Hiking Mount Sinai
You’ve heard of the Burning Bush and you know Moses struck a rock for water on top of a mountain. Well, in Egypt you can visit these places during an incredible hike on Mount Sinai. I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the significance these ancient locations hold for millions of people around the world. In fact, one of my favorite memories from Egypt is our hike to the top of Mount Sinai. To avoid the heat of the day, most hikers opt to walk through the night so we left Dahab at 10:30 p.m. for the two hour drive to the base of the mountain. By 1 a.m. we were starting our walk up. I’d never hiked in the dark before and at first it was an eery experience. Guided only by the stars and the glow from our phones (and a friendly local man), we found that without being able to see how far we had to go, the hike goes by much quicker. Without knowing what struggles the road held ahead, we focused on putting one foot in front of the other and making progress with every step. I feel like there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere…
We were the first people to reach the top. It was surprisingly cold so we rented blankets and by 4:30 a.m. we had already had a power nap in one of the make shift cafes built into the rocks and were settling into the ruins to watch the sunrise. Our trusty local guide was incredible, getting us to the summit early and leading us to the absolute best spot to watch the sunrise. Once the light of the sun hit the sky, darkness pulled back its curtain and revealed the beauty that had been surrounding us all along. The mountains, kissed pink by the sunrise, enveloped us in what felt like a warm hug, a congratulations for making the journey, like so many had before us. We started down the mountain and began to shed our layers as the oven that is Egypt was heating up. In the light of day, the thousands of steps we climbed in the dark seemed much more impressive and we were thankful to be walking down.
Along the way there were various ancient churches. We couldn’t access their insides, but peeping through key holes was enough to realize their age and significance. The walk down took a couple hours, with more than a few stops to just take in the amazing landscape seemingly growing around us as we descended. At the bottom of the mountain, or the beginning of the hike, sits Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Built around 550 AD, it’s one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, allegedly housing the world’s oldest continually operating library. Within its walls you can visit the Burning Bush (which is not on fire) and the Well of Moses, which is still the monastery’s main source of water. This is a sacred place for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Our admittedly brief tour of the monastery was still powerful and is well worth a visit, even though you might have to wait a couple hours for it to open after hiking through the night.
We were back in Dahab and sipping on smoothies by mid morning. Lounging by the pool, it was almost surreal to think that we hand’t slept the night before and had instead spent it hiking through the darkness, guided by the stars, and watching the sun rise over the peaks of such a special place.
Make arrangements for a driver and guide ahead of time. It’s a 2 hour drive from Dahab, which is where I recommend basing yourself for this excursion. There are plenty of people pining for your money and offering themselves as guides at the base of the mountain, but you never know who you’ll get in those situations so it’s best to book someone ahead of time.
You don’t actually need a guide to do the hike. If you’re adventurous and confident, you’d have no problem reaching the summit and finding your way back down again. Our guide was very friendly and answered our questions, but I think hiring someone with a lot of historical knowledge would add to the experience tremendously.
Bring your passport! No one told us we’d need a passport (and since we weren’t leaving the country, we didn’t think to bring them), but this proved to be an issue. We had to call our tour company and let them talk to the driver and guards. We were able to get through, but definitely thought we were turning around there for a minute!
It’s cold on top of the mountain. Even though Egypt is incredibly hot at seemingly all times, the top of Mount Sinai is actually very cold and windy, no matter the time of year. Bring warm clothes and some extra cash for coffee and blanket rentals.
There are cafes scattered along the pathway up. You can stop to catch your breath, grab some fuel for the rest of the walk and even purchase some souvenirs. They’re manned by men who have built the structures into the cliffside and regularly bring in supplies to support the tourism. At the cafes near the peak you can rent blankets to keep you warm during the sunrise. I’ll admit, at first I thought there’d be no way I’d pay to borrow and old, dirty blanket, but trust me… you’ll want it once you get up there!
The entire excursion (leaving from Dahab) takes about 10.5 hours. The length of the journey, nature of the hike, and lack of sleep are all reasons I think it’s advantageous to hire a driver (even if you opt not to hire a guide).
Starting the hike at 1 a.m. got us to the top in plenty of time to rest and get the best spot for sunrise views. It took us approximately 3ish hours to get to the peak and slightly less to get down.
There are two paths you can take: a relatively gentle incline, zig zagging up the side of the mountain with 750 steps in the end, and there’s the other one, a direct route of 3750 stairs. While it might be tempting to go up and down the side of the mountain, I highly recommend going down the stairs if you’re capable. The views are known to be much more incredible and, although I actually couldn’t see the views from the zig zag trail, I can attest that they were spectacular from the stairs.
You might as well enjoy your time on the top of the mountain because if you’re planning on visiting Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the bottom, you’ll have to wait until it opens. We waited for over an hour.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery is a very sacred place and requires conservative dress, so if you plan on visiting (which you should), plan ahead and bring appropriate clothing.