Hiking to the Salty Center of the Only Volcanic Crater in the Middle East
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s one of a kind, and it’s spectacular.
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There are only a few known volcanic craters in deserts. If you’re fortunate enough to see one, you’ll be immediately struck by the mysterious, beautiful serenity of a landscape created by dried rocks, ash and lava. Saudi Arabia’s barren northeast desert is home to one of these marvels — and it’s the only volcanic crater in the entire Middle East.
About a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Makkah (Mecca) sits the Al Wahbah crater (Maqla Tamia in Arabic). A staggering 250 meters deep and 2,000 meters wide, the crater is composed of sodium phosphate crystals. It even has its own salt field. Visitors can not only travel to gawp at the massive crater but also journey to its salty bottom, making it a big draw for adventure-seekers.
The 45-minute hike down the crater is a hiker’s paradise.
Ahmed Qattan, recent visitor to the Al Wahbah crater
The site is under the protection of the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD), which created a hassle-free trek down into the crater by cutting rocks into even steps. “The 45-minute hike down the crater is a hiker’s paradise,” says Ahmed Qattan, a Kuwaiti national who visited last month. At first the increasing temperature and humidity of the descent is suffocating, he explains, but soon the lack of noise and crowds, and the glow of shining salt-covered rocks, allows the mind to relax, and the journey becomes inviting.
What you’ll find when you reach the bottom: the salt field, lava rocks, dead palm trees and shrubs. The hike back up, which takes about double the time — roughly 90 minutes — is more challenging thanks to the slippery rocks. Large, thorny plants can become prickly obstacles.
For a long time, it was believed that the crater was formed by a meteorite because of its similarity to the Barringer crater located in the northern Arizona desert. But after extended periods of research in the early 1960s, geologists classified it as a maar, a crater formed by a phreatomagmatic eruption (an explosion caused by groundwater coming into contact with hot lava or magma).
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of transformation, working to shed its dependence on crude oil and diversify its economy by 2030. Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the plan Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom has been promoting sites like Al Wahbah to earn the nation a place on the global tourism map. The crater’s location and its rare composition of salt crystals have “the potential to attract tourists from around the globe,” says Faisal Abdulrahim, a biodiversity convention protection officer at NCWCD.
The only green space in the area, on the southern side of the crater, has been developed into a small public park where visitors can rest and camp. The city has also built a mosque and a gift shop near the site. Plans for the coming year include installing fuel pumps and building convenience shops en route to the crater, Abdulrahim says.
The hike down can be a “hectic experience,” Qattan admits, but camping under desert skies and witnessing a breathtakingly clear view of the Milky Way is more than a worthwhile reason to visit.
Go There: The Al Wahbah crater
- Directions: From Makkah, take the Al-Huwaya Highway to the village of Umm Aldoom. Then take the Nimran road for 32.7 kilometers straight to the crater.
- Essentials: Bring sturdy boots and plenty of water.
- Pro tip: Go in winter (November to February); the area gets unbearably hot — 55 C to 57 C — during the summer.