There's more to Egypt than history. From the coral reefs of the Red Sea to the desert landscapes that radiate out from the fertile strip of the Nile Valley, Egypt’s natural riches dazzle travelers as much as its pyramids, painted tombs and towering temples.
Here's a guide to the best national parks in Egypt, from playgrounds for diving to remote desert escapes.
Ras Mohammed National Park
Best national park for divers
Ras Mohammed encompasses 480 sq km (185.3 sq miles), 70% of which is a marine environment. On the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, this headland is renowned as one of the world’s top 10 dive destinations. With a rainbow kaleidoscope of more than 200 hard and soft coral species, Ras Mohammed's remarkable biodiversity sets it apart.
Diving here is akin to entering an underwater garden. If you’re an experienced diver, the drift dive along the sheer coral wall of Shark Reef, buffeted by fast currents all the way, to the wreck of the Cypriot freighter Jolanda, which sunk on Jolanda Reef in 1980, is Ras Mohammed’s most thrilling experience.
For the best marine life spotting, don’t miss diving in Jackfish Alley. This is the Red Sea’s largest fish-spawning ground, known for the shoals of jackfish and blue-spotted stingrays that hang out amid the coral pinnacles of its 19m (62ft) deep plateau.
Visiting Ras Mohammed: The dive sites of Ras Mohammed are easily accessed by boat on day trips from Sharm el-Sheikh or via liveaboard dive safaris beginning from Hurghada or El Gouna. For a dive-centric stay in Sharm, Camel Dive has comfortable rooms and a highly regarded dive center that is fully accessible to divers with disabilities, making this one of the top places in town.
White Desert National Park
Best national parks for desert landscape
The chalk rock formations of White Desert National Park are one of Egypt’s most surreal landscapes. Sand-laden winds have buffeted the rocks here over millennia, sculpting them down to hillocks, spires and wacky-shaped outcrops that sprout out from a plain littered with glittering pyrites (fool’s gold) and tiny fossils.
At sunset, the white rocks are tinged with rose-pink hues in the dying light, and under a full moon they loom out of the darkness, taking on a ghostly glow. Camping under the stars surrounded by these rocky outcrops is the most popular way to visit.
Visiting White Desert National Park: Although Farafra is closer to the national park (roughly 20km/12.4 miles southwest), most visitors base themselves at Bahariya, about 160km (99 miles) north, as it's closer to Cairo and has more facilities, accommodation and tour choices. Bahariya-based operators White Desert Tours and Western Desert Tours run a range of day, overnight and multi-day trips in and around the White Desert.
St Katherine Protectorate
Best park for hikers
At the heart of the South Sinai desert, St Katherine Protectorate garnered its national park status both for its rugged, natural environment – home to Egypt’s highest peaks – and for its rich cultural and religious heritage. This 4250 sq km (1641 sq mile) reserve is fundamental to the beliefs of the three main monotheistic religions.
Mount Sinai (Gebel Mousa) is believed to be the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and at the foot of the mountain is St Katherine’s Monastery, encased by 2m (6.5ft) thick fortifications built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE.
The site lays claim to what is said to be the original “burning bush” – a Rubus sanctus (holy bramble) that the God of the Old Testament reputedly used to deliver his message to Moses.
Most visitors to St Katherine Protectorate arrive on an overnight tour from Sharm el-Sheikh, hiking up to the 2285m (7496ft) summit of Mount Sinai for sunrise, before taking a quick look inside the monastery after descending. However, the best way to explore the national park is to stay in the village of St Katherine itself.
From here, you can embark on summit hikes up 2637m (8651ft) Gebel Katerina, Egypt’s highest peak, and 2383m (7818ft) Gebel Abbas Basha, with the ruins of Abbas Pasha I’s unfinished palace on the mountaintop. Alternatively, trek out through wadis (valleys) and narrow passes to spring-fed Bedouin gardens in the mountains.
Visiting St Katherine Protectorate: For accommodation and hiking programs around St Katherine Protectorate, Sheikh Mousa is a reliable local operator. The 220km (137-mile) Sinai Trail also runs through the protectorate.
Best for desert landscapes within easy reach of Cairo
Drive out of the fertile basin of Al Fayoum, 122km (76 miles) southwest of Cairo, and head into the arid stone-pitted plains of the Western Desert’s eastern edge and you’ll arrive at Unesco-listed Wadi Al-Hittan.
This desert valley is surrounded by low swoops of orange-hued dunes and marks the site where the world's richest cache of ancient whale fossils was discovered. From the bones found here, paleontologists have pieced together the evolutionary story of whales.
The skeletons of Basilosaurus and Dorudon whales uncovered at Wadi Al-Hittan date from the middle Eocene Epoch (47.8 to 30 million years ago) – a time when archaeoceti (ancient whales) had already adapted to their new ocean-going environment, but had yet to shed the vestigial limbs from their former land-based life.
Check out the 18m (59ft) Basilosaurus skeleton on display in the Wadi Al-Hittan Fossil and Climate Change Museum. Afterward, head out on one of the valley’s walking trails to see the skeletons of more ancient whales, sea cows and other marine creatures, unearthed from under the sand.
Wadi Gimal Protectorate
Best park for remote desert adventures
The third-largest wadi (river valley) in Egypt, this protected area incorporates a 4770 sq km (1841 sq mile) swath of the Eastern Desert, and another 2000 sq km (772 sq mile) of sea offshore. Set on the southern Red Sea coast, the park's acacia-dotted plains and craggy cliffs are rimmed by an amphitheater of rust-hued mountains. This is the ancestral territory of the nomadic Ababda tribe, a small number of whom still live in Wadi Gimal.
The protectorate’s shoreline is speckled with natural beaches such as the white sand lagoon of Sharm El Luli, where day-trippers from Marsa Alam come to snorkel in the pale turquoise sea.
Divers may spot dugongs and green turtles in the seagrass around Wadi Gimal’s offshore islands. Fewer people head inland to explore Wadi Gimal’s desert, home to gazelle and Nubian ibex, and the ruins of emerald mines from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras.
Wadi Gimal was one of the ancient world’s most important sources of emeralds. The area was so rich in the sparkling green stones that the Romans called it Mons Smaragdus (Emerald Mountain). Today, the remnants of these mining settlements can still be seen at Nugrus and Sikait and the related trading-post ruins at Geili and Appalonia.
Visiting Wadi Gimal Protectorate: Marsa Alam, around 45km (28 miles) north of the park entrance, is the main base for exploring Wadi Gimal. This coastal hub has been seriously developed over the past two decades, with big-name resorts gobbling up the shoreline north and south of town, but there are still some great places for independent travelers to bed down such as Rayhana Guesthouse.