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118km (73 miles) SW of Arusha, 90km (56 miles) E of Lake Manyara, 150km (93 miles) SE of Ngorongoro Crater

While the focus for most travelers on a Northern Circuit safari is the Serengeti, many come away claiming that Tarangire was, in fact, the highlight of their trip.

Named after the life-giving river that flows its length, the 2,642-sq.-km (1,030-sq.-mile) Tarangire National Park is Tanzania's fifth-largest park -- though if you include the unfenced game-controlled areas that border it, the larger ecosystem is closer to 35,000 sq. km (13,650 sq. miles) -- enough to host some migratory movement of herds. Sometimes referred to as a "mini Serengeti," Tarangire also shares some topographical similarities with its big brother, the most arresting being the short-grass plains you find mostly in the north, their expanses broken only by the shapely "umbrella" acacia tree -- a picture-perfect backdrop for game viewing. A striking contrast to these golden plains, and not found in the Serengeti, are Tarangire's lush green swamps -- Gursi, Larmakua, Nguselorobi, and Silale -- where elephants stand thigh-high in juicy grasses that act as a magnet for herds of buffalo, wildebeest, and zebra, with predators usually in close attendance. The farther south you travel, the landscape becomes more densely vegetated and game sightings drop accordingly, though there are areas of open savannah, and the tracks are mercifully free of day-trippers.

It's a beautiful park, typified by century-old baobabs that stand sentinel above the open grass plains and riverbeds, and varied habitats that play home to 94 mammal species, huge numbers of which concentrate around the permanently flowing waters of the Tarangire, particularly during the dry season. In fact, given its dense concentrations of animals -- second only to Ngorongoro -- there is every chance that you will enjoy a higher incidence of sightings than in the Serengeti; elephants are particularly common, with herds numbering in the hundreds. Tarangire is also an ornithologists' haven, boasting a greater variety of birds than even Lake Manyara, with upward of 500 species to look out for -- many of them, like the kohl-eyed lilac-breasted roller, orange-bellied parrot, and malachite kingfisher, flashing like gems in the undergrowth. Tarangire is a worthwhile addition to any Northern Circuit itinerary, but during the driest months (usually Sept and Oct) -- when the Serengeti herds have usually migrated north into Kenya's Masai Mara and animals from throughout the Tarangire ecosystem slake their thirst in the waters of the Tarangire river -- you should make a few days here a priority.