Explore Kenya’s Best Safari Destinations
By Philip Briggs | Updated November 23, 2021
Kenya is practically synonymous with the term ‘African safari’. Partly this is due to its association with such iconic movies and books as Out of Africa, Born Free and I Dreamed of Africa; partly because it proactively marketed itself as the premier safari in the early post-independence era; partly also that it has remained reasonably stable and safe to visit ever since.
But reputations aren’t built on circumstance alone. Kenya’s enduring appeal can also be attributed to its magnificent scenery, which encompasses the palm-lined beaches of the Swahili Coast, lush well-watered highlands focused on the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya, and a string of gorgeous lakes hemmed in by the towering walls of the Great Rift Valley.
Above all, however, Kenya owes its reputation as the home of the safari to a bouquet of truly exceptional national parks and reserves, the finest of which we explore below.
Masai Mara National Reserve
Many people regard the Kenya portion of the vast cross-border Serengeti-Mara migratory ecosystem to Africa’s single finest safari destination. With good reason. The Masai Mara is at its most sensational over July to September, when hundreds of thousands of migrant wildebeest and zebra arrive from Tanzania, dramatically crossing the Mara River before they fan out to crowd the plains.
The Masai Mara is almost as rewarding out of season. As might be expected of the setting for the TV documentary Big Cat Diaries, it is particularly strong when it comes to large carnivores. Blond-maned lions snooze nonchalantly on the open plains, nervous cheetahs survey their surroundings from termite hills, leopards sprawl on acacia boughs, and spotted hyenas lope and sniff around their subterranean dens. Other common wildlife includes buffalo, elephant, zebra, giraffe and a wide variety of antelope (including the outsized eland), but you’ll need a bit of luck to see one of the reserve’s few remaining black rhinos.
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli has the most iconic setting of any African safari destination. It lies at the northern base of Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, an extinct volcano whose snow-capped peak (across the border in Tanzania) towers a full three miles above the dusty plains. Often shrouded in clouds, Kilimanjaro usually reveals itself at dusk, when the dying sun refracts orange and red through a suspension of fine volcanic dust.
Less reliable than the Masai Mara when it comes to big cats, Amboseli is famous for its giant tuskers, in fact, there’s probably no better place anywhere to watch elephants interact at close quarters. Although much of the park comprises dusty savanna, a series of permanent marshes fed by underground springs (which rise on Kilimanjaro) offer rich pickings to birdwatchers.
Nairobi National Park
Running south from Kenya’s bustling capital Nairobi, this 45-square-mile national park is far more authentic than might be expected. Indeed, while it is fenced on the city side, the other boundaries remain completely open, allowing wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, and other creatures to cross in and out from the nearby Athi Plains.
Wildlife volumes tend to peak over July and August, but you stand a reasonable chance of seeing four of the Big Five at any time of year (the exception being elephant). It’s a great itinerary filler and highly recommended as a standalone day safari destination to business visitors who don’t have time to explore further afield.
Tsavo East and West National Parks
Split into its eastern and western components by the highway connecting Kenya’s two largest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa, Tsavo is a strangely underrated Big Five safari destination. It’s one of Africa’s largest national parks, outranking both Kruger and Serengeti in square mileage, and its estimated 12,000 elephants account for one-third of the Kenyan population.
Tourism tends to focus on Tsavo West, where Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary – a 24-square-mile stockade established in 1986 in the wake of an intensive bout of poaching – is one of the best places in Kenya to look for black rhino, while a submerged viewing tank at Mzima Spring offers a rare fish’s eye perspective on the resident hippos. I’ve always preferred the quieter and wilder feeling Tsavo East, which protects a vast tract of fine red sand and acacia scrub coursed through by the palm-fringed Galana River.
Lake Nakuru National Park
Protecting the scenic Rift Valley lake after which is named, this small national park is the only one in Kenya to be fenced in its entirety, and as such it has become an important relocation site for vulnerable species such as Rothschild’s giraffe and black and white rhino. You stand a good chance of seeing all three of these rarities, as well as lion, leopard, buffalo, waterbuck, impala, and bushbuck.
Recent fluctuations in water level mean it has been some time since Nakuru hosted the million-strong flamingo aggregations for which it is famed. Despite this, small flocks of these pink-tinged birds are still often seen in the shallows, alongside pelicans and other tropical aquatic species.
Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba National Reserves
This trio of near-contiguous reserves flanks the Samburu River as it flows through the austere badlands that divide the northern footslopes of Mount Kenya from Ethiopia. Elephant, lion, buffalo, and even leopard are all quite regular here, but for repeat safarigoers, the main attraction is a selection of dry-country specials absent from most other reserves and parks. These include the rubbernecked gerenuk antelope, the densely striped Grevy’s zebra, the neatly marked reticulated giraffe, the regal Beisa oryx, and a long list of striking birds including vulturine guineafowl, golden-breasted starling, and Egyptian vulture.
Kenya’s second-largest protected area is not a national park or reserve but a patchwork of 20-odd unfenced private and tribal conservancies that have been overseen by the Laikipia Wildlife Forum since 1992. It incorporates some of East Africa’s most exclusive luxury safari destinations, most famously the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
For Big Five enthusiasts, Laikipia is roamed by Kenya’s largest populations of black and white rhino, as well as 5,000 elephants, and healthy numbers of lions, leopards, and buffalo. Specialties include the endangered African wild dog, the majestic greater kudu, Kenya’s only chimpanzees (translocated from Burundi to a facility in Ol Pejeta in 1993), and around 70% of the global population of 2,500-3,000 Grevy’s zebra.
An important feature of Laikipia is that, because it isn’t a national park or reserve, most lodges can supplement game drives with other activities such as guided walks, horseback excursions, or night drives.
Meru National Park
The most underrated and untrammeled of Kenya’s major safari destinations, Meru stands at the western base of Mount Kenya, whose snow-capped 17,057ft peak is the second tallest in Africa (after Kilimanjaro). Meru isn’t an ideal destination for first-time safarigoers, since the likes of lions, leopards, cheetah, and rhinos are difficult to see in the lush vegetation. More certain attractions include large herds of elephant and buffalo, and plentiful reticulated giraffes, with their striking geometric coat markings. I also enjoy Meru’s lush scenery of bubbling streams lined with tall palm trees, and it’s genuinely off-the-beaten-track feel – this is one of the few national parks in East Africa where you might drive for hours without seeing another vehicle.