Kinabalu National Park is a perfect place to immerse yourself in nature, switch off and relax for a few days. The area was one of the first national parks in Malaysia, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With over 4500 species of plants, 100 mammal and 326 bird species and multiple walking trails, there’s plenty to see and do. The main draw to the park is to climb Borneo’s highest mountain, the 4095 metre high Mount Kinabalu. I didn’t do this, as permits need to reserved months in advance and I don’t think my legs currently have the strength! Hopefully one day…
Despite not climbing the mountain, there’s still loads to explore in the beautiful forest around the base – don’t miss it!
The National Park is easily accessible from both the east and west of Sabah. There are regular buses along the Kota Kinabalu / Sandakan route that stop by the park entrance.
Because there were four of us, we got a Grab Taxi from Kota Kinabalu. Despite the fact it was a two hour drive, the taxi was cheaper than us getting a public bus. There are frequent public buses running from Kota Kinabalu to the National Park. Check the bus ticket office or ask your accommodation for more information.
We stayed at the remote, relaxing Mt Kinabalu Mountain Lodge, which cost us £10 each a night for double room. The toilets and showers were shared, but they were always spotlessly clean. The lodge had the most fantastic views over the valley. We’d sit out on the veranda in the afternoons watching the clouds and birds go by. There were a lot of maps and wildlife books available to read.
It took us about forty minutes to walk from the lodge to the National Park entrance, along a small lane, then the busier main road. We walked this route twice a day, for three days. We could have got a taxi, but the walk was a nice way to wake up in the morning. However, we did get a taxi to the bus stop when we had our backpacks.
Things to do
As I said before, climbing the mountain seems to be the main draw to the park, and the other walking trails and activities seem to be overlooked, which is a shame because the forest and wildlife around the base is beautiful and shouldn’t be missed. The obligatory, daily park entrance fee is £3 / RM15.
Cheap, guided forest tour
For only 80p / RM4, you can join a daily guided walk (check with park HQ for the times & meeting point) through the forest. Lasting just over an hour, the knowledgeable guide explains the forest ecosystem and the various plants (including the insect eating pitcher plants and endemic orchids), birds and insects that can be seen. I’d really recommend doing this before any of the other trails, so you can identify and the plants and wildlife yourself. It’s also a good way to get recommendations for other trails and learn more about the park’s history.
Free walking trails
There are nine, well marked hiking trails around the base of Mount Kinabalu that weave through the beautiful forest. Two were closed when I visited, due to landslides, but they may have reopened them by now. The trails vary in length, ranging from 20 minutes to 2-3 hours. They can be walked individually or combined to make day hikes. Maps can be found online or at the park headquarters.
Due to bad weather, I only got to walk the Kiau View Trail, which took about two hours (this did involve a lot of stopping and looking at plants, so it could be done quicker). It was very peaceful and I only saw two other hikers. The walk was well signposted and not too difficult, although it was quite slippery in areas due to heavy rainfall the previous day. Note: rain = leeches! I recommend long socks and covered shoes if you don’t want to donate your blood to the little creatures!
Although small and hidden away, the Botanical Gardens showcase a variety of endemic and unusual plant species that are found in the forest and at the top of the mountain. There are two, daily, cheap, guided tours that are well worth it.
Kinabalu Mueseum and History Gallery
This small museum was a great way to shelter from a heavy rain shower and learn about the geology of Mount Kinabalu. There’s also a collection of taxidermied animals and moths, but that wasn’t for me.
The weekend we visited in early December, was a special weekend for the local Dunsan people, who consider the mountain to be sacred. Each year, the locals can climb the mountain for free to pay respect to the spirits of dead ancestors that are believed to inhabit the peak. This event is accompanied by a market selling handmade produce, traditional dance performances and a welcoming ceremony for the returning climbers. It felt really special to be able to witness such a significant weekend. Upcoming events in the park are listed here.
Places to eat
- Panataran – a small cafe opposite park entrance. We ate a delicious breakfast here each morning. The enormous fruit plates are especially good value.
- Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – we ate dinner at our accommodation each night. For RM13 they made a tasty veggie dinner. We had a variety of noodles/rice/curry.
- Cafe inside the National Park – I don’t know the name of the cafe, but it’s next to the ticket office for the guided walks and near the botanical gardens. We ate veggie fried rice and drank strong coffee for a very reasonable price. The other cafes in the park were pretty pricey.
Next stop: Sepilok.