Although most drivers and guides follow a set pattern of routes – the highlights of which we cover in this section – you shouldn’t feel restricted: if you have a couple of hours to spare, there’s nothing to stop you walking out across the sands in whichever direction you fancy.
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Crossing to the east side of Wadi Rum from the Visitor Centre – towards the mis-named “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” – transfers you from tour-group hubbub into stillness and solitude. Following the cliffs of the massif south for a few minutes will give you a more intimate flavour of the desert environment than a bouncing 4x4 ride ever could.
Another way to lose the bustle, if you have a rental car, is to drive back out towards Disi and onwards – on asphalt road – to the unvisited villages of Twayseh and Mensheer. The desert out here is just as explorable, and the views just as awesome, as in and around Wadi Rum itself.
The Nabatean temple
From the Visitor Centre, the road continues south along the west side of Wadi Rum for 7km to Rum village. Jabal Rum rises to the right, Jabal Umm Ashreen to the left. Rum’s former police post has been turned into a small archeology museum, not yet open at the time of writing. From the Resthouse, which is the first building you come to (on the right-hand side), walk alongside the telephone poles that lead away behind towards the daunting cliffs of Jabal Rum, and within five minutes you’ll come to a small, ruined Nabatean temple dating from the first or second centuries AD, with Nabatean inscriptions on the walls and columns overlaid by later Thamudic graffiti.
Most tours include the temple as standard; alternatively, once you’ve paid your admission at the Visitor Centre, you could walk or cadge a lift down the road into Rum village to explore for yourself.
Ain Shalaaleh (Lawrence’s Spring)
From the Nabatean temple, a modern cylindrical water tank is in plain view a little way south; follow a path from the tank up the hillside and around the cliffs above the mouth of a little valley, past springs lush with mint. On the south side of the little valley, at the head of a Nabatean rock-cut aqueduct, you’ll reach Ain Shalaaleh, a beautiful, tranquil spot cool with water and shaded by ferns and trees, evocatively described by Lawrence in Chapter 63 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Nabatean (and modern) inscriptions are all around and there are stunning views out across Wadi Rum. Taking your time, you could devote a gentle half-day to visiting just the temple and the spring.
Most camel- and car-drivers, though, can’t be bothered with climbing the slope to reach the spring, and instead lead visitors who have requested “Lawrence’s Spring” south along the valley floor to the rather mundane spring at Abu Aineh, which is marked by a square concrete pumping block near a scree slope. Both this and Ain Shalaaleh are valid destinations, but the confusion has now become written into history, with the official map marking Abu Aineh as “Lawrence’s Spring”. Insist on Ain Shalaaleh, if that’s where you want to go.
From Ain Shalaaleh, it’s not hard to work your way east around an outcrop and south over a pass onto a path above the desert floor. About 500m further on, another pass to the right will deliver you to the bedouin tent and spring at Abu Aineh – also easily reachable on a simple one-hour valley-floor walk 3km south from Rum village.
Around Jabal Rum
A much longer and more serious undertaking is to circumnavigate Jabal Rum – from Rum village to just beyond Abu Aineh, then north, passing to the east of Jabal Rumman and across a saddle into Wadi Leyyah. This could take nine hours or more and is only for the fit. A much easier prospect is walking northwest from the Resthouse along the small, well-watered Wadi Sbakh, between the cliffs of Jabal Rum and the outcrop of Jabal Mayeen; you’ll eventually have to make a short scramble over a saddle into the tiny, narrow Wadi Sid, often dotted with pools, from where a scramble leads down to the road a little north of Rum village, making a pleasant three-hour round-trip.
Canyons of Umm Ashreen
The west face of Jabal Umm Ashreen (also spelled Um Ishrin) – the “Mother of Twenty”, named (depending on whom you talk to) for twenty bedouin killed on the mountain, or twenty hikers swept away in a flash flood, or a crafty woman who killed nineteen suitors before marrying the twentieth – is pierced by a number of explorable ravines and canyons.
Northeast of Rum village, between the highest peak of the Umm Ashreen massif and Jabal Kharazeh, is Makhman Canyon, explorable for about a kilometre along its length.
Directly east of the Resthouse is an enormous ravine splitting Jabal Kharazeh from Jabal Umm Ejil. Just beside it, a complex maze of canyons is negotiable all the way through the mountain. Once up and over a concealed gully alongside the ravine – the only way into the mountain – you emerge on a hidden plateau dotted with wind-eroded towers and framed by looming molten cliffs. Diagonally left is Kharazeh Canyon, and you can work your way along it for some distance before the cliffs close in. The main route follows Rakabat Canyon southeast from the plateau, but path-finding is complex in this closed-in, rocky gorge, requiring plenty of scrambling up and down through interlinking ravines. You eventually emerge beneath the magnificent orange dunes of Wadi Umm Ashreen on the east side of the mountain, from where you could walk south around the massif back to Rum village. To do the full trip (10km; at least half a day), you need confidence on easy rock, a good head for heights and experience of route-finding; if in any doubt, take a local guide.
Wadi Siq Makhras
Another option heads east from the Visitor Centre across the valley into Wadi Siq Makhras, which narrows as it cuts southeast through the Umm Ashreen massif, eventually delivering incredible views over the vast and silent Wadi Umm Ashreen. The walk from here south around the massif to Rum village (12km) can be shortened by navigating Rakabat Canyon from east to west. Other routes of 10–12km from the eastern opening of Wadi Siq Makhras involve heading northeast through Siq Umm Tawagi to get picked up in Disi village, or southeast to camp overnight in Barrah Canyon. If you don’t fancy such long hikes, you can arrange in advance to be picked up at any identifiable intermediate spot by camels or 4x4 for the return journey.
About 8km south of Rum, on the desert track to Aqaba, rises Jabal Qattar (“Mountain of Dripping”), origin of several freshwater springs. A short walk up the hillside brings you to the largest spring, Ain Qattar, which was converted by the Nabateans into a well. Stone steps in an area of lush greenery descend into a hidden, underground pool of cold, sweet water, drinkable if a little mossy. South and west of Qattar, just off the Aqaba track in the beautiful hiking area around al-Maghrar, are a handful of “sunset sites”, popular spots for late-afternoon 4x4 excursions (the places that give the best sunset views change according to the seasons).
The titanic chunk of mountain opposite Qattar is Jabal Khazali – a highlight of any tour in Rum and included on even the shortest excursions. It’s supposedly named for a criminal, Khazal, who was pursued up to the summit and, with nowhere to run, leapt off, whereupon he miraculously floated to earth and landed unharmed. The mountain’s north face is split by a mammoth canyon, entered by a ledge on the right, the inner walls of which are covered at different heights with stylized Thamudic rock drawings of people, horses and pairs of feet. It’s possible to scramble your way up through the cool, narrowing ravine, dodging the pools of stagnant water, for about 200m until you meet unscaleable rock.
Umm Fruth rock bridge
The area east and south of Khazali is full of small domes and outcrops, with a cat’s cradle of wadis and hidden valleys running through and between the peaks. To the south, a small, easily climbed rock bridge rises from the desert floor at Jabal Umm Fruth, another very popular stopping-off point which features in many photos of Rum.
Red dunes and Jabal Anfishiyyeh
East of Wadi Umm Ashreen is an area of soft sand, with some scrambleable red dunes rising to 20m or more against the north face of Jabal Umm Alaydya. Very close by, some of the best Thamudic inscriptions can be seen on Jabal Anfishiyyeh, including a herd of camels – some ridden by hunters, others suckling their calves – and some strange circle-and-line symbols. A little southeast, Jabal Umm Kharg has on its eastern side a small Ottoman structure, named – wrongly – “Lawrence’s House”, which commands spectacular panoramic views out over the desert.
East of Anfishiyyeh lie Jabal Barrah and Jabal Abu Judayda, divided by the sandy, easily negotiable and very atmospheric Barrah Canyon, which winds between the cliffs for some 5km; this is an often-used overnight camping stop, the journey best done with camels.
Siq Umm Tawagi (“Siq Lawrence”)
North of Barrah, between a group of three peaks, the beautiful hidden valley of Siq Umm Tawagi is another classic destination, featuring plenty of Thamudic rock drawings as well as carvings of faces done in the 1980s – with the date “1917” – which tour guides describe as an original depiction of Lawrence and Emir Abdullah. Tragically, in the spirit of the theme park that Wadi Rum threatens to become, this canyon is now being dubbed “Siq Lawrence” as a result. Umm Tawagi is a good second-day route from Barrah to a pick-up point in Disi village, about 15km north. From Barrah, it’s also possible to round the Umm Ashreen massif and return to Rum.
Burdah rock bridge
For more intrepid types one of the highlights of Rum is the impressive rock bridge perched way off the desert floor on the north ridge of Jabal Burdah. Best photographed from the east, the bridge is best scaled from the west; it’s an easy but serious climb, especially if you’re not that good with heights, and should only be attempted in the company of a guide – preferably one who has a rope to protect the last few metres of climbing, which is a bit exposed (see w walkingjordan.com for a description). The sense of achievement at reaching the bridge, though, is marvellous, and the views are stupendous.
Jabal Umm ad-Daami
A guided ascent of Jabal Rum requires climbing competence, but an ascent of Jordan’s highest mountain, Jabal Umm ad-Daami (1830m), identified as such by climbing guide Difallah Atieq (who died in 2011) and located some 40km south of Rum on the Saudi border, can be achieved by anyone. In truth it’s often harder to find a driver who knows the way than it is to reach the summit. Once you’ve driven there, the scramble up the north ridge is straightforward, and the summit provides superb views over both countries. You can overnight in the desert, perhaps at a bedouin camp among the beautiful Domes of Abu Khsheibah, midway back to Rum.
North of Disi
The wild landscape north of Disi and Shakriyyeh is just as impressive as the core areas further south – but a fraction as well known. Three easily accessible sites stand out to give a taste of the area. In the foothills just east of Disi, at the base of Jabal Amud amid dozens of Thamudic inscriptions, is a large slab of rock covered in lines and interconnected circles which, it has been theorized, is an ancient map – although what it refers to isn’t known. About 6km north of Shakriyyeh are some amazing Thamudic drawings at Abu al-Hawl; the name means “the Terrifying One” and suits well the extraordinary experience of coming across stark, 2m-high figures with stubby outstretched limbs carved into a remote desert cliff. About the same distance again north is a breathtaking rock arch at Jabal Kharaz.
You could either take a half-day drive out to these two spots, or treat them as stop-offs on a long desert journey northwest to Petra or northeast to Ma’an. Also in this area is “The Palace”, a castle-like compound which some guides claim featured in Lawrence of Arabia. It was in fact built in 2001 for the French TV game show The Desert Forges.
This comfortable, upmarket, fully serviced desert compound, located just outside Rum, is a great place to hole up and do nothing all day in comfort (surprisingly difficult at most camps, which often stand empty between 9am and 5pm). It is signposted off the main road, 15km east of the Rashdiyyeh junction and about 2km west of the police post marking the fork to Disi. The signpost leads you north across the railway and onto a desert track – passable in an ordinary car – to the site itself, which stands hidden behind a rocky outcrop, with open views across the desert plains. Owned and run by genial Tahseen and Susie Shinaco, the place – and its team of local staff – is the height of hospitality. Public lounge areas, decorated in traditional style, are sheltered and cool, and include a dining and entertainment zone. Their accommodation is excellent and they also have Wadi Rum’s only swimming pool, fed by water from aquifers beneath the desert.
Bait Ali lies within the territory of the Swalhiyeen tribe, who are quite separate from the Zalabia of Rum and the Zuwaydeh of Disi, and so are able to offer unique trips by camel, horse or 4x4, at their own rates, into landscapes that most visitors don’t get to experience. Owner Susie Shinaco is herself an accomplished horserider. Added draws include adventure activities such as dune-buggies (JD35/hr per person), as well as hot-air ballooning and ultralighting.