The best outdoor adventures in Oman
Oman is a paradise for nature lovers and fans of outdoor activities. From our base in Muscat, we organized day trips to discover the amazing wadis, the red dunes of the Wahiba Sands desert and the Grand Canyon of Oman. It was also the occasion to visit the former capital of Nizwa located inland. We compiled here the 5 best outdoor adventures in the Sultana of Oman.
1- Nizwa, the former capital city
Nizwa is a city located inland 140 km away from Muscat by highway. The town guards the entrance to the Jebel al Akhdar mountain range (Jebel means mountain in Arabic) and is an interesting stop for a few hours.
A great day trip from Muscat is to combine Nizwa with Jabal Shams mountain. Jabal Shams is the highest peak of the country culminating at 3’000 meters and is famous for its panorama on the Grand Canyon of Oman.
We hired a private driver to reach Nizwa from Muscat, a smooth 1,5 hour drive.
We first visited the old Nizwa fort and climbed on top of the round tower to enjoy the view on the city. From there, you have an amazing view on the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) with rocky mountains in the background.
The fort was built in the 18th century by the local Imam to defend this strategic location. It is actually one of the most visited sites in Oman.
Wandering on the walls, we also noticed that the white houses are surrounded by forest of dates palms trees.
The contrast between the dense green vegetation and the rocky mountains in the distance is stunning.
We were wondering how palm trees could possibly grow in such a desert climate?
It is thanks to traditional irrigation canals. Since 2006, the UNESCO has listed the traditional Omani irrigation system called Aflaj as part of the World Heritage.
The Aflaj system uses gravity to channel water from deep sources in order to support agriculture and domestic use.
Research proved that Aflaj has existed for around 4’000 years in the region and inhabitants still manage it on a communal basis today.
Overall, it is a great example of sustainable management of a natural resource by a community.
Going out of the fortress, we wandered in the local souk (market) full of spices and stands selling authentic handicrafts. The souk is one of the most important in the country with the Muttrah souk in Muscat.
One recommendation for a souvenir is the short Omani dagger called Khanjar. Men used to carry them on their belt in a dedicated ornamented case. Craftsmen still produce authentic ones in Nizwa.
These small J-shaped swords are the emblem of the Sultana of Oman as proven by their presence on the national flag and on the local currency, the rial.
2- The Grand Canyon of Oman
After eating meat skewers at a street stall in Nizwa, we continued our drive to Jebel Shams.
As said earlier, it the highest peak of the country at 3’000 meters. Jebel Shams commands a panoramic view on the Grand Canyon of Oman.
The view is spectacular and should be even more amazing at sunrise or sunset. There is actually a hotel and a small restaurant for travelers.
When we arrived at the top, we started walking on a pathway overlooking the canyon.
Doing that, we came face to face with a red goat taking a nap on the edge of the deep ravine.
There are several options for long hikes but we just walked a bit to enjoy the view.
The sensation of depth and space provided by the canyon is really astonishing. There was also very few people, which increased the feeling of direct contact with nature.
3- Hiking and swimming in Wadi Shab
Wadi Shab is one of the most famous wadi in Oman and a perfect gate-away for outdoor adventures out of Muscat.
But what is a wadi?
A wadi is an Arabic term describing a canyon like-valley containing an ephemeral stream-bed. It fills with water after rainfalls and gives birth to a vegetation dominated by palm trees. Eventually, a wadi often looks like an oasis in a rocky surrounding.
It took us a 2-hour drive from Muscat to reach the entrance of Wadi Shab, mainly via a modern freeway running along the coast.
To access the canyon area and start the hike, we fist had to jump on a boat, which was a nice appetizer.
We arrived in the canyon-like narrow valley and started progressing surrounded by palm trees and bared red rocks.
The hike is not that long (around 45 minutes) but it is recommended to wear hiking or sport shoes. Or even better, shoes to walk in the water.
Indeed you will encounter basins of fresh turquoise water. And here the fun really begins. We left our bags on the rock and started to walk and swim in a basin leading to the entrance of a pool in a kind of cave with a waterfall inside.
To note, one has to be a good swimmer to enjoy the cave because the narrow entrance and interior of the cave are in deep water.
After that, we walked back and took the boat to the entrance and the parking lot.
An important thing is to consider the weather. It is really recommended not to enter into wadi during rainy times. The water can literally stream from the cliffs above in not time and create torrents.
On the way back to Muscat, we stopped at the Bimmah sink-hole near the sea. The dissolution of underground limestone caused the collapse of the surface and the creation of an underground lake of turquoise water.
Omani once believed this hole was formed by the crash of a meteorite. Therefore they called this place the “Falling Star”. We went down to the water level and swam a bit before heading back to our hotel.
This is not a must-see but still a nice stop on the way back from Wadi Shab.
4- The crystal pools of Wadi Bani Khalid
I suggest combining a day at Wadi Bani Khalid with time in the Wahiba Sands desert because they are located in the same region.
We did both of them during a day trip from Muscat with a private driver but it is also possible to sleep in tents in the Wahiba desert.
Then it is recommended to spend at least 2 days in the region. What I remembered most from the day was to switch in little time from the red sand dunes of the desert to the pristine crystal water of a wadi.
It took us around 3 hours rom Muscat to reach Wadi Bani Khalid, mainly via a freeway through the rocky landscapes. The wadi is located in a mountain valley off the main road serving the region.
When we arrived at the parking lot of the wadi, we walked just few minutes to arrive at the main pool surrounded by date palm trees. There is even a restaurant facility.
Our recommendation is to continue walking-up 10 minutes to reach the white rocks formations where narrow basins with transparent turquoise water wait for you.
We could not help but take a swim with a two Omani boys from the neighboring village.
If you stand still in the water, little fishes will come to suck your feet. They just try to eat the dead skin, so don’t be scared ! It actually feels like a free foot-massage.
Surprisingly, it was not busy that day and the January temperatures were perfect.
Apparently it gets more crowded during week-ends which fall on Fridays and Saturdays in Oman.
The local boys took us further up to the entrance of a cave where you had to crawl to enter. As we are claustrophobic, we did not dare and went back swimming.
5- The red dunes of Wahiba Sands desert
After swimming at the Wadi Bani Khalid, we quickly joined by car the border of the Wahiba Sands desert, next to the town of Badiyah.
The Wahiba Sands are named after the local Beduin tribe living in the area. The region is an impressive stretch of red-sand dunes that seems to never end.
Our driver brought us to a small Beduin settlement that proposed us to ride a camel, which we did with pleasure. Then we had a small hike in the sand dunes that really brings inner peace as there is nobody and no sound around you, just an infinity of red sands.
As said before, it can be clever to stay overnight in the deserts as many local companies offer camping tours. For us, it was time to drive back to our hotel in the capital city to enjoy a bit more the cultural wonders of Muscat before flying back home.