Undeniably the most rewarding hike in Jamaica, Blue Mountain Peak (7402ft), the highest point on the island, seems daunting but isn’t the fearful climb you might imagine – though it’s hardly a casual stroll, either. It is magnificent by day, when you can marvel at the opulence of the canopy, the thousands of orchids, mosses, bromeliads and lichens, the mighty shadows cast by the peak and the coils of smoke from invisible dwellings below. It’s also thrilling by night when, after a magical moon-lit ascent, Kingston’s lights occasionally twinkling in the distance, you find yourself at Jamaica’s zenith as a new day dawns.
From Abbey Green, the climb to the peak is around thirteen kilometres, and can take anything from three to six hours depending on your fitness level. If you’re staying at one of the hostels, you can start at around 1am and catch sunrise at around 5.15 to 6.15am, depending on the time of year. A full moon also means you’ll get natural floodlighting – otherwise, take a flashlight. Signposts make much of the route easy to follow without a guide, but in this remote area it’s sensible to go with someone who knows the way. Don’t stray onto tempting “short cuts” – it’s illegal, you’ll damage the sensitive environment and you’ll almost certainly get hopelessly lost. Rescue patrols can take days to mobilize effectively, by which time you’ll be in serious trouble.
Blue Mountain Peak is the furthest you can go into the Blue Mountains, as thick forest and treacherous terrain means that even the burly pig hunters seldom venture further east, preferring to enter the John Crow range from Millbank in Portland.
The peak trail
The first stretch of the trail, a steep series of switchback turns through thick forest aptly named Jacob’s Ladder, is said to be the most arduous, and you’ll appreciate arriving at the halfway point at Portland Gap Ranger Station (7km), where you can rest at the gazebo, top up water and let the rangers know that you’re walking the trail (leave a note if you arrive in the early hours).
Once past Portland Gap, it’s another five and a half kilometres to the peak through twisted montane and then low-lying elfin forest, in which the gnarled soapwood and dogwood evergreens are so stunted by low temperatures, exposure and lack of nutrients that they grow no higher than 8ft. You’re still only about 6000ft up, but you might already be a little dizzy from the rising altitude; if so, go slowly and eat a high-energy snack. At 7000ft, the plateau at Lazy Man’s Peak is where some call it a day, but it’s certainly worth struggling on for another twenty minutes.
If you’ve arrived at the peak before dawn, you’ll be completely bowled over. The inky black slowly melts into ever-intensifying pinks, oranges and purples until finally a hint of wispy blue heralds the sun and reveals the surrounding ranges. It’s quite possible you’ll be here alone, the highest person in Jamaica and feeling – literally – on top of the world. As the sun burns off the mist, the spectacular panorama becomes recognizable; you can make out Cinchona and, on a good day, Buff Bay and Port Antonio’s Navy Island to the north and Kingston, Portmore and coastal St Thomas to the south.