Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania from the top of the rim.

Visiting Magnificent Ngorongoro Crater In Tanzania

Although the Serengeti is usually the primary safari destination in Tanzania, visiting Ngorongoro Crater is a highlight and I recommend adding a day to visit.

This crater, with its 1,300’-2,000’ (400-600 m) walls, means the animals are mostly captive inside. And as it’s small, you can usually see the Big Five in a relatively short time. In fact, the game density here is the highest in Africa, so there are generally animals everywhere you look.

In addition, footprints from our earliest ancestors have been found fossilized here, making it even more awe inspiring. This, in addition to the fact that the Maasai use the Crater today, continuing their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, makes it a stellar visit.

This post covers information on this area in Tanzania, what you can expect, and logistical details for visit Ngorongoro Crater. There are also some non-safari options, if you have more than one day.

Ngorongoro Crater In Tanzania


Sometimes called, ‘Africa’s Eden’, this crater was formed over 2 million years ago. One of the world’s largest unbroken, unfilled calderas, it was created when a massive volcano, estimated even higher than Kilimanjaro, erupted and caved-in on itself.

Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania from the top of the rim.
Ngorongoro Crater from the Rim

Mineral deposits from that explosion left the crater in Tanzania one of the most fertile grazing areas in Africa. A superb source of life with its nutrition rich soils and grasses.

Animals and humans have lived here for many millennium. They’ve even found hominid footprints, over 3 million years old, fossilized in ash nearby.

Today, it’s the only wildlife reserve where humans and animals co-exist, as in around 40,000 Maasai live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) and use the Crater in Tanzania to graze their livestock.

The Maasai of Ngorongoro Crater

The Maasai migrated here in the 1800’s looking for a permanent place to live their semi-nomadic life. Living in relative harmony with wildlife for over 100 years, they named it El-Nkoronkoro, meaning ‘gift of life’.

In the mid 20th century, efforts to protect this area and make it a reserve unfortunately necessitated their eviction from the Crater. They were moved to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Now, for their livestock to continue grazing the excellent grasses here, they need to enter daily.

You will likely see them in the Crater, something I found to be a moving part of the experience. Nearby village visits can be also be arranged to learn more if you’re interested.

Maasai tending their livestock near Ngorongoro Crater, where they can let them graze.
Maasai with his Livestock near the Crater

Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) & Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB)

The Ngorongoro Crater, contained by its walls, is small, at 100 miles² (260 km²). It takes up only 3% of the NCA, which is 3,200 miles² (8,387 km²).

The NCA adjoins the Serengeti and is fenceless, so the world-renowned migration of wildebeest and others, also passes though its northern end, near Ndutu.

Together, the Ngorongoro Crater, the NCA, and the Serengeti make up the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB). This massive reserve covers 8,900 miles² (23,051 km²). Just writing this blows my mind!

Wildlife In Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

With over 25,000 mammals, Ngorongoro Crater is home to the highest concentration of animals in Africa. Not only can you see the Big Five, it has a rich stock of rare black rhino and the densest known population of lion in the world.

Lioness sitting under a  tree in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater Lioness

And with its small size, even though park visits are limited to 6 hours for preservation reasons, you’re highly likely to see them all.

Wildebeest, zebra, and hyena are the most abundant in the Crater. Lion, elephant, black rhino, cheetah, and buffalo are common. Leopard sightings, however, are less common and it’s rare to see giraffe.

Zebra on the plain in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater Zebra

For those that don’t know, the Big Five include African leopard, African lion, Cape buffalo, African elephant, and rhinoceros.

Landscape In Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania

The Crater is also very scenic, with its own ecosystem. There are different climate zones including acacia woodlands, savannah plains, lakes, and marshes.

Acacia trees in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Acacia in the Ngorongoro Crater

Most of the game, however, resides in the open grassland of the northern crater.

The game in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania is mainly in the northern plains
Ngorongoro Crater Plains

Best Time To Visit Ngorongoro Crater In Tanzania

Visiting Ngorongoro is good practically year round, but there are some differences. The best time to visit really depends on your specific goals.

Game-viewing is best in the dry season, June to October. This is when the grasses are low, making game easier to spot. Plus, animals are more likely to congregate near water sources, making them easier to find. My visit, and photos, are from early October.

The area is the most lush in the rainy season, November to May, making it beautiful. March and April, however, have the most rain, making a visit less than ideal.

Most calving occurs in January and February, especially wildebeest. And with their high numbers, you can expect a lot of babies. This, of course, also attracts the predators.

Ngorongoro Crater Wildebeest

Getting To Ngorongoro Crater In Tanzania

Most people arrange transportation as part of a package including the Serengeti and other key sites in Tanzania, however, there are plenty of options for an independent visit to Ngorongoro Crater.

By Air: The closest airports are Arusha, Kilimanjaro, and Nairobi. From there you can charter a flight to nearby Manyara airstrip, about 1.5 hours from the Crater. Safari groups then arrange further transportation.

Drive: The drive from the Arusha and Kilimanjaro airports are about 2-3 and 5 hours respectively. From Nairobi it’s about 7-8, making an internal flight a better option. All require a 4 x 4 (unless flying of course). If driving from the Serengeti, it’s about 3 hours.

You can self-drive in the park. This also requires a 4 x 4. There is a vehicle fee and you still need to hire a guide, which can be arranged at conservation area headquarters. Walking safaris, with a guide, can also be arranged.

Overland Tour: Great overland tour companies include Intrepid and G Adventures. My visit was part of an amazing overland camping tour with Intrepid. We drove over 10,000 miles from Cape Town to Nairobi, with multiple safaris and other incredible sites along the way.

Hippo pod in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater Hippo

Where To Stay When Visiting Ngorongoro

Ngorongoro Rim: Lodging is available on the rim, with spectacular views of the crater below. Staying here also provides quickest access to the park for early morning game drives. This is also when the animals are the most active, with lions mostly napping mid-day.

Rift Valley Escarpment: This area, sometimes referred to as Karatu, is about 12 miles (20 km) from Ngorongoro. A wider range of lodging options are available, mostly at a lower price.

Mount Kilimanjaro in the Tanzania travel guide

Other Attractions in the NCA

If you have more than one day at Ngorongoro Crater, other attractions include the following.

Olduvai Gorge

This 30 mile long gorge in the NCA is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world. The Olduvai Museum has fossilized hominid footprints, bone fragments, and tools from early ancestors in this area.

Empakaai Crater

A much smaller crater, mostly covered by a soda lake, often with thousands of pink flamingos. Especially in late summer.

Maasai Village Visit

Visiting one of the Maasai villages to learn about their fascinating lifestyle would be a great add-on. Ask your lodge for more details, trying to weed out highly ‘touristic’ ones.

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Ngorongoro Crater African Buffalo

Want To See More Of Tanzania?

Visiting the Serengeti is definitely a bucket-list item, especially for the wildlife enthusiast. And it’s only about 3 hours from Ngorongoro Crater. It’s best known for the Great Wildebeast Migration, with around 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, and 300,000 gazelles migrating annually. But even if you miss the actual migration, the park is still absolutely stunning and well worth a visit.

And if you have time, see the full Northern Circuit, which includes the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire. There’s also some easier hiking in the Usambara Mountains, if you’re not ready to tackle Kilimanjaro.

Also, if you’re in Tanzania, I recommend visiting Zanzibar, which is off the coast near Dar es Salaam. Its stunning powdery-white sand beaches provide the perfect compliment to a safari. And the history and cultural fusion of Unesco heritage site Stone Town is fascinating.

For an overview of all the highlights of Tanzania, as well as information on how to get around, safety, scams, logistics, and more, see my Tanzania Travel Guide.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

2 Comments

  • Kerry Galliher

    Julie,
    Your father and I golfed together for many years. It was he who first told me about your adventuresome life and had me read one of your posts.
    I am fascinated by what you do and am amazed by your writing skills and your story-telling abilities. I applaud you and wonder how you manage to continue, but I certainly hope you do for a long time.
    I think Jim once said your home base was Arizona. Think you’ll ever be able to settle back into life in the US?
    Best to you; stay safe.
    Kerry

    • Julie

      Kerry,
      Thanks for the lovely comments…so sweet of you to stop in, read, and leave a comment.
      I certainly hope I continue as well…!
      Take care and thanks again!
      Julie

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