Photograph by Roberto Cornacchia, Alamy Stock Photo
Read Caption

Exploring Wadi Rum, archaeologists discovered ancient inscriptions dating back 12,000 years.

Photograph by Roberto Cornacchia, Alamy Stock Photo

Wadi Rum

This magical ecosystem in the Jordanian desert features sweeping red sand dunes and towering sandstone arches.

Location: Jordan
Year Designated: 2011
Category: Natural/Cultural
Criteria: (iii)(v)(vii)
Reason for Designation: Jordan’s red-rock wilderness is an extraordinary patch of desert biome. Stone Age petroglyphs and a continuing nomadic presence offer a rare window into humanity’s earliest beginnings.

Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) lies in the far south of Jordan, set on a high plateau at the western edge of the Arabian desert. Gargantuan rock formations, rippled sand dunes, and clear night skies create an almost fairy-tale setting across an unpopulated area the size of New York City. This is truly the “reddest” part of Jordan, colored by iron oxide, and by far the most dramatic in terms of landscape.

Visiting Wadi Rum is a voyage through the geological evolution of Earth, and many of these topographical features are older than the Dead Sea Rift that forms the western border of Jordan. Massive mesas pop straight up from the sea of sand, the result of primordial tectonic movement that cleaved the bedrock with almost cubic perfection before raising it high above the desert floor. Blowing sand and winter floods smoothed the valleys and gorges, shaping the sandstone into natural towers and curving arches. Harder, older granite forms the substrate of Wadi Rum and is visible among the base strata of the higher mountains.

The village of Rum sits exactly one mile above sea level, and the surrounding protected area is home to Jordan’s highest point, Jabal Umm ad Dami (6,083 feet) and other popular climbs, like the monolithic ridge of Jabal Ramm (5,689 feet) and the pillared prominence of Jabal Qatar (5,271 feet).

Over 20,000 petroglyphs and 20,000 inscriptions have been documented inside Wadi Rum, tracing human existence back some 12,000 years in this spot. Even today, some nomadic Bedouin make their home here, along one of the migratory courses modern humans took out of Africa, providing a living portrait of our human origins.

The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia introduced the beauty of Wadi Rum to the rest of the world, attracting a steady wave of tourists and a growing number of film crews. The 2015 film The Martian was filmed here, with Wadi Rum standing in as the red planet. The area is second only to Petra as the main attraction in Jordan. With less than three days of rain a year, Wadi Rum has become the ultimate Middle Eastern destination for hikers, climbers, campers, and nature lovers.

How to Get There

Wadi Rum is about a four-hour drive south of Amman on the Desert Highway, and one hour north of Aqaba. Buses travel from Amman, Aqaba, and Petra.

How to Visit

Half-day jeep tours can give you a taste of Wadi Rum, but for a richer experience, hike in the sand and camp under the stars with the Bedouin who call this place home. Local guides can be hired in the village and will provide all the necessary gear, food, and transportation. Multiday treks mimic the ancient caravan tradition and are well worth the time.

When to Visit

As an extreme desert, Wadi Rum can shift wildly from unbearable heat to below freezing in just a few hours. The warmest season lasts from April until September, while January is the coldest month, with average daytime temperatures reaching 65ºF. Most rain occurs in September; beware of flash floods.