Jebel Shams, the “mountain of the sun” is, with over 3000 meters above sea level, Oman’s highest mountain. Right next to it, cutting through the mountains, is Wadi Ghul, creating what is known as the Grand Canyon of Oman.
Up the mountain
The highest peak is military area and access is therefore restricted. It’s possible to hike to the second highest peak (just 3 meters short of 3000 masl) but it’s a long and demanding hike that takes 10 to 12 hours. Most people just drive up to the Jebel Shams plateau to enjoy the cool climate (especially in summer; in winter it can get pretty cold) and the amazing views down into the canyon.
The gorgeous drive up the mountain alone is worth the trip. The road is partly unpaved and even though it is possible to drive up in a normal car, a 4WD with high ground clearance is preferable. From Muscat, it’s a 3-hour drive through Nizwa and Al Hamra and then up the mountain. It can be done as a long day trip from Muscat but it’s also possible to stay at one of the lodges on top of the plateau.
The Balcony Walk
There’s more to do on Jebel Shams than just look down into the canyon: The balcony walk, one of the most spectacular hikes in all Oman, starts at the end of the road up the mountain.
After Jebel Shams Lodge, an unpaved road (this one in very bad shape) continues to the tiny village of Al Khateem (الخطيم). From there, an old trail leads along the canyon, maybe a hundred meters below the rim and many, many hundred meter above the floor of the wadi, to the abandoned village of As Sab.
Seen from the viewpoint on top of the plateau, the trail looks highly dangerous. But in fact it’s easy to walk, the trail is not steep and not too narrow. Of course, you have to be very careful, it’s a long way down. The walk to As Sab and back takes around 3 hours, including photo stops, a short lunch break (beware of the goats!), and a little exploring in the old village.
An abandoned village
After about an hour, you reach several abandoned houses built into the cliff wall. Beautifully carved wooden doors and woven baskets hanging from the walls remind of the lives of the village’s former inhabitants.
From where these houses stand, you can already see the terraced fields of As Sab. Not much remains of the houses of As Sab, but the terraces, hundreds of meters above the floor of the canyon, are still intact. A masterpiece, if you ask me.
Fifteen families once lived in As Sab. They grew wheat, tomatoes, watermelon, and pomegranates – an old tree with a single red fruit still stands -, as well as other crops. The water came from a big pool beneath a cave and was transported to the fields via a falaj built into the rock. The pool can’t be seen from any of the viewpoints or from the village itself. We found it only by chance when we explored the old village and followed several small goat trails to see where they would lead us.
The village of Al Khateem is new, the villagers of As Sab moved there 13 years ago when the road was finished and a school was built, an old man told us. The old trail the villagers used to walk to their homes in As Sab is now the famous balcony hike. It’s that mix of history and amazing scenery that makes this a really special hike. And the views, of course, are breathtaking.