Along with Petra, Wadi Rum is arguably Jordan’s most magnetic destination, attracting countless tourists every year. And for good reason: it’s a slice of desert that offers everything a traveler could hope for – golden sand dunes, spectacular rock formations, adventure activities, and more. On this page, we’ll delve into what to see in Wadi Rum, its history, how to get here, and most importantly, what to do in Wadi Rum for an unforgettable experience.
Wadi Rum is a protected natural reserve located in southern Jordan, within the territory of the Aqaba Governorate. In fact, the city of Aqaba is the closest major city, about 60 km from what is considered its ‘gateway’: Shakaria. However, the central point of Wadi Rum is considered to be the village of Wadi Rum, often written as Wadi Rum Village, about 70 km from Aqaba, where the asphalt road ends. About 7 km before reaching the village is the Visitor Center, a mandatory stop where tickets are also obtained.
It covers an area of about 720 km2 (72,000 hectares), making it a vast and expansive area to explore on foot. The translation of its name in Aramaic is “high valley” or “elevated valley,” which helps us understand one of its geographical characteristics: its high altitude, at around 1,600 meters above sea level. Its highest point is Jbel Umm ad Dami, standing at over 1,850 meters above sea level.
Combined with its latitude, extremely low precipitation, and other factors such as high solar radiation, Wadi Rum has a typical desert climate: scorching temperatures during the day in the warm months, dropping sharply at night and becoming freezing cold in winter. Therefore, adequate protection against the sun and heat (water, sunscreen, sunglasses, etc.) is essential in summer, and thermal clothing and insulation, including gloves and hats, are necessary in winter.
However, there is a unique feature worth highlighting: the presence of siqs or rocky canyons creates shaded areas, sometimes throughout the day, functioning as microclimatic oases where one can rest from the heat and marvel at the sight, as they allow for the emergence of almost miraculous flora of shrubs and trees seemingly growing directly from the rocks.
Although today it may seem like a truly inhospitable place for life, where only the courage of the Bedouin people allows them to survive, Wadi Rum was actually a much more pleasant place for humans from an environmental and climatic point of view. Evidence of this is the rich history that lies behind it.
Thousands of years ago, it was an area rich in springs and wells, and in fact the Greeks and Romans spoke of its pine forests, vineyards, and olive groves, which have now disappeared but give visitors an idea of how different the landscape was here.
But the best sign, pun intended, of the civilizations that dwelt or passed through here are the petroglyphs (rock carvings) and rock inscriptions. It is estimated that there are about 30,000 of them, some of which are fascinating. The first tribes to do so probably came from Arabia, known as the Zamudians, who made inscriptions in the Zamudic language, and the Nabateans took over: this people, who had their ‘capital’ in Petra, left here testimonies of their worship of deities such as Dushara and Allat.
There are also numerous funeral mounds in Wadi Rum, indicating that this was not simply a pass-through place, but rather there were permanent and stable settlements. Furthermore, the importance of hunting in this natural reserve has been proven, as well as the extraction of minerals in the times of King Solomon, for example.
Over the centuries, with the worsening of its extreme climate, this place came under the management of the Bedouin tribes, the only ones who have proven capable of surviving in such a harsh environment. They always did so with their nomadic way of life, although nowadays some families have opted for a more settled and sedentary lifestyle, as evidenced by the establishment of some families in the village of Wadi Rum.
But undoubtedly, Wadi Rum is famous today thanks to the promotion of one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed films: Lawrence of Arabia. The film tells the story of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab Revolt of 1917, a key figure in this historical episode for Jordan, although perhaps exaggerated for media and tourism purposes.
Nevertheless, this British archaeologist, writer, and military officer quickly joined the cause led by King Hussein bin Ali, whose great aspiration was to create an independent Arab state separate from the Ottoman Empire. He fought in the armies of Emir Faysal and felt like one of them (and dressed like one) in that epic saga, which is considered the seed of the later Arab state of Jordan.
His major contribution was actually the book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which, although an autobiography, served to reveal the intricacies of the Arab Revolt to the Western world. In some passages of the work, Lawrence describes places in Wadi Rum, which have forever linked the name of Thomas Edward Lawrence with this natural reserve.
Contrary to what one might think, there is a lot to see in Wadi Rum. Despite being a desert, the rich history of this place makes it worth visiting from an archaeological, artistic, and ethnological perspective. It’s no wonder that this place was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
Most of the things to see in Wadi Rum are natural, especially geological formations such as whimsical granite and sandstone formations. But there are also man-made “works” that are worth stopping by. Here are some of them grouped by theme:
As you can imagine, there is not only a lot to see in Wadi Rum, but also a lot to do. Wadi Rum is a place with an extraordinary variety of experiences that will make you feel in harmony with this overwhelming yet welcoming space.
Some proposals require special physical fitness, as they are adventure sports, but in other cases, they are suitable for all types of travelers. Here is a list of popular proposals to do in Wadi Rum among its visitors:
Tourism has put Wadi Rum in the spotlight, so it’s easy to get here by private transport from other parts of the country, despite the very small number of inhabitants living in this area and its surroundings.
For those who want to get to Wadi Rum as quickly as possible from another country, the fastest way is to fly to Aqaba: this Jordanian city located on the shores of the Red Sea has its own international airport, mainly with charter and seasonal flights, and is about 75 km from Wadi Rum Village, which takes approximately one hour of travel time. By the way, Aqaba can also be reached by boat: on private catamarans from Taba and by ferry from Nuweiba, both cities in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.
Many more air routes, especially regular ones, are offered by Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, although its distance from this natural reserve is much greater: almost 300 km, which takes about 3 and a half hours by road. Here is a list of places, distances, and travel times that will serve as a guide if you are planning your trip on your own:
As for public transportation, the only viable option is the bus: the JETT company includes Wadi Rum in its route network, connecting it with Petra (Wadi Musa) and Aqaba. Beyond that, an independent traveler only has the option to arrange a taxi from Aqaba.
The minibuses that depart from Aqaba and head north on the Desert Highway and the King’s Highway usually do not go all the way to the heart of the Wadi Rum reserve, but only stop at the Rashidiyah junction.
As mentioned before, there is a train station in Wadi Rum, but the trains parked there are only museum locomotives and wagons: they do not transport passengers or even move goods.
In Wadi Rum, there is a modern visitor center that serves multiple purposes. Here, you can purchase tickets to access the nature reserve, receive information, arrange for guided tours, manage accommodations within the reserve, hire guides, dine at the restaurant, buy local crafts at the gift shop, or visit the museum, which includes a small cinema showing a documentary. There are also public restrooms available.
A few kilometers before reaching this point, in Shakaria, you will find the police station that serves the area. The nearest gas station is located outside the perimeter of the nature reserve, on the road that connects Shakaria with Disah.