Kenya is the original home of the safari and it’s still one of the finest safari destinations on the continent.

And it’s so much more than the Big Five: Kenya’s natural heritage spans grassland plains stomped by the feet of a million wildebeest to dense forests, glacial mountain peaks and rich coastal coral reefs.

The country can proudly boast of an impressive network of protected spaces made up of 65 national parks and reserves as well as dozens of private and community conservancies. Together these cover a huge proportion of Kenya’s diverse landscapes and habitats and provide a home for animals as large as an elephant and as tiny as an elephant shrew.

Some parks, such as the Masai Mara and Amboseli, are rightly world famous. Other parks, such as Meru National Park or Kakamega Forest Reserve, barely make a blip on the safari circuit but are every bit as rewarding (and much quieter!) then the big name parks and reserves.

Kenya has a world class safari tourism industry with excellent safari operators catering to all budgets and a diverse portfolio of safari lodges and camps. All of this means that arranging a safari in Kenya is much easier than you might think.

Ready to go? Here’s an essential guide to Kenya’s best (and lesser-known) safari parks, reserves and conservancies.

Safari njema! – (Have a nice trip!)

Kenya_Msaramara Kilimanjaro Wildebeest

Safari game drive with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, Masai Mara Reserve

Kenya’s best safaris

In a standard two week safari it’s perfectly possible—and highly recommended—to explore three or four different protected areas. Ideally with each one offering a totally different habitat and set of wildlife inhabitants.

Not sure where to begin? Here’s a rundown of some of Kenya’s best safari parks and reserves:

The Masai Mara

Best for: Kenya migration safaris

The very essence of an African safari landscape, the Masai Mara stretches along the Kenya-Tanzania border and forms the northern fringe of the greater Serengeti ecosystem (most of which is in Tanzania).

The sweeping grass plains of the Mara (as it’s usually referred to) are home to the densest concentration of large mammals on the planet.

This is the place to see large prides of black-manned lions, bellowing elephants, grumpy buffalo and a pick ‘n’ mix box of antelope and gazelles. And that’s before we even touch on the smaller creatures and huge array of birds.

The Mara has a huge amount of accommodation options. In fact, with over 300 registered camps and lodges, many conservation experts fear that there is too much tourism development. Options range from shabby, basic and cheap (think around US$50-150) to something fit for the royals and with a price tag to match (it’s not hard to find places costing over US$1,000 a night).

The best areas by far to stay though are in the conservancies that fringe the reserve proper. These conservancies have vastly expanded the amount of land under some kind of protection. Staying in a conservancy is unquestionably expensive, but everyone should try and allow for a couple of nights in a conservancy camp.

Some of the best regarded safari conservancies with excellent safari camps include Mara North, Naboisho, Olare Motorogi and Ol Derikesi.

Giraffe Tsavo East National Park Kenya

Giraffe grazing in Tsavo East

Tsavo National Parks (East & West)

Best for: elephant and rhino spotting safari

Combined, Tsavo East and West National Parks cover an enormous swathe of Kenya.

Tsavo West alone (the bigger of the two parks) covers an area greater in size than Wales, or two and half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The two parks are separated from each other by the Nairobi-Mombasa highway and are easy to reach from either city.

Despite being directly adjacent, the two parks are radically different from one another with the green hills of Tsavo East a marked contrast to the red soil and volcanic landscapes of Tsavo West.

Most of the accommodation is based inside the two parks although there are some cheaper options along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Some well regarded safari camps include Finch Hatton’s, Kitani Safari Lodge and Galdessa Camp.

Shaba Game Reserve Kenya

Shaba Game Reserve

Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba National Reserves

Best for: wild & remote walking safaris

Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves are three interconnected reserves on the edge of northern Kenya’s vast semi-desert wilderness.

Far removed from mainstream Kenyan life, these northern regions have a wild reputation. The landscape is harsh with endless sunburnt plains of acacia thornbush out of which rise the occasional fertile and densely forested mountain peaks, ranges, table lands and volcanic plugs.

Elephants, in particular, are the main event here. There are large herds who tend to migrate huge distances in search of water.

The bulk of the accommodation is located within Samburu National Reserve and there’s plenty of choice. Highly recommended is Elephant Watch Camp, along with Umoja Village Camp, Kalama Conservancy and West Gate Conservancy.

Ostrich meru national park kenya

A pair of ostrich in Meru National Park

Meru National Park

Best for: tranquil, crowd-free safaris

Kenya’s forgotten national park – Meru was once one of the most popular parks in the country.

But during the 1980s, when Kenya was going through a rough political patch and instability overwhelmed some parts of the country, Meru turned into a hotbed of poaching.

Security and stability have long since returned to both the country and Meru, but yet somehow this national park never again found its former fame. But for those in the know—and that now includes you—Meru National Park is safari gold.

There’s a lot of variety in this park including all of the famed Big Five (though actually finding a leopard among the often dense vegetation can be a real challenge).

But the animal the park is most known for are buffalo. There are huge numbers of these grumpy, dangerous cattle including the biggest herds of buffalo in Kenya. There are also plenty of antelope and zebra and over 300 bird species.

There’s not a huge choice of accommodation in the park, but what there is is good. If you have the budget then the best bet is Elsa’s Kopje, also recommended is Meru Camp, and for those on tighter budgets there are cheap options in the nearby town of Maua or there are the basic camping spots within the park.

Laikipia

Best for: world leading safari conservation

The Laikipia plateau area of central Kenya is one of the most exciting words in African conservation.

The fertile, rain fed lands here were prized by British colonialists as prime wheat growing and cattle ranching territory and much of the area's rich wildlife populations were slowly removed to make way for farming.

Today though, people are not just learning to live with the wildlife but they’re actively encouraging it. With ranchers having removed many of their fences and changed their farming techniques, the Laikipia plateau is now the real heartland of the wildlife conservancy movement.

There are numerous conservancies here – some little known and some world famous (such as Lewa and Ol Pejeta), but all are worth as much time as you can manage.

Laikipia hosts all the classic East African safari mammals, but is best known for its rhinos including the critically endangered northern white rhino.

All the conservancies have their own accommodation options and in almost all cases these are seriously high end affairs costing upwards of hundreds of US dollars a night.

Flamingo Lake Nakuru National Park kenya

The famed flamingo of Lake Nakuru

Lake Nakuru National Park

Best for: wetland safari & birdwatching

One of the most popular parks in Kenya, Lake Nakuru National Park is centred on the large Rift Valley soda lake but also encompasses fringing grasslands, acacia woodlands and rocky escarpments.

The park, which lies just 5km south of Nakuru city centre, is best known for its sometimes huge flocks of flamingos and a large rhino population.

The park's relatively small size and easy access makes it a great bet for a quick-hit safari fix and for those without the budget to visit some of the remoter, larger or more exclusive parks, reserves and conservancies.

Aside from the key species of rhino and flamingo there’s also some beautifully patterned Rothschild’s giraffe (one of the rarest giraffe subspecies) as well as heaps of baboons, warthogs, hippos, buffalo and various antelope and gazelle.

Most people stay in a hotel or guesthouse in Nakuru city and there is a massive choice to suit all budgets. It’s also possible to stay within the park itself. The choice option here is the Mbweha Safari Camp.

Elephant Amboseli kenya

Elephants in Amboseli National Park

Amboseli National Park

Best for: elephant safari & Kilimanjaro views

Amboseli National Park is the postcard park of Kenya. This is where those photographs of herds of elephants with a backdrop of the (fast melting!) glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro are taken.

The elephants and the scenery are the real highlights of this park, but plenty of other wildlife is attracted to the swamps and marshy pools in what is an otherwise very dry part of Kenya.

Another big reason to visit Amboseli is the chance to see conservation in action in the conservancies and other environmental and community projects surrounding the park.

Amboseli is famed for its elephants. In dry periods they flock here from miles around to quench their thirst in the swamps and pools that splash the dusty landscape in greens.

By far the best safari camp is Campi ya Kanzi in the Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a very high-end Maasai-run camp that was set up to aid the local community and conservation projects.

Within the park itself is the good value but still luxurious Ol Tukai Lodge.

Hirolas grazing in the savannah of Nairobi Park in central Kenya

Hirolas grazing with downtown Nairobi in the distance

Nairobi National Park

Best for: safari in the big city

While most capital cities have their collection of attractive parks filled with neatly cut lawns, old trees, meandering paths and perhaps a boating lake, Nairobi has gone one step further.

Its biggest ‘park’ is in fact a 117 kmsq swathe of undulating savannah grasslands and acacia woodlands. And while it doesn’t have a boating lake it does have lions. And buffalo. And rhinos. All of which means that it’s probably not such a sensible place for an after work stroll.

It is though a fabulous safari destination and although the park is much loved by the city’s 4.4 million residents (who put up a huge fight every time some developer comes up with some scheme to try and build on a part of the park) it is woefully overlooked by visitors to Kenya.

Nairobi has an incredible diversity of wildlife (and even more diverse birdlife) including all of the Big Five except elephants.

Accommodation in the upmarket Karen and Langata areas are close to the main park entrance and the hotels near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport also give excellent park access through the parks East Gate.

Buffalos grazing in a meadow at Aberdare Park in central Kenya

Buffalo grazing at Aberdare National Park

Off the beaten track

The parks and reserves covered above are only the best-known and most visited of Kenya’s many safari destinations.

For those who want to explore the natural history of this diverse nation in more detail the following parks and reserves are all well worth a visit.

But, even this list is far from complete and for every park listed here there are two or three other reserves, forest areas, parks or conservancies that all have something special to offer.

Kenya’s national parks vs private reserves & conservancies

National parks, reserves and conservancies are mentioned a lot in this guide, but just what is the difference and why does it matter?

A national park or reserve is a government or local council run protected area. Most of the best-known protected areas in Kenya fall into this category.

These areas are run solely for the benefit of wildlife and tourism, sometimes at the expense of local people. Tourism in these areas creates jobs, but locals are often forbidden from entering these protected areas other than for work reasons and communities were often (but not always) removed from their land when the parks and reserves were created. Corruption can be a problem with the money generated by these parks not always going where it should.

A conservancy is a different affair. A conservancy is normally located on either communal land owned by the community as a whole or on private ranch land and has no official government status. On a community conservancy the tourism stakeholders (i.e. the safari camps) lease the land from the local communities on the condition that the land is managed in a manner that is of benefit to both people and animals. The (normally very high) fees you pay to stay in a conservancy go toward paying the land leasing fees as well as various community and environmental projects.

Other conservancies may be located on private ranchland, in which case they have to make enough money for the landowner to financially justify turning his land over to wildlife conservation over cattle ranching.

In other words, a conservancy is run for the benefit of both wildlife conservation, tourism and the needs of local communities (in many cases local people are allowed to continue to graze their cattle on a conservancy but in a controlled and sustainable manner).

All of this means that staying in a conservancy is not just a great safari experience but it’s also very good news for conservation!

In this guide:

The Best Safaris In Kenya

Stuart Butler

Stuart is the author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China and the Bradt guide to Kashmir & Ladakh. He also writes widely about East Africa and conservation issues.

The Best Safaris In Kenya

Julie Olum

Julie Olum is a nomad, writer, YouTuber and architecture graduate from Nairobi, Kenya. The hands and mind behind FrameAmbition.com, she makes online content around solo travel, festivals and visa hacks for holders of “weak passports". Her love affair with travel is now a near-obsession with slow travel and exploring cultural similarities across the world.

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