Hiking in the UAE: A guide to climbing Jebel Jais

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Quick Guide
  • What: Summit of Jebel Jais (1,910 meters)
  • Starting Point: Wadi Ghalilah Dam
  • Length: 15km (30 Round-trip)
  • Time: 5 to 10 hours to summit depending on level of fitness
  • Elevation Gain: About 1,750 meters
  • Water Needed: At least 5 liters
  • Transportation Options: Car, taxi, or bus (combined with a taxi or hitchhiking)

What’s the highest point in the United Arab Emirates? If you said Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, you would be about 1,000 meters off. The real top of this otherwise flat land lay’s in the extreme north. Jebel Jais, whose summit sits at 1,910 meters just inside Oman, is the UAE’s highest mountain and makes for a wonderful full day hike from Dubai.

There are actually several routes up Jebel Jais, including a paved road that zig-zags its way up the east face. However, for trekkers, the west face provides the best experience with trails that will take you around towering cliffs of rocks and through local villages. If you are looking to get a glimpse of the UAE before oil and commerce changed this country into a land of cement and steel, then Jebel Jais is for you.

One particular path, called the stairway to heaven, has gained notoriety of late due to a number of accidents. Climbing the stairway is best done with a large group or with an experienced guide due to the technical aspect of several segments. Luckily, there is an alternative route that can be climbed without a guide by anyone in reasonable health, starting from the Wadi Ghalilah Dam.

Getting There From Dubai

The easiest way to arrive to Wadi Ghalilah Dam is by car. Simply follow the E311 highway north until you reach exit 126 near Ras Al Khaimah. Stay right and merge on to E18 which will take you around Ras Al Khaimah to E11. Continue on E11 to the Wadi Ghalilah turnoff just past the Ras Al Khaimah Co. cement factory. From here drive about 9km until you see a road leading to a helicopter landing zone and a dam. The dam is used to control torrential rains and provide water for irrigation. Adjacent to the dam is a parking lot and the start of the trail. A taxi from Dubai will cost between AED 300 (USD 80) and AED 400 (USD 110).

The last several kilometers to the Wadi Ghalilah Dam from the E11 turnoff.

If you do not have a car or are on a budget, Jebel Jais can still be done as a day trip but requires a little additional planning in order not to get stranded in Ras Al Khaimah. The cheapest and fastest way to get to the mountain is by taking the 6:00 Rak Shuttle Express bus from Dubai International Airport’s Terminal One or Three (at the time of publication, the shuttle was offering its services for free). This will put you in Ras Al Khaimah by 8AM. From here a taxi will cost about AED 60 (USD 15) to the dam. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from Ras Al Khaimah to just outside of the city center along E11 (about AED20 or USD 5) and then hitchhike your way to the dam. There is fairly frequent traffic, and hitchhiking here is not uncommon, but it may take a bit of time, and for slower climbers, could mean spending the night in Ras Al Khaimah.

The Path up Jebel Jais
The Wadi Ghalilah Dam and starting point of the trail.
The scree gully is the most technical part of the hike.

The 30km round-trip hike starts at the parking lot next to the dam (a map of the trail can be found at the bottom of this post). There is a trail sign marking the beginning of the path. It’s a steep climb from the beginning, zigzagging up the wadi with farms on the left. Eventually, you will come to a ridgeline with some stone goat pens to your right affording an excellent view of the Persian Gulf, provided there is no smog. From here, the gradient is gentler for two to three kilometer, as you walk along the ridge eventually coming upon a cliff wall. At this point, the climb begins again and terminates with an 800-meter scramble up loose rocks. It’s not technically difficult but requires a bit more attention and time as there is practically no path. The route, however, is obvious as the only way forward is up. Once you have cleared the scree gully, you will find yourself above a small village. The trail can be a bit confusing here as well but if you stay to the right and continue to climb you will make it to the top of the main ridge where a new road and a large Emirates flag awaits.

The end of the trail up the west face. From here you follow the nearly empty paved road to the guard house.
Signage is more frequent at the beginning of the trail.

Once you have taken in the view, turn left and continue along the paved road past the flag and around a bend (Note there is a peak to the right that is often mistaken as the summit of Jebal Jais. This point is actually several hundred meters below the true summit.) Eventually, you will come to a guard house. As this is a border area, it is full of military. Just tell them you are climbing  Jebel Jais and they will wave you through.  Continue another kilometer or two until you come to what appears to be a princely estate or very posh military barracks. Merely hike along the fence to the right. You will see Oman / Emirate border markers every 100 meters or so. The peak of Jebel Jais is just past the estate and can clearly be seen. The actual summit is on the Oman side of the border, so as you climb to the top you will also pass the highest point in the UAE.

Border marker from the Oman side with the estate in the background.
What to Expect
The ridgeline leading to the cliff face and the scree.

If you are in good physical shape than the 15km climb up can be done in five hours (three hours to reach the paved road), while less experienced trekkers may need up to ten hours to reach the summit (seven to reach the paved road). The descent back shouldn’t take more than four or five hours.  However, if you haven’t reached the summit by 3PM than you should turnaround, unless you want to hike in the dark or have arranged for a car to pick you up along the paved road.

For the most part, you are likely to be on your own. The trail is mainly used by local shepherds, (you will encounter plenty of goats!) and some may be at work tending to the various irrigation water tanks stationed around the mountain. These are real Emiratis who have been working the land for generations. They are incredibly polite and friendly, and if you do head into one of their villages, you will likely be invited to tea. It’s a world away from the haughtiness of Dubai.

Goats are frequent hiking partners at Jebel Jais.

Although Jebel Jais is usually several degrees cooler than Dubai, adequate water is a must. Expect to go through at least three liters climbing and another two for the descent. There is a portable water barrel for the locals around kilometer six just before the hard ascent around the cliff face and up the scree gully, although it’s not the most refreshing source of fluid. The border guards along the paved road also have bottled water available and will likely give you a few if you look thirsty!

The only shade along the route is the odd boulder or cliff overhang; adequate sunblock, a hat, and sunglasses along with a sturdy pair of hiking shoes are a must. Given the heat, you will likely not eat a lot, but a few energy bars or some dried fruit is an easy way to get some extra energy.

Getting Out
The village just after the scree gully and near the top of the west ridge.

After summiting you have a couple of options. You can either hitchhike down the paved road which does see some tourist traffic or arrange for taxi to pick you up near the guard post. Alternatively, you can return the way you came. 30km and over 1,700 meters of elevation gain can make for a grueling day but it can be done! If you hired a taxi from Ras Al Khaimah to the dam and expect to make the full round trip, then it’s a good idea to set up a pickup time. Most drivers will be happy to come and get you. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to hitch back to Ras Al Khaimah. Locals from the wadi will likely stop to help anyway if they see you on the road in the desert sun! Once in Ras Al Khaimah, you can book a free return trip to Dubai through Rak Shuttle Express with one of three buses: the first leaving the Hilton RAK Resort & Spa at 21:00 and stopping at the Hilton Garden Inn, Bin Majid Beach Hotel, and the Cove Rotana Resort; the second leaving from Jannah Resort & Villas at 22:00 and stopping at the Al Hamra Convention Center; and the third leaving from the Bin Majid Beach Resort also at 22:00 and stopping at the Rixos Bab Al Bahr, the Double Tree by Hilton Resort & Spa Marjan Island, and the Cove Rotana Resort. There are also intercity buses to Dubai (AED 25 or USD 7.50) from the main bus terminal departing every hour or so until 21:30.

If you have an questions, feel free to leave a comment!

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