Nairbuta, or Endchata. If you choose to do this, make sure you pack in everything you’ll need (including drinking water) and pack it all out when you go.
For a luxury experience, beautifully designed Chui Lodge comes highly recommended.
Essential Tips for Visiting Hell’s Gate National Park
- If biking, start at the Elsa entrance.
- Entrance to the park is US$25 for non-residents.
- The best time of the year to visit is June through March.
- If biking, aim to arrive as early as possible to avoid biking alongside cars, which kick up dust, and to catch wildlife at one of their most active times. Arriving at 7am is ideal.
- If you’re camping, pack warm gear. The area gets cold at night, but warms up during the day.
- Finally, don’t forget to pack bike shorts if you have them!
- Visit the Kenyan Wildlife Service’s official page on Hells Gate National Park for more information.