From ancient cities to the Aqaba mountains, a new 650 km-long trail cuts through Jordan’s wadis and gorges. Leon McCarron is here to guide your choice of the best bite-sized sections
Travelling on foot in the Middle East is not a new concept. The region has long been shaped by footsteps, from early pilgrims and trade routes to tracks left by the nomadic Bedouin. The Jordan Trail takes in all of these layers of history, faith and culture, and combines them in a meandering hike that runs the length of the country.
Before I walked this route, I knew a little about places like Petra and Wadi Rum, and it’s true that wandering from the ancient kingdom of the Nabateans into the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had on foot. But perhaps even more memorable than that – and what makes the trail world class – is the incredible diversity I found throughout its less famous sections.
When I arrived at Umm Qais in the north, I was greeted by the standing columns and arrow-straight streets of a Roman city, with green hills that seemed to roll on forever. But as I turned south, I passed olive groves and orchards, chasm-like canyons and vast deserts and imposing mountains stretching all the way down to the cobalt blue waters of the Red Sea.
Walking the Jordan Trail is a great way to break down misconceptions about the region, as well as plunging you into its remarkable landscape and history, ranging from lost cities (and civilisations) to the battlements left behind by the medieval Crusades.
At more than 650km, the route is quite a commitment, but can easily be shortened into bite-sized sections, with scenic camping and community homestays en route and local buses linking its smaller villages and larger cities. Simply put: if you like trails, you’ll love this.
Byzantine Church terrace at Umm Qais, Jordan (Dreamstime)
Duration: 6 days (80km)
Best for: Rolling green hills, ancient ruins, community-based tourism
Route: Umm Qais • Makhbara • Ziglab • Pella • Beit Idis • Rasoun • Ajloun
Why go? Walk through lush greenery, past Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman-era historical sites and experience first-hand the cultures and customs of local villagers. To walk this section, catch a Jett bus from Amman to Irbid (90km); these follow a schedule and are bookable in advance. From here, hop on a public minibus to Umm Qais (25km), at Irbid’s northern bus station – these leave when full – or simply take a taxi.
Start your walk in Umm Qais on top of the hill at the basalt ruins of Gadara, one of the ten Decapolis cities that operated on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire; from here, look out north across the Sea of Galilee to Israel and the Golan Heights beyond. Next, follow the trail south, past the pretty Ziglab Lake and up into the hills above Jordan’s Rift Valley, to Pella, where you can visit the Greco-Roman ruins of this ancient city and either overnight in a guesthouse or one of the homestays that overlook the site.
From here, the route through Wadi Sir is particularly colourful in spring, and the valley leads uphill to the ruins of a Byzantine church and a cave where Jesus is said to have rested. There are three villages in this area – Orjan, Rasoun and Baoun – each with an array of community tourism stays and, with them, a chance to learn about local crafts such as cooking, soap-making and calligraphy. Continue south from here to Ajloun and either stay locally or catch a local bus back to Amman (72km).
Zarqa River (Dreamstime)
Duration: 4 days (59.1km)
Best for: Castles, rural communities, lush landscapes
Route: Ajloun • Khirbet al-Souq • King Talal Dam • Rmeimeen • Fuheis
Why go? Enjoy the greenery around the Ajloun Castle and head for Jordan’s first microbrewery, via small villages of Christians and Muslims. Start in the fortress at Ajloun, built in 1184 to defend against the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. This is one of the most impressive period structures to be found anywhere in the region.
What follows next is a relaxed section of trail, and you’ll find yourself winding along quiet country tracks where there are wild camping opportunities. It’s particularly nice to sleep with a view out over the vast King Talal Dam. When camping, just be sure to stay clear of private property, and follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethic.
Further south, you’ll pass through the small town of Rmeimeen, an example of the religious co-existence that permeates this land – in its centre, a mosque and church sit side by side. Further on, Fuheis also has a relaxed vibe, though this may have something to do with it being the location of Jordan’s first ever microbrewery, the Carakale Brewing Company; drop by for its tasting tours. Either stay locally here, or buses can easily take you from Fuheis back to Amman (19km).
Must eat: Zarb is an ancient cooking practice that’s best described as an ‘underground barbecue’. Chicken or lamb, accompanied by all sorts of vegetables, are buried under the sands in an oven stoked with hot coals.
Salt precipitated on Dead Sea coast (Dreamstime)
Duration: 4 days (77.3km)
Best for: Landscapes, the Dead Sea, community-based tourism
Route: Fuheis • Iraq al-Amir • Hesban • Oyoun al-Theeb • Wadi Zarqa Ma’in
Why go? Walk from forest to desert in the same day, then into the canyons for Dead Sea views.
Pass through arable farmland until you reach Iraq al-Amir, where the Qasr Al-Abd, a 4th-century BC Hellenistic palace, takes pride of place. The women’s co-operative in the town offers an insight into the changing nature of community and gender roles in the region. There are also homestays here, too, which means a chance to sample Jordan’s national dish, mansef: rice and lamb flavoured with a sauce made from fermented dried yoghurt (jameed).
As you walk south, Jordan’s greenery gives way to the pale, tan desert hills. Beyond the Kafrein dam, you’ll climb again past sporadic Bedouin camps and Biblical herds of goats on the hillsides, and the reward is views across the lowest spot on the planet: the Dead Sea.
Villages are sparser and shade is less readily available on this part of the trail, so be sure to carry plenty of water. Note that there is often little road access in the wadis themselves, and this trail section ends around 8km short of the next village, Atruz, from which you can arrange for a taxi to take you to Madaba if you want to just do this section.
River running through Wadi Mujib (Dreamstime)
Duration: 4 days (75km)
Best for: Challenging hiking, swimming in rock-pools, epic scenery
Route: Wadi Zarqa Ma’in • Wadi Hidan • Wadi Mujib • Majdalein • Karak
Why go? This is some of the most extraordinary scenery anywhere in the Middle East; be prepared for a tough hike, but with the rewards to make it worthwhile. All of the canyons here run east to west, so each one must be crossed laterally. But the journey itself is breathtaking. Wadis Hidan and Mujib are among the most spectacular found anywhere on the trail (if not the world).
The latter is often called the ‘Grand Canyon of Jordan’, and at nearly a kilometre deep, it slices through the landscape with dramatic force. Once you descend to the bottom, be sure to enjoy the cool shade and take a dip in one of the many pools along the way.
Take plenty of water (five litres for the day, plus more for overnight) and travel with a guide if you are not experienced with a GPS. You can camp en route and refill with water from the wadis, but you may want to arrange for a support vehicle to bring supplies. This section ends at Karak, where there are a number of guesthouses waiting to reward your efforts with hot showers and good food, or easy bus links to Amman (129km).
Language tips: It pays to be friendly when hiking, so bone up on a few Arabic phrases, from the greeting of “As-salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) to “Shukran” (thank you).
Karak Castle (Dreamstime)
Duration: 5 days (83.2 km)
Best for: Crusader castle, historical villages, Bedouin camps
Route: Karak • Wadi al-Mughair • Wadi Hasa • Ais • Ma’tan • Dana
Why go? Dive into the past by exploring a Crusader castle, then walk the limestone mountains to picturesque ruined villages perched on cliff-sides.
Begin in Karak Castle, one of the largest defences built by European Crusaders in the Levant, then walk towards Wadi Hasa, where you’ll climb back up into a new, limestone-dominated landscape.
There are a couple of natural hot springs along this part of the trail, and easy paths wind through to the dramatic ruined village of Ma’tan, perched high above Wadi Labun. There’s great wild camping all along this section, but Ma’tan also provides an opportunity to stay in an eco-village with views out across the canyons.
Finally, ease carefully down into the spectacular gorge beneath Ma’tan and finish at the Ottoman-era stone village of Dana, which lies perched on a precipice within a large biosphere reserve. Buses run to both Karak and Dana (via Tafi lah; 185km) from Amman, though plan to camp in the wadis as you hike the trail in between. Be sure never to sleep too close to the water, however, as wadis are notorious for flash floods.
Custom built: Be aware of the local cultural customs, and dress modestly. It’s best to be covered from shoulders to knees (at a minimum), to avoid offence in more conservative rural areas.
Landscape of Wadi Dana (Dreamstime)
Duration: 4 days (76km)
Best for: Geology, wildlife and feeling like Indiana Jones
Route: Dana • Wadi Malaga • Ras al-Feid • Little Petra • Petra
Why go? The Jordan Trail’s showpiece section, with world-class hiking between picture-perfect Dana village and the grandeur of ancient Petra.
The trail now leads through the long valley of Wadi Dana, a part of the largest nature reserve in Jordan, which stretches from the northern Rift Valley down to the desert lowlands above Petra. The area is also home to hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna, with endangered mammals such as the Nubian ibex freely roaming the hilltops. Beyond the buzzing vibrancy of the canyon lies Wadi Feynan, once the heart of an ancient copper-mining operation.
Sandstone mountains herald your arrival into Petra, a vast city built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans: an Arab people who controlled a number of trade routes between Damascus and the Red Sea, and from the Arabian desert to Sinai. The city’s rock-cut architecture is made even better by arriving through the ‘back door’ of the Jordan Trail, via Wadi Ghurab.
Both Dana and Wadi Musa (the city beside Petra; 236km) are easily accessible by bus from Amman. Entrance to Petra requires a pass, which can be purchased onsite at the front entrance or from Wadi Musa, so make sure to pick one up in advance if approaching from the north via the trail.
The Monastery in Petra (Dreamstime)
Duration: 8 days (111km)
Best for: Wilderness, desert, canyons, stargazing
Route: Petra • Gaa’Mriebed • Wadi al-Saif • Wadi Gseib • Wadi Aheimer • Abbasiya • Jebel Kharaz • Shakriya • Rum Village
Why go? See Jordan’s two most famous locations – Petra and Wadi Rum – via a week of authentically wild desert hiking.
The trail leads directly through the centre of Petra, then out into wild sandstone mountains. As you leave the city you’ll see Jebel Haroun in the distance, where the whitewashed tomb of Aaron (brother of Moses) sits proudly on the summit. Once you pass that, keep an eye out for the Roman theatre near the spring at Wadi Sabra.
From here on in, you find yourself siphoned through narrow, winding canyons that stretch upwards for hundreds of metres. The nights here are a true joy, and well away from the light pollution of the cities, so you have a great chance to brush up on your constellations.
Soon the desert takes over, and the wadis fade out into open plains. Take time to explore the ruins at Humeima. Once a great city, it was home to the Nabateans and Abbasids. This is the land made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, who described it as ‘vast, echoing and Godlike’; it’s hard to argue.
This section cannot be hiked entirely independently, as there is no water available en route. You can cache water in advance, or arrange for a local Bedouin to meet you with supplies along the way. Rum village is accessible by bus from either Wadi Musa (114km) or Aqaba (126km).
Camel in Wadi Rum desert (Dreamstime)
Duration: 4 days (64km)
Best for: Deserts, mountains, beaches, diving
Route: Rum Village • Al Qidr • Titen • Red Sea • Aqaba
Why go? Walk from the legendary deserts of Rum through rugged mountains to the cool, refreshing waters of the Red Sea.
Having overnighted in a resthouse at Rum, or one of the desert camps in the area surrounding the village, head south into the expansive orange blanket of sand. All around, the imposing peaks of the purple-red sandstone mountains loom large here.
Beyond the lunar landscape, shepherds’ paths lead through the mountains and across the plains, passing just one tiny settlement, the small village of Titen, before only the rugged Aqaba mountains lie between you and the ocean. From the high pass, there is a spectacular view out to the Red Sea, and on a good day you can see Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The crystal clear waters of the Gulf are wonderfully refreshing after the sand and heat of the desert. The port city of Aqaba, which lies on the northern tip of the Red Sea, is accessible from all other major Jordanian cities, as well as from Israel and Sinai. It even has an airport, giving you the option to fly directly home from the end point.
When to go? The trail is best hiked between September and April. Spring, when the weather is warm and wildflowers blossom in the north (Mar-Apr) and south (Feb-Mar), is beautiful.
Don’t forget: Friday is the Islamic holy day, and a lot of things will shut down. In particular, public transport can stop completely, so make your plans around this.
Main image: Desert stretch between Wadi Gseib to Wadi Aheimar (Nadir Daoud)