Hidden gems of the UAE: eight mountain adventures in Ras Al Khaimah

From canyoning to rock climbing and mountain biking, we enter the depths of the Hajar Mountains with the experts

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The UAE regularly makes headlines around the world for its ambitious architecture and man-made archipelagos.

But long before Burj Khalifa and Palm Jumeirah, the UAE’s landscape was spectacular to behold, due in no small part to the magnificent Hajar Mountain range.

The mountains were formed more than 70 million years ago in the eastern part of the UAE and Oman, with the UAE’s highest summit, Jebel Jais, towering 1,934 metres above sea level.

Over the millennia, dinosaurs have roamed among the peaks, mountain tribes have called it their home and wildlife has flourished within its teeming wadis.

Now there’s a new tribe discovering the range's secrets: the thrillseekers.

In this series of guides, we speak to the experts – the tour guides, the foodies, the culture fiends and the nature lovers – to find out where they spend their free time.

For this week’s instalment, we’re talking to the fearless mountaineers about their adrenalin-inducing pursuits, to inspire you to embark on some adventures of your own.

Climbing and canyoning

For the founder of UAE Rock Climbing, Emanuele Gallone, nowhere in the UAE compares to Stardust crag, a climbing destination that was discovered in 2015.

The site, which was named in honour of rock star David Bowie, who died the following January, is about a two-hour drive from Dubai and can be easily located on Google Maps.

“Stardust is absolutely incredible for climbing,” says Gallone, who came to the UAE from Milan seven years ago. “There are around 50 to 60 climbs there in total, from beginner climbs to some really challenging ones for more experienced climbers.

“It’s not managed by anyone, just nature, so beginners might want to take a guide, but for more experienced climbers, it’s there for the taking.

“Most of the climbs are around 20 to 30 metres high but they can get up to 230 metres and the views up to Jebel Jais are unbelievable.”

Adrenalin junkie Gallone has been climbing for most of his life and believes the beauty of the UAE lies in its landscape.

Trident canyon in Wadi Shah. Photo: Emanuele Gallone

“The malls and the beaches do nothing for me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m an adventurer and the UAE’s nature is just breathtaking. I spend most of my days climbing up steep rocks – there’s no place I’d rather be.”

What goes up must come down, though for Gallone the descent is simply another part of the challenge.

“Canyoning is a brilliant experience,” he says, with a smile. “You get such an adrenalin rush.

“Imagine walls of rock, 100 metres high on either side and you’re making your way through a narrow gorge with no idea of what to expect.

“At some point, you’re going to end up at an 80-metre drop and you have to just go for it.”

For canyoning in RAK, Gallone recommends heading to Trident canyon in Wadi Shah and Thunder canyon in Dayah.

“You walk up a relatively easy trail to the top of both canyons then you go back down through a series of waterfalls and riverbeds," Gallone explains.

Thunder canyon in Dayah. Photo: Emanuele Gallone

“In the UAE, it’s usually pretty dry unless there’s been some recent rainfall and in RAK you’ll get steep drops of about 50 to 60 metres high.”

Again, Gallone recommends that beginners take a guide, but encourages aspiring adventurers to give canyoning a try.

“It’s an incredible thrill,” he says. “Trident and Thunder both have easy enough trails and the rush you get when you’re abseiling down a sheer drop with nothing between you and the ground below is terrifying but brilliant.”

Trail running and mountain biking

Last November, RAK hosted the region's first Highlander hiking experience, organised by the only certified international hiking association in the world.

For the 51-kilometre course, hikers and trail runners embarked on a three-day trek. Now, the purpose-built trail is open to the public.

Fadi Hachicho, managing partner of Adventurati Outdoor, says the trail, which is the UAE’s longest, is ideal for trail runners who want to push their limits.

Highlander hiking trail is the longest in the UAE. Photo: Predrag Vuckovic

“If you’re into trail running, then there’s no better route than through the Hajar Mountains,” says Hachicho. “The route takes you right to the top of Jebel Jais, past the observation deck and right down to Wadi Haqeel.

“On the left, you have the Hajar Mountains and, on the right, you see the mangroves and the Arabian Sea,” he says. “On a clear day, you can see right across the mountains in Oman. It’s extremely picturesque.”

For those who prefer to explore their mountains on two wheels, Hachicho recommends Wadi Showka, only an hour’s drive from Dubai.

“Wadi Showka is incredible for mountain biking and there’s a variety of different ramps and jumps for the daredevils,” he says.

Wadi Showka is good for mountain biking and jumping into the water pools. Photo: Fadi Hachicho

“The area is rich in water pools and there’s a lot of green and a lot of wildlife to discover there, including butterflies, snakes and turtles.

“As well as biking routes, there are plenty of hiking trails and some gorgeous grassy areas if you just want to spend an afternoon sunbathing with a picnic.”

Hachicho’s final recommendation is what he calls an “adult playground” at Wadi Rams.

“We lead groups up there for scrambling, bouldering and abseiling as part of our Wonderwall trip,” he says. “It’s completely out of this world and you feel like you’re on the moon.

“It’s a nature-built obstacle course with steep drops and huge boulders that really put you to the test. You feel almost like a goat while you’re up there.”

Survival skills with Bear Grylls

For those who really want to take mountain life to the next level, the Bear Grylls Explorer Camp UAE offers a range of survival skills courses from the foothills of Jebel Jais.

“We offer a range of survival courses, from beginner level right through to primal survival, covering everything from learning to build a fire to making shelters,” says camp manager Talal Shehab.

“The most advanced course involves climbing and abseiling and we also offer archery, rock climbing, hiking, high ropes courses and rifle shooting.”

For those not yet ready to leap from cliffs or scramble over steep boulders, Shehab recommends taking an invigorating hike along the Jebel Jais upper trail, which starts close to the mountain’s viewing deck.

“The whole trail is just less than 12 kilometres and can be fairly difficult in parts, though most beginners should be able to manage without a guide,” he explains.

“There’s a marked route with a QR code where you can download a map that takes you to the summit.

“Once you get to the top the views are just unbelievable and on a clear day you can see tight over to Oman,” he says. “I’d recommend taking a jacket as it gets pretty cold near the top at this time of year.”

Eight mountain adventures in Ras Al Khaimah:

  1. Climbing at Stardust crag
  2. Trident canyon in Wadi Shah
  3. Thunder canyon in Dayah
  4. Highlander hiking trail
  5. Mountain biking at Wadi Showka
  6. Scrambling, bouldering and abseiling at Wadi Rams
  7. Bear Grylls Explorer Camp UAE
  8. Jebel Jais upper trail
Updated: January 27, 2022, 9:42 AM
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