Mention Jordan, and most would think of Petra, the wild expanse of Wadi Rum’s desert, the hauntingly still Dead Sea, and maybe even the spiritual site of Mount Nebo. For a country that’s relatively small (you can drive from the north to the south in 6 hours), it’s also got a surprising diversity of landscapes for those who stay long enough to explore all it has to offer.
With the recent development of the 650km-long Jordan Trail, it’s rebooting tourism to this corner of the Middle East. Launched in 2017, this long-distance hiking trail runs from the north in Umm Qais all the way to the Red Sea in the south. The Trail network takes in some of the country’s best routes, across rugged mountains, arid backcountry, stunning deserts, and hidden wadis, and would take more than a month to hike from end to end.
In between hikes, there’s ample opportunity to float in the famous Dead Sea, dive in the Red Sea, explore ancient historic sites, or simply enjoy traditional Bedouin hospitality in a desert camp.
Many visitors tend to hit Jordan’s main attractions (Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum), but miss out on the country’s beautiful interior. While they’re only seeing just one part of Jordan, this also means that visitors along the Jordan Trail get to explore these hidden gems intimately, away from the crowds.
While tackling the entire trail takes a biblical 40 days, it’s broken into eight sections, each crossing diverse and dramatic landscapes.
You can complete a portion of it as a day-trip, or combine them for overnight trips. Parts of the trail are categorised from easy to difficult, as it’s designed for everyone from casual walkers to serious adventurers.
Conceived as a sustainable tourism product to benefit local communities, the Jordan Trail winds through 52 settlements where you can spend time with the locals, camping along the route or staying with Bedouin families.
DANA TO PETRA SECTION
The centrepiece of the Jordan Trail is the 72.6km-long Dana to Petra section, which consists of 4 portions including Dana to Wadi Malaga, and Little Petra to Petra.
This route features one of the most dramatic treks in Jordan, beginning with a drop from the mountain plateaus of the Araba Valley and crossing several climate zones before negotiating labyrinths of hills and bucolic countryside to end at the Nabatean masterpiece of Petra. It was recently named by National Geographic as one of the 15 best hikes in the world.
Dana to Feynan (14km)
The trail begins from the village of Dana, set on the edge of a cliff with spectacular views of the Dana canyon below. Following a dirt track, the hike – which takes 4 to 6 hours – descends steeply to the valley floor amidst spectacular sandstone scenery; the surrounding mountains and canyons are part of the Great Rift Valley.
From here, you’re entering the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordans’ largest nature reserve that encompasses four geographical zones which are home to rare animals, like the Arabian Wolf and the Nubian Ibex. Some of these may be spotted on a hike, although you’re much more likely to spot shepherds and their flock of sheep and goats (the valley is home to the Feynan Bedouin tribe). Each herd is usually accompanied by a donkey, which doubles as the shepherd’s main mode of transport. An interesting critter you may spot is the Sinai Agama lizard; the male turns azure-blue during mating season (spring to early summer).
The scenic trail offers panoramas of ochre canyons and dry riverbeds which are carpeted with lush greenery and a smattering of herbs and wildflowers if you’re hiking in spring.
After the first few steep kilometres, the relatively flat trail follows the canyon all the way to Feynan, and the terrain is a mix of scree, singletrack, and desert sand as you approach Feynan, where you’ll see several campsites of the local Bedouin community. As the entire trail is exposed, sun protection is necessary.
At the end of the trail, you can overnight at Feynan Eco Lodge which is run by the local community. Chosen by National Geographic Traveler as one of the best 25 Ecolodges in the world, it’s an adobe building that’s totally off the grid. Lit by candlelight, guests at the lodge can enjoy a range of all-inclusive activities, from sunset hikes to Bedouin experiences and stargazing nights.
Little Petra to Petra (12.6km)
The trail from Little Petra to Petra is often called ‘the back door’, and it’s definitely the gem of the Jordan Trail. Starting from Little Petra – a 2,000-year old Nabatean city that’s not as crowded as its bigger sibling – the pleasant trail follows a well-maintained track skirting sandstone mountains to reach the Monastery, one of Petra’s sites.
If you’re intending to hike this route into Petra, you’ll have to purchase a ticket – unless you have a Jordan Pass – ahead of time online or in person from the main entrance at Wadi Musa, as park rangers patrol the entire area.
This easy hike follows the trail the Nabateans would have taken between these two archaeological sites, and passes a couple of small Neolithic sites as well. The trail takes you through shaded gorges and arid hills lined with seasonal flowers, before taking you up to a narrow canyon – following a series of staircases – surrounded by cliffs and a spectacular panorama.
Upon exiting the chasm, a final turn opens out to a valley with ancient Nabatean caves before the peaks of the intricately-carved Monastery come into view after a 7km walk. This is the back route into Petra, and it’s far less crowded than coming in via the main entrance from the opposite side at Wadi Musa.
The Monastery, which has a Bedouin cafe in front of it, is another 2km or so from the main sites of Petra, which you can access via a series of ancient Nabatean stairs that lead you down through the very picturesque narrow canyon towards the aptly-named Colonnade Street. Little stalls selling tourist trinkets line the canyon path, which is also populated by donkeys ferrying tourists up the steps.
The canyon then opens up to views of The Royal Tombs and the ancient Theater, where the landscape is flat and camels add to the modes of transport for tourists. Here you’ll see Roman columns and amphitheatres in addition to Nabatean tombs and homes that are carved high in the canyon walls.
Before they were conquered and absorbed into the Roman Empire, the Nabataeans controlled a vast tract of the Middle East, and the remains of their innovative networks of water capture, storage, transport, and irrigation systems are found to this day through-out the area.
The entire site of Petra is a lot larger than most people think, partly thanks to the fact that excavations are currently ongoing (the vast majority of it is still underground and untouched). Continuing along the main drag, you’ll see The Treasury – the emblem of Petra – carved into the sandstone walls. It’s technically a facade with a small inner hall once used as a royal tomb.
From here, it’s another 2km to the exit via the famous narrow canyon of Petra Siq, which features an ancient trough that once carried water into the city, carved into the sandstone walls.
Aside from the Jordan Trail, the country’s varied topography means that you can also hike through wet canyons, across deserts, and even past green hills dotted with olive groves.
North: Yarmouk Nature Reserve
Green, lush valleys dotted with olive groves dominate the northern region of Jordan, and in Yarmouk Nature Reserve you can hike the undulating hills with constant views of the Golan Heights, the Great Rift Valley, and the Sea of Galilee. It’s a bucolic scenery that’s more reminiscent of the Med than the Middle East, and you’ll often find livestock like cows and goats grazing in the fields.
In spring, the region is a riot of wild-flowers, where bright red poppies and black irises (the national flower) dot the landscape. While there are no marked hiking trails through the reserve, local guides can take you to hotspots like Hema Hot Springs; if you’re lucky, you can spot hyenas, stone marten, and maybe a Mesopotamian tortoise.
A visit to the north of Jordan is not complete without seeing Umm Qais, the ruins of the Decapolis city of Gadara, which is unique as a juxtaposition of Roman ruins within an Ottoman-era village. Perched atop a hill, it has a tremendous vantage point of three countries (Jordan, Syria, and Israel), as well as sweeping views of the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee.
Central: Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is probably one of the most visited natural sites in Jordan – this lowest point on earth is 430.5m below sea level, and is famous for its therapeutic mud. A number of resorts – from luxurious international 5-star brands to day resorts – line its shores, with views of Israel and Palestine on the opposite shoreline.
Many visitors come here to float in this hypersaline lake – it’s so salty that you can float in just a foot of water – and slather their bodies in the mineral-rich mud from the shore.
Bordering the Dead Sea is a series of canyons that are ideal for hiking and canyoning expeditions. The most famous canyon in this region is Wadi Mujib, which is a popular canyoning spot with its breathtaking scenery and fast-flowing rivers.
If you prefer short hikes, a number of smaller canyons take you through boulder-strewn wet wadis lined with lush palms – these are some of the lowest canyons on earth you can hike through. Just look out for cairns to guide you through the canyons, often placed by previous visitors.
Desert: Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is a vast expanse of desert, dotted with majestic sandstone mountains (jebels) that are reminiscent of large rocks scattered randomly by giants. Some of these vertical rock faces have been recently bolted for rock climbing – a sport that’s gaining traction in the community here.
Even though it’s a desert, there are plenty of attractions ranging from picturesque canyons to rolling sand dunes and towering rock formations – this unique landscape has attracted plenty of moviemakers, with The Martian and Aladdin being the latest films to be shot in this region.
Apart from rock climbing, there are plenty of canyons to hike – the most popular are the Siq al Barah and Raqabat Canyon. Navigating these shady canyons requires scrambling, and in some sections you’ll be walking on precipitous edges or crawling through tight spaces; these hikes are usually tackled with a Bedouin guide as they’re not signposted, and you can easily get lost.
A typical Wadi Rum experience includes camping in a Bedouin tent and a 4WD excursion to sites like Lawrence of Arabia’s house and a number of unique rock formations where you can go for short hikes. Camel safaris and hiking trips are also popular.
Bedouin campsites – ranging from ‘wild’ camps with no facilities to luxury digs with en suite toilets – are discreetly dotted across the desert, mostly situated by the foot of mountains. Every campsite has a central fireplace where tea and conversations flow freely, reflecting the essence of traditional Bedouin hospitality.
The landscape comes alive by the light of sunset, when the sandstone and desert turn into a bright orange hue against the deep blue sky. By sundown, it’s a great place for stargazing; Wadi Rum was a favourite spot of Lawrence of Arabia thanks to its uninterrupted views of the night sky. He described the desert as “vast, echoing and God-like.”
Aqaba is a bustling seaside city that is home to some interesting historic sites, but its location along the Red Sea is its biggest draw. There are over 20 dive sites along its coastline, each varying heavily in topography and vibrant marine life, where you can see anything from turtles to colourful corals and wrecks.
Among Aqaba’s most famous wrecks are the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese freighter with an assortment of soft and hard coral, and The Tank which sites at just 5m deep just 20m from shore (making it ideal for snorkellers as well).
In addition, much of the marine park has buoyed off sections for snorkellers to safely explore the reefs of First Bay and the Japanese Garden, which at 6m deep, features pinnacles that are rich in marine life.
If you’re planning to hike the Jordan Trail, remember that much of it runs through the desert which can get very hot – the best time to visit is between October and April. Guides are available for hire via the Jordan Trail Association. If you can spare about 40 days, there is an annual thru-hike event that takes visitors through the entire length of the Jordan Trail. Check Jordan Trail’s website for updates.
For security purposes, there are multiple checkpoints dotted throughout the country, so always bring your passport with you.
The Jordan Pass is well-worth the fee (from US$99) as it not only covers your tourist entry visa (for a minimum 3-night stay), it also offers free entry to over 40 of Jordan’s attractions including Petra, Jerash, Wadi Rum, and much more. Without the pass, the single-entry visa costs US$56, and a 1-day Petra entrance is 50JD (US$70).
You can purchase the pass online (www.jordanpass.jo) prior to entry.
As there is currently no direct flight to Jordan, the fastest connection is via the Middle East. Royal Jordanian operates a codeshare flight with Qatar (via Doha) to Amman, while other airlines like Emirates and Turkish also offer connections to Jordan.
Check out www.visitjordan.com for more; for details on the Jordan Trail, visit www.jordantrail.org.