Journey to the Edge of the World – Saudi Arabia

The Edge of the World

No good Backcountry Nomad trip is complete without an expedition into nature. Exiting the sprawling, status-hungry, car-obsessed city of Riyadh, I set my sights on visiting “The Edge of the World”. I was not expecting 1000 ft desert massifs shooting out of the ground in a flat region of Saudi Arabia.

Where be the Sand Dunes?

My brother and his partner had visited the northern desert of Riyadh a couple weeks back that fulfilled the endless sand dune vision you might have of the Arab Penninsula. In fact, North of Riyadh exists a constant stream of desert camps where Saudis frequently go “camping” like Minnesotans making their monthly or weekly pilgrimage to lake-side cabins in Northern Minnesota. 

The Saudi version of camping means speeding around the desert, eating well and smoking shisha in a semi-permanent Bedouin tents. Sleeping overnight is optional. From the photos and description, my familial experience was pretty great. It was pretty cool that a short distance away, the desert NW of Riyadh was completely different.

Photo by Peter Dowley in Dunes near Riyadh

Journey to the Edge of the World

The first half of the two-hour journey NW from Riyadh you pass through several smaller towns that are simpler and reminded me of typical off-highway desert towns found in the Middle East. The second hour finishes on a 20km dirt road with semi-frequent car-busting potholes or ruts. An SUV was required, but having four-wheel drive seemed to be optional.

The road out of Riyadh had surprisingly more greenery than I expected.

The Blue Abaya travel blog has a great ebook of this place and getting there, but they document a different approach that has some soft sand. Our approach simply followed google maps to “Edge of the World 15426”. The Google Maps location was spot on and had the advantage of not having a gate, but there were also no signs or clear markings besides an occasionally painted cairn of rocks.

There were a lot of warnings about going alone due to the possibilities of getting stuck or puncturing tires. This is definitely possible with the abundant small sharp rocks, but less of an issue if you know how to drive dirt roads and don’t drive super fast like the local Saudis.

How much longer? Oh, I can see the road still a couple miles ahead.

We tried to help one vehicle with a punctured tire (they didn’t have the L-wrench for the lug-nuts). However, even with our wrench we could not unscrew a single nut. Even with standing on it! They said it is because shops will over tighten the nuts with electric drills. 

Leaving this father-sons group behind, we progressed onwards down a progressively rougher road as cliffs began to form in the surrounding landscape. We passed through a 30 camel herd free ranging with their Shepard on foot nearby. Which was pretty spectacular and natural feeling. I couldn’t believe he only had one Sandel given the sharp rocks!

The locals

The Edge of the World

Arriving at the ‘parking area’, it was clear pictures do not do this place justice. An instant goofy smile plastered itself on my face as I took in the Tuwaiq Escarpment. 1000 ft tan sandstone massifs split off to my left and right as I look off a cliff into an ancient ocean floor.

First view of The Edge of the World

Staring at the ocean bed you notice incredible texture from dried rivers squirming their way out from the escarpment into the distance. Camels are wandering through the desert below, grazing in the empty river beds. Their tracks creating another layer of texture like intricate stitching on a rug.

Looking down into the textured ocean bed below

The cliffside massifs are carved in waving layers of 3″ thick hard, sharp rock separated by 5-20 ft sections of soft tan sandstone eroded by the wind. The desert tower Fasiels Finger is just south of here and now know why a local Saudi told me it was chossy. However, I imagine somewhere along the 700 km escarpment you can find hard enough rock to drill bolts safely for climbing. The rock quality is probably closer to that of Moab, UT and the crumbly Fisher Towers than it is of Red Rocks, NV.

View of the first walk up spot before choosing left or right trail. You cannot tell how steep the cliff is in front of you initially.

We only spent a of couple hours here, but I could have stayed much longer just gazing into the textured desert floor and dramatic escarpment that causes your heart to jump into your throat with exposure. It reminded me of Ancient Art

There is evidence of low impact campfires and the Blue Abaya blog said staying one night overnight was acceptable by the ‘rangers’. I would definitely like to come back to spend two days hiking along the escarpment with an overnight to watch the sunset in this desert wonderland. 

Escarpment Hiking Routes

There is one main hiking route here and all the paths are well worn. From where we parked you walk to the escarpment and can go right a couple of hundred meters to “The Pillar” or a couple of hundred meters left to “The Window”.

Hiking from the car to the left-right fork

The trail to “The Pilar” looks scary, but the backside is an easy slope. Keeping in mind however that someone has fallen to their death here. However, that is unsurprising to me given the poor rock quality, abundant gravel, high-cost, low probably risk here and the number of youtube videos of people provoking bison to charge them in Yellowstone National Park.

View of the The Pillar
Walking out to the Pillar
Soaking in the ocean bed from The Pillar
I loved it here, I could have sat here for hours

If you walked left, “The Window” provides a trail down to the ocean bed and was estimated to take 2 hrs out and back. Although that seemed a little much. 

Even on a Saturday (Saudi’s last day of the weekend), we only saw a dozen people out here. Half of them Saudis. The trash situation was not so bad compared to most unmanaged, non-western natural sites. So the whole place felt very natural and very pristine. The temperature was around 80 degrees in Riyadh, but only 70 degrees here due to a strong 15-20 mph Mid-March wind. Sandstorms are a risk here as well as other dramatic hot or cold desert temps depending on the season. 

Some people have described the view as like seeing half of the Grand Canyon. It is definitely epic and one of my highlights of my trip to KSA. It would be really fun / dangerous / an adventure to come back and scout for good rock along the escarpment as most rock climbing is currently in SW Saudi. The experience reiterated how much I love desert rocks and reminded me of my trip Wadi Rum.

The Fam.