If you have a few days and happen to be in Liberia, you can hike the flanks of the tallest peak in West Africa to the point where three countries converge. The views over Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are stunning and the region’s mining history, evident every step of the way, is fascinating. In my opinion, hiking the Liberian side of Mount Nimba is one of the best things to do in Liberia.
This part of the Mt. Nimba massif used to be even taller before the Liberian American (Swedish) Minerals Company (LAMCO) carved it up in the 60’s and 70’s. Back then it was the largest iron ore mining site in the world, and Liberia’s top revenue earner for a time. Today it’s a protected reserve where mining and hunting are prohibited, and a new project is underway to extract all the old mining machinery and sell it as scrap. The green grass and panoramic views into three countries contrast strikingly with the scarred topography and industrial ruins.
The Nimba Strict Nature Reserve aims to protect the flora and fauna of this area, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t include the Liberian section. The Ivorian section appears to be the best-preserved, followed by the Guinean section which has adjacent mining activity. The Liberian section, East Nimba Nature Reserve, is what you’ll be exploring on this excursion and as you’ll see, the natural environment is anything but protected. Though the land and animals are heavily impacted by mining and poaching, attempts to preserve what’s left continue and the area is on UNESCO’s “tentative list” as an extension of the Nimba Strict Nature Reserve.
Nothing in West Africa is straightforward, but in this quick guide I’ll give you some hints on how to get to Yekepa (the starting point), how to find a guide, and what to expect from your hike on the Liberian side of Mt. Nimba.
High Point Clarification
Accurate details can be hard to come by in West Africa, and since publishing this post I’ve realized the “summit of West Africa’s tallest mountain” part is not accurate. As commenter Daniel points out below, this hike does not actually ascend to the official highest point. Most of us will be happy just to get close and enjoy the hike and views, but if you’re a by-the-books peak bagger please take note and scroll to the bottom to read the comments.
Even more recently I came across this report from 2021 confirming that the actual high point is further north, straddling the border between Guinea and Ivory Coast but not Liberia. The actual peak is known as both Mt. Nimba and Mt. Richard-Molard, an important clarification since the entire area is known as the Mt. Nimba reserve. It can be hiked in a couple days from the Guinean side.
My Mount Nimba Hike
It’s a weird hobby, but when I travel to a new country I usually look for the tallest mountain and find out if I can climb it. This wouldn’t work out very well for me in, say, the Himalayas… but in West Africa it’s totally doable.
Consider Mount Nimba, the highest peak in West Africa (unless you count Cameroon) at an elevation of only 5,748 feet. It also happens to be the highest point in Liberia, and Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, lying at the point where all three countries meet. A three-for-one! Of course I had to climb it. [Update: See above clarification – this hike does not reach the official summit. It’s still worth doing though!]
Travel in Liberia
I did this hike as part of a 2.5 month, 5 country, solo overland trip through West Africa in 2018. Liberia turned out to be the biggest surprise of that trip. I went in expecting danger and fear, and came out overwhelmed by the feeling of connection and belonging I had experienced there.
Liberia a friendly, challenging, extremely off the beaten track travel destination where authentic connection is absolutely unavoidable. Muddle your way through Liberia for even a day or two and you’ll have a collection of travel stories most adventure travelers will envy.
It goes without saying that you’ll want to do your research before planning a trip to Liberia. You’ll need to have your vaccinations, malaria precautions, street smarts, gear, tolerance for discomfort, and patience all dialed in and ready to go. See this post on things to do in Liberia for a bit more detail.
Getting To Yekepa via Ganta
The curious mining town of Yekepa lies in the north of central Liberia, close to the border with Guinea.
To reach Yekepa from the capital Monrovia, take a shared taxi to Ganta on a rare (for Liberia) stretch of paved highway, about 3 hours if nothing goes wrong. In Ganta transfer to another shared taxi for the shorter (in mileage) but much bumpier trip on dirt roads to Yekepa.
If you start early in the morning from Monrovia you might be able to reach Yekepa in one day, but I recommend spending a night in Ganta anyway. I stayed at and highly recommend the basic but clean Traveller’s Motel, run by a friendly and industrious local family.
A note of caution: I caught my taxi to Ganta from the Red Light taxi park in Monrovia. While I felt the safety warnings for Monrovia were exaggerated in general, at least during daylight, I did feel on edge in the Red Light area. If you do catch a taxi from there, keep the car doors locked and windows up if possible, and your belongings close to you. While most people there don’t want to cause you any trouble, it’s the kind of crowded and chaotic area where the rare thief could easily get away with something.
Yekepa was aptly described to me by an expat there as “a drinking town with a mining problem.” This fascinating little town is owned and operated by the iron mining company ArcelorMittal, which mines ore from the surrounding mountains, sends it by train to the port of Buchanan, and exports it to other countries.
It’s a strange place where white pickup trucks with labels like Y122 rattle through dusty neighborhoods with names like Area P. Rows of decaying concrete buildings house local families, while expats live in grids of sterile white container houses with air conditioning and satellite TV. Uniformed local kids walk to company-built schools in the morning, and in the evening mine workers stroll back into town wearing reflective clothing, hard hats dangling from their hands. And then, it seems like almost everyone goes out for a beer – or five – and chats about work, home, and “the company.”
My time in Yekepa was made memorable by some encounters with expat AccelorMittal employees, clearly extroverted folks lonely for contact with humans from outside their isolated world. One of them, a South African technical training specialist, cooked me a much-appreciated dinner of spaghetti bolognaise in his impeccably appointed container house while reminiscing about his family and soaking up my travel tales. Another, a general manager from Ghana working abroad for the expat salary, would have preferred a romantic encounter but settled for polite conversation. If you spend a bit of time wandering around Yekepa you’ll likely meet some interesting characters.
Where To Stay and Eat in Yekepa
The Alvino Hotel is only hotel in Yekepa. It’s mostly a home base for visiting mining employees and the very occasional tourist. I negotiated a 33% discount off the quoted price, which was a bit high, and ended up in a well-appointed but dirty room.
If you walk out of the hotel parking lot and turn left, you’ll come to an uninspiring little grocery shop and a restaurant. The open-air restaurant, dotted with massive round concrete tables, comes to life after dark with flowing beer and Nigerian hip hop. On the night I visited the menu was a mix of face-meltingly spicy cow meat, stomach-churning bush meat, and delicious fried plantains.
The area around Alvino Hotel feels oddly industrial and a bit cold compared to many other cheerfully ramshackle West African towns. It’s worth taking a stroll up the road toward the market – called Down Market Road on Google Maps – to meet some locals and buy some snacks from the friendly vendors.
Finding A Guide for Mount Nimba
Tell the folks at the Alvino Hotel that you want to climb Mount Nimba and they’ll help you find a guide. They had this paper available in their lobby when I was there, making the pricing much more transparent than is typical in this part of the world:
I called the number on the sheet and arranged for a forest ranger to meet me at the hotel the next morning. Ranger Sando arrived wearing a reassuringly official ranger t-shirt and carrying his own water bottle, both firsts in my West Africa hiking experience.
Sando was a competent and professional guide. Like most guides I’ve encountered in Africa, he hiked super fast, and his Liberian English was hard for me to understand. Nevertheless, we had a good hike.
The Mt. Nimba Hike
The hike itself only takes a few hours if you begin from the usual starting point of Blue Lake, already well up the mountain. Plan to walk about 6 – 9 miles total, depending on what you and your guide decide.
Ranger Sando originally suggested we hire a motorbike to take us to Blue Lake, but when I balked at the price he arranged for us to catch a ride in a company car headed up on official business. We had to wait around for a while, but I didn’t mind as there were plenty of old mining equipment artifacts nearby to explore.
From the dropoff point at Blue Lake it’s a steep and sometimes muddy 3 miles to the peak of Mt. Nimba and the point where Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire converge. The views over all three countries are superb and the scarred land is a stark reminder of the ever-present mining industry.
At the point where the borders converge, Ranger Sando took me bushwhacking a bit to one side, then to the other. He even humored my bad jokes – We’re in Ivory Coast now? Oh no, I forgot my passport! – in broken English. Though it’s just an arbitrary point on the map, it was strangely compelling, especially since my three month West Africa trip included time spent in each of the three countries I was touching.
From the summit you’ll retrace the three miles back down to Blue Lake, then walk for another couple miles to see some old mining relics up close. When I was there in May of 2018 they had just begun a project to collect and remove massive amounts of old mining equipment from the days when Swedish mining company Lamco operated in the area. Abandoned and left to deteriorate during the damaging and brutal years of Liberia’s civil war, it’s now being hauled out and sold as raw metal.
From Blue Lake we walked back down to the base camp on foot, about a mile, then rode back to the Alvino Hotel on Sando’s motorbike.
Camping on Mount Nimba
It’s possible to camp overnight at Blue Lake before and/or after hiking to the summit. I saw the site and it seemed like a nice idea, especially if you’re traveling in a group. As a solo traveler I didn’t feel it was worth the extra money for the overnight guide and cook and I had already done some lovely camping in West Africa.
Timing and Itinerary
How long do you need to climb Mount Nimba? If you’re starting and ending in Monrovia I would say at least 4 days, ideally 5.
Once you’re in Yekepa the hike can be done in one day, but you’ll need to arrange a guide first. If you don’t already have this set up, get to Yekepa at least one day before and ideally have a flexible schedule (a must when traveling in West Africa anyway).
Here’s the timeline I followed:
Day 1: Monrovia to Ganta
Day 2: Ganta to Yekepa, walk around Yekepa, arrange guide
Day 3: Hike Mount Nimba
Day 4: Yekepa back to Ganta
Day 5: Continued my journey east from Ganta to Zwedru
What to Bring
Mount Nimba is just a day hike from the Liberian side, so you don’t need much. I recommend bringing:
- Drinking water
- Snacks for you and your guide
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Light rain jacket if there’s a chance of rain
Shoes you can hike in. I wore my usual trail running shoes, but there’s a reason my guide wore rubber boots. Prepare for wet feet.
Other Ways to Climb Mount Nimba
Being located at the intersection of three countries, you might wonder if Mount Nimba can be climbed from the other two. The answer: I’m not totally sure. In Sierra Leone I met a Peace Corps volunteer who had climbed it from the Guinea side during her assignment there, but I haven’t found any other reports online and don’t know if it’s still easy to arrange. I believe locals can climb it from Ivory Coast but I don’t know of any tourists who have. If you find out, let us know in the comments section please!
Safety, Hassles, and the Solo Female Traveler Factor
I traveled through West Africa, including Liberia, as a solo young(ish) white female. Many people thought I was insane, but I maintain the risks are much smaller than most people think as long as basic common sense is used.
Yekepa is a pretty safe town, though it would be silly (not to mention rude) to wave around your money and electronics. My guide was impeccably professional, always appreciated when I choose to hike in isolated areas alone with a male guide. Still, it’s a good idea to make sure the hotel staff know you’re heading to Mount Nimba and with which guide (chances are they already do anyway).
Foreign-looking women in this part of the world attract a lot of interest, both sexual and potentially financial if a local man manages to steal a “rich” foreigner’s heart. If you’re a solo female traveler, it’s fine to be friendly but worth keeping your guard up and expecting that many of your interactions with local men have the potential to head in that direction. Most commonly this happens in the form of discussion about marital status, marriage proposals, or occasionally a direct proposition.
I received two propositions while in Yekepa, pretty typical for a few days of solo female travel in West Africa. Neither was aggressive, but I also felt it was prudent to stay in my hotel room after dinner and not open the door to potential visitors (there weren’t any), maintain a strong air of confidence when talking with local men, and not go overboard on the Club Beer that the entire town drinks like water.
Where To Go Next in Liberia
From Yekepa you have several interesting options:
- Return to Monrovia the way you came, passing through Ganta.
- Return to Ganta and then continue to the port towns of Buchanan or Greenville
- Continue north over the border to Guinea at Bossou
- Head east to the border with Ivory Coast and on to Danane
- Return to Ganta and then continue southeast to Zwedru and on to Harper, eventually crossing the coastal border with Ivory Coast near Tabou
This being Liberia, pretty much all of those options are adventures unless you head straight back to Monrovia (and even then, no guarantees).
I did the last one, traveling overland through Zwedru to Harper on truly horrible roads. It took days and remains an unforgettable and surprisingly awesome part of my time in West Africa.
You might also be interested in these hikes elsewhere in Africa:
And these other resources for traveling in West Africa:
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