Kilimanjaro routes

Marangu route

The Marangu Route is considered the most straightforward and, therefore, popular, of routes, and is traditionally known as the "Tourist Route" or "Coca-Cola Route”. Consequently, it is the only one that has mountain huts to sleep in, serving the proverbial Coca Cola along the way. It takes five days minimum to ascend, albeit on a more gradual collection of contours.

Starting in the small town of Marangu on the southeastern side of the mountain, you trek through luscious fauna and flora-filled rainforest from the minute you leave the foot of the mountain. After your first night in the Mandara huts, the landscape opens up into stunning fields of heather. The landscape is so different it feels as if you have just switched channels on the telly. En route to your next stop at Horombo Huts, you can scramble up to the rim of the Maundi Crater to get your first view of the main Kibo Crater, dripping with glaciers all glistening in the distance. This alpine landscape is the big pull for many on this route. The target on your fourth day is the “Saddle”, which straddles the land between the Mawenzi and Kibo peaks, with Kibo hut your last stop before the top. En route to the summit, usually undertaken in the middle of the night, you pass Hans Meyer Cave, with a steep, slow zig zag climb to Gillman’s Point, with snow laying the path all the way to Uhuru peak. The descent is using the same path.

The pros and cons of Marangu

Even though it is known as the ‘easiest’ route – let’s be clear, this is no walk in the park. We are still talking Kilimanjaro, and none of the routes are ‘easy’. Ironically, therefore, this route has a lower success rate, because many tourists get the impression that it is a doddle. Marangu is also the only route with sleeping huts with dormitory style accommodations. All the others have campsites only. This route uses the same path for going up and down, so if you want to see more aspects of the landscape, it might not be the one for you. But it is great if you are not as confident on very steep slopes, and if you don’t want to camp. Another good thing about Marangu is that you can make the most of the quieter trails during the rainy season, but enjoy a dry, warm bed at night.

Machame route

The trek begins in the southwest area of the mountain at Machame Gate and takes a minimum of six days to complete. Heading north through rich montane forest, you spend the first night camping at Machame Hut, already at 3,000m. The landscape has changed significantly by the time you hit the barren expanse of Shira Plateau the next day, stretching out for 13km west of the mountain’s Kibo crater. Shira is in fact a collapsed volcanic crater, so in great contrast to the soft forest underfoot of the day before. Barranco Wall is the next highlight on this route which, from a distance, looks incredibly steep and unassailable, but it has a zig-zagging path which means it is actually quite easy to do, but it looks spectacular. Beyond this, the views of the glaciers and ice fields really open up, with the final ascent to the crater's edge at Stella Point and along the edge to the much awaited Uhuru Peak. The descent on this route is on the Mweka Route on the south east side of the mountain, offering other vistas of the mountain.

The pros and cons of Machame

This is the second most popular route due its eclectic landscapes and beauty. It also has some good challenges for hikers, as well as allowing good opportunities for sleeping at lower altitudes at night, which helps combat altitude sickness. For this reason it has excellent success rates. It is also quick to access the Machame Gate from Kilimanjaro International Airport, with one night’s stay in Moshi at each end of the trip.
You will be awoken at around midnight in preparation for your final ascent. Dress warmly as temperatures often plummet to -20° C or lower. You will be led by torch light up the path to the crater's edge at Stella Point – this takes at least seven hours.
– Tribes Travel

Northern route

Almost a full circuit, this route takes at least nine days, and is the longest trail on the mountain, so it isn’t offered by many companies. It is also a recent addition to the route map, and starts off using the Lemosho Trail, with a trail head on the west. Using this trail as far as the Lava Towers, it then leaves the Lemosho Trail and heads North West to Moir Hut. From here you trek across the empty northern contours towards the North East, walking at a height of around 4000 metres for a couple of days. It’s pure mountain wilderness on this side of the mountain. You link up with the Rongai route on the north east side of the mountain, glad to meet a few other trekkers again at the Third Cave campsite, summiting with them to the School Hut. This is the last stop before the final ascent to Gillman’s Point on the crater rim and then, finally, onto Uhuru Peak. The descent completes the near circuit, using the Mweka route, which feels like Grand Central Station in contrast with the trek on the northwest side of a few days before.

The pros and cons of the Northern route

It is the longest route and so, therefore, the most expensive. But think of it as three for the price of one, taking in the highlights of the Lemosha, Rongai and Mweka Routes, with a whole other north east wilderness thrown in as the icing on this beautiful white cake. It is also less frequently offered by trekking companies, so you might have to book it as a tailor made trip, or fit in with the few dates when they do offer it.

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Shira route

Starting in the northwest at the Shira Gate, this is considered one of the most difficult treks due to steepness and, therefore, rapid altitude gain. Further north than the Lemosho Route, it heads from west to east across the mountain, but avoids the two days of hiking through rainforest, if that isn’t your thing. The gate is at 3,500m, so being acclimatised already is a good plan. Shira is so called because of the amount of Shira Plateau that it covers, which gives trekkers a vast expanse of open land to enjoy, as they trek from west to east. The route links up with the Lemosho Route at Shira 2 camp and continues to share the trail to Uhuru Peak from there.

The pros and cons of Shira

If you want to hit the mountain at a height, then this is a good one for you, although you need to be confident in your ability to acclimatise, as you start off at a high elevation very quickly. The northern plains of Shira are very empty, so great for solitary trekking, and even when you join the Lemosho Route, the numbers of other walkers are not that high. If you want to experience that feeling of trekking through contrasting landscapes and climate zones, this one is not so exciting, as it leaves out the rainforest hike that lovers of Lemosho fawn over. Due to the fact that it is pretty hardcore, and does not have a good success rate due to altitude sickness issues, it is also less frequently offered by trekking companies, so you might have to book it as a tailor made trip, or fit in with the few dates that it is offered.

Umbwe route

If Bear Grylls was going to pick a route, it would probably be this one. The steepest, the most remote, and the toughest to deal with in terms of altitude sickness. Starting on the south side, it runs east of and almost parallel to the more popular Machame route. For the first two days you take on very steep, rapidly climbing ascents through rainforest, albeit devoid of other people. Following the Umbwe River, you eventually emerge onto the southern circuit of the mountain and join the Machame route at Barranco Camp, and enjoy the features of this trail all the way to Uhuru Peak.

The pros and cons of Umbwe

You need to be very confident in your ability to trek at altitude otherwise this becomes almost impossible to complete. In terms of pros, hard to find really. Although meeting Bear Grylls on the way would be cool. The other routes offer so much more. You will need to organise a private, tailor made expedition for this trip, but most tour operators are able to supply this, especially if they have a strong team of local guides to lead you up.
Photo credits: [Page banner: truebacarlos] [Marangu route: Stig Nygaard] [Machame route: Stig Nygaard] [Northern route: Stig Nygaard] [Shira route: Abir Anwar] [Umbwe route: Jorge Láscar]
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