With its roadside stalls selling everything from fresh fruit to roasted corn and numerous small towns that offer a glimpse into local life and culture, taking a road trip in Kenya is a rewarding way to get to know the country.
The joy also lies in being able to stop off where you like. When you’re driving in and around the Great Rift Valley and Western Highlands, those stops could end up being every few minutes to take in the views or snap a photo.
Driving – whether self-drive or with a driver – also provides freedom to visit places off the main route, from lesser visited viewpoints to a restaurant just off the trail (as well as the classic tourist stops and shops).
Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Lake Naivasha is an easy day trip from Nairobi © Sebastian Condrea / Getty Images
1. From Nairobi to Lake Naivasha and back
Best day-trip drive from Nairobi
Nairobi–Naivasha; 95km (60 miles); allow 1 day
If you want to take a short road trip out of the capital, this day drive takes in sweeping views over the Great Rift Valley from spots such as Mathore Viewpoint. From here, you can get an eyeful of this vast system of ridges or escarpments that forms one of Kenya’s most spectacular sights, the valley floor broken up by a series of lakes and volcanoes, active and dormant.
Around 50km (30 miles) along the road from Nairobi, stop off at the Traveler’s Chapel known locally as the Mai Mahiu Church. This small stone Catholic church built by Italian prisoners of war in 1942 is one of the world’s tiniest churches. Look out for the colorful “Welcome to Nakuru County” sign soon after the church: with its map of Africa and distance markers, it’s a popular photo op.
Planning tip: Depending on time and whether you decide to overnight near Naivasha, the extinct volcano Mt Longonot and the thick forest inside its crater makes for a good stop for the views from the crater rim across the Great Rift Valley before heading to Lake Naivasha, where wildlife and birdlife gather around the freshwater lake.
2. Head into the Western Highlands to Kisumu
Best road trip for Great Rift Valley views
Nairobi–Kisumu; 360km (225 miles); allow 7–10 days
The drive from Nairobi northwest to Lake Nakuru and then toward the lake city of Kisumu makes a beautiful journey through western Kenya, with views of the northern Great Rift Valley en route.
The Nairobi–Naivasha Highway passes through the town of Kericho, where you can stock up on snacks and drinks and absorb everyday life outside of the capital, beaches and safari lodges.
Around Kericho are several tea farms and the Mau Forest, prime road-trip territory with just the right amount of winding routes for driving pleasure, before you reach Kisumu on the northeastern shore of Lake Victoria. Soak up the vibes of this relaxed port town, its market, impala sanctuary, lakeside setting and sunset views.
3. From Nairobi to Lake Magadi
Best weekend-long road trip from Nairobi
Nairobi–Lake Magadi; 112km (70 miles); allow 2 days
If you don’t want to travel too far from Nairobi but would like high rewards with a beautiful lakeside finale, head south to Kenya’s “pink lake”, Lake Magadi.
The Nyama Choma restaurant at Olepolos Country Club, about an hour along the road from Nairobi is a good bet for lunch. Nyama choma means “barbecue meat” in Swahili, and while you’ll find plenty of roadside stalls serving grilled goat meat, barbecued chicken and crunchy corn snacks, Olepolos is a relaxing spot, with great views and hiking trails.
Continue the drive past acacia trees and traditional villages toward the soda lake of Lake Magadi, home to flamingoes and other wading birds. Bring a picnic or head to the Lake Magadi Sports Club and Tented Camp for lunch. It’s a lovely lakeside spot – especially at sunset, serves good food and, if you want to stay, you can choose between comfortable rooms and safari tents.
Planning tip: It’s worth making time for an overnight stay around the Ngong Hills, beloved of Karen Blixen, where you can stretch your legs with a cliff walk or hike on the valley floor.
Pause to soak up the wonderful views and solitude in Mt Kenya National Park © Saro17 / Getty Images
4. Get into the great outdoors at Mt Kenya
Best drive-and-hike road trip
Nairobi–Mt Kenya National Park; 213km (133 miles); allow 3 days
Watch the scenery transform from urban sprawl to lush green countryside as you drive north out of the capital toward Mt Kenya National Park for hiking, climbing, wild camping and memorable views. You’ll pass the town of Thika, and you can pick up local pineapples from one of the roadside stalls. Enjoy an active lunch stop at Sagana Camp, about 95km (60 miles) from Nairobi, where you can camp, raft and zipline.
A popular stop-off before Mt Kenya is the equator sign just before you enter Nanyuki town – it’s hard to resist snapping a selfie. Browse the goods at the craft market, which also has an excellent coffee kiosk and a convenience store selling ice creams, drinks and snacks. Nanyuki is the gateway town to Mt Kenya and a lively place, ideal for picking up nyama choma, grilled corn and other snacks.
Planning tip: If you have time, continue the drive to the lush, swampy and wildlife-packed Meru National Park, west of Mt Kenya. Lesser-visited Meru has an adventurous off-the-beaten-track vibe and wonderful views of Mt Kenya.
5. Hit the Nairobi to Mombasa Highway
Best bush-to-beach road trip
Nairobi–Mombasa; 490km (305 miles); allow 10 days
You could fly to Mombasa or take the train, but for an adventure, set out on this dream road trip, with a few nights enjoying the landscapes and wildlife of Amboseli and Tsavo East/West national parks before relaxing on the Indian Ocean beaches. The Nairobi to Mombasa Highway is a good, mostly double-lane road and an enjoyable detour to Amboseli, known for its gorgeous scenery dominated by Mt Kilimanjaro. It’s a wonderful park to stay in for a few nights to see elephant herds and soak up the views.
From Amboseli, you can double back to the main highway to reach Tsavo’s national park. But a more direct road heads west to Tsavo West, which you can use if it’s dry and there have been no incidents or adverse weather – ask rangers or staff at Amboseli for the latest road information. Tsavo (East and West combined) is one of Kenya’s largest parks, renowned for its wild landscapes of hills, craters and rocky scrubland. About 100km (62 miles) of highway runs between Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Park, so you may even spot zebras, monkeys and even giraffes and elephants on your drive. Part of the road also runs alongside the railway line, so if your drive syncs up with a train, it makes for a great experience (and photo) as you chug alongside each other.
You’ll notice the terrain changing to a lusher, hillier one with cooler temperatures as you pass the town of Mtito Andei, between Tsavo East and West, and through the lush landscape of Shimba Hills. As you approach Mombasa, decide between the sweeping white-sand beaches of Diani and Galu, south of Mombasa, or go north for Kilifi’s bohemian vibe, the excellent snorkeling at Watamu or the old-town atmosphere of Malindi.
6. On the road to Lake Turkana
Best road trip for serious adventurers
Nairobi–Turkana; 700km (435 miles); allow 6–12 days
For intrepid travelers, getting up to the Lake Turkana National Parks is an adventure in itself, before you reach the arid volcanic landscapes with its salty, crocodile-filled crater lake, vivid “Jade Sea” of Lake Turkana, and traditional fishing villages and communities.
It’s a long but rewarding road trip, and stopping off is the key to enjoying it. From Nairobi, it takes around six hours to reach Samburu National Reserve, 300km (185 miles) away, where a night in a tented camp is a chance to enjoy the riverside setting. A shorter drive (four to five hours) on day two takes you to Marsabit National Park, an unexpected patch of green in an otherwise desert setting, and home to an extinct volcano. Before Turkana, spend a night at Kalacha on the edge of the Chalbi Desert (around four hours from Marsabit). Basic Kalacha Camp is an excellent base to experience the solitude and desert landscapes before an eight-hour drive to Loiyangalani on Lake Turkana’s eastern shores.
Walking and exploring the “Jade Sea” of Lake Turkana is the highlight, with its crocs, hippos and migratory birds. This region is also home to the El Molo tribe, one of Kenya’s smallest communities, who struggle to make a living from fishing and who brave the crocodile-filled waters to do so.
Planning tip: Take a community tour and be sure to ask the operator where the money goes. Simply “viewing” the people and their lives isn’t recommended and doesn’t support their local economy.
Admire the varied landscapes on your drive to Sambura National Reserve © Sekar B / Shutterstock
7. Desert adventures to Samburu
Best road trip for wild landscapes
Nanyuki–Samburu; 130km (80 miles); allow 5 days
If you’re heading to Kenya’s northern Samburu National Reserve, a road trip is one of the best ways to appreciate the variety of the country’s landscapes and how they change. The landscape north of the equator has a different feel, as the lush hilly scenery gives way to desert and mountains. Samburu is a remarkable wilderness, and you can go for a quite while without seeing another car.
Stop off in the town of Isiolo, south of Samburu, surrounded by hills and known for its large market. Head to the Catholic Church bell chamber for mesmerizing rooftop views over the urban sprawl. Carry on up to the Samburu villages around Archer’s Post or toward Ngurunit at the base of Mt Poi and northwest of Samburu reserve, before spending a few days in the national park, famous for its wildlife “Special Five”: gerenuk (long-necked antelope), reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich and common beisa oryx (antelope).
Tips for driving in Kenya
Kenya’s main roads are mostly in good condition, but you’ll find a lot of unpaved and sometimes potholed roads, too. Make sure you rent a suitable set of wheels for the types of terrain you’re planning to visit – check with the car rental company if you aren’t sure. Knowing basic car maintenance is useful, such as changing a tire. Breakdown assistance can take a long time if you’re somewhere remote.
The rules of the road can be erratic, and driving in Kenya isn’t for the faint of heart. Truck traffic can mount up, and there’s a fair bit of passing, even on single-lane mountain roads.
From a safety perspective, it’s wise to drive in daylight hours because of poor street lighting, variable road conditions and crime such as carjacking. Check your government’s travel advice for the latest on specific regions and ask the car rental company for up-to-date information on arrival.
Lonely Planet contributor Helena Smith provided additional edits and fact-checking.