Conquering the Jordan Bike Trail: An epic cycling trip through Jordan

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Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

I gasped for air, my heart pounding in my chest as my throbbing legs screamed at me. Sweat pooled in the small of my back against my daybag, and my hands were beginning to cramp from gripping my bike’s handlebars so tightly. Despite the fact that I was now pushing the bike straight uphill instead of sitting on it, my aching glutes felt like they’d already been permanently imprinted by the saddle that I’d mounted for the first time just yesterday. Taking care not to catch a tire on one of the large rocks obstructing the sandy trail, I grudgingly lifted my gaze to the seemingly endless, winding road ahead.

The expansive desert stretched out before me, dotted with the odd flock of sheep, a solitary barren tree and the windswept tents of a bedouin camp tucked into the hillside. I was on pace to hit over 80 kilometres of advanced technical riding in just two days and determined to pedal every single inch of the journey towards the Red Sea by myself, no matter how tempting it was to hop in the support vehicle trailing our group.

This was the Jordan Bike Trail, a cycling trip which turned out to be one of the most memorable, rewarding challenges I’d ever taken on.

WATCH: Highlights of the Jordan Bike Trail

The Jordan Bike Trail is a 730 kilometre route that navigates the length of this Middle Eastern country from north to south, on a mixed surface trail of paved roads, dusty gravel, loose rocks and even thick sand. Starting in Um Quais, it passes spots like the Karak and Shobok castles, the Dead Sea, the lost city of Petra and sweeping landscapes of Dana and Wadi Rum, before finishing in the seaside city of Aqaba. Development on the trail began in 2014 and was completed in 2017, creating an active way to explore Jordan’s dramatic, vast surroundings.

“People can do the entire thing independently, or with a group,” explained Matt Loveland, the co-founder and CEO of Experience Jordan Adventures who I travelled with. His company operates excellent guided tours throughout the region, including adventure bike tours on the same trail that he helped map out. “It takes 12 days to do the whole thing, with the south portion being the easiest.”

Fortunately, that’s the section I was set to tackle over the next five days as part of Experience Jordan’s five-day Taste of the Jordan Bike Trail tour, which brought together a dozen riders from places like Italy, Scotland, Canada, Spain, the USA and India for what promised to be an epic adventure.

READ MORE: The best places to visit in Jordan: A 7 day itinerary

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Day 1: Mount Nebo, the Madaba Plateau and the Dead Sea

When I had the opportunity to go cycling in Jordan on a route that’s considered one of the most epic bike rides of the world, I had no reservations. I’ve always loved exploring new places on two wheels, and I’m obsessed with spin class which means multiple rides per week. What could possibly go wrong? Well…it turns out a Soul Cycle session has got nothin’ on this bad boy.

My first inkling that I might have overextended myself started before we even mounted our bikes, when half of the group showed up in full-on spandex, and some had even hauled their custom bike saddles all the way to the Middle East. Turns out many of them are actual cycling tour guides who DO THIS FOR A LIVING. Like, EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Geared up and ready to roll

The second clue that I might be in over my head happened as our ride kicked off in Fayha, a village located near Mount Nebo where Moses looked across the Promised Land. We were all geared up, safety instructions noted, helmets tightly fastened, and set off down a well-paved highway that went into a steep decline, fast. This meant incredible views of the arid valley and Madaba plateau that I should have been soaking in; instead, I was trying to keep my balance on this unfamiliar bike while zooming full speed down the road, in an attempt to avoid a vicious case of road rash and humiliation. At this rate, it was gonna be a long week, folks.

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

About an hour in and with crisis averted, I was finally starting to settle into the saddle as our crew set off from a snack break of salty almonds and dark chocolate, and started down the dusty trail as a tight pack. Just as I crested a hill, I noticed a cavernous dip in the road ahead of me surrounded by a group of fist-size rocks. Too late, I swerved to avoid it, causing my back tire to spin out and slide sideways.

I suddenly found myself teetering, cognizant of the trio of riders coming straight toward me with very little room to get around, as I fought with my handlebars to stay upright. After what felt like an eternity, gravity won and I tipped over, the bike falling on top of me as I slid pathetically down the hill. Miraculously, everyone behind me managed to avoid trampling me with their wheels, and the somewhat graceful, drawn-out fall left me with little more than a couple scrapes on one shoulder and a slightly-bruised ego. It was a good, early lesson to never get too comfortable on the trail.

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Fortunately that first ride only lasted a few hours, including a fabulous lunch stop of traditional Jordanian food prepared by bedouins overlooking the Dead Sea. The ethereal scene was mesmerizing, an impressive backdrop of glittering sea blending into the bright blue sky, and we were delighted to learn that the last leg of the day was a descent down Highway 65 which is better known as the Dead Sea Highway.

We effortlessly sped down the series of twists and turns toward the water, dropping 1,140 metres in less than an hour and feeling as free as a bird. Pedaling past camels (as you do, in the Middle East), we arrived at the resort we’d be spending the night at, and finished off the day with a well-deserved dip in the famous Dead Sea.

READ MORE: The do’s and don’ts of swimming in the Dead Sea

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Our lunch stop, overlooking the Dead Sea

Our delicious lunch prepared by bedouins

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

The Dead Sea Highway

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

The Dead Sea Highway

Floating in the Dead Sea

Day 2: Shobak, the Jordan Valley and Little Petra

Just a couple days in, the challenging nature of the Jordan Bike Trail had created the perfect conditions for our group to become a tight-knit, co-dependent crew of fast friends (seriously, we’re all still on a WhatsApp group chat and send each other photos of pigeons on the regular (inside joke)). Breaking up the grind with impromptu dance sessions, belly-aching laughs and words of encouragement made the tougher legs more bearable, which were critical on our second day of riding which turned out to be the hardest.

The ‘smallest hotel in the world’ in front of Shobak Castle

We started with a quick visit to see Shobak Castle, a monstrous fortification built in 1115 by the crusaders and perched high on a hill overlooking the valley, before setting off on our 40 kilometre journey through the dramatic Jordan Valley.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and the sight of endless stretches of desert sparsely dotted with scraggly trees and yellow fields of flowers from hilltop vantage points confirmed it. The only signs of life were when the enchanting call to prayer rang out from somewhere deep in the valley around mid-day, or when we happened across a few bedouin children who ran up to the gravel road when they saw us coming, some excitedly stretching their hands out for high-fives while others hung shyly behind.

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Cycling the Jordan Bike Trail

Bedouin selfie!

An elevation gain of 1500 metres, and subsequent elevation loss of 1500 metres throughout the day put our cycling skills to the test, and three of the men in our group opted to enjoy the sandstone scenery from the comfort of the support truck. Determined to complete the entire journey on my own wheels I powered on, moving at what felt like a snail’s pace due to exhaustion, and swearing under my breath every time yet another hill presented itself.

Taking a timeout on the trail

Through it all, the Experience Jordan crew and my fellow cyclists were incredibly encouraging, with our guides even coming up with rock anthem-themed names like ‘Highway to Hell’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for the three intense climbs to lighten the mood. The joke goes that when you ask a bike guide “how much further is it?” the response is always “just one more hill” no matter how far away you actually are from the finish line.

Definitely true in this case, as every time I got to the top of one steep slope, it seemed like yet another one rose up behind it that had been hidden from view before. Just a typical day on the Jordan Bike Trail.

Cycling the Jordan Bike TrailWhen we finally summited the last peak of the day, the feeling of accomplishment was incredible, with high fives and big smiles of relief all around. We cruised through a tiny village and ditched our bikes beside a tent tucked off the roadside, where we fuelled up on a hearty lamb stew before the easy ride to our next stop: Little Petra.

Cycling toward Little Petra

Despite the similarities in both name and appearance, Little Petra (Siq Al-Barid) feels a world away from the better-known, world wonder Petra thanks to its scaled-down sites and virtually no crowds. Passing through its narrow, sandstone opening revealed grand tombs, temples and cisterns carved right into the rock, giving us a taste of what awaited us at the larger site down the road.

We explored a cave with the ancient remains of a well-preserved fresco painted by the Nabataeans, and squeezed through a red slot canyon past handicraft stalls to marvel at a jaw-dropping viewpoint.

The entrance to Little Petra

The day ended with a night under the stars at Ammarin Bedouin Camp, where black-and-white striped tents are hidden in the rocks. We sat on thick cushions and dined like kings, filling our plates with rice, vegetables, hummus and zarb, which is the bedouin way of cooking meat in an oven dug into the desert sand and filled with hot coals.

The evening continued with fascinating lesson on Arabic culture including why one should cough loudly or call out when approaching a bedouin camp to announce they’re coming to allow the women inside time to cover their heads appropriately, and a demo on the traditional way of making coffee and how it’s served to guests. A musical performance followed, at which point my weary body was so tired that I snuck out of the tent before it finished, collapsing into bed.

Ammarin Bedouin Camp

Day 3: Petra

The second half of our Jordan bike trip started with a reprieve from sitting on the saddle, and we set off to explore the ancient city of Petra by foot. At least, I thought it was supposed to be a break, but the 25,780 steps and 160 floors I ended up racking up on my Apple health app that day suggested otherwise. Totally worth it though, for an opportunity to see one of the seven wonders of the world:

Petra, Jordan

The best viewpoint for seeing The Treasury

The famous Treasury which was intricately carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans more than 2000 years ago was one of the main attractions that had lured me to Jordan, and my heart nearly burst with excitement when we got our first peek at it through a narrow passageway in the rocks. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, is how massive the UNESCO World Heritage Site is: the Petra Valley is estimated to be at least 60 square kilometres, with a maze of hiking trails, tombs, amphitheatre, seemingly-endless staircases and even a monastery in the archaeological park.

READ MORE: The complete guide to visiting Petra, Jordan and Little Petra

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

The area directly in front of the Treasury was understandably the most chaotic, with donkey-drawn carriages and camels with tourists on their back frequently forcing us to press up against the stone walls to avoid getting trampled. But once we got out of that section and up onto the deserted plateaus overlooking the sprawling site, I felt more like Indiana Jones exploring the lost city untouched by the hands of time.

Our guide Jawad was an incredible resource throughout the day, an encyclopedia of knowledge about Petra’s history as an important junction for the silk and spice trades, the significance of each building, and even where to find the best secret viewpoints. Capped off with a cold drink at a cave bar just outside the park’s entrance at the end of the day, it was the perfect visit to Petra.

Petra, Jordan

Day 4: Wadi Rum

An unseasonably brisk chill was in the air when we met in the lobby of our hotel in Wadi Musa the next morning, and we layered up with extra clothes during the quick transfer over to the town of Rajif, warily peering up at the ominous sky. Today was the final leg of our Jordan journey, which would be a 48-kilometre trek towards the Mars-like valley of Wadi Rum where we’d be staying overnight in a bedouin camp.

With a few guys in the group nursing hangovers after having a bit too much fun in Petra, and strong wind gusts making it twice as hard to pedal, our group’s usual lighthearted chatter was replaced with grunts as we rode through the quickly-cooling desert. My bare hands felt frozen, and staccato bursts of raindrops made me made me laugh at how fickle Mother Nature can be, even in a place as typically arid as the Middle East. And to think I’d been worried about bringing enough sunscreen!

Umm, no one warned us it got this cold in the Middle East

At a midday stop for a lovely buffet lunch served by a bedouin family, we gratefully accepted steaming mugs of tea while a few of our resident party animals snuck in a quick nap. The colourful tent had plenty of cushy pillows to relax on as we tucked into mansaf, a Jordanian speciality where lamb is cooked in yogurt and served with rice or bread, then scooped up and rounded into a palm-sized ball before eating it by hand.

Hopping back onto our bikes, the Experience Jordan Adventures crew briefed us on what the final stretch had in store: sand as far as the eye can see, including all over the trail. Yes, that meant we were going to pedal right through it, and if you hoped to make it through there was zero room for error since even the slightest hesitation or turn of the handlebars can bring a bike to a standstill in such conditions. It was a fun challenge, and we whooped and cheered as each rider tackled the tougher spots–few of us actually making it through without stopping, but everyone arriving on the other side with a huge smile on their face.

That is…until the torrential rain began. It was like the heavens opened up, water hitting us sideways so intensely that I could hardly see anything in front of me and feeling like I needed windshield wipers for my cycling sunglasses. I was absolutely soaked, but frankly it didn’t matter at that point.

All I could think about was that I was just a few minutes away from completing an epic cycling trip through one of the world’s top adventure destinations, in a country filled with incredibly kind, welcoming people. A trip that made me realize that when I put my mind to something, I’m capable of pushing through when things get hard. A journey that opened my eyes to a way of life completely different from anything I’ve ever known, and the blessing of unexpected, newfound friendships.

As I rolled up to the waiting van with raindrops streaming down my face and clothes caked in sand and mud, I set down my bike and unclipped my helmet for the last time. Joining our cheering crew for high fives and hugs all around, it was official: I’d conquered the Jordan Bike Trail.

And damn, was I ever proud.

We did it!

Tips for booking cycling holidays in Jordan

How to book: It’s possible to do a self-guided cycle tour along the Jordan Bike Trail, though booking with an operator means you won’t have to worry about logistics like equipment rentals, entrance fees or arranging food and accommodation. Companies like Experience Jordan Adventures also provide a support vehicle and police escort (which seems unnecessary, but helpful for alerting cars that there are cyclists ahead), and their excellent guides provide plenty of insight about the surroundings as well as technical assistance and encouragement during the rides. Intrepid Travel and Exodus Travels offer similar trips, but seriously, book a private or group tour through Experience Jordan–they are absolutely one of the best operators I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling with!

Pricing: The cost of an eight or nine day bicycle trip is typically around $2000 USD, which includes modest twin-share accommodation, meals, entrance fees, guides and a support vehicle.

Planning your route: The Jordan Bike Trail can be divided into three regions (north, central and southern), which take about four days each to complete at an average of 61 kilometres and 1400 metres of climbing per day. The stretch between Petra and Wadi Rum is the easiest, with the best payoff in terms of sightseeing. Beginners should not attempt riding the length of the trail. If you don’t consider yourself an advanced rider, carefully plan which section of the trail you sign up for, as the condition of the roads can vary greatly and makes a huge difference in how technical the ride gets. The Jordan Bike Trail website is a great resource for planning a self-guided ride.

What to bring: The route was designed to end each day in a place with food and accommodation options, to avoid hauling camping gear. Pack plenty of breathable layers as the weather can fluctuate greatly, as well as sunglasses, cycling gear, sunscreen, a waterbottle, and a buff to keep dirt and sand out of your mouth.

Wadi Rum

Globe Guide experienced the Jordan Bike Trail as a guest of Experience Jordan Adventures. As always, hosts have no editorial opinion on articles.

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