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10 unbeatable outdoor adventures in Abu Dhabi

Lace up the hiking boots and get ready for action: Abu Dhabi is an open-air playground waiting to be explored.

Photograph by Renan Ozturk
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Saddle up and ride into the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert.
Photograph by Renan Ozturk

From the irresistible allure of the Empty Quarter and the craggy peaks of the Al Hajar Mountains, to the promise of urban exploits in Abu Dhabi city and the waters of the Arabian Gulf, this is a destination where adventure always beckons.

Horseback ride in the Empty Quarter

The undulating dunes of the Rub' al Khali — the Empty Quarter — extend for 250,000 square miles, offering curious visitors an open invitation for adventure. To experience the wilderness with the wind in your hair, saddle up and gallop into the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert with a local guide, and learn the secrets of the silent dunes.

Explore the Liwa Forts

Dotted along the edge of a 60-mile expanse of greenery, the Liwa Forts command 360-degree views of the date palm plantations of Liwa Oasis and the rolling dunes beyond. The seven restored mud-brick forts and fortified watchtowers that once protected the area’s water sources are a must-see for today’s intrepid travelers and history buffs.

The mud-brick forts in Liwa once protected the local water supply.

Discover UNESCO wonders at Al Ain Oasis

It’s easy to lose yourself among the swaying palms of Al Ain Oasis, a verdant sanctuary that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. For the last 4,000 years, life in the area has been made possible by spring water harnessed by the ingenious falaj irrigation system. The network gave birth to a thriving town that’s home to a camel market and a handful of museums including Qasr Al Muwaiji, birthplace of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Al Ain Oasis is nourished by the centuries-old falaj irrigation system.

Embark on a cycling adventure

Cyclists are spoiled for choice in Abu Dhabi, where miles of blacktop and the endless desert provide a blank canvas for pedal-powered escapes. Our top three: ride a fat-tire bike into the Empty Quarter and carve tracks down the mountainous dunes; feel the burn on the challenging ride to the 4,068-foot summit of Jebel Hafit; or take a leisurely pedal around the six-mile cycle track on Al Hudayriat Island as you soak up city views.

Navigate the Empty Quarter on a pedal-powered fat-tire bike.

Adventure around the Jebel Hafit Tombs

Nestled on the slopes of Abu Dhabi’s tallest mountain like oversized stone beehives, the Jebel Hafit Tombs are among the oldest archaeological sites in the UAE. Relics from the Bronze Age tombs prove locals were trading goods throughout the region as long as 5,000 years ago. Ponder that as you hike, bike, or ride through the mountain scenery before spending the night under canvas at Jebel Hafit Desert Park.

At more than 4,000 feet, Jebel Hafit is Abu Dhabi’s highest peak.

Conquer the desert on a 4x4 safari

Abu Dhabi has produced a number of world-firsts, but few get the pulse racing like dune bashing: the high-octane art of navigating the desert in a 4x4. With a skilled driver at the wheel, strap in and set off into the unknown for the ride of your life. Feel the adrenaline rush as your vehicle climbs to the top of monumental peaks, tears along steep ridges, and plunges down into valleys between dunes.

Dune bashing is the ultimate desert adventure.

Kayak in Mangrove National Park

The mangrove forests on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi are a haven for marine and bird life, providing natural habitat for species including heron, flamingo, dolphin, and dugong: the gentle sea cows that thrive in the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf. Exploring the waterways of Mangrove National Park by kayak is a serene way to escape the city. A new boardwalk also allows visitors to walk between mangroves and peer into crystal-clear waters on nearby Jubail Island.

Abu Dhabi’s mangrove forests are a haven for wildlife.

Set sail on the Arabian Gulf

Abu Dhabi has a long history of seafaring, from the fearless divers who scoured the seabed for precious pearls to the traders who navigated the Arabian Gulf in traditional wooden dhow boats. Embark on your own aquatic adventure on a dhow cruise along the coast. Watch the setting sun illuminate the magnificent skyline before dinner onboard, followed by succulent dates and mint tea.

Traditional sailboats (known locally as “dhows”) on the calm waters off Abu Dhabi Corniche form a striking contrast against the modern skyline.

Flyboard on the Corniche

The calm blue waters of the Arabian Gulf are a playground for water sports, from jet ski and jet boat rides to wakeboarding and parasailing excursions. Adventurous spirits can step up the thrill factor on a hydro-powered flyboard or turn up the tempo with a water jetpack or Jetovator watercraft. For a more serene experience, visitors can explore the coastal waters by kayak or stand-up paddle board (SUP) and soak in the spectacular cityscape at a leisurely pace.

Go on safari at Sir Bani Yas Island

Afloat in the Arabian Gulf, just over 100 miles from Abu Dhabi city, Sir Bani Yas Island is a protected wildlife reserve that is home to more than 16,000 animals including Arabian oryx, gazelles, giraffes, and cheetahs. Hop in an open-top Land Cruiser and venture into the Arabian Wildlife Park with a local guide; then spend the night at one of the island’s luxury lodges for late evening and early morning wildlife walks.

Look out for herds of Arabian oryx on Sir Bani Yas Island.

Explore other unique Emirati experiences on the Explore More Abu Dhabi portal.

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