Hiking Mount Sinai

According to the Old Testament, the summit of Mount Sinai (2285 m / 7,457 ft) is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Considered sacred by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, over the centuries the holy mountain has become a popular pilgrimage site, that now attracts tens of thousands of tourists per year. Most of these visitors have come to follow in Moses’ footsteps by climbing to the top of the fabled peak.

I hiked to the summit of Mount Sinai in January 1996. The trail is one of 32 featured hikes in my first book with Gestalten Publications, “Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails.

Chapel on top of Mount Sinai (January 1996)

Distance:  4.2 miles (7 km)

Avg. Time: 4 to 6 hours round trip.

Difficulty:  Moderate

Lowest Point:  1,586 m (5,203 ft) Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Highest Point:  2,285 m (7,457 ft) Mount Sinai

Start / Finish:

Getting There & Away:

  • Most visitors to Mount Sinai will be staying in either Dahab (2 hrs drive) or Sharm El Sheik (3 hrs drive). Hotels and travel agencies in these coastal towns offer daily minibusses to St.Catherine’s Monastery.

Season:

  • All year. It can be a little chilly pre-dawn during winter. Huddle up with your fellow pilgrims and belt a few chorus’ of Kumbaya while you wait for the sun to make its appearance.

Permits: 

  • No permits are needed to climb Mount Sinai, however, it is obligatory to go with a guide. These can be arranged through most guesthouses or hotels in the region.

Route Choices:

  • Two options to the summit: Considered sacred by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Mt. Sinai has become a popular pilgrimage site that attracts thousands of visitors every year. The majority of pilgrims making the climb to the top, begin their walk in the early hours of the morning in order to catch the sunrise from the summit. To this end, aspirants have two route options at their disposal. The Camel Path, which is wider, more gradual and longer, and; the Steps of Penitence, which is shorter, more challenging and consists of some 3750 steps. As the name suggests, the former route can be ascended on a camel – that is until the last 750 steps, which have to be scaled on foot.

Descending the Steps of Penitence | January 1996.

  • Which one to take? Most people opt for the easier Camel Path, but if you’re relatively fit consider taking the Steps of Penitence. There are far fewer people, no camels (i.e. no camel poo to dodge in the dark!) and if you happen to be hiking in the daytime, it represents the more scenic of the two options. On that note, if your knees are ok, at the very least try to descend via the “Steps.” The views over Saint Catherine’s Monastery and the surrounding valley are spectacular.
  • Points of interest along the route: For a comprehensive overview of religious, as well as geographic points of interest along both the Camel Path and the Steps of Penitence, see Tour Egypt’s, Mount Sinai: A Walking Trail Guide.

The Mount Sinai hike is one of 32 hikes from around the world featured in my book, “Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails.” (photo by Kien Lam / whereandwander.com).

Descending the Camel Path. Another image from the Sinai chapter of “Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails.” (photo by Kien Lam / whereandwander.com).

When to hike?:

  • The vast majority of people choose to make the climb pre-dawn in order to avoid the heat of the day. This is definitely the better option if you are visiting Mount Sinai during the summer when temperatures can be scorching. However, if you are hiking during the cooler months of the year and wish to avoid some of the crowds (often there are literally hundreds of people on the summit at sunrise), then go with the afternoon option. 

Sunrise from the summit of Mount Sinai | January 1996.

Teahouses:

  • Whichever path or time of day you choose, take solace in the fact that there are numerous tea houses along the way where you are able to rest and refresh if needed. These way stations are particularly welcome during the chilly pre-dawn hours. A good tip for morning hikers is to grab a hot beverage and maybe even a cup of noodles at one of the last tea houses (situated at Elijah’s Hollow) before ascending the final 750 steps to the summit. 

Sunrise & Sunset:

  • No matter how you arrive, the routinely spectacular sunrise and sunset as seen from the top, make the climb well worthwhile. As you soak in Mother Nature’s twice-daily sky show and listen to fellow pilgrims belt out a chorus or three of Kumbaya, it’s hard not to feel moved. Irrespective of your religious beliefs, the palpable combination of faith and enthusiasm, together with the beauty of a crimson orange horizon, make it an experience you will not soon forget.

Rugged up pilgrims taking in the sunrise from Mount Sinai | Image from “Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails” (photo by Kien Lam / whereandwander.com).

Final Notes :

  • The hike to the summit of Mount Sinai is a memorable fusion of spiritual, historical, natural, and even libational (see Tea Houses) elements.
  • Once you have finished your mountain-top pilgrimage, a closer look inside the walls of Saint Catherine’s Monastery is highly recommended. Situated at the foot of the mountain, St.Catherine’s is an Eastern Orthodox Monastery built in the sixth century. It is one of the world’s oldest active Christian monasteries and in 2002 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai (photo from Wikimedia Commons).