North of Gondar lies the impressive natural landscape of the Semien Mountains, a World Heritage Site since 1978, a large expanse of volcanic origin. This rugged area is a part of the Ethiopian Highlands, which began to rise up 75 million years ago and subsequently got eroded as the East African Rift opened up along with the natural erosive forces of wind, snow and water. The landscape is dotted with the exposed cores of old volcanoes that make for epic vistas.
Getting There: Several major airlines reach the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, via Europe. Hourlong flights on Ethiopian Airlines leave daily from Addis Ababa for the medieval fortress town of Gondar, and then it’s a 50-mile bus ride to Debark, the jumping-off point for the Simien Mountains National Park. Visas are required for U.S. citizens, and are available upon arrival at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. A one-month, single-entry tourist visa costs $20.
Trekking There: The Simiens can be visited year-round, but a trip during Ethiopia’s main dry season, running from October to February, is recommended. Travelers can hire guides and rent equipment at the National Park office in Debark. All visitors must pay an entrance fee ($6 per day), and are required to hire a scout ($4 per day). Addis Ababa tour company Ethiopia Uncovered can arrange personalized treks with renowned local guide Dawoud Suleyman. Five-day treks start at $800 and include accommodation and transfers to and from the capital.
Staying There: Billing itself the “highest hotel in Africa,” Simien Lodge sits 10,700 feet above sea level on the western edge of the park. Solar-heated rooms in brick-walled roundhouses come with en suite bathrooms (from $152 per night). Debark’s budget options include the Giant Lobelia Hotel (251-581-170-566), offering basic rooms for $15-$25 per night.
What to Bring: Tents and sleeping bags can be rented through the National Park headquarters in Debark, but the quality is basic; consider bringing your own. Sturdy footwear, rain gear and a mix of lightweight and warm clothes will help you cope with the fluctuating weather conditions. There is nowhere to buy food in the National Park, so stock up on supplies in Gonder or Debark.