The Northern Circuit route (including variants thereof such as the Grand Traverse) is the only route which circumvents the peak on the northern slopes.
This route has many advantages and, to me, clearly stands out as the best of all routes on offer:
- Relatively long -> The Northern Circuit takes nine days, which means it gives you plenty of time to acclimatize naturally without staying overnight at the same camp twice. Because of the longer acclimatization time, the Northern Circuit has one of the highest summit success rates (98-99%).
- 360 degree view -> The Northern Circuit starts in the west, then winds around the northern slopes, ascends the summit from the east and descends in the south. Thus, hikers get a 360 degree view of the peak. The only drawback is that the Northern Circuit misses the spectacular Dendrosenecio forest on the southern slopes (though you will also get to see a few random Dendrosenecio trees on the Northern Circuit). It also misses the scenic Barranco Wall. However, avoiding the Barranco Wall might be a blessing if you are concerned about your level of fitness or suffer from vertigo.
- Summit ascend on firm ground -> Hikers on the Machame and Lemosho routes often find the final ascend from Barafu Hut base camp to Stella Point very challenging not only because of the thin air but also because of the sand and scree. It means sliding back down half way for each step up, thus doubling the effort. In contrast, the path up from School Hut / Kibo Hut is on solid frozen ground as well as rocks for the final push, meaning no sliding down whatsoever. This perhaps makes the summit ascend easier on the Northern Circuit.
- In the wild -> With 60,000 hikers each year, Kilimanjaro no longer is an off the beaten track destination. The only way to avoid mass tourism is to go on a less popular route (hiking off-season in bad weather is not a good idea – time your hike wisely). The Northern Circuit is by far the best of the least popular routes. The only reasons why it’s less popular is because it’s relatively long and therefore hasn’t been marketed much by operators. I suspect this will change quickly as more operators start offering this route, and as hikers become more aware of the importance of taking your time to acclimatize naturally. So hurry up, as long as this route remains truly in the wild!
UPDATE 2018: I’ve meanwhile curated all offers and selected the best 9-day Northern Circuit private and group tours for you: Find best Northern Circuit tour offers on Fair Voyage.
For more details and my first-hand account of the Northern Circuit route, please refer to Kilimanjaro Uncovered: An Alternative Path to Bliss.
For photos of the Northern Circuit and a brief description of each of the nine hiking days, continue reading here.