Wild Mountain Gorillas

Destination Spotlight: An Inside Look at Mountain Gorilla Trekking

Destination Spotlight: An Inside Look at Mountain Gorilla Trekking

Nov 3, 2023|Where we travelNatural History| by Maria Ramirez

"All I remember was being breathless. It was so magical,” recalls Pelin Karaca, Holbrook’s Vice President of Product Development, about her first encounter with the mountain gorillas. “I was together with a group of eight of us. All of a sudden, I hear this rustle from the trees and bushes around me, and there comes the silverback. Before I knew it, I came face-to-face. Unlike a lot of trips where memories get faded, I can very vividly remember exactly what was happening and relive that moment in my mind.”

For anyone who’s seen mountain gorillas in the wild, it is one of life’s most mesmerizing and memorable experiences. But how do you plan for this trip of a lifetime? To learn more, we consulted a gorilla expert, Dr. Mike Cranfield of Gorilla Doctors, and Holbrook’s VP of Product Development, Pelin Karaca.

Wild Mountain Gorillas

Where to see mountain gorillas in the wild?

The endangered mountain gorilla only lives in a chain of volcanoes stretching 174 square miles across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). To view them, you must have a special permit and must visit one of the parks that straddle the three countries: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, or Virungas National Park in the DRC. Each country offers a different experience, so it’s important to learn about each.

About our closest relatives

As you would expect, mountain gorillas live high in mountain forests, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. Their fur is thick to allow them to survive in a habitat where temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Although they walk on all fours and are double the size of humans, they share about 98% of our DNA. Consequently, one of the biggest threats they face, besides poaching, is their susceptibility to human disease.

“There is something about them, perhaps because we are so closely related, that when you are with them, there is this recognition, this curiosity in their eyes and in their behaviors,” recalls Karaca. “They are extremely aware of you being there together with them. They allow you that moment. They pose for you. Their babies are extremely curious.”

Full-grown silverback males weigh on average 300 to 400 pounds. Surprisingly, they primarily eat leaves, stems, and other plant material. Due to this diet, they spend half of their time foraging for food in the lush, green forests found in the mountains.

Silverback Gorilla

How safe is it?

Visiting gorillas in the wild is extremely safe due to a rigid process of habituating them to humans. Before outsiders can visit, wildlife authorities require an extensive period of gradual encounters, first with trained trackers, then medical professionals, starting from a distance and gradually moving closer. By the time visitors are allowed to visit, the gorillas are completely comfortable being around humans. Plus, rules allow only one visit per day for one hour, with a maximum group size of 10. Every group is led by experienced trackers.

“There is a seven-foot rule that you are not supposed to get closer, but they are extremely curious and they like to come close to you. That’s one reason why you are required to leave your backpack when you arrive to their setting and only bring a camera so not to distract them,” Karaca says.

“The silverback, the alpha of the troop, is certainly keeping an eye on you, because regardless of how habituated they are, they are very aware of what goes on. You are not only observing, you are interacting.”

A conservation success story

Mountain gorillas were once expected to be extinct by now. Several decades ago, the outlook was bleak, but that has turned around due to tireless conservation efforts. Despite poaching and infringing human developments, mountain gorillas have increased in numbers. Today, the number of mountain gorillas in the wild exceeds 1,000.

“We are extremely encouraged by the recent growth rates,” says Dr. Mike Cranfield of Gorilla Doctors. This can be attributed to the fact that habituated gorillas benefited from “extreme conservation” practices such as veterinary care. In fact, the work of Gorilla Doctors may be responsible for up to 40% of the difference between the growth rates of the two subpopulations, making mountain gorillas the only great ape species whose numbers in the wild are growing. Mountain gorillas have a fighting chance for survival if we continue to work to address conservation challenges.

Gorilla Doctors has been working with inbound travel organizations that can help with raising both funds and awareness. Plus, it is a reciprocal experience, says Cranfield. “Our field doctors provide informative talks and can accompany a group into the field. This can enhance the experience because they know all the personalities of the troop and administer a seven-step health assessment.”

Cranfield adds, “I’ve never known anyone to be disappointed from visiting the gorillas and most have a life-changing experience.”

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Comparing destinations

Gorillas in Rwanda are the easiest to see, as they live in Volcanoes National Park, only a three-hour drive from the capital city of Kigali in the northwest of the country. Rwanda is where famed primatologist Dian Fossey’s research and conservation work continued after the civil war in the DRC forced her to move. As a result, the oldest habituated gorillas live here in 12 troops. The actual trekking is easier here, with several entrances to the park and less hiking required. The permit prices are higher, but they come with higher overall standards and a better infrastructure.

Meanwhile, gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place mostly in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Bwindi has 400 mountain gorillas with 10 social groups habituated to humans. Mgahinga National Park only has one habituated gorilla family, so the preferred location is Bwindi. Permits are less expensive, but the gorillas are farther and harder to reach in Uganda than in Rwanda. Uganda, however, also offers opportunities to see chimpanzees.

Unfortunately, due to recent kidnappings and other safety concerns, the DRC is not a viable option at the moment.


Although anyone who can hike a reasonable distance can do a trek, travelers should be in fairly good shape and should start preparing a year in advance with lots of walking, including on inclines or stairs. For those who have the means and ability, it can be a profound experience.

“I had tears in my eyes. I wasn’t the only one. I just remember the jubilation that we felt in the group afterwards. We felt part of a club, and when we came back we would call each other and relive that moment,” recalls Karaca.