On a hilltop outside the village of Mishmish—it means “apricot” in Arabic, although most of the surrounding orchards are populated by apple trees—a dozen hikers paused to catch their breath after a long climb through the mountains of northern Lebanon’s Akkar District.
The fields around them were dotted with crimson poppies, the surrounding slopes green with fir and cedar trees, while the higher mountains in the distance were still streaked with snow in the early days of May.
On the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), some hikers discover the small but storied Mediterranean country for the first time; others rediscover home.
Louay Jabry, a recently returned member of the Lebanese diaspora, found himself reliving childhood memories. As a young boy, he went with his family each year to their summer house in Broumana, in the mountains east of Beirut, where he spent his days scrambling through the forest with the local children.
“Those were the memories that I cherish most from my childhood, and in all my travels, I’ve been looking for them—and I now I’ve found them,” Jabry said, gesturing at the landscape around him, both rugged and pastoral.
The 292-mile-long (470-kilometer-long) LMT, established in 2007, runs from the village of Andqet in the country’s far north to Marjaayoun in the south, passing through fields, orchards, and cedar forests, by lakes, waterfalls, cliffside shrines, and ruined fortresses. It traverses some of Lebanon’s best known natural areas, like Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve and the Qadisha Valley, famous for its stone monasteries and churches perched high above the valley below, as well as the less traveled but equally striking Wadi Jahannam (“valley of hell”) and craggy mountains of Akkar.
Each year, the LMT Association organizes a monthlong thru-hike in the spring, during which hikers traverse the entire route, sleeping in guesthouses along the way—some in remote villages that, without the trail, would rarely see visitors from Beirut, much less from abroad. The association also runs a shorter group hike of about 10 days in the fall.
This year, more than 235 hikers joined for portions of the thru-hike, with three different groups making the trek, two from south to north and one from north to south. Twenty-nine hikers completed the entire route.
Among them was Erica Phillips, 63, of Ottawa, Canada, who completed the hike with her husband. An outdoor enthusiast who has also thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Phillips heard about the LMT from a friend in Canada, and after an evening of looking at photos, was convinced to try it. It was her first time in the Middle East, and Phillips said she arrived with little idea of what to expect.
Along the trip, she was impressed by Tannourine’s dramatic Baatara gorge sinkhole and Danniyeh, where the group found itself suddenly surrounded by a herd of 450 goats.
She was also charmed by the people—and food—she encountered on the way. “It’s like the gastronomic tour of Lebanon,” Phillips said. A new favorite was shish barak, a dish of meat dumplings in yogurt sauce.
For Lebanese hikers, the trail offers a chance to rediscover their roots and connect with communities they might otherwise have avoided, in a country that still bears physical and psychological scars from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Hana and Hisham Saab, originally from the village of Aley in the mountains above Beirut, have been living in Toronto for the past 22 years. They returned to spend 10 days hiking the trail with their 21-year-old son, Jad. For the Saab family, exploring the trail was more than just a hike.
“We grew up in the civil war, and at that time, I couldn’t wait to leave Lebanon,” said Hana. “So this is an opportunity to connect with our roots, with our culture, with communities that were not accessible to us during the civil war because of the fighting, because of the religious divisions and political delineations.”
With the creation of the LMT, she said, “I think they’re contributing to reconciliation.”
Jabry, too, was rediscovering his homeland on the trail. Like the Saabs, he grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. At age 19, he moved to the United States to attend university and then built a life in Montreal. He hardly looked back until his father suddenly moved back to Beirut last year.
While helping his father get settled, Jabry found himself reconnecting with the people and places he left behind. Six months later, he’s still in Beirut and planning to stay. The mountains—and the trail—were a big part of the decision.
When he signed up for a five-day portion of the trail, Jabry was apprehensive that the trek would be too challenging. On the contrary, he said, “It was the best experience in my life. The scenery I’ve seen—It’s my country that I never knew, and it’s beautiful and it’s wild.”
He was so hooked that he returned for the last three days of the hike. Now, Jabry said, he will make it his mission to promote the trail, along with other hidden gems of the country, to the Lebanese diaspora via his blog and eventually perhaps through a tourism business.
But the trail, like many natural areas in Lebanon, is constantly under threat by unregulated development. In the verdant Qammoua plain of Akkar, LMT Association Executive Director Martine Btaich pointed in frustration to paved roads where there had previously been only dirt tracks, the surrounding landscape now littered with discarded plastic bottles and shell casings from hunters’ bullets.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Btaich said. “The landscape is being eaten up by this unplanned development of the mountains.”
Each year, the trail must be rerouted to keep pace with the development. Trail association officials are pushing for a presidential decree that would designate the LMT as a national trail, giving it more protection from development. In the longer term, they also hope to see legislation passed to create national parks.
Despite those challenges, the trail remains a unique way to see some of the most beautiful scenery in Lebanon. Those interested in hiking the trail, either alone, with a guide, or as part of one of the group treks, can get maps and information from the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association.