Everyone’s goal in climbing Kilimanjaro is to get to the top, to be on the summit when the sun rises over the glaciers and the plains of Tanzania below.
But what about the journey to the summit? What does that look and feel like?
To answer that question, here’s a day-by-day photographic journey of the Marangu Route, from the trailhead all the way to Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro summit.
About the Marangu Route
The five-day Marangu Route is nicknamed the “Coca Cola Route” as it’s the only Kilimanjaro route that offers the option of sleeping in trekking huts in addition to camping. It’s also the fastest Kilimanjaro route: less than 70 hours from the time you enter the park to the summit. This means that going slowly, drinking tons of water and taking acclimatization walks are even more important than on other routes that give you more time get accustomed to the altitude and what it does to your body.
Prior to our trek, we’d heard that the Marangu Route was rather dull on the landscape front. However, we were pleasantly surprised by both the beauty and variety we found each day. As for pace, aside from an especially challenging final ascent, the progression is fine. To give you a sense of the pace of the climb, we’ve included the distance we covered and the elevation we gained each day.
Other Kilimanjaro climbing routes include:
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut
Begin: Marangu gate 1,840m/6,036 ft; End: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft
Elevation gain: 880m/2,887ft; Distance: 8km/5miles
The climb begins much like a walk in the park. Very easy. Almost too easy. Gauzy moss hangs from trees, waterfalls whisper in the distance. Red clay and forest: this is one of nature’s finest complimentary color combinations. Even though this stretch is easy, be sure to go pole pole (slowly, slowly) to tempo your body and reserve your energy for when things get tough.
Hint: When you get up in the middle of the night to pee, as is apt to happen when you drink more than three liters of water a day, be sure to look up and admire the stars. It might be one of the greatest night skies you’ll ever see.
Day 2: Mandara Hut to Horombo Hut
Begin: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft; End: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft
Elevation gain: 1,000m/3,280ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi
The landscape changes from willowed rainforest to shrub-strewn heath and moorland. The land becomes textured, perfect for mid-mountain light.
Peaks begin to appear. First Mawenzi Peak and then the snow-capped Uhuru Peak in the distance. Our final goal is in sight. Doesn’t look too far, right?
Day 3: Horombo Hut to Kibo Hut
Begin: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft; End: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft
Elevation gain: 983m/3,225ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi
As we leave Horombo Hut we come across a stretch of grassland covered with dendrosenecio kilimanjari, the unmistakably-shaped signature trees of Kilimanjaro. Views of the peak and its glaciers continue to appear, reminding us how far we have come… and how far we have to go.
After lunch the walk becomes mind-numbingly monotonous. Barren and brown, this path seems infinite. We begin to sing and play games to pass the time until Kibo Hut.
Day 4: Kibo Hut to the Summit to Horombo Hut
Ascent: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft to Uhuru Peak 5,895m/19,341ft (via Gilman Point and Stella Point)
Elevation gain to Summit (Uhuru Peak): 1,192m/3,911ft; Distance: 10km/6.2mi
Descent: Uhuru Peak to Horombo Hut: 2,175m/7,135ft; Distance: 22km/13.7mi
(Yup, you did the math correctly – that’s 32 km/20mi of walking in one day.)
Wake up is 11 PM after a few hours of less-than-ideal, high altitude sleep. Our guides greet us with bowls of watery porridge. The goal: eat as much as you can to store up energy for what’s ahead.
We begin to walk, plodding our way scree switchbacks. You can see the headlamps of the people ahead of you as they make their way up the mountain. It’s both hopeful and discouraging all at the same time. “Pole, pole,” our guides continually remind us.
This continues for the next five to six hours until we reach Gilman Point (5,681 m/18,638 ft), an accomplishment in itself, also a resting point en route to Uhuru Peak.
Another 90 minutes or so later, we reach Stella Point (5,730m/18,800ft) and the sun begins to appear on the horizon above the clouds. This is your first peek at the Kilimanjaro glaciers glowing in the early morning light.
Then finally, the Summit, Uhuru Peak (5,895m/19,340ft). Fatigue is forgotten and adrenaline takes over. A posed shot by a little wooden sign has never felt so satisfying.
The views are even more impressive than we imagined. It’s dangerous to spend too much time at the top where weather can change quickly, so our guides encourage us to begin our descent.
The goal is to return to Kibo Hut as soon as possible, so we “ski” down the scree below Gilman Point.
After a full breakfast and a short rest, it’s time to hit the road to Horombo Hut for our last night. And to breathe.
Day 5: Horombo Hut to Marangu Gate
Begin: Horombo Hut 3720m/12,204ft; End: Marangu Gate 1840m
Elevation loss: 1,880m/6170ft; Distance: 20 km/12.5mi
It’s a long way down, so we get an early start. We all feel relatively well. We didn’t wake up to pee as much. We slept. Our appetites begin to return.
We enjoy the early morning light and clouds as we walk. This is the second time we’ve seen this stretch of terrain, but this time it looks different. It’s in the shadow of the summit, a place we can say we’ve been.
More on Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: For practical advice, check out 5 Tips for Climbing and Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. And if you’re wondering what getting to the Kilimanjaro’s summit can teach you about life, check out Life Lessons from the Top of Africa.