This park, 15 mi/25 km east of Gisenyi, protects the Rwandan portion of the spectacular Virunga Mountains, which straddle the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Virunga is not a mountain range in the normal sense of the word but rather a chain of isolated freestanding volcanic cones strung along a fault line in the Rift Valley. Sometimes also referred to as the Birunga or Bufumbira Mountains, the chain is composed of six inactive and two active volcanoes, all of which exceed 9,840 ft/3,000 m in altitude. The tallest are Karisimbi (14,783 ft/4,507 m), Mikeno (14,553 ft/4,437 m) and Muhabura (13,537 ft/4,127 m).
Few national parks in Africa can be explored on foot, but this park north of Ruhengeri offers a reward worth the hike through its dramatically beautiful, albeit rough terrain: the chance to observe a family of mountain gorillas, the rarest—and largest—of the four gorilla subspecies. About 700 mountain gorillas live in the wild (roughly half of them in Rwanda), and naturalists have habituated seven of the 20-odd families in this park to the presence of tourist observers. Many people regard visiting these gentle giants (up to 485 lbs/220 kg) in their natural habitat to be the single most-extraordinary wildlife experience in the world. The park can be accessed on organized gorilla-tracking tours, which are limited to seven groups of eight people daily. Gorilla-tracking permits cost US$500 per person in cash (including park entrance fees but not transportation and lodging) and should be booked as far in advance as possible.
Other activities include a visit to a habituated troop of golden monkeys (an endangered bamboo-eater whose range is essentially restricted to the Virungas), as well as day or overnight hikes to the various volcanic peaks and a day trip to Dian Fossey's grave at her former research center high in the misty mountains. As a precaution, armed soldiers accompany each tour.
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