West of the string of oases that make up the Bahariya settlements is a large expanse of exposed limestone known as the White Desert of Egypt. Erosion by wind and rain over many thousands of years has sculpted these massive blocks into strange shapes that loom out of the desert landscape like monstrous white ghosts. For visitors with 4x4 vehicles, the area makes a popular weekend excursion from Cairo, spending a couple of nights camping in the desert.
The best travel tips for visiting the White Desert
The White Desert is a popular destination for tourists who are interested in natural beauty and outdoor activities.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, the best way to see this remarkable area is to join an organised tour from Cairo.
It is also sometimes included in itineraries travelling overland from Siwa to Cairo via Bahariya, again spending the night camping. You can explore the area on foot or by camel.
What to do in the White Desert
From striking calcium rock formations to magic springs, here's what to do in the White Desert
#1 Take a photo of Jebel Izaz
The Crystal Mountain (Jebel Izaz) is actually a small hill of flower-like glittering calcite crystal (quartz) formations around a small arch in the centre. It is an obligatory photo stop on the route between Bahariya and Farafra.
#2 Visit the Valley of the Golden Mummies
Like many good discoveries, this one happened by accident in 1996 when the hoof of a donkey being ridden by the guardian of the Temple of Alexander at Bahariya disappeared into a hole.
The result was the uncovering of four tombs containing over 100 mummies, many with beautifully gilded faces, dating from the Roman period of the 26th Dynasty some 2,500 years ago.
More of these important tombs have been excavated, and while work at this exciting site is continuing, it is anticipated that as many as 10,000 mummies may lie in a necropolis that could perhaps cover a surface area of about 36 sq km (14 sq miles).
Some of the best examples of the mummies, including that of a woman with gold-plated breasts, are now on view at the small Golden Mummies Museum at Bahariya.
#3 Spot Mushroom Rock
This unique rock formation looks like a giant mushroom and is one of the most popular attractions in the White Desert. It’s just one of the striking calcium rock formations shaped by erosion and sandstorms.
#4 Check out the Black Desert
As you journey a little north from the White Desert, you'll come across the enigmatic Black Desert, situated closer to Bahariya than Farafra - approximately 50 km south of Bawiti.
Here, the mountains have been eroded over time to blanket the desert with a layer of black powder and rocks, giving the region its unique moniker.
Towards the end of the Black Desert, you'll discover black volcanic hills that erupted aeons ago, spewing out a dark volcanic material called dolerite, which forms the distinctive black rocks that cover the area.
Consider climbing up the English Mountain, the highest point in the Black Desert. From its peak, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of this otherworldly landscape.
#5 Seek out the Magic Spring
In Roman times, the Magic Spring (Ain El Serw) spring was a popular spot where travellers could rest and refresh both themselves and their camels as they journeyed through harsh desert terrain.
The spring's name derives from a legend that said the tubs of water would mysteriously fill up as visitors arrived and then empty as they departed.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Egyptian travel experts.
Best places to stay in the White Desert
The White Desert is a remote area and most people will visit on an organised tour which means that accommodation is pre-booked and usually includes a night in the desert itself.
Independent travellers should stay at Bawiti, next to the Bahariya Oasis, or Qasr Al Farafra next to the Farafra Oasis, for easy access to the White Desert itself.
Bawiti has a large selection of places to stay both in the town and on the surrounding edges.
Qasr Al Farafra
There are fewer hotels than there were at Qasr Al Farafra, but it still has a number of guesthouses and basic options for travellers.
How to get around
There are plenyy of options to get around. Having a car is the easiest way to get around, but there are more possibilities.
- By Bus: There are regular buses that run between Cairo and Farafra, which is the nearest town to the White Desert. The journey takes around 10 hours, but the buses are comfortable and reliable
- By Train: There is a train service that runs between Cairo and Farafra, which is the nearest town to the White Desert. However, the train service is not very frequent, and the journey can take up to 11 hours, so this may not be the most convenient option.
- By Car: Renting a car and driving yourself to the White Desert is a popular option, as it gives you the freedom to explore the area at your own pace. The journey takes around 6 hours from Cairo, and you can stop off at other attractions along the way, such as the Bahariya Oasis.
How many days do you need in the White Desert?
Generally, a minimum of two days is recommended for a basic tour of the White Desert, while a more comprehensive tour can take up to four days.
During a two-day tour, you can expect to explore the most popular sites of the White Desert, including Mushroom Rock and Crystal Mountain, and camp overnight under the stars.
A three-day tour would allow you to also explore the Black Desert, the Magic Spring, and the sand dunes of El-Salama. Four-day tours include the hot springs of Bahariya Oasis and Qasr el Farafra city.
What is the best time to visit?
The best time to visit the White Desert in Egypt is between October and April when the weather is mild and comfortable.
During this period, the daytime temperature ranges from 20°C to 30°C, and the nights are cool with temperatures dropping to around 10°C.
This time of year also sees very little rainfall, so you can expect clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine.
However, it's worth noting that the White Desert can get very cold at night, especially in the winter months of December and January, so it's important to pack warm clothing if you plan to visit during this time.
Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.
How to get here
Most travellers will explore the White Desert on an organised tour. Else, you'll need to arrive by taxi.
Taxi drivers will take visitors to any of the White Desert for a fixed fee. Agree on a price beforehand.
Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.