The untouched natural wonders of Saudi Arabia
From sublime deserts of mystery and mystique to the stunning Red Sea coast, where virgin coral reefs await the intrepid diver, Saudi Arabia is home to breathtaking natural wonders. Here are six of the best.
Rich in pre-Islamic sites, and once home to ancient civilisations such as the intriguing Nabataeans and the legendary Lihyanites, the vast region of Al Ula is the kind of windswept, magical place that evokes all that is mysterious and mythical about northern Arabia.
Forbidding red sandstones carved by centuries of geological evolution stand tall, hiding canyons leading to forgotten ancient sites. Colossal rock faces that change shape and colour with the phases of the sun only add to the otherworldly atmosphere. Flanked by a forest of ancient palms and stunning red cliffs, this alien terrain, approximately the size of a small European country, belongs to another world. It’s a place where history buffs will love exploring forbidden tombs, sites of forgotten pagan rituals, and long abandoned railways.
Asir National Park
Famed for the mysterious hanging villages which perch on the edge of sheer cliffs, Asir National Park is an intriguing place to visit, offering opportunities for no end of outdoors adventures. Hangglide from peaks almost 3000m above sea level and float through skies alive with eagles, kites and the impressive griffon vulture, before descending downwards to the green Sarawat Valley, where ancient, fort-like stone houses cascade down mountain slopes teeming with Hamadrya baboons.
This is the only place in Saudi Arabia where you can trek through forests of juniper swirling in clouds, glimpsing the odd scurrying iguana along the mountain trails if you’re lucky. The park covers 4500 sq km, stretching from the desert in the east all the way down to the gleaming Red Sea in the west and is dotted with picnic sites, viewing platforms and camping grounds.
Base yourself in the regional capital Abha, a vibrant, artsy town, within easy reach of the park’s key sites. It’s home to several stunning historic quarters including Al Nasb, with its traditional mud-and-slate houses and Al Bastah, where you can find the country’s only surviving Ottoman-era pedestrian bridge.
Red Sea coastline
As untouched as its deserts, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coral reefs and underwater sites are the kind of virgin territories that have divers going weak at the knees.
Pristine, world-class waters off the edge of millenia-old seaports, are home to stunning marine life including giant rays, turtles, octopus, lionfish, the weird and wonderful bearded scorpionfish, barracuda and the majestic whale. This is a glorious world of soft and hard technicolour coral, and ancient, eerie wrecks in gentle azure waters with spectacular all-year-round visibility.
Book a week-long dive trip on one of the residential boats from either Yanbu or Jeddah and be amongst the first to explore sites such as the Seven Sisters, a wall of hard and soft coral that stretches for several kilometres and is frequented by hammerhead sharks. Abu Faramish, a 40km reef where the upright Ann Ann wreck teems with tuna and white-tipped sharks is also a fascinating spot to explore. For more proficient divers, the ship’s graveyard of Abu Madafi awaits discovery with the more-intact Staphonos wreck and the Redmah Wall of multicoloured reef.
Al Nafud Desert
Covering an area of 103,600 sq km, the sweeping red dunes of the Al Nafud make for a picture postcard desert setting – and for thrill-seekers, present the perfect 4x4 playground.
Situated in a vast oval-shaped depression in the north of the country, close to Hail, Al Nafud sees rainfall only twice a year. Combine a visit here with a trip to the greatest collection of prehistoric rock art at Jubba before camping beneath the stars, alongside Bedouin that still reside in black goat-hair tents just as they have done for centuries.
Any attempts to head into the interior should only be done with a guide or tour company. As beautiful as this desert looks, the harsh conditions make it a truly merciless place if things go awry.
Created by a prehistoric underground volcanic explosion, the spectacular Wahba Crater sits in the middle of Saudi Arabia’s southern desert, resembling something from a scene out of a sci-fi movie.
Measuring 1.3km across, Wahba is 200m deep and features a stunning, white sodium phosphate crystal lake in the centre. It’s flanked by palm forests, beneath which streams of crystal clear waters flow, making it the ideal place for an overnight camp.
Arrive armed with solid walking boots, your devices fully charged and plenty of water and provision before going in search of the hidden trails that allow you to descend into the mouth of this amazing natural phenomenon.
The Empty Quarter
The legendary location of Iram, the Quranic ‘city of pillars,’ this remarkable corner of the world covers almost 655,000 sq km. To explorers of antiquity, such as the great British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger (who famously crossed this desert) and the British-Muslim convert, Harry St John Philby, it represented everything that was deemed both romantic and forbidden.
The local Bedouins simply call this great expanse of sand and sculpted dunes – some reaching up to 300m high – 'the sands'. Home to a surprising number of large wild animals including the Arabian wolf, sand cat, red fox and desert lynx, the Empty Quarter is the desert you have dreamt of conquering, but beware, as the history books will testify, the ‘Rub al Khali’ – Arabic for ‘Empty Quarter’ – takes absolutely no prisoners. Attempting a sojourn in the heart of this unforgiving terrain without local guides is a fool’s game. Book a guide not just to stay safe, but to help you make the most of your experience in this strange and wonderful place.
Produced by Lonely Planet for the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.