Hiking the Jordan Trail

© Tony Howard

The Jordan Trail has gained a reputation as one of the world's great walks. From deserts and canyons to olive groves and ancient sites, this 650km route is incredibly varied - and the food is almost as much of an attraction as the scenery. Tony Howard and Di Taylor were involved in helping establish the trail, and here he guides us along it from the wooded hills of the north to the sun baked sands of the south.

One for the post-lockdown bucket list!

Inspired by the film Lawrence of Arabia, we made out first trip to Jordan in 1984. Three years later my Cicerone book Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum, Jordan was published. This left Di and I free to explore the rest of Jordan, all of which was a blank on our map. By 1999 my Wadi Rum guide had been updated and our next Cicerone guide, Jordan - Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons, was published. By then it had became obvious that we had the basis of a country length walking trail, and we continued to add to it whenever an opportunity arose during our annual springtime visits.

Looking out over the hills from the clifftop village of Dana  © Tony Howard
Looking out over the hills from the clifftop village of Dana
© Tony Howard

We were later joined on our explorations by Jordanians who were also now discovering the wonderful variety of adventures that their country has, telling us, "Your guidebooks gave us the love of our country," and you can't say better than that! Finally, in 2016 the pieces of our jigsaw were linked and we reached the Red Sea. Next spring, the trail's official inaugural Thru-Trek took place, a happy and optimistic multi-national group being waived off from Um Qais by official well-wishers including Jordan's Tourism Minister, Lina Annab, herself a keen trekker.

In the remote mountains of Masuda south of Petra  © Tony Howard
In the remote mountains of Masuda south of Petra
© Tony Howard

In spring the green rolling hills, flower-filled meadows, orchards, olive groves, and forests of North Jordan are quite unlike most people's concept of Jordan as a 'desert country'. As elsewhere along the trail some nights are camping, others are at village homestays, guest houses or hotels. Whatever the location, the mouth watering array of local food is irresistible, perhaps too much so! On officially organised walks, Jordan Trail guides accompany trekkers and a support team ensures that camps and meals are prepared wherever necessary along the route.

Spring greenery in the north  © Tony Howard
Spring greenery in the north
© Tony Howard

Waterfall in the Hidan canyon  © Tony Howard
Waterfall in the Hidan canyon
© Tony Howard

Throughout its length the trail passes through numerous antiquity sites, some dating back to the 11th millennium BC through Neolithic, Greco-Roman and Christian Byzantine periods to Early Islamic and Ottoman. From Madaba with its mosaic map - dating from AD560, one of the oldest in the world depicting Palestine and other major Biblical sites - the trail descends to join an almost forgotten Roman road on the hot barren plateau above the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, 430m below sea level. The Three Canyons, each around 800 metres deep, then have to be crossed. First Zerqa Main, then the Hidan, crossing its river where a waterfall and pool may prove irresistible, before the big climb out. Finally the Mujib, Jordan's answer to the Grand Canyon.

Our first view of the unlikely Bedouin way into the Mujib Gorge  © Tony Howard
Our first view of the unlikely Bedouin way into the Mujib Gorge
© Tony Howard

A good descent into the Mujib had seemed highly unlikely until we were shown a trail by a local Bedouin Abu Saif. In its lower reaches, an ancient path constructed across a cliff provides the only way down. Below, the river beckons temptingly. With fish swimming between our legs we waded through its cool knee-deep water, to find a campsite and another tempting pool. The trail then valiantly climbs up to the south rim, meeting the vestiges of a Roman road again.

The crusader castle of Karak is just one of many fascinating ancient sites  © Tony Howard
The crusader castle of Karak is just one of many fascinating ancient sites
© Tony Howard

Ahead the great Crusader castle of Karak offers a choice of hotels before the trail enters the hotter and drier south. Crossing the 1000 metre abyss of Wadi Hasa is the next obstacle though its hot spring is tempting. An easier walk then reaches the village of Ma'tan, its ancient but now renovated cliff-top guest houses offering a dramatic view into the next day's big canyon descent and ascent. Next, the trail passes the village of Buseira with its Iron Age ruins before rising to yet another impressive view: a deep arrow-straight valley cleaves its way down to the hot, sea level depths of Wadi Araba, towards the southern end of Jordan's Rift Valley. At its head the cliff top village of Dana perches on its eyrie. When we first did an exploratory trek through in 1985 it was an almost deserted ruin. Now it offers a choice of accommodation in renovated Ottoman period houses or a hotel run by Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).

On a high escarpment leading to Petra  © Tony Howard
On a high escarpment leading to Petra
© Tony Howard

Descending Dana valley the next day is a pleasure with wild scenery all around until the spoil heaps of Roman copper mines can be seen, before reaching the remote and award-winning Finnan Eco-Lodge. It's tempting to stay overnight but many continue across the edge of the hot black stone desert of Araba, pitching their tents as the sun sets ready for an early start back up into the mountains. A time-worn Bedouin trail climbs up though dramatic scenery before plunging into the ravine of Wadi Feid where a waterfall and pool offer refreshing relief. Then up again to a high camp where, whilst pitching my tent, I was bitten by a scorpion. "What colour was it?" Mahmoud, our Bedouin guide said. "Yellow," I replied. "They are the worst," he said, followed by, "What size?" "Only small," I said. "They are the worst," he said again with a grin. You have to like their sense of humour!

I felt lethargic all the next day but it was a beautiful trek along a high escarpment with a warm breeze rising from the depths before we descended to a tourist camp near Petra which we entered the next day via 'the back door'. This old Nabataean trail had been a narrow path across cliffs when we first walked it in the mid 1990s but had since been 'manicured' by the Petra Park Authority into a wide, safe, wall-edged trail, losing its history but enabling it to be promoted as an alternative entrance to the famous Petra Siq.

Petra - it's not all about the ancient ruins  © Tony Howard
Petra - it's not all about the ancient ruins
© Tony Howard

The first glimpse of the mountain top Monastery is as surprising as the first famous view of The Treasury from The Siq, though the Jordan Trail avoids the latter by a tunnel carved through the mountains by the Nabataeans. This diverted floodwater away from the canyon of The Siq, which was the main thoroughfare in ancient times just as today. Flash floods are dangerous!

The Siq is savoured early the next day before continuing past Petra's Roman theatre then south beneath Jebel Harun, reputed burial place of Aaron, brother of Moses. The descent of wild and lonely Wadi Sabra follows past the remains of yet another Roman theatre. Then on deeper into the remote mountains of Masuda before climbing back onto the high desert plateau four days later through the impressive Aheimir Canyon. On our exploratory trek we had to wade a deep pool and climb a tricky boulder-jam at its head. A year later all had been swept away by a flash flood and Aheimir was obstacle free, but beware, its no place to be on a rainy day!

Cooling off in Aheimir Canyon  © Tony Howard
Cooling off in Aheimir Canyon
© Tony Howard

Not the place to be in a flash flood!  © Tony Howard
Not the place to be in a flash flood!
© Tony Howard

Now visible across the desert to the east, the mountains of Wadi Rum are reached by a two day trek across the sands. Lawrence called it "Rum the magnificent... vast, echoing and God-like". He was right! The trek then continues still in superlative desert mountain scenery for another day before entering the basalt and granite hills that border the Red Sea. Its distant waters are first glimpsed from the crest of a hill, beneath which the final camp is made.

A long descent and climb then lead to the final pass beyond which the Red Sea beckons temptingly. Descending a valley of pink granite boulders on the Thru-walk in early May it was hot, too hot at close to forty degrees. We sought every possible shade before descending the final sandy wadi to the sea. A welcoming band were there to greet us as we ran past and plunged jubilantly into the welcoming waves.

Spectacular landscapes form start to finish  © Tony Howard
Spectacular landscapes form start to finish
© Tony Howard

In 2018 the Jordan Trail was listed among its top 21 destinations to visit by National Geographic. The Jordan Trail Association also received an award from His Majesty King Abdullah for its contribution to tourism development and putting Jordan on the global tourism map as well as providing jobs and improving income for communities along its route.

Sometimes dreams come true.

Footnote: Amongst those who we walked with on the first official through walk in 2017 were two young Bedouin from the Hidan Gorge region, Mohammad al Homran and Mohammad al Zayadeen, both are now guides. Another Bedouin, Mahmoud Bdoul, who was born in a cave in Petra and is one of Jordan's top trekking guides, also joined us, guiding in the south, and Sabbah Eid, a close Bedouin friend of ours in Wadi Rum was also with us on the final days. I should also add that HM Queen Rania joined the group on part of the walk to Dana.

Di, Tony, HM Queen Rania, and friends...  © Tony Howard
Di, Tony, HM Queen Rania, and friends...
© Tony Howard

A Scottish woman of slight build, Vix Harris, clocked 707km on her GPS and joined us for some of the way, walking it unsupported in 23 days plus two rest days, fund raising for Médecins Sans Frontières - no mean feat when some days are waterless and the temperature is in the high thirties. Stuart Skinner from England was also with us some of the time and walked it in 25 days plus eight rest days. A Californian couple shared some days with us doing it in 32 days and a Polish couple passed us whilst walking it south to north in 29 days plus four rest days. American John Vogel had also found the trail on the web and walked it in 34 days with six rest days.

Our campfire chat all those years ago had come of age and if further proof were needed we were guests at a surprise party in Amman given by our many trekking companions. More recently others have since run the trail, the fastest being American ultramarathoner, Amy Sproston who set a new record in September 2020 of eight days, nine hours and 28 minutes. The usual time for walkers on the 650km trail is around 40 days, usually done in 8 stages. I know which I prefer - what's the rush!

In Oct 2018 the Jordan Trail Association received an award for promoting the trail and having an impact of $6 million on the 52 villages along the trail. Our 20 year dream had certainly come true - in fact it was greatly exceeded thanks to the work of the Jordan Trail Association and all the other trekkers who had been involved.

  • In autumn 2020 the Jordan Trail Association updated their website to include activation of the Jordan Trail Pass, the Jordan Trail Mobile application, and offers of various experiences on the Jordan Trail in cooperation with tour operators. Bookings can be made through their website, including the annual thru-hike in the spring 2021.

This article was published previously in Outdoor Focus, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.

Tony Howard is the author of climbing and trekking guidebooks to England, Norway, Palestine and Jordan, and has written two award winning books, Troll Wall and Quest into the Unknown.

Tony and Di Taylor run Nomads, provider of travel information and advice to the tourist industry.

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31 Mar, 2021
The Jordan Trail

Just to let people know that the official springtime walk on the Jordan Trail is cancelled due to Covid, but there will be one in autumn, starting late September, organised by the JT Assocn. Or of course you can download info and GPS from their website but remember some stretches down south are waterless and without accommodation. OK to camp or bivy though.

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